Could a world hold death that held that tea cosy?  

THE VISITOR by Elizabeth Bowen

“The thing had crouched beside his bed all night; he had been conscious of it through the thin texture of his dreams.”

‘“‘How much more black will there be before the pattern?’”

This I have just (re?)discovered is seminal Bowen, the essence of her work for me, a genuine masterpiece that had slipped my mind like the thuds of death and the ticks of time. That thud thud of apples from the apple tree (to climb which one can see a promised land perhaps beyond death) and the ticks of Bowen’s clock’s inherited minutes. I have now climbed this story’s apple tree myself and seen the waylaying of death by delay or at least by some Bay (of Naples) or an Immortalis that is somehow full not null. Thud thud tick tick, a Zeno Zone’s Apple tree — “I don’t dare go up, and I don’t dare go back to the house.” That ultimate Bowen tea cosy. And elements of time’s Zeno’s Paradox as well as ticking minutes (“a little boy who half had a mother and half hadn’t.”) — as nine year old Roger is sent to his Aunts Emery while his mother dies, away from whom he considers to be his hateful father. The Aunts with their blinds from which acorn drawstrings hang as well as lace curtains. So much here, I am breathless. Death as (Perpetual) Autumn, as the eternity in another quote about Autumn from Bowen’s stories earlier. Roger, with his childish paranoia (“Their observation licked his back like flames”) and whose little sisters he sees playing mindlessly with hoops rather than worrying about their mother. Aunts with “white, quick hands and big bosoms”, bosoms to bury any of his passing sorrows in. I can now only quote some seminal passages below, some quite lengthy, so as to depict the journey of not only this story but also the whole Bowen canon. Rug-making patterns of the Aunts with their colours, who want him to be a replacement for their ‘awful’ nephew Claude who seems to be lost in India? And his bedroom ceiling netted with shadows as if netting him ready for market. And, ironically, someone else said that patterns on wallpaper are ‘atrocious’. But there are many more such passages or patterns in this story than just these! —

“Could a world hold death that held that cosy? […] Must it happen, mightn’t it be a dream?”

If only I had somebody to help me sort the apples!”

“Autumn was the time of the death of the year, but he loved it, he loved the smell of autumn. He wondered if one died more easily then.”

“He wasn’t going to remember last autumn, the way the leaves had rustled … running races, catching each other up.” 

“…arms flung round the girth of the apple tree, grinding his forehead into the bark, clamouring through the orchard. When his own voice dropped he heard how silent it was. So silent that he thought his father was dead too,…”

“I can’t let them tell me. Oh, help me, let them not have to come and tell me! It would be as though they saw me see her being killed. Let it not have to be!”

“A clock ticked out in the passage; it must be a very big one, perhaps a stationmaster’s clock, given the Miss Emerys by a relation. It had no expression in its voice; it neither urged one on nor restrained one, simply commented quite impartially upon the flight of time. Sixty of these ticks went to make a minute, neither more nor less than sixty, and the hands of the clock would be pointing to an hour and a minute when they came to tell Roger what he was expecting to hear. Round and round they were moving, waiting for that hour to come. Roger was flooded by a desire to look at the face of the clock, and still hearing no one stirring in the house he crept across to the door, opened it a crack, quite noiselessly, and looking down the passage saw that the clock had exactly the same expression, or absence of expression, as he had imagined.”

“Roger spent the morning with Miss Emery, helping her sort the apples and range them round in rows along the shelves of the apple-room, their cheeks carefully just not touching. The apple-room was warm, umber and nutty-smelling; it had no window, so the door stood open to the orchard, and let in a white panel of daylight with an apple tree in it, a fork impaled in the earth, and a garden-hat of Miss Dora’s hanging on the end of the fork, tilted coquettishly. The day was white, there were no shadows, there was no wind, never a sound. Miss Emery, her sleeves rolled up, came in and out with baskets of apples that were too heavy for a little boy to carry. Roger, squatting on the ground, looked them over for bruises – a bruised apple would go bad, she said, and must be eaten at once – and passed up to her those that were green and perfect, to take their place among the ranks along the shelves … ‘That happy throng’ … It was like the Day of Judgment, and the shelves were Heaven. Hell was the hamper in the musty-smelling corner full of bass matting, where Roger put the Goats. He put them there reluctantly, and saw himself a kind angel, with an imploring face turned back to the Implacable, driving reluctantly the piteous herd below.
The apples were chilly; they had a blue bloom on them, and were as smooth as ivory – like dead faces are, in books, when people bend to kiss them. ‘They’re cooking apples,’ said Miss Emery, ‘not sweet at all, so I won’t offer you one to eat. When we’ve finished, you shall have a russet.’”

“Not trapped in here among Miss Emery and the apples, when all he wanted when that came was to be alone with the clock. If it were here he would hate apples, and he would hate to have to hate them.”

“Roger had never believed that the Miss Emerys or any of the people he and his mother visited really went on existing after one had said good-bye to them and turned one’s back.”

And so he turned his back on his mother’s death, as long as this story lasts, and it lasts forever, I guess. A garden or bay of literature to gaze upon from the windows of our souls.

“Roger had an imaginary house that, when it was quite complete in his mind, he was some day going to live in: in this there were a hundred corridors raying off from a fountain in the centre; at the end of each there was a room looking out into a private garden.”


My reviews of Elizabeth Bowen stories started here:

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