Then

Claire Messud

Reprinted from Pretext 7, Vol. XXVII: 2

The Maguires’ garage was immense, or seemed so, and dimly lit, in such a way that we, the children, cast strange shadows or were in shadow, and you couldn’t, as a result, tell how many of us there were. Not many, in truth—fewer than a dozen—running in arcs and circles and laughing, our laughter resonating against the slick concrete floor and the bare walls so that the space was as alive with sound as with movement. At the centre of our games glimmered a car. Not a grown-up car, but a child’s car, vermilion, finned, of shiny tin, with plump black tyres and space enough for only a driver at its glossy wheel, powered by pedals, by the furious pummeling of small and greedy feet. Driving the car was the afternoon’s prize, squabbled over, traded, aspired to, lost. Its owners, the three freckled Maguire children in whose garage we played, were moderately magnanimous, or else their mother was, and almost every child, including my sister, took a turn speeding the rectangular track beneath the naked looming bulb.

But I, all of three, would not, could not, drive the car. I loitered, baffled, at the murky edge of our communal play, trying my damnedest to fathom the facts: this had been our car, my sister’s and mine. That morning, when we woke, this car, our Christmas car, splendid, red, and yes, tinily dented, only we knew where, had held pride of place among our toys, in our house, at the other end of the cul de sac, over the stream. And now—it was almost suppertime, and we would all soon be called, in our twos and threes, to scatter to our various kitchens and their rituals—and now, our car was no longer ours. It was theirs. And yet it, and we, and they were all still much as we had been. I couldn’t understand it.

This is one of my earliest memories, preceded only by two others, one dream-like and one precise. This moment of this afternoon I recall because of the ache, a visceral, a terrible, but I knew even then unsayable, ache at the loss of our prized possession. I didn’t know how I had loved it until I knew it was no longer mine.

We were moving to Australia and had had, that morning in Stamford, Connecticut at the dawn of the 1970s, an immense tag sale, dispensing all our more cumbersome toys to the neighborhood kids for pennies. A few treasures—the toy stove and its battery of dented pots—were stored against our future, to be opened, too late, in 1977 in Toronto, when we no longer had any use for them and disdained the very nicks and cracks that had made them truly ours. But for Australia, for life as it was to come, we could only take what would fit in our suitcases: Michka, my Russian bear, all of eight inches tall with a tiny red silk nose; white blanket, already holey and dishevelled, crocheted by my French grandmother and indispensable; and a stuffed grey felt elephant with wobbly knees who ought to have stood up but couldn’t, any longer, for which we loved him more rather than less.

But our car: less than a year old, grudgingly shared between my sister and me, and haughtily loaned to our neighbors within the confines of our yard—and never, surely never, to the nasty Maguire boys, and only under duress to their snotty little sister—this car would not cross the ocean. It was sold at our sale—the very first toy to go—and that afternoon, as I pretended in the Maguires’ garage that I didn’t care a fig, I ached. I ached even for my sister’s loss, and thought her at once treacherous and impressive for actually driving the car, zooming about as if she could enjoy it. I ached enough to remember it, always.

It would be months before we had a home again, and a car like that, never. (Similarly, in my early childhood, my Canadian grandmother had, in her garage, an aged brown Jaguar, which I recall, for some reason, as velvety, with a wood-panelled dashboard and elegant, luminous dials; and yet it, without explanation, while we were at the other end of the earth, ceased to be hers and was replaced by a sky-blue Toyota Corolla, later corroded by rust and therefore, always in my mind’s eye, corroded by rust, a small and graceless conveyance with cold black vinyl seats. And when, again, would she have a car like the Jaguar? Never. Indeed, the Corolla would be my grandmother’s last car altogether, as during those years she lost her sight, by agonizing degrees, to macular degeneration, and very soon, before we even returned from Australia, was unable to drive at all.)

