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In his memoir ‘Hearts of Oak’, Crace describes his father’s death of cancer in 1979. ‘Instead of tears I shed my first piece of fiction for many years: a monologue by a woman whose father is dying called ‘Seven Ages’. It was published by Craig Raine in Quarto and then broadcast on Radio 3, and marked the start of my migration from journalism to fiction.’
Quarto, the self-styled ‘literary paper’, ran from 1979 to 1982, before merging with the Literary Review. Crace was a regular contributor of reviews and essays. ‘Seven Ages’ appeared in the issue for June 1980. The title is a reference to Jaques’ famous speech, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…
Talented, intelligent and beautiful, I have led a charmed life. The doctors who predicted my birth on September 14th 1945 were only an hour or so out, so that it was not until the early hours of the following morning, when the late revellers from VE Day were still in the streets, that my mother commenced her final contractions and my fortunate and promising body inched into the suburbs of London. I came slowly and carefully, head first, with damp skin and closed eyes.
"Push!" instructed the mid-wife, but my mother could not concentrate. She was in too much pain and there were too many joyous distractions in the street below. The mid-wife opened the bedroom window onto the warm late-summer night.
"There is a woman here in labour!" she called. "Could you allow here some peace and quiet?" And so (my mother being the stoical sort) I was born in silence, fitted with a neat navel, and slapped sharply across the buttocks, as was then the fashion, so that I would demonstrate with a cry the range of my lungs and verify that I had indeed established a physical entity entirely my own. I cried and cried, and the sound of it joined the silent revellers in the street who, not missing the symbolism, made a joint celebration of the old war over and the new life begun. I passed my first wind and my father made his first tentative inspection.
"Perfect," he said. And all who saw me agreed.
A voice from the street called out: "What is it?" and my father walked with me to the window and answered: "It’s a girl!"
"You must call her Victoria," suggested one man.
"No. Mary. Call her Mary after the Queen."
"Faith!" they shouted.
"Patience," insisted those who had passed a difficult war.
"No," said my father. "We will call her Joy."
"That’s a nice name for a very pretty little girl," said the mid-wife in her businesslike way and then, punning in what for 1945 was a vaguely shocking manner, added: "Let Joy be unconfined." My father lifted me high above his head, like a victorious boxer lifting his gloves, and called: "Joy!" Revellers clapped and whistled and cheered. So I was introduced into this happy planet to a streetful of applause.
September 5th 1950 was a big day. I started school. It was cold and foggy. I wore my blue winter coat with mittens attached. Mother had put labels with my name and address on all my collars. Three tiers of labels – one on my coat, one on my jumper and another on my blouse. I felt safe.
Mother powdered herself and applied lip-stick. The perfume hung about in the kitchen. It was her going-out smell. She put her legs onto my low chair and pulled on her stockings. She wiped my face with hard, damp, reassuring fingers.
"You look lovely," she said. "Doesn’t she, dad?"
"She does," said my father.
"Go give your dad a lovely big kiss," she said.
"My father held out his arms and we hugged. "What’s this?" he said. "Dirty ears?"
He pushed his little finger into my right ear. The nail located wax and scraped. He hurt a little but his finger was firm and efficient. My ear was sore but fresh.
I turned and let him scour the contents of the other ear.
"There," said my father, holding up his finger with its anchovy of damp wax under the nail. "How do you expect to be able to hear teacher with that in your ear?"
I had no answer. "Can’t you hear better now?" he asked.
I listened. I heard the traffic in the street and the water dripping from the tap and the coals shifting in the stove. I nodded. Yes, now my ears were perfectly clear. I was neat and bright and lovable. The finger in the wax had been the finishing touch. I was the smartest little school-girl in England.
It was shortly before my thirteenth birthday that I first had "Visitors". Mother had warned me and explained. She told me about the monthly cycle and stressed privacy and cleanliness. She had put a dauntingly large packet of sanitary towels in the top drawer of my bedroom cupboard. It pressed up against the soft body of the favourite Teddy which I had grown out of but could not bear to destroy. It was my first secret. "This is between you and me," mother had said. At nights I checked on teddy and the large white packet before I went to sleep. I tucked them in. I made sure they were comfortable and ready.
"You might start at night," said mother. "But don’t worry. You won’t bleed for long. It means that you are grown up, that’s all. I’ll let you buy some stockings, when it happens."
"No lip-stick. Good gracious, what would your father say."
I could not wait for my first pair of stockings. With stockings I could join the youth club. I could flirt with boys.
