Authors: A.S. Byatt
Mrs Brown has always had an awkward habit of presuming to give the family gifts. She possesses a knitting-machine,
which Hooker got off the back of a lorry, and she is also good with knitting needles, crochet-hooks, embroidery silks and tapestry (not often, these two last, they are too expensive). She makes all her own clothes, out of whatever comes to hand, old plush curtains, Arab blankets, parachute silk, his own discarded trousers. She makes them flamboyantly, with patches and fringes and braid and bizarre buttons. The epitome of tat, Robin considers, and he has to consider, for she always strikes the eye, in a magenta and vermilion overall over salmon-pink crepe pantaloons, in a lime-green shift with black lacy inserts. This would not be so bad, if she didn’t make, hadn’t made for years, awful jumpers for Natasha and Jamie, awful rainbow jumpers in screaming hues, candy-striped jumpers, jumpers with bobble-cherries bouncing on them, long peculiar rainbow scarves in fluffy angora, all sickly ice-cream colours. Robin tells Debbie these things must be sent back
, his children can’t be seen
in them. The children are ambivalent, depending on age and circumstances. Jamie wore out one jumper with red engines and blue cows when he was six and would not be parted from it. Natasha in her early teens had an unexpected success at
a disco in a kind of dayglo fringed bolero (acid yellow, salmon pink, swimming-pool blue) but has rejected other offerings with her father’s fastidious distaste. The real sufferer is Debbie, whose imagination is torn all ways. She knows from her own childhood exactly how it feels to wear clothes one doesn’t like, isn’t comfortable and invisible in, is embarrassed by. She also believes very strongly that there is more true kindness and courtesy in accepting gifts gratefully and enthusiastically than in making them. And, more selfishly, she simply cannot do without Mrs Brown, she needs Mrs Brown, her breakfast table is ornamented with patchwork teacosies contributed by Mrs Brown, her study chairs have circular cushions knitted in sugar-pink and orange by Mrs Brown. Mrs Brown stands in Debbie’s study door sometimes and expounds her colour theory.
‘They always told us, didn’t they, the teachers and grans, orange and pink, they make you blink, blue and green should not be seen, mauve and red cannot be wed, but I say, they’re all there, the colours, God made ‘em all, and mixes ‘em all in His creatures, what exists goes together somehow or other, don’t you think, Mrs Dennison?’
‘Well, yes, but there are rules too, you know, Mrs Brown, how to get certain effects, there are
, complementary colours and things
‘I’m learning all that.
tells me, when I move his things by accident, or whatever. Fascinating.’
Mrs Brown’s yellow face is long, unsmiling and judicious. She adds, ‘If Jamie’s got no use for that nice sky-blue tank-top I did for him I’ll have it back if you don’t mind, I’ve got a use for a bit of sky-blue.’
it, Mrs Brown, it’s just a wee bit tight under the armpits, you understand …’
‘As I said, I’ve got a use for a bit of sky-blue.’
Implacably. Debbie feels terrible. Mrs Brown goes through Jamie’s drawers and points out that there are holes in his red sweat-shirt, that those rugger socks are shockingly shrunk, look at those tiddly feet. She puts them in a plastic dustbin bag. Debbie adds a cocktail dress she made a mistake about, mulberry shot silk, and two of Robin’s ties, presents from his auntie Nem, which he will never wear, because they are a horrible mustard colour with plummy flowers.
says Mrs Brown, holding them up like captured eels, and adding them to her spoils. She is mollified,
Debbie thinks, the mulberry dress has mollified her. She balks at knowing what Mrs Brown will do with the mulberry dress.
Robin Dennison’s ‘fetishes’ have a table of their own, a white-painted wooden table, very simple. Once they were mantelpiece ‘things’ but as they took on their status of ‘fetishes’ they were given this solidly unassuming English altar. What they have in common is a certain kind of glossy, very brightly coloured solidity. They are the small icons of a cult of colour. They began with the soldier, who cost 5/6 when Robin was little, and is made of painted wood, with red trousers and a blue jacket and a tall, bulbous, black wooden bearskin. His red is fading cherry-crimson, his blue is a fading colour between royal and ultramarine. He has a gold strap under his wooden chin and a pair of hectic pink circular spots on his wooden cheeks. Robin does not often paint him now—he cannot clear him of his double connotations of militarism and infantilism, and he loves him for neither of these, but because he was his first model for slivers of shine on rounded surfaces. Sometimes Robin paints his
into little crowds of the other things.
