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JO MAZELIS

 

 

Jo Mazelis

Jo Mazelis is a novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. Her collection of stories Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002) was short-listed for The Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005) was long-listed for Welsh Book of the Year. Trained at Art School, she worked for many years as a freelance photographer, designer and illustrator. She has won prizes for her short stories in The Rhys Davies, Allen Raine and PenFro competitions. Her stories have appeared in many publications and been broadcast on Radio Four. Her novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award, 2015.

 

 

 

Velvet

 

 

 

Clive’s wife had to leave before the foal was born. Dawn was breaking and the mare had been increasingly restless; its eyes rolling wildly as if in search of a cause for the mysterious agitation inside her body. The vet was there and the stable owner too, so they had no need of her presence, but she had wanted to see it happen. Witness the miracle of it, despite the blood which habitually made her queasy. She’d once seen a black and white film of a foal being born; the curious sight of those long gangly hard-hoofed legs, slick as hot butter slipping from the mother. But no, it was Julia’s tenth birthday and there was the party to organise.

 

*

 

The tulips stood in straight lines, twelve inches apart in weed-free soil that was grey and dry and hard. One of the girls at the party looked at these tulips from time to time with an uncertain curiosity. Being ten years old she was unable to make a decision about the flowers. The house that the garden belonged to was older than her own and her house was in its turn older than those on the council estate where most of the girls at the party went to school. Julia, whose party it was, was always top of the class, read clever books, was never untidy or unruly, answered questions in class, and drew benevolent glances and words from the teacher as she sat straight-backed, her precise mouth opening and closing on perfectly enunciated words.

 

After the food, the sandwiches and crisps, the cake and jelly, the children had been ushered into the garden to play, but Julia, whose party it was, had gathered six of the girls in the shed and excluded three others. Such a thing had never happened at a party before, the adults were meant to supervise everything, to organise games like musical chairs or pass the parcel, to hover nearby ensuring fairness.

 

The three excluded girls, dressed in their prettiest frocks and white knee-high socks and shiny patent shoes, wandered morosely about the garden, restless, uneasy and insulted. The heads of the taller girls could be glimpsed moving about inside the shed through the high square window, but whatever they were doing in there was unknowable. The interior of the shed itself seemed a tempting secret—it might have been filled with books and a writing desk, or every impressive toy and game, Sindy and Barbie and Tressy dolls standing in serried ranks near miniature plastic wardrobes stuffed with miniature clothes on miniature clothes hangers. All the shoes in rows and in pairs. Sindy’s perfect duffle coat with its tiny wooden toggles, Barbie’s air hostess uniform. There might have been a chemistry set in there. A microscope. A full sized Dalek. An easel and real tubes of oil paint. A sewing machine. A typewriter. Endless sweets. A diskette record player (though no music could be heard).

 

One of the children banished from the shed was a strange girl who stayed at the periphery of everything, who had acquired a sort of invisibility; she bothered no one and no one bothered her. It was hardly a surprise that she was excluded from Julia’s den, more surprising that she had been invited to the party at all. This exclusion was an alien experience for the other two, yet all three were caught in this no-man’s-land. They were barred from Julia’s inner sanctum nor could they go back inside the house. The garden itself had few distractions, there was no swing or slide to play on, no rubber ball to throw or catch, no trees to climb or shrubs to hide behind, no rope to skip with.

 

The atmosphere of the house and garden, though the three girls could not have named it as such, was stark and oppressive. They were unwanted and under scrutiny, but there was no solidarity in this, they saw one another as shabby reflections of each other; this one strange, this one thin and poor with countless brothers and sisters who yet possessed an aura of goodness. This one with tangles in her hair and dirty scabbed knees who was always in trouble, always naughty, but without guile or cruelty.

 

They lingered, or traipsed along the square path, tested the thin green lawn with its sharp blades of new grass, two of them staying together, while the third kept her quiet vigil at a distance. She might grow up to be a nun. Or a prostitute. Never quite of this world.

 

Storming the clubhouse was out of the question. They did not peer into its window, nor listen at its door. Nor yell nor kick at its creosoted timbers. They did not slip around the side of the house to knock at the kitchen door and complain to her mother that Julia had banned them from her clubhouse, for the mother was as austere as Julia herself, as cold and formal and judgmental with hair clipped short into a mannish helmet just like Julia’s.

 

Each girl had arrived bearing a gift; toys or games chosen by their mothers, wrapped in pretty paper by them. The presents ensured safe passage over the river Styx and into the delights of the birthday party. To be excluded like this was a terrible thing.

 

Dull was the afternoon under the weak sun. Dull the featureless garden. Dull the windows of the house that reflected only the dull garden, the pale, cloud-threaded sky. Dull the joyless silence. The scrape of small feet on paving slabs or gravel. The only colour came from the tulips with their sturdy stems, their beautiful goblet-like flower heads, red and yellow and orange.

 

Experimentally one of the three girls crouched by the flowerbed in order to study one of the tulips more carefully. The stem looked thick and strong and straight with the flower head forming its cup exactly over the centre of the stalk. Perhaps it was this that gave her the idea for what she did next, because to all intents and purposes it looked like a sturdy container for something... but what? Nearby in the dusty, dry-crusted earth she spied a small friendly pebble no larger than a regular marble. She picked it up and carefully, almost tenderly, dropped it into the tulip. The result was disappointing; she had wanted to see the stone nestled inside the flower, hunkering down among its complicated innards, its stamen, pistil and anther. No, the result was sudden and shocking. She let the pebble drop from her fingers and the tulip’s head abandoned its ardent and lovely uprightness, snapped at the neck and fell onto the unyielding earth below.

