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Friday, 25 March 2011

The Slipper Tree


THE SLIPPER TREE
by 
Jo Derrick
This story was first published (under my first married name of Jo Good) in Issue 3 of Upstart! Magazine in Summer 1998. The issue was edited by Carol Barac and Marilyn Ricci. The idea for the story came from an exercise at a poetry writing workshop in Milton Keynes. We had to pick two words from a list and put them together. My words were ‘slipper’ and ‘tree’. 
It stands in the middle of a poppy field. Stark, barren. Its branches reach out like charred limbs. Its trunk buttoned up with splodges of fungi like the pompoms on the front of a clown’s tunic. The red, yellow and pink of the poppies mock its drabness. How can I allow it to stand there so naked?
I have an idea.
I race through the poppies to the tree. The pollen billows up into a potent cloud. Their scent sends my head reeling.
I reach the tree and embrace its charcoal stump. The roughness of the bark scratches my cheek, leaving a smudge of soot. It has branded me. It has marked me out on this, my twentieth birthday. I will return this favour. I will decorate my tree.
I sit on the ground, my white cotton skirt spreading out around me, covering the poppies, hiding their garishness, which is somehow inappropriate. I pull off first one slipper then another. They’re a birthday present from Frances. They are covered with red and purple elephant motifs. They have pointed toes and high backs. I pull a thread from the hem of my skirt and thread it through they eyelets in the sides of my elephant slippers, then hang them from the longest, lowest branch of the tree. I can then feel the tree’s warmth. I can feel my tree beginning to smile.
I hear a plane scorching overhead, cutting a path through the high white clouds, forcing me to look up so that my hair tickles my bare back between my shoulder blades. I can feel the sun on my hair and remember Frances touching it on a hot summer’s day and telling me how she loved the way the sun picked out the strands of gold in it. The memory causes me to frown and spoils my bonding with the tree.
It doesn’t matter. 
I will return.
The next time I bring my sequined slippers to hang on the tree. I’d sewn the sequins on myself, taking a different colour out of their small plastic bag each time and threading them on with the finest of needles. I spent an hour every evening until the calf-skin slippers were completely covered. I wore the slippers with the flimsiest of chiffon dresses, which skimmed the floor, whispering as I walked through tiled ballrooms. I caught the reflection of small beams of chanderliered light, winking up at me from the sequined feet. These are probably my favourite slippers. Yet, I was here to adorn the tree with them. Such a sacrifice, but one which gives me such pleasure. I feel cleansed.
I start to bring slippers every day. Once the first branch is covered, I begin on the ones higher up, bringing a step ladder to reach them. I make special trips to Marrakesh, Istanbul and Karachi to buy them. I love to travel. It’s in my blood, Frances says.
My father bought me my first pair of slippers in Karachi. We were visiting one of his business friends. 
“Travel is a good excuse for your father to meet hundreds of beautiful women, darling,” Mummy explained as she sat sketching one afternoon. “Impossible to be faithful, the pig, but then he’s so handsome. Men are like that, you’ll learn.”
But then she did have Frances.
Frances was Mummy’s lover. I didn’t know what that meant until years later, when Frances became mine.
Mummy was a painter. She sold paintings to Papa’s rich business friends in Texas, Oman and Auckland. Most of Mummy’s paintings were of Frances. Frances was her favourite model, she said. Frances was her travelling companion, as well as her lover. Mummy used to laugh and say that if she were a member of the Royal Family, Frances would be her lady-in-waiting.
Frances was special. Everyone knew that. She was kind, generous, pretty and always laughing. She had a high-pitched tinkly laugh like a hundred little bells beating together in time to an Eastern dance tune. Frances loved to dance and would spin me round Mummy’s studio so skillfully that there was never any danger of her knocking over the jumble of paints and canvasses. Frances loved the parties we used to go to, but hated the men who asked Mummy to dance. Those black-haired strangers with swarthy complexions loved Mummy’s alabaster skin and the dusting of freckles over her arms and shoulders. Frances would glower at them from a darkened corner of the room, daring them to chance just one kiss on Mummy’s soft peach-down skin.
Mummy liked to use a Stanley knife on her oils. She brandished it around the canvas as if she were about to destroy the very thing which gave her life and hope. One night it wasn’t only the canvas she used for her violent slashes of hatred.
I could never understand why she stayed with us. She told me she couldn’t leave, because she enjoyed the money, the notoriety and the flattery from those foreign men.
Mummy loved to flirt, but flirt was all she did. Frances was the one she always came home to. The one who’d make her shiver with ecstasy. The one whom she’d chain up and flog, if she ever had the nerve.
Funny that she never took her hatred out on Papa. It was always either me or Frances. She’d kick and scratch as she ranted on about Papa and his women. She said how she hated Frances watching her dancing with those handsome men. She used to yell at her in their room in the early hours of the morning, while Papa was seducing yet another Pakistani beauty in the exotic, humid gardens of his business friends. Frances would cry, then there’d be silence, followed by Frances’ tinkly laugh.
Frances and me, we were allies. Conspirators. Conspiring against Mummy’s rages, sniggering at her attempts at flirting. Papa thought Frances was ugly. I couldn’t imagine anyone thinking Frances was ugly. She had the palest blonde hair, almost silver. She reminded me of a fairy. I suppose it was her eyes that put him off. Frances had red eyes, just like the rabbit I used to own back in England. Frances’ eyes were the best thing about her. Even better than her tinkly laugh. I adored Frances’ eyes.
The slippers Papa bought in Karachi were gold silk with silver threads running through them like little veins. They glittered in the hot Pakistani sun and sucked up the dust from the pavements. They were the most beautiful slippers I’d ever seen.
My pleasure in the slippers soon faded when I saw two Pakistani girls of about my age running in and out of the market stalls bare-footed. I asked Papa why they didn’t have beautiful slippers and he shrugged, brushing away an imaginary speck of dust from the shoulder of his cream linen suit. I asked Mummy later and she smiled kindly and whispered, “They’re too poor, darling,” behind her hand, so that our hosts wouldn’t hear. It was almost an apology. I couldn’t imagine being too poor to wear shoes. I wondered if they wore knickers under their shalwar, and thought they probably did, but they would have holes in them, like Paula Smith’s who lived in Bradford Street next door to our cleaner. 
I tried to mimic those small Pakistani girls when I got back to Chancellor Grove. I wrapped myself inside one of mother’s orange and red satin robes, took off my sensible white knickers and Clarks shoes and ran out into the street. It was horrible. It hurt my feet so much that I had to sit down on the pavement and rub my soles until I felt able to hobble back to the house. I decided there and then that one day, everyone would have the benefit of my beautiful slippers. Finding the tree was Fate. A happy accident, as Mummy used to call it.
The day I sensed I wasn’t alone in the poppy field marked a change in my relationship with the tree. I felt someone watching me. It took me several minutes to have the courage to turn around and scan my eyes over the poppies to confront the intruder. The tree was looking particularly magnificent today. The light from the sun was catching the sequins; the glass beads; the gold and silver threads in my slippers as they spun from the dark branches. My tree was alive; adorned like a princess ready for the grandest of balls. Then I spotted him. He sat behind an easel holding a long, narrow brush out in front of him, turning it this way and that, sizing up some sort of perspective or angle. I strode thought the poppies, lifting up my skirt to hasten my progress.
“How dare you! How dare you!” I screamed, as I got closer. “That’s my tree you’re painting. Those are my slippers. They don’t belong to you!”  I was breathless by now, panting hard. I felt the warmth from my face and the droplets of sweat springing out from my pores. I felt dirty, hot and ... ashamed somehow. 
I swung round to look at his parody of my tree then gasped. My face reddened even more when I realised he hadn’t been painting the tree at all.
“It’s me. You’ve been painting me!” I gasped then began to laugh, delighted that he hadn’t stolen my tree. “Why? Why have you been painting me?”
I realised he was almost as embarrassed as I was. He stuttered and stammered a reply, which I couldn’t hear.
“What? What did you say?” I shouted.
“Beautiful. You’re beautiful,” he replied then began to gather up his paints, pulling the unfinished canvas from the easel and spilling a motley collection of pencils on the ground.
I ran then. I ran away from this stupid stranger who thought I was more beautiful than the slipper tree.
Back in Karachi all those years ago, I saw my father kissing a dark-haired Pakistani beauty with so much passion it took my breath away. He took her face in his hands and stared into her eyes for what seemed like hours. I watched them from the balcony above the shadowy courtyard until they turned to go back indoors. I ran to tell my mother. She laughed. She actually laughed, then poured herself another drink. It was my eleventh birthday the next day, and Frances had to remind her.
I think tomorrow will have to be the end of it. The slipper tree is beginning to look too ostentatious. I think I’ve probably spoiled it.
Today the painter is there first. He hasn’t got his easel, nor his paints. I spot his round dark head tilted back as he gazes up at my tree, my slippers, my handiwork. I stand and watch him for a while. He’s wearing a cream linen jacket, like the one Papa used to wear. He looks different now he’s neat and tidy, not splattered with paint. His feet are bare. It’s as if he’s deciding which pair of slippers he’s going to cut down to wear. I want more than anything in the world for him to turn around, walk towards me and to take my face in his hands, as my father did with that Pakistani beauty all those years ago. I imagine what those large rough hands feel like as they trace the delicate uneven surfaces of my scarred features. Frances says my scars are like a veil; a spider’s web beneath which is the most beautiful face she has ever seen.
The Stanley knife feels like a lead weight in my hand. I struggle to lift it into the air and wonder if I can wield it as easily and freely as Frances did before we ran away. I walk towards him. He can’t hear me and won’t turn around. As I get closer I can smell his sandalwood aftershave, and think about Papa when he used to stand outside with a cigar, waiting...waiting for one of those foreign beauties to slip out of the house to be with him. I raise my arm, practising swift little strokes with the knife. Then I leap forward, and feel the power of the knife as I cut every thread from the tree and let those slippers fall to the ground.
© Jo Derrick, 1998

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Helena

HELENA
by
Jo Derrick
This story was first published in Issue 3 (Winter 1997/8) of Slipstream, which was edited by Helen Knibb and Cathy Cullis. I have edited the story slightly since it was first published. I do have a copy of the original illustration commissioned to accompany the story, but can I find it?
Helena is melting dark chocolate in a copper pan. The hem of her moth-eaten dress, once black, now faded to gun-metal grey, is haphazardly curtseying to the dirty floor. She gazes with longing at the smooth, shiny surface of the chocolate, deciding to throw in a handful of gritty currants she has found at the back of a forgotten cupboard.
The kitchen is full of cupboards, most of which Helen has never opened. Their black secrets are closed to her. Helena is untroubled by unfamiliar corners of her house. She enjoys obscurity and otherness.
She dips a leathery forefinger into the pan and tastes the harsh sweetness which cloys in the back of her throat. She smiles and remembers the salty oyster-like substance she’d swallowed just hours before.
Her mouth is full again; tasting him, surrounding him, willing herself not to choke.
Helena sees his wild-dog face, his bared teeth and bristly chin seeking out her marshmallow thighs. A savage cat-like tongues probes her depths. Helena shudders, then pours the dark-studded liquid into a mould and waits.
Apple blossom flutters across the pavement in the May-time breeze and Helena quickens her pace to escape the fresh white pictures which come unbeckoned into her head. It’s no use. Shy brides bow beneath a shower of confetti and dainty bridesmaids skip about, pointing their satin-toed slippers in time to peals of laughter. 
