Nature and NecessityBy: Tariq Goddard
Even though they were mother and daughter they were known mostly as ‘the sisters’. It was a union that would lead them both into lives they wished they had not had. Petula, a divisive redhead and social titan, was their leader; Regan, the third of her children, and first in command, her mother’s life project and puckish enforcer. Whether people embraced them or not depended on their daring, and the sisters’ initiative, for they were tireless initiators. From the start, there were an elect few for whom they would perform, and countless extras who were expected to do the performing. Their criteria for deciding who fell where was unattainable by effort alone. What the performers thought of this depended on whether they were picked for the first team, or left on the bench to wonder and fade. For many it proved an elusive code to break; the sisters enjoyed mysteries and gave little away. Others remained tantalised to the end, waiting for the postcard, telephone call or text that would usher them up the hill for an audience at The Heights.
For over thirty-five years, the sisters could be found in the village of Mockery Gap, a setting too beautiful for most natives to be allowed to live out their days in. Though northern, the village shared many features with its southern siblings; young professionals and their families, a smattering of overdevelopment and a nest of millionaire residences where labourers’cottages once stood. The house the sisters lived in, The Heights, was saved from literary comparisons by being one of three attractive buildings on the same farm, the second and third dwellings demonstrating their inferiority by their state of evolving dis repair and inhabitants’ vocations. Of these houses, the best that could be said was that their names, like cities swapping hands in a civil war, came to take meanings appropriate to the sisters’ changing attitudes towards their inhabitants. The bigger of the two houses, Tianta, Celtic for ‘Fighter’ or ‘Warrior’ – there was confusion over which – was occupied by Jasper, son and brother to the sisters, and found halfway up the hill. When the sisters were unhappy with Jasper they called this house ‘The Pimple’. Lower down the hill was Chudleigh, the home of the Hardfields, a family that came with the estate; theirs a smaller cottage that the sisters dubbed ‘The Wart’ whether they were happy with them or not.
Though it gave the appearance of being a working farm, The Heights was a front for the good life, despite Petula’s insistence to the contrary. The facts were that the estate and its peacocks, guinea fowl, geese and free-range hens were largely decorative, the production of eggs and the making of money mostly incidental to their existence there. The same principle held for the prize-winning pigs that paraded yearly through the village every Bullrush Fair, never finding their way onto the breakfast table or butcher’s counter, and the farm donkey, Caligula, who photographed well for the children’s section of Yorkshire Life, garlands of orange peel and seashells hanging from his obliging mane. The oilseed rape and wheat fields snaking round The Heights were no different, merely the agricultural trimmings of a painting whose real subject matter lay elsewhere. Nearly all of the arable land was leased to local farmers. These quietly embittered men owned the grazing cattle and sheep that completed an atmosphere of rural industry. The real money for the lavish upkeep of The Heights came from factory-farms in the Philippines, owned by Petula’s estranged husband, and the rest of her bucolic high jinks supplemented by warehouse complexes outside Sheffield and Leeds. All this left Petula free to publicly pursue the official business of the farm, a highly convoluted and inimitable form of flower arranging.
This highly visible, and largely unprofitable, occupation enjoyed a reputation and profile well in excess of its annual turnover, allowing Petula to compare it to opera, a similar loss-making but culturally necessary venture. Running her company seasonally, Petula specialised in pink and white tulips, purple iris and apple blossom in spring. With the arrival of summer, she turned to blue cornflowers, delicate cow parsley and bobbing cosmos, and in winter deep-red holly berries, trailing ivy and twisted twigs. Her clients were mostly local markets, a few ladies who made scents, and weddings, though Petula’s reputation for wanting to control every aspect of these kept bookings to a trickle. For the most part the flowers died where they grew, were thrown away or donated to schools, churches and charity. Petula took it all in her formidable stride. Her real passion, she said, was the house; once a modest Arts and Crafts cottage, now arguably the most attractive dwelling in the county. The Heights had evolved into her calling, its changing interiors, paintings, sculpture and furnishings the equal of a museum, if not an interactive installation in its own right. It was her creation, so she felt, the product of rare taste and persistent endeavour, its aesthetic glory her triumph and how she wished the world to see her. It did not matter if this display failed to reflect truth, as even in her own company, Petula did not see things as they were but as she wished others to, the public self the only one she would acknowledge, even to Regan. And so the years passed as a reflection of what she thought they were, an unpreventable march towards what she preferred to call ‘modest local success’.
