Fiction

The end of Pippa, the beginning of Claire

SHE WASN'T ALWAYS like this. Starched and furrowed. She was still young, or youngish. She had everything, people said: delicate good looks, family money, a big brother to ruffle her a little and stop her becoming too prissy, a mind that could think about the world and her place in it. She might have evolved differently. But childhood is another country on the other side of vast oceans and we cannot visit and each year our memories grow paler. Different people live there.

 

AS A CHILD, Pippa was fearless. There were no monsters in her dark, no dead mothers or dead animals or bad dreams. She was slight, blonde and popular, in love with movement, with the speed her slender body could generate. She was fond of running through the halls of the grand house, tearing about corners arms wide like a banking aeroplane. She played elastics with her many friends, bouncing over the taut barrier to delight in the power in her calves and the spring in her knees. She climbed trees barefoot, monkey toes pressed into cracks and crevices, arms scrambling ahead of her pulling her small weight vertical until she could see over the wall onto the street. Then she would perch on a branch, her back leaning against the scratching bark and wave with her whole arm at cars and passers-by.

Resilience shone on her skin; if she received no return wave she shrugged and waved all the harder next time. She had a grand room on the first floor painted pale pink, with bluebell wallpaper along the cornices and a matching white Queen Anne set of bed, dresser, wardrobe and chair that she treated lightly, sticking posters to the inside of the wardrobe with sticky tape, shoving the drawers of the dresser closed with a swing of her hip.

She was blessedly oblivious to the meaning of the word ‘antique'. She was given toys to fill her room: a miniature three-storey house imported from England and dolls of every variety, from majestic brides in white satin to tippy-toed career girls with their own convertible; embroidery kits, painting sets, a miniature plastic stove with plastic frypan and plastic eggs.

She even had a nickname, her parents having been so thoughtless as to provide a single-syllable name (how can children shorten Claire to show their affection? Clai? Cla? or just Cl?), so at school she was known as Pippa, because at least her surname, Piper, provided some room to move. Her family mostly called her Claire, except for Nicholas, who called her Bear-head (Bear-head, Bear-head, you are a fat head), and her grandfather, the late Douglas Servent, who called her Pips.

 

IF YOU'RE THINKING this freedom is at odds with her family and her legacy and the position her mother held in society, you'd be right, yet this was how Eveline and Hugh allowed her to grow until she reached her teenage years. Let's assume the best: let's assume it was a calculated act of kindness. Perhaps their own lives showed them the burden Pippa would face, and this tousled and gentle childhood was a gift to a youngster who would all too soon feel the bridle in her mouth and the weight of the saddle. Or let's assume the worst: perhaps they never really noticed her until she stood at the edge of puberty, ready (in their minds, if not in hers) to become a Piper and carry her fair share of the Piper burden.

In the end, Eveline and Hugh didn't need to calm her down, send her to deportment classes or lecture her about responsibility. Circumstances took care of that. And, like everything in Claire's life, or indeed, almost everything in the entire world, Claire's moment of transformation was entirely her own fault.

 

CLAIRE COULD NEVER escape her memories of that moment. She thought of it often, reminded at least three months of the year while shopping for groceries or watching television. Her memory of it intruded at the oddest times: once, on the train home from work, Claire gave up her seat for a woman holding the hand of a small girl, a child of perhaps seven or eight. (Claire was a compulsive seat-giver-upper: thirty-something women, young men, teenage girls and even boys were shocked when she stood, gesturing toward her seat, insisting they sit. Claire might have discontinued this habit had she realised it had the opposite effect from the one she intended. The victims of her thoughtfulness thought they must look dreadful: pale and possibly ill. She was unknowingly responsible for three resolutions to give up smoking, seven new hair colours and, in a 24-year-old man, the determination to give up wearing women's clothes for good.)

On the train that day, the girl wore a long pink dress with thin straps tied on top of her shoulders. From the depths of a handbag the woman produced a chocolate Easter egg, its tinfoil wrapping gaudy red and vibrant pinks and oranges, and handed it to the child who held it for a while in her white hand before cracking it against a seat, peeling and eating it. Sitting there on the train, watching shreds of shiny paper float to the floor of the carriage, Claire again remembered the child she used to be. It was still two months to Easter, she thought. We should just give up any idea of seasons or special days. People don't want to wait for seasons to change, or special times to begin and end. They want every day to be any day.

