Lunch with my oldest friend Pat. We meet every month or so at an hotel half way between our homes and continue the lifetime conversation, I took her copy of the paperback of An Englishwoman in France, She has copies of all my books and is a treasured reader.
She goes up to the bar to order our coffee and sandwiches, I flick open the pages and the novel falls open at the point where the central character Estella recalls the birth of her daughter Siri. Reading the paragraphs gives me a jolt, I reflect yet again how one’s own deepest experiences insinuate themselves unwilled into one’s own fiction ...
" ... When I get back to the house, it’s empty. After the heat of the early afternoon outside the shadowy courtyard is cool. I pour myself some lemonade and – suddenly hungry – I butter a hard chunk of bread left over from breakfast and sit outside eating it at the wooden table.
And now Siri sweeps back into my mind like a warm breeze off the river. Siri. I reflect on how long it took her to be born and how kind the midwife was, how patient; how I apologized for not being good at this thing that some women do so easily.
I remember listening to my mother pottering round my tiny flat, keeping out of the way, just as I’d asked her to. I remember the midwife sitting with me into the early morning hours knitting a jumper for her son, waiting for that fulcrum point where Siri really wanted to come and my body felt a proper willingness to squeeze her out. I remember thanking God that my colleague at the magazine had managed to fix me up with a home birth. By now, I thought, in hospital they’d have been doing all kinds of things to haul Siri out. They’d have had instruments out, for sure. But that night my midwife told me that all it took was patience.
Then at last Siri joined me in the world. The fact that my mother was in the next room made me swallow the grunts and roars as, with a final heave, Siri came! She was here, with me in the world, outside my body. She let out this very polite, yelling cry of surprise and the midwife washed her face and wrapped her in a linen cloth. Then she laid my baby on my breast with her face close to mine, squeaking and muttering like a kitten. ‘Not hungry yet,’ she said. ‘Tired herself out getting out of there, poor pet.’
I stared down at Siri’s round, pink face and the rim of hair standing up from her head like a black crown. The midwife, busying herself at the other end of my body dealing with the afterbirth, looked across just as my baby opened her big black eyes and looked straight, straight into mine. My body was engulfed by what felt like waves like electricity as we recognized each other.
‘Ha!’ said the midwife. ‘Been here before, has that one!’
That was when my mother pushed her head round the door. ‘That’s it, then? Did I hear someone cry?’ She came in with a big mug of tea. ‘Aren’t you a clever girl?’ She kissed my sweating brow. Then pulled back the linen cloth. ‘And isn’t this a very pretty . . .’
‘. . . girl!’ I said.
‘I thought so,’ she said.
Then the midwife - suddenly looking very tired herself - started to pack her bags and baggages. ‘Kip for me,’ she said, smiling down at me. ‘We did well there, kid.’
‘What’s your name, Miss Clark?’ I said. ‘What is your name?’
‘Siri,’ she said. ‘I know, I know! But my Mum’s Swedish pen-friend was called that. You know what mothers are.’
‘I do now!’ I said, rubbing my sweating cheek against that of my new daughter. ‘I do now.’ ..."
Siri’s savage murder at the age of thirteen is central to the narrative of An Englishwoman in France. My friend Pat tells me she is really enjoying it. Wx