by Souzi Gharib
“What is the colour of your eyes?” an articulate voice inquires.
“Golden brown,” I answer with the ease only characteristic of self-description, particularly the physiognomic type. I had borrowed the adjective from a pop song, the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown”, and feel like adding the words that follow, “texture like sun”, but it would have cost me the job.
“Then your interview is at the address provided in the newspaper at eleven o’clock, tomorrow. We look forward to meeting you, Clare. Good Day,” concludes the very courteous voice.
The phone resumes its electronic tone marking the end of an ordeal. I desperately need eye-contact in any intercourse with humankind, and on the phone I feel blind. I know the job involves humouring a home-bound youth but I cannot understand the relevance of the colour of my orbs. This lends an enigmatic hue to a very ordinary job-interview. I begin to tread in the footsteps of Jane Eyre on her way to gothic Thornfield. I know I have to pull the brake on a very imaginative cast of mind, so I occupy myself instead with ironing the only dress suitable for a formal meeting, my daffodil outfit.
We have always been short of money. My father eventually broke under the strain of supporting a small family and completely vanished. Out of grief, my mother locked herself in some monastery in Provence which was affiliated to her ancestral past. I and my twin sister remained in Glasgow. I assiduously pursued study and became obsessed with scholarships but my twin sister Adele preferred a different type of life and became a strip in some renown club for mature men – at least this is what I have been told. I never investigated the veracity of her tale. I know from the letters that I occasionally receive that she lavishly lives in the West End in a trendy apartment that I have never visited. I always return her cheques, the money she bewitchingly earns, with a brief but thankful note informing her that I have enough on which to subsist.
I arrive the next morning at a huge house, the mansion type, with a half-erased coat-of-arms: I view the boat, the anchor and the dolphin with reverence, all water elements. The bronze door-handle imparts history to my humid palm. I am received by an elegant housekeeper whose smile intensifies upon greeting my eager eyes. She decorously leads the way to a great hall whose main characteristic is light. Irises and daffodils adorn every corner of a very spacious room. Bright wild flowers, dominantly yellow and white, are everywhere. Yellow seeps into my brain-cells and tranquilizes my agitated nerves.
The hall is empty of other candidates so I assume I must be nearer my goal. I need the money for my studies and other ever-postponed necessities. A soft bell rings and I am ushered into another room, brighter in hues. There are even butterflies hovering around majestic vases. I am quite relieved that no hand-shaking is involved. My hands always feel embarrassingly icy-cold. People attribute it to malnourishment though it is in my case simply a matter of bad blood-circulation, so a doctor once told me.
“Good Morning, Clare. How are you?” greets a young man from behind a grand desk.
“Good Morning. I am very well, thank you,” I answer with a habitual, genuine smile which some men find captivating and then unhesitatingly add, “And you?”
“I shall feel better when I know how you feel about my offer,” the young man supplies the answer with a beautiful mouth and a pair of probing eyes.
I await the more detailed job-description with my habitual patience, returning his boundless gaze with humble haze.
“How do you feel about a sort of wordless friendship? Do you believe in the eloquence of eyes?” he poses a couple of questions for a job-description.
He sounds neither like the Roderick Usher whose heart-beats resonate to a half-buried sister nor like the lead singer of Depeche Mode, complaining in “Enjoy the Silence” about the violence of words – simply a mature, pensive, young man whose eyes merely seek meaning in mine. Strange as the situation sounds, the thing does not sound like dating. I am beneath his station and he sounds too serious for anything flirtatious. However, I think of my stripping sister revealing the most intimate parts of her body: Am I then to strip my soul before a stranger’s pair of eyes? Do both jobs amount to the same thing? Both are paid anyway. In an age of escorts and fast sex a very charming and handsome man is looking for a soulful strip. I trip over reluctant words and remain helplessly terse.
‘What has the colour of eyes to do with this?” I inquisitively ask.
The man with the eloquent voice on the phone politely intimates that I am not expected to ask any questions about my employer’s preferences or ailment or even speak of my situation outside this present circle, which merely consists of the house-keeper Miss. McKnowel , the nameless voice, and Mr. McSloy, my taciturn employer. With a simple nod of the head, I accept the job and receive a cheque in advance of five-hundred pounds.
In bed I ponder over models I have seen on television posing for upright painters. The artist does not give them his undivided attention; his focus is on the canvas. What would be the duration of my employer’s gaze? I wonder whether it is moral to commune with the soul of a man for whom I feel nothing. And what if I eventually feel something for him? It is going to be unrequited and a broken rule for which I would be reprimanded. I crease my tidy bed with restless thoughts then dive into a puddle of tears which always grows into a vast lake in my dreams.
