Metal and Plum: A Memoir

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The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.


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The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind. Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse.

When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist. Of course I did exist. I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. I am seated in a bright tartan frock on a pomatum pot—a coloured picture of Mr Shandy, as I remember, on its lid—and around me are the brushes, leather cases, knick-knacks, etc. My father is shaving himself, his chin and cheeks puffed out with soapsuds.

And now I look at him, and now at his reflection in the great looking-glass, and every time that happens he makes a pleasant grimace at me over his spectacles. This particular moment of my childhood probably fixed itself on my mind because just as, with razor uplifted, he was about to attack his upper lip, a jackdaw, attracted maybe by my gay clothes, fluttered down on the sill outside, and fussing and scrabbling with wing and claw pecked hard with its beak against the glass. The sound and sight of this bird with its lively grey-blue eyes, so close and ardent, startled me.

I leapt up, ran across the table, tripped over a hairbrush, and fell sprawling beside my father's watch. I hear its ticking, and also the little soothing whistle with [Pg 23] which he was wont to comfort his daughter at any such mishap. Then perhaps I was five or six. That is a genuine memory. But every family, I suppose, has its little pet traditions; and one of ours, relating to those early years, is connected with our kitchen cat, Miaou.

She had come by a family of kittens, and I had crept, so it was said, into her shallow basket with them.


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Having, I suppose, been too frequently meddled with, this old mother cat lugged off her kittens one by one to a dark cupboard. The last one thus secured, she was discovered in rapt contemplation of myself, as if in debate whether or not it was her maternal duty to carry me off too. And there was I grinning up into her face. Such was our cook's—Mrs Ballard's—story.

By Jennifer Robison

What I actually remember is different. On the morning in question I was turning the corner of the brick-floored, dusky passage that led to the kitchen, when Miaou came trotting along out of it with her blind, blunt-headed bundle in her mouth. We were equally surprised at this encounter, and in brushing past she nearly knocked me over where I stood, casting me at the same moment the queerest animal look out of her eyes. So truth, in this case, was not so strange as Mrs Ballard's fiction. My father was then a rather corpulent man, with a high-coloured face, and he wore large spectacles.

His time was his own, for we were comfortably off on an income derived from a half-share in the small fortune amassed by my grandfather and his partner in a paper mill. He might have been a more successful, though not perhaps a happier, man if he had done more work and planned to do less. But he only so far followed his hereditary occupation as to expend large quantities of its best "handmade" in the composition of a monograph: The History of Paper Making. This entailed a vast accumulation of books and much solitude. I fancy, too, he believed in the policy of sleeping on one's first thoughts.

Since he was engaged at the same time on similar compilations with the Hop and the Cherry for theme, he made indifferent progress in all three. His papers, alas, were afterwards sold with his books, so I have no notion of what became of them or of their value.

I can only hope that their purchaser has since won an easy distinction. These pursuits, if they achieved little else but the keeping of "the man of the house" quiet and contented, proved [Pg 24] my father, at any rate, to be a loyal and enthusiastic Man of Kent; and I have seen to it that a fine Morello cherry-tree blossoms, fruits, and flourishes over his grave. My father was something of a musician too, and could pizzicato so softly on his muted fiddle as not to jar even my too sensitive ear.

He taught me to play chess on a little board with pygmy men, but he was apt to lose interest in the game when it went against him. Whereas it was then that our old friend, Dr Grose, played his hardest. As my father's hands were rather clumsy in make, he took pains to be gentle and adroit with me.

But even after shaving, his embrace was more of a discipline than a pleasure—a fact that may partly account for my own undemonstrativeness in this direction. His voice, if anything, was small for his size, except when he discussed politics with Dr Grose; religion or the bringing up of children with my godmother, Miss Fenne; or money matters with my mother.

At such times, his noise—red face and gesticulations—affected one of his listeners, as eager as possible to pick up the crumbs, far more than ever thunder did, which is up in the clouds. My only other discomfort in his company was his habit of taking snuff. The stench of it almost suffocated me, and at tap of his finger-nail on the lid of his box, I would scamper off for shelter like a hare.

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By birth he came of an old English family, though no doubt with the usual admixtures. My mother's mother was French. She was a Daundelyon. The blood of that "sweet enemy" at times burned in her cheek like a flag; and my father needed his heaviest guns when the stormy winds did blow, and those colours were flying. At such moments I preferred to hear the engagement from a distance, not so much again because the mere discord grieved me, as to escape the din. But usually—and especially after such little displays—they were like two turtle-doves, and I did my small best to pipe a decoy.

