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Quicksilver

            Sandra Jensen  

 

On the Line with Johnny Noo-Noos

 

Johnny Noo-noos is coming tonight, coming tonight, Johnny Noo-noos is coming. He won’t forget, he promised, he promised. Pearl turns the word in her mouth but it won’t go down. She lifts a corner of curtain, peers into the slate grey. The ship isn’t here yet. Forlorn and windswept sheep dot the barren hill. The hill stares sullenly over the boreen. Pearl stares back, chewing on her lip. A snake of peat smoke curls up from the main house. House of sin, she thinks. That horrible woman and her horrible child.

             Must pack my handbag. Where’s my silver handbag? Must pack my handbag.

Pearl wanders about the small room anxiously patting things - the brass bed, bedclothes twisted into a human-looking lump, a steam trunk of clothes she never wears; the old rocker, upholstery singed black, the makeshift kitchen counter cluttered with unwashed dishes, a lamp standing listless in the corner. She finds the bag underneath the bed buried in a box of curling newspapers and orphaned stockings. Flakes of silver peel from the bag’s surface like dandruff. She runs her fingers over the ornate clasp where small rusting teeth once held artificial diamonds. She sits heavily on the bed, hugging the bag to her body like a pet.

            I’ll pack nylons and the heel of barmbrack I stole from yesterday’s tea, she says, giving the bag a squeeze. London might be rationing, you never know. Mary Jane never gets the good brand, not enough raisins. Mary Jane is evil, she’s got the Devil in her, just like her daughter. Mary Jane’s not coming to London with me, no she’s not, the Ding-dongs will lock her up, beat her till she’s black and blue, her babby all alone, no, I’m not taking that silly Alice. I’m having Johnny all to myself.

            Pearl opens the handbag and stares inside, snaps it closed. She tries to remember what else she must bring, and then can’t remember anything at all so she thinks about her dream, the one she has every night of a yellow-smocked, brown-kneed child running barefooted and laughing, blonde hair flying, eyes flashing. I’m coming, Pearl says, I’m coming, and then she remembers. I’ve run out of butter, she says to the disappearing child. Well, there’s sure to be butter in London. Good quality butter, nice and creamy and well salted, not this awful margarine that Mary Jane buys just to vex me. She tells me it’s better for my health, what rubbish. They had good butter in New Zealand even in the war, a half-pound per week but the nuns took most of it, stuffing their holy faces while we girls starved away. I’m not telling anyone about that. Don’t think about that. Pearl tries to entice the dream back, but the girl has flown away leaving a hollow, hungry feeling. Don’t think, don’t think. Johnny’s coming to get me, quick now, must put on lipstick and my good green skirt, the one I bought at Woolworths.

            Pearl opens the trunk, rifles through layers of damp tissue paper and folded cloth and the smell of mothballs, not noticing the girl opening her door. Pearl shakes the skirt out, presses it against her stomach. You’re a bit tight but I’ll use a safety pin and no one will notice. Oh! Oh! Alice is here, quick, quick, shut the door, too late, I’ll stand here and stop you coming in, you can’t come in, there’s VD in here, you know that.

            Gran, it’s time for tea, the girl says.

            Shoo! You can’t come in here, silly girl, silly, I’ve told you not to come near. Stop mouthing at me. Write it down girl, write it down, here you are, write it down. The girl digs out a small notebook and a pencil from her cardigan pocket, scribbles something on it and shows it to her grandmother.

            I can’t read that, how do you expect me to read such an awful scrawl? You’ve very bad handwriting Alice. You must practise more. Slap slap with a ruler that’s the way. A beautiful hand is the mark of a lady, and your hair!

            Pearl snatches a compact from the bedside table, flicks it open. Grains of face powder float upwards like a pink cloud between her and the girl.

