The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn

BOMB 59 Spring 1997
Issue 59 059  Spring 1997

You can smell powder drifting in the air. Late afternoon and the sun is golden around her head as she sits at her dressing-table before the oval mirror, fingers straying through her hair, pinning it, curling it in strands to make the ends tendril and fall. The long curtains at the open window drift and bloom in the golden light; there is the sound of evening birdsong, the movement of leaves in the warm, late summer breeze, the thinness of leaves yellow-green with the light through them, shifting against each other, touching.

Tonight, when the light is golden, there are so many ways for my mother to make herself beautiful. She is 17 years old.

She lifts a skein of hair from the back of her nape and feels the weight of it in her hand, the softness of her hair, and the color is bright and coppery and full of light.

“All my life …” She murmurs to herself as she plays with her hair, pinning it this way, and this way. Twisting it now into a shining chignon, feeling the soft weight of it in the white hollow of her neck where the sun never gets to, now undoing that shape so it drops free, making a new plait, tying it, putting it into a fat roll, catching a side of hair and bringing it up … Her hair forming the patterns of all the women she can be, tonight if she chooses, or perhaps for all her life, be someone else entirely, whoever she decides she wants to be.

Her face, you would not say is pretty, or like a girl. You may not say at first it is beautiful but my mother is very beautiful. Her light eyes have flecks of gold in them, reflecting, they make her skin seem more smooth, make the bones beneath her skin model her fine face like forms in wax. The pupils of her eyes are dilated from looking at her self, as she takes her hair and smooths it back, not even leaving one strand strayed, all of her hair smoothed back so you can see her entire face exposed, the planes of her cheeks and forehead rosy and tan from the sun, now polished by the late afternoon light into a dark gleam.

 

All summer she has been at the cottage with her father, sailing away from him in her own small boat.

She has been sailing away every day, far enough away that she can get to her private rock that comes out of the water and has a ledge carved in it flat and long like a bed, a hidden place where she can go. She has been anchoring her boat there and undressing in the wide blue air, sunning herself naked in the cleft of rock where he can’t get to, where he could never see. All summer her face has been a lamp, at the tennis parties and drinks parties on long flat lawns blue with shadows, all summer her face has glowed with sunshine, and her teeth have showed white in a smile whenever she has dared to smile, a frightening smile for the young boys maybe, the way she shows all her white teeth in her tanned face, but exciting too, for those of them that dare come up close to her with their hair still damp from swimming.

They were never able to have her.

All summer my mother has been alone with her father at the cottage. They have been together on their own, not even the housekeeper comes with them in summer. No one comes, there are no visitors.

 

In the early evening the man takes the tray of drinks and sets it down on the table under the big oak, and the girl, his daughter, will come out at the appointed hour and stand with him there, beneath the big tree. That is the routine every day; they meet each other there. To the man, it seems the girl floats towards him when she comes, floating across the blue lawn in her white dress. In the dusk she blooms like a flower, her light skirts are petal. The father notices this, notices how the light plays around her thin arms, how her waist is so small a man could encircle it with his hands, knows how big those hands would be upon her. And all summer my mother has stood quietly, when her father mixes up her first drink for her, and her second.

 Like a young boy he goes through his routine with her, shy in parts, then bold, telling her about this drink or the other, how strong the drinks are, showing off to her …

 And all the time my mother is feeling the presence of this handsome man with his dark grey hair cut close to his head, his dark profile in the remaining light, feels him next to her as the man who has fathered her, once held her in blankets awkwardly in his arms, passed her back to his wife for milk. This was the man who scolded her, sent her to school, once cleaned up the mess when she was sick. He was the man who saw her all the years when she did not see herself, before mirrors, before she learned to smile at her reflection in order to receive back her own smile, before other people, before other eyes went out for her, he was the man who, at night in his dressing-gown, would leave his room to walk down the hall and come into the room of his baby daughter, his only daughter, to stand there, for a long time, just watching her, thinking about her.

This is the first year my mother’s brothers have not come to the cottage for the summer. The first time they have not left their wives and children and their jobs in the city or abroad to come. There were always three brothers, but my mother always saw them as one, all boys together, always at the cottage playing together without her but still, it was safer when they were there. Though in the past she has felt the difference—the girl swimsuit hanging outside on the line to dry—and in more recent years when undressing at night, with the dress lain out on the bed, and the undipped bra, lace shorts … It was better then, when the boys were there at the cottage, calling out to each other across the lawn, telling jokes to their father.

