Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (5 page)

BOOK: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
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He just ran away to Copenhagen, and became a great writer all on his own. His
Fairy Tales
is my favourite book. No wonder, I was named for one of them, Gerda, the hero of ‘The
Snow Queen’, who was brave and went off On Her Own around the world

So that encouraged me in my plan.


I had more advantages than my own mother. Which is partly why I’ve done better than her. Of course I’ve passed them on to Gerda. That child doesn’t know how lucky she is.

I suppose she might actually do better than me!

I couldn’t be jealous of my own daughter.


These girls at school started calling me fat. I was going through a sturdy phase. They can all shut up, I like my food, and I know I’ll be beautiful in the end. My mum and dad always told me I was, and two boys fought over me at St Mark’s. But then these girls did something really bad, and I had to pull one of them’s hair quite hard, and two of them fell in the swimming pool, after I gave them a tiny shove.

I may be fat, but I’m quite strong. I’d forgotten one of them couldn’t swim.

So then I was in a lot of trouble. But it wasn’t fair to call me a bully. I tried to tell my mum what had happened but I know from her emails she didn’t take it in – ‘Marvellous, Gerda, I’m glad you’re having fun.’

I love my mum but she’s slightly defective. Which is a word she uses for Dad. Or men in general. My mum is Sexist! Although she tells me not to be.

I am recording criticisms, in a notebook I aim to leave in my room in the holidays, so she can read it.

In fact that wouldn’t work at all, because I don’t think Mum’s a sneak. In fact she couldn’t be arsed to sneak.

Meaning, she isn’t that interested.

Only because she has so much ‘Pressure’. She talks a lot about ‘Stress’ and ‘Pressure’.

Being successful is a ‘Pressure’!

She should go back to being poor again.

(I take that back, she needs money for ME.)

So I will have to read my list aloud. Possibly at bed-time, when she’s tired. She gives readings, so will I.

Later I’ll be more famous than her. Har har har on Mum.

I do love her though. I don’t mind admitting it.

I like her when she tickles me, and when I lie down and she pulls my feet, which sounds perverted, but is Normal. I liked her to do that since I was a baby, and when she hasn’t got Pressure, she will.

Mummy. Mum. She’s in my heart. But the words have started to feel weird and echo-ey. As if she’s floated off somewhere, or both of us are floating away.

(Maybe I’ll start to call her ‘Mother’. That word’s like an enemy.)



Zoos are always remarkably expensive. I don’t want to sound mean-spirited, but it didn’t seem to have occurred to Virginia that someone was having to pay for it: $40 is not nothing!

I’m not asking for much, just a ‘thank you’.


The zoo crouched close to Fifth Avenue. A short walk across a burst of green. The architecture was … suburban. Some of those people were staring at me.

It was frightening to see how much things cost. I pretended not to notice her paying. I had no money, no money at all.

This expensive zoo was small and old. This couldn’t be the future, surely? London Zoo was so much larger. Those iron cages looked Victorian. Again I thought ‘It’s just a dream.’

But the American voices were so loud and real, and the light was sharp in the woman’s wrinkles. Her mouth was tight as she searched for the dollars. There were fat children eating coloured ice creams. One of them looked at me and giggled.

I liked to know what I earned, as a writer. But when we went out together, Leonard paid.


‘Poor polar bear. So huge and yellow. It looks sort of … left behind. I can’t help feeling sorry for it.’


The woman was jumping to conclusions.

‘It would devour you. One swipe of its paw.
Pif, paf!
You would be gone.’


Thank you.


A second later, it had slipped into its pond, and an African keeper said ‘Hurry downstairs,’ where we found a wide window under the water, and almost before we had got used to the dark and the bright blue oblong of glass beside us, a massive turbine of white and yellow erupted against the stillness, and two pink paw-pads pressed at the window before the bear forged back up to the surface – immense power, effortless – a swirl of bright bubbles like a cape of minnows. I felt to my marrow the thrill of life. I was there, I saw it. I was alive.

And yet, that wall of glass between us. A line where two universes collide. The bear was totally indifferent to us.

