The woman walks out of the sunlit doorway and becomes her hands and blue eyes. Her black dress is a disappearing act in the dark shop.
“May I help you, Mrs Howard?”
“I wish to see the lace trimmings.”
The widow always asks for the trimmings. Rose takes the box down from the shelf while the woman trembles over the polished counter. Perhaps she is ill. Her face has no shape at all; then it is angular, a bird’s skull, as she takes the box from the shop girl. She pulls out the trimmings with the fierceness of a bird. Rose would like very much to sketch Mrs Howard, or even just her fingers feeding at the box.
“Those two pieces, I think. Only those. The rest is cheap rubbish.”
She rejected the same lace yesterday as ugly and modern. Funny woman. What does she do with all that lace? You can only trim so many coverlets, surely?
“What is the price?”
Rose sees a woman in a scarlet coat step out of the side of Mrs Howard’s head into the sunlit street. She would like a coat like that one day, a film star’s coat, a Bette Davis coat, with the widest lapels. A baby Austin burns a hot brown on the street corner.
“Are you deaf, girl? The price, I said. I do not have all day.” The lines on Mrs Howard’s top lip contract to deep grooves.
“Robbery. Are you sure?”
“Quite sure, Mrs Howard.”
The villa wears a shawl of forest round its shoulders. Smooth muscled beeches and the poles of new oaks. The immaculate lawn lies under them, inside their hall. White smoke from the villa’s faux-Tudor chimneys is a rope thrown into the wood.
Annie, the lady’s maid, worries for the boy. It is too damp, too dark out back. The wood is storming the house. They should go out into the sun, take the motor car up onto the bare hill that glows across the valley. They had a nice picnic there last Saturday, tongue sandwiches for her, mushed apple and a bottle of milk for baby. And the view from up there. The view. And Jones the driver was all right to talk to, once he got off rugby football and engines.
But they must wait in for Mrs Watts, who has gone shopping in Llanandred, and who wants to see David as soon as she returns. So the lawn it is, hushed and dim as an empty church, though the boy doesn’t seem to mind. He goes wobbling ahead of her, his tiny fat arms held out to embrace the wide green nothing of it all. At least when he falls his landing will be soft.
“This will do, Davey. Stop now, Davey. Let’s put the blankie out for you.”
No doubt the mistress has bought so many clothes for the boy that he will outgrow them before he wears the half of them. Annie flaps the rug up at the trees and lays it on the wormcast grass. The boy, upholstered in blue velvet like a cushion, rocks his way to the distant trees. She holds out his ball to tempt him back, but he doesn’t see, so she half runs to scoop him up.
The dark green cloth spills tiny roots as Rose cuts it. The cloth is a river running down from its own cylindrical hill onto the counter. Tissue paper crackles under her elbow as she follows the chalk line.
“Is that sufficient, madam?”
The customer, Mrs Evans from Hill Farm, the smell of horses on her, smiles her assent. “Quite sufficient, Rose.”
The roll is for a new waistcoat and repairs to a Sunday suit. Rose remembers the woman in the street and Bette Davis in Fashions of 1934. She would like to make herself a coat one day, but it will take time, time she doesn’t have, and she is not very good with a machine. Slowly she makes up the brown paper parcel.
“Tom will look so tidy after I’m done with him.”
“I’m sure he will, Mrs Evans. I do so love this green. Such a lovely deep colour.”
Rose looks up at the bump on the window. The street gleams, and the light has the grey of the buildings opposite. The window starts to vanish under the rain.
“Will you look at that. You must wait a minute or two, Mrs Evans. You’ll be soaked.”
“It’s only starting. Only a shower. And I’m used to a soaking, Rose. Don’t worry about me. How much do I owe you?”