            Your hair is too long, look, look in the looking glass and you’ll see a horse face, you’ll see a squat little girl. You don’t know anything about proportion. Something you have to learn, and perspective. Proportion and perspective, two things that will serve you well, believe me. Pity you aren’t nice and tall like your poor dead brother, isn’t it. Pearl ferrets the compact into her dressing gown pocket and crosses her arms, her head tilted, questioning. She tries to remember the brother, but no brothers come to mind, only little girls in cold corridors, hiding from the nuns.

            Alice underlines a word with her pencil.

            Tea? I can’t come for tea, dearie, there’s no time for any tea. I’m catching the rocketship to London. Put that away, I’m not reading. Be a good girl, run along now. What’s that? Don’t mouth, write it down, write it down! What kind of steamed pudding? Jam? Spotted dick? Something you made up? Well. All right. Will there be custard? I’ll be down in a minute. I have to put my make-up on.

            Alice pauses, starts to write something and then thinks better of it.

            You all right, Gran? she asks, enunciating the words with her lips, but Pearl pretends not to see. Alice waits, she wants to come in, but Pearl doesn’t move so she turns and leaves.

            Do you know that girl has my daughter Franny’s eyes, Pearl says, watching Alice trip down the path to the main house. She shuts the door, locks it. She doesn’t like intruders, not when she’s on the line with Johnny.

            Bitchy eyes, haddock’s eyes. She’s not going to grow up into a lady. She’s got slutty lips. She’ll end up just like me. Serves her right, those nasty looks she throws. Thinks I can’t hear her. I might be deaf but I can always tell when she’s talking about me. Slutty Alice tells her mother I’m just pretending I can’t hear. It was the fire that made me deaf as a boiled stone. I was all right when I left the house, just stepped out I did, came right back and it was gone, just like that. Oh, I can hear you very well, Johnny, you have such a beautiful voice, just like my Antony. So handsome my boy was, so tall, and then the Devil found him on the road. It’s my fault. No, not going to cry, too much crying going on, you’ll drown in your own tears you will, dead as a dodo you’ll be. Johnny? Johnny? Are you there Johnny?

            He’s gone. She hates it when he does that. Probably off to make arrangements. Complicated and important business he’s in. Never mind, he’ll be back. Pearl leans against the door, presses a tissue against her eyes as if staunching a wound.

            Silly girl, stop this. You know the crying makes the VD worse, tears mix with the slime so the slime climbs up into your vagina like a slug and no one can stop it, it crawls into your entrails and your stomach and your heart and your brains and makes you go deaf and murders everyone you love. I tried to take care of him, I told him not to go, I told him he should stay in Cape Town where the skies fold your heart open for God’s spirits to fly in, that’s what I thought when I stepped off the deck of the Monarch, God lives here.

            Pearl’s terrycloth dressing gown falls open, cold damp air seeping through her nightdress like blotting paper. She shivers, wraps herself back up, bends over the trunk and finds a scarf, thin as tissue, embroidery indistinguishable from the fur of mildew. She looks at it fondly before putting it around her neck, tucking it in at the front.

            Antony bought me all sorts of things, he did. He had a good job, Johnny, a really good job. Just like you. Very important. He had a good house, a good wife, beautiful Mary, Mary Jane, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of Christ, Good sister Mary, Mary quite contrary, how good does your garden grow? Not too well my dear, you’ve just got the one now and she’ll not grow up to be a good girl. Nothing grows here. Not a single cabbage. Earth black as a tar barrel, no trees, just bogs and crippled men and bitter women and starving sheep and the blight. A foreign country is not a good thing. No cause to go travelling, everything you need is right in here in Muckle Roe, my Da said. Changed his tune pretty quick with me he did.

            Pearl begins to whistle a haphazard mix of notes. She stops, smiles, laughs, puts her hand over her mouth shyly, as if caught doing something she shouldn’t. She digs in the box of newspapers, pulls one out, starts to read but the letters bounce in front of her like ants. She presses her hand to her head, there’s a pain in there, somewhere, if she could only find it. She sits back on the bed next to her handbag.

