Extract from ‘Back’

A woman is spending a week in the South of France with her parents. She is reading a biography of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife, and occasionally thinking of her husband back home.

Something I love: showing my mother the blouse I have just bought and both of us feeling the material. We let it glide between our fingers with a gesture which in some countries is used to indicate that something is expensive. If you ask me it’s got acrylic in it, says my mother. No, no, I say, it’s viscose. Yes, says my mother, but they mess around with viscose a lot. She looks for the label. One hundred per cent viscose, it says. My mother looks doubtful. She is not at all convinced. I prefer wearing viscose, I say firmly. It’s a natural product, made of wood fibre. The pronouncement makes little impact. Cotton is still the best thing to wear, she says. Are those buttons sewn on properly? Probably not, I say, deflated. My mother tugs gently at a button. Not as bad as you might think, she says, those machines have improved a lot in the last few years. Just give me all your things with buttons on, and I’ll put in an extra stitch to secure them. Officially my mother is supposed to have arthritis in her fingers. Sometimes she cannot hold a needle. Sometimes she herself suggests sewing on buttons.

It is odd how I gradually forget him and see only her. She is the core. If he were not there she would behave in exactly the same way. What he would do, I have no idea. What clothes would he wear? What would he eat? He does odd things, like standing on his head for minutes on end at the side of the swimming pool. Daddy, you’re an exhibitionist. Darling, I’ve been doing this all my life. It’s very good for you. You’re still an exhibitionist, I say. On the way to the beach he picks up litter and carries it with him till he finds a litter bin, even if it is really filthy litter. That’s the boy scout in him, the man who keeps himself and his surroundings clean. On the beach he sometimes reminds me of a Roman senator. He stands looking out to sea with a towel around him. Daddy, why are you standing there with that towel wrapped around you in that silly way? Darling, it’s very hot today, you have to be careful you don’t burn. His skin is dark brown. No, no, he doesn’t want any suntan oil, the towel will protect him. After his swim he washes himself on the terrace with a bucket of water. When he has lathered himself all over, he empties the bucket over himself. Then he goes and stands on his head for a bit longer. (Wouldn’t this kind of psychology be neat: she flirted a lot and liked giving men the come-on because her father regularly stood on his head, and in public too, which he possibly liked most of all?) The best tactic, says my mother, is to ignore his little eccentricities, even when he says things like: There’s no respect for trees these days. In the dead of night their Swiss neighbour cut back the trees that were blocking his view, without first asking the permission of the owners of the trees. To make matters worse, he did not prune them but had the temerity to chop them down to half-size. In the old days that would have been inconceivable, says my father, people had respect for trees then. That is how he talks: one man does something, and he concludes that everyone does it. There’s a malaise, he says. And he calls it typical of the spirit of the age. An ill omen. The writing on the wall.
But the trees are not what it’s about. It’s about my fear of the severity of his judgement. One of the things he confides to me is: I would never have wanted to try anything on with any woman except your mother. You have to put not just your penis into a woman like that, but all your intellectual energy too, says my father. My father is fond of quips. When I suggest that there are a few fascinating women around besides Mummy, he looks sceptical. I suspect he does not think much of me either, compared to her.
The Joyces were not strict at all with their children. When there were problems, they blamed the outside world. Low marks at school: school no good. That kind of parent. They spoiled each other too, ‘Indulged’ says the biography. ‘They indulged one another.’ He let her buy the hats and clothes she dreamed of, she never carried out her threat of walking out if he went on drinking so heavily. They were a couple, and pretty possessive about each other. No one else was allowed to call him ‘Jim’. (I wonder if Lucia thought: You and your Jim, your Jim, he’s my Jim too, my father.)

