Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Rising from the Ashes by Yvonne Clarke

Elizabeth

I saw my mother Sonia again last night. I ran towards her, ambushing her with my arms, a toddler’s embrace, all love and lack of coordination. But she crumbled away so that all I was left holding was a handful of ashes, grey and gritty. Poof! Just like that. Where did she go, that woman with film star looks, glossy black hair with waves as endless as the sea, seashell-pink lips and Irish eyes of shamrock green?


On the few occasions she walked me to school I skipped beside her, full of pride, knowing that she was the best-looking mother at the school gate. But these occasions were rare: the lure of Liszt, Chopin and Debussy was fierce enough to take her away on tour for three-quarters of the year. I always careered into her like a Sumo wrestler when she returned, determined not to let her go next time, but inevitably, she did.


I was twenty-two when my mother died. You’ve made a mistake, I remember telling the police as they stood at my door, helmets removed out of respect, she’s in Warsaw, playing Chopin. The funeral was a travesty, the coffin in front of me a box of nothingness, an absurd illusion. All I had to do was count off the days on the calendar until she came back, as I did when I was a child.


I never knew my mother. Really knew her. In her attic I came across an Eiffel Tower of boxes bursting with newspaper clippings, letters and photos, unsorted, undated, going back to before I was born. My journey of nostalgia would be tactile: tracing my fingers over the faded images, seeing the scribbled notes on the back, straightening out the dog-eared corners, would transport me back to those times. 


Nowadays, people’s photos were digitalised, clutter-free. What would people store in their attics in future, I thought: Laptops? Mobiles? X boxes? Certainly not photo albums or books. Maybe not even their children’s old cuddly toys – babies nowadays learnt how to use a touch screen while they were still in nappies.


Sorting through the last few photos, I came across several loose negatives. My mother, slim and attractive, blowing kisses into the wind, silhouetted against the sun, dipping her toes in the sea, lying seductively in sand-dunes wearing Sophia Loren sunglasses and a ruched bathing costume, the height of fashion in the nineteen-fifties. Another of a young man with a toddler and holding a baby. 


Two children? I showed the negatives to my mother’s sister, Mary.


The blood drained out of her face like water going down a plughole.  ‘I didn’t know your mother had kept these. Have you ever seen them before?’


‘No. Which is me? Is that my father?’ The subject of my father had always been forbidden fruit on my mother’s menu.


‘Elizabeth, your mother had secrets.’


‘But she’s dead! My mother’s dead! You can tell me now - you must tell me.’


‘Give me some time. There’s something I have to do first.’


I felt – what? I was overcome by a cacophony of emotions – distress, fear, confusion. But the worst of all was an overriding sense of betrayal. 


That’s when my recurring nightmares started. 


***


Sonia, 1959


I loved Yehudi. I was in awe of his musical genius but loved him for his passion, his warmth, his sensitivity. Music was in his blood, and by his twenties, he was making a name for himself with some of the finest European orchestras. When he conducted I was inspired, and my piano playing reached new heights. 


But there were cultural issues. When I was expecting Elizabeth, I was ill – not with morning sickness, but with trepidation. His parents had already earmarked suitable potential partners, and I was not on that shortlist, nor ever would be. The joy of baby Elizabeth’s arrival was tempered by dark clouds of family rejection. 


Ultimately, I underestimated just how much that had affected Yehudi. Conflicting loyalties between his wife and child and his parents had created a maelstrom inside his maestro’s head. Lack of sleep, poor appetite and wild mood swings escalated into deeper mental torment, resulting in Yehudi having deluded and destructive thoughts. He would turn up at home, having abandoned rehearsals in mid-flow. Once he even walked out of a concert. I numbed my distress with gin, especially after our second child, Rachel, was born. But my darling Yehudi, as finely tuned as a string instrument, and as delicate, eventually suffered a complete breakdown. The discovery of his lifeless body in a darkening pool of blood one day on our bathroom floor meant that the reconciliation with his parents would forever remain an unfulfilled dream. 


The pain of his death, however, paled in comparison with the pain of parting with my baby Rachel. Rarely sober, my sleeping patterns were as erratic as the baby, and my childcare ability was minimal – inadequate food, mountains of washing, heaps of hazardous objects strewn around the house. Without my sister stepping in, Elizabeth would have been placed in care too. Rachel was adopted by a loving family but, fearing retribution, I vowed never to tell anyone bar my sister, whom I had sworn to secrecy.


***


Aunt Mary


So I had two secrets. My other secret was that I had kept in touch with my niece Rachel, the baby in the photograph, who believed that her real mother had died in childbirth and that I was her only living relative. She was twenty years old, a violinist – musical, like her parents. How could I broach the subject that she had a sister? And how would she react?  


***


Rachel


How – did my parents die?

Why – did my mother give me away, and not my sister?  

Where – is my sister? 

When - did my mother die?


A tornado of questions was spinning around my head like a circus carousel.

My first reaction was to hate my mother for what she did, but the desire to know more about

my real family, meet my real sister, was overwhelming. I wanted to fill the yawning chasm which threatened to swallow me whole, like Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of conundrums and chaos.  


My sister Elizabeth. Elizabeth, my sister. I practised the words, again and again, rolling them around my tongue, teeth and lips, as if by doing so I would be able to slip them into any casual conversation: ‘My sister Elizabeth says…’, ‘I’m meeting my sister Elizabeth for coffee…’, ‘My sister Elizabeth lives in …’.


When could we meet? Today, tomorrow? Not later, I couldn’t bear to wait any longer. I was at the mercy of Aunt Mary and Elizabeth.


Where should we meet? Not a park or a coffee shop - too public, there may be tears. What should I wear? Casual, as though meeting your adult sister for the first time was an everyday occurrence? Dressy (it’s a special occasion)? Should I wear makeup, or would she think I was tarty? Should I take a token? What sort? I knew nothing about her. Better not – just the photograph of us with our father – the only photograph with him. 


There was no precedent for what I was about to do.


When the day arrived, my heart was hammering like a hunted hare. 


***


Elizabeth


My sister Rachel. Rachel, my sister. I practised the words, again and again, rolling them around my tongue, teeth and lips, as if by doing so I would be able to slip them into any casual conversation.


We met in a rehearsal room in the Wigmore Hall. Empty, private, perfect. Rachel had her back to me, but when she turned around I was looking at my mother again, my peripheral vision fading as the clarity of her image crystallised onto my retinas. I loved her already. We stood still, facing each other, afraid to burst each other’s bubble - a strange, formal stance, not mutually agreed but instinctively observed. 


As I walked forward, I felt like my limbs did not belong to me. I was a puppet, my strings being played by a third party as I took small, jerking steps towards the scaffold of our new life. 


The nightmares never returned.


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