What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)


Chapter 11: Pollen and Soot and the Family in the Cupboard

It is a perfect drying day, blowy, bright. The deep trees and giant rhododendrons over the terraced lawn at the back of the house make coloured walls that swim and fill up all the windows, which are wide open. Although it is Saturday, not a washday, I have washed the sheets and shirts and hung them out.

Many visitors to Colonsay are keen birdwatchers. The chough with its red beak and legs can be seen up close as a soldier in a sentry box, with just that gap for interspecies respect. The probe-beaked oyster-catcher investigates the strand between Colonsay and Oransay with its prying disdainful notation of the polished tidal sand.

Last night, sitting in the sun that brought out the Mediterranean smell of the fennel foaming in Katie’s raised herb bed, we heard the scrawp of the corncrake, Crex crex, its Latin name remaking its call, from the field beyond the white rose hedge, ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, that smells of vanilla, which she made with cuttings from a hedge at a farm in the north of the island.

On my desk is a withering newspaper cutting. In last week’s Oban Times the regular SermonAudio.com display advertisement carries as its text, ‘Like a bird that strays from its nest is a man who strays from his home.’ As if this were not striking enough to a sinner, or to anyone feeling faintly sad or guilty, the last words of this boxed item are, as they are every week, ‘YOU ARE KNOWN UNTO GOD!’

God, whose search engine is ineluctable. Can I have been the only consumer (I can hardly say proper reader) of the Oban Times who felt discovered, found out, by these words? Is that the point of these texts in newspapers? Their applicability to everyone vulnerable, much like horoscopes, which are designed to touch all who breathe or love or doubt.

As soon as sun is reliable, and the wind is low, there is the chance that midges will arrive. So they came. You can hardly see them, even if you can see. The first sign is that you start to twitch like a dog, and flip your paws at your ears and ankles. Midges are nanotechnologists. They reach places that you could not devise for pertinacity, the base of an eyelash, the shadow of a hair, the inner circle of a bra, the far spiral in the secret ear, the tender meat that would be an oyster or the Pope’s nose if you were a cooked chicken.

Inside the farmhouse, itself still used to being cold after many winter months, Katie lit the stove with kindling, put in logs cut by William from the dark windbreak pines he is steadily thinning, and closed its small iron doors over the flames in the bright daylit room. You grow used to many kinds of weather in one day, in one house. Sometimes there are several weathers at the one time, a different squall or new sunbeam for each face of a house. Weather claps soon against itself, so that an unmixed day of sun or unvarying rain seems to last longer than other days.

At nine o’clock yesterday evening, I was back at my desk in the big house, which is also table-of-all-work and dining surface, in the old nursery that is now a sitting room. Two hours of light to go, at least. Two arms of yellow dwarf azalea were dying in a dull brass vase with a smell like leaf mast and honey, too good to get rid of, though the flowers are falling in little yellow dabs and flecks down on to the table, where they stick because they are so full of nectar.

Two of the petals of Meconopsis, the blue Himalayan poppy that loves the island soil and that Katie grew from seed, have fallen from the single plant with its one four-petalled flower that she has given me in its plain pot to have beside me while I work. The fluffy pistil sticks out beyond the ring of stamens whose anthers are golden yellow with pollen, not the sooty ring of black dusty anthers at the centre of most of the poppy family’s flowers.

Like all blue flowers, it looks like an idea. Speedwell, forget-me-not, the blue poppy, the Scottish bluebell (also known as the harebell), chicory, gentian, plumbago; they recall bits of fallen sky.

The sky that is, we are told, not itself actually blue. Perhaps that is why these flowers are like abstractions.

As well as being a great novel, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald has a most suited and suggestive title, evoking, as it does, the short life and foreshortened love of a philosopher from a northern country, Novalis. A blue flower is the plant badge or emblem of the kind of otherness, natural unattainability, sought in some areas of German Romantic thought.

All flowers summon a sense of their transience that intensifies their effect upon those susceptible to their spell, plump double flowers or the fleshy hard-wearing flowers to some of us proportionately less so.

