Sybil

Alex Barr

‘Why do you want to sell her?’ he asks.

They walk hand-in-hand from the station, under the glass-and-iron canopy of the shops. This is Buxton, England. The century is fifty-seven years old. Not till they turn into a steep narrow lane does she reply.

‘She reminds me of when I was happy.’

‘You aren’t happy now?’

The crowding buildings of finely chiselled stone echo their steps. His anxious tone disturbs her. Does he think it’s him?

‘It’s not you, Alan.’

He wonders whether to press for an explanation, but knows from experience, that would offend her. So much is closed to him – her mind, her body . . .

They walk on uphill. Fiona tries to match his steps to unite the echoes, but her heels wobble. With forced good humour, she asks, ‘What’s this unseemly haste? I know you’re keen for me to meet him, but!’

He stops. ‘Sorry. I’m sure you’ll like him.’

He notes, to remember when alone, how her wheat-coloured curls are stirred by the cold wind that scours the lane. Her face is a smooth novelty, her eyes green serpentine marble. Five months and she still makes him dizzy. He pushes his hand inside her coat and says, ‘I can feel your heart,’ disguising his goal, her breast, desire clutching his innards like disease.

‘Surprised? Did you think I hadn’t got one?’

Fiona stops and moves his hand up, granting a privilege, finding his enormous gratitude hard to understand. At the first sign of her own body stirring, she tugs at him to move on, feeling something slippery underfoot. Dark scraps of leaf from beetroot and red cabbage litter the cobbles. The turn-ups of Alan’s trousers are thick. The fold sometimes holds lost shillings, he’s told her.

They pass a shop window.

 ‘Is this it?’ she asks.

The second-hand goods have a desolate look – heavy vests, enamel dishes, wartime posters. 

‘Further on.’

She sighs with relief. Squeezing her waist, Alan watches their feet, left with left, right with right, appear and fall back. A newspaper fragment scuttles by with part of a headline, Little Rock. The lane opens onto the market square, and a sudden expanse of sky, a playground of rich colours, makes the pair stop short. Fiona longs to be an eagle in that domain of solitary freedom. Alan wishes he knew what those bold slashes and torn rags are – cirrostratus, altocumulus . . . ?

Fiona studies his profile, his short chestnut hair swept back by the wind, and wonders what he’s thinking. Who is he anyway? A mouth below a nose seems like a joke. Only by thinking, this is Alan and last week we went to see Red River, does she restore the world to order.

‘This is it,’ he says, and watches her bend to look in the bow window, her profile grave and classical.

She wonders who stuck banana labels on a china soap dish, who owned the metal bust of a sailor that lifts pennies to his mouth, who bothered to frame a faded watercolour of Devon cliffs. From all over Britain, and maybe the world, things have migrated to this chaos. 

Alan is pleased to find the shop exactly as he remembered: peeling wooden mullions, lettering RICHARD AMES the right burgundy red, A correctly deformed by blistered paint, deadened clang of the bell as he opens the door to usher Fiona in.

She moves hesitantly into curious patterns of light and shade, islands of pale gleaming surface interlocking with violet gloom. Standard lamps, hat stands, tall clocks, chests covered in silver inkstands and candlesticks form a dusty erratic passage. Advancing into the deepest gloom, she sees under a dim ceiling lamp a dummy sprawled in an armchair. The posture is far from lifelike, legs and body in one straight line, wigless head bent forward . . . and why a book open across the thighs? The smell of paraffin hits her just as the dummy lifts its head and stares at her over half-moon glasses.

Shocked from reverie by the harsh bell, Richard waits for his tormentor’s command. Another bloody pomander no doubt, for a mother’s bloody birthday. The girl will groan at finding this no Aladdin’s cave crammed with pomanders but a sea-cave full of wreckage. And him not a man to fawn before her fine calves and big virginal eyes. But here behind her is Alan and about damned time, not seen for weeks. Ecce puer! Now for more questions so stupid as to be brilliant, more clog-dances over hallowed graves, more plowing of fallow ground. A change from bloody Frigg PhD with averted eyes and circular determinism disappearing up its own arse.

‘Fiona, this is Richard Ames,’ says Alan proudly.