            What was I telling you? Get so distracted I do. My boy, I was telling you about my boy, good boy just like you, Johnny. I told Antony not to leave but he left me all alone with his pappy but that was no better than being alone, him and his books, nothing but books, a head chock full of Freud and Kant and that horrid Eliot and no place to rest. A houseful of dried up men and moaning. Antony took Mary Jane and the children away to this dreach place, just like Muckle Roe and my son eaten by the Devil and his father sprinkled into Hout Bay. There wasn’t much, maybe they missed him under all those ashes, maybe we sprinkled Ash Wednesday instead. We’re a glass of blood the Devil threw just for the fun of it, just to see what happened. I’ll tell you what happened. Smithereens we are. There’s a bit of me in Auckland a bit of me in Cape Town a bit of me in the Shetlands and soon there’ll be a bit of me in London with you, but I was meant to be there all along. I dreamed it when I was little, before the slug slithered up, before the glass shattered and the blood stained. There’s no getting way from the truth, we’re broken and bleeding into the sheets. I washed them before Mammy came home. I slept in wet sheets for three days, Paulie on the floor with the fleas, too proud to sleep in my shame.

            Dizzy, dizzy, all a whoosh, I’m going to be sick. My head hurts. I’ll just go and sit in the rocker, just for a moment. Johnny, you’ll wait, won’t you?

            Pearl turns the rocker towards the window, settles herself in.

            You won’t stand me up again. No, of course you won’t. Yes, I’ll wear my green skirt for you, I already said. You’re a one for the green, aren’t you? Green grow the rushes O! The sweetest hour that e'er I spent were spent among the lasses O! No, no, go away, go away, I won’t think those things, won’t think those things.

            Pearl creaks back and forth, back and forth, a mist of hair escaping the tightly pinned hairdo. She stares out the window. The sheep haven’t moved an inch, she thinks, or have they? If she doesn’t keep a lookout for the ship it will land and leave without her. She should get up and wait outside but she can hear the wind clattering around the room Mary Jane fixed up for her live in. Hardly good enough for a servant really but Pearl won’t let herself think that, she’s made it nice she has, got all her things, well anything that was left after the fire.

            Johnny Noo-noos is coming to take me away, far away, far far away, no Da, no Ma, no Paulie to hold me when the banshees come singing. Where’s my wee bairn? I’d sing her to sleep, I left my Franny lying here, lying here, I've lost my darling babby, O! Pearl closes her eyes but sees a grown woman standing in front of her, a woman wearing platinum hair and a frown, smoking those awful Pall Malls.

            My darling babby’s a horrid girl, Johnny. Don’t you be taken by that beautiful hair. That’s all she’s got of mine. Everything else is her Da’s, even her stumpy fingers. Stumpy fingers that stroked my face, they did. Skin like sandpaper, he had. You need a man’s hands, he said. Twelve I was, almost a woman, Ma said, too bad, she said, cursed already, and showed me how to use the rags.

            Pearls mouth puckers in. It’s not ladylike to talk about the curse, disgusting it is but the rags gave me away they did. Ma told Da and you and you didn’t even tell them you were the one, you lied, you lied your lies trailing after me across the ocean to New Zealand where cousin Marge lived. Your lies infected my darling babby. She’s on her fifth husband and no wonder, who’d keep her with all her airs and tantrums. Pearl closes her eyes, not meaning to, and the woman reappears, takes a drag, blows a smoke ring in Pearl’s face. She bats it away.

            Look at you, turning Christian Scientist and all. Stupid girl. You think prayerful thoughts will send the Devil away? I prayed for twenty years and look where it brought me, to the land of banshees and bogs.

            A rocker catches the tail of Pearl’s dressing gown belt. She pulls at it but gives up. She’s come over very tired. Her brown spotted hands lie heavily on her lap, curling like two old used up things. She stares at them a moment, they make no sense these hands, they are not hers, she has lovely hands she does, doesn’t she? Johnny? You like my hands don’t you? Pearl smiles, a blush rising underneath her heavily rouged cheeks.

