From A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Five.
White Silk Tassels.
I met my first proper friend, Iris in the year before my father died. I was eight and she was fourteen. For some reason we made friends. At the time I didn’t think this was strange. Iris has been much in my mind in recent decades when - wearing my writer’s cloak - I have been interrogating my own past.
I realise only now - a generation later – that in my encounter with her I somehow witnessed a kind of
hidden incest. I think I only really recognise this as I was writing the
following piece, White Silk Tassels, sixty years later. I realise now that it
must have stuck in my child’s mind because, having been my friend for many
months, my friend Iris vanished and was never seen again.
|War damage in Coventry|
Assembling all these feelings and ideas and thinking about my own life at the time as a child in Coventry the implication of this disappearance dawned on me. In recent years there has been a certain amount of discussion about the phenomenon of recovered memory. I suppose as writers we dip into recovered memory and respond with various kinds of truth and fiction. Perhaps all writing involves both recovered and false memory
But writing this short piece called White Silk Tassels my recovered memory was suddenly moulded into an idea – a final explanation as to why my friend vanished.
I think as well that this memory dug deeper because of the contiguous events of my father’s death.
Men open their mouths wide
Josefina de Vasconcellos|
at Coventry Cathedral, first conceived
in the aftermath of the war. Image: Ben Sutherland,
their teeth bite, bite like lions
their nails are sharp as pussy cat claws.
They go for the cream, lapping it up
with their sandpaper tongues.
In her auntie’s house my friend sits
on her bedspread; it’s white silk tassels
sweep the linoleum, red as a cat’s tongue.
Her aunt and uncle have red faces too –
his more bulbous, hers pale and sharp as razors.
Weeks go by and the white tassels vanish,
one by one – bitten off by naughty pussycats,
according to her uncle. Our houses - Jerry-built –
are fenced in with chicken wire
but, unlike me, Iris has no chickens.
My father - prone to mild mistakes -
bought a dozen chicks for breakfast eggs.
He swings, his golden ring above their fluffy heads.
It swings to the left, so he was wrong.
These fluffy chicks are cocks, every one.
So, no morning chucky eggs for us, love!
Still, we feed these boys, clean their cage,
cluck over them like mother hens.
Come Christmas time we have to wring their necks
Not Daddy – all soft heart – but my uncle does the job,
smiling as his fingers squeeze out their little chicken lives.
Come Christmas too, my good friend Iris
has stolen her own savings - they say -
and run away. Her red-faced auntie calls her
a sly cat, bad to the core and so ungrateful,
as she burns the white bed-spread in the garden
fenced all round with chicken wire.