Everyman and Fairy Tales

3 Dec

A few windy Sundays ago I lay on the sofa and read Everyman by Philip Roth from beginning to end. Some of my friends are now the same age as he was when he died. He, Everyman, is nameless but I know him – men who’ve had wives, hip replacements, angioplasty, stents and triple bypasses. Once they were my parents’ friends (not the thrice married men), and I called them Mr Whoever, but now they’re mine and I haven’t called a man Mr for a long time. I’m even part of an ad hoc group that gathers round the fruit bins at the supermarket, our small-shop-for-one-baskets on our arms, and as we assess the aubergines, or eat almonds to check for freshness, we ask one another about head-aches, eyes, hearts and feet. ‘At least I don’t have that,’ we tell ourselves silently, and head towards the wine specials.

I loved reading about Everyman’s parents – long dead and always loved. When he was a little boy he had to go to hospital for a hernia operation, and as he and his mother walked to the hospital he worried that he’d be sleeping without her. In the ward a boy died in the night; he heard the nurses and parents moving behind the curtain that separated them, but in the morning, there was his mother, already at the hospital and smiling at him from the foot of the bed.  She walked beside him as he was wheeled to the theatre door.

When I was five I had my tonsils out. My parents didn’t tell me until it was time to go to the hospital, an old house behind tall trees about five miles from ours. My mother couldn’t drive and anyway, she had my younger brothers to look after, and in those days, only sick children were allowed into hospitals. She gave me a hot drink of bournvita at about five on an autumn afternoon, and some rare bought biscuits, and her telling me to brush my teeth with toothpaste I’d never seen before. It came in a round blue tin and was pink. It tasted awful but she said it was just for me – a special present because I was going to hospital for five days to have my tonsils out. My father came home early and unexpectedly and one of our faux Dutch aunts came over to mind my brothers. My parents and I drove to the hospital, parked beneath the trees whose leaves fell like large brown hands on our heads, and walked into a room with beds covered in flowery bedspreads. The room had a verandah. My father carried a blue zip bag: ‘Papa’s Dutch bag’, which he placed on one of the beds. In it were brand new pyjamas and slippers with pom-poms and a packet of coloured plastic stars and flowers and twine you could make into necklaces and bracelets. My mother undressed me and put me into bed and placed the necklace packet on the beside-table.

There was a fat nurse called Mrs Blackley. She said she’d take care of me. I liked her voice. But then she told my parents it was best if they went quickly. Suddenly they were gone; Mrs Blackley closed the door. It was dark outside but I could see the outlines of the trees beyond the verandah. Mrs Blackley closed the curtains and I began to cry. I stood up in bed and stretched out my arms. I cried and couldn’t stop crying. Mrs Blackley said There there.  She picked me up and carried me but I didn’t want her to hold me; I wanted my mother and I was frightened by the size of the room, the flowers on the beds, and Mrs Blackley’s soft strange shape. Eventually, she tired of my noise and reminded me that I was a big girl; that big girls don’t cry; that the sooner I stopped crying, the sooner I’d go to sleep, and that when I woke up Dr West would take out my horrible tonsils and then I could go home again.

In the morning Doctor West came and carried me to the theatre. Soft white cloth was wrapped round his head. I knew him; he had a large hooked nose and was the one familiar face in a collision of strange sounds, spaces, people. Other children were in the flowery beds when I came back from the theatre; their mothers brought them presents; the nurses brought me red jelly. My throat was still sore and blood mixed with the jelly. My mother was in the room once or twice during those five days – I remember her shape and then her absence.  We had no aunts, uncles or cousins. My mother had to ask someone to mind my brothers and someone else to drive her to the hospital. It was hard for her to come. She brought me handkerchiefs with butterflies.

Stories about children are full of abandonment – think of fairy tales. Surely the worst, the most abandoning parents are Hansel and Gretel’s who do it. Twice. Joan Acocella, in an essay in the New Yorker, writes that the Grimms brothers changed later editions of Hansel and Gretel so the mother became a stepmother because the idea of a natural mother leaving her child alone in the forest (and persuading her wavering husband to tie a withered branch to a tree so that as the wind blew it about, the children would imagine its sound to be their father chopping wood) is unthinkable. But  I read Bruno Bettelheim in the seventies and learnt that Hansel and Gretel  is really a story of resourcefulness – clever Hansel with those pebbles and that chicken bone, and cleverer Gretel pushing the witch into the fire. But I was only five; had no resourcefulness; had never been parted from my mother; the images of the door closing as my parents left, the flowers on the bedspreads, the dark night and fat Mrs Blackley and her voice which changed as I cried still remain. That’s why whenever I read Hansel and Gretel I’m always struck by the sound of the withered branch tapping against the tree. That mocking noise tells you life is like this – endure, and you’re lucky if you’ve got a brother or sister.

Everyman begins with his funeral service where his brother, various wives, children and at least one lover stands above his grave talking about him. His last few years, his brother says, he had health problems, and there was also this loneliness.

Recently my sister my brothers and I went to visit our parents to discuss their leaving the house they built nearly fifty-five years ago. They’re both eighty-six; they still grow vegetables and make their own bread but they are frailer – my father’s eyes gaze at us as if to imprint us inside himself, and now I’m taller than my mother. The house is at the top of a steep drive – a strong house made of bricks, but the wolf prowling round them presently is this loneliness. Leaving is very hard – this is the only house they’ve known. They came from different parts of Europe after the war with little more than suitcases and resolution to make something better than what they’d left forever. Letters came infrequently from Holland; never from England.

This loneliness has been a seam in our lives.

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Steph Matuku

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