His lady-love not a customer! Not content to present the silly creature with her cool poise and mint-imperial earrings as spurious empirical evidence into their past few months’ pursuit of the Good, the Ideal, Beauty, Love etcetera, he’s giving her the red cushion and seating her on the Wagner he himself usually sits on. The twelve scores got for a song, ha ha, in the war, piled here to await new popularity. While the young Trojan sits on a washstand swinging his legs like an urchin as if waiting for a play to start.

‘Well, how are you?’ Fiona hears Alan ask. She thinks the old man must be deaf. It’s ages before he speaks, leering at Alan over his glasses, and when he does, he seems to misunderstand. 

‘How am I? How do I exist, you mean?’

His voice is high and scraping, cultured but with a twang she can’t place. His underlip snaps upwards to end each sentence like a mechanism. Folds of skin from chin to collar make her think of a tortoise.

Alan says, ‘If you like.’

‘If I like. I don’t like or dislike. I merely suffer your dubious and slippery questions. Very well: how do I exist? Meaning, how do I exist now, or how did I come to exist, which?’

Alan is delighted by Richard’s crafty expression, the way he slews his head to look sidelong and opens his mouth as if a sticky tongue might shoot out to catch a fly. He grins at Fiona, wanting her to share the feeling despite her frown and faint smile in return.

He says, ‘Let’s say I meant the second.’

‘So we’re not discussing the complex balance of fluids in my body.’ He belches. ‘Pardon me. We’re discussing my origin.’

‘Yes,’ says Alan, but seeing the watery eyes glitter adds, ‘All right, I know what you’re going to say.’

Fiona has no idea what he’s going to say. What goes on under that fragile dome wisped with grey? Doesn’t he find Alan patronizing? Alan’s face is set in what she can only call a sneer, and the sharpness in his voice is new to her. The old man looks jerkily around him, from cobwebbed pictures to a hanging bunch of lampshades, in just the way she’s seen Daddy appeal to a courtroom, but doesn’t include her in his look.

‘You know what I’m going to say!’ Richard crows.

Alan says, ‘Yes, you’re going to ask whether we’re discussing your origin as a paradigm of the human race, or an individual case.’

He grins at Fiona, proud and (she feels) rather smug. In fact, he too reminds her of Daddy, when out not to explore an argument but to win it.

Richard feels like purring. He says, ‘Christ, I’ll say all that, will I?’

‘Knowing you, yes.’

‘Ha! So it’s either first causes or existentialism’ 

It’s like choosing a wine, or would be if Madam would stop drilling him with those smoky green eyes. He fixes them with his own and asks her, ‘I don’t know what a paradigm is, do you?’

And there’s Alan looking at her like Lavrov with his performing bear the year King Edward died.

Fiona wishes they wouldn’t stare so.

‘Oh, isn’t it when you give . . . No, wait, it’s . . .’

Alan’s gaze is burning her cheek, the old man’s is freezing her. She looks down at his hands, rope-veined, rather feminine, fluttering on the flat seat of the wooden armchair.

‘You’re looking at my chair,’ he says.

Alan laughs. ‘It’s a commode,’ he tells her. ‘The seat lifts and there’s a potty under. He keeps his money in it.’

Richard grins at Fiona. ‘Freud would say the potty had not changed its function. Do you understand?’

He watches with interest as a blush appears on the delicate skin of her cheek.

She stands. ‘May I look around?’

‘You may indeed. The price of each item is marked.’ A harsh rattle of laughter escapes from his throat as he adds, ‘In code!’

Alan enjoys his music-hall timing. And feels a tingle of relief seeing Fiona at a loss, somehow diminished, making his love for her less agonizing. Her upbringing – elegant doe-like mother, suave suited father, family friends dripping with confidence, lounge with Voysey ingle-nook and Morris wallpaper – has failed her, leaving her with her weight on one fine leg unable to say more than, ‘Oh. Right. Yes.’ For a moment his ignorance – of Europe, of skiing, of more than one Bach, of how Epstein and Eisenstein differ from Einstein, of not wearing a tweed jacket at cocktail parties – is assuaged.

He says, ‘She’s come to sell, not buy.’

Suddenly to Fiona he sounds like a stranger. She feels a headache starting, the one she often has on sour, dull Saturday afternoons such as this one. She clutches her shoulder bag, shrinking from the thought of the old man touching the doll – ‘the doll’ not Sybil – and moves away into the silent forest of objects. Out in the sunlit street a twirl of wind makes papers and sticks dance and rest, dance and rest. The light hurts her eyes.

