SOME THINGS CAN be absorbed from a manageable distance, yet if I run from them memory runs with me.
A stern paternal grandmother, and of stern stuff; the only survivor of a quartet of grandparents who had contributed genes but no living monument in known shapes or characteristics to be observed by a child.
Hannah Ross – "Ross" in a generation shortened from "Rosovsky" – was not only large but formidable. Bombazine-bosomed, her throat encased, no, slotted, into high lace, high-haired and on most occasions in my presence, high-hatted with the addition of chooky feathers with a sheen that put me in mind of a march fly's wings. There was the smell to her of what I later learned was gardenias. And chalk. Overblown and dry? No, this matriarch was perfumed to more than a summer's day. An end of summer's day. A day when clouds could gather, boom with thunder.
They were terrible days when she came to visit. My mother dressed us accordingly: in our second best, me with very white socks. Vigorously brushed my hair, tied it back with an ironed ribbon. Took more trouble than usual with the explosions of flowers that, tumbled into vases, always decked our rooms. Used her best china. With an all consuming belief that my father, on whom Hannah Ross doted, had erred in choice of wife, for there was no woman worthy of her darling son. What's more he'd fallen trap to a beautiful woman in whose shadow her own daughter, my aunt, paled. So my grandmother was not set on approving me. Her daughter's daughter, Marina, could only be described as the apple of her eye. A month my junior, the second of her grand-daughters to grace the planet, my cousin, Marina, was the unparalleled star. Needless to say, my mother did not welcome my grandmother's visits. An ancient adversary with her rituals, battles, who saw to it that she divided my father's loyalties, demanded sacrifices.
Enthroned, she would beckon me to come closer. Imperiously.
"Natasha," she'd narrow eyes the colour of slate, then, chins raised, pinch her mouth to a pucker and extend stout fingers encrusted with diamonds. Hannah had been born in Holland to a diamond merchant, evidence of this in the brooches of graded stones that blinked and glittered from the inevitable black of her tailored jackets. Sometimes relieved by white or coffee-coloured blouses, pearls habitually nested on that stretch of concealed flesh. Her only real flesh I ever saw was face, hands, occasionally wrists, so concluded early that she was different from me.
"Closer, child," came the instruction and at my reluctance she would bend creakily forward, droop her torso almost to what must have been knees and clap a bejewelled hand to each of my cheeks. Bejewelled? Because I would feel the gold jointing the pads of fingers when she was intent on holding me captive for the inspection.
What did she see? Not Marina her favourite, but my mother's daughter with mouth squashed to a tight tomato, nose thrown out of shape, huge eyes in the young face straining not to water, cry in fright and miserable outrage.
Finally released and poised to flee, I was then subjected to the ritual of afternoon tea, put through the endurance of behaving properly. "Behaving properly" meant not spilling anything, answering only when spoken to, knees together and not fidgeting with the napkin spread to cover my tightly held lap. If my mother and I were unspoken allies on these occasions, there was one awful day when she betrayed me.
"NATASHA, GO AND wait at the gate for your grandmother." A pause, followed by a deep intake of breath. "Kiss her cheek if she offers it." Did she wince? "Escort her through the garden." Escort? Unhappily I only learned later what this meant was not run on ahead.
No hovering angel was there to take care of me under splashed shadows of leaves from the plane tree. As I swung on the gate, dragged a toe on the path, kicked off again, she would arrive by taxi if unable to commandeer someone to deliver her to us. And the elaborate cake. She could be counted on to bring it in its Coronation tin, Their Majesties in profile, crowns set on authoritatively held heads. And with lofty patronage, each cake she brought to us could have been iced with letters to spell out: "My son's wife is an indifferent cook." True, my mother preferred reading to baking. But, other than in my grandmother's mind, we did not go hungry. "Wholesome" rather than "fussy" was my mother's kitchen credo. Cherry-topped sponge, honey cream roll, apple strudel, even madeira – my hand would be slapped away should I reach for a piece before invited to do so. While my mother would stab at a slice with her cake fork, push it around her plate and wordless, manage to give the impression that as much as a crumb would choke her.
The blue-grey morning was now a yellow afternoon and next door but one my friend, Gwennie, lived in her house nestled among trees, too, where hens laid eggs in a wired run behind Mr Hunt's shed. Faintly, I could hear Gwennie's sharp-toothed dog barking. Most times this meant Gwennie and her mother were out, her brothers at school. My status was "only child".
Engrossed, fingering the latch on the gate, clacking it up, down, up, fuelled with what must have been a sense of righteousness, I waited. I knew what was asked of me. Yet when I heard the car draw up, I didn't raise my head, look at it. Her. Was I practising a furtive smile? Directed at tracking ants near my feet?
"Hello, girlie," called the driver, one foot on the running board of his polished Rover. The slug of a cigarette held fast to his lower lip, his eyebrows were grey caterpillars. "Here's the dear old lady. Nanna?"