Blue flowers seem ineffably more transient and frail. Fragile is too strong and consonantally pegged down a word for it; these flowers are frail like faded worn cloth or like those patches of sky. They are remote, as though glimpsed. They are slips of things, a hint, like very young people in the one summer when they know they are lovely but do not know the effect of it, or the sea around the next bend, or fresh water between mouth and thirsty throat. They are half-seen. Once you have lived for a certain time, a blue flower makes you at once satisfied and sad.

You can’t keep it. Even the seemingly robust hyacinth is an emblem of vanished masculine beauty, for the drowned curls of young heroes. If you press a blue flower in your prayer book, its petals turn purple unless your prayers are acid-free.

The poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ by Keith Douglas, who was killed at twenty-four in the Second World War, flowers across borders of notional nationhood with its description of the words in the notebook of a dead young man, in his Gothic German script, telling his girl, Steffi, not to forget him. The myosotis around the door of the church at Balbec are what the enraged Charlus upbraids Marcel for failing to recognise–‘Ne m’oubliez pas!’

When I looked out through the flawed glass of the windows in the evening of Friday, as well as through my own already flawed gaze, I saw the shadow of the house thrown out on to the waving, shimmering leaves of the big trees. Three chimneys measured themselves along those wide trees, and the long line of the roof offered its shadow along the lawn and the lower reaches of the trees whose individual leaves were still holding sparkling doses of light.

It is unusual to see a solid thing made insubstantial against a moving surface, but shadow had its say. Nothing lasts. There are as many ways of looking as there are of seeing. Do not think you have seen it all, just because your own sight is changing. The new leaves of the copper beech were almost transparent to the late sun, rippling, moving at a different rate from the leaves on the smaller more susceptible trees, the beech’s leaves rhubarb green and pink under the plain blue sky.

At three floors, the house is lower than the trees. The trees and the house have different rhythms of regeneration; that is all. The lengths of their watches differ. The trees measure by the life of their leaves and fruit, the house measures by the years between the birth of one human generation and another. Between the trees and the house, pups lollop then dash into dogdom, go grey, stiffen, settle, stay by the stove to dream of dash and lollop and at last die, each taking a human childhood to make their life’s full circle.

On the mainland, Angus’s heart is beating itself better, under observation.

Why lead my life if someone else can do it better?

Most of my experience of the last ten years is not undergone but envisioned, prefigured, particularly so, and I say this without regret, since I came up here to the island to separate myself from my own various forms of incapacity made worse by blindness. My experience has been not precisely second-hand, but often vicarious.

What is the opposite of a stalker? I do not mean the one who is stalked. I mean the one who seeks to be consumed by the fire in the lives of others, the one who is made more shadowy by others’ lightness, as opposed to one made more real by their glaring lack of substance.

It is all too many of us, since this unholy loss of self and rampaging, insecure, hunting down of reasons to be unhappy is probably what makes people buy magazines.

Yet Fram and Claudia, unlike film stars, whose sway and revenues depend upon it, do not want to be lived through. They live through one another.

The magaziney vicariousness is a decadent state in which to wish away a life. On the weekend in Oxford when I cleaned the silver and Fram cleaned the oven, I thought that something was repairing itself, or, perhaps better, something new was knitting itself.

You could interpret what happened next as the necessary consequence of thinking too much in terms of metaphors. Claudia had a quiet friend staying, I’ll call her Antonia.

Our son had two friends for dinner. They both had dead fathers and mixed backgrounds: American, Russian, Israeli, British, Chinese, Filipino. They had the unforgiving beauty of the very young, but the company was good and I hardly felt odd. Minoo was enjoying his ‘two mothers, one father, one father’s girlfriend’s twins’ father’ caperings. I thought I was taking things pretty lightly and not coming over humourless at the scene. The happy table stretched, as it does, to embrace whoever comes.