Before Australia, my parents had to prepare the way, and so they left us—in school, though barely—with Grandma in Toronto while they flew to Sydney—a long way, in 1970; a much longer way than it is today—and found us a place to live, and a school to attend. On account of quarantine laws, they oversaw, too, the division of our two dachshunds, uncle and nephew, Big and Small: the former would go to his native France to live with my paternal grandparents and dine on table scraps, while the latter, smaller, wilier, with more soulful eyes, would stay in Canada and become the bane of my grandmother’s existence, ultimately tripping her and spraining her ankle on a winter’s walk to nearby frozen Grenadier Pond (the same pond into which my mother in a much earlier winter, as a girl, had fallen, through the ice, while walking one of a succession of family spaniels all named Nicky).

In Toronto, in my grandmother’s house, my sister and I were always happy. Which is not to say that we did not bicker, as bickering, from very early on, was our mode of interaction; but that we adored my grandmother, and trusted her absolutely. She was rightly sized for us, at little over five feet, and stout, with pillowy white hair and a pillowy bosom (which we did not then know to be made of foam and removed, nightly) and an array of silky nylon dresses that seemed designed for hugging. She had small but firm arthritic hands that held ours warmly and allowed us the freedom to finger their odd bends and warts and calluses, and the smooth, distinct ridges of her fingernails. In the mornings, in a bedjacket with large buttons and her near-invisible hairnet (which we loved to pluck) upon her curls, she would invite us, one on either side of her, into her high old marriage bed to play games—‘I Spy’, or ‘I packed my bags to go to Boston’—and to sing songs—‘. . . every little wave had its nightcap on, nightcap, white cap, nightcap on . . .’; ‘Roll, those, roll those pretty eyes, eyes, that, I just idolize. . . ’—seemingly for hours. And how she fed us: daily (in memory, at least), she granted us our favorite meals: Campbell’s tomato bisque soup and salami sandwiches, or Chef Boyardee ravioli, eaten on the sun porch overlooking her steeply tiered back garden, my sister and I vying for the privilege of sitting on the stepping stool and so being able, with our feet, to swing its folding steps in and out, in and out, with spooky creaks, throughout the meal.

Even our grandmother’s basement was a treat, its cement painted oxblood, its warm air scented by laundry soap with, in one corner, the basket into which miraculously issued the socks and pyjamas dropped through the chute two flights up. We had a tricycle down there—no match, of course, for our lost car, but still—upon which we whirled around and around the red floor, avoiding the dip in its center that was, most mysteriously, a drain. And on the half-landing between basement and kitchen, by the side door, the house’s other secret and delicious feature: the hutch for the milkman, a box opened from both inside and outside the house, in which, still, in our early youth, milk, butter, eggs and juice appeared magically before breakfast.

We were only a couple of months, at that time, in my grandmother’s house, and I attended a bilingual nursery school in the yard of a church. I went by carpool, while my sister set off elsewhere, and I made, in that short time, a best friend named Renée, next to whom I sat each morning and afternoon in the car, and whom I would discover again, briefly, many years later when we moved back to the city, and would have nothing in common with. It was there, in the playground, that I first learned—oh, endless lesson!—that I was not as clever as I believed myself to be. It must have been warm, because my legs were bare; and I remember the shafts of sun around me, dappling the cement, and the shadow of the church wall rising to my left, and the hubbub of screaming children on the slide and the monkey bars. But in my memory, I am completely still, a fixed point in the maelstrom, when upon my inner right thigh settles what I take to be a fly. I remember the furry tickle of it, the movement which I took to be its mandibles rubbed; and I remember triumph with which I thought: ‘I will kill this fly, fast as fast. I will slap my thighs together and he will be dead, nasty fly.’ But alas, the fly was a bee.

• •

When we got to Sydney, our new house awaited us. Although then I had nothing to compare it to, it was, and remains, the grandest place I have ever lived: 93 Wollesley Road, Point Piper, a large mottled brick house with a circular drive and a high wall around the garden, a short walk from a little beach and a short drive from our school in Vaucluse.

The house was fronted by a portico, and before it, a small fountain, in which a bronze Pan piped eternally. A walled garden lay down an alley on the kitchen side, doubtless intended for vegetables but unplanted, and in it the owners had constructed a large chicken wire aviary, left empty and forlorn. The lawn on the opposite side of the house, off the living room, broad and rolling and verdant, headed downhill towards the sea, and against its furthest edge nestled a row of fruit trees referred to, grandiosely, as ‘the orchard’.