She talks a lot. She talks non-stop. Moves noisily about the house. When she takes a siesta, she’d like everyone to take one. This week teaches me how I’ve grown used to silence, even though I don’t live alone. It is the only thing find a problem here: the fact that the conversations start off at breakfast time, heated conversations on subjects on which we all have different views. As a starting signal, my father announces the main points of the news, and everyone has their say. As always I am caught up in this, even though I find the exchange of views exhausting. The Mule Family, I think, because none of us will give an inch. We’re convinced that we’re right. Can’t keep quiet.
Later I sit at the bottom of the garden against the umbrella pine and think: It’ll be quiet when she dies. I imagine sitting at her deathbed and saying: Sleep now, relax, everything’s all right, no one will hurt you any more, no, you don’t have to tell me what once happened or what you were frightened of in that stuffy little house, my God, I’ve slept there too, had nightmares there too, your mother, her mother … My eyes fill with tears, so vivid is the picture of this mournful deathbed scene. Be my child now, I whisper, relax, let yourself go, be my baby so you can die, but you put up a fight, you struggle, you wrestle with it, what am I thinking of, and sure enough, two seconds later there you are in front of me with your shopping bag, alive and kicking. Do I need anything from the shop?
No. Do you mind if I don’t come?
Of course not.
I close my eyes and see Nora Barnacle sweeping past like a sailing ship. Her bosom is imposing and she has an enormous hat on. At her side are a skinny, indecisive man and a surly-faced girl. The biggest problem whenever they moved house were Nora’s hats. There were boxes for them but they got lost, so new boxes had to be bought each time. Perhaps, I suddenly think, my mother once wanted to be a woman like that, perhaps she thought she should at least give it a try. Her own mother was a bit like that. When she visited us she wore an astrakhan coat and hat, and lots of gold and rings. These are women who have invested their whole lives in these status symbols of successful spousehood. My mother has little interest in fur or astrakhan. She explains to me how the first coins originated in Lydia and the techniques used to try to determine the date of the Odyssey.
Then she gets carried away.
Nora Barnacle was not a slave to her Jim. For example, she did not type his manuscripts, or keep his correspondence up to date. But she identified completely with the masculine point of view. It was she who had joined her fate to that of James Joyce, and not the other way round. In her vision of the world men were more important than women, whatever the size of their hats. But Lucia was more intelligent than her dull brother. How could she believe that he was more important than her?

was at a party with my mother once and heard a woman say to her: Female solidarity has meant a lot to me. Whereupon my mother — without a trace of irony — asked: What’s female solidarity?

After Lucia Joyce was committed to a mental institution, Nora never saw her again. In the period leading up to the committal, she had become a danger to her mother. Nora had struck Lucia occasionally, but Lucia openly assaulted her mother. Who was jealous of whom? Did Lucia also want a writer to note down her childhood memories, and incorporate her love letters in his novels, down to leaving out the punctuation? If she could not have her Daddy, did she want someone who could compete with him? Is that why she fell hopelessly in love with Samuel Beckett? Do-it-yourself psychology.
Whatever happens to the children, says my mother, it’s always the mother’s fault. She says: the mother always gets the blame.

Three pearls, I think, one for each nipple, one for my clitoris, like that, with nothing else on, I’ll lie in bed and wait for you. The nicest thing of all would be a letter from you asking me to adorn myself for your visit with three choice pearls.
Going away from you does not help. Quite the reverse. (On the few occasions when Nora and Jim were separated from each other by force of circumstance, they wrote each other randy letters. How long would I have to stay away before I got a letter like that from you?)
In the months preceding her eventual committal, Lucia Joyce displayed great sexual boldness. She sat on the lap of a total stranger and unzipped his fly. Then she burst out laughing.

Tell me, Mummy, when you’re on your deathbed, what it is that made you afraid. Why are you closed as tight as an oyster, so that I look and listen to you without ever discovering who you are, what you really think? What is it that you are anxiously keeping secret? You say: Why do you want to know that? Why do you refuse to believe that there’s nothing to know? And if there were anything to know, she says after a brief silence in my imaginary deathbed scene, would you really want to know it?