Rose tries to smile. It is Thursday afternoon, when Mrs Wyatt visits her sister, and Mrs Evans will not stay a little longer. Rose imagines Mr Wyatt standing with his head in the darkness of the staircase, listening for the bell and the key turning in the lock. The man has a stout or two at the Cock on Thursdays and sometimes naps over his accounts. Pray God he is asleep, that he sleeps until Mrs Wyatt comes loudly through the door with the usual news of her sister’s unruly children.
Half an hour past closing time Rose begins to hope. The rain comes in slow silver lines into the empty street as she sweeps the shop floor. The shelves are tidy and stocked, the till emptied. In a few minutes she will be on her bicycle home without even needing to say good-bye.
“Mr Wyatt, you startled me. I didn’t see you there.”
“I’ve been watching you, Rosey. Such a tidy way you have with a broom. Everyone likes you, Rosey. Our ladies like you.”
“Thank you, Mr Wyatt.”
“Come here, girl. Come on. Don’t be shy now. You aren’t a shy girl, are you? Our customers like a shop girl who listens. Who isn’t too forward with her opinions. You’re a fast learner, Rosey.”
“I’m glad you think so, sir.”
“Robert. Please. I think you should call me Robert. It’s after hours.”
But she never calls the shopkeeper by his name, even when she is begging him to let go.
Rose is in her attic room. When she stands up the apex of the house frames her body. But she is in the private world between her headboard and the crooked square of window now, pillows at her back and a sketchbook on her knees. She draws the vase on the dresser, as she does every other day. She draws the cherry tree with its wounded, shining bark in the garden below and the weathered wall that shields it. Drawing is how she heals and hopes.
She draws a bath later, watches the black window sweat as she removes her clothes in the still, chill room. She lies in the water that isn’t quite hot enough, remembering the ripples the unborn child sent out with its foot in her belly. She wants to remember her crowded body and almost does. Then she reads, until the cold air on her exposed shoulders becomes too much to bear.
I won’t go to the shop tomorrow. Tomorrow I will take the train to Hereford or Birmingham or London and start a new life.
The resolution holds while she rubs herself fiercely dry with the hard towel. But her son is close by, she is sure of it. She can’t go anywhere until she knows for sure he is happy. And even then. Even then.
At breakfast her landlady, Mrs O’Dell, complains as usual of the tardiness of the butcher boy and her rheumatism. She holds out the jar of marmalade for Rose to take without asking Rose if she wants it. Rose thanks her anyway. She likes Mrs O’Dell. One of her sons died in the Great War, and the other slaves for a solicitor in Wolverhampton. Their photographs stand with the sugar bowl and the salt cellar with its little silver spoon while they eat, as if they were having breakfast also. When Mrs O’Dell clears the table, the photographs go back to their home on the dresser.
It comforts Rose to hear the woman speak her monologues.
Mrs Hobbes-Townsend—Joan—has a bulky name, but she is slight and not very tall. Her hair is a black fall in the new style and her lips a shocking red. She sometimes feels like a visitor from the city in this cavernous dark house. Bill has been dead ten years—is it ten, is it eleven?—but their agreement holds, even if she can’t say quite why. She will stay, she will raise a child with his name. The ugly house will have an heir.
She has a craving for Bill today. She walks the dark hallways and into empty unused immaculate bedrooms, talking to him under her breath. She picks up a pretty box they bought on their honeymoon in Paris. She stares down a grim ancestor in his gilt frame on the wall. She walks, pretending inspection. Sometimes her friends come up from London, sometimes she goes down to them. Sometimes her friends introduce her to a widower or a lonely bachelor, and sometimes there is love-making, but she never commits, she lets the correspondence die and refuses the invitations to house parties and concerts. Bill was so very different from her, in time they might have drifted apart, but dead, she dreams of him every day. She cannot escape. And now that she has David, she does not want to.
The thought of the boy stops her mid-corridor. She sheds her new red coat onto the shining elm boards, kicks off her uncomfortable court shoes, as if preparing to dive into water for him. His happy shrieks come from a floor away in the nursery, and she slides along, half running, not wanting to slip in her stockings, to find him.
