Mary Olivier: A Life
Mary Olivier: A Life
BOOK ONE INFANCY (1865-1869)
The curtain of the big bed hung down beside the cot.
When old Jenny shook it the wooden rings rattled on the pole and grey men with pointed heads and squat, bulging bodies came out of the folds on to the flat green ground. If you looked at them they turned into squab faces smeared with green.
Every night, when Jenny had gone away with the doll and the donkey, you hunched up the blanket and the stiff white counterpane to hide the curtain and you played with the knob in the green painted iron railing of the cot. It stuck out close to your face, winking and grinning at you in a friendly way. You poked it till it left off and turned grey and went back into the railing. Then you had to feel for it with your finger. It fitted the hollow of your hand, cool and hard, with a blunt nose that pushed agreeably into the palm.
In the dark you could go tip-finger along the slender, lashing flourishes of the ironwork. By stretching your arm out tight you could reach the curlykew at the end. The short, steep flourish took you to the top of the railing and on behind your head.
Tip-fingering backwards that way you got into the grey lane where the prickly stones were and the hedge of little biting trees. When the door in the hedge opened you saw the man in the night-shirt. He had only half a face. From his nose and his cheek-bones downwards his beard hung straight like a dark cloth. You opened your mouth, but before you could scream you were back in the cot; the room was light; the green knob winked and grinned at you from the railing, and behind the curtain Papa and Mamma were lying in the big bed.
One night she came back out of the lane as the door in the hedge was opening. The man stood in the room by the washstand, scratching his long thigh. He was turned slantwise from the nightlight on the washstand so that it showed his yellowish skin under the lifted shirt. The white half-face hung by itself on the darkness. When he left off scratching and moved towards the cot she screamed.
Mamma took her into the big bed. She curled up there under the shelter of the raised hip and shoulder. Mamma's face was dry and warm and smelt sweet like Jenny's powder-puff. Mamma's mouth moved over her wet cheeks, nipping her tears.
Her cry changed to a whimper and a soft, ebbing sob.
Mamma's breast: a smooth, cool, round thing that hung to your hands and slipped from them when they tried to hold it. You could feel the little ridges of the stiff nipple as your finger pushed it back into the breast.
Her sobs shook in her throat and ceased suddenly.
The big white globes hung in a ring above the dinner table. At first, when she came into the room, carried high in Jenny's arms, she could see nothing but the hanging, shining globes. Each had a light inside it that made it shine.
Mamma was sitting at the far end of the table. Her face and neck shone white above the pile of oranges on the dark blue dish. She was dipping her fingers in a dark blue glass bowl.
When Mary saw her she strained towards her, leaning dangerously out of Jenny's arms. Old Jenny said "Tchit-tchit!" and made her arms tight and hard and put her on Papa's knee.
Papa sat up, broad and tall above the table, all by himself. He was dressed in black. One long brown beard hung down in front of him and one short beard covered his mouth. You knew he was smiling because his cheeks swelled high up his face so that his eyes were squeezed into narrow, shining slits. When they came out again you saw scarlet specks and smears in their corners.
Papa's big white hand was on the table, holding a glass filled with some red stuff that was both dark and shining and had a queer, sharp smell.
"Porty-worty winey-piney," said Papa.
The same queer, sharp smell came from between his two beards when he spoke.
Mark was sitting up besi