Helena winces and begins to run. The house is within reach. Its grimy windows leer at her. She smiles and pushes open the heavy wooden door, brushing aside old withered creeper and foraging brambles. 
Helena retreats into a back room and tugs at the heavy velvet drapes to block out the intrusive May sun.
Every day Helena completes the same ritual. She searches the streets, but can no longer find the merest trace of his sour breath and matted hair.
She listens for his deep-throated whistle or his brittle laugh, but no sound reaches her jet-studded ears.
She longs to feel the sweet stickiness between her thighs to prove that she is alive. 
Where is he?
Every night Helena lights candles whose rich scent once lured him inside. Burnt out joss sticks litter the hearth. The music is always the same. Deep, resonant, funereal. He can be reached, she just needs to remember the right combination. The pattern must be complete.
Chocolate, its bitter-sweet smell colliding with musky Eastern scents and the music.
What else? 
Red wine, ash-trays spilling their contents onto faded gold sofas and crumbs littering the threadbare carpet.
Helena scatters torn satin cushions over the floor, lies back, pulling strands of thick dark hair over her ample breasts and she waits.
A dog barks out in the street. Someone is kicking a can and a woman’s laughter, rich and throaty, cuts through the empty night air.
A door creaks open, and he is there.
Helena lifts his hand to her cheek and licks the salty surface. She wonders how those harsh, grainy hands could have handled such delicate confections to display in her father’s shop window.
His words are like worms, slithering and squirming in Helena’s head. She raises her arms and clasps her silver-ringed hands over her ears. That’s it; she can spew them out now, biting their fat bodies in two and letting them wriggle to the floor.
Broken words.
Helena urges him on and on. This time it is different. His mad-dog face is expressionless and mute. Without words he is powerless. His tongue remains locked inside his head. 
She gazes into his clear, blue eyes; then steps into their unfathomable depths... and beyond... striving to piece together the broken fragments of his mind.
It is hopeless.
The fragments have become shards of glass, razor sharp and untouchable. Blood begins to seep out into the filthy carpet. Helena gasps and starts to shake his skinny frame until he rolls over and away from her. He can never desert her again.
It is late autumn. Helena walks slowly. One...two. She must get it right; for this is her wedding march. One...two. One...two. She hears the music in her head, and clasps the posy of cornflowers closer to her silk clad bodice. One...two.
The train of her wedding dress is leaving a trail of sand. The shoreline is the altar, but it continues to recede. He is not there. Helena gasps and clutches her posy tighter still, urging herself on. One...two. One...two. No, she’s walking too quickly. She should have waited. Brides are always late, aren’t they? And bridegrooms?
Helena reaches the shore and bends down to pick up a coral pink shell. Its interior has been washed clean by the waves and she strokes it with a ringless finger, then casts it into the foam. An angry sea. Clear blue, like his eyes. Or cornflower blue? 
Helena tosses her posy to the wind and shakes the wispy veil from her head. Her black hair struggles out of the carefully placed pins and whips away the tears from her thread-veined cheeks.
Helena picks up the dead slug shape from the grubby pink cushion and places it on a bone china plate with cornflower blue edges; an engagement present from a crochety old aunt who is now dead.
There is a furious buzzing in Helena’s gloomy kitchen, as a crazed bluebottle finally lands on a length of grubby white satin, which hangs from the airer. Helena turns to watch it stumble over a loose pearl button and smiles.
She wrenches the dress from its hanger and tugs it over her head. More pearls escape the worn stitching.
Helena takes the dirty copper pan from the kitchen table and begins to snap off large pieces of chocolate, hurling them onto the caked-on surface. She pulls the shiny fabric further over her lumpy thighs, grasping the singed wooden spoon tighter as she stirs the melting chocolate.
It’s a nice day for a white wedding.... There is music in her head once more.
A viscous lump of dark mixture splashes onto her breasts. Helena looks down, swipes it away with a plump finger and, on seeing the stained fabric, begins to sob. 
© Jo Derrick, 1997