MDwM #19: Headcase: What Ramona Has Had to Work With

car MDwM Oct 2014

I woke, finally, disoriented by the brightness of mid-afternoon sun penetrating determinedly in gap between curtain and window. My throat and ears ached, my face felt hot. My lie had become prophecy: I seemed to be getting Lucy’s cold after all. I stole into Millicent’s bedroom where I knew from my prowlings she kept pills after a riding spill the previous year where she’d wrenched her back. I took two, slid into bed and waited. In slow circles of retreating consciousness I fell away from the bed, away from Helvstead, and the long-waiting memories that had started queuing up for my attention.

Once in schools my science teacher, a bleary, rheumy-eyed man who seemed to find his pupils immensely distasteful, performed a demonstration. First, he poured a glass of water and set it on the counter, and into this he poured a bright blue fluid. This second substance, rather than dispersing, gathered into a pendulous tear drop shape in the center of the glass, and stayed there, swaying with the teacher’s heavy tread as he lectured us on the marvels of density and viscosity. It had, to my fascination, stayed intact except for a few blue tendrils that frayed outward, curling up as if in supplication. I remember my eyes seemed to be fixed: how the clot of blue, had laid furled, as if holding itself close in the center of the glass. And here this teacher, who disliked teaching so very much, had for the first time, given me a view of my mother: her insanity, her sanity, one within the other, never entirely separate, never entirely as one.

My devotion to my mother was rather like, when, bored and alone as a small child, I tossed a ball up as high as I might, not thinking I could hit the sun, but liking the fancy of trying. Once, a Mr. Rashadman, the maths teacher, worshipped by his students as former cricketer, saw me, and asked what I was doing. I told him, and he’d offered to try, and with a dashing grin, threw it so high it seemed to hang there forever in the blinding patch of light and then, just as surely, it hit the ground before I even saw it had begun to fall.

My love for my mother was like this, at its highest point it seemed it would stay there forever, defying gravity, never to come down again. But it did, of course, and when it did it feel in such dizzying rush my child’s heart had no chance to change its course. And when it landed it wasn’t in explosion of feeling; rather in silence, darkness, emotional amnesia, if you will. I had no words and I was provided with none. Eventually this blankness imploded into something else entirely. It could be said my hatred had left me without an anchor, for I didn’t understand it; how can one understand something one doesn’t even know exists? How could I recognize this feeling as hatred, when hatred is known as the engine of vengeance, the fuel of violence, the stuff of religious zealotry and operas and romances and wars? But hatred can be a homey phenomenon, run on duty and obligation, felt in quiet moments stirrings one’s tea, staring out a window, waiting for the tram. I had thought demonstrations of goodness could overtake, even transform the vacuum that opened up whenever I thought of my mother. I was unaware this void was actually the sensation of hatred that had consumed itself.

I wanted to think myself capable of being the sort of daughter that would go to her side, patting her brow with a damp cloth, murmuring comforting selfless things. My hatred hid its tracks like a soldier trailing a branch behind his feet, obscuring his footprints. I could not bear it, the knowledge of its existence. I only thought I was incapable of feeling at all.

My cold, once started, progressed quickly, and laying in bed surrounded by crumpled handkerchiefs and half-drunk cups of tea, my fever rose and leaving the unpleasant sensation of hot spoons pressed against my eyes. I was terrified I might fall as ill as I had in London, and imagined Millicent insisting I go to hospital, finding myself a bother this way, was something I dreaded almost more than death.

I very much disliked the idea of being sick in Millicent’s company (had I ever, I wondered foggily, ever seen her with so much as a cold?). But to feel the vagaries of these old memories with her near—the screeching rise of anger, my jaws aching after grinding them through the night, the bit-back tears, my stomach’s roiling anguish ready to manifest itself at any moment—this truly was unbearable.

