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Authors: Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond: Stories

BOOK: Pond: Stories
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Pond

Claire-Louise Bennett

Stories

The Stinging Fly

For now in every exuberant joy there is heard an undertone of terror, or else a wistful lament over an irrecoverable loss. It is as though… a sentimental trait of nature were bemoaning the fact of her fragmentation, her decomposition into separate individuals.

Friedrich Nietzsche,
The Birth of Tragedy

Could it be that any apartment, any one at all, might eventually become a burrow? Would any place eventually welcome me into its dim, warm, reassuring, kindly light?

Natalia Ginzburg,
A Place to Live

Wolves in shells are crueller than stray ones.

Gaston Bachelard,
The Poetics of Space

Voyage in the Dark

First of all, it seemed to us that you were very handsome. And the principal windows of your house were perfectly positioned to display a blazing reflection at sunset. One evening while walking back from the fields this effect was so dramatic we thought your rooms were burning. We liked nothing better than to rake the tinkling gravel on your drive, then to climb an impeccable tree along its passage and wait. We would hear the engine loud in the valley, followed by a thrilling silence within which we would wave our boots and imagine the leather grip of your hands upon the steering wheel, left and right. Oh, but we were only little girls, little girls, there on the cusp of female individuation, not little girls for long. The other two hung back by the brook with cups on sticks while I made my way over the wall into your ornamental garden, laid down upon the unfeasible grass and fell to sleep wrapped about a lilac seashell, which was of course my most cherished possession.

Morning, Noon & Night

Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe—in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take at all well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort. The rough sort of oatcake goes especially well with a banana by the way—by the way, the banana might be chilled slightly. This can occur in the fridge overnight of course, depending on how prescient and steadfast one is about one’s morning victuals, or, it might be, and this in fact is much more preferable, there’s a nice cool windowsill where a bowl especially for fruit can always be placed.

A splendid deep wide sill with no wooden overlay, just the plastered stone, nice and chilly: the perfect place for a bowl. Even a few actually, a few bowls in fact. The sill’s that big it can accommodate three sizeable bowls very well without appearing the least bit encumbered. It’s quite pleasant, then,
to unpack the pannier bags and arrange everything intently in the bowls upon the sill. Aubergine, squash, asparagus and small vine tomatoes look terribly swish together and it’s no surprise at all that anyone would experience a sudden urge at any time during the day to sit down at once and attempt with a palette and brush to convey the exotic patina of such an irrepressible gathering of illustrious vegetables, there on the nice cool windowsill.

Pears don’t mix well. Pears should always be small and organised nose to tail in a bowl of their very own and perhaps very occasionally introduced to a stem of the freshest redcurrants, which ought not to be hoisted like a mantle across the freckled belly of the topmost pear, but strewn a little further down so that some of the scarlet berries loll and bask between the slowly shifting gaps.

Bananas and oatcakes are by the way a very satisfactory substitute for those mornings when the time for porridge has quite suddenly passed. If a neighbour has been overheard or the towels folded the day’s too far in and porridge, at this point, will feel vertical and oppressive, like a gloomy repast from the underworld. As such, in all likelihood, a submerged stump of resentment will begin to perk up right at the first mouthful and will very likely preside dumbly over the entire day. Until, finally, at around four o’clock, it becomes unfairly but inevitably linked to someone close by, to a particular facet of their behaviour in fact, a perpetually irksome facet that can be readily isolated and enlarged and thereupon pinpointed as the prime cause of this most foreboding sense of resentment, which has been on the rise, inexplicably, all day, since that first mouthful of porridge.

Some sort of black jam in the middle of porridge is very nice,
very striking in fact. And then a few flaked almonds. Be careful though, be very careful with flaked almonds; they are not at all suitable for morose or fainthearted types and shouldn’t be flung about like confetti because almonds are not in the least like confetti. On the contrary, flaked almonds ought not to touch one another and should be organised in simple patterns, as on the side of a pavlova, and then they are quite pretty and perfectly innocuous. But shake out a palmful of flaked almonds and you’ll see they closely resemble fingernails that have come away from a hand which has just seen the light of day.

Black jam and blanched fingernails, slowly sinking into the oozing burgoo! Lately, in the mornings, Ravel, played several times over, has been a very nice accompaniment indeed. And this, for now, is how, with minor variations, the day begins.

