Justine

Alice Thompson

JUSTINE

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,

That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

ONE

The style in which my flat is decorated gives everything away about me. A gift to you which includes the fact that there is something about me that will never be given away, let alone sold for a price. The inner recesses of my flat’s interior, the darkened niches velveted burgundy over, and the paintings with their faces set to the walls, hint at an enigmatic character with a taste more perverse than is entirely natural. These rooms are stuffed full of objets d’art but the space in which I live also requires the rigour of interpretation.

Interior decoration involves, after all, (and I mean after all), the black art of manipulation and the casting of spells. The arabesques on the walls run circles round my visitors’ preconceptions of me. The sword of perfect taste is brandished with which to chop off their heads. Now, they are too afraid to come in.

From the day that I was born, beauty surrounded me, embraced me, and picked me up, bloody and screaming, in her arms. She had a face as pale and hard as a pearl and her mouth was congealed from the blood-red drop of a ruby. She took her son home to Blenheim House where I became confused between the symmetry of my mother’s form and the arches that carved up the span between the high-ceilinged rooms. This has been my birthright: the indissoluble link between a house and the person who lives in it. To describe my flat to you in detail is to tell you exactly where I stand. It is my way of throwing down the gauntlet.

The drawing-room is covered in deep blue tapestries which crawl up the walls like the dying waves of the sea. Peacocks of gold strutting down the corridors of a maze are interweaved into its depths. Curtains fall down over the twelve paned windows in impenetrable tresses of green. The thick tangible texture of the room possesses a landscape of its own. It is easy to slip on the mahogany of the wooden floor which is burnished ox-blood. Lilies of the holiest white sprout from a charcoal vase, their sharp green leaves that could cut skin shafting up between the petals. Their decadent scent makes the air heavy, their sweetness sometimes so suffocating it is difficult to breathe.

Plants grow in the bathroom and honeysuckle reaches her arms in through the window. The iron paws of lions stand at each corner of the huge porcelain bath.

The library is from where I am now writing to you, writing out the story of Justine. The shadows on the shelves around me are only books. When I hold up their pages to the light the paper of many of them is so thin that the words of the other side strike backwards, through. From the library steep oaken stairs lead up to my bedroom.

The colours of my bedroom which are in black and gold have an awful symmetry of their own. It is always evening in here for the curtains are perpetually drawn. The candlestick on the bedside table is of a golden serpent, his head raised as if about to strike, a candle flickering in his wide open mouth. He has holes for eyes. I lie on my bed, my arms outstretched in the shape of a cross and realize slowly that I know of all the suffering and joy that the world contains. I can grasp the entirety of the globe in my hands. In the darkness my body hardens into ebony and my eyes transform into ingots of steel.

The meaning of my existence lies within these rooms of mine. My anxieties and ecstasies are framed by their walls. I am protected from the profound nausea and terror that the outer world with its lack of pattern can invoke in me at a touch of its filthy hand. Outside I was so vulnerable, so prone to the malignancy of other people. I needed to screw my courage to the sticking-place to make it to the corner of the square.

TWO

At least children are honest. Years ago, when I once suffered little children to come to me, they shouted out ‘cripple’ or sniggered behind their tiny hands at the way I walked. Children speak the truth. It was the adults who lied, big, black, spidery lies. They only pretended to avert their eyes. Adults relish perversion of any kind, but a physical deviation: what a joy. A fleshy symbol of what is different is the glorious manifestation of sin. When I walked down the streets I became an entertainer, a magician who conjured up silver coins from behind his ears.

As a child I had liked the way the tip of my foot converged into three large toes like the webbed foot of a duck. I had liked the way the skin of my foot, unlike the skin of the rest of my body, was as resilient and hard as the saddle of a horse, but in the space under the arch was as smooth and moist as clay. The limping which was the result of the foreshortened leg, seemed only natural. The rocking movement from side to side as I walked made me feel as if I were gliding not over the ground but over water. However, as I grew older, I began to notice that when my mother bathed me she refused to touch my foot or even turn her head in its direction. It was left to my Nanny to soap and caress the arch, whispering in my ear that I was her little Achilles. When I was fitted with the black platformed shoe, it was the absence of the rocking movement that seemed unnatural. I now had to walk on earth like other people.

As a young boy I used to watch, in secret, my mother dress for dinner. Her beauty besotted me. Standing in the cold of the dark corridor, I would peer into her bedroom out of which warm light and scented skin would pour. She would be sitting, half naked at the mirror, her round full breasts reflected in the glass so that I could feast upon them from every angle. My father would lie on the bed watching her too, but out of sight from where I stood. They would speak desultorily to each other. One evening my father stepped, for the first time, into my line of vision to fasten up a line of pearls around my mother’s neck. Like a stranger, he bent down over her powdered skin.

‘If only he didn’t have such a beautiful face,’ she said to him quietly, ‘But he has the face of Adonis. If he looked like a troll, it would make more sense. I could accept his deformity more easily. But the flawlessness of his face mocks me. I can hardly bear to look at him.’

It didn’t matter that I could not see my father’s face for when I could, I was unable to read it – the canvas was blurred and out of focus with the interior man. Sometimes when he was in the room beside me, I had to look at him twice to confