The Wishing StoneBy Markosia J. Merrymake
They say you always remember your fist kiss.
You were in your final year at Roedean, I was wondering what to do with my life. My parents ran the White Horse Hotel. I lived there in a roomy attic, overlooking the sea.
You were writing an essay on the literary associations of Rottingdean. I worked at the village library at the weekend, putting books in alphabetical order. You appeared one Saturday, asking if any famous writers had lived in Rottingdean. I was reading The Memories of LM by Ida Baker, a chronicle of her relationship with the writer Katherine Mansfield. They shared a cottage by the cliff at Rottingdean in 1910. You were fascinated by their story, in particular Katherine’s bohemian love life. They used to meet at the Geisha Tea Rooms on the cliff edge. Katherine delighted in outraging local sensibilities, once appearing at the tea rooms wrapped in an Arabian shawl. The book contained a black and white photograph taken by Ida of Katherine lying on a bed, wrapped in the lavish shawl.
We developed a mutual interest in Katherine and Ida and also in each other. Once you sent me an old faded postcard of the Geisha Tea Rooms, on the back was written:
‘I’m so keen upon all women having a definite future, are not you? The idea of sitting and waiting for a husband is absolutely revolting and it really is the attitude of a great many girls.’ KM
Time moved us towards another rite of passage, fortune and design conspiring to give us a shared destination. Cambridge. On the eve of your departure we wandered arm in arm in the twilight. I took you to the Wishing Stone, a strange little face set in the wall of The Elms, Rudyard Kipling’s old house. You were no fan of his imperialistic rhetoric, but joked that he probably made exceedingly good cakes. As local custom dictated I stroked the nose of the strange face, turned around three times and made my wish. The air was still, a dog barked in the distance. When you kissed me, there was nothing but us, our lips claiming our future. My wish had been granted. Then you touched the stone, circling three times like Isadora Duncan. You never revealed your wish, just mumbled something about shepherds and sheep.
Listening to the early morning news on radio four, I heard John Humphrey’s proclaim that the Anglican Church in England was soon to appoint its first woman bishop. Then he mentioned your name, ‘Helena.’ I spluttered in my mug of hot green tea, recovering my sensibilities in time to hear the unmistakeable rich tones of your voice wafting across the airwaves, flooding my kitchen with memories of that final summer. I went weak at the knees. You sounded older, more mature, but your voice still had that musical inflection which made the fine hairs on the back of my neck stand on end when you sang poetry to me in Ancient Greek, or when with relish you poured forth a torrent of stunning feminist rhetoric, created on the spur of a wild moment. I remembered how you did these things not so much for any purpose, but just for the passion of words, loving the way they flowed over your tongue.
With a seers clarity I saw you at my side, strolling hand in hand along the banks of the river Cam, you singing to me in humorous tones of subversion ‘time like an ever rolling stream bears all its daughters away.’ After all those years the sound of your voice acted as an incantation, drawing me back to the world we inhabited in the Cambridge of the late sixties. We had arrived there just after the student riots, you a first year undergraduate studying classics and theology at Newnham, me at the start of my training as a nurse at Addenbrookes Hospital.
Standing there, bare feet upon cold linoleum, the past seemed more real than the present. I remembered your room in the old part of the college, its grey stone walls and tiny leaded windows. I visioned you standing by the two-ring Belling cooker, frying purple aubergines in olive oil, swaying with such grace to ‘That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ sung by Judy Collins, that loose hanging lilac cotton dress resting on your bare shoulders, your arms animated as you spoke. Those lithe Grecian legs, strong but classically beautiful, your elegant feet wrapped within the delicate strips of your brown leather sandals. I used to call your skin ‘ecclesiastic’ because it reminded me of pure white parchment. It served you well though, hiding the long thin scars inflicted with a razor blade, fragments of your history written on your body at times of adolescent confusion, when your distant parents were clumsily prolonging the agony of their failing marriage.
I went to my bedroom and poured over your letters, having kept them all in a special wooden box in my study. They had stopped abruptly thirty years ago when you met someone else. I was in the throes of enacting my own little tragedy of loss, wandering around the Greek Islands. Always you used special paper, but scribed them with a gentler blade. The flow being of cold blue ink, not warm consoling blood. Each envelope and epistle was still imbued with the subtle traces of perfumes, which you always doused our correspondence with. I found a single white sheet of handmade paper, slightly mottled like human flesh, upon which was etched a poem in ancient Greek. I breathed in the odour of sweet roses, once more I was intoxicated. The act summoning your essence, flooding me like a drug as my lips felt the ghost of your kiss.
That afternoon I had a tutorial at Magdalene College with Cecile, known to younger students as Professor Dorey, but we mature learners were given the more personal privilege of a Christian name. We were to review my essay on the controversial Cambridge classics scholar Jane Harrison and the origins of the myth of Pandora’s Box, part of the feminist studies evening class I had enrolled on. There appeared to be two different versions of the story, one blaming all the worlds’ ills on Pandora, the Greek equivalent of Eve, I remember you giggling with delight when you discovered that the box was actually opened by Epimethius, a man, and the other depicting the box as releasing a more balanced mixture of consequences. The first version came from an era of Greek culture that was overwhelmingly patriarchal, but the second, according to Harrison, appeared to have been written in a preceding age of matriarchal dominance. I was told that my work was progressing well and was of a very high quality. The tutorial finished I produced the single white sheet of handmade paper from my folder and handed it to Cecile.
“I was wondering if you could translate this for me. So far I have gleaned the words ‘musician and coax’ but that’s as far as I can go with my limited knowledge of classical Greek.”
She took it in her hand and studied it quietly.
“It’s beautiful,” she commented.
“I would say that whoever wrote this was in love,” she said smiling.
“Would you like me to read it to you,” she asked, eyes raised and peering over the rims of her glasses.
“Yes I would please,” I replied.
“You coaxed me with musician’s fingertips to the point of slow cessation where the sublime transformed the monotone into one long singing note of gentle tremulous murmurings lifting me high up to a plateau of wild ascendancies where gentle rain fell from a lover’s sky upon searing reddened flesh cooling the raised temperatures of exalted passions.”
The first salt tear began to cut a furrow in my cheek, burning hot into my skin. This single stream of lachrymae, soon joined by others, formed a pool that collected around my chin. Heavy drops fell, splashing a growing patch of darkness on the fabric of my tee shirt. Yet I was smiling. You would have liked this, my usual blend of paradox. Like when I told you I loved you but wondered at what possible future there could ever be for us, desperately wanting the haven of your intimacy but fearing engulfment in our intensity.
I walked down to the river that evening and sat myself upon its grassy bank, dangling my bare feet in the moving waters of the Cherwell, feeling the hold of its cold spiralling current around my ankles. I drank red wine from a bottle, as was our custom. As I thought of the hidden scars on your legs a few drops of crimson dripped from the corner of my mouth, splashing onto my bare thigh. I rubbed them slowly into my skin with my fingertips, smiling at the thought of you dressed in white, shepherding your flock.
This page was amended on 25/09/2012
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