I was grateful to have illness as disguise. I was starting to feel the first footfalls of hysteria. I feared if I were to come down to the breakfast table I might do something mad, caw like a crow, or smash something on the table, for a strange wildness had risen in me, and I often felt dangerously near some humiliation I wouldn’t find the courage from which to recover. I spent long days in bed, sleeping, with an occasional hot water bottle or compress supplied by Lucy.

Millicent popped in a few times, her tread on the carpet enough of an announcement that I could feign sleep before she entered. One afternoon, she challenged my possum state, giving me a few ungentle pokes.

“Here now, Ramona, stop playing dead.”

“What?” I said groggily.

“Stop that dreadful faking. You’ve been in bed for a week. Do you need a doctor?”

It’s only been five days, I wailed inwardly. “Oh, no. I’ll be quite all right.”

“Hmph. Don’t think you’re being noble or ‘avoiding being trouble.’ You’re causing Lucy plenty of bother running up and down the stairs.”

“Oh, I’m so terribly sor—“

“Christ, don’t apologize,” she sighed. “I simply think the time is nigh for a professional opinion.”

“No, no, Millicent. Please. Really.”

“If you’re not up tomorrow, I’ll have Lucy call.”

“Well, all right then.” I said, meekly. “I’m afraid I’m a bit tired now.”

“Yes, yes, I take the hint,” she stood. “But eat something, Ramona. You’re looking rather Therese of Liseux again. Shall I have Lucy send up some soup?”

“All right. Yes, that would be nice.”

Twenty minutes later a bowl of chicken broth appeared, and to my surprise I found myself spooning down most of it, hot and flavorful with herbs. I put the tray on the floor and after a moment, lay down, and, like a satiated infant, immediately fell asleep.

Sleep gave rise to a tangle of dreams.

I was in New Hampshire, floating along a corridor of the Wilmington School for Girls. Millicent, resplendent in riding clothes but an incongruously large, formal black hat, came running towards me, shrieking with laughter. As she came closer I saw the hat was in fact Tony’s cocker spaniel, Lilliput, dead, stuffed to appear curled in sleep. Millicent tossed the hat off her head; it gave a yip of pain as it landed, which caused Millicent to laugh more loudly. I tried to shush her, as I could hear my father’s voice, teaching a history lesson in a classroom nearby. I caught a glimpse of my hands and discovered my arms and legs were wound in tattered strips of cloth; I was wrapped like a mummy. Millicent turned and caught me looking at myself in distress and doubled over, nearly hysterical, and humiliated, I ran away. She began chasing me then, her arms outstretched, in a mimicking, mummy-like gate. Panicked I moved faster and faster, trying to outrun her mocking laugh. Soon enough she disappeared and I was being chased by a dark scuttling thing that had no name or alignment in nature. I screamed for my mother and suddenly I sat in a classroom, my father pouring me a cup of tea. But when he spoke, Molly’s voice emerged.

“You told,” he said. “You promised you wouldn’t. You weak and wasted girl.”

He put down the tea pot. He leaned over and patted my hand, becoming himself again.

“It’s all right, my child.” His face was so kind. “It’s all right. Only your death is required.”

I woke up with a start, my face covered in a net of tears. I felt sick, but strangely excited by this odd kneading of memories and nonsense. There had been my father, real as life, more so than he had been to me in years.

I got up and sat by the window shivering, pulling my dressing gown closer, watching the moonlight in a faint and blue glaze on the grass, feeling the cool trickle of night air coming in through a draft. And, finally, I remembered.

It had begun at lunch time.

After New Hampshire, my father had found a position at the Twindale School for Girls in Toronto and here, for the first time, perhaps because of the exegesis from New Hampshire, or the start of a new life, I had made friends. I have no recollection how this happened; only that I sat with them at lunch everyday, marveling at the succor it brought me.

“It’s absolutely beastly,” Nancy was saying. “What if anyone heard? I’d die; I would. I know I would. So you mustn’t tell anyone.”

Yesterday’s lunch hour topic of imagining the worst humiliation that might happen on a date had metamorphosed into embarrassing behaviors of one’s mother.

