Page 7, 30th November 1990

30th November 1990
Page 7
Page 7, 30th November 1990 — The cyclamen with a sense of purpose

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Locations: Birmingham, Oxford


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The cyclamen with a sense of purpose

It was dark so early that people had their car and bike lights on when they collected their children from school. Dark and dreary. Clare had always hated November and could not understand people who didn't. There were even some brighteyed lunatics who claimed to like it.

"Look at the coloured leaves, still fallirg," one chatty person had said to her recently at a bus stop.

"You're just not seeing it right."

Clare wasn't seeing anything right these days. Life looked sour and it hurt. She had never had any delusions about it being easy. Her parents were artists and had brought her up in an atmosphere of artistic pessimism, expecting everything to go wrong and turn out vulgar and nasty, leaving Clare and a cultured minority like her to fight a losing battle against it or withdraw and live above it all.

Clare had chosen to withdraw, but somehow that had pulled her down, not up, until here she was, cold and depressed, looking for somewhere to sit on a November afternoon while everyone else went home to tea. She knew the Durnley town benches well and usually ended up at tea-time on the one near the bus station where, if the long distance coaches released some generous passengers, she could get a cup of tea from the hot drinks machine.

Clare was not a down-andout. She was an alternative, whatever that was supposed to mean. It was gibberish but there was a touch of truth behind it. It reflected the contempt for the world that had been intrinsic in her upbringing and, put like that, in the sort of pseudolanguage her parents had always hated so much, it made her laugh. She liked using it when people asked her why she begged and squatted instead of painting and earning her living.

As it happened, this afternoon produced just such a person. Not a social worker or a helpful Christian; she had learnt to identify those from afar and escape before they starting giving her advice or being patient and understanding.

The man with whom Clare fell into conversation could not get the hot drinks machine to work. She showed him the trick, which was to let the coins drop down and get stuck, then give the whole thing a sharp bang on the back, dislodging several coin backlogs at once and winning an assortment of tepid prizes, slow pouring and evil tasting.

"Tea, coffee, chocolate or soup?" she asked, with the air of an old campaigner.

"Well, I had hoped for some chocolate, but it looks pretty awful. Why don't we go to a cafe instead?"

"Good idea."

"Where should we go? I don't know Durnley, I'm afraid."

"Well, as long as I don't have to pay, The Galleon is good." n expensive cafe, The Galleon. Clare had been there once

before but had no scruples about going there again, as long as this was the last time, because she had rejected what it stood for.

Besides, it sold sticky cakes, it was nearby and November was closing in. It had started drizzling. Soon it would be raining. They set off at a good, fast walk.

Clare's benefactor introduced himself as Graham. Clare winced, but not much. He did his cause good by saying how much he disliked November, with all those months of winter still to come. By the time they reached The Galleon they were on good terms, quietly.

Graham had only picked up the courage to ask Clare to tea because she was so beautiful. Despite her dislike of money, her appearance was freaky rather than tatty. She was an old hand on the jumble sale circuit and had got swopping at trade-in shops down to a fine art.

She only squatted in houses with running water and the one she was in at the moment was positively palatial — good lavatories; a good working kitchen, lacking only an oven; hot water for the bath if someone paid the gas bill; even the remains of a damaged bed the owners had left behind. The house was waiting to be sold and in the two months she had been there no-one had come to look at it. Perfect.

Or at least it would have been perfect if she had liked it. With the help of The Galleon's delicious tea, Clare found herself telling Graham how much she disliked living there and how much one part of her longed for an ordinary house where she could cook chops and watch television in the evenings.

Graham looked tailor made for such a house. He was medium height, ordinary looking, with a rather tired expression and tired, kind, grey eyes. Clare liked to think of herself as lively looking, full of surprises. For the last week or two she had let herself look seasonally sultry, for November. She added a bit of zip by tying some coloured beads and buttons into her long, luscious, blue-black hair. In moody or sultry phases, as now, she tied her hair into a plait and interlaced it with ribbons or bits of cloth.

Graham thought she looked stunning. If she had been just a little less alarming he would have fallen in love with her on the spot. As it was, it took a couple of weeks. They met often — for meals, for walks beside the river, walks round the city art galleries and obscure museums selling brown and white postcards, walks

round churches and walks round graveyards, which Clare said were her favourite places — free and easy to sit in, silent.

She gave him an exhaustive account of her idealistic childhood, her two years as an art student before dropping out and how she managed to cope with the demands of "life on a different route". He was relieved to hear that she didn't mind paying for things sometimes, earning the money by doing part-time work. She was a practical woman.

Graham was a carpenter. He had plenty of free time to spare because the small firm which employed him had finally decided to accept a generous offer for their premises and close down, with no known plans to re-open elsewhere. Graham was living off his pay-off money while he thought about his future.

It was a new occupation for him. Usually he accepted things as they happened. That's why he was so pleased with himself for having asked Clare out on impulse. It gave him complete confidence. He told her how he had known as soon as he was big enough to hold a chisel that he wanted to be a carpenter. His parents hoped he would grow out of it and be a solicitor or something office-bound and well-dressed, just as his sister Joanna had grown out of her desire to be a vet in a safari park and settled for being a nurse.

But even Graham's mother had to give in with he dismantled a picture his aunt had given him for his ninth birthday and made the frame into a salad spoon and fork, which he sent to his aunt as a thank you present.

raham's family were not the salad sort. Clare's family were the salad sort pal excellence, with raw sprouts and home-made yogurt in the winter. Graham's family were meat and two veg all year round. He believed in God like he ate Sunday lunch, as a matter of course.

Clare had moments of believing in God, as the only alternative to despair. She despaired more often nowadays and believed in God less often, in sudden rushes of desperate faith that there must be a creator responsible for her need to believe in something and to thank something for the beauty losing ground all round her. She, like Graham, preferred not to look ahead.

A carpenter fitted well into the sort of commune she had never quite managed to get together and when Graham asked her to marry him she said yes. It was such a funny idea. She lay on the remains of the bed in the squat, smiling to herself. If she ended up in a suburban house she could blame him and get her revenge with the curtains.

Graham was so surprised when Clare accepted his proposal that he couldn't think of anything else to do except keep going. He had proposed to her more or less as a matter of course, like pudding after meat and two veg, fate one night after making love to her. When she said yes, everything acquired a remorseless momentum of its own. He bought her an engagement ring then, at the last moment possible, introduced her to his parents.

Mr and Mrs Cronin were appalled. Graham was unemployed. So was Clare, and she had an ear-ring in her nose. She seemed nice enough but who could say what she might be underneath it all? The more polite she was, the more nervous they became. But Graham was 25 and, as Mrs Cronin was fond of saying, life is what you make of it. Now that Graham looked like mdkiItg sometning unexpected of it, Mrs Cronin muttered her little saying to herself endlessly, in a sort of ritual recital to help her resign

herself to his fate.

It was just as well they didn't know about the baby. Graham didn't know about it either until after the wedding, which Mrs Cronin described to her friends as "a small, quiet ceremony with a meal in a cafe afterwards". Clare's parents had been killed by a drunken driver when she was an art student and her only brother lived abroad.

Graham's sister, Joanna, pleaded inability to attend because she was working a day shift at the hospital, so the only people there were Clare, Graham and Graham's parents.

The Galleon Cafe put on an exotic tea afterwards — the service was in the afternoon because Clare thought it would be more romantic to get married in the dark — and the Cronins drove home when it was all finished too upset to talk to each other on the way.

Clare and Graham left for Oxford, a town they both wanted to see, in Graham's second-hand Ford Escort. The day after they arrived, Clare told Graham she was pregnant. They were looking round the market, watching one of the men at a cheese stall cutting a new delivery of cheeses into manageable shapes and sizes. Clare watched him unpacking a whole, new, round Brie.

"I'm going to have a baby," she said.

"How old is it?" Graham asked for some reason, out of his depths and alarmed.

"Oh, a couple of months or so, I suppose, roughly."

"It's mine, isn't it?"

"I think so, I'm not sure." It was true and it was Clare who was looking nervous now. She got hold of Graham's hand -anct-held it up to her cheek. He stared at one of the little sprigs of herb she sometimes stuck behind her watch strap to make her smell nice. They had always

annoyed him, those bits of herb. Today she had a sprig of faded sage which hardly smelt at all.

She spoke wistfully. "I'm pretty sure it's your baby but not absolutely sure. I used to sleep with anyone I loved, but that was a while ago. I find it much harder to love people now. I believe in people less. I believe in myself and my ideas less. They're just experiments now, not a real try at living well. I don't know if it's love I feel for you, but I do feel as if I belong with you. You know that; I've told you all that. You make me feel loved. and no-one has done that for me since my parents. Making me feel loved makes the baby feel loved. The baby is part of me. If I belong to you, the baby belongs with you."

Very, very tentatively, Graham put a hand on her stomach. Clare smiled at him.

"What shall we call her? I'm sure it's going to be a girl, aren't you?"

Graham fell into his sensible and stable role. "Shouldn't we think about somewhere to live? I want to start working again anyway."

"Somewhere with a garden, so I can grow what we eat."

Clare sensed that she was past the worst and they went for a cup of tea.

In fact the worst was just beginning. They decided they might as well live in Oxford or somewhere nearby because they both liked it and neither of them had any particular attachment to anywhere else. Graham's previous job had been in Birmingham, which he never wanted to see again. He had only come to Durnley, where he met Clare, as a stopping place on the way to I nricInn in search of work. They found a small, dingey hotel that was reasonably cheap out of season, which could serve as a base while they looked for somewhere. Finding a house was a nightmare. Finding somewhere to rent, not to own, was almost as hopeless. No-one would give them anything, even for a month at a time, because. they did not have jobs or a fixed address. Clare was an especially bad bet because she always told the truth and told everyone who asked her that she had been living in a squat, in search of the best way of living without money. This did not go down well.

Graham was a better bet because he had spent his three working years living in rented accommodation and had references from his former employers. Carpentry was more solid than art, he was well qualified and had worked for the same firm all his working life.

But the fact that it no longer existed cast a shadowy aspect on things and it was hard to break out of a viscious circle of homeless, jobless frustration.

Clare was on the brink of setting up a hand-to-mouth squat or settlement with the unwilling Graham, bemused by the events that had overtaken him in the last few weeks, when she met a farmer in a pub who lived about ten miles out of town and had some empty outbuildings he had been thinking for some time of restoring because they were well made buildings, too good to waste. He hadn't done anything about them yet because he was drunk most of the time and he wasn't exactly sure what he had in mind.

Clare assured him that what he wanted was to have herself and Graham living in the buildings, for a month to start with, in return for helping him patch them up. Graham was a carpenter and could do all sorts of repairs and woodwork for Farmer Mac (his name was Jimmy McInnes but he liked to be called Farmer Mac). If things went well, Graham could do work for some of Farmer Mac's friends too. Farmer Mac was too tired to resist.

The outbuildings were connected to the main water supply because they had been used to house evacuees during the war. Farmer Mac provided Clare with running water without too much difficulty and she started once more, wearily, trying to set up a way of life. Or rather, a home, where their baby could think over the ideals that had always been too much for her.

She cleaned windows and floors while Graham provided the arty element with his carpentry and, increasingly, his wood-turning. Oxford and its surrounding craft fairs were a ready market for the things he made and by Christmas he was not only just a carpenter, almost a sculptor.

"I'll have a bloody distaff soon," Clare complained to Graham one day, "like the perfect wife in the bloody Book of Proverbs, oozing children and bloody domesticity."

Usually when she wanted to console herself she went out and worked in the garden, trying to get it ready for spring and the first new plants, reminding herself that she had enough fight left in her not to let them have a bank account. It was hard going and it was cold winter.

If she didn't go outside, she went and talked to Farmer Mac. Soon he reckoned he had got more back from Clare and Graham than he had given them. When he first met Clare he had seen her through an alcoholic haze of misery, which had been enveloping him more and more since the death of his wife two years before.

He was only interested in them if they really could help him make something of the farm and with it, perhaps, something of his life. When Clare lamented settling down, he told her that as far as he was concerned it was a saving grace. They were a last bet against the odds.

Either he found some sort of function or it was death by drink, and they were giving him a sense of function. When they told him about the baby, he cut back his drinking still more and his farm and outbuildings flourished with him.

In warm, sunny June, dripping with fruits and flowers, Cyclamen Cronin was born and Farmer Mac doted on her from the start. Clare wanted to call her after a flower and Farmer Mac persuaded her that Lupin Cronin might be a bit much for Graham, great though his strides towards a free-range lifestyle had been.

Besides, cyclamens could last for ages without any water and even when they got some, they only needed a bit, from underneath. You could only see they had been watered because they carried on living.

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