In the morning new worries emerge. What am to wear on my first day at work? I have resolved to keep the cheque for academic needs. I open my mother’s abandoned wardrobe and consider for the first time wearing her antique dresses, some of which she inherited from her own grandmother, heraldry in cloth. I try the bluebell dress. It fits my slender frame. We both take after our slim mother, but Adele has recently put on extra flesh in the wake of her profession-related banquets.
I have always collected words as a girl eagerly collects sea-shells. Each word has a kingdom of its own. Each has color, odour and a winsome personality that is inborn. Each possesses its own music, its own audible soundtrack whether it is sung or lies dormant in bed alone. Sometimes words enact their allotted meanings and at other times they mischievously elope. Each word I wrote or spoke acquires a scent which conjures up a phantasmagoria of images, scenes and emotions experienced years ago. Words emanate warmth and solace when all around me have gone cold. With words I rub my wounds and bandage the lacerations of my soul. Words are phantoms, Emily’s, Anne’s and Charlotte’s which haunt the deep recesses of my core. They are angels that fan a child’s fever like Oscar Wilde’s swallow who died forlorn.
Deprived of my cherished companions, I have to start my very first day at work without their indispensable aid. Bravely sitting opposite his lofty chair in a spectacular garden, I smile my morning greetings, feeling as weird as Alice in that famous, enchanted hole in her pursuit of a rabbit that talks. His eyes are fixed on the water-lilies that deck an expansive pond. I follow his gaze and imbibe the translucence of my favourite flower with gratitude. When our eyes meet for fleeting seconds, it feels like an overwhelming deluge of warmth. He leaves with a graceful bow and I continue contemplating Beauty alone. I wait to be ushered out to head home.
I arrive at my flat feeling feather-light. The albatross is off my neck. There is nothing immoral about my new job. A sense of companionship, completely missing from my life, begins to buoy me up. He must have had a turbulent, domestic life to be so averse to words. I know from my parents how verbal exchanges can grow perniciously harmful. Or he might be hermetic in inclinations. I remember my promise to keep the nature of my employment secretive, so I rebuke my own private, errant thoughts and immerse myself in my academic world.
Because the weather is slightly chilly, our second meeting is in the library-room which is full of Scotch broom. My eyes weave yellow on their looms. I nearly swoon when I feel a pair of golden-brown eyes watching me from above. A large painting of a beautiful woman covers half the wall. Mr. McSloy follows the direction of my gaze and joins me in contemplating the portrait. When I view his face to investigate any resemblance to the object of the portrait, he returns my smile with a galaxy of lights that swim in a pair of emerald-green eyes. I wonder what sort of things he sees in mine and why of all the people I?
I stop worrying about what to wear for work. Mr. McSloy does not notice my clothes or anything below my orbs. I stick to my daffodil dress because it makes me feel like a Tibetan monk gone on a retreat. I begin to cherish our meetings which are fairly brief and pray for his health because at times he looks as frail as the flowers that adorn his book-shelves.
At night, our cities are engulfed with myriads of light, the romantic, the commercial, and the garish type, and for people whose heads are cowed with worries about fees, food and overdue rent, the stars above remain totally obscured and out of sight.
We bask in the gloaming imbibing every shred of light. The moon waxes rhapsodic over the surface of every crystal-clear dew-drop. I follow his gaze to the sky and falter above a mat of stars. Infinitude is our rite tonight. It is Mr. McSLoy who teaches me how to star-walk.
I still recall how as a child I enjoyed counting the numberless stars, but I was repeatedly admonished by my superstitious aunt who told me that the ugly warts on my hand, which rebuffed the clasps of my school-mates, were some kind of retribution for my star-counting. The more I counted, the more mushrooms sprouted, the uglier grew my hand. I wondered how such beautiful lights could vengefully blight my hands with sprouts. I continued gazing at the starry sky but the moment my head started a count I hurriedly lowered my eyes. My parents tried every sort of ointment and medication to eradicate the ugly mounds, but nothing worked. It took an Indian, blind man with a knife held in his hand to induce their demise. He repeatedly passed the knife over the culprits, almost touching them, while reciting memorized verses from his holy book. The immense fear I felt when the knife nearly scraped my ossified dunes must have made them disappear. It was a psychological type of healing, but frightfully intimidating.
When I turn my head in Mr. Mcsloy’s direction, a lunar ray rebounds from his eye and skates on my golden-browns, illuminating my tearful mind. I smile my good-night and leave Mr. McSloy to his cosmic pals.