Nanna! I'd never called her that and peremptorily my grandmother was ordering me: "Don't just stand there child."
I bit my lip. Where should I stand? She fixed a gimlet eye on me from a face more creased in strong sunlight and more unkissable than usual. Should she offer a floury cheek I knew what must be done. Submit.
"Got a kiss for me as well?" the driver asked. A kiss for him! I was appalled and my tongue went furry. Or something.
"Get off with you, Eric," she sounded almost playful, a spasm of laughter biting into the creases. She appeared to save her smiles for other people. "She won't remember you. No, no, don't give her the tin," and a copious handbag was adjusted, slid towards one elbow. "This child's likely to drop it," and Their Majesties were delivered into my grandmother's outstretched hands.
Obedient to my instructions, I held the gate open and the black galleon of her sailed through, though not before: "Be back here by four, if you will, Eric. Four o'clock sharp."
"Righty-hoh," a neat sniff and Eric waved.
"Natasha. Fasten the gate properly. Securely."
And I did, though securely against what? I didn't care. Freed, grinning in relief, up on my toes, I was off. Off up the driveway, free, scooping air, my hair like black rope flying out from my head.
"WHERE IS SHE? where is your grandmother?"
Touched by indoor shadows, as she held herself tall inside our front door, panels of stained glass waratahs to each side, the austerity of my mother's voice was enfolding like smoke. Grey and acrid; smoke I badly wanted to push away. Why? Why the smoke, the sting of it? I didn't know.
A hand lifted to shade her eyes. "WHERE IS SHE?"
The tongue in my mouth wasn't there. I tried, but dumb, pulses tap-tapping my throat, couldn't frame the answer. Tell that my grandmother – greeted and dutifully kissed – was right now sailing with her waddle towards us and our house. With Their Majesties.
If my mother's nerve ends twitched, mine fizzed. She shook me. Something was unfixably wrong. "WHERE IS SHE?"
Her smell of gardenias the warning, she arrived sheened with sweat; Brunhilde on the warpath, bent on blood. My blood, after she'd transferred Their Majesties into the keeping of a livid daughter-in-law, whose eyes resembled glass.
"You're impossible, child," my grandmother's hum rose to a shout. "You're impossible, child!"
Hot tears burned inside me, but filled up with explosive hatred, words continued to flee in fear.
"Come in, please come in," and as she put her lips together in a smile, my mother stood aside before, with an operatic sigh, Hannah Ross huffily obliged. But the episode was not yet done.
Miserable, we waited for further punishment – scalding words, stabbing comparisons with Marina, the dimple-kneed-sweeter-than-sugar star with her unnerving ability to please. Already I understood well enough it was useless trying to squeeze a sign of fondness from Hannah Ross for me. At last seated, a tray with a jug of lemon barley water at her side, her glass up-ended, replenished, my grandmother boomed.
"Evidently, she's been taught no manners!" "Manners ..." my mother's
"Yes, manners. Proper behaviour," she emphasised, her voice rising in satisfied indignation.
"There are no 'buts'," her added, "my dear", acidic. "She must be sent to the bathroom. For the entire afternoon."
"I think that ..."
"Don't think. She must be taught to respect her elders." She cleared her throat, declaimed. "In this modern world of ours, I very willingly move with the times. Never can it be laid at my door that I am left behind."
Modern! I didn't understand the concept, how could I? But this ogre, who was saying things I didn't want us to hear, was as modern as Methuselah; a woman on whose insistence all mirrors were covered during a storm should lightning strike, needlework set aside, knives during a meal replaced by spoons. "I do think ... " my mother began again, bravely I thought, "that we can explain your grievance to Natasha." Briefly her glance fell on me. "She will ... "
"She will what?"
"Mend her ways is what's required." Her resolve along with her voice did not falter. "Take my word for it, punishment makes for a fast learner and an afternoon in the bathroom will prove me right. She ... "
"No." This from me. And a second of obscure satisfaction.
"NO! Did you tell me NO?"
Shaken by my audacity, blood seething, I rushed to my mother, snatched up her hand, nosed it like a cat.
Snapping into action with a vigour I'd never witnessed in her, my grandmother was on her feet. A snarl of rage from her and fright whined in my head. Brunhilde towered over me, vein throbbing in her forehead, face a mottled brick red. Bees stung my ear. Things in the room – chairs, the nest of stork-legged tables, the bowl of cream roses, a vase with sweet peas – went crooked then hung topsy-turvy. Distorted.
Feeling the heat of her face on mine, I couldn't squirm free as I was pulled from the room, her breath a set of bellows, low and hard.
"Mummy ..." I half heard someone – me – scream wild with fright, the maternal noun to be appropriate then: "Mummy ... " The hall was a long hole like a burrow giving onto another somewhere, another world.
Opened quietly enough, a door slammed. An enamel-handled door, on a cold white bathroom. Funereal diamonds of black tiles halfway between floor and ceiling ran around each wall, a mourning frieze.