            Franny says if I tell her who her father is she’ll be all better, she whispers. Franny doesn’t know I’m doing her a favour. If she knew she was a common Glaswegian girl she’d lose her airs in a hurry. Thinks she’s a princess she does. Never mind, I had Antony, good boy Antony, the one who’ll take care of his mother, he will.

            Something bangs outside, a ladder falling down, something tumbling over the concrete path, bit of scrag, you’re nothing but a bit of scrag, Da said. Not going to think, not going to think. They all die. Mam and then Da and I wasn’t even there. Far away o'er the mountains, far away o'er the foam, she sings, her voice fizzling out at the end.

            They didn’t write so I didn’t know. I’d cursed the family, I’d brought the Devil into our house, they said. I know all about the Devil, I do, Pearl’s voice gathers strength. She feels like the Pastor, a tower of a man, all hellfire and brimstone he was, grim with the girls. He’s here now, infecting everything with his revolting semen he is, Pearl continues, a spark in her eye. He spread it on everything, even my nice Five Roses china I brought with me when Mary Jane said I was to come here where I couldn’t do any more harm. Pearl picks at the frayed seat of the rocker, her thumbnail catching a charred thread. She pulls until it comes away, a little bit of home stuck underneath her nail.

            I shouldn’t have listened, I should’ve stayed where I was but it all burned down, burning down, burning down, my daughter in her high heels praying for my sins while she eyed my lump of gold not a care for my husband all a cinder, loved her as his own he did. Tears gather in the corner of her eyes, one drop making its way down her face, navigating the folds of sagging powdered flesh, hovering on the tip of her chin.

            I should never have come to this godforsaken country, Johnny, this place that has no love in it. Pearl scratches around in her pocket, finds the tissue, but the tear has dropped, disappeared into the cloth of her nightgown so she puts the tissue back.

            A dried out barren land full of winds and evil spirits, shivering moons and twisted fingers, full of troubles, troubles, I bring troubles wherever I go. It’s just like where I was born, but they don’t know that, they think I come from New Zealand. I’m not telling. It’s why I have to get out you see, it’s why I have to go to London. I’m meant for something special. Always was. I’m meant to wear champagne pearls and go to the Savoy and Marble Arch and Harrods for Earl Grey and crumpets. Pearl cheers up at the thought. A cup of tea does wonders it does. Got to make it right you have, one for the cup and one for the pot. I’ll live with you and the Ding-dongs in a big house in Hampstead with the artists and we’ll do the Charleston for them won’t we. I’ll wear a red silk dress, you’ll buy me diamonds all the way from South Africa, bits of me bits of me, they’ll fly back and I’ll be whole again, I will. I’ll have parties, I know all the right people, Katherine Hepburn will come, she’ll bring Cary Grant. I should have married him, not that dried out old stump of a man who goes and dies on me.

            Her cheer disappears as fast as the teardrop. Whatever it was clanging outside clangs again, like the bell ringing for Mass.

            It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t there. Besides, he loved books more than he loved me. Dies with a book in his hand, his finger on a poem, You tossed a blanket from the bed, you lay upon your back, and waited, you dozed, and watched the night revealing the thousand sordid images of which your soul was constituted, that’s the poem his dead finger was lying on, I know because it’s what sent me out the door, just a moment, I said, coming back, I said. I kept my promise, I did. Until death us do part I promised, I did. Pearl pulls at the band on her ring finger, but her finger has swollen around it, trapping her. She covers it with her right hand, leans forward conspiratorially.

