Summer 2009

Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 2


Poetry    Essays    Translations    Fiction   

Elizabeth Costello


She Looks at the Landscapes

The first one draws her so close, there is just the bumpy texture of the paint. Screaming yellows and civil blues and greys. Three steps back and it turns into a beach again, familiar in its yards and yards of gleaming sand, its milk and grey sky, its hemline horizon of sea. As indeed it should be, according to the postage stamp of a caption in the bottom corner, declaring Pierre Blanche en Irlande.
But there is no time for coincidences to bloom. The paintings should be flowers and she should be a bee, following them around the room, glutting on their nectar. A golden village on a yellow hill, edged by a cool border of lavender and the burnt green of trees. A blood-warm field with another hilltop cluster of houses, a hint of pink in the sky too, as though she is looking through a filter. A mustard field with a flaming trail of poppies down its centre. They look as though they are drowning, as though in another moment those scarlet heads will have disappeared beneath the grass sea.
How very Joan of her. As was this decision to sit on the floor, back against cool wall. Even the legs stretched out in front look like they belong to her. A new survival strategy?
She should have brought the green slip-on’s in a bag. To hell with that, she should have insisted on wearing them, instead of these awful, awful lace up things. But she knows ammunition when she sees it. Her daughter.
‘Shoe couture’s hardly the point. If we pass a herd of sheep we’ll be doing well.’
That one of Manhattan watches her now. Mean skyscrapers looming over smudged charcoal and burning yellow dots. Once she was one of those dots. She would have stayed there too, if she hadn’t met Patrick there that summer. Married by the end of the year. Just like that, two fates snapped shut like a handbag clasp. Fast progress for a shy boy. Funny it’s the park that comes to her now. Catching some young boy just before his bicycle skids sideways. The memory presents her alone, which seems odd. Still, in that moment she wasn’t, not when all those people who happened to be passing smiled at the sight of the tubby legs wiggling in the air, her hands clasping the trophy torso, as the bicycle clatters to the ground. A couple of them even clapped. And then on, and none of those people ever sharing anything again.
More cityscapes, then some scenes of women in marketplaces from all around the world. She skims past these, forgetting all about being a bee. Of course, what she really ought to be doing is a little dance of joy down this sensible floor of oak or whatever it was. She had, after all, escaped The Walk.
It was the heat, she decides, that caused her little outburst. At least, that was the last straw. Or the new straw to be more precise. After all, she was used to the intense conversations on things she knew nothing about – in this case the implications of the new French president on EU migration policy. She was even used to walking behind them or in front of them, as the path dictated. But that sun. Hammering down on them at four o’clock like it was midday. Even behind shades and a head scarf, a headache uncoiling itself. And the way they regularly slowed their pace for her sake, as though they were having a secret telepathic conversation about how annoying she was. In a way, that was exactly what they were doing.
The final ones take her out to sea. In the first of these, it looks as though part of the sea has turned into seagulls and is attempting to break away from itself. Into the rain too. It is not clear whether or not it will make it. Beside this, a fishing boat hangs half way up a wave, that curves around it like an enormous question mark.
And then she sees. The place she and the world carved out for her holds her no longer. Even if Joan had decided to stay living at home in her first college year, she was still eighteen years old now. She had her own life. As did he. As should she. She could do it all of a sudden, without any explanation. Like that time she dug up the roses in the front garden and replaced them with marigolds. His face. Like she was the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, after swallowing his nice wife whole. That was when he taught his summer Thursday evening class, and she and Joan would feast on white bread and jam sandwiches and fizzy orange at the end of the garden, weather permitting. But leaving and not loving were not the same thing. She still loves him too, in a way, at least the side of him she fell in love with in the first place. The side that looked at her if she said something that didn’t make sense or that wasn’t fair to everyone concerned. Politely, humbly even. It always immediately humbled her. But that him, no matter how much it melts her, has all but disappeared.
Back at the doorway, a photograph of the artist greets her. He stands in a field in front of a mountain, the earth the colour of yellow autumn leaves, his canvas a mirror. Travelling the world for this collection. The fabulous life flutters in her mind like a moth in a shut hand. To his right, her reflection looks back at her, her face pale against the fire of his earth, his left shoulder nudging her arm. The trimmed bob surprises her. How long ago the salon of this morning seems. Novelty of hair being done without conversation.
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata beeps from inside her handbag.
‘How’s the shopping trip?’
‘Nearly finished now.’
‘Right. Well, we’re in that place we said we’d meet.’
‘I’ll be there soon.’
She snaps the phone shut, looks at the man in the photograph, as though expecting him to speak.

‘You like?’ asks the woman at the till, motioning with her hand towards the gallery.
‘Oh yes. Thank you.’
‘One moment, please.’
She turns back around. An outstretched arm, a white booklet dangling from a tanned, ring-laden hand.
‘A gift for you. You see?’ The woman flicks the pages and miniature versions of the paintings flash and blur into one another.
‘Thank you,’ she says, sliding book and postcards into her bag, careful so as not to bend the edges, removing a broken disposable camera as she does so to make room.
Across the road, the outdoor tables of a café are cluttered with people, talking or just gazing about them, enjoying aperitifs. The early evening sun is still strong. It shines through the leaves of a sycamore tree, dappling everything. The breeze caresses her skirt against her knees and the sides of her thighs. When she drops the broken camera into a bin, it does not make a sound. Something soft must have broken its fall. Just then, a car makes a U-turn right in front of her. A girl with long red hair, sitting in the passenger seat, laughs soundlessly amid the angry drone of horns.
And then she sees them. At the table at the very edge, where the road swings around the café and out of view. How could she have forgotten that was the place? Her first chance in a long time to observe her daughter unobserved. Untidy is the first word that comes. All those long almost black curls scraped back into a low ponytail that does nothing for her face, which is creased against the low, cloud-filtered sun she stares into, as though it is one of her mountains she is sizing up. They are certainly not discussing EU migration policy now. Both the gin and tonic and glass of beer on the table are untouched. He studies a menu with an expression of intense concentration. How silly of them to have a row. Children, the pair of them. Her family, who will be ok without her. Who will carry on, live their lives, like all the other people sitting outside the café.
She is too far away to make out the lines that glisten down each side of Joan’s face, reflecting back the sunlight. She is too far away to see how, when Joan notices her mother and a smile startles her face awake, her eyes tether themselves to her. And she is much too far away to notice the small but growing bulge hidden for weeks now beneath those shapeless t-shirts. She steps forward, presses the round gleaming button and waits for the pedestrian light to blink on. Between them and her, the rush hour traffic crawls.


© Elizabeth Costello



Poetry    Essays    Translations    Fiction   

Website Copyright © 2009 by Loch Raven Review.

Copyright Notice and Terms of Use: This website contains copyrighted materials, including, but not limited to, text, photographs, and graphics. You may not use, copy, publish, upload, download, post to a bulletin board. or otherwise transmit, distribute, or modify any contents of this website in any way, except that you may download one copy of such contents on any single computer for your own personal non-commercial use, provided you do not alter or remove any copyright, poet, author, or artist attribution, or any other proprietary notices.