«IT WAS THE VIRGIN JESSICA who taught me about wickedness. I once asked her why she was called the Virgin Jessica. She looked at me with strange eyes ...»
IT WAS THE VIRGIN JESSICA who taught me about wickedness.
I once asked her why she was called the Virgin Jessica. She looked at me with
strange eyes and said that it was because she was a special person, like the Blessed
“A virgin is someone who can do God’s work. And if you’re very, very clean
and pure you can be one of the one hundred and forty-four virgins who will be
carried in God’s bosom at the end of the world. And if you’re not –” She leaned towards me, her yellow teeth before my eye. I thought she might suck it out, she was so close. She whispered, “If you’re not, then God will toss you to the devil who will roast you with his horn. Like toasted marshmallows. You don’t want the devil’s evil horn to make a hole in your pretty skin, now do you?” She kissed my nose – my little rabbit’s nose, she called it – and walked away, her long white summer dress falling just above her high, high red heels. Her smell, cigarette smoke and last night’s perfume, lingered around my eyeball. I wanted to be like the Virgin Jessica. I wanted a name like hers.
We called her Jez for short.
My mother Annette was the Virgin Jessica’s adopted sister. She was older and tireder. The Virgin had no children while my mother had forty-three. She was a schoolteacher in one of those schools where the children wore threadbare jerseys and had hard green snot crystallized around their noses and above their crusty lips – lips that could say poes without tasting any bitterness. Or that secret relish of forbidden language.
Sometimes my mother would have them – her other children, her little smelly children – over at our house. They would drape themselves around our furniture like dirty ornamental cherubs and drink hot pea soup. The steam melted the snot, 9 The Caine Prize for African Writing which then ran down into the soup. It did not matter to them because they ate their boogers anyway.
I hated my mother’s other children. I glared at them to let them know, but they stared back without much expression. Their faces had nothing to say – I could read nothing there. Jessica found them amusing.
“Sweet little things,” she mumbled, and laughed into her coffee. Her shoulders shook epileptically.
After the Virgin told me how important it was to be clean, I tolerated them in the haze of my superiority. I was clean – I bathed every night – and they were filthy, so obviously God wouldn’t want to touch them.
The Virgin spent hours in the bathroom every evening. Naked she walked to her bedroom, so lovely and proud she seemed tall; I followed faithfully, to observe a ritual more awesome than church. With creams and powders she made herself even cleaner for God. How he must love her, I thought. She spread his love upon her as she rubbed her skin until it glowed and her smell spread through the house, covering us all with the strength of her devotion. Then she went out, just after my father came home, and stayed out until late.
The Virgin Jessica had a cloud of charm twenty centimetres around her body.
Strangers hated her because they thought that anyone that beautiful could only be mean. But it was not her pretty black eyes or her mouth that made her beautiful.
She was beautiful because she was wrapped in a cloud of charm. And when you breathed in the air from the cloud, you breathed in the charm and it went down your veins and into your heart and made you love her. If you came close enough, she would smile her skew smile, pretending to love you with her slitted eyes, and the charm would ooze out like fog from a sewer and grab you and sink into your heart and lungs. Even I who had known her all my life would feel the charm with a funny ache. She had a way of leaning forward when she spoke, claiming the space around her with her smell, her charm. And my father, who didn’t speak or laugh, he too would be conquered.
“What’s the old man up to tonight?” she would say, leaning towards him with a wink, her eyes laughing; and he would fold his newspaper and look pleased, even grunt contentedly.
I tried saying those same words, leaning forward the way Jez did, and he looked at me coldly. So cold that my wink froze halfway and my laugh caught in my throat.
Embarrassed, I transformed the laugh into a cough and rubbed my eyes like a tired child. I think it was then that I realised that his love for me was bound to me as his little girl. And my love for him bound me to my little girl’s world.