“Solemn promise,” said Dot Harrison. “That goes for each of us. Not a word leaves this table.”

“I’d die,” said Sarah Jones with pleasure.

“So promise.”

We promised through mouthfuls of cafeteria meatloaf, rolls, and boiled carrots. The revelations continued: Nancy’s mother often sniffed her armpits when she thought no one was looking and snored loudly. Dot’s mother, the most glamorous of all the mothers at school, possessed a small army of girdles and wigs and plucked her chin in the mornings. Sarah’s mother flirted horribly with her piano teacher.

“My mother tried to kill me,” I had said, scooping out the rest of my pudding. I followed this with a roll of the eyes, a gesture stolen from Glenda Meelstrom, a girl in the upper forms with a careless, indifferent air. There was nothing we so admired at the time as the appearance of worldly weariness.

A beat or two passed before anyone spoke.

“No,” Sarah protested, looking both gleeful and shocked. Dot’s lower lip jutted in affront, dismayed as a matron of fifty.

“Twice,” I said.

“You shouldn’t say such things,” Sarah said. “You’re so full of it, Bright.”

“It’s true,” I said. “Ask me to swear to anything you like.”

I don’t know what got into me. I’d never spoke in such a blunt manner, but a certain hardness had been dawning over the last year and I yearned to speak hard words.

“What happened?” Sarah said inhaling raptly, her eyes enormous.

“I still don’t believe it,” said Nancy, but in a manner to provoke me to prove otherwise.

“Scissors,” I said, meeting their eyes. “Over this eye,” I tapped my left.

I took another bite of my pudding. “She would have done it too, if my father hadn’t walked in.”

“Crikey! My mum’s never gone that far!” exclaimed Sarah, amending.

“Although I thought she would last week when I lost her scarf.”

“How old were you?” asked Esme curiously.

“Eleven,” I said.

“But I thought—”

I could see Sarah’s look of puzzlement. Following Father’s lead, I had vaguely implied my mother was dead for some time.

“But why?” asked Esme. “I mean why would your mother do that?”

“She had such a grip on me,” I said, ignoring this, using the same tone of exasperated disgust they had. “You could see each finger on my cheek and neck, as a bruise. And you can see the scar—right there.”

“She’s right! There is a scar!” said Sarah excitedly.

I felt my face surveyed in careful examination.

“You said twice,” said Esme, her face scrunched in a sort of mulish doubt.

She particularly disliked feeling topped in any way, and this had rather
stolen the show on her mother’s inclination to shoplifting hairpins. “She tried to kill you twice.”

“She’d tried once before in the bath when I was small. Dad thinks I’ve forgotten, but I haven’t.” I finished my pudding, saying with the deliberate casualness of Glenda Meelstrom. “Well, anyway, after the scissors, they had to take her away. She’s potty.”

I looked up, to see these serious, wholesome Canadian girls had fallen silent, grave questions beginning to bloom in their eyes. The lunch monitor arrived before they could speak, and gave a rap to the table to indicate we’d been dismissed. We gathered our trays, them rather more slowly than myself; I felt their gazes on my back.

Heedless, I ran up to another girl in my class, pulled her ribbon and darted away, laughing. I heard her shout of dismay, and a teacher calling, and I ignored them both, racing up the staircase.

I had told the girls it was scissors, not a knife, because that was part of the lie I told later. Perhaps I no longer knew what had happened. I must have screamed, which was uncharacteristic; I always feel a bit silly about that, although I suppose being menaced with scissors might be provoking; still, it seems needlessly melodramatic. The neighbors announced they were calling the police; I suppose there had already been enough strange noise and behavior coming from our side of the wall.

Usually my father ground out my mother’s pills with the back of the spoon and put it in cocoa; that day I think he must have insisted she take them then and there. He locked her in the bedroom, and ushered me into the bathroom, sat me on the toilet, his face tight with fear, as he cleaned and put a plaster under my eye.

“You were running with the scissors,” He held my shoulders his face full of entreaty. “Say it, Ramona.”