The moment that Pippa became Claire had happened one Easter. She didn't pay enough attention in class and that was where the trouble began.

At school, she doodled, she dawdled, she fiddled. She stared out the window, entranced by the colours of leaves and the shapes of clouds. She played games with her own fingers, cat's cradle with string, swung her feet so hard her heels kicked the underside of her chair. When Mrs McCrae told the class they would be raising money for those less fortunate with an Easter raffle, Pippa had not been listening. These things were common: raffles, cent auctions, jam drives. The sums of money raised were never very large: more important was the sense of service that well-bred young girls were expected to wear like the polished school badge on their woollen blazers.

On the morning when all the girls were to bring in their contributions to the raffle, Pippa's first class was history. Mrs McCrae would be continuing their discussion of the French Revolution.

There was no Pimpernel-esque sympathy for the aristocrats from Mrs McCrae, who still couldn't quite believe that her working two part-time jobs through teacher's college, her days as a student activist, heading up street marches, handing out flyers for the Communist Workers' Party, all her idealism to change the lives of children through education, had led her here to this overindulged bunch of stuck-up princesses. (It was never her intention, but had been a suggestion from her much older, strictly-hush-hush lover, a university professor, who mentioned casually in his locked office that subverting the bourgeoisie by infiltrating the minds of their children would be the greatest act of class warfare a teacher could perform.) All children are used to being the smallest and the least powerful, but they are not resigned to it; it gives them a built-in loathing of tyrants and an acceptance of violent justice. Girls especially, before they realise that such fantasies are unsuitable, dream of becoming sword-wielding angels of vengeance, dream of power, dream of right.

Mrs McCrae was a good teacher, a natural orator with a beguiling Scottish accent and fine features. The girls were captivated by her stories of the handsome French people, beaten and starving, rising up, up, up, pure of heart, with swords that sung. It would be much later, when the girls became suburban wives and conservative mothers, before they would question this strange residual sympathy. It would become embarrassing and incomprehensible to them, a relic of their childhood that had no place in their lives. They would wonder where it had come from.

Pippa hadn't blinked when Thomas dropped her off at school. She struggled out of the back seat of the Mercedes carrying an enormous hooped cane basket she could barely lift, open on one side and high-backed on the other. It held a blue tinfoil-covered egg almost a foot tall that must have been laid by a dinosaur. Clustered around this egg on all sides were dozens of smaller ones, then scores smaller still, some truffle-filled, some liqueur-filled, artfully nestled in straw. There were frills and flounces and chocolate bunnies and foil baby chickens, all piled high in a tooth-aching display of the finest European couverture. On the top was a stiff blue bow and dozens of smaller blue ribbons cascading down the side of the basket.

When class began she took her seat, the basket on the floor beside her. She didn't remember her thoughts in those last few moments of her previous life. She didn't notice that the only donation within sight was hers. She only remembered Mrs McCrae asking everyone to bring their contributions to the front, and watching each and every girl walk forward with a solitary egg nestled in her hand. All at once Pippa was conscious of the basket at her feet, like an enormous birthmark or a stain on her clothing. She remembered freezing in her seat, Mrs McCrae calling her name twice, feeling a dread of movement so unlike herself. Just let me be still, she thought for a moment, shutting her eyes. But she could not be still. She remembered finally rising from her seat. She remembered walking up to the front of the class, basket in hand. Mrs McCrae scooping the other eggs to one side with an ostentatious curve of her arm. Pippa placing her basket on the teacher's desk amid the two-dozen normal, egg-sized eggs. Walking back to her seat, feeling the eyes of every classmate upon her.

‘Well, well,' said Mrs McCrae, one hand lifting the basket by the handle, gauging its weight. ‘Let them eat cake, Miss Piper?'

At the morning break, the other girls gathered in twos and threes, giggling behind their hands and looking at her with peeking eyes. The rest of that day, the rest of the week, the rest of the year, the other girls called her Marie-Claire Antoinette. Overnight, she saw herself as others must see her, and she was amazed she had never considered herself as an object before, as a physical body, as the target of opinions and chatter and observance. Soon she was pleading with her mother to let her catch the bus instead of having Thomas drop her off. She scuffed all new shoes before wearing them to school, begged for clothes from chain stores instead of the boutiques her mother favoured. She studied hairstyles, sock lengths, earrings. She made things worse. She fooled no one.