Alan, as she bends to look at this and that, her expression absorbed, her fair curls brushing her camel-hair collar, feels her separateness like a bruise. He wishes she would look at him. But Richard coughs, a complicated old man’s cough, to get his attention.

‘I prefer to be taken as an individual case.’

He studies Alan. Alien, really, with his modern bony face, a child of wireless and science education. Until a year ago, he hadn’t heard of Pericles. A bourgeois shoot grafted on peasant stock, father a self-made graduate engineer, no doubt all aspiration and no culture. Machinery traded for tradition – here Wat, here Robin, a fridge for your boggart, an Austin Seven for your maypole.

‘Where were you born?’ the boy asks.

‘Cheltenham. Is it relevant?’

‘Birth equals origin.’

What would Alan have made of Dawson? Hair scraped savagely back from a face all puckers and lumps, trembling with joy in the drawing-room – ‘Oh ma’am, the Jubilee!’ – or rage in the scullery, face distended, black eyes tiny under puffy lids as she smacks his bare bot with her gritty slipper for saying Pamela Pig, or squealing in the lavvy as he hangs off the drainpipe peeking in the window to see voluminous knickers around her boots.

‘Birth? Conception, surely? The historic meeting of father’s ecclesiastical Somerset seed with Mother’s nouveau-riche Manx egg. Or was my identity minted even before that?’

‘Before?’

‘Have you never asked yourself, what identity has a sperm?’

To see the boy blush is amusing, titillating almost. To see him blush because of the girl is tedious.

Alan looks guardedly at Fiona, near the door examining a Chinese plate. Camel-hair coat unbuttoned showing her white blouse and olive-green tweed skirt, poised on high heels as if about to run. Always this terrifying elusiveness, this threat to disappear from his life. He’d like to weigh her down with his child, merging his identity with hers in the warm dark behind the fabric of her skirt. 

Richard reclaims his attention. ‘Has a sperm got – pardon the word – a soul?’

Fiona stares at the two bald fat sages on the plate, happy under a faraway willow in the state of Ch’in. Oh to be in China under the catkins! The paraffin smell is everywhere, the air dead and stagnant. On the train Alan was kind and amusing, the shoulder she leaned on, rough and friendly like dog’s fur. Now his black overcoat like a minister’s or professor’s makes him seem at home in this place. He’s grating and brittle, his eyes empty like a lizard’s, or maybe a young vulture learning from an old one how to shred life into morsels. They talk about sperm, no doubt from personal knowledge, whether it smells of lavender, turpentine, or nothing, while all Fiona knows is whip-tailed diagrams. And about soul and identity as if it were oh so simple, as if at seventeen everyone knows who one is.

The plate blurs and the next thing is a sharp smash. Stooping blindly to retrieve the shards she feels a wicked jab in her palm.

Alan wonders whether her training in etiquette extends to this. Can the elegant young lady disentangle from the clumsy schoolgirl?

She says, ‘I’m awfully sorry, Mr Ames. I’ll pay for it of course. If you’ve a brush I’ll sweep it up.’

Richard says nothing. He leans sideways over the arm of the commode, an exaggerated gesture, and squints down the winding avenue of floor at the shards glinting in the failing daylight. Let the girl babble on, embarrassed, as penance for interrupting a promising discussion with the boy, whose mind, though crude, soaks up ideas like a sugar-cube. Who has an instinct for the tone of a debate. After a long silence he tells Alan, ‘Show her the kitchen cupboard with its phalanx of utensils. And get her to brew tea.’

As the pair push past, a bright gout of red falls from the girl’s palm into the dust beside his seat. God almighty! He scrabbles in his cardigan pocket, hindered by baggy folds, for a hanky to jam against his mouth. Dry heaves contract his throat. The hanky smells of mothballs.

Alan loves the kitchen. ‘Here where the world is quiet . . .’ Swinburne could have meant this room with its odour of stale grease, ancient wood, and firelighters. Its tiny window shows between cobwebs the Derbyshire hills.

‘Where’s this cupboard?’ Fiona asks, rubbing her cut palm against her whole one. Alan takes her hand but she pulls it away not liking his fascinated expression. What does he think is in her veins – tea, soup, ichor? She says, ‘It’s nothing.’