I did; we worked for some time, much like he did one of his students quizzing me, running over the story until the lie and the truth had become rather a muddle. Soon enough I saw no difference any more, nor felt a need to distinguish between the two.

He darted a glance out the window. “They’re coming. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Mop up that…” he couldn’t seem to bring himself to say the word blood.
Most of it was hers, really, for she’d tripped when father had come in, and cut herself. “Mess on the floor. Mummy’s not at home if they ask. Not at home.”

I don’t remember much from the police officers visit. Dark pants, polite voices in a studious disinterested politeness. Neither glanced at me beyond an initial look that rested on my plaster. My father’s voice was so calm, his British accent so pronounced, I could feel the moment smoothing over to the stillness of normalcy. They all looked at me where I sat. I remember feeling surprised they could see me; I had rather felt perhaps I had imploded on the couch. Soon enough they left.

My father would receive a phone call that night I’d confided to my friends. I’d taken the swearing to secrecy at face value, not realizing it was only for those with the usual sorts of motherly horrors. For all their protestations of disgust they would—and did—whinge like babies to their mothers, I thought, angrily.

My father answer and stood listening for a little while; I saw his shoulders slump. I felt a shocking start of gladness at the sight.

“Yes,” he said. “No, no. I quite understand. No, of course, important to put a stop to such nonsense now.” A laugh so fraudulent it made my toes curl in my shoes. “Oh, aren’t they just. Yes. Oh! Oh, yes well, perhaps sometime—I’m rather busy at the moment I’m afraid, but you’re very kind.”
A long pause. “Yes. Good night.” He rung off.

He stared at me, expressionless. It took a long time, for him to move again. Even so, I was unprepared for the blow. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he had dumped the soup pot over his head. Still to this day, it is difficult to believe.

He hit me again, harder.

“You,” was all he could manage. “I won’t have it, I will not have it—”

Another blow and another till I lost count. Blood leaked out of my nose. I had fallen to the floor. He stopped, with effort, towering over me, his hands shaking. I must have closed my eyes; in a moment I heard the soft click of his shoes on the linoleum, then the back door opening and closing.

A few weeks later, as I made myself porridge for supper, my father reappeared, closing the door quietly behind him. He hadn’t been home before my bedtime since that day. I’d spent most of my time under the covers, with the lights out, eating or reading and doing my homework, with the aid of a flashlight. I was empty, blank, insensate, without tears.
I hadn’t really seen him in those two weeks and I saw he wore the same blue pullover, brown corduroy jacket as the last night I’d had. I froze when I heard him, and, with studied concentration, managed to continue stirring the oatmeal in a slow globular boil, geyser-like bubbles. I heard him pull out a chair and sit at the kitchen table.

“Ramona,” he said. “I need to speak to you. I’m…your mum would never have—when she was well, I mean—she never would have stood for me—I never would have stood for me—” he looked at me and inhaled deeply. “I am—I shall be burdened with that…until…well, for a very long time. I can only hope someday you can understand.”

A terrible sorrow tore at my throat. I kept stirring.

“I should have explained,” he said.

He cleared his throat. “Those times…when she tried to…to…hurt you. You mustn’t misunderstand…” he said.

I stopped, listening carefully.

“I mean…she didn’t wasn’t herself…so, you—you mustn’t mind, Ramona. You must always remember how she loved you, what a fine mother she was. You mustn’t get confused. I was—er—very disturbed with that telephone call,” he cleared his throat. “I should have spoken to you earlier about what you might say—but you see—” he stopped short. “The subject of your mother is—is painful. For I know you—you miss her—you do, don’t you?—you must miss her as much as I do?”

I felt my back stiffen in shock at the plea of his voice.

“Of course you do, of course you do. Please, now, listen to me,” he hurried on. “You must listen very hard, Ramona, as you did as a little girl, so thoughtful, so serious. Your mother and I called you our little Mandarin. Please. Listen like that now if you can. Please, Ramona. Come sit.”