“There you are, darling. There you are. Have you been a good boy for Annie?”
“We had to come in, mam, it was getting so cold. But he had a good airing today, didn’t you, Davey?”
Joan kneels as the boy comes laughing, hands in the air, into her arms. It is a miracle to be wanted by innocence. She feels guilt for something unnamed, and David cures her. Annie Owens has retreated diplomatically to the old chaise longue in the nursery corner. A fire crackles in the grate. The woman is a treasure, but Joan wants her to go now. She finds her a task.
“It’s so lovely and warm in here. Shall we have tea in the nursery, Annie? Can you ask Mrs Flowers to make up some sandwiches? Or toast and jam. I would prefer toast and jam.”
“Right you are, mam.”
The boy fetches a block from the scattered line aimed at the fire. He drops it, frowning, into Joan’s lap, then goes back for another block. His hair is a fair whirlpool and his walk a controlled fall. Her friends were scandalised by the adoption, less modern than they pretended. A boy needs a father, they told her. And he has one, she told them. This is Bill’s child. Bill’s and mine. Besides, the world is full of widowed mothers doing perfectly well on their own. What difference does it make that the boy is adopted?
Mrs Howard is odder than usual today. She stands under the bell, holding her handbag to her chest, and does not approach the counter. She is a black triangle, with light caught in the folds of her dress. Rose is shocked by the small red hole of her mouth when she sighs. It tears the paper-white face and makes her blue eyes bluer.
“Are you all right, Mrs Howard?”
A motor lorry goes rumbling past the window. The old woman tuts and shakes her head violently at this final insult. White hairs are whisked free of the carefully pinned hat. Rose is scared; she wants to hold the old woman until she is still again, but as she moves to open the trap in the counter, Mrs Howard leaves.
“I must escape,” says Rose to the clanging bell. “I have to go too.”
Rose is allowed half an hour for lunch. She goes to the tearooms on the square usually, but today she enters the church. The building is a plain stone hall, plain-glassed, the only colour the brass cross on the distant altar. She kneels in the sea of pews. She wants to pray, for herself, for her lost baby—it’s worth a go, isn’t it?—but she doesn’t know what to say. Unlike her father, she has never been much of a churchgoer.
A door booms at her back. A woman’s shoes click in the vaulted ceiling as she carries a vase of white flowers under the frayed squares of regimental flags. Rose watches her as she rearranges the flowers, pulling out stems, pushing and pulling with what looks like fury.
It’s raining again when Rose goes out into the porch. It comes slow white out of the sky and makes a picture show of the traffic and the pedestrians in the street the other side of the churchyard wall. She feels invisible briefly, out of time. She doesn’t want to go back, but she knows she will. She is a good girl. The woman at the altar is a good girl.
“Awful day to take a turn around the town, Rose. You should take care you know. Customers do not care for a dishevelled shop girl. Or one with a cold.”
“No, Mr Wyatt.”
“Not that there are many customers to be had in this weather.”
“Not this again. Don’t sir me. Don’t Mr Wyatt me. We’re alone, Rosey. You can see we are.”
“Oh, oh, I saw Mrs Wyatt at the butchers. She said she would stop by in a few minutes. She has the chops you wanted.”
“Yes. Well. Thank you, Rosey.”
It’s Thursday again. Rose sees Mr Wyatt side-on most of the day, the height of him and the straight fall of his long arms. He leans down, lowers his smile onto the upturned faces of his shorter customers. He knows who they are, has heard who is unwell, who is getting married, who has died, he knows what to say to keep the women talking. When he turns to the shelves or to the till, she sees the boredom, something like anger sometimes, in the plain unseeing look he gives her, but it’s hard to say what is true of him, what he truly feels about anything at all. The moment he turns back to the customer he is cheerful again, ready with some weak joke.