‘Let me bathe it for you.’

‘Just find me a brush.’ The shop bell clangs. ‘Oh, death and damnation, now I’ll have to wait. Stop looking at me like that.’

‘Like what?’

‘As if you own me. Are you showing me off to your friend, or showing him off to me?’

Alan shrugs.

She says, ‘I find him difficult.’

‘He’s the same whoever he’s with.’

‘I can’t say the same for you, Alan. I’m seeing a different side of you and I’m not sure I like it.’

‘But – ’

The kettle whistles an interruption.

The round copper tea tray stands (she’s sure it shouldn’t) on the paraffin stove. Its inlaid brass ancient Egyptians aren’t convincing. She huddles tightly in her coat on the pile of Wagner. The shop door is bolted now. The last customers, a fleshy middle-aged man with a fleshy teenage boy after coins and medals, have left. Through the glass of the fanlight, against a sky of dark slate, a newly lit streetlamp in the square glows a fuzzy crimson. 

Richard is glad of these hours of quiet, before the motorized myrmidons launch their Saturday night attack. The clocks tick serenely. To please Alan he assembles a compliment.

‘Well, Fiona, I hear excellent things of you.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. It seems you’re a blend of Helen, Cleopatra, and Madame de Staël.’

She looks at Alan, then at him. ‘Is that a good thing to be? That blend?’

‘Well this young man clearly thinks so.’

Alan wonders what Fiona is thinking. Why so serious, unsmiling? But suddenly she smiles and it’s like the sun breaking through clouds. His spirits bubble with relief. Here’s another moment to fix in his memory – the taste of Earl Grey and Marie biscuits, the smell of old books and paraffin fumes, his friend’s worn eyes dancing amusement, Fiona’s stockinged legs shiny and mysterious.

She says, ‘I hear good things of you, Mr Ames.’

‘Good heavens.’

‘A blend of . . . oh, Plato, Descartes, and Dr Johnson.’

Richard splutters tea down his shirt front, another stain for the grey and purple stripes.

‘My dear girl, what an incompatible crew! Am I that indigestible trio?’ He belches. ‘No wonder I suffer wind.’

They all laugh briefly.

‘So, my dear,’ says Richard, ‘you’ve brought something to sell.’

Alan leans close to look as she takes Sybil from her bag and peels back the tissue wrapping. It’s the first time he’s seen her. Low-relief china features, delicately touched with paint, expressionless. Tiny hands also china, feet in red Edwardian boots. Long white dress trimmed with lace. His chest tightens as she offers it, still half swaddled, to his friend. This fragment of Fiona’s past conjures her unknown childhood, forty times as long as the time he’s known her, a treasure-chamber locked against him. The face of the future is as blank as that of the doll. He studies Fiona’s face, shadowed, rounded, the bloom a subtle grain where light gives way to dark. Will they ever make love, skin against skin, legs tangled, his face buried in her hair, kissing her bare shoulder?

Richard studies the doll. ‘It’s chipped.’

‘My sister threw it at me.’

‘Aren’t you keeping it for your daughter?’

‘Not sure I’ll ever have one.’

Oh but you must, we must, thinks Alan. No-one else deserves to feel that pride. He feels the pain of always being outside her.

‘And if I do,’ she adds vehemently, ‘why should she want my things?’

Richard Ames holds the doll upside down by her boots. The dress drops over her head revealing a stuffed canvas body.

He says, ‘Ain’t got no knickers’ in such a silly voice Alan laughs, making echoes. The girl’s face is empty, like the face of that bored little whore in Amiens, who asked dully, ‘Que j’ôte les bas?’

‘Non!’

‘Drôle que chaque Tommy dit la même.’

Pale thighs above black stockings, vivid purple bruise on one. Maisie would never leave her stockings on, said I was perverted to ask.

He says, ‘A foreigner brought in a doll. Some new soft plastic. In its crotch was a charming little groove.’ He gulps his tea to fill the ensuing silence. ‘What next, I wonder, mes enfants?  Pubic hair?  This young man and I have fascinating discussions whether crotch hair enhances or disfigures the female form.’

Fiona feels exposed. She presses her knees together. Why is the doll still upside down? The old man and Alan are suddenly grotesque, like Punch and Judy throwing around a baby. Why is Alan looking at her and shaking his head?