I did, awkwardly, unable to look at him, kitchen light low, shining on his thinning hair.

“You must be a good girl,” he said, “You must understand that life is—very hard for some and that this isn’t their fault. You must have a bigger mind and heart than these people that jeer and make fun at those who struggle—” He stopped himself with a deep ragged breath. “Those sort of people—they don’t understand, you see. They are only lucky not to have known what it is to have this kind of suffering.” He stopped. “Ramona, you, of anyone must understand this. See what happened—to—to your mother. You mustn’t mind the things—the things she did. They aren’t her fault. You can’t mind them, can you, when she wasn’t herself, didn’t mean to hurt you? When someone is that ill, they behave in a way that’s so unlike themselves, it really is as if it’s—another person. It’s as if it didn’t happen, you see.”

I felt myself waver; the Ramona at the table with Nancy, Dot, Esme and the rest, who had spoken so plainly shimmered once, twice, and disappeared. I looked at the table.

“Because she was unwell,” I said.

He nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes that’s it. You mustn’t hold it against her, Ramona, I simply couldn’t bear it. Remember what a lovely person she—has been.” He shook his head. “You’ve always been our good, quiet Ramona—not one of these brash grabbing girls I see everyday with no thought to anyone but themselves and laugh at anyone who’s—”

He bit his lip, and averted his face; to my consternation I saw a tear had leaked out, caught in the net of lines around his eyes.

“People will say such horrid things with no understanding—” he couldn’t finish. “For myself I don’t mind, but I can’t bear them saying anything about her. Be a good girl, Ramona. I can’t bear it otherwise.”

I nodded.

“You understand,” he said, his voice filled with relief.

“Yes, of course. I’ve been very bad.”

“You’ll not do this again.”

“It was hateful to speak as I did. I’m very sorry.”

He nodded, his face filled with relief. “You do see how it is, then.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’m so sorry. It’ll never happen again. I promise to do better—to be better.”

“You understand.”

“Of course.”

But I didn’t understand, of course, not even the smallest bit. I wanted him to explain it to me; but I knew the reproach was I already should have known. And although I did everything as he wished those last years he was alive, I sometimes found him looking at me strangely. I don’t believe he ever fully trusted me again. He had become so vague those last years it was hard to say. But I never could be the balm he needed when all around him was scandal and judgment or the wearying attempts to deflect it. His half-lies made for a shaky bridge between what was true and what was bearable: the prurient interest disguised as solicitude; the searing touch of pity; and, of course, the loss of his wife.

In the end, I suppose I failed him. It was merely a poor imitation of this goodness he longed for, he needed to know was in the world, not so much for himself, even, but for my mother.

It was nearly dawn by the time I got up, stiff and cold, from the window seat in the morning room.

For a moment I thought I saw Molly, as I had that first day, materializing out of the dim. I crawled into bed and in my exhausted state the covers felt almost tender embrace. I slept until noon. And when I woke, put on my clothes and made my way shakily downstairs.
By appearing for luncheon I managed to prevent Millicent’s from calling a doctor, and indeed my cold began to dissipate, leaving behind a maddening, ineffectual cough. In a week the cough disappeared and with it, the agitation that I’d begun to fear was permanent. The memories began to settle into the silt bottom of my consciousness and I could only be glad the illness had screened much of my upset. Millicent was so uncannily perceptive I sometimes forgot that she was not, after all, clairvoyant. I found myself marveling in gratitude to what privacy the mind affords; it really is a wonder, if an obvious one.

“Millicent,” I said, one morning, not too long after, “did I tell you when I was in Oxford I ran into Molly at a tea shop?”

“Lucky you,” she said not looking up from the Times. “I never will understand this furor over Laurie Olivier. I’ll grant he can shout Shakespeare with the best of them, but he certainly isn’t this Greek god everyone believes. Poor homely old England, one cleft in the chin and we’re lost.”

I cleared my throat, thinking I might find a segue between the two subjects, but then, stumped, and relented.

