Virginia Woolf in Manhattan (8 page)

BOOK: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
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And because I had read the biographies, which told us more than anyone should know about another human being unless they are their parent, sibling, child, I knew what years were to follow the wedding – descents into madness, violence, depression. Her new husband struggling to cope.

(She was also saner than anyone. The cool intelligence of most of the
. Pages bubbling with happiness.)

Virginia gave a small ‘Oh’ of longing. Old, she reached out, and touched the screen, the space where they were alive and young, illuminated in my machine, the time capsule I took for granted.

They looked so alive, but they were unresponsive, the sepia couple who long ago were totally taken up by their moment.

She pressed the screen and I pulled her back.

‘Will it move?’ she said. ‘Can you make us move?’

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s not like that. It’s what it is. It can’t be changed.’

‘I wondered … if it could be changed.’

She wasn’t just talking about the image. She knew too well what lay in their future.

I said, as gently as I could, ‘Would you like to look at the other photos?’

Leonard alone. He was forty years older. His long thin face engraved with lines. Those eyes, intelligent, used to sorrow, deep-set under strong grey eyebrows. And the mouth still full, a young man’s mouth – a foreign face, not an English face, that was my instinctive judgement. But that was how Bloomsbury thought of him: ‘Virginia’s marrying the Jew.’ Both a joke and not a joke.

‘Mongoose,’ she said, almost inaudible.

This time I refrained from showing knowledge. What would she have thought if I answered ‘Mandril’? His name for her.

His beloved baboon.

I knew too much, we knew too much. Their secret bestiary of names.

‘It’s enough,’ she said, and turned away. ‘Perhaps you would save that page number?’ Her back was rigid, her voice formal.

‘Mrs Woolf, it would be an honour.’ I didn’t correct her idea of the computer. ‘I can find it for you whenever you want.’

‘Please,’ she assented, still turned away.

I went back to my search for a few moments, checking that Goldstein was what we wanted. ‘Goldstein & Sons, Rare Book Dealers. Madison Avenue. Shall we walk?’


And so we did, an incongruous couple flashing past the Easter windows; Virginia, though stooped, inches taller than me. To my surprise, after a shaky start, she began to lope two paces ahead, a steady, strong, athletic walker despite her grey hair and unnerving pallor.

I had to half-run to keep up with her, though every so often she would stop dead and stare at something I would never have noticed – I no longer saw the advertisements like acid flowers bursting from the pavements, I didn’t notice the fetish shoes, six inches high with inch-thick platforms; I took the display of wealth for granted. I actually had to pull her away when she shrieked with laughter at two women, obviously well-to-do, walking arm-in-arm against the sunlight, perfectly outlined from loin to ankle, the shapes of their hips, their crotches, their thighs, in skin-tight black leggings and ankle-boots, and above the waist, boxy expensive jackets, ropes of pearls, vast sunglasses and artfully streaked hair falling below their shoulders.

‘They go out without skirts,’ she hooted, happily. ‘What fun to see New York prostitutes! Leonard would laugh.’

‘Virginia, they’re not prostitutes. It’s just the fashion of the day. I agree it’s strange, but they don’t feel naked. Everyone pretends not to notice.’

‘But I could see
,’ she insisted. ‘Of course they can only be prostitutes.’

‘You’re going to see lots of women like that.’

‘And no-one laughs? No-one says anything?’

‘Not in New York, Virginia.’

She was pounding along like a racehorse once more, but I saw from her furrowed brows that she was thinking. And then she stopped and smiled at me, her head tipped bird-like to one side. ‘It’s Hans Andersen’s story, the one I love.’

And I said, as we started to walk again, past a mirrored building that showed us, large, shivered into two rivers of fragments, as a bird flicked over our reflected heads and blinding sunlight made us blink at each other and think for a second we could be friends: ‘Yes, it’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.’



I do have a lot to tell my mother. Failing that I shall write it down.