Of course, I wanted to tell Leonard.


She was enjoying herself, I know. Her eyes brightened. She was walking fast.

We loved the underground viewing window for the penguins! I had only ever seen them above ground. Hobbity creatures with a comic waddle. Swimming, they were unbelievably swift – straight as an arrow, aerodynamic. So fast that when they shot up to the surface they took off out of the water like birds!

The first time it happened Virginia hooted, we stood there together and laughed with pleasure – a line of tiny planes
taking off, kids shooting off the end of a slide. I thought, Gerda would love the penguins. And as I thought it, my iPhone pinged.

Guilt. Of course it would be Gerda. The email was short and to the point. ‘What are you DOING? I miss you, Fish Face.’

Darling Gerda. I emailed back, ‘Doing my duty. Are you in a lesson?’ I was going to add more, I really was, but when I looked up, Virginia was gone.

I found her outside in the late sunlight, watching a rocky island in a lake where two blond monkeys were pressed together. Delicate ears, bright pink faces. One moment wrestling, the next caressing. Maybe they were lovers, or brother and sister, or both, but they lived in a world of two.

Virginia didn’t acknowledge my presence. She watched the monkeys, far away.

still not looking at Angela

‘I blame myself. I abandoned him. I thought he might work better without me.’

too quickly, wanting to help

‘Leonard did work. Don’t torment yourself.’

One monkey leaped on the other’s back, mounting it, briefly, then stroked or cuffed the underling’s head. For a while they nuzzled and licked each other. All the time Virginia was watching them. Two strands of grey hair whipped across her face, blowing across her wounded mouth.

I felt protective, but her eyes flashed back at me.


‘What do you mean? What do you know? Why are you calling my husband “Leonard”?’

(The woman dares to know more than me, she knows everything about my husband –

I’m a wicked woman. I left him, left him)


‘I know – Mr Woolf – wrote many books. And – people loved him.’


‘So he did go on. He did his work. I wanted nothing more than that.’

(And yet, that furious stab of hurt.)

This stupid, unfamiliar place. The poor monkeys, on their barren island. Yet they are happy because they are two. Grooming each other, chattering, tickling, playing at tag – so once did we.

If only you were here, my love. We could walk out and face them arm in arm. He would take my hand, if we were alone, and we would walk under the elms together. Somewhere, perhaps, we are walking still. If I had woken before he died, I know I could have found him again, just a little older, a few years sadder …

I will not deign to ask her about him, this yellow-haired, vulgar-looking, fat-breasted woman with her harlot’s painted lips and eyes. How did I get trapped with her? She has nothing to do with me!

Where are my friends, who understand? Who would have helped him after I …

But they are gone, if he is gone.

And oh, Vanessa. Lytton. Vita. Even poor old Ethel, and Clive. Dear familiar names and faces. Must I be thrown among common strangers?

Another, separate, point of pain. For oh my Angelica – beloved niece, fairy child with a mouth like your mother’s – it is not bearable if
are dead.

When I left her she wasn’t even a woman. Pixerina, with her fairy kisses. Angelica. Are you gone, my dear? Just for a moment she’s here beside me, sunlight on her cap of pale hair, blue eyes wide and far away, she could never sit still, she’s tugging my hand.

Child, did it go well for you?

The pain again: that her life should end. That girl in white, dancing in the garden. Running to me in my chair for a hug. Her arms round my neck like a wreath of pale flowers. We threw sugar lumps down for the big-rumped horses from my balcony in Gordon Square …

No, every fibre of my soul refuses.

‘Why did I come back? Couldn’t they leave me be? I want … I want … I want to go home – ’


‘Let’s just see the sea lions. Then, I promise, I’ll get you home.’

I only meant ‘to our hotel’. But as I said it I remembered my promise, my foolish promise in the Berg Collection. The thing I had whispered under my breath, and the next moment, she was there. ‘Virginia, I’ll take you home …’

Was that the hook that had hauled her up? Had I just wanted to feast on her?

