Relic

           Jo Mazelis    

 

            In idle moments Anna would often imagine and re-imagine a particular and important event from her past. She built the scene on the little information she had piece by piece – as one would follow a recipe from memory. The story was always set in early September, or to be precise, a remarkably hot September evening in 1986. The unseasonably warm weather is important for the story. And the story is important to Anna.

            She begins by picturing a small village in the heart of the Welsh countryside. It is so small a village that it is really only a single street, but it has a village shop and a post office; a pub and a church. The church is Victorian of the sort called gothic revival and has a quaint old lychgate and beyond that a gravel path lined with yew trees. Anna does not have to work very hard to imagine this place, as she has lived there all her life. The hard part is to strip away twenty-three years of change, to demolish the new housing development and the small trading estate, to bring back the Shell garage with its single pump and neon-lit forecourt.

            Now that she has set the scene Anna can introduce the star of this little drama and so, hurrying along the narrow twisting road that leads to the church, a young woman appears. She is carrying what looks a bundle of washing wrapped in a Welsh blanket. She is wearing a light-coloured raincoat, black court shoes, and a headscarf, which partially obscures her face.

            Sometimes these details change. She may be dressed in jeans or might approach the church from the opposite direction, but she always arrives at the church and always carries the bundle.

            The woman goes under the lychgate and stops for a moment as though catching her breath. Anna knows that the lychgate used to be the place where the coffin was set down before burial, but most people think it is just a charming architectural detail. The woman with the bundle won’t be thinking about that, she has other more important things on her mind, such as not being seen, not getting caught in the act. Under the gabled roof of the lychgate, the woman adjusts the bundle in her arms and gently pulls one corner of it back. She gazes lovingly at what is revealed.

            And there it is; the tiny face, the skin so fine and pale it is almost translucent. The baby is sleeping. She is just hours old. The woman traces her index finger over the baby’s face as though memorizing the plump cheek, the tiny bee-stung mouth, and the closed kitten’s eyes. As she gazes at it, the baby stirs and a small hand appears, finds the larger hand and clutches a finger with surprising strength.

            The woman wipes away a tear. She does it impatiently as though she does not have time for sorrow but must push it from her life with as much determination as a good girl should push away the advances of an amorous man; though clearly this determination has come too late for her. Sighing, she pulls the blanket up again so that the baby girl is all but hidden, and continues up the path. The gravel crunches underfoot like a dry whisper, but the woman thinks it is too loud and so she steps onto the grass between the graves.

            At the main entrance to the church she stops before the arched double doors. The handles on this door are made from circles of twisted iron that remind Anna of Celtic torcs. These were neck rings associated with fertility and also death. Iron Age peoples would sacrifice victims with a rope around their necks. The noose was a symbol of the torc and vice versa. Anna wrote a research paper on this subject during her first year at university and when she returned to her father’s small church, she was shocked by this similarity, by the pagan symbol so brazenly used on a Christian place of worship.

            Anna does not think that the woman with the swaddled baby in her arms would know anything about this. For one thing, Anna always imagines that she is very young, perhaps no more than fifteen or sixteen, and for another she believes her to be uneducated, or rather only educated enough for the hard physical labour of life on a farm. Not that Anna considers this a bad thing, indeed she rather envies that sort of intuitive practical knowledge – she thinks it must bring one a feeling of belonging that she herself has never felt. 

             Anna imagines the woman at the threshold to the church. Sees her holding the baby awkwardly in one arm as she reaches for the door handle; turns it and pushes with her shoulder against the dark wood.

             The door however does not give way. The woman’s face shows surprise, then horror. Up until this moment she has seemed calm, but now she is panicking. She turns and searches in all directions, looking for escape, for unseen enemies, for refuge. Her eyes are large with fear, and wet with tears. She looks up at a sky that is shot through with red and lilac light, and streaked with a multitude of thread-like cirrus clouds. The sun is low on the horizon and in fifteen minutes or the light will be gone. Then the cold harvest moon will do its best as a pale silvery substitute.

            At last the woman makes her decision and hurries around the back of the church where, amongst the older gravestones, there is a path that leads to the vicarage. This is the route taken by the vicar in his long black robes as he strides to and from services. The woman scurries along it now, drawn to the small neat cottage with its glow of yellow light at every window, its promise of warmth and happiness.

            Now that her mind is made up, the woman wastes no more time and lays the bundle on the doorstep of the vicarage, quickly presses the bell and races back across the silent lawn now limp with dew, then vanishes behind the high stone wall.

            Daydreams are dangerous; they are the devil’s work. Or at least that was what Anna’s adoptive mother and father used to say.

            ‘I never even dared to dream that I would have a child,’ her mother would often say. ‘I prayed, but that’s another matter.’

            There is a difference between the church and vicarage of Anna’s imagination and those of her reality; she crosses between them in her mind, but cannot quite marry one up with the other.

            The vicarage has been her home for almost all of her twenty-three years and Anna feels trapped there. Caught like a fly in a spider’s web, arms and legs pinioned by coziness and convention and duty. All her life the vicar and his wife have tried to make her feel grateful; grateful to God and grateful to them. She is their own little bundle of redemption, a child born of sin, lost and then found.

            The village then as now is small one and everyone knows the vicar and his wife. And equally everyone knows that Anna is the baby girl who was abandoned one autumn evening on their doorstep. The mystery child wrapped in a Welsh blanket, her small calm face a smudge of grey ink in the newspaper cuttings.

            She has grown up among whispers of suspicion. The half-finished tales of recognition.

            “Oh, she’s growing so fast! And look at those curls. She reminds me of…”

            She never gets used to the awkward silences and penetrating stares. She can never forget the children at school whose little mouths knew no boundaries.

            “My dad said your dad is Thom the coal man.”

            “Your real mum is Lizzie Bacon!”

            Everyone knows Lizzie Bacon. She helps out in the general store. She can’t speak properly, but smiles a lot in a sad-eyed lopsided way. She never wears a bra and her breasts are large and ponderous as if they do not really belong to her, as if someone has sewn them onto an overgrown moon-faced child for a joke.

            No wonder Anna dreams so often of a different sort of beginning. Not of Lizzie Bacon lifting her skirts behind the public lavatories in the park; that silly smile pasted on her face and all but oblivious to the filthy gropings and gruntings of Thom Thomas. It would be just like him to leave his mark on her like that. The black smuts of coal dust on her loose and undisciplined breasts and bruises on her inner thighs as he forced his way in and his semen like a shower of shooting stars in the innocent night of her womb.

            But Anna refuses to listen to these rumours and prefers instead to nurse her imagination. She would at least like to believe that there was love of some sort in her conception, even if it was thwarted or one sided or tragic.

            So Anna dreams. She’s trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, even though several vitally important pieces are missing and despite the fact that the picture the puzzle shows may not be one that pleases her.

            When she is not dreaming, she is reading. Her parents approve of this, as in their view reading; getting an education is the one way you can rise in the world and this is what they desire for her more than anything.

            What they do not understand is that her reading feeds the dreaming and the dreaming feeds the reading. She is in a loop. Her ‘education’ has only one goal; the exam certificates and distinctions and award ceremonies and prizes are just the side effects of a disease of being perpetually hungry for knowledge, which itself springs from being born a blank. A tabula rasa that the vicar and his wife, despite all their scraping and scratching, cannot inscribe with any permanence.

            Anna reads books about adoption, about DNA, about women’s history. The novels of Charles Dickens with all those orphaned children, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest with its baby in a handbag. Some of this gives her understanding, but none of it can give her the answer she really needs.