My first "visitor" was a light one. It scarcely lasted three days and the towels in the top drawer seemed rather excessive. But subsequently my periods were regular and normal and untroublesome. I associated periods with that first treat of stockings. To this day I treat myself at the start of a period – a new dress, a record, a book, a meal out. I did not dread them. I celebrated them. Perhaps I was lucky. There was little pain or depression for me. They were not a curse.
For holidays we took a cottage in Wales. Everybody knew us there. We had rented "Ty Mawr" for five years running. The road ran out at the farm and we had to leave our black Ford Prefect and walk with our cases and bags across the clapper bridge of a small stream to the high thick walls of the cottage. There was electricity but there was no flush toilet. In the mornings my father buried the contents of the elsan in the pit at the back of the house. He threw on spadefuls of lime. My mother prepared breakfast and the picnic for the day. I walked up to the farm with a white enamel jug and bought fresh milk from the cow.
"Have you got a boy friend yet, Joy?" the farmer used to tease me. "I reckon when you grow up you’ll be able to take you pick. What do you say?"
"I don’t like boys," I would say, and the farmer’s twin sons would giggle cynically.
After my O-levels we went down to Ty Mawr to recuperate. We were all tired. We had revised as a family. I had wanted to go to Youth Hostelling in the Lake District with Janice Hill, who had become my best friend in the Fifth Form, but my parents (and her parents, too) had discouraged the idea. "You’re a bit young," they said, to be taking off on your own."
"But I won’t be on my own. Jan’ll be with me. There’s safety in numbers."
"Not with girls there isn’t," said my father. "Janice can come with us to Ty Mawr if she wants."
"Ooh, can she?"
We left a key to our house with Janice’s parents so that when the examination results arrived they could collect them and send them on. I did not consider failure. I only thought of holidays and fun with Janice and of the promised reward of a record player when my good results came through.
Janice and I went together to collect the milk and (because there were two of us, I think) the farmer’s twins were less giggly and bashful than the previous summer. A change had come over them. Instead of the usual disdain and cynicism they were both courteous and boastful, trying to impress, giving us good measure with milk. "I think they’re sweet on you," I told Janice. "I’ve never seen them behave like that before."
"They’re sweet on you!" she said. "Which one do you like the most?" We giggled. The twins were indistinguishable, neither of them attractive, neither of them interesting, neither of them fun.
"No, it’s all right, Jan. You can have the first pick!"
"Too kind, I’m sure."
We walked with the twins and their dogs up to the Tops to bring the sheep in for dipping. We took four oranges and a bottle of cider. We sat on flat warm slabs of mountain stone and passed the bottle between us. They offered us cigarettes and, when we refused, smoked theirs self-consciously between quarters of orange. They threw dried sheep-droppings and orange peel at us and called us names. We were overexcited – us and the twins and the dogs and the sheep awaiting the dip. Would we go with them to the pictures, they wanted to know. No, we would not.
"What’s on, anyway?"
"Spartacus. Kirk Douglas."
"Ooh, no fear. That’s bloodthirsty, that is," said Janice.
Would we go with them to the beach, then? No.
Would we come again next year?
Would we let them have a kiss?
"Just one," said Janice. "You have to choose which one of us you prefer."
"I bags Joy," said one.
"Me too," said the other.
"One of you has got to kiss Janice," I said. "It’s not fair if you both kiss me."
"I don’t want to be kissed," said Janice. She meant it too. The twins approached. We stood together in a formal circle. "A proper kiss now," warned Janice, acting as umpire.
The first twin held my arms and pushed his mouth onto mine. We rubbed lips for a few seconds and then stood back. "Next," I said. The second twin repeated the performance. They were inseparable. "Now you’ve got to kiss us," they said. They were cocky-mannered, buoyant, arrogant from their shared successes. And they were nervous too. They knew that they had nothing to offer, nothing that I cherished. It was I who was rich with gifts, the granter of favours. I leaned forward and kissed each of them on the cheek-bone, slowly and softly, so that my lips adhered for an instant to their skin.
They beamed; they bounced; they called in the dogs and herded the sheep as if nothing could be sweeter. I stood back amazed at the magic. I would never lack admirers now, nor the love of others.
We were late back to Ty Mawr. I thought that my mother and father might be angry that we had kept them and their tea waiting, but they seemed more than content when we came into the kitchen, furtive from cider and kissing.