Mrs Wyatt comes back with the chops. She stops on every step coming down again, to tell him something. She always goes out on Thursday, but she talks as if the adventure were new, an aberration. She will be back at seven sharp. There is yesterday’s cawl in the pot if he can’t wait for chops. He can replace the bulb in the front room if he wants to be useful. Oh, and don’t put the door on the chain, Robert, you know how I had to stand there in the rain the other week. I will back at seven sharp. Seven on the stroke. I won’t stay with Gertie longer, she drives me up the wall. Those children of hers, running about like savages.
Mr Wyatt stands headless and unspeaking at the top of the stairs. Mrs Wyatt talks to her hand on the banister, and the handbag she opens and snaps shut, and then her shoes.
“Yes, dear. Give my love to Gertie, won’t you.”
Then they are alone. Rose rakes the dustless floor with the broom to stay close to the window, but there will be no nap this time. No delaying now the sign is turned in the window.
“The stock needs tending to, Rosey. Come through, please.”
As soon as she enters the stockroom he pins her to the wall and pulls up her dress. So far she has always found a way to postpone her rape. Please, I’m not well. Not here. Can you hear something? My landlady is expecting me. Can you be patient? It’s my monthlies.
Mr Wyatt’s voice softens the heavier he breathes. Please, Rosie. Be kind. He’ll tell the town what a bad girl she is if she doesn’t let him have his fun. Nobody else would employ her. Nobody. It is his moral duty to tell the town the truth. Does she want him to do his duty? Does she? She has never said so, and he has never said so, but she knows he knows she must stay close to the child. It’s the only way the blackmail works.
Mr Wyatt does up his flies. He wipes his fingers on a scrap of tissue paper and walks away without looking at her. She rolls down her dress and cuts the torn roll into neatness with the cloth shears. She must do so twice over because her hand is shaking.
Rose remembers the heat, how the sun lay drunk in her as she faced her father’s silhouette. The garden was immaculate under the window and very still. She could see the black oval of the pond and the fat white heads of the water lilies, but it wasn’t her pond or her garden any more. He wouldn’t look at her, he waved his spectacles, flashing with sun, to distract her from his real eyes, and he did this, she suspected, not because he was shy or because she had sinned but because she had never been very real to him in the first place. He gave his speech to the bookcase while she sat very upright on the old sofa by the window. She saw that he would send her away again, as he had always sent her away—to bed, to boarding school, out of his sight—some minutes before he said so.
“Do you know what you have done, Rose? Do you? You risk my reputation. After all these years. My patients will desert me if this…if this gets out, which it will not.”
“I’m sorry, father.”
“It will not. I will see to it that it will not.”
He told her that he would send her away, after the child was born, to prevent disaster. He told her that he would not waste a penny on her—the family did not have a penny to waste—but that he would not leave her destitute. Mr Wyatt, a distant cousin of her mother’s, would take her on as shop girl. He owned a haberdasher’s shop in Llanandred, amongst other things—did she know it? She could come home when the threat of scandal had passed.
“After a period. A suitable period. After you have learned the value of a good day’s work.”
Rose said nothing. There was no interior life to defend. There was no her, just as there had been no her from the day her mother died. Her brother was at Oxford, he was real. Her father and her brother talked, drank together, argued over politics, even dressed alike when he was down. But when her father met her on the stairs or in the garden he always seemed surprised, as if he had forgotten she was there.
She hadn’t realised how lonely she was until her brother’s college friend, Paul, came down in the summer. They had gone for long walks in the hills and argued over modern paintings, novels, the situation in Germany—and she had held her own. She had held her own against the Oxford man. She had let him make love to her in a bluebell wood as a reward. There had been a brief moment of pain and then it was over.
She had told her brother her secret over the telephone and asked him to carry a letter to Paul, whose exact address she didn’t know. Harold had refused. He wouldn’t let her ruin his friend’s life. Still, Paul wrote to her, some weeks later, apologising for taking things too far, too quickly. He was engaged to another and didn’t want to raise her hopes. He didn’t mention the pregnancy, so perhaps he didn’t know of it.
