Friday, 13 August 2010

Chitambo - 2

(continued)

Mr Dreary could probably have thought of many other names to replace the unfortunate Fram, had he been given a little more time and not been ambushed by the priest during the ceremony itself. There were several wonderful names to choose from among ships that had steered out upon uncharted seas. Think of the proud squadron with which Fernando de Magallanes embarked on his perilous voyage. Trinidad! Concepcion! Victoria! What radiance surrounded these names! I would willingly have possessed one of them. How easily they have evaporated, those names my schoolteachers tried to imprint on my memory – but the names which Mr Dreary taught me in the happy truancy of the imagination will never be effaced. Their symbolic splendour has only grown more beautiful with the years, like the splendour of old gold.

I can still distinctly feel the thrill of delight that crept down my spine as I sat on my stool at Mr Dreary’s feet, endlessly listening to his stories from seafaring history. Only the loftiest heroism was capable of satisfying me, and stories that lacked elements of defiance in the face of death left me quite unmoved. Mr Dreary himself derived indescribable enjoyment from moments of this kind. When the critical situation was upon the desperate, starving crew and they were threatening to mutiny, he would fall suddenly silent and give me a meaningful look. I would quiver with excitement and my little heart beat violently, but I did not move and uttered not a word, just fixed my gaze on his lips. Then he would get up and strike a cocky pose, as one does on deck in an extreme situation, with death before one’s eyes, and hurl out some incredibly heroic words by the leader of the expedition:

‘Though I am forced to eat the leather on the ships’ mast yards, I shall not perish until I have completed my work.’

We both had a passionate love for lines of this kind. They formed the longed-for climax of every story, and when it was finally reached we fell into each other’s arms, gripped by an inexplicable emotion which neither of us was able to control. We heard the wind singing in the ships’ rigging and saw that it was still the same wind singing the same intoxicating song: glory calls us, calls us... Such was the wind that filled your sails, my childhood’s Trinidad, Concepcion, Victoria!

If anyone had seen me only at home or at school they might well have thought that I was the virtuous daughter my mother wanted, a veritable Virgin Mary. In this world I lived asleep. A heaviness rested on my soul and my body, I felt tormented by my clothes, my pigtails, my duties. This profound discomfort made me apathetic, something I suppose to be the precondition for virtuous conduct in childhood. My mother did all she could to foster the domestic virtues in me, the only virtues a girl in our circles was thought to need. She placed special emphasis on dusting.

That repugnant ceremony was performed each morning with minute exactitude, under my mother’s implacable gaze, with the result that I came to hate every piece of furniture and every room in our home. I loathed all those objects so profoundly that I would probably have kicked them and broken them apart, had not fear held me back and compelled me to assume an air of submission and go around dusting and polishing in a manner that was idiotic and absurd. Lord knows, if only there had been an interval of a few days since the last dusting, some dust might have actually gathered, making one feel some purpose in what one was doing. But no, the whole point of womanly labour is that it must be so refined that it cannot be seen! This total absurdity is typical of all such work that is considered to belong to woman by nature.

It was the same with the work which is so tellingly called “handwork” – as though women would ever be allowed to do anything with their brains! Patching and darning was all right. Not because it was enjoyable, not that either, slow and tricky and petty like everything else in our home, but at least it was a task worthy of a human being compared to all those silly tablecloths and monograms and embroideries on which one was supposed to spend one’s time. Cross stitch and stem stitch, fore stitch and back stitch and pothooks of every conceivable kind, devilishly devised in order to give the absurdity a semblance of meaning. When the hole was darned and the torn cloth patched one did at least have the satisfaction of having done something sensible. But all those unneeded tablecloths, piles of which lay in the chest-of-drawers and were taken out once a year to be aired – they were the real handwork. Into their strange patterns Mrs Dreary and her friends poured all their womanly ambition. These patterns they showed off to one another every time they met, and woe to anyone who had “forgotten her handwork” and without this covering mantle simply sat down at the coffee table to hear gossip and drink coffee. The others would purse their lips and say that it could happen to anyone and not everyone always had a suitable piece of handwork ready, but their tone and looks said all too clearly that this woman was a sloven. They knew the sort of thing that women like her got up to. In fact, the handwork was much more than it professed to be, it was one of the great symbols of decorum, a sign of its possessor’s social status, a testimonial of respectability, conscientiousness and virtue.

In this company I had to sit, decently bowed over a piece of handwork, in an unbearably cramped position and also under close surveillance. My hair was drawn back so fiercely that it hurt my scalp, my nose shone from continual washing with soap and water, my undergarments were so thick that I could hardly move, my dress was so tight and my neckband so high that a straitjacket would truly have come as a relief. The old ladies beamed with contentment and said: Your daughter is a great credit to you, dear Agda. In this company I learned to loathe my own sex. From the dull apathy in my inner being this incipient gleam of fighting spirit rose slowly but surely to the surface of my consciousness.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff



(to be continued)

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