Some of the other things are pure representations of single colours. Of these, two are gloss—a cobalt-blue candlestick from the glassworks at Biot, and a round heavy grass-green, golden-green apple made by Wedgwood, greener and greener in its depths. The yellow thing was much the most expensive. It is not pure yellow as the candlestick is blue, and the apple is green, it is sunny-yellow, butter-yellow, buttercup-yellow with a blue rim, a reproduction sauceboat from Monet’s self-designed breakfast service for his house at Giverny. It cost £50 which Robin did not have, but spent, he wanted
yellow so much. He did not really want the sauce-boat, but anything else he wanted cost money which even in his madness he saw he didn’t have. Robin in his fit of educating Mrs Brown observes to her that the blue rim makes the yellow colour sing out because the colours are almost complementary. He would, however, still like to find a yellow thing without the blue. There is no orange thing either. Robin often stands an orange and a lemon amongst the things, to make the colours complete, and Mrs Brown’s habit of moving these, or even throwing them away when they begin to soften and
darken and grow patches of sage-green, blue-specked mould, is one of the things that makes Robin see red and roar.
Purple is represented by a rather sweet hand-made china sculpture of a round bowl of violets. These are both pale mauve and deep purple; they have a few, not many, green leaves in a wishy-washy apple colour, and their container is a softly-glazed black. Sometimes Robin leaves the leaves out, when he doesn’t want that colour. He knows the fetishes so well, he can allow for the effect of the leaves on the violets. Sometimes he wishes the leaves weren’t there and sometimes he
them fit into his colour-scheme with delicate shifts of tones and accommodations in other places. There was a problem with red for years and years. There was a banal red German plate, modern and utilitarian, a good strong red, that stood in, but could not make itself sing out or be loved. When Robin found the present red thing he felt very uneasy because he knew immediately it was the, or a,
, and at the same time he didn’t like it. He still doesn’t. Like the poor soldier, but in more sinister ways, it has too much meaning. He found it in a Chinese bric-a-brac shop, in a dump-bin with hundreds
of others. It is a large red, heart-shaped pincushion, plumply and gleamingly covered in a poppy-red silk which is
what he wants, at once soft and shining, delicate and glossy. It had a vulgar white lace frill, like a choir-boy’s collar, which Robin took off. Sometimes he puts into it some of his grandmother’s old hatpins, imitation jewels, or lumps of jet. But he doesn’t quite like this, it borders on the surrealist, and though he senses that
interesting, it also worries him. He did buy a box of multi-coloured glass-headed pins which he occasionally displays in a random scattering shape, or, once, a tight half-moon.
Besides the single-coloured things, there are a few, a very few, multi-coloured things. A 1950s Venetian glass tree, picked up in a second-hand shop, bearing little round fruits of many colours—emerald green, ruby and dark sapphire, amethyst and topaz. A pottery jug from Deruta with a huge triangular beak-like spout, covered with bright round-petalled childish flowers in all the colours, and a pair of chirpy primitive singing-birds, in brown. A pot, also from Deruta, with a tawny-gold and blue-crested grotesque merman, or human-headed dragon, bearded and breathing a comma-shaped cloud
of russet fire. There is a kite on the wall, a Korean kite in puce and yellow and blue and green and scarlet, and there are two large Chinese silk pipe-cleaner birds, crested and flaunting long tails, one predominantly crimson, with a yellow and aquamarine crest, one blue and green. The birds, too, the most fragile things, are a point of contention between Robin and Mrs Brown. She says they collect dust. He says she bends their legs and squashes their down and interferes with the way they turn their necks to preen. She says, they don’t balance, the way he fixes them. Once she balanced one on the bough of the glass tree. There was a sulk that lasted weeks, and Mrs Brown talked of leaving.