Everyone over thirty was quite tired. Fram and Claudia had been working all day. I am always tired. Living with my hot big not quite mended leg and half-cut eyes tires me out.

But everything was going well. I hoped Minoo’s friends were enjoying their look at his family.

At one point Fram said, with the weight of a gnat, not even of a gadfly, ‘If Claudia dies, I will marry Antonia.’

It was just a sally. I saw then that he really is free of me. The thought that he is married, in fact, to someone else didn’t occur to him.

Not a feather fell from the dove I felt had been taken by a hawk not five feet above our heads at the table. No one noticed a thing, nor thought it. Only I, and I had best get over it.

There was no reaction save within me. They were modern youth and we were modern adults. There was nothing to notice. But I collected it and swelled inside from the allergic reaction, the anaphylactic shock, of the midge-bite that I took as hawk-strike.

That’s it. I have it. Anaphylactic shock is what I go into when there is talk of marriage, of husband or wife. I carry a syringeful of Adrenalin to restart my heart in case of being stung by a wasp, but it is quite as important to carry a syringe of thought within my mind for these occasions that will go on for the rest of my life, when marriage or something relating to it comes up.

By the time everyone went, I was red inside and swollen and finding it hard to breathe. When I spoke to Fram, trying to implement a new version of myself, one who spoke up when trodden on, he was angry and bored by what I had to say and said that it had been meaningless, that the terms had no weight and he was tired and wasn’t thinking, least of all about that old stuff, that had no meaning. None of it meant a thing. It was very late, he had been working on papers till four the morning before and was exhausted.

All fair and reasonable.

I took myself to my bed in Minoo’s room among the memorabilia of his parents and grandparents and settled with Proust and the machine that makes him possible.

Claudia said, ‘Don’t present him with despair he can do nothing about. It is horrible for him.’ She is good at him like some people are good at croquet or, more seriously, chess. It is difficult in every dimension, but those who love it rise to the difficulty and wish only for more dimensions through which to engage with this completely absorbing game of systems, traditions, feints, tactics, glamour of thought and an infinitude of reciprocities, as many as those grains of rice my mother-in-law once told me would fill the world if you factored them up on the squares of one single chessboard, moving by a certain mathematical sequence that I now forget, or was it she who never knew, and each grain inscribed countless times itself with the name of the beloved, like the rice grain she was allowed to look at as a child in a dark family house in Bombay, the grain taken from its precious casket kept in a cabinet, a single white grain that bore, she was assured, the thousand thousand names of God written upon it with a diamond nib; and how could she ever know that this was not so?

It decided matters that the grain was small, white, much like any other grain, yet it looked, in its silver-hinged, leather, velvet-lined case, taken from the cabinet, in the dark room in the big dim house in the enormous city of Bombay, to the small girl, like no other rice grain at all in the history of the world, being alone, and, in contrast to all about it, so very small, so very white, so intensely only itself and apart from all other grains of rice ever.

So what is to be my syringe against the sting and swell when I try to contemplate my state with clear eyes? How to make a net with plenty of holes and quite a dearth of string?

It has to be words, after all and not the mathematical equation I was struggling for in Hampshire when grounded by my leg. I love the idea of mathematics, but I can’t seem to carry arithmetic with me, so that I relearn principles again and again and fail to make them part of my equipment.

I need a short formula of words for topical application, when the shocks, as they will, come, and then, after I have stuck the jag into the vein, I can retire from panic into calm and listen to, or maybe even read, the longer reaches of words that lie in books and keep on seeking the way best to live.

It is Sunday now. The necessary words may have been there all along.

Cymbeline is an odd late play made of parts that fit together but roughly, some sophisticated, some simple. It contains lines to which people return because sadness has never been so consolingly expressed in spite of the dislocating oddness of the actual scene in which the lines are spoken.

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages,

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.’

The refrain brings pollen, soot, dust to life as the atoms to which we all come. It begins with sun and ends in dust; it is astral physics in poetic form, in a couplet. Two lines of English verse then tell us we are children of the sun, and made, all of us, of sun and dust. That black chimney where the sweeps work is where we are caught in life, even golden lads and girls. There is a view of the sun from the constraining dusty black. Some few are for a time out in the sun. All come to dust.