My own nails are doing very well as a matter of fact, indeed, I’m not sure they have ever done better. If you must know I painted them in the kitchen last Wednesday after lunch, and the shade I painted them right there in the kitchen is called Highland Mist. Which is a very good name, a very apt name, as it turns out. Because, you see, the natural colour of my nail, both the white part and the pink part, is still just about visible beneath the polish, it hasn’t been completely obscured. And as time passes the polish doesn’t chip away as such, it just sort of thins out around the edges, so now, as well as being able to see the white part and the pink part, the soot beneath the tips is also clearly visible. There, through the mist, which is of course the colour of heather, I can see coal dust beneath my fingernails. When the nails aren’t painted at all this dirt has no other effect besides looking grubby and unkempt, but under the thinning sheen of Highland Mist something further occurs to me when I consider my hands. They look like the hands of someone very
charming and refined who has had to dig themselves up out of some dank and wretched spot they really shouldn’t have fallen into. And that amuses me, that really amuses me.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be entirely unwarranted to suggest that I might, overall, have the appearance and occasionally emanate the demeanour of someone who grows things. That’s to say, I might, from time to time, be considered earthy in its most narrow application. However, truth is, I have propagated very little and possess only a polite curiosity for horticultural endeavours. It’s quite true that bright green parsley grows out of a pot near my door but I did not grow it from seed, not at all—I simply bought it already sprouted from a nearby supermarket, turned the plant out its plastic carton and shoved its compacted network of roots and soil here, into the pot next to my door.

Prior to that, some years ago, when I lived near the canal, I could plainly see from my bedroom window a most idyllic piece of land, encircled by the gardens of houses in back-to-back streets which thereby rendered it landlocked and enticing. It seemed impossible to get to the garden yet when I tore after a cat early one day he led me directly to it, whereupon he skedaddled sharpish and left me a tortured wren to cradle and fold. The wren had sung above my head for many weeks in the sunshine while I wrote letters in the morning and so it was only natural for me to cry out when I found it maimed and silent on the moss beneath the privet hedge. I was so upset I wanted to take that cat to a hot pan and sear its foul backside in an explosion of oil. I’ll make you hiss you little shit. Never mind. I was in the garden that nobody owned or imposed upon and now that I had come here once I could come here again, surely. That’s how it worked when I was a child anyhow, and I don’t suppose these matters change a great deal.

I made sly enquiries just as a child does but unfortunately in contrast to a child I was listened to rather too attentively and so I quickly devised a wholesome reason for wishing to know who owned the land and whether I might visit it from time to time. It would be a very excellent place to grow things I’m sure, I said and despite having never demonstrated any enthusiasm for gardening before and despite my statement of interest being really rather vague my proposition was taken seriously and since it turned out the land was in fact owned by the Catholic Church I was directed to the large house on the corner where the parish priest himself resided. This development was not something I had foreseen, truth be told I’d had no purposeful intentions. I think I just fancied the idea of having a secluded place to stand about in now and then, a secret garden if you like. And I should never have said a word about it because as usual the minute I did it all became quite misshapen and not what I had in mind at all, and yet there was something so alien and absurd about how it was all progressing that I couldn’t help but go right along with it.

He was pleasantly perfunctory and did not mention anything at all about God, though he did enunciate the word bounty rather pointedly, but I didn’t flinch. Where do you live, he said. Over in that house there, I said, and pointed through the window at a house across the road. He didn’t look in the direction of my finger, it was quite sufficient for him that I could stand where I was and at the same time point to my house, and so it was settled. I do not remember the interior of the priest’s house. I think the wallpaper in the hallway might have been sage green. It could be the case that I went in no further than the hallway. Perhaps I just stood at the door on the street looking in at the hallway. And then down at the plastic
step. Yes, I believe he was wearing trainers in fact.

Clearing a decent area of ground and making it ready for planting potatoes was hard and monotonous work added to which early spring tends to be rather humid here and indeed it was so that particular year. I do not know fully what drove me to deracinate thick and fuzzy weeds like that every day in the premature heat. I often stopped and stood quite still, wondering what hopes my mind had just then been taken up with, but I could seldom recall. However, in spite of my own bemusement, for the first time in my adult life other people knew exactly what I was doing. It was as plain as day to them. I’d come back with the tools and lean them against the house wall and go inside to wash my hands and it would be quite clear to anyone who saw me what I had been doing that day. I believe during that period people were, notwithstanding two or three specific incidents, conspicuously more agreeable towards me.

