Friday, 4 April 2014

Mirielle

MIRIELLE


CHAPTER ONE

 

1976

 

         Mirielle Standish was waiting.   Ever since she could remember she’d had this odd feeling that she was expecting something, though what she did not know. It was as though she were just biding her time, waiting for her life to begin.

         As she got off the bus which stopped at the end of her road, she looked down the street and could spot her house easily.  It was the only one that stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, though what sore thumbs had to do with anything she could not say.  They were neat houses, all in a row, joined together, all much of a muchness as they say, except the one with the shabby front door and the grey net curtains, like the wrong washing powder in a tv advertisement.

         Mirielle grimaced, then started to walk slowly toward her home.  She could never think of it as home, though.  Somehow she just did not feel that she belonged there.

         She glanced surreptitiously into all the living rooms that she passed, just to see if inside was as neat and clean as outside.  Of course, it was.  It was only her own house which looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since Jesus was a lad.

         Having reached her gate, she strolled down the path, reluctant to actually get there, but she was longing for warmth.  It was cold outside, this November being colder than normal, and she knew there would be a warm fire to sit beside.  She knew her mother had been sitting beside it all day.

         She turned the key reluctantly and heard her mother’s voice as soon as she closed the door behind her.

         “Mi’elle!  Is that you?”  Who else would it be?  Thought Mirielle.  She did not answer.  “Put the kettle on love, there’s a good girl.  I just want to see the end of this.”

         Mirielle glanced into the living room as she passed and closed her eyes quickly against the glare.  The new colour television had been delivered last week and despite her pleas, her parents had the colour turned full on.  Couldn’t they see that it didn’t look natural, that all the faces were orange?  That nowhere is the grass quite that green, the sky that vivid blue?

         It didn’t matter what she said; they had paid for colour and they did not feel they were getting their money’s worth if it wasn’t full on.  It spoiled every programme she wanted to watch, although she didn’t do a lot of sharing the living room and TV with her mother and father.  She preferred to be upstairs in her own room, where the fresh air spray which she had bought with her own pocket money kept the air smelling of roses and the furniture smelled of polish, in her own little domain, where the mirrors gleamed and the woodwork glowed white.

         She looked around the living room, at the overflowing ashtray on the coffee table, at the sideboard drawers which would not close properly because of all the useless contents stuffed inside.  The carpet was threadbare and had bits of hardened mud on it, the skirting boards were dirty and she could barely see out of the windows.  With all the smoke which hung in the air, she could barely see the windows at all.

         She shuddered and coughed, then made her way to the kitchen to put the kettle on.  She shuddered again.  Last night’s washing up was still in the sink, sticking out of floating grease.  She took off her coat and rolled up her sleeve to fish around for the plug to let the water out.  There was nowhere else to empty the cold teapot except the broken mug on the worktop which was full to the brim with soggy tea leaves.  Just looking at it made her feel physically sick.

         Once the kettle was plugged in, she made her way upstairs to her own room.  As soon as she opened the door, the change in the air hit her like a cold and fresh ocean wave.  She looked in the mirror, and frowned in irritation.  There was a greasy thumbprint on the glass, a thumbprint that was not her own.  She had asked her mother time and time again not to go into her room, but for some reason the woman could not leave it alone.  What did she think she was doing?  She wouldn’t find any secrets here, though Mirielle was quite sure she hadn’t looked.  Her mother was not the kind that would be suspicious of her only daughter.  It would never occur to her that Mirielle might have anything to hide.

         She took a tissue from the box on her bedside table and rubbed away at the thumb print till it had quite gone.  She had been asking her father to put a lock on her door for months now, but his excuse was that it was dangerous.  How would they get to her if the house caught fire?  She didn’t want to lock it when she was inside, she told him, only when she was out.  But of course, he didn’t understand.

         Beneath her pillow she had a movie magazine.  She didn’t normally waste her money on these things, but the picture on the front cover had caught her eye and she had bought it, spending some of the precious savings she had been squirreling away for years.  She held the magazine up to the mirror, with herself beside it.  The resemblance was uncanny, to say the least.

         The woman in the picture was perhaps in her late twenties, but that did not deter from the fact that they both had the same almost black, wavy hair, the same colour eyes, the same even features.   The article inside was about the model whose career had suddenly taken her into the world of films, where her new movie was making her a household name.  Natalie Simmons, the latest star to brighten the big screen.

         Mirielle read through the article and memorised the details of the star’s life, her humble beginnings and her rise to stardom.

         “M’elle!” Her mother’s voice bellowed up the stairs.  “Egg and chips all right?”

         Her mother always sounded like an angry cat when she called Mirielle’s name.  She often wondered why she had given her such a fancy name, if she couldn’t even pronounce it.  She asked her once.  Apparently she had been named after some French singer her dad really liked.

         Good thing she wasn’t a boy then; she might have been called Elvis.  She turned her mind back to the prospect of yet more egg and chips.