            He read to me the night we got married, you know, some other awful poem, until I fell asleep in my wedding dress because he was too shy to see me in the nude. I pressed my nail scissors into my thumb and wiped blood on the sheet when he was asleep so he’d think I was a good girl but he didn’t even look, not at the sheets or me. Not until the afternoon when I poured the tea. Thank you dear, he said, that was the nicest thing he ever said to me, Thank you dear, for thirty-nine years that’s all he says to me. Then he dies with a house of books all falling down, falling down. He gave me Antony, he did. I’ll say that for him. Antony never put a foot wrong. Maybe that’s what happened, maybe his foot slipped off the brake onto the accelerator. Mary Jane said he was drunk but Antony was not a drunk. He wouldn’t have driven if he were drunk, not with the children in the car. It was the Devil took him, took him and his pappy, took them because I’m a sinner. Always was. Mammy told me so. Me only a wee girlie, so full of the Devil. You’ll give birth to the Devil’s child, Da said. He hit me across the cheek when I said it wasn’t the Devil who did it.

            Don’t think, don’t think about that, I don’t feel so well, Johnny, it’s just a headache.  I’ve not eaten today, too busy with the packing. Pearl’s eyes scratch, her head fills with noise and then the golden haired girl runs towards her, calling her name. Pearl, Pearl, arms open wide. Pearl stands up, yes, I’m coming, she says, wait for me but the girl melts like water on ink, colours running into a smudge. Pearl wraps her arms around herself. Cheer up, love, she says and wanders over to her tiny, countertop fridge. Inside there’s a carton of UHT milk and the heel of brack, half an apple, brown and shrivelled.

            Maybe Mary Jane baked some soda bread. I’ll eat it hot right out of the oven with lots of butter and treacle dripping in, my lips greasy, salty, eat, eat, I have to eat, get my strength up for the flight. It’s a long way, a long way to Tipperary, not going there though am I, Johnny? No, London it is, London Bridge, burning down, burning down. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t, I wasn’t even there, just left for a minute to buy some cigarettes and when I came back there was nothing left but the smell of burning steak.

            Gran! Alice rattles the door handle. Tea’s getting cold.

            Coming, coming, Pearl straightens her hair, checks herself in the mirror of her compact before unlocking the door.

            Oh it’s you. Stop that frowning, Alice, your face will turn to stone and stay that way. You’re not exactly pretty, but you know that don’t you? Never mind, don’t tell anyone and they won’t notice. Never ever tell a man your faults, let him find out by himself. It will be too late by then, mark my words. Pearl picks up her handbag, follows Alice outside and locks the door.

            Help me down the step will you, there’s a good girl. What did you say was for pudding? Roly-poly? Jolly good.

            Bitchy eyes, witchy eyes, you see that, Johnny? You see what she does? Rolling them up like that, thinks I don’t notice. She thinks I can’t hear her snorting, thinks I don’t know she’s a slut, a girl who’s asking for it, a girl who’s going to bring the Devil’s slug into her, she will, and then all of us will be ruined.

            The sodden sky presses down as if it were a sponge trying squeeze itself dry.

            The girl opens up an umbrella, but the wind yanks it inside out. She gives up, takes her grandmothers arm, trying to get her to hurry through the drizzle, but Pearl pulls away.

            I can manage, silly girl. Da never wanted a daughter, Alice. When you grow up you’ll understand. Women are nothing but trouble. He took in little orphan Paulie and Mam fussed over him, needs feeding up, she says, what a good boy she says, so sad about his pappy, buried 150 fathoms under the shale.

            Come on, Gran, you’ll get soaked, Alice pleads but Pearl hangs back, watching Alice’s long hair flying about in the moist air like snakes.

            Da put him in my bed, there wasn’t another one, unless he was to sleep on the floor with Moxie and Floxie and their fleas. Like a son Paulie was, the son Da always wanted, working the mines on the mainland since he was seven and now he was fourteen, strong as a bull. Paulie held me close when the nightmares came, when the black witch came out of the wall, her tongue a red snake licking me inside her. Paulie stroked my hair and rubbed the yellow soles of his feet on my legs to stop me shivering.