The rooms in the house were numerous and vast, the gloomy kitchen cavernous enough to echo, with two sinks and a great stretch of black and white linoleum and—or has an older child’s imagination merely inserted it there, stolen from British children’s books of yore?—a green baize door to mark it off from the public rooms. The back staircase led up from this kitchen to the suite my sister and I shared, a bedroom and off it a large, windowed expanse dubbed ‘the nursery’. And off the landing of that back staircase, the service flat waited, two rooms and a bathroom overlooking the empty aviary, with their own locking door. The house was full of the owners’ furniture, while they, knighted now, were off being grander still in London for a time. The surfaces throughout were dotted with knick-knacks—Dresden shepherdesses, heavy cut glass ashtrays—all of them valuable and all hazards to our small and eager limbs, so that we were, from the first, discouraged from playing downstairs. I liked best the little cloakroom just to the right of the front door, which was small but had ceilings just as high as those in every other room, so it felt like a tall, narrow box; and the room off the dining room, a second, less formal dining room, indeed, which reminded me of my grandmother’s little sun porch, and overlooked the broad lawn. The furniture in that room was of dark green wicker and the chairs were, befittingly, like thrones, their backs a peacock’s fan.

My sister and I were enrolled at one of several girls’ schools in the city. Ours, Kambala Church of England School for Girls, had (and still has) a magnificent property in Rose Bay next to the Sacred Heart Convent, looking back, from its green slope, upon the glistening bay, at the opera house and the harbour bridge and the winking white sailboats dotting the water. But in our first years, we travelled on, beyond the main campus and down the hill to Vaucluse, to the elementary school, Massie House, housed in a white stucco mansion among other grand houses in their enclave by the sea.

There, at first, I wore a yellow pinafore over my clothes and spent the afternoons pretending to nap, with a dozen other reluctant nappers, in rows of folding cots in a large, darkened room. I greatly envied my older sister her complicated uniform and its religious rules, and felt tremendous pride when, at whose hand I do not know, I was sprung early from the confines of the nursery and kitted out for kindergarten.

We had uniforms for summer and for winter. The former was a grey and white checked shirt-dress, belted, worn with a straw boater banded in grey, with the school crest upon it. The latter was a grey tunic, beneath which we wore white shirts (with Peter Pan collars, while at Massie House) and grey and gold striped ties (bow ties, with the Peter Pans), and topped by a grey felt hat, again banded with the crest. Grey socks; black oxfords; grey jumpers; grey blazers (with gold piping); grey knickers; grey ribbons (compulsory, if your hair touched your collar). We had gear, too: coloured wooden rods with which to learn arithmetic, stored in grey plastic boxes with our names on them. We had colour-coded booklets, a system called SRA, by which we learned to read, and they were kept in grey file cabinets in the classroom, to be shared by all. We had gym clothes, including regulation black sandshoes, and tasseled girdles to denote our sports house (mine was red, for Wentworth). We had plastic covers for all our textbooks, lined, sometimes, with wrapping paper, in order to make them more attractive. Later, we would have sewing baskets, wicker boxes with little handles and looped clasps, in which carded embroidery threads in riotous colours grew, inevitably, fatally entangled. Our bookbags were of hard brown vinyl, square cases held in our tiny hands to thump against our legs and tagged, like luggage, with our names and addresses.

Young ladies always stood when a teacher came into the room. Young ladies walked in crocodile file, two by two, when moving from one room to another, one building to another. Young ladies did not run. There was to be no eating in uniform in public. Hats must be worn at all times in the street. Young ladies did not yell. Young ladies strove, at all times, to be a credit to their school. The rules and rituals were endless, a language to be mastered and then—but stealthily, stealthily—trifled with. You learned the rules so that you might break them when the need arose.

From the first, I loved that school, everything about it, and granted my devotion to each demure and spinsterly schoolteacher with the same fervent passion: cross-eyed Miss Watt, whose myopia and bottle-bottom glasses gave her an underwater aspect, and whose tubular calves I still see swaddled in their thick tights bunched above black orthopaedic shoes; smooth and quiet Miss Dixon, the headmistress of Massie House, universally adored, with her pale freckles and tidy golden bob; the brusque and spotty Miss Clarke, whose spiky hair was always a little greasy, and whose difficult affection I was particularly proud, by the end of the year, to have won. My sister travelled upwards, of course, always a year ahead of me, and I took her lessons—her especial fondness for Miss Dixon, for example—to heart.

When we were at Massie House and living on Wollesley Road, my mother found a driver to take us to and from school. His name was Gary, and he can barely have been twenty, but to us he was a man, with his stubbled chin and the blond fur along his arms. He drove a battered blue station wagon, and picked up more than half a dozen little girls each day. Whether this constituted his sole employment we never knew, but he was prompt and reliable in spite of his scruffiness. At first I didn’t care for his car, or at least, not for the front seat: none of us did, because whoever sat next to him had to suffer his spidery hand upon her thigh, moving, often up beneath her skirt almost to her knickers. We squabbled each afternoon for the safe seats in the back (in the mornings, the front fell to the hapless two who were picked up last), until I discovered that Gary would pay me two cents a day to massage his shoulders while he drove, and that this employment not only swelled impressively the belly of my piggy bank, but also spared me, in permanence, the loathed front seat.

It wasn’t for some months, until I offered to massage my father’s shoulders and he registered horrified surprise at my proficiency, at my even knowing what a massage might be, that Gary’s oddities came to light at our house, and our subscription to his service was abruptly stopped. (I distinctly recall, however, the dwindling number of girls in the wagon over that time: each girl, then, must have confided to her parents the horrors of the front seat, and was quietly removed from harm’s way. No parents rang each other, though, or they did not, at least, ring my parents; perhaps because we were foreign, or perhaps because each outraged adult assumed the others knew. Or indeed, in keeping with the tenor of the times, because nobody wanted to make a fuss about something so trivial.)

Gary was replaced by my frazzled mother in her brown Austin mini, a more salubrious but altogether less prompt chauffeur, for whom we waited at the curb many times while torturing ourselves with the grisly possible causes for her tardiness: car crashes, conflagrations, a broken neck at the bottom of the long front stairs on Wollesley Road. Her chief advantage, when she arrived, lay in her willingness to drive us directly to the Milk Bar in Rose Bay for chocolate bars, or, better yet, to the neighbouring bakery, from which we emerged with slabs of chocolate cake, or sticky buns, or hard-frosted confections named lamingtons, which we ate openly, cheerfully, in our uniforms with our hats off, protected from the rules, from the marauding prefects who might sentence detention, by our magical parent, whose own lips bore tell-tale traces of chocolate or sugar.

During this time, swiftly, we learned the rules of the language, its codes as vital for survival as those of the school or of Gary’s blue car. We learned to speak with Australian accents, broadening certain vowels and closing others, so that we would sound the same as our friends; although at home, we spoke to our parents like little Americans; and in the car, spoke one way in the back seat and another when addressing the front. We learned the slang (‘Have a fab Chrissy!’) and the popular songs (I’m not sure I have ever heard a recording of ‘Seasons in the Sun’, but I know its lyrics perfectly from the playground), and the references, learning by heart the advertising jingles off the television, which I can sing to this day (Sun and surf, it’s all so great, here in Queensland, super state!’). We let fall the North American trappings as efficiently as we had let go of our little red car, and we learned not to look back, and not to look forward, but instead to read the present, to parse its details as efficiently as possible, in order—this was surely the hope; it remains, always, the hope—to pass for a native. (I do this in spite of myself wherever I am, even now, including, and least successfully, in France, because I am half-French; but always with an awareness that it cannot wholly succeed, that I will be found out, and with the question, in the back of my mind, of how much of a freak, how far outside the realm, I appear to the others to fall. By how far have I failed, in my local transvestism?)

To return, then, to our grandmother’s that first Christmas was a shock, our first introduction into the ongoing schizophrenia of the unsettled life. From Sydney’s incipient summer, its clammy heat, we flew through days and nights to the snowy lawns of western Toronto, to the hedges and porches festooned with Christmas lights and the brown slush of the streets. We found my grandmother and her house and its beloved contents the same as we had left them, though frayed somewhat by the anxious teeth of the dachshund, Small, who, missing us, or most importantly, missing Big, with whom he had shared everything since birth, had taken to gnawing the edges of the broadloom and scraping at the doors with his claws. We rediscovered our little room, and, in the mornings, our grandmother’s high bed, and her hairnet, and her particular powdery, perfumed smell, as if we’d never abandoned them; and the trike waited in the basement, and the stepping stool on the sun porch, its seat patched with silver duct tape, still creaked in its satisfying rhythm.

But the Jaguar was gone, the turquoise Corolla in its place; and Joy, the girl next door who had been our playmate, had moved away to the West Coast; and most painfully for my mother, my grandmother had sold the family summer cottage without informing her, complete with all its contents, on the grounds that it was too much work to keep up, but actually in some sinisterly ruthless way to teach us all, her daughter most of all, that you cannot go away and come back to find things the same, that leaving has consequences, some of them bitter, that you cannot, indeed, ever come back at all. This, of course, was something that my father, pied-noir and son of a peripatetic family, child of the Second World War, had already long ago learned and would spend a lifetime imparting to his children; but it was new, then, to my mother, who wept at the loss of a place she had loved, and loved with her father in it, and he now long dead; and new, too, to my sister and me, who were young enough to accept that this was just the way of the world, and to turn on the television and memorize another set of advertising jingles and to try, for a few weeks, in the company of cousins and other Christmas visitors, to pretend—in our new furry hats with pom-poms, and our coats with velvet collars, of no use in Australia—that we were a legitimate part of this world, too, and not mere pretenders.

On the Sunday before Christmas, my grandmother took us all to her church downtown, the central United Cathedral which is surrounded by missions and a park in which the indigent sleep. She was a fixture in that place, as old as the century, having paraded with her congregation and walked into it as a girl when the United Church of Canada was formed, sometime in the 1910s, belonging there as much as it is possible to belong. She thought, perhaps, that the force of her connection extended to the rest of us, that because she was at home we were perforce also; and in this spirit she dispatched my sister and me, against our wills, to the Sunday school in the basement.

There, bathed in hideous fluorescence, with the murky grey of the Toronto winter sifting balefully through the small, high windows, we were perched at the front of the room by the Sunday school teacher, a buxom girl with crooked teeth and a surprising persistence in interrogation. With a circle of moon-faced, bug-eyed, pallid children around us, their gaze upon our unusually tanned skin (it was summer in Sydney, after all), their ears cocked for our antipodean syllables (perhaps we were not so adept at shifting from one English to another as we imagined?), we were introduced as two Australian visitors, there to tell the others what it was like ‘down there’.

I remember to this day the scarlet fury of my cheeks, the twitching misery of that hour, to which I responded with sullenness and a furrowing of the brow, while my sister gamely chatted and revealed snippets of our private, our secret other life, as if it were less real, or of the same reality, as the dingy brick and grey linoleum and folding chairs around us, of the same reality as the brittle, bosomy instructor or the indistinguishable Christian children who were her charges. Like riding the red car: my sister just got on with it, which, in time, I would learn from her, to smile and smile and be a villain, and that our hold on this other life, like our memory of the red car, was not the less for that.

Because the truth is that the other life, the hidden one, or ones, is not the less real, nor as real, as the life before us. It is infinitely more real, blooming and billowing in the imagination in its fecundity and fullness, coloured and enlivened by so many objects, so many sounds and smells, so many minute moments that can never, never be imparted. It is wrong to think of them as past: Sydney, then, was just beginning; and Toronto was, in our lives, a constant, and then, for a time, a home; just as Toulon, my father’s family’s chosen place, remains my life’s one unbroken link to this day. They were concurrent presents, and presences, and somehow because of this, and magically, they have remained always present.

If I crossed the ocean today, would I not find my childhood friends dangling from the monkey bars, their ties flailing and their crested hats in a pile upon the grass? Would I not find my grandmother, at the end of another long journey, with Small upon her lap and her warped fingers reaching out to hold mine? And somewhere, even, if I could only travel that distance—a few short hours as the crow flies, but unimaginably far in truth—is the red car with its glimmering fins, and the house by the stream, the first bed and the first home, known to me only as a place where always, already, I didn’t quite belong.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The Kenyon Review and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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