Emily got out her paintbrushes and went over to the easel set up near her lounge window. It commanded a sweeping view of grasslands stretching toward the village of Blackheath. The old war scars-dirt-filled trenches winding among antiaircraft mounds-could still be seen, but she enjoyed the barren open spaces of the heath and especially liked painting the distant church. It was too far away to clearly see it without her telescope, but that suited her. She wasn’t after realism, religious or artistic. Her dabbling simply helped ease her boredom.
Out of the window a flash of color got her attention. The fine hairs on her arms stood on end. A gypsy wagon pulled by two matched brown horses crept steadily toward her. It looked surreal. Only her dreams reminded her of her strange abilities these days and they were easily dismissed, but this apparition chilled her all over. She didn’t want any more strange visions.
One of the horses raised its tail, dumping a healthy load of manure in the field practically on the church steps. Emily couldn’t help but smile. Surely supernatural creatures did not poop. She wondered if the vicar liked to garden and could accept this as an offer from God for giant turnips. Or maybe shit in Church Field was a sign of God’s displeasure. All a matter of perspective.
The gypsy horses swung behind the church where she could no longer see them.
Disappointed, her mind turned to another letdown. Not getting an interview at Cambridge still hurt a lot. Last year she’d applied immediately after passing her A-levels in English, maths, and biology, convinced they’d give her a scholarship because of her high marks, but it hadn’t happened. So she’d gotten a job as a bus conductress on the 185 out of the Catford depot to Victoria and back. The worst part, aside from the actual tedium of her job, was that she’d only got such mind-numbing employment because her father, a driver for the London Transportation Company, had put in a good word for her. How embarrassing to have one’s father get one a job, especially this job!
The money she earned had afforded her this flat, though. It had a great view of the heath and all mod cons. She’d not given up her hopes of getting into Cambridge either. She saved part of her paycheck toward the tuition. She was determined, at the very least, to make it to the interview stage next time she applied. She tried not to worry about the thousands of men, many of them returning soldiers, whom she knew had a better hope of getting in than she did. She couldn’t say she blamed them. They’d risked their necks in the war. They deserved an opportunity for a more interesting life than working in shops or driving lorries.
Still, Cambridge had just given women full university membership, so some women had a chance. My goodness, it was 1947, almost two years since the war. It hardly seemed possible so much time had passed and she had not yet been accepted into a university. She’d been foolishly convinced good marks and a strong desire to learn were enough. She’d recently been studying the whole process of getting into colleges and felt a lot better prepared to send in a new application. Once she made it through the written screening, she hoped to get an interview, but not until January-which was fine with her because she’d have more money put away by the end of the year, maybe enough to cover her first term.
She mixed some oils, put on her glasses, and took a long look through her telescope at the scene before her. The spring foliage on the trees near the pond made the light look misty and green around the church spire, which pointed up to heaven-not that she considered the primitive idea of Heaven as credible. She was no Hegelian believing in the inevitable progress of humankind to a state of perfection. Rather, she preferred Kant’s idea of a priori time as the substratum without which there could be no perception of anything or anyone-not that she fully understood this concept, but once she began her serious study of philosophy, instead of her dabbling in books from the library, she hoped she might become an expert.
Intending to use her imagination to create something new, she tried to remember the sharply pitched roofs of the church. All she could see from her flat was the spire but she always took a good look at the church on her way across the heath. She wondered how hard it would be to paint something angular and spiky such as a budding Picasso might paint. She wanted to show the nature of a wounded and cruel humanity, but perhaps she was simply fed up with the mediocrity of her life. She certainly didn’t have any serious artistic talent. She enjoyed musing that the roofs represented the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, but the Catholics were far more likely to include the Virgin, she knew, than this place.
A couple of years ago she’d visited Ely Cathedral, a Protestant establishment near Cambridge. The towering architecture had impressed her, but even more significant to Emily was seeing all the decapitated statues inside the Mary Chapel, a large chamber built in the eleventh century. Henry the Eighth’s reformers had smashed all the sculptures they thought idolatrous-especially ones of the Virgin Mary. The remaining empty building had felt eerie to her, as if the blank and crushed marble faces all around the walls represented the vicious deaths of the many doomed people in Nazi concentration camps during the war. Why did people have to murder others simply because they did not hold the same beliefs-or was it always a matter of power and money, she wondered.
Emily took off her glasses and moved away from her telescope to begin dabbing paint on her canvas, filling in the outline of the steeple she’d already penciled onto the paper. Suddenly she realized her image, now becoming a grayish blue, looked like a ghostly phallus. The idea of penis envy popped into her head. She raised an eyebrow.