My Battle with the Furies,
Part the First

(I have decided to write it like an epic. I have chosen an epic typeface. Just seeing those letters cheers me up. I do need cheering. I am
On My Own

I know it isn’t good to get into fights. But I also know that you have to be brave. It’s like in that enormous great book,
Cat’s Eye
, which I liked a lot until it got too long, where the girls start doing mind games on each other.

No-one was ever going to bully ME. My mum taught me that, which I’m grateful for, because my mum was bullied at school.

So I knew I had to stand up for myself. Anyway, why should they call me fat? Ayesha was ugly, but I didn’t complain, and Linda had big pink ears like a monkey, but I had never mentioned it, and Cindy had skinny legs like sticks and I’d seen her breakfast: like, ONE cornflake.

I mentioned it
after they started on ME. But then they got madder, and things got worse.

Cindy, the skinny one I called Anna, which I also told everyone was short for Anna Rexia – (I know that sounds bad, but I never did it till after her friends started calling me ‘Greedier’, which was her ‘witty’ pun on ‘Gerda’) – was not as stupid as the others. I admit she was good at English. In fact she was second best to me, which is one of the reasons why she hated me, and besides, she was jealous because I could eat food, lovely chips and jelly that she just glowered at.

In any case, Cindy is a feeble name. It’s a Princess name, and she’d like to be a Princess, whereas I am trying to be a Hero.

Probably to date I have fallen short.

So this Cindy – ‘Miss Anna Rexia’ – thought she would play a good joke on me. All of a sudden she started being friendly. She came and talked to me in the library (we were the only two who read books in the library, which everyone else probably thought was sad.)

And I was dim, and thought she meant it. And I was too soft, and was nice back, because really, I wanted to be friends with them. In fact, I don’t like quarrelling.

So for a bit, I went around with them, but only because I didn’t have many friends, so I missed my old school, and missed London, and if you want to know, I missed my mother, though I knew why she had to send me away, I understand she has to do her work –

I’m crying now, which is pathetic. I won’t let ANYONE make me cry.

It’s just that sometimes I miss my own bedroom. My own things. And my friends from home.

But I’ll be OK, because I’m Gerda.

And I want my mum to be able to work – she has a right to, and she’s a writer, and I do love her, and I don’t want to stop her, like my dad did, she says, because he was a Bastard, though he definitely cooked, when he was at home, and shopped and
brought her cups of tea. In any case I wish Mum wouldn’t call him a Bastard. If I stop her writing, perhaps she won’t love me, though she claims to love me most in the world.

And like I said, she needs money for me, or I will never get my new iPad, or my new bike, and my phone is CRAP – she promised me a new one, but then she forgot and went away.

One day I’ll be a writer too, and I won’t want anybody to stop ME. So fair enough, I had to go to boarding school, but why did it have to be this horrible hell-hole, Bendham Abbey, which is s’posed to be the best, but is full of bitches?

I meant to say ‘Wankers’. ‘Bitches’ is sexist. I’m against sexism, like Mum.

I’m tired now so I’m going to eat Jelly Beans. I saved my favourites, which are Pomegranate.

To be continued in

My Battle with the Furies,
Part the Second



Goldstein & Sons, rare book-dealers. We hurried towards it through a shoal of banks, huge blank corporations, auction-houses. Along the cold black gullies, past cliffs of black glass, the cars came streaming and honking past us. Fast, deadly, not seeing us.

The towers there always strike me as satanic. Darker, more hulking than over on the West Side, and the shadows they cast are cold and solid, as if spring could never creep in here. She was shivering, drawing her shabby tweed jacket closer. I thought, we’ll have to buy her more clothes, and I will take that smelly suit to the cleaners – ‘Do the best you can, someone drowned in it!’ – (Yes, Virginia’s presence was wearing, and yes, sometimes I fell back on cheap jokes.)

I remembered from the
her unease at buying clothes.


I wanted to go straight into the shop with her, but she insisted on leaving me round the corner in a cafeteria. As if she didn’t trust me. (Anyone would think they were
books we were selling.) As soon as I got there, I was ravenous. I had only eaten two slices of toast, after not eating for many decades! There was a delicious smell of fried potatoes. She found me a table by the window and made me promise not to wander off. Of course, that was ridiculous. She sometimes reminded me of Leonard – he, too, often sounded like a gaoler.