As with most mensurable areas of life I demonstrated no ambition whatsoever as a grower and selected to cultivate low-maintenance crops only. Potatoes, spinach, and broad beans. That was it. That was enough. People told me what a cinch it was to grow courgettes, squash, marrow, carrots, but nothing had changed really—I hadn’t suddenly become a gardener, and I resented being spoken to as though I had. The plants were coming on quite nicely when I received an invitation to speak at a very eminent university across the water upon a subject I was very interested in indeed—though not necessarily in a meritorious way. That’s to say my interest was far too personal and not strictly academic and so my methodology came across as nostalgic and my perspective rather naive since I ignored the usual critical frameworks which were anyhow quite incomprehensible to me and instead pilfered haphazardly from
the entire history of Western literature in order to strengthen my argument, which I cannot now recall. It had something to do with love. About the essential brutality of love. About those adventitious souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation. Yes, that’s right. It attempted to show that in the whole history of literature love is quite routinely depicted as an engulfing process of ecstatic suffering which finally, mercifully, obliterates us and delivers us to oblivion. Dismembered and packed off. Something like that. Something along those lines. I am mad about you. I am going out of my mind. My soul burns for you. I am inflamed. There is nothing now, nothing except you. Gone, quite gone. That kind of thing. I don’t think it went down very well.

In fact I think it was considered rather unsophisticated and I remember feeling, despite my new floral chemise, suddenly sullen and practically Gothic. Actually, now that I come to think of it, I think the gist of my argument was simply that love is indeed a vicious and divine disintegration of selfhood and that artistic representations of it as such aren’t at all uncommon or outlandish and have nothing whatsoever to do with endeavouring to shock an audience. There was an awful lot of violence you see in the work of the playwright the conference was reputedly reassessing and by and large that violence had hitherto been widely interpreted as nothing more than a dramatic strategy designed to shock, which I could never quite accept because how on earth is there anything shocking about violence? Anyway, I must confess, in order to establish a perennial language of love that testified to the abominable emancipation that is brought on by want of another I did in fact reference not only Sappho, Seneca, Novalis, Roland Barthes, Denis de Rougement and Dutch historian Johan Huizinga
I also included lyrics by PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, with the somewhat misplaced intention of demonstrating that it just never stops. That the desire to come apart irrevocably will always be as strong, if not stronger, than the drive to establish oneself.
As deep as ink and black, black as the deepest sea
.

Afterwards, when people were milling about and nodding in little groups, and I wasn’t sure which of the several exits to make immediate use of, one of the academic big guns approached me and commented upon my paper. This all happened several years ago by the way—and I’m not absolutely sure why I’m recounting it here since it hardly situates me in a very flattering light—anyway, I don’t recall exactly what he said to me, but it was exceedingly condescending and I very very clearly remember thinking why don’t you fall over. Why don’t you become tangled in some cables near the screen at the front on your way out and fall over and why don’t you smack your head off a very sharp corner of the desk where earlier I sat and delivered my oh so charming missive and cut your head open ever so slightly so that a little bit of blood drops out. Just a little trickle of blood so that you don’t look injured, only stupid and a bit iffy. Thank you very much, I said. And suddenly my back went cold so I deduced that the outside must after all be right there behind me; I turned around and walked towards it and very soon the ground did in fact change. It was wet and the car park was almost empty and smelt exclusively of dishcloths.

I may as well mention that I was staying with a girl I’d met in London the previous year. She was a very gifted academic and her ability to formulate a rousing opinion in response to something that had just happened or had just been said never ceased to impress and baffle me. How anyone could sally forth thoughts that were unfailingly well-formed and de rigeur, so
soon and in any situation, was quite beyond me. She lived in a terrace house with several other postgraduate students, one of whom was a bloke as a matter of fact, and later, when my friend had gone to bed, he came into the sitting room where I sat with a large book flopped in my lap and put a hot water bottle underneath my toes. We didn’t kiss then; we kissed later, a few weeks later. I flew home first and then we wrote to each other and then we really needed to see each other. So I went back, and then we kissed.

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