My daughter says: Listen, Mummy, it’s very simple: on one side there are words, on the other side things. For instance, there’s the word ‘dog’, and then there’s the thing ‘living creature with four legs, fur and a wet nose’, and the two go together. I envy her that no-nonsense view of things, but maybe she’s right.
Take the word ‘foot’. My father admires his feet, thinks they are the best part of his body, they are not only well-shaped feet, but feet that can carry him for miles. They don’t make feet like that any more, he says. I’ve got very difficult feet, says my mother. Look, not an ounce of fat on them and so narrow, I can seldom find a shoe to fit me. Her mother has ‘unfortunate’ feet: feet with bumps which push her shoes out of shape and make walking difficult. Though my mother does not have ‘unfortunate’ feet, like her mother, she cannot wear shoes without socks. In the summer they wear ‘hosettes’. I have never known anyone else who wore hosettes, somewhere there must be a factory producing hosettes just for my mother and grandmother. Hosettes are flesh-coloured and cover your toes and ankles. They are edged with elastic. You pull them over your toes at the front and stretch them over your ankle at the back. Somehow foldable, translucent rain hoods belong with hosettes. Never leave home without them. Unbelievably convenient: weighs nothing, takes up no room in your handbag and your hair never gets wet. For years my mother went on slipping me hosettes and rain hoods in vain. You’ve got good feet, she says now when she sees me wearing shoes without stockings or hosettes. But what can you expect with feet like mine: not an ounce of fat. There’s no fat on my feet either, I say indignantly.
Be smart in life, says my mother, popping a rain hood into her bag. A thousand-and-one tricks for outwitting life. For not getting caught out.

Man: no wet nose, no fur, two legs, sometimes three. Never let him leave home on three legs. Be smart.

The day before I leave the inevitable question comes: Do you miss him?
Yes, but I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to be with the two of you. But now she asks questions and I answer. One of the things I say is: I hope he’s bought me flowers. Later, when I get back from the beach, there is a bouquet lying on the table for me. If he’s forgotten about flowers, she says, then you’ll have had some anyway. She has got my father to write a few lines on a card. Yes, it’s been a very good week. We dare not look at each other, otherwise we’ll start snivelling.
They see me to the bus. My mother is wearing her straw hat, not the one she can fold up and put in her bag, but a larger one with a ribbon. She is wearing a full green dress and blue shoes. She looks young, radiant, happy that the week has been such a success. We agree not to say goodbye, we say cheerio as if I’m going shopping. So I get a shock when after buying my ticket I take a window seat and see him standing there, as though wanting to give me an image to remember. Tanned, a little red sun hat, a pink T-shirt, blue checked shorts, hand raised, bye. We are practising farewells. I think: If he hadn’t been standing there, I wouldn’t have cried.
Later, when I walk into town for a bit because I am far too early for my train — you’d better get that bus, then you’ll be sure of catching your train — she walks ahead of me, behind me, to the left and right of me with her straw hat and her green dress and her shopping bag. The images come closer, merging with each other and with me till she walks right into me. She says: Why are you always trying to understand me? What secret are you trying to get to the bottom of? You and I are the same. I am as much of a closed book as you.
In a baker’s I buy two croissants with my last few pence and eat them slowly on the station steps. Shortly I’ll be taking the train to the house where he may or may not have put out flowers for me, but for now I sit on the steps and think of the bouquet which I hung to dry on a branch of the umbrella pine. There’s no point sticking those flowers in a vase, said my mother, they’ll wither just like that. Where did Mummy pick them? No, no, not from people’s gardens, she said, I’d never do that, there are lots of flowers by the side of the road. I smile and think: There’s no respect for flowers these days. I expect she could see that I didn’t believe her. The way she shrugs her shoulders or feigns indignation when we laugh at her because her lies are so transparent. take the card that she got my father to write out of my bag and read it for the umpteenth time. Then I get up.

From Long Ago (Lang geleden, 1994)
Translated by Paul Vincent

First published in The Low Countries, 1995