            She reads P.V. Globb’s The Bog People and stares for ten or twenty minutes at a time at the face of the little adulteress, traces a finger over the smooth surface of the paper using the same gesture of love and memory which she images her real mother once used on Anna’s face.

            When she goes to the mirror she searches for the face of her mother.

            She opens the scrapbook that her adoptive mother made for her. She was quite the little star of the local paper, for days at a time in the beginning, then later on birthdays, the anniversaries of old news.

            The first picture of her shows her bundled up in a blanket on the doorstep, but the picture is a fake. It is her, it is the actual blanket and doorstep, but it was taken the day after she had been found, and the blanket had been disinfected and scrubbed as though that might extinguish any trace of pain and passion, divorce her from the truth of her existence.

            On the same page there is a picture of the vicar and his wife. They are standing next to each other and smiling, with the church spire twisted and grey, looming up behind them. The photographer must have taken the shot from a low angle to get the church in like that, and the effect makes the man and woman look like troublesome gods, powerful, interfering, smug.

            The vicar is quoted in the paper. It’s some nonsense about God’s will and how she, the hapless baby has been saved. Saved, she thinks, like a sinner, like a drowning man, like Green Shield stamps.

            Anna would often question her adoptive parents about how she was found, but only once did she discover a new fact and that was only in passing. A new social worker had been appointed to her case in 1997 and Anna could tell that her mother had taken against the woman. The social worker’s emphasis was far too much about Anna’s long lost birth mother and not nearly enough praise was given to her saviours.

            ‘She must have been terribly afraid,’ the social worker mused.

            Anna’s mother had sniffed dismissively, picked up her knitting and started working the needles furiously.

            ‘We had thought that social services would fund another publicity campaign and…’

            ‘Anna wouldn’t like that, would you, dear? And I think it would be very hard for her to find out everything wouldn’t it? With her so bright and everything.’ The social worker hesitated and looked searchingly at Anna.

But Anna, afraid to show her interest in what was being said, looked quickly away.

            ‘I mean,’ Anna’s mother said. ‘She must have been very stupid, mustn’t she?’

            ‘I’m sorry…’ the social worker said. ‘I don’t understand how you can jump to that conclusion.’

            ‘Pah!’ Anna’s mother worked the wool expertly, making irregular clicking noises with the needles like a strange insect. ‘There was the bread wasn’t there.’

            ‘The bread?’

            ‘There was a freshly baked roll tucked in that old blanket with her, and her just minutes old, it could have choked her,’ she said scornfully, looking at neither Anna nor the social worker.

            ‘Oh, I see,’ the social worker made a note of this on her clipboard. Anna could read what she had written from where she sat. Bread it said, as if it was an item on a shopping list.

            Years later, the shopping list word still etched on her mind, Anna had learnt about the tradition of sin eating. Of how a sin eater was a person who for a small fee would eat a crust of bread, and how they thus symbolically swallowed the sins of the recently deceased.

            Lately Anna had pressed her adoptive mother for more information. Where had the bread roll been precisely? Did it have any markings on it? What had they done with it?

            ‘Well it was on your chest, here,’ her mother laid a hand upon a spot at the base of her throat. ‘She must have offered it to you and that’s where it ended up. Where did it go? Oh I don’t know, I ate it I think. Waste not, want not.’

            Anna liked to think that it wasn’t only the sins of the dead that could be swallowed by the living. It seemed unfair to her that some people got all the luck and all the virtue, when others had only sin and pain and loss.

            Her research had met a dead end; a place of ignorance and darkness and into that void she began to scratch her own meanings. It was an ancient habit. A relic.


 jo-mazelis-2010-2-1Jo Mazelis is the author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Her collection of stories, Diving Girls (Parthian), was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and Wales Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian), was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year. Her stories and poetry have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies and magazines, and translated into Danish. Significance  is her debut novel, and is a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winner. Her latest book is a collection of short stories, Ritual, 1969.

 

Photo:  John Elcock

 

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