Knights of Light
Mrs. McKnowel leads me out of the familiar surroundings to a submerged path that leads to the family chapel. I think that this is one of the blessings of being affluent, affording private worship. I assure her that I shall be able to find Mr. McSloy on my own, and walk with ease the tree-fringed path with tranquility. A tiny stone church meets my eyes but Mr. McSloy is not to be found. I walk round the church to the backyard where I find a small cemetery full of flowers. On an elegant bench sits Mr. McSloy contemplating a grave or reading something engraved on it. I make my presence felt by standing next to the bench and start reading the inscription:
Hereby I purge my tongue, my mind, my heart, of thinking ill of a ring of holy monks, Knights of Light, who will forevermore remain enshrined in many hearts.
I stand at a loss what to do. My eyes are mesmerized by his ring which bears the same coat-of-arms engraved on the edifice. I feel as if I am walking into a page of history which in grand libraries one cannot touch without a white pair of gloves. I remember the reverence which my mother bestows upon the dead and kneel and say a prayer for the tenants of the grave. It must be very lonely to be the last of a race, a dying history without a living trace. As I rise to resume my former position at his side, Mr. McSloy stirs and heaves a sigh. I eagerly look into his eyes only to meet a galaxy of tears.
In a large bed Mr. McSloy lies like an ailing bird, a golden creature that one visualizes in fairy tales. A tear hops on my eyelash that mirrors a similar one on his emerald-green lake. The housekeeper whispers in my ear that tears are discouraged in the presence of a sickly friend. I force a smile that kindles my golden-brown twins and wait for a response from him. He twists like a crinkling leaf, so I whisper in Mrs. McKnowel’s ear a plea to be allowed to get closer to him. She is at a loss what to say and ignores my gradual advance to a very majestic bed. I sit at its very edge and place my warming hand next to his. He looks too weak to act so I take his hand in my small hands and try to impart what neither words nor gazes can convey to him. He lies very still. I feel his hand slowly wilting in my gentle grip. I release it when I know all contact with him is definitely lost. It won’t be long before he’s dead; I know it.
Adele invites me to her wedding-ceremony. She has managed to convince an elderly man to become his permanent strip and wishes me to be her bridesmaid. In a glamorous parcel I receive the full gear: a silk, pink dress with a pair of very expensive satin shoes. I return her tinsel with an apology that I am in the middle of mourning for a very dear friend. Instead I arrive at the church in a black dress which my mother had reserved for funerals and formal events. On a finger, I wear a ring with a coat of arms engraved on it. Stephen McSloy had bequeathed it to me in his will.
Adele spends her honeymoon in France and upon her return she invites me to her new residence in St. Andrews. I am eager to know how life has been faring with my self-sequestered mother so I accept her invitation without any reservations. Her aged husband dutifully receives me with a lukewarm smile but he has a pair of chilling eyes that are colder than my Alaskan hands. He feels my discomfort in his presence and feigns no affection for his wife’s only relative. We intuitively discern that we belong to warring clans.
Adele takes me to her over-furnished, bridal room to display her hard-earned comforts and her impressive jewels, then directly comes to the point:
“Are you engaged, Clare?” she anxiously asks, looking at the ring in my right hand.
“No, I am not engaged. This ring is a gift from a friend,” I answer, gazing affectionately at the subject of the topic.
“It looks very expensive. I did not know you were capable of socializing with the gentry. You should have introduced the man to me”, says Adele with undisguised disappointment.
I sardonically grin. The idea of my sister stripping before Mr. McSloy is a painful, heart-rending joke.
“He is very welcome to accompany you the next time you call,” says Adele with enthusiasm.
“He is dead,” I quickly state, strangulating her day-dream in a single second.
“My husband would be interested in purchasing a ring like this. It looks historic. The money would be useful to you, Clare, I mean for your studies,” says Adele encouragingly.
“One does not sell a friend’s gift,” I answer with apparent indignation. “Did you call at our mother? I recall receiving a card from Provence.”
“I did not contact our mother, dearest. I am so sorry. It would have broken my heart to see Mum walled in. I also do not take to nuns. I will send her a letter with my latest news as soon as I feel settled in St. Andrews,” answers my sister with her usual self-assurance.
I feel the need to speed up my leave before my remonstrance finds a harsh, verbal release. My decision to skip the desert which is in the wake of a series of plates, none of which has been to my taste, dispels the clouds that have been crowding over her husband’s brow. The only other guest whom I obliterated from my mind the moment I arrived uneasily stirs in his chair and prepares to leave too. I do not recall his name or his relation to the newly-married pair. He sat silent opposite my chair at the grand dinner-table listening to the incessant chatter of my very talkative sister, while I simply sat feeling comfortably numb at the absolute loss of my appetite.