‘Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’

But it’s not those lines that I have been keeping by me, against such a demand as I’m presently making for a prophylactic line, so much as those mysterious words,

‘Hang there like fruit, my soul,

Till the tree die.’

I have loved them for years, and do not know what they mean. Or, they may be made to mean a number of things. They are not imprecise. They speak whereof most of us had best not try to speak or it will be wind and piss. The impression they make breathes out from within them like sea from inside a chambered shell. They express a great perhaps. These were Rabelais’s, almost too perfectly conclusive, last words: ‘I am in search of a great perhaps.’

The circumstances in which this line and a half is spoken, by Posthumus to his estranged wife Imogen, are not, nor can ever be, comparable to what has happened between Fram and myself. For us there is no return to what was before. Neither present truth nor passed time permit. Our separation may have been based upon a misunderstanding, but the misunderstanding was all mine.

I wish that these lines, which I have kept by me for years in case of emergency, were not spoken in circumstances like this, if it gives any impression that I dream that reconciliation of this sort may be brought about. I do not. Another sort of reconciliation, yes, but not the reconciliation of the child awaking from nightmare ‘as though it had never been’. That is for dreams, romances and plays, places where time means what the dreamer or the playwright says and not what time itself, in our reality, comes to mean. I would like to take the words out of their situational context, if I may.

Anaphylactic shock, when you break the word down, means that you are without a guard against the shock. Prophylactic means that something works as a guard. Phylax means guard.

The mysterious, literally almost pregnant, line and a half from Cymbeline slips to its stilled reader the imperative to remain living until there is no life. It is a line that is hard to break down, but by no means obscure. In logical terms, it is easy to take exception to the suggestion that fruit can be longer-lived than a tree, though that is unnecessarily literal, since what is being spoken of is not a fruit but a soul. Posthumus may be addressing his wife, or his own soul, or she may be his soul; surely all of this is intended to be within the reach of the words. The ambiguities are smoky in a play that splices ancient Britain with Renaissance Italy. The line and a bit are hard to catch. They are, like blue flowers, glimpses.

This line fumes with the negative capability that shows us what can happen when certain full notes are struck, one after another. The rock cracks and a seed is set.

What is the ‘tree’, here? Is it Posthumus, the husband, himself, addressing the wife who is clinging to him in their reunion? Is it Posthumus himself, bearer of his own soul? Is it the body? Is it life? In my prophylactic application of the line, I think that it is necessary to take the step of saying that, for my purpose, the tree might have been Fram, but it must now be the impersonal stand that is my span of life, from which I hang, perhaps as passive as a fruit but full of something even if it is only an extract from the tree. Fruit may offer consequences, from wisdom, the apple, to hospitality, the pineapple, or a periodic sentence to hell, the pomegranate.

I have to be my own tree.

Since living here on Colonsay, William has learned how to cut down a tree safely. When a tree falls, you must have the closest possible idea as to where and how it will fall. If it falls into another tree, you can only with difficulty reduce it to logs, whereas if you cut it so that it falls into a space you have already cleared, it is ready to cut up. There is also the matter of safety. A tree falls down bringing a ton weight headlong. A man working alone can be pinned and killed by a tree that will crush his ribs like those of a bird. Legislation on chainsaw work attempts to avoid this, but the chief safety is prevention. All is established by the precision of the sink-cut that must go in at forty-five degrees at the base of the chosen tree at precisely the point opposite to the direction in which you want the tree to fall.

My friend Trevor, whom I have known and respected for a generation and who is a woodsman to the ends of his branches, says that in parts of Hampshire the sink-cut is called the gob-cut. Trevor listens with such attention to trees that he would rather drive towards them than away from them. He means that he would rather be in the country than the town. In spite of this, he has sat with me in London hospital waiting rooms waiting for doctors to come and see to my various fellings. Trevor has seen it all, and his conclusion is that he would rather be outside among trees than anywhere else. He likes to read about trees. Recently, his power saw was stolen, and his toolbox. What use can those tools be to someone else? He had had that saw for twenty years and he and it had grown used to one another. He had wanted to hand that saw to his son.