I took pains to keep my girl’s world intact after that. When boys teased me at
school, I felt the walls of my father’s favour tremble. One of them phoned and sang a dirty song into my hot ear. My head burnt for days after that. I felt the fires of hell from that phone call. I feared that the fires would start inside me, catching my hair and eating the strands like candlewick, melting my skin like wax, dripping and staining mommy’s carpets (she would be very cross). The fire would eat the horrid children in the schoolroom, then crawl towards my mother, burn her slowly and then finish with her chalk-stained fingers. Her glasses would shrivel up and her mouth crease with silent screams. Unsatisfied, the fire would move towards my father, crackling his newspaper; the smoke would cloud his glasses. Beneath them, his eyes would have that same cold look – but not cold enough to douse the flames. The fire would then stagger towards the Virgin.
Leering, it would grab her ankles and eat her white frock, turning it to soot. She would cry out and her head would toss, her hair unravel and she would scream from the force of the flames. The Virgin Jessica’s screams in my head made me put a knife on the window-sill of her bedroom so that she could undo the burglar bars and escape.
The image of flames and screams resounded in my head for several days. They surged whenever the other girls in their shortened school dresses lit cigarettes in the toilets. They could not see how the flames would get bigger. I checked all the stubs carelessly tossed into the sink and bin to make sure that the fire did not escape. The slight thrill I had once received from the boys teasing me in the safety of the schoolyard, away from my father’s fearsome eyes, faded. I spent my intervals at the far end of the yard, eating sandwiches and talking to the dogs through the wire fence. I had to coax them across the road with my milk and the ham from my bread. I was found one day, squatting on my haunches and telling Nina and Hildegarde about a garden of moss. I felt a shadow; it made me shiver, and I looked up to see if God was angry. Instead I saw Ms Collins above me, her eyes made huge by her glasses. I was scared that she’d be cross. I wanted to pee; some dripped down my leg, so I crouched and shut my eyes tightly, praying fervently that I would not pee. She reached out for my hand and asked me to make some charts for her in exchange for some biscuits and cool drink. From then on I spent my breaks helping Ms Collins in her art room and she would give me yoghurt and fruit and sometimes chocolate. I never ate these. Instead I put them on the steps of the white Kirk on the way home. Ms Collins tried to ask me questions, but I was shy and would only whisper, “I don’t know.” She would speak relentlessly. She told me about her baby daughter who ate grass.
I preferred just to look at her. I liked looking at her big ugly eyes and her pretty hair. But I think she got tired of me: maybe my silence wore her down; maybe the
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sound of her own voice scared her, for it must have been like talking to herself.
She probably thought she was going mad, talking and talking to still brown eyes.
But the day I went into her art room and found a boy from my class helping her with the charts, I remembered the fires of hell and ran away. Maybe she wanted me to burn; maybe she wasn’t a virgin either.
It must have been the sound of midnight that woke me. The house without my mother felt unguarded. It seemed her presence warded off a fury of demons. I sat upright in my clean girl’s bed, trying to feel the pulse of the night. I slipped my feet over the side of the bed and listened. The darkness is covered by a haze that makes the still corners move.
I knew that my mother had not returned. The wild child with snot streaming from his nose and eyes, he had her still. I sat at the lounge window, watching the sea, hating the wild child. He had come after supper, his little body panting like a steam engine. He ran up the hill in the rain, he had run all the way from the settlement. He sobbed, buried his head in my mother’s trousers.
“Please, please, asseblief, please,” his broken voice scratched.
Wishing so very hard that he hadn’t come, I watched the boy cry until my mother barked, “Evelyn, get out of here.” I prayed that the wild child would leave: go back to your plague, I screamed silently. It was too late. He had brought his plague with him. It wandered about our house and muffled my warnings. So she did not hear me, and let the child take her away.
Her trousers soiled with tears and mucus, she rushed into her bedroom, where I was watching one of those endless sitcoms about silly teenagers. She grabbed her car keys.