 Now that it’s just him here with her it is too quiet, her girl’s voice is too soft in the night air.

 

Nevertheless, for this reason, her 17th year, it is the first year when she can go out alone at night. She is old enough. Until late at night her father can pace the house, returning over and over to the decanter of whiskey on the sideboard. He can walk to every window of the cottage and look out across the sea-grass lawn, across the hedge, down the fields to the sea. He can keep all the windows open to the night air, to the sighing sound of the sea missing her, everything is missing her. He might keep all the lights turned on waiting for her to come home, every lamp and wall light, every bedside candle light, even in the empty rooms, and he can stand in all this forced light and burn for his daughter to return home early, earlier, to try and pretend to himself that she never left. She is of the age now when, if she chooses, she may never return.

He knows this, but the lights still burn, still he paces the house in the brightness, feels the heat of his waiting break out the door into the dark open air, so he’s pacing about the dry garden at night, waiting, waiting.

My mother does always come home to him.

Night after relentless night, all through the long summer, she comes home, perhaps in the car of one of the damp haired boys, yet though her powder may be on him, a dust of white on his dark jacket, she is always apart from the boy. Her father watches the car’s headlights come up the road, the headlights passing along the top of the hedge, swinging inwards at the gate, coming up the sandy drive. Inside the cottage he stands shock still, waiting, listening, or outside in the garden he stands still and alert to the movements of the boy. But no matter what he imagines he hears, or what he imagines he sees, he cannot say a word. He cannot stop the boy’s light kiss, come between his lips and his daughter’s lips, change her growth, stop time. He cannot rage in a room full of seconds while minutes tick by, turn into days then years. He cannot stop the future opening for my mother. He thinks her mouth this minute is becoming soft, her lips parting, her hands may be reaching out, but there is nothing he can do. He hears, in the sea’s moan, sad wash against the shore, all the things he cannot bear to hear. All the father has are seconds to share with her, in his room of seconds.

All he can have is a thin sliver of time with her, a fraction, in the garden, in her white dress.

“Grasshopper, Sea Breeze, Old Fashioned …”

In the early evenings on the lawn he tells her his list of special drinks, wanting to make them for her, wanting to show her how things can be done.

“These young fellows, they don’t know how to mix a drink. They couldn’t make you what you wanted …”

He has turned to the table set out under the tree, with the tray of bottles upon it, but he can’t see what’s there.
    “These young fellows …”
    He looks but he can’t see.
    He never guesses that my mother has no lover, doesn’t even know how to talk to a boy, that she has barely any time left for herself after him, that he has it all, that he can have it, she’s used to it that way. Blindly, he takes bottles from the tray, aware of her standing beside him, aware of her beside the blue tree … He can hear her breath. In a rush, he mixes the drinks, he pours them from the silver shaker, from the glass martini jar. He swivels ice around in the punch jug, stirs the clear contents of a tall pitcher, skewers fruit with a fork, bites the olive hard.

“You know, I used to have the reputation of being able to fix one of the best cocktails around. What do you think of that?”

By now, there have been lots of drinks, so when my mother looks up from her seat by the tall tree, up into his eyes to answer, she cannot bear it. All of his thin life is there, in his eyes, it’s all on show for her.

As soon as she can, after he has handed another triangle of glass to her, and after she has taken it from him, felt the touch of daughter to father in their fingertips meeting at the thin rim of the glass, then she will drink this cocktail, and another, if he wishes, as he will, she knows, and then, kissing him lightly, her lips just a touch upon his hard cheek, then she will slip away, finally, she will slip from under the tight arms that try and hold her, will run from those eyes, from him, though he would never do anything to her now, out here, in the garden, when there is still some light in the sky for him to see his own hands and what they are doing. So for now she will take the drink, and finish it. Then she will run away.

 

These are her thoughts as she sits at her dressing table in late summer, that same summer of her 17th year. She thinks the thoughts, but without words, as if in a dream. She’s back in town now, the cottage by the sea is locked up, and it will be autumn soon.

“All my life …”

My mother murmurs words, sentences that have no ending. Somewhere, in the big house, in one of the rooms, is her father.

“To lift up into the air and dream …”

Finally, with pins and a brooch, she has made the shape for her hair that she wants.