My father had been a man past forty when he married my mother. She about fifteen years younger—a slim, nimble, and lovely being, who could slip round and encircle him in person or mind while he was pondering whether or not to say Bo to a goose. Seven years afterwards came I. Friends, as friends will, professed to see a likeness between us. And if my mother could [Pg 25] have been dwindled down to be of my height and figure, perhaps they would have been justified. But in hair and complexion, possibly in ways, too, I harked back to an aunt of hers, Kitilda, who had died of consumption in her early twenties.

I loved to hear stories of my great-aunt Kitilda. She sang like a bird, twice ran away from her convent school, and was so fond of water that an old gentleman a friend of Mr Landor's, the poet who fell in love with her, called her "the Naiad.

Background

My mother, in her youth at Tunbridge Wells, had been considered "a beauty," and had had many admirers—at least so Mrs Ballard, our cook, told Pollie: "Yes, and we know who might have turned out different if things hadn't been the same," was a cryptic remark she once made which filled two "little pitchers" to overflowing. Among these admirers was a Mr Wagginhorne who now lived at Maidstone. He had pocketed his passion but not his admiration; and being an artist in the same sense that my father was an author, he had painted my mother and me and a pot of azaleas in oils.

How well I remember those interminable sittings, with the old gentleman daubing along, and cracking his beloved jokes and Kentish cobbs at one and the same time. Whenever he came to see us this portrait was taken out of a cupboard and hung up in substitution for another picture in the dining-room. What became of it when Mr Wagginhorne died I could never discover. My mother would laugh when I inquired, and archly eye my father. It was clear, at any rate, that author was not jealous of artist!

My mother was gentle with me, and had need to be; and I was happier in her company than one might think possible in a world of such fleetingness. I would sit beside her workbox and she would softly talk to me, and teach me my lessons and small rhymes to say; while my own impulse and instinct taught me to sing and dance. What gay hours we shared. Sewing was at first difficult, for at that time no proportionate needles could be procured for me, and I hated to cobble up only coarse work. But she would give me little childish jobs to do, such as arranging her silks, or sorting her beads, and would rock me to sleep with her finger to a drone so gentle that it might have been a distant bee's.

Yet shadows there were, before the darkness came. Child that I was, I would watch gather over her face at times a kind of absentness, as if she were dreaming of something to which she could give no name, of some hope or wish that was now never to be fulfilled.

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At this I would grow anxious and silent, doubting, perhaps, that I had displeased her; while, to judge from her look, I might not have been there at all. Or again, a mischievousness and mockery would steal into her mood. Then she would treat me as a mere trivial plaything, talking small things to me, as if our alphabet consisted of nothing but "little o"—a letter for which I always felt a sort of pity: but small affection.

This habit saddened my young days, and sometimes enraged me, more than I can say. I was always of a serious cast of mind—even a little priggish perhaps; and experience had already taught me that I could share my mother's thoughts and feelings more easily than she could share mine.

When precisely I began to speculate why I was despatched into this world so minute and different I cannot say. Pretty early, I fancy, though few opportunities for comparison were afforded me, and for some time I supposed that all young children were of my stature. There was Adam Waggett, it is true, the bumpkin son of a village friend of Mrs Ballard's. But he was some years older than I.

Memoir Discussion Questions

He would be invited to tea in the kitchen, and was never at rest unless stuffing himself out with bread-and-dripping or dough-cake—victuals naturally odious to me; or pestering me with his coarse fooling and curiosity. He was to prove useful in due season; but in those days I had a distaste for him almost as deep-rooted as that for "Hoppy," the village idiot—though I saw poor Hoppy only once.

Whatever the reason may be, except in extremely desperate moments, I do not remember much regretting that I was not of the common size. Still, the realization was gradually borne in on me that I was a disappointment and mischance to my parents. Yet I never dared to let fall a question which was to be often in my young thoughts: "Tell me, mamma, are you sorry that your little daughter is a Midget?

She cast a glance at me from eyes that appeared to be very small, unless for that instant it was mine that I saw reflected there. Only, perhaps, on account of my size was there any occasion [Pg 28] for me to be thoroughly ashamed of myself. Otherwise I was, if anything, a rather precocious child. I could walk a step or two at eleven months, and began to talk before the Christmas following the first anniversary of my birthday, August 30th.

I learned my letters from the big black capitals in the Book of Genesis; and to count and cipher from a beautiful little Abacus strung with beads of silver and garnets. The usual ailments came my way, but were light come, light go.

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