This year was a big bluebell year in the woods where Trevor works. He can’t remember a year as good for bluebells. He thinks that the bluebell woods get better every year because the number of bluebell years may be melting for us all at the age we are. He does not pretend that we haven’t seen our youth away.

A tree, when it falls, brings all manner of tenants down with it. There may be birds’ nests in its branches, a marten nest in its bole, a squirrel drey in its heart, an ant city under its bark at the root, thousands of grey slaters or woodlice pouring from it, moths in chipping millions coming out like stars or dust.

If I think of my life as a tree, it is clear that I have taken, or given to myself, the gob-cut. But no one but myself is trying to fell me and I want for as long as they wish it to offer shade to my children. When I delivered that sink-cut to Fram thirteen Aprils ago, it smote him, but his roots were too strong to let go their hold and he has grown well beyond the cut and up into the canopy from where the view is clearer. His heartwood has strengthened. Arrows and longbow taken from his seasoned aim and reach hit home.

It is the last evening of the last day I am allowing myself for these eleven chapters about the year since I spoke the first part of this memoir. I intended to look clearly at why it happened, and I think I perceive two answers, one reductive and deadly and the other more open to some kind of remedial use.

I am very blind as I type this, twisting my head around in the search for sight. It does not escape me that I am twisting away, too, from the subject. In spite of being one who loves family, home, and the detail that comes with settling, what I have done is cut and run when I can extract no answer that does not involve confrontation or change. I am anxious to staunch this reaction, as I hope to curtail the delusion of self-comfort by means of suicide, in order to protect the next generation.

The way that I can see to staunch it is to see, or to try to see, and certainly to name, only what is true about it all, and not to rush from hurt into harm, or from pain into damage, since harm and damage affect those others, whom I live not to hurt or pain.

It is easier by far, I am afraid, to come to these serene-sounding conclusions living alone on an island, where little is required of me save the capacity to earn enough to pay for my keep. I need not see here, nor walk, nor have social contact, all of which are beyond me. I keep clean and live retracted like a claw within a paw.

At least I need not insist on pressing upon the thorn in the paw. At some point I may allow it to work its way out. I must not define myself around it.

Young thrush are everywhere in the garden this evening. They are slighter than their parents, no speckled waistcoat yet. They sing their hearts out in the long grass under the soft-leaved flowering sorbus that line the drive of this much adapted house in which I first found refuge over forty years ago.

It was pale strawberry-ice pink then, with white sills and window frames. Its wings wore, as they still do, mock windows that need painting in, like eyes on a blank face, like those eyes in the front of a boat I mentioned at the start of this memoir. Now the house is pale cream, its sills a pigeon grey. Or is it yellow? It depends on the rain. At its skirt where it meets the gravel of the drive along its two embracing arms and surprised central block, are still ranged hundreds of green glass floats and two cannons. At the back the house rises from a sea of planting, mainly blue flowers, agapanthus, blue poppy, aquilegia, cerinthe, iris. A magnolia and creamy roses clothe its walls.

Downstairs the bigger rooms are shuttered and cool. They are seldom in use till summer is higher, as they used to be when there were two parents and six children and me here.

The dining room and the drawing room smell of wood polish and damp, the flagged hall of stone and coal, the billiard room of leather from the brown eighteenth-century books that sit around the old half-sized table. The cues are in their clipped rack, the stained ivory balls arranged in patterns by the last children who played there. Even if you didn’t know, you would be able to tell that it was little girls rather than small boys. The colours are arranged in patterns along the cushioned table-edge, to look pretty. It’s not set up for a game, nor are the balls all scattered on the green. Girls have been here.