‘Please come, honestly, you’ll like the seals.’

She didn’t say ‘Yes’, but her shoulders sagged and the wild look vanished from her eyes. She walked beside me to the sea lions’ island, a barren rock in the middle of water. Close up it was entirely artificial, a man-made hill of fake golden-brown sandstone, built with a spiral track to the top.

Did they keep two different species of sea lion together?
We saw one massive yellow-gold gleaming creature, a bit like a legless elephant. It sat on the shore, unable to move. Then there were two slick dark ones – no three slick dark ones – streaking like submarines through the water, slim and playful, black princes of speed. The light dripped off them as they climbed from the water, muscular flippers scything the sand.

We watched, Virginia and I, as the sun began to leave the hill. We watched the seals climb after it. Soon the black princes had outpaced the band of shadow that seeped up to eat the sunlight, lolloping up like three black rubber brackets, squeezing, unsqueezing, unstoppable. Now they were performing yoga twists to a clapping human audience, necks swinging round like oiled silk, heads pointing back to the dark behind them. I was excited. I joined in the clapping! Then I looked at Virginia, my own neck turning a little stiffly – I’d been neglecting my personal training – and saw her face was strained and grey. I stretched my hand out without thinking, I’m almost sure I didn’t actually touch her –


‘Get away from me! You’ve – kidnapped me.’


American heads stopped watching the seals and turned to stare. She had really shouted. Some of the faces looked accusing. Instantly I too got angry. ‘It’s not my fault. You just –
. You just
showed up
in the Berg Collection. It’s actually a restricted library. You didn’t even have a ticket.’

Absurd of me, of course, to reproach her for intruding in a library that’s mostly famous for having her books. Hers and Nabokov’s.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean … ’

Then something quite surprising happened, as if she realised

I was all she had.

‘I too am sorry. I should not have shouted.’

There was a pause. We both breathed deeply. The sea lion acrobats were still performing, tireless, youthful, competitive.


‘The library – yes, I remember that. But there’s something before. Long years of – something. Everything’s dark. I can’t focus.

‘And suddenly, you’re always here. I do not mean to be ungrateful. But I never knew you, did I, before?’


Now Virginia’s voice was low, and her lips (so beautiful, that sculpted curve, and she, unlike me, was not wearing lipstick) were almost back to their normal colour. The look she turned on me was beseeching. Yet she was saying she didn’t trust me.

‘I’m just a reader. I was in the library. Your manuscripts are there, for people to study. I was reading you, or trying to – ’ (when I said I was reading her, Virginia looked up) – ‘that library doesn’t make it easy. I wanted to read you so very badly – ’


‘People still read me? You still read me?’


‘And then you just materialised. And the librarians threw you out.’

It sounded brutal. She looked offended. I changed the subject, hastily. Perhaps it was time to talk about me. An enormous man in an anorak had planted himself in front of me, blocking my view with his wide grey back, his fat pink
neck, carroty curls.

‘I’m not just a reader, in fact. I’m a writer.’

Was Virginia listening?

The man walked backwards to take a photo, planting his elbow in my stomach. ‘Excuse me, ma’am.’ His face was unlined, genial.


‘People still read me in the twenty-first century?’


‘I was just saying, I write too. Of course, you won’t have heard of me …

‘Never mind. I read you, yes. You ought to know that everyone reads you. ’

not listening, turning away

‘My last book was a failure, a disaster.’ Leonard denied it but I saw it in his eyes. I knew that my worst fears were true –


Between the Acts
. Of course I’ve read it. Generally considered a masterpiece.’

And her eyes brightened. Such beautiful eyes. The afternoon sun intensified the colour: grey and green, green and gold –


Between the Acts
? A masterpiece? How strange. So – it

(I loved that book when it was just an essence, a wisp of pale silk, frost on the downs, their long spines reddened by the sunset. A pageant … something as light as its name, Poyntz Hall. I wanted to stipple it like Seurat, make it short & musical,
& the world could be distilled in the gaps, aerations between the bright points of the brush-strokes.

BOOK: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
6.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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