         “Again?”  She called back.

         “Well, I haven’t had time to go shopping,” her mother replied.

         Of course not, not since the colour television had arrived.  Mirielle changed out of her immaculate school uniform, taking a clothes brush to her skirt and blazer and hanging them up in her wardrobe.  She took her white blouse into the bathroom, where she poured a small amount of washing powder into the little sink and carefully washed the blouse, rinsing it thoroughly before hanging it over the bath on a hanger.  She always washed her own clothes; she didn’t want them to look like the net curtains.

         The other girls at school had no idea where Mirielle lived, much less how she lived.  They knew which part of town it was, but nothing more.  She never invited any of her classmates back and if they invited her, she made an excuse not to go.  She never wanted to get so close to any of them that they might learn her secrets.  Besides, she didn’t feel she had much in common with any of them.  Though pleasant enough, their heads were filled with boys and film stars, the latest pop singer or the next new band.  Or in lots of cases, the horse shows they had won.

         Downstairs her mother was standing in the doorway to the living room watching the television as she peeled a potato.  Mirielle had heard the theme tune for Crossroads as she came down the hallway.

         “I didn’t know she had red hair,” Mrs Standish remarked.  “Did you know she had red hair, M’elle?”

         Mirielle glanced at Meg Richardson on the screen and wondered what was so fascinating about this tedious programme with its far fetched scenarios.  May as well watch Star Trek; at least that was supposed to be far fetched.

         She cleared a space at the dining table and went into the kitchen to get a cloth.  The washing up was still there, colder and greasier.  She soaked a cloth from the tap and went back in the living room to wipe the table. 

         It was a big room, big enough to accommodate the dining table as well as a sofa and armchair.  And the television, of course.

         The room was at the back of the house, opening on to the garden if it were possible that the French windows still opened.  Mirielle could not remember them ever being opened no matter what the weather.  The room at the front was traditionally kept for best, for visitors, not that the Standishes ever had any visitors.  Just as well, really, since because nobody ever entered that room, it was thick with dust.

        

 

***

 

Maureen and Dave Standish were both war babies.  They were born into a time when everyone had their ration books and when there were nightly air raids.  They would all sleep in their clothes so that they could get down to the shelter in their back yard quickly.

         They neither of them really remembered that time too well of course, being as they were only three when the war ended, but their parents talked about it enough and Maureen particularly had a real fear of loud noises, and of being woken up in the night.

         They had met at the local dancehall where they were playing Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’.  That was number 2 in the hit parade at the time and Maureen was just sitting at the side with her friend when Dave came up and asked her to dance.  They hit it off straight away, both being laid back, easy going people.  Nothing phased either of them, nothing made them cross.  They just strode through everything that happened and never got excited about anything much.

         They fell for each other in a big way.  It was only six months later that they got married, in a cut price affair in the local church.  They couldn’t afford a proper, sit down meal so they had a buffet and Maureen made her own wedding dress.  She had been good at sewing in those days, but she didn’t have much call for it now.  Mirielle wouldn’t have worn anything home made – these youngsters are so fussy about their clothes. 

They had nowhere to live, so Dave’s mum and dad let them have their spare room.

         Maureen had wanted to go on the pill straight away, but her doctor said that they didn’t know enough about them and as she’d had rheumatic fever as a child, it probably wouldn’t be safe.

         She had returned from the doctors feeling a bit bewildered about it all.  She was a very naive girl, and believed her mother when she told her that if she couldn’t go on the pill, the only other thing was withdrawal.

         Dave didn’t much like the sound of that, but Maureen was adamant that her mum knew best, till he got her an appointment with the Family Planning Clinic.

         “You’d better take your marriage certificate with you,” he told her, “or they might not see you without proof that you’re a married woman.”

         So Maureen caught the bus that evening to keep her appointment.  She was nervous and embarrassed; she had already had to talk to the doctor about these things and now she had to do it all again.

         As she gave her name at the desk, she noticed that all the women who were waiting had their stockings around their ankles and were clutching their knickers with their handbags.  She went and sat beside a middle aged woman, someone she felt she might be able to confide in, and noticed that she, too, had her stockings round her ankles.  She tapped the woman on the shoulder.

         “Why,” she asked nervously, “has everyone got their knickers off?”

         “Why do you think?” She replied, then her expression softened as she realised that Maureen really had no idea.  “It’s so they can examine you....inside.”

         “Well,” said Maureen.  “I’ll wait till I get inside then.”

         The woman shook her head.

         “No, love, I mean so they can examine inside you.”

         Maureen was so shocked she almost burst into tears.

         “They can’t do that,” she cried.  “That’s dangerous.  I’m not having that.”

         She gathered up her handbag and ran out of the door, all the way to the bus stop.  She was still wondering if the woman was pulling her leg, but she certainly didn’t seem as though she was.

         The very idea of someone doing that!