I admit the last day I went out on my own I did not prove I could be trusted.


‘Virginia, what would you like to eat?’


She was earnest and sensible: not playful. Something to do with not having servants – the business of life, the workaday duties, had ground her down.

I tried for lightness, (
) ‘Oh, soup and salmon and ducklings


‘You won’t find that on the menu.’


I wanted to know if she had really read me.



She could be a show-off. ‘Virginia, you’ve got to order,’ I said.


‘Sprouts foliated like rosebuds?’

still not impressed

‘I see, it’s the food from
A Room of One’s Own
. You’re quoting yourself. Or testing me? I promise I’ve read it half a dozen times. It’s a great text. But leave that aside.

‘Here you’ll get sandwiches or salad or a burger. Fried beef in a bun. With chips.’


‘That sounds delicious. Beef and potatoes. Nothing beats a good
boeuf en daube
… Yes, I’ll have that. Go and sell the books.’


She was definitely used to having servants!

‘Will you be all right, Virginia?’

(I thought, ‘How will she manage? She won’t understand a word people say!’)


‘Burger and fries, Ma’am?’


‘Well, that’s – just the ticket.’


So that was that. I parked her there. I didn’t know much about rare books, so I expected a learning curve, and I didn’t want her there mucking things up.

) ‘Virginia,
remember not to leave. Because you haven’t got money to pay with. So you will be pursued and arrested. I won’t be long.’

But she was lost in thought, staring happily out at people on the pavement. One hand waved vaguely as I walked away.



Goldstein’s was staffed with polite, good-looking young men who hovered purposefully in pale suits, gracing the customers with discreet smiles that hinted at shared passions. The shop was so beautiful I felt rather shy. It wasn’t like English secondhand bookshops with piles of dusty books in corners. It was high and airy, with a gallery, a large dark table in the middle of the room for customers to inspect the books, and display cases around the walls. They showed exquisite single copies, dotted in careful asymmetry, like blowing leaves in a Hiroshige print.

And what did I see, on the right-hand wall, winking at me from behind the glass? A copy of
To The Lighthouse
, with the familiar Vanessa Bell book jacket. The lighthouse tower, the radiating beams, and Virginia’s name in capitals. (How different it felt seeing it now. Of course I had read her name on book jackets hundreds of times, but never before with this intimate jolt of recognition – the woman was waiting for me just around the corner!)

My heart lifted, then my heart sank – of course it was good to see it displayed among the jewels of the collection. But if they had one copy, would they want another?

She was next to
by Mary Shelley. And there was
on the other side!

A clean-cut, shiny-haired young man wavered closer.

‘Good afternoon, Ma’am. May I assist you?’

‘I’m interested in Virginia Woolf.’

‘We have a quite good collection, as you see. And over here, there’s a nice copy of
A Room of One’s Own

I trotted obediently after him. There was yet another first edition, sporting the original dust jacket, slightly browned at the edges but the colours still bright, a clock on an ink-blue background. Perhaps the clock meant the time was right for women to have money and a room of their own.

Now once again, Virginia needed money. And a room of her own in New York, which I was sorting. Mine was much too small for us.

(Too small for me, as well. I had left it too late to book my flights and then BA Business Class was £4,000! I was haemorrhaging money for Gerda’s fees, so I’d suddenly thought ‘Oh, sod BA’ and booked a package through
. Unfortunately the hotel was the Waddington. OK, it got full marks for location, but it hadn’t been renovated in decades, no mini-bar, no desk. I wasn’t too bothered, I would be in the library. But when Virginia came along I suddenly saw it through her eyes – a yellow, chemical, ugly box. Yet she’d stared out of the window as if she was in heaven. Is all life heaven, compared to death?)

Would her opinions unsettle my life?

BOOK: Virginia Woolf in Manhattan
3.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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