“Well I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve only seen the films. I suppose I thought him rather—”

“What did I tell you? ‘Animal magnetism.’ Such bosh,” she spoke more to the paper than me.

I tried again. “Molly said she’d been having tea with Lady Darver.” Millicent made no comment and I continued. “The Darver’s secretary picked Molly up with their car, actually. A Rolls Royce, I think.”

Millicent raised her eyebrows to indicate if I had a point, it was lost on her, her eyes fixed on the paper. I finished hurriedly, unable to keep the curiosity out of my voice.

“I suppose she was very well…loved while she worked at the Darvers?”

“Oh, more likely it’s blackmail,” said Millicent turning the page.


“Oh, well not literally blackmail,” she amended.

“Goodness, what other sort is there?”

“You might call it a mutually understood blackmail.”

I sat in my chair, unprepared for such spoils on this fishing expedition.

“I don’t think I understand.”

“Oh, you know, obliging the old girl now and then so she keeps her mouth shut.” Feeling my gaze, Millicent relinquished her attention from the paper irritably. “The year after Daddy died, Reggie agreed to lend Molly to the Darvers—Asquith House—not far from here. Their housekeeper had been ill, everything was in chaos. Well, in the holy war of housekeeping, Molly, has no equal and Asquith was running smoothly in a week. A week! You mightn’t realize what a Herculean sort of feat that is. No doubt the servants weeping themselves to sleep contemplating suicide, but there you are.”

“But, blackma—”

“Yes, yes, I’m coming to it. Well, there were some indelicate goings-on, a good amount of which I’m sure Molly was privy to.” She paused and lit a cigarette; and rather infuriatingly, her attention drifted back to the paper. How blasé she was about these things that ravaged me with curiosity.

“Mmm.” I said. My voice was high, artificial. “Really?”

Despite my efforts I must have looked terribly keen. Her gaze flickered over me. “I thought you didn’t gossip, Ramona.”

“Oh, I don’t mean to—”

“Don’t hedge; I can tell how badly you want to know. The usual wayward behavior, really: mother having an affair with a very young Russian painter, nymphomaniac daughter, a fairy son and then another, ‘questionable ties’ to Germany. Nothing unusual, but rather unusually sordid and not something they wanted blat around. Especially as the family fortunes had fallen and they were hoping to cash in on their good name in the marriage market. They did get that fairy son married off and well too—all kinds of medals in the war—I see him sometimes—dreadful wife, poor man—but scads of money, so I suppose he can get what he likes on the side. And he wants to get into politics I hear, so all the more reason, eh, to keep little Miss Molly feeling…cherished. The family has been very careful—set up quite a pension for Molly.”

“The pension is…so she doesn’t—talk—about life there?”

“No, no! A simple ‘recognition of appreciation,’ etc., although you may read anything into that you like. As Molly heads into old age—a dangerously gabby time—they are more than happy to keep her comfortable. There are undoubtedly any number of nasty biographies brewing on the late Lord Darvers. He’s the one with the nefarious past, truth be told—that fairy son was perfectly respectable, compared to him. All those illegitimate babies cluttering up the village with his large needle nose. Became sort of a joke.”

I mulled it over. “But do you think they actually talked about an—an arrangement?”

“Good gracious, no. There are ways to wrangle such things without ever having to speak of it. I’m sure the Darvers gladly cough up the occasional ham or bear a few hours jollying the old girl, if it insures a continued, shall we say, idealistic eye cast upon the situation.”

I nodded again, absorbing this. I steeled myself. “Does Molly have anything on you?” I asked.

“Me? What do you mean?”

“Well—like blackmail,” I said.

“No,” she said, turning a page, then looked up at me, raising an eyebrow, almost in a parody of archness. “Perhaps I have something on her.”

I looked at her, sharply, but her attention had returned to the paper. I stifled a sigh and returned to eating my breakfast. When Millicent opened her mouth to speak I turned, fully alert, but she only reminded me to call the silver polishers next week.

Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here: