29 July 2020

from Still Life, chapter 12, Behold the Child (A.S. Byatt)

It was agreed that Stephanie should have some time to herself, to work.  It was agreed, largely by Daniel, that Daniel's Mum and Marcus would mind William whilst she did an hour or two in Blesford public library ... Stephanie felt that she was being accused of desertion by some powerful representative of motherhood ...

Stephanie found it physically hard to pedal her bicycle away from the house.  She felt held as by a long linen binder, such as mill children had worn to work machinery, to the shape of her son in his woven basket, one fist in his small ear.  She seemed to hear, to feel, to smell powerful calling sounds, rufflings of the air, odours, which wanted her back, insisted that she must return.  She put down rational foot after rational foot, with difficulty.


In the library, Stephanie laid out her books.  Never before had she attempted to work without the outside sanction of an essay to write, an exam to pass, a class to prepare ...

She decided to read the 'Immortality Ode', just to read, clearly ... She felt panic.  She had with some pain cleared this small space and time to think in and now thought seemed impossible.  She remembered from what now seemed the astonishing free and spacious days of her education the phenomenon of the first day's work on a task.  One had to peel one's mind from its run of preoccupations: coffee to buy, am I in love, the yellow dress needs cleaning, Tim is unhappy, what is wrong with Marcus, how shall I live my life?  It took time before the task in hand seemed possible, and more before it came to life, and more still before it became imperative and obsessive.  There had to be a time before thought, a wool-gathering time when nothing happened, a time of yawning, of wandering eyes and feet, of reluctance to do what would finally become delightful and energetic.  Threads of thought had to rise and be gathered and catch on other threads of old thought, from some unused memory store.  She had snatched from Marcus and Daniel's Mum, worse, from William whose physical being filled her inner eye and almost all her immediate memory, barely time for this vacancy, let alone for the subsequent concentration.  She told herself she must learn to do without the vacancy if she was to survive.  She must be cunning.  She must learn to think in bus queues, in buses, in lavatories, between table and sink.  It was hard.  She was tired.  She yawned.  Time moved on.


... And yet her mind lifted: she had thought, she had seen clearly the relation between the parts played by the child-player and the confinement and depth.  She felt a moment of freedom, looked at her watch, saw that there was no more time to write this down or work it out ...


Stephanie, her mind on the platonic aspects of the 'Immortality Ode', her body extremely anxious about William, came through the front door.

There was a terrible silence and then Stephanie, books flung down, had scooped up her still son, who, simply winded, began to scream ...


Stephanie kissed the graze and wept.  There is something peculiarly distressing about the first wound on new skin.

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