            Alice runs ahead, calling for her mother. Her wellington boots make slapping sounds on the path as Pearl’s bare, stockinged feet pad quietly behind. Drizzle has changed to rain, wind turns waterdrops into little stones. The sheep look up at the two as they bundle down towards the house, the purpling hill bleeding behind them.

            A ruination, an infection a girl is, infecting us all. She’s a disgrace, a disgrace to us all, Pearl says, pulling her handbag close, wondering where her shoes went, she had them on a moment ago, didn’t she? Sullied our name she has. Send her away, send her away, far away. I’ll get Mary Jane to send her to boarding school where the nuns will beat the Devil out of her. They’ll beat her till she’s black and blue, her babby screaming in her cot, rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye. I never screamed. I didn’t show them. I let them beat me but I never let a sound escape, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t.

            Pearl’s lost her way, can’t find the door, it was here somewhere. One of the sheep staggers, rights itself, staggers again. Pearl stops, startled, anxious, is it all right? She leans against the wall of the house, hiding under the eaves, I’ll just wait here a moment, wait the storm out. Horrible thing, horrible it was, Johnny. I kept my cries for later, for when the nuns let me feed Franny, then I’d weep a pool of tears on her little bald head. Who would have thought she’d have my beautiful hair, such a little baldy she was. I wonder where she is, marrying her sixth husband, bringing the Devil into another man, spreading her sin. Even Antony knew she was a bad one, knew that a half-sister was no sister at all. My son had all the looks and all the brains until they spilled out over a bad road, all spilled out and the Devil licking them off the tarmac, Mary Jane putting pennies on the boy’s pretty blue eyes.              

            Oh yes, I know, I know. Franny is looking for her father, that’s what Freud says. Yes, I know what he says. It’s all about sex it is. Don’t think I’m a stupid woman, Johnny. But what’s it going to help? I let Franny think her father was a good man, I let her think he was a soldier. I said he died in the war, medals and all, but she doesn’t believe me. I should’ve told her the truth, then she’d have stopped her haughty ways.  I should’ve told her it was little Paulie with the stutter and the walleye and the coal dust still on his hands when he pulled down my knickers.  Da’s little favourite, just like a son. I didn’t make a sound when Da beat me. Truth has God’s protection, he said, didn’t believe my lies, he said, Paulie’s a good man. I never let a sound escape, I couldn’t, his sandpaper hand on my mouth, going to give you something special, he said. You’re a woman now, he said.

            Don’t think about that, don’t think, I’m going away, going away. I’m not leaving no bit of me here, that’s a promise. Johnny Noo-noos is coming to take me away, Johnny Noo-noos is coming to take me away. I’m going to London. Lots of shops, I’ll buy something nice for myself, you’ll buy it for me, won’t you? What’s that? Parties? Yes, oh very funny, you are such a one you are, you know how to win a lady’s heart don’t you, yes you do, you say all the right things. I like silk, the palest peach coloured silk, the colour of a woman’s naughty bits. I’ll have an edge of lace, not too much, too much is for tarts. I’m not a tart, not with you. We’ll be married we will, you’ll make an honest woman out of me, won’t you Johnny?

            Pearl steps across the path, down into the boreen, the wind high and mighty now, good weather for a landing, she thinks. She tucks her scarf in, settles the silver handbag down beside her muddied legs. Her gown flaps about like wet sheets. Behind her the staggering sheep falls to its knees as if in prayer, watching with a dark and glassy eye the small yellow-smocked girl waiting in the rain.

 

 

 

Sandra Jensen's work has been published or is forthcoming in VerbSap, The Dublin Quarterly, r.kv.ry Quarterly, Versal, Santa Fe Writers Project, Word Riot, Sou'wester, Takahe, Chautauqua, AGNI and Prism international. Sandra moderates Diving Deeper: A Writing Workshop, an online writer's group at Gaia.com. She leads writing retreats in Europe and North America.