They said I looked like Joan Baez. Complete strangers would come up to me in the street and say: “Hey, you look just like that folk singer.” And I’d smile and tell them, yes, someone else said that. I was young and in love with being young and looking like Joan Baez. I did my hair like hers, it rolled and flowed all down my breast. I took the time to start playing the guitar, but my voice was no good, I couldn’t hit the Baez highs or lows.
My complexion was similar to Joan’s, though as far as I know I don’t have any Spanish blood. A couple of generations back there was an Italian immigrant ice cream seller great great grandfather who drowned in his own vat. Fell in and disappeared, leaving behind only one stray dark complexioned chromosome. An escapee. So long, Italian ice cream seller. Howdy, Joan Baez look-a-like.
I came across a photograph of her recently, and we’ve both changed in different directions. She looks better now than she did then. She looks great.
I suppose all this introspection comes about because he’s back. The evasive Robert Gurney. The young man I met, who gave me a rainbow, and then pissed off with somebody else. And I don’t understand why he should start me off now, there have been plenty of other men, and rainbows by the truckload. There are rainbows, though; and then there are rainbows. So, “Hello, Robert,” I’ll say, as though nothing has happened. “Where have you been my darling young one?” Even though he’s not so young any more. But then again, neither am I.
“I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,” he’ll say. And he won’t have to add: “And now I’ve come back to you.” Because in my transition from neurotic but fairly together forty year old woman to a splodge of totally forgiving jelly, I’ll know, as any old splodge must know, that my prince has come.
Only it won’t be like that. Life isn’t, ever, like that. He certainly hasn’t come back because of me. He’s come back because whatever he was doing wherever he was doing it has finished. Whereas for me, whatever I’m doing, like earning a living, bringing up my daughter, dancing, taking photographs, has not finished. It’s all there, it’s all happening, it’s totally (well, perhaps not totally, but certainly much of the time) satisfying. It’s what I’ve got, it’s all I’ve got, and I’m not going to put it in jeopardy because of some man. Even if it is that man.
Sub-heading: My Life in Stolen Moments
Well into the Nineties now, and here I am, with ten million words of feminism and approaching the same number of words of post-feminism under my girdle (if I wore one, which I don’t), actually considering writing about my life, with men as the yardstick. No, sisters mine, you’re dead right. I can’t justify it. But I don’t want to justify it, I want to get rid of it. I want to exorcise it. I want to give it to you, so you can help share the load.
The first, of course, and without doubt the most difficult of the lot. Inscrutable in many ways, unfathomable, with a history of his own, most of which I can only imagine. My happy-go-lucky, all powerful, vulnerable, twisted, confused, accused, misused, strung-out, and worse, Daddy. Dr. Filth, I used to call him. I was Miss Lonely, and he was Dr. Filth.
And, as I write, he’s sitting there in the next room. Dr. Filth, as old as the hills. Toothless, rendered harmless by the passing of years. Not that he was ever young. He pre-dates Joan Baez by a million year bash. He’s a Granddaddy now, as well as a Daddy, and believe me, that is a better way to be.
I have a reservoir of stolen moments, images, stories, which, when I put them together, do not make sense. I want to organise those moments, give them to you as a list, which you can take home in a basket. Then, perhaps, when you’ve sifted through them, you’ll come up with a way of combining them, of putting them together in a dish which will be edible, digestible. I can’t do that. I’m sorry, but this cake doesn’t rise for me.
I’m sitting in a tree. I’m not Joan Baez yet. I’m eight, nine, ten years old. This tree is a gigantic copper beech. Below is oblivion, above a spreading , budding infinity of reds and golds. My thighs, my upper arms, and my neck are bitten and grazed by the bark as I inch my self higher, my fingers searching for the next available hold.
I pull myself onto a branch and stand, my arms around the trunk. I release one of them and slip my skirt down to my ankles, kick it free and watch as it parachutes down into the garden. Skirts are not made for climbing trees. I brush a smudge of bark from the inside of my left thigh and commence to climb higher.
“Joan! What are you doing?” The thin voice of my father ascends the tree behind me, and I turn my head, but cannot turn it enough to see him standing on the lawn below. “Joan! Don’t move,” he shouts. “Don’t move.”
I inch higher, to a point where the trunk forks, and pull myself into the niche, an arm around each subsidiary branch, feeling the sway of the tree, hearing the creaking voice of its immense age.
“That’s enough, now,” his voice comes again. “Hang on. Don’t try to move.” I watch him, a dwarf, running back to the house, my red and black skirt clutched in his hand. “Agnes,” he shouts. “Agnes, Agnes,” and then he’s gone and there’s only me and the tree and my bruised and tingling flesh, and the breeze, and brown and gold and red, and everything else is left behind in the dwarfed world of school and home, the sad face of my mother, and the twitching intensity of my father.
He returns now with Mr Rossitor from next door and the extending ladder, and my mother follows in her apron, wringing her hands. And Mr Rossitor says no, he will hold the ladder while my father brings me down. And father climbs the ladder, getting bigger and redder as he ascends, and he reaches out and plucks me from the cleft saying’ “It’s all right, don’t worry, don’t struggle. I’m going to put you over my shoulder. Don’t struggle, don’t try to move.”
“Dear God,” says Mr Rossitor, when we are back on the lawn. “That was close. That was really close.” I run to my mother who continues to wring her hands over my head.
Father goes berserk. He takes my arm and drags me away from mother, his large red face pressing itself against mine. “Look at you,” he shouts. “Just look at you. You could have killed yourself. Do you realise that?” He swings me off balance but keeps me upright by the grip on my arm.
“Look at your legs,” he yells, “And your arms, your face. You’re filthy! Why did you take your skirt off? Why? Why?”
I try to answer but the words won’t come. My skirt had been in the way. It was dangerous to climb with a skirt. There is bark on my arms and legs. Yes, I am dirty, but it doesn’t matter, it’ll wash off. The tree had spoken to me, whispered to me.
Father grasps my other arm and holds me tight. “Never again,” he says. “Little girls don’t climb trees. Ever. Do you understand, Joan?” He shakes me.
“Ted,” says my mother.
“Stay out of this, Agnes. It’s a matter of life and death.” He shakes me again. “Do you understand? Little girls don’t climb trees.”
I never climb the tree again, though it remains beautiful and inviting for many years. I sit in my bedroom and watch it, listen to its seductive whispers, learn from it the grace of dance. But I never touch it, never walk in its shade. It is forbidden to me.