         Maureen’s mum had told her that it was always dangerous to touch anything ‘down there’ but as the bus slowly made its way back toward her in-laws house she began to wonder if perhaps she had been wrong, like she was wrong about not washing her hair when she had a period and the sanitary towels.

         That was probably the worst embarrassment of Maureen’s school days.  When she had started, her mum had found old sheets and torn them into squares.  She folded them up and gave them to Maureen, along with safety pins to pin the ends to her vest.  And when they were used and her mother had gathered enough of them, she would boil them in a saucepan on the stove to be used next month. 

         Maureen never stopped to wonder if that saucepan still got used for stews as well, all she knew was that she suffered terrible soreness and chaffing because of those rags.

         Then she overheard the girls at school joking about at PE time.  Nobody did PE when they had what Maureen’s mum always referred to as ‘them other things round you.’  They were joking about their excuse for getting out of PE coming in a little blue box.  Once again Maureen had no idea what they were talking about, but she plucked up the courage to ask one of the girls.

         She got laughed at; she expected that, but at least she got to see what they were on about.

         That afternoon after school she took herself into the chemist on her way home and found a whole shelf of little blue boxes, as well as little white boxes and all other colours.  She felt cheated, but when she told her mother she did not believe her.

         “Maureen,” she had said sternly.  “I don’t know what tales you’ve been listening to, but you can’t tell me that they would allow that sort of thing to be on display where men can see them.  They don’t make things like that, they don’t need to and they wouldn’t sell, would they?  Not when you can just boil up some rags.”

         Maureen had to drag her mother down to the chemist to prove she was telling the truth and when she still refused to buy them, she threatened to get the money from her father.  That would have been too embarrassing and she eventually gave in.

         Maureen vowed there and then that if she ever had a daughter she would never have to suffer such humiliation, that she would have a mum who always kept up with the times.

         When she got home from the Family Planning, she was too embarrassed to tell anybody what had happened and she ended up telling Dave that they had agreed with her mother, and withdrawal was all there was;  that or French letters.

         They had already applied to the council for somewhere to live, and when Maureen found herself pregnant, it pushed them further up the list.

         That had been nearly thirteen years ago, and the pair had been really happy together especially when their beautiful daughter came along.

        

***

 

         The egg and chips, when it came, would not have tempted a starving man.  The eggs were almost hard and the chips were black outside, rock hard inside.  Mirielle managed the yolk of one egg, then pushed her plate aside.

         Upstairs she had a small cupboard in which she kept her own supply of fruit.  She took out a banana and some bread and made herself a banana sandwich.  It was not much of a meal, but it was preferable to hard egg and black chips. 

         She passed her parents’ bedroom on her way to the bathroom to wash up her cutlery and plate and could not help glancing in.  She didn’t understand how anyone could sleep with so little air and the powerful stench of sweat.

         Mrs Standish was a heavy woman, short and round, and her arms flapped about like those inflatable things one could use to help with swimming.  She rarely bathed and neither did Mr Standish.  His excuse was that he got dirty in his job, so no point; it would all come back the next day.  Mirielle was not really sure what he did, just that he was some kind of labourer.  She had no quarrel with that – he was a good provider.  He worked hard to give them both the best he could and she loved him.  She just wished he would clean himself up once in a while.

         Halfway down the stairs she heard his voice coming from the kitchen, where her mother was peeling more potatoes.

         “She’s thirteen next week,” he said.  “Where did that go, girl?” 

         He often called her mother ‘girl’, though why she couldn’t imagine.  Seemed a silly nickname for a grown woman.  Mirielle stopped on the stairs to listen.  She always eavesdropped on her parents’ conversations, hoping to hear some secrets revealed, but she never had.  No chance of anything so exciting.

         “You tell me, Dave,” Her mother replied.  “Don’t seem five minutes ago she was crawling round the floor, just trying to pull herself up on her little feet.”

         Mirielle grimaced at the idea of a young baby crawling around that filthy floor.  It was a wonder she hadn’t caught some awful disease, bubonic plague or something.

         “D’you remember the night she was born,” Dave asked.

         “Course I do!  The day Kennedy got shot.  I remember lying in bed, listening to it all on the radio.  We none of us could believe it, could we?”

         Here we go, thought Mirielle.  She had overheard this conversation before and on every occasion her own entry into the world could not be separated from the sudden and earth shattering demise of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  Because of the connection, Mirielle had made a point of studying the president, so she was very knowledgeable on the subject.  She did not believe he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, it was not possible.

         She found it equally hard to believe that any midwife or doctor would have agreed to the birth of a fragile baby into that odorous bedroom.  But it wasn’t that particular bedroom.  They didn’t live here then, they lived further into London.  It didn’t matter; Mirielle could not imagine it had been any cleaner.

         She stayed where she was till she was sure they had finished talking.  She hoped, one day, to hear some confidences, something that would explain why she felt so different, so out of place with her own flesh and blood.

        

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