"Results!" said my father. He held up a piece of paper. "Janice. Five out of eight. Well done. You failed maths and French and Latin. You, eight out of eight for you, including four Grade A’s!" We snatched the paper and pored over the details. Mother put her arm round me. "you’re for the university, my girl," she said. And then, as an afterthought, she put an arm round Janice too and hugged us both.
The twins stood forgotten at the kitchen door in their farm-boots. Never again would they kiss a girl as fortunate as me.
At University I read Geography. I would become a teacher. "Now, be sensible is all I would ask you," said my mother as I left home for the beginning of the first term. "You’ll be in a strange town with strange people. Tell her, dad."
"She is sensible," said my father.
"Yes, but…she knows what I mean. I don’t want anything happening just because she’s away from home. Alright?"
"What could happen to Joy?" insisted father. "her old ‘silver spoon’ won’t let her down. No stop fidgeting the girl."
In my third term I met the first boy that I could love (and did love). We were on a Field Course in Cumberland. Together we listened to long lectures on glaciation. We exchanged notes. On sunny days we played "Hunt the Moraine" and went off in search of drumlins, eskers, hanging valleys and lateral and terminal moraines. It was the beginning of the beautiful summer of 1965. We held hands and, at once, were very much in love. We neglected our essays and avoided our friends. It seemed natural that we should sleep together. I had decided that from the start, from the moment that we had met, but I went for some months before I allowed his petting to go further. And, when I did not protest at our usual threshold, he stopped.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"Just continue," I said.
We both parted carefully with our virginity. I have only good memories of that first time. It was so easy to give and receive pleasure (and so quick, too, on that one occasion).
My parents arranged a buffet reception at home when I got married (to the fifth man I could and did love). I was 26 and father was 50.
"I shall keep this very short," he said, a little drunk and overwhelmed by the houseful of listening guests. "I don’t like making speeches and you don’t like listening to them…but you’d think it funny if I didn’t thank you all for coming and for drinking our booze with such enthusiasm. It’s been a wonderful day for all of us. I couldn’t be happier. Joy, as you know, has always been a joy to us, ever since she was a baby. She was good as gold as a kid. And look at her now – just as good, just as golden, even at the ripe old age of 26. It has been a real pleasure to have been her father – and I know for David it is going to be a real pleasure to be her husband. Let me take this opportunity, too, to welcome David to the family. Now we have the perfect son as well as the perfect daughter. No, there’s no doubt about it. Joy is a very lucky girl to have found someone like David, and he’s a fortunate fellow to have netted a treasure like her. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve said too much already. You’ve all got some champagne, I hope. So…" He lifted his glass towards me.
"David and Joy," he said, "with our undying affection."
I have a child and a home and a husband. White, rich and intelligent, I am keeping my looks. Who could be luckier?
Mrs Backhurst comes in on Tuesdays and Fridays to take care of shopping and washing and cleaning. We could afford (and have room for) an au pair, but I prefer the privacy of close family life. I teach part-time now – it is the perfect compromise. I have money and time of my own.
Retirement did not suit my father. He has not been well. They took him in for a scan and a barium meal and then again for a biopsy. The Consultant says that he has cancer, that (perhaps) with drugs, they can slow it down. "You should face up to the idea, however, that he has only a year to live. Probably less." We are as cheerful together as we can be, though alone I am depressed. I think of my own body. I hear it working and feel dull pains. It is not as perfect as I had imagined. I wonder whether I should visit the doctor for some sleeping pills or sedatives. My periods have become painful and irregular. Often I bleed a little after love-making – probably a polyp or a cyst or endometriosis or some erosion of the cervix. I think, too, that it could be cancer of the womb, though that is only my hypochondria speaking. I am imagining myself sicker than I am, though the blood, of course, is real. From time to time the news of my father is good. They have "arrested" the growth, they claim. But when I see him I know that he is getting worse. "I am going to peg out, Joy. This is what is going to kill me," he says, "but for the moment, don’t worry, I’m middling."
If he goes, then what? Who is there left? Who is next in line? A foolish idea comes into my mind as I sit at the end of his bed: to turn my head and have him scrape the wax from my ear. More and more I am victim to such unexpected sentiments. Of course, I keep them to myself. This is no time for self-pity – though, sometimes, I wonder what has become of my good fortune.
© 1980 Jim Crace
‘Elsan’: brand name of a portable chemical toilet, named after its inventor E.L. Jackson + sanitation.
Click here to read Crace’s memoir ‘Hearts of Oak’.
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