If she were Bette Davis, she would have made a fuss. If she were Greer Garson. Katharine Hepburn. Norma Shearer.
From her attic room she watches the slow-moving clouds over the cottage opposite. She wonders if her father knew what Robert Wyatt was like but doesn’t pursue the idea because it is too terrible. Her father hasn’t written to her, and she hasn’t written to him. She wonders why she doesn’t leave, and then she remembers the child. She debates her options without emotion.
The day is a pale cold blue; it is Sunday, her day off. When her time was approaching, her father told her that a well-born local woman would adopt the child. Perhaps he saw the hope in her face—after that he became stern and wouldn’t tell her the woman’s name. Still, she had that clue.
The hills carry slow-travelling flags of light on their flanks. The woods are wet and black, and the streams flash where they break over the rocks. Rose pushes her bike along the moor road and sees the ancient stone rings in the gorse and heather. The air flickers bright and black like a silent picture show.
Rose almost forgets who she is and what she is doing. She barely controls the heavy machine as she free-wheels down the winding road to Bledwell, and that too is joyful to her. She passes the church and the tin chapel. The white pub has clouds in its windows. She reaches the end of the single street and sees the Victorian villa in the woods, high above.
She has scratched out five names in her notebook, and she expects to scratch out another today. She leaves her bike at the bottom of the slope and makes her way up through the trees. When she reaches the house, the garden is a wet square of grass and the bay windows black and liquid. Gilt mirrors lie in their depths. She kneels on her coat behind a beech tree to watch.
When she opens her eyes she sees a woman in a maid’s uniform looking back at her. Rose nearly breaks cover, but the woman is looking up at the wood or the blue sky, not at her. The servant walks briskly back to the house, leaning forward into her shoulders, her elbows swinging. Rose smiles at her urgency, imagines her mumbling.
Minutes pass. Rose grows cold. Just as she is about to creep away, the servant reappears with a blanket under her arm. A second woman, who must be the mistress, Mrs Hobbes-Townsend, leads a toddler by her finger tips. The woman’s coat is red, and her hat is a film star’s jaunty flower-pot. The woman—the mother—crouches to gather the toddler in her arms. The servant throws the blanket square to the sky, and when it settles the two women sit down on it.
“Don’t wander too far, Davey.”
The child’s head is wrapped in a woolly helmet. His grey coat is a cone buttoned to the neck. He staggers down an invisible winding path towards the wood to reveal his face to Rose. She feels an ancient grief. The child is hers, she knows he is.
Blue Woman explores the many lives of the painter Rose Hartwood. She is alone at the start of the novel, an unmarried mother whose child was taken from her. In wartime London she struggles to establish herself in the very male art world, survives German bombs, takes lovers, and meets the young officer who will become her husband. Her reputation grows after the war, and in the sixties she reunites with her son, when he comes to her London studio. By the seventies, her star is fading and her husband is an alcoholic. She returns to the town where her son lives and uses a disused chapel as her studio. Now in her early fifties, she begins a relationship with a young man who comes to her for art lessons. By the time of her death, thirty years later, her reputation has grown again. The Rose Hartwood Trust turns the chapel into a museum, and her lover, now an old man, reflects on what it means—though he wouldn’t have it any other way—to live in Rose’s shadow.
Blue Woman began as a series of short stories, several of them prize-winning, spanning a century in a small provincial town. I wrote a handful of stories for each decade, from the end of the First World War to the near-present. As I neared the end of the project, I saw that Rose’s stories were a complete cycle in their own right. Through Rose I could explore the idea that the past isn’t a foreign country at all, but close at hand, a living presence. She could also show me what changes, and what persists, through the many lives of a single lifetime.
Jonathan Page lives in Brecon, Wales. He works as a technical author and writes fiction in his spare time.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020