As first witness to Petula, Regan saw it all. Fanaticism ran in the blood, and her early devotion to her mother bordered on the ideological. The imperative to remain loyal was inculcated into the children, though in Regan’s case there was little need to go to such lengths; she was a natural disciple. The first eyes she saw life through were Petula’s, and as her mother rooted for herself, it was natural for Regan to root for her too. For years it was impossible for her to separate her mother’s interests and battles from her own. Conflict was the pillow Petula slept on, fluffing it up when it threatened to become too comfortable a fit. Because she was loud, opinionated and forthright, her children assumed she told the world what it did not want to hear, the heresy that she might be audacious and possessed by her own fictions rarely crossing their minds. It shocked Regan especially that Petula’s construction of reality could be misconstrued as caprice, and those who thought so were isolated, demonised and set upon with relish. In the event, cruel whispers did little to dent the high regard Petula was held in, at least at the public events she policed, and disapproval was usually forced to take strange and subterranean forms.
Victory over her adversaries did not bring love. The difficulty with Petula’s indefatigability was that little got close to it, and as people can only love what they enjoy true knowledge of, Petula had to make do with several approximations of the real thing. Love became shorthand for what her admirers really felt – intense esteem at the battling example she set, awe even, but never love. So far as that was concerned she remained an unknown object.
Perhaps this was why a shrill current of hurt was often noticeable in her voice, a primary wound she had no intention of closing. Without completely meaning to, she cultivated it, filling it with generous helpings of fresh pain, until the morning came when she awoke to find hurt installed as the organising principle of her life.
‘Regan,’ said Petula, tearing open the blinds, ‘how long have you been up? I wish you wouldn’t put the lights on when there’s perfectly good sunshine outside, you know I hate artificial light, it makes me feel like I’m living in perennial winter. It’s cold enough in here as it is.’
‘It is November.’
‘November my teeth, November’s for sad old things to freeze to death in. We’re not sad old things, for us there’s no such thing as autumn.’
Regan thumbed the switch leaving the room at the mercy of blinding, blazing sunlight. She was dressed in purple silk pyjamas, the kind worn by oriental courtesans or a pantomime Aladdin, and in spite of her slightly boyish attire, was a green-eyed thirty-two year-old woman in her prime. Her face was tight, pinched and angular; the skin stretched over a wrinkleless diamond consisting of a triangular chin, mountaintop cheekbones, and a skull worthy of donation to medicine, sitting on a neck of geometrical elegance. When Regan smiled, her expression grew so taut that her mother joked it could be steamed off with a whistling kettle, others finding it alluring, if not a little severe in construction.
‘But my birthday is in November…’
‘I wouldn’t go on about that if I were you, nothing with a zero behind it is good news.’
‘I’ll be thirty-three, no, two.’
‘Rubbish, you’re twenty-nine, aren’t you? We haven’t had your thirtieth yet.’
‘We put up a marquee for it Mum, there was lots of noise and people kept using your bathroom. It all definitely happened.’
‘Is there something the matter with you?’
‘You seem to be talking through your teeth, are you nervous about something?’
‘No, no, I don’t think so… why, are you?’
‘How could I be in all this glorious sunshine?’
The kitchen they stood in was the throne room of The Heights. It sat at the closing stages of a long and broad corridor that connected the two wings of the house, Petula’s half and Regan’s end, two mounted stacks either side of a tunnel, the shape of the building resembling a double-headed arrow with weighted tips. Large windows ensured good views and little privacy from prying eyes, which was how Petula liked it, the world looking in to see the sisters looking back. With its exposed position on top of a hill, living in The Heights was akin to joining passengers on a great cruise liner, the upper deck battered by the wind and rain, while down below a party presided, with the two tiers, the storm and the supper, never quite reconciled.