She turns sideways to the mirror to see, her long golden neck, her red hair caught up by the silver ornament. She sees the line of her shoulder in the mirror, and the tiny bone that juts out above the outline of her shoulder, and all her skin is gleaming from her bath, buffed in the remaining light into gold. My mother rises from her chair before the round mirror, dressed in underthings, frail pieces I can barely see on her, yet she rises, dressed only in these things. Here in her room, in this light, nobody can spy on her. She can be alone with herself if she wants, she can stand here, or over by the long mirror, she can be in her own bedroom dressed only in these tiny things, and no one will see, and she can dream. She can feel hands going down the length of her long body, or she can hold herself in her own arms, or unfasten the tiny buttons of her clothes, step out of them and be completely alone with herself.
Tonight though, she has no time for the dreaming games, instead she must think out into the night, let her mind go ahead, not stop here with herself, but go into the dream of what will happen next. It is the first time she has done this, let her mind go on ahead to the next thing, the journey, the party, the evening ahead. She has been so used to existing in tiny pieces of time, not daring to let herself out of one into another. Always she has been just existing in time’s present …

Yet not this evening. This evening is different.

 

What brought about this change, I don’t know. Fate. Time weighed up at her back and pushing her on. Her 17 years now too many to stay a child in, or her father waiting in a room too much darkness for her now when the light, right this minute, is so lovely, so full and warm and golden …

Whatever the reason, tonight my mother’s thoughts leap into the evening ahead and play there. Even if the man she will meet for the first time tonight had no plans of going to the dance, even if right now he is lying on his narrow bed in his rented room, even if he is sleeping, her need to love him will pull him to his feet, take him to the wardrobe, dress him. Though they’ve not yet met, her will to fall in love tonight is enough to bring him to the dance.

So, as she slips the dress from its hanger, the thin silk of it slipping over her arms like cream, as she lets the dress fall out around her, stepping into its center like stepping into a pool, as she draws the dress up around her naked body and feels it touch and settle on the different planes—belly, breasts, the long flat of her back—even as she prepares herself in all these ways my mother knows that tonight will be when time takes her, away from her father’s time, into her own time. Like in a myth, the waters will shrivel from her and she will step up, dry, onto the bank, to begin again.

Tonight is when my own father comes to life.

In his narrow bed, lying there with his eyes closed, he also dreams behind his black lashes, his black eyes covered by sleep but dreaming of a young woman who will come to him, who is ready for him, only him. Doesn’t all emotion happen that way—thoughts going out first, to touch, then bodies? I believe my father felt, in the dark heart of his dreams, in the pit of his belly that night, as he opened his eyes, got up from his narrow bed, all the time I believe even he was thinking “Yes … Yes,” that time was beginning for him too.
    And I see him rise from the bed, pull a white shirt down over his body.

Tonight, he is thinking.

And he smoothes down the front of his shirt with a flattened palm.

There will be a girl …

 

Now my mother, dressed and scented, with even the air around her, and the perfect space under her arms, behind her knees, in the delicate bend of the inside of her elbow, powdered … Now she walks back to the mirror a final time. Shoulders, waist, long arms … She sees herself in parts, then as a whole. She sees herself as her lover will see her tonight.

Downstairs, in one of the rooms, her father paces and turns. Ankles, her flat soft belly, hands …

There is nothing he can do.

Tonight, all these will be places for another man to touch, his daughter’s first lover.

Fingertips, cheeks …

Tonight, for my mother, finally it will be the end of that other thing. She knows it. Her father knows it. All the nights in the cottage preparing for it … That was nothing compared to this. Now she is to go out tonight, and meet a man so dark, with such large hands that he will put on her. It will mean the end of the other thing. And yet …

 When her father first sees her this evening, stepping into the room where he has been waiting, in her silken dress, with her lips smooth as fruit so he can see them even from the cold fireplace when she stands at the door, I think how strange it is, and sad and perfect, that my poor mother, when stepping into the room and catching sight of his dark starving eyes, really does think the other thing is over, all that oldness …

When, really, the old story is only beginning again, the broken wheel turning slowly on its axle, so for seconds, minutes it’s like a perfect circle and everything has changed, then turns again, another fragment of a degree turns past, turns and begins its broken circle again.

Kirsty Gunn was born in New Zealand and educated at Victoria University and Oxford. The Keepsake, just out from Atlantic Monthly Press, is her second novel. Her first, Rain, is currently being made into a movie.

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Issue 59 059  Spring 1997