Or someone who has the fiction writer’s habit of making patterns out of anything at all that comes to hand.

The curving corridor-room that leads from the hall to the drawing room has changed least. It has lost the stuffed bison head and a tally of bird-sightings that used to be kept beside the wind-up telephone over the window seat. The wind-up telephone has gone and there is one that our children now think of as old fashioned as we thought the wind-up one with its separate mouthpiece shaped like the chained drinking cup from the wishing well halfway up the old drive, that has chased around its rim, DRINK YOUR FILL THEN WISH YOUR WILL. The window seat is curved, like all the fitted furniture in the embracing wooden room. The window looks out on to a lawn at whose centre rises an enormous member of the lily family that looks like a palm tree.

Under the old lairds, the McNeills, that part of the garden was laid out to look like a Victoria Cross. Things in the shape of other things, that British passion. Now the borders around the lawn are soft in the revived cottage fashion, taking advantage of the pocket of botanical shelter and comparatively hospitable soil that lies around this house. The corridor-room is rayed in its curved ribs of bookshelves with many hundreds of clothbound books set in order by various sometimes contradictory understandings of sequence. History used comfortably to crop up everywhere, while gardening took up twenty or more densely plotted and embedded shelves, the books tucked in as tight as alpines. There were rather few novels, except for Wilkie Collins and C.S. Forester. Lawrence Durrell made a flashy showing in a lower shelf. He seems for now to have made off with the gardening books. They will be coming to an arrangement in one or another bird-wallpapered bedroom in the house. Walter Scott meanwhile has settled in the billiard room.

In the shelves of the corridor-room, the spines of the cloth bindings have succumbed to the light of the Hebrides; bright hues have quietened down so that the shelves now show the muted upstanding ranks of the field of lupins, purple and cream and dim yellow and soft pink bars of opacity ranking the length of one long curve, taller than a man, measured in batons of soft colour all along the tight arrays of shelving opposite the big window.

This evening there is no one in the bigger rooms, and even were Alexander and his family here, the rooms would most likely be empty, though not devoid of living things.

The drawing room has two tall windows that look out at the same lawn as the corridor-room window, a curvaceous triple window in the vaulting Regency idiom out to the front of the house, and a double door out to the long glass-roofed loggia that is full of scented plants and surrendering wicker furniture, and a tired cushioned swing on a rusting white-painted iron frame, with a rotting canvas jalousie. There is a ceramic sink on the loggia, for washing glasses and picnic plates or cleaning flowerpots or garden shears. When you turn the tap on, the water trembles within the pipe that is conducting it long before it condescends to arrive. The pipe softly clanks. The bolts holding it to the side of the house loosen minutely.

Growing up through a window seat in the first tall window as you enter the drawing room is a tall glaucous-leaved tree poppy, romneya, with petals white like a kerchief in a portrait of a lady by Romney himself. The romneya asserts its spindly but persistent life annually through the house’s painted pebbledash skim, through its brick, through its floorboards, and into the habitual place it achieves, determinedly driven by the imperative to reproduce itself, clipped between the shutter and the cushioned window seat, on which piles of green photograph albums, recording equivalent human struggles and bloomings, lie and soften in the damp efflorescent air.

In the cupboard opposite the loggia door, drinks are kept, and an oval tray of the old silver Madeira cups that came out on the Sundays when we listened to long-playing records on the wind-powered record player, also stationery and some outlived toys. In this cupboard one recent spring, a mallard raised her brood among the envelopes and sticky labels. Did she have an accomplice, who let her out to fetch grubs for her ducklings? Did she feed off the spiders and mites and woodlice who would conquer the drawing room in a sleeping beauty’s rest time, if they weren’t shooed away from time to time? Were those ducklings raised on correspondence cards and flat Schweppes mixers?

Any precise answer rests with that duck mother and her children, so the answer will be, as it is to many things, a dry quack and no more.

We cannot always see the whole picture, after all.

It may be as well to keep a door in the mind open to whatever may alight among the paper and strong drink and forgotten toys.