An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cousin Mary

Cousin Mary was a pretty little girl when she was young but age has hardened her and has etched an ugliness into her face that comes straight from her soul. She was a morose child though and then a deeply melancholy teenager.  She grew into a depressive young woman and at the age of 22 she tried to kill herself by hurling herself from the roof of her mother's house. She succeeded only in shattering her pelvis, breaking her spine and breaking both legs in multiple places. A paraplegic now, Cousin Mary can no longer climb onto the roof. Her wheelchair confines her body to the ground floor and her failure confines her mind to meanness. Cousin Mary is a tyrant in the ancient Greek sense and a martinet in the more modern French sense.

Grandma Alice was beautiful baby, a beautiful child, a gorgeous teenager and now she is a radiant old woman. Though her skin is that strange translucent shade that we associate with extreme old age and she gives every impression that a strong wind could blow her away her inner beauty shines through her pale green eyes. Grandma Alice is Cousin Mary's mother though I suspect that Grandma Alice would rather that Cousin Mary were not her only surviving child.  Three dead sons, one dead daughter, 2 still births and a living daughter have, over the years, leeched iron into Grandma Alice's soul. She loves Cousin Mary but she does not like her one little bit.

Let me explain some relationships - Grandma Alice is not my grandmother. She is in fact the baby sister of my mother's mother. She was born a year after my mother as I was born a year after Cousin Mary. Uncle Theo is my mother's baby brother so he genuinely is my uncle and he is also a  government scientist of some description.

My mother? My mother is, like Grandma Alice, an old woman now but she is spry and but for her eyesight dimming of late she would be cheerfully old but she fears not being able to read and she detests the idea of no longer being able to drive. She cherishes her autonomy and worries a lot about becoming dependent. My mother, like Grandma Alice has the genes for thinnness. Not so Uncle Theo.

Uncle Theo is a rotund, orotund joker. His baritone voice is strong and clear and so his numerous jests and puns boom out above any amount of modern background din. In these days of commonplace obesity he is more cuddly than fat or gross. You could say that I favour my uncle in terms of body shape and in some ways I favour his demeanour too. I am happy with almost everything apart from my body shape and I do not, I fear have his wicked way with words.  Last Xmas, over Xmas dinner in fact, Uncle Theo dubbed Grandma Alice's family as "the auto-destructive end of the gene pool" where my father's side of the family, coming as they originally did from a tiny, remote hamlet in the countryside he described as "the shallow end of the gene pool".

All three of Cousin Mary's brothers, in point of fact all four of her live born siblings committed suicide before they reached thirty. John, the first born, laid his head on a railway track when he was just in his majority. Paul overdosed on morphine in a London squat - a hyperdermic syringe hung from his groin. Tommy, little Tommy, slit his wrists with an old fashioned single sided razor blade in a warm bath in his mother's upstairs bathroom -  a large glass of whiskey, a full ashtray, 4 unsmoked Gauloises in a crumpled pack. and a copy of Joannes Zonaras' Compendium of History laid face down and open at page 284 were found with him. He was 18. Alice, named for her mother and the first born daughter starved herself to death at 15.

Grandma Alice's house is laid out on three floors: a cellar where wine and provisions are stored; the ground floor where Cousin Mary rules with a rod of pure titanium wheeling around in her chair from the library where she sleeps to the kitchen where she interferes with the cooking and provisioning of the house and picks constantly at snacks and biscuits. Cousin Mary does not have the thinness gene. The drawing room features on her circuit too but only in order that she can assure herself that it remains locked at all times.  Grandma Alice has her bedroom on the top floor in the same room that she and her husband shared. He is long gone. He may be dead. We cannot be sure. He left the year after Cousin Mary's suicide attempt saying that he would not be dictated to by his own daughter. Grandma Alice was not sad to see him go. Grandma Alice's house is permanently silent. A funeral parlour atmosphere lives in this house.  Cousin Mary has had a bathroom installed in part of what was the library before her father left. There is a hoist that serves both to get her in and out of the bath and also in and out of her bed. Uncle Theo once told me in confidence that Cousin Mary's quarters reminded him of Catherine the Great's bedchamber but he smiled, tapped the side of his nose and refused to explain why when I asked why.

Grandma Alice has a piano. Actually, Grandma Alice has two pianos. As a child she showed precocious talent as a pianist and composer and her parents encouraged her by employing a tutor. Grandma Alice lived for the piano. The family, close and distant, would gather at holidays and the high point would always be a recital by Grandma Alice, sometimes solo and sometimes with a local boy who played violin passably well. Her talent blossomed and the tutor believed she had a concert pianist under her tutelage but made a terminal mistake by entreating Grandma Alice's parents to enter her at the Conservatoire Frederic Chopin in Paris. He had badly misjudged her parents who had no intention of allowing their youngest daughter a career. The tutor was peremptorily dismissed and within the year Grandma Alice had been married off to an eligible bachelor notary in the nearby town. He was 12 years older than Grandma Alice when they married; that is why we now assume he is dead.   

Grandma Alice's day to day piano is invisible to all but Grandma Alice. Perhaps not entirely invisible - there are traces to be detected. In the middle of the kitchen is the huge farmhouse table, a pitch pine rural monstrosity, that serves as a food preparation area, a desk, a work bench and a reading station. Grandma Alice always sits with her back to the south facing window over the stone sink and if you were to look very closely, forensically closely, you would or you might find evenly spaced fingerprints along the edge and if you closed your eyes and visualized the pattern of those fingerprints then like a Polaroid photograph developing in your hand you would or could. if you tried really hard, perceive a piano keyboard. Mother tells me that in the early days Grandma Alice used to spread tea towels that mother had bought for her printed with piano keyboards along this surface and play silently for hours - the tea towels wore out in time and Grandma Alice never replaced them. I suspect that she never needed them - the real keyboard is inside her head and her hands.

Grandma Alice's other piano is a Steinway grand. The very same Steinway on which she practiced in her youth. The Steinway that replaced the old upright that she learned on as a child.  It has not been tuned in years. Grandma Alice has not seen it in years. It lives, or perhaps it rests, in the drawing room. The drawing room is always locked and Cousin Mary has the key to the room. She wears it on a chain around her neck.


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