In a flat, careful voice she asks the old man, ‘Are you interested in it?’

Richard cocks his head. ‘As a philosophical problem, exceedingly. As a purchase – name your price.’

Fiona is silent.

He asks, ‘What’s her name?’

‘Sybil.’

‘A prophetess! Does she prophesy what I’d pay?’

‘I’ve no idea what she’s worth. But you know.’

Richard sniffs. ‘For all I know, sixpence.’

Sybil’s head dangles an inch above the old man’s knee, the hair, too stiff to be lifelike, flopping down, brushing a stain – egg? soup? – on his corduroy trousers. But it’s not Sybil, just a doll, so why feel upset? She reaches to take her back. The old man holds her away.

Alan smiles from one to the other, his friend with his naughty-boy stolen-a-plum look, Fiona flushed, serious, beautiful. The circuit is complete, energy is flowing. Time suddenly breaks into moments, like the bricks in that bomb-damaged ruin he knocked out one by one, until he felt the slow horror of knowing the wall would collapse on him unless he ran, and the energy is wrong and he goes to take the doll. Richard hangs on to her.

‘Let go, you bugger!’ Alan snaps.

Richard holds Sybil’s legs apart, his long nose in her crotch, watching Fiona.

‘Take a leg and we’ll split her,’ he tells Alan.

Fiona feels numb, unable to move or think. As tongue-tied as when her father tells her she’s disloyal and stupid to join CND and leave the country defenseless, and her mother nods agreement. But suddenly finds herself standing, hoisting the bag on her shoulder, putting her gloves on. The movement unlocks her speech.

‘Keep her, Mr Ames. Let’s agree she’s worth what the plate’s worth.’

Her face is a mask. She unbolts the door with a sharp click. The bell pings as she opens it admitting a cold draught, and is gone, into the lamplit dusk.

Alan says, ‘Give me the doll for God’s sake. I’ll pay for the plate.’

Richard hands her over without a murmur. ‘So you’ll have to come back.’

‘Yes.’ Mr Ames? Richard? He still isn’t sure what to call him.

‘Good. We’ll continue your education. Someone brought in a record of Orff’s Catulli Carmina. We’ll play it.’ And as Alan moves to the door, ‘Off you go then, Alpheus.’

Fiona hears Alan’s hurrying steps on the cobbles. 

‘I thought you might stay and miss the train,’ she says breathlessly when he appears beside her. She seems remote, cheeks flushed by the walk and the evening breeze. Too pure to ever be sullied by his crude desire. He wonders whether to question her ‘seeing another side to him’ but decides that would irritate her.

He shows her the doll.

‘I don’t want her. It.’

‘Then I’ll sell her for you. Not to Richard. I’ll get a good price.’ 

‘Would you do that for me?’

‘I’d do anything for you.’

‘Oh don’t be silly. Are you going back to see your friend?’

‘I know he’s flawed, Fiona – ’

‘That’s an understatement!’

‘ – but all my friends are flawed.’ He thinks, I’m flawed in your eyes.

Fiona doesn’t comment.

Alan says, ‘I told him I’ll pay for the plate.’

He knows she’ll insist on paying him back, he’ll refuse, and they can argue about money as if they were married.

 Fiona glances at him walking beside her. She can’t work him out. Is he making her beholden to him, trying to have power over her? Back in the shop he was too pleased with himself. Are all men and boys so smug? Who is he really? His face has a Russian look – not like the chunky tank soldiers in the newsreels from Hungary, more that of a fresh-cheeked idealist who might drive a troika fast across the snow, past muffled pines and ringing lakes, herself bundled beside him. She sighs and adjusts her steps in time with his. Once again, the complex rhythm makes echoes.

Richard nurses his hands over the reluctant stove as the couple disappear where the lane bends. Alone with the quiet dust and ancient smells, he can analyze the encounter. In different ways, it stirred him. Entertained him, even. A change from dusty books. But now what? He struggles to his feet and takes to the kitchen the tray of three empty cups.

2 Comments

  1. I really liked this story, Alex. The twists and turns of the banter steered by the unpleasant intellectual snob were very well executed. Above all, you put your finger exactly on how two men can collude in objectifying and humiliating a woman even in her presence.

    Like

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