 

In a different sort of garden, where banks of flowers grew in massed clumps, the damage might have passed without notice, but here, where the sparseness, the regimentation of their planting was absolute, the one decapitated stem was unmissable.

 

The girl somehow expected her crime to be immediately detected, for a scream of outrage to emanate from the woman in the house or from Julia in the shed or from one of the other two girls adrift in the raft of the garden. Or perhaps from the flower itself—a high warbling screech of pain: falsetto, indignant, accusing.

 

A boy might have set to work with glee deliberately meting out the same fate to all of the tulips, but a girl – a normal girl – was not meant to be on the side of destruction, especially the destruction of flowers.

 

She glanced around, saw no angry parent striding towards her, saw no furious girl mouthing accusations at her from the shed window, heard no furious cry. She picked up the flower head and tried to reattach it by balancing it on the stem, but it only fell again and again, bruising some petals and losing others. Giving this up she attempted a burial, but the ground was hard and unrelenting. Finally she chose flight, putting as much distance between herself and the crime scene as the modest garden would allow.

 

*

 

Julia’s mother looked with fury at the dining table where her daughter and her guests had sat an hour before. The paper plates were littered with sandwich crusts and iced biscuits that had been licked clean, then abandoned. The cherryade Julia had insisted on having seemed to have been spilled everywhere in large and small pools on the white linen tablecloth. One of the Hepplewhite chairs which had only just been reupholstered at great cost had a worrying damp patch on the seat. Little beasts, she thought to herself, utter, utter beasts.

 

To make matters worse Mrs Brookes had refused to change her day and had cleaned the house yesterday as usual and would not be back until Friday. Well, once the little monsters had finally gone home, Julia would just have to clean up the mess herself. That was only fair. And one had to be fair, didn’t one?

 

Trust Clive to be away this week of all weeks. Thinking of her husband, she turned sharply on her heel and hurried up the stairs, her court shoes tapping on the polished steps in a satisfying way. She found the key to her husband’s study and let herself in as she did every couple of days or so. Sometimes she wondered if he knew she knew where he hid the key, if so that was just typical of him. She had seen that smug little smirk across the breakfast table once too often to take him at face value.

 

Everything looked just as it always did. His ‘at home’ pipe was in the ashtray, there was a clean sheet of blotting paper in its leather holder (she had in the past held a blotting sheet up to a mirror to decipher the royal blue hieroglyphs imprinted there). Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was on the gramophone turntable. A copy of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 1964 lay next to his armchair. Why was the cover yellow, she always thought, shouldn’t it be green? She did not understand men.

 

If he knew she knew about the key, then what was the point?

 

She drifted to the window and was surprised to see a strange child sitting on the step near the coal hole. It was trying juggle three misshapen balls, or perhaps they were stones, throwing them high in the air, then tilting her head back in order to follow their flight in order to catch them. Wearing a dress that must have been made from an old pair of curtains, faded moss green velvet with a drooping sash. Cheap-looking imitation leather shoes. Off white socks with wrinkles at the ankles. It looked grubby in some unseen and indefinable way.

 

She was about to bang on the window in order to shoo the wretched thing away when she remembered—Julia’s party! Of course. How could she have forgotten!

 

But why on earth was this child on her own? Where was Julia? She was meant to keep an eye on her guests and make sure they did not misbehave.

 

Just then two more little girls came into view, walking slowly and by the look of it singing some nonsense or other as their mouths were opening and closing in unison.

 

Silly creatures. She much preferred horses. If she’d given birth to a foal instead of Julia she couldn’t have been more delighted, but that sort of thing only happened to the Greeks or in fairy stories.

 

She left Clive’s study not bothering to relock it, that would bloody well show him, wouldn’t it? Clip clop down the stairs, briskly into the lounge and out through the French windows.

 

The creature on the step didn’t even look up and the other two had their backs to her. Faintly she heard their surprisingly sweet voices mournfully singing, ‘How-ow could you use a poor-or maiden so?’

 

A memory seemed to suddenly scorch her. Of herself when young. Of happiness; the sharp remembrance of a lighter heart.

 

Walking faster now, diagonal across the lawn, to the shed. Where else would that daughter of hers be? Trying the door she found it locked and rattled it furiously. A flurry of shushing and shuffling erupted from inside, then silence. She slapped the door with the palm of her hand.

 

‘Go away!’ Not Julia’s voice. No.

 

The two little girls who had been singing stood nearby watching her, fascinated, their song frozen in the spring air.

 

She moved to the shed’s window, peered in. She saw nothing at first, then perceived a figure lying prone on the floor wearing nothing but a pair of navy knickers. Several shiny heads of freshly washed hair encircled her. It looked satanic, the one girl lain out like a corpse, while the others kneeled over her. It took her breath away; she could not quite believe her eyes.

 

Then a scream made her turn her head. The two little girls who had been singing squealed together in a unified response. There was the wretched creature in the velvet frock, blood pouring from her nose, down her face and the front of her dress, splashing the concrete path.

 

The two little girls who had been singing ran past her, drawn inexplicably to the one who was spouting so much blood. When they reached her one produced a hankie, while the other tipped the girl’s head back and pinched the bridge of her nose. They did not seem to mind the blood.

 

Julia’s mother hurried back inside the house locking the French doors behind her, then she sat on the loveseat and thought again about how the sky at dawn had been streaked with red and how the foal, within minutes of being born, would struggle to rise on brand new legs, and its hair, once dried in the sun, would look like velvet.

 

 

©2015 Jo Mazelis

 

 

Author Links

 

'The Green Hour' by Jo Mazelis in The Lonely Crowd

Inteview with Jo Mazelis at For Books' Sake

Jo Mazelis home page

 

 

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