I fail to promise a second visit and slip the cheque which my sister has inserted in my pocket back into her bosom from which it has emerged. As I plant a quick kiss on her rosy cheek, her husband’s sigh of relief swirls to my ears.
The other guest of honour whom now I find at my heels chivalrously offers me a lift. I assure him that I have a return ticket to Glasgow but he insists that there is ample room in his car and Glasgow is also his destination.
Mr. Whiplow gives me a synopsis of his life which matches the glossy leather of the interior of his car. I try to listen but my ears protest against the banality of his words. Before we reach Glasgow, he stops at a deserted park which is supposedly under repair, then with a single twist, he unties the chain of the iron gate, quite bent on showing me an historic mansion which is in the middle of a beautiful lake, claiming to be the abode of a very distant relative, a duchess.
I always keep calm when I feel danger prowling in the vicinity, so when he starts his preliminary, sexual advances in the form of an embrace and his hands begin to unsaddle my rear, I coolly decide to freeze his meat. My only recourse is the ice of my syllables and my sluggish heart-beats. I have always believed that fear has a scent which whets the appetite of a predator in heat.
“What comes next in this gothic scene? You throw me in the pond to dispense with my body,” say I very composedly and half-jokingly.
“What makes you think I would want to be rid of you?” says he, with a bewildered look on his hardening face, his hissing hands withdrawing before accomplishing their intended deed.
“It looks like a movie scene,” I add confidently, while composedly adjusting the ruffled attire of my indignant rear.
I do not know what makes me so abruptly turn round since my eyes are preoccupied with deciphering the contours of his alarm. It is possibly the movement of his eye-balls in which my image is permanently blurred. To my shock, I espy two gentlemen quickly moving away, one with a big camera in his hand, the type they use for shooting a film.
My sister’s husband is dead. Induced by excessive sexual excitement which I attribute to Adele’s professionalism in the most adventurous types of provocative undressing, a heart-attack has claimed her aged husband. She is now a young widow with a vast inheritance. I attend the funeral service to offer my condolences. Adele plants a sticky kiss on my cheek, then in a whisper diluted with permissible amounts of liquor, she imparts to my nervous ear her future career. She is going to run her own night-club but stop strip-teasing before customers. I thrill to the latter part of her decision but how can I reason her out of the first. I think it is a sacrilege to discuss nightclubs in the house of God so I refrain from a debate that my sister is bound to win.
I have chosen the subject of my dissertation and my supervisor is very pleased with my choice of Virginia Woolf’s most complex novel The Waves. It guarantees a considerable amount of originality and perhaps it may get published one day. She has not known me long enough to know that all types of ambition are utterly missing from my life. I have chosen Woolf’s most sophisticated novel because water permeates its every pore, and its tree-metaphors are redolent with the Celtic, Druidic lore. Its six characters, a six-petalled flower, constitute a universal whole with all its flaws. I see in Jinny my own sister Adele, braving erotic waves. Withdrawn Rhoda conjures up my mother who is shunning the terror of life, dwelling in a tiny shell that does not resonate with waves. The fertile Susan repulses me with her unbridled instincts, sailing placidly on an infinite sea of maternity. Bernard with his love of words appeals to me most.
On a fragrant piece of paper I scribble a poem with which to bid my sister goodbye before I head to a cottage in the Outer Hebrides. It is where my Dad lives a hermetic type of life. He has finally yielded to his paternal impulse and decided to acknowledge my existence. He has made me promise to keep his presence a secret so I pledged.
What if I strip before a fleet of fish that’s moored to uncharted reef!
What if I stir the dregs of fears which slumber inside your cup of dreams!
What if I dwell in a toilsome tear which eons of years can’t render brief!
What if I become the baleful breeze in a seashell’s ear, bereft of waves!
What if I soar beneath the sphere of an eye whose core is wry with schemes!
What if I expire on a chuckle’s pyre!
What if! What if!
God Bless, Clare.
About the Author:
Susie Gharib is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland) with a Ph.D. Her doctoral thesis, entitled Stylistic and Thematic Reassessment of The Trespasser, is a critical study of the work of D.H. Lawrence. Since 1996, she has been lecturing in Syria. She self-published four collections of poetry (My Love in Red, The Alpine Glow, Resonate and Kareem) and a collection of short stories (Bare Blades). She is a lover of Nature and enjoys swimming.