Freud’s idea seemed ridiculous to her. She’d seen her brothers naked and nothing about their bodies made her want a penis of her own. Nor did she yearn for a man, but she did long for equal pay and equal opportunity. You’d think after the horror of World War II, people would have gotten better about justice and honor, but it seemed in some ways things had gotten worse. Women who’d been working for wages during the war were all supposed to return to life as good housewives under their husband’s thumbs. Many women resented being forced out of the workplace.
All over London, instead of the happy future everyone had expected, the broken bricks and shards of glass piled in heaps seemed a metaphor for the wounded hearts of those making the best of things: stiff upper lip and all that bunk. The more bleak life seemed, though, the more Emily’s thirst for meaning increased. She wanted to understand Kierkegaard, Bergson, Descartes, Hume, Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. She wanted to make sense out of this crazy existence, to come to terms with death, with life, with war, with her missing brother, with the concept of God.
She painted a thick black line around the penis-steeple, squaring the top into something more akin to a tall chimney. She was tempted to try her hand at adding a weather vane or perhaps something playful like a fat red balloon with green eyes. Such an image made her shudder momentarily, reminding her of that awful holiday in Tintagel.
How strange it all now seemed to remember how strongly she’d believed a witch had actually possessed her brother Byron. There had to be a rational explanation. Surely she’d transferred her own weird emotions and imaginings onto her brother. Perhaps it was simply a matter of her deeply buried grief emerging during that crazy time at the end of the war. After all, their mother had been killed and being in a place like Tintagel in Cornwall must have stirred up the Merlin myths. What rubbish! Thank God that phase of her life had ended.
It still choked her to remember crying out in St. Materiana’s in Tintagel where the search party for Byron had convened. That particular building had been a center of help, she couldn’t deny, but since then she’d had no further use for churches other than as a subject to paint. To her, along with many of her fellow Englishmen and women, churches and all their talk about justice and God’s omnipotence was a lot of hypocrisy. Churches had done little more during the war than hold socials and dances to try to brighten the lives of the troops and raise money to keep themselves in business. How come they’d not spoken out about the extermination of Jews? The murder of gypsies and mentally ill people, too, had been a horror they’d not said a word against.
What an appalling time during the war it had been. She could hardly bear to remember how bitter Byron later became. They’d never spoken about what happened before or after he was found on the beach and resuscitated. She’d asked him more than once if he remembered anything, but eventually the guarded look in his eyes made her drop the subject. Some things were better left unsaid. Now that he’d run away to Australia she’d be happy if he were still here and they could chat about the weather. She supposed she ought to be glad he’d left a note saying he was emigrating. At least he hadn’t disappeared without a trace, except there’d been no word for months. My God, the boy had guts at least. He’d only been fifteen years old.
With the back of her hand she brushed the moisture away from her eyes. Maybe, if Cambridge turned her down again, she’d go to Australia and try to find him. Except she had it in her mind she’d rather go to America, to Columbia in New York City, but even if she stayed with Auntie Vi to defray housing costs, she knew she’d never be able to afford it.
Unable to bring herself to go on painting, she put her brush into a jar of turpentine. The rain didn’t help her mood. Surely there was a better way to live? Sunday, her day off, always seemed terribly quiet. In some ways, she thought wryly, the Luftwaffe bombings of London had been better. Everyone had felt incredibly alive, perhaps because death could come at any moment, so every second had become unimaginably important. Back then, too, everyone had a common purpose and had stuck together determined to remain free. While it was true that they were now free, merely surviving was not enough.
The kettle boiled. Soon, with a steaming cup of tea in her hand, she stood in front of the lounge window. After a while, she once again saw the bright blue gypsy wagon roll out of Washerwoman’s Bottom next to the church. He’d better hope the police didn’t catch him. Any trespasser allowing his horses and wagon to tear up the grass would not be looked upon favorably by the locals. Such disregard for convention by a gypsy would only increase the horrid reputation they had-which Emily thought was probably as much prejudice as truth.
For a better look, Emily grabbed her telescope. The wagon had a bright blue base with a swirling gold border painted under its golden roof. Even the high narrow wheels with their bright yellow spokes looked colorful. She swung her telescope forward to get a look at the driver. A dark slender man, with a blue turban wound around his head, stood upon a silver running board waving a whip in the air above his horses. He looked dangerous. Emily bet his eyes were as dark as coal. Before long the entourage moved outside the range of her telescope. Emily cranked open the window, stretching her head through the opening. She had half a mind to throw on her galoshes and go after him.
Her tea sat on the side of the settee getting cold, but eventually she picked it up again and took it back to the kitchen where she stared out the window, hoping to see the gypsy again. Blocks of flats and houses got in the way of the road. After a few minutes she gave up hope. She poured the remains of her tea down the drain and went into the lounge. When she plopped down on her old couch, it slumped in the middle, but since it was all she’d been able to afford, she made do. She tuned the radio to soft music and fetched a book to read, but she couldn’t concentrate, her mind racing with longing to encounter this striking Rom.