It was after Debbie patched up this difference that Robin explained to Mrs Brown about red and green. He moved the apple back next to the pincushion, and redeployed the violets in front of the Monet sauceboat, beside the cobalt-blue candlestick, which was shaped a little like a gentian, a tall cup on a stem. Mrs Brown’s preference was for standing the fetishes in a rainbow line, from infra-red to ultra-violet, so to speak. Robin said,
‘Certain combinations have certain effects. For instance
the opposition of yellow and violet, blue and orange, that can appear
in a way, because natural shadows are blue or violet. Light and shade, you see? Whereas red and green, if you put them next to each other—sometimes you can see a kind of dancing yellow line where they meet—and this isn’t to do with light and shade, it’s to do, possibly, with the fact that if you
certain reds to certain greens you can
yellow, which you would never have guessed.’
‘Geraniums are natural,’ said Mrs Brown.
Robin stared at her abstractedly.
‘Natural red and green. They don’t make yellow.’
,’ said Robin, pushing together the soft heart and the hard apple. He could see the dance of unreal yellow. He was entranced.
‘Hmn,’ said Mrs Brown.
‘Can you see yellow?’
‘Well, a sort of, how shall I say, a sort of wriggling, a sort of shimmering. I see what you mean.’
‘I try to make that happen, in the paintings.’
‘So I see. It’s interesting, once I know what you’re up to.’
The sentence was a concession, unsmiling, not wholly
gracious. She accepted that he had given her what he could, the battle was, she obviously considered, won, and by her. Robin was relieved, really. He was not so far out of touch with real life that he could not sense Debbie’s fear of losing Mrs Brown. So he had given Mrs Brown his secret vision of the yellow line. Mrs Brown went out, head high. She was wearing a kind of orange and green camouflage Afro-wrapper, and a pink headband.
Shona McRury telephones. She asks to speak to Debbie, who has in fact answered the phone, and spends a long time congratulating Debbie on an article on feminist art in
A Woman’s Place
, an article about the amorphous things that women make that do not claim the ‘authority’ of ‘art-works’, the undignified things women ‘frame’ that male artists have never noticed, tampons and nappies but not only those, and the painted interior cavities of women, not the soft fleshy desirable superficies explored/exploited by men. Debbie has made a lovely centre-spread of the crayon drawings of an artist called Brenda Murphy, who works in the kitchen with
her children, using
materials, crayons and felt-tips on paper, creating works that are a savage and loving commentary on their lives together. Shona asks Debbie if she knows if Ms Murphy has an agent or a gallery, and Debbie answers abstractedly, praises the interesting variety, the eclectic brilliance of Callisto’s shows, and is rewarded by Shona McRury’s request to see Debbie’s husband’s work, which is so
, she thinks, she just loves that mysteriously funny little painting in Toby’s loo, a jewel in a desert. Debbie thinks a jewel in a desert is a good phrase, but is not sure the idea of
bodes well. Robin is, she recognises, somewhat humourless in his driven state. But she fixes something exact, for this coming Wednesday, without consulting Robin. Robin is perturbed and threatened by the closeness of Wednesday, as Debbie has foreseen. She becomes ever so slightly minatory, and at the same time plaintive. ‘It isn’t so easy to get a chance of getting the work seen by a gallery, you can’t just pick and choose your moments or you end up with
, as you ought to know by now, and I’ve done my best for you, I pinned her down, you have to, she’s so busy, even with the best will in the world …’
Robin condescends, in terror, to have his work viewed.
Shona McRury has topaz eyes and long, silky brown hair, like a huge ribbon, caught up at the back with a tortoiseshell comb. She wears topaz ear-rings, little spheres on gold chains, that exactly match her eyes, and an olive silk suit, with a loose jacket and a pleated skirt, over a lemon-yellow silk shirt, all of which tone in impeccably with her eyes. (Debbie who is now a professional in these matters sees immediately how the whole delicate and powerful effect is constructed around the eyes, reinforced by a subtle powdering of olive and gold shadow shot with a sharper green, almost malachite.) She climbs up to Robin’s attic on dark-green lizard-skin shoes. Between the lizard skin and the olive silk are slightly golden metallic stockings on legs not quite beautiful, too thin, too straight. Robin goes first, then Shona McRury, then Debbie, then Mrs Brown, with a bottle of chilled Sauvignon and three glasses on a Japanese lacquer tray. Mrs Brown is wearing her bird-of-paradise upholstery trousers and a patchwork shirt in rainbow colours, stitched together with red feather-stitching. Although
she has not brought herself a glass, she positions herself inside the studio door for the showing, and makes no attempt to go away, staring with sombre interest at Shona McRury’s elegance and Robin’s canvases.