“Don’t wait up for me.” I would not have waited for her. Even now, in the dark hour, I was not waiting for her.
I must have stayed at the window for at least an hour. I saw the sea roarsmash-roar against the rocks. I saw the stillness of the midnight road, the white line running on towards the mountain. The road was empty; but then I saw two people walking up the hill. They walked slowly and closely in their midnight world. The walk was a stagger.
They fell pleasantly against each other. I saw them walk towards the house and only then did I see who they were.
When Jessica and my father entered the house, quietly and with the guilty grace of burglars, they were glowing from the wind and walking and waves and the wildness of the night’s beauty. The haze inherent in the darkness was centred
around them. I looked on with envy, for I too wished to walk the empty night with them. Jessica let out a startled sound when she saw me curled up on the window-sill.
“Look at you,” she fussed, “hanging around dark windows like a sad little ghost.” Her face was close to mine and her breathing deep.
“Have you been watching for your mother? Has she come home yet?” I shook my head. I had not been waiting for my mother.
She held my hands in her cold, cold fingers. “Your hands are freezing,” she said.
“You need some Milo. How long have you been sitting here? Long?
“Your father and I went to see if your mother was coming home. I wish she’d phone, but then they probably don’t have one. I really don’t understand why Annette involves herself in other people’s business. But I suppose you should count your blessings. When we were small, Annette and me, all we had to play with was scrap metal.” Jessica chattered on, repeating the stories I had heard so many times.
My mother came home while I was clutching my Milo. I was playing the mournful ghost, the sick patient, and all the while glowing in the attention of both my father and Jessica. Jessica was chattering brightly, so bright that she made the darkness her own while I huddled in its shadows. My father was silent, his eyes as dark as mine. Jessica’s words tripped out of her mouth and drew circles around us.
Then Annette stepped into our enchanted circle. She asked for tea. As Jessica made the tea her words stumbled then stopped. My father went to bed, taking my hand as he left the kitchen. I did not want to go to bed. I wanted to be in the kitchen with just my father and Jessica and me.
I stood on a rock in the garden and stared down at the people watching my sea. They were dotted across the small beach, the wind twisting their hair around their necks and forcing them closer into their jackets. They lifted their fingers to point, just like in a seaside painting.
Their mouths were wide with laughter and their eyes bright, yet all the while I knew that they were posing, as if for an invisible artist. Their minds could sometimes glimpse his black beret, his paint-splattered smock in this idyllic scene.
I went down to the sea. There were too many whale-watchers trampling the sand, my desecrated temple, with their flat feet and stubby toes. I glared at the fat children who clung to their parents, hanging on to their arms and legs.
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“Beast with two backs,” I muttered.
They smelt suburban. Their odour of white bread and Marmite drifted unpleasantly into the sea air. They huddled into their wind-breakers and yawned at the ocean.
“It’s just a dark blob,” they whined, their winter-paled faces cracking beneath the noon sun. They shivered from the wind nuzzling their necks.
I sat near the water’s edge and buried my pretty toes in the sand. The crowd, the people who came to see the whales, were noisy and their noise ate into my ears as they crunched their chips and the packets crackled in the wind.
“Go home,” I hissed to a solitary toddler who wandered near me.
I turned to see a woman scoop him up and pretend to eat his angel curls. My coward’s face smiled at her.
I stayed there for a while, watching the people watch the whales. Then I noticed some of my mother’s children playing in the water on the other side of the beach.
They shrieked and laughed; some played in their dirty clothes, others in varying stages of nakedness.
They sang a ditty with filthy words while roughly shoving and splashing each other with the cold water. They knocked down their friends and made them eat sand. The suburban children’s parents shook their heads, pulled their young ones and walked away, still shaking their heads, as though the shaking would dispel the image from their minds. They soon forgot all about those children who haunted the corners of my world, my mother’s chosen children.
She came to call me for lunch. She did not see her young ones, who had moved towards the tidal pool, and I did not tell her about them.