Soon there were no friends, no games. She was no longer Pippa. Now she was Claire. At school, when she appeared unexpectedly from around the corner of a corridor, the other girls took an involuntary step backward. There was no jostling in stairwells or in the queue at the bag racks. Other girls came from families just as wealthy, or almost so. It wasn't that. It was the desperation that seeped from her pores. It made the other girls wary and alert in the way a pack of animals smell weakness in their midst.

It was around this time that even her body began to betray her. The shining limbs that ran and climbed and jumped were still the same, still straight and fine, but Claire began to develop breasts, unwelcome protrusions that did not belong, that swelled instead of smoothed. They were immodest. They ran the nasty risk of drawing attention to her. She couldn't find the words to speak of this with her mother, who spent long hours on the board of the children's hospital and the opera, and who Claire had never seen in her underwear. Eveline was not the kind of woman to use the word ‘breasts' but, in a case of grave necessity, alone with her doctor, perhaps might have said ‘bust' or ‘bosom'. Eveline did not notice Claire's strange preference for bulky knits on the warmest days, nor her sudden disdain for swimming. Claire did not tell her mother that she could no longer run without holding her arms tight in front of her like a deformed bird, or that her chest ached if she jumped, became uncomfortable if she lay on her stomach in bed at night. Now Claire found solace in stillness, instead of speed. Stillness did not betray her. She studied hard, she read. She still dreamed of running sometimes, and always in these dreams she was a small child running toward her grandfather. Doug Servent had died some years before. In Claire's memories his arms were always outstretched toward her.

Finally, when Claire was thirteen and Nicholas fifteen, Eveline was on her way out to a meeting of the church auxiliary, through the kitchen toward the garage, when a silver back fell from her earring. The pearl caught on her blouse and she retrieved it easily, then she knelt on the kitchen floor and felt for the back with both hands outstretched; it was invisible against the white marble. She had already said goodbye to the children. They thought she had already left. She could hear them talking in the sitting room.

‘Hey Claire,' Nicholas's voice was clear, echoing down the hallway. ‘Who's your favourite dead politician?'

‘Get lost.' Claire's voice was thinner, like the sound of fine china striking a hard surface.

‘I'm asking a simple question. It's for a school assignment. Who's your favourite dead politician?'

‘Get...get...leave me alone.'

Eveline almost went to them at this moment to remonstrate with Claire, to discipline her for speaking this way to her brother, but if she left now she might never find the back of her earring and then she would have to go back upstairs for another pair and then she would be late for her meeting. She stayed in the kitchen, kneeling out of sight.

‘I know. I know who your favourite dead politician is.'

‘I said leave me alone,' said Claire.

‘It's Booby Kennedy, isn't it?'

Claire didn't reply. Nicholas's laughter echoed down the hall, bounced around the hard tiles and appliances of the kitchen.

‘And who's your favourite eighties singer? Booby McFerrin? And Claire, I've been meaning to ask you, what do they call policemen in England? Come on, Claire. You know that, don't you? You must know that.'

That was it, the end of the conversation. There was no more sound from Claire, no more from Nicholas. There was a muffled thud a few seconds later that might have been Claire slamming her door. Nicholas might have gone to his room also, or to the library to watch television. Eveline stood. She held the back of her earring tight in her fist.

A few days later, she took Claire to a large department store in the city where Eveline waited on a Queen Anne chair in an anteroom while Claire, in her school uniform, was ushered in to a curtained alcove. A matronly woman in black asked Claire to take off her blouse, then wrapped a tape measure around Claire's ribcage like she was gauging a length of timber for a shelf. Eveline was at her kindest that day; she took Claire for lunch afterwards at a pleasant bistro where they both ordered Caesar salad and Claire was allowed a slice of lemon tart, and a cappuccino. This unexpected treat of time with her mother and lunch at a fashionable restaurant made everything clear for Claire. This was a consolation, a salve on her open wound, an act of contrition. That was when Claire realised that her childhood was over, that womanhood was not a phase but would be permanent. Eveline drove them home after lunch and Claire looked out the window of the car and did not speak, just watched the traffic: women driving, women walking, women tram conductors.

Claire came home that day with a bag of thick-strapped sensible tan harnesses and struggled into one each morning, twisting her arms around her back at unnatural angles until they could click the impossible hooks in place. She threw out her filmy sundresses with straps that tied on her shoulders and her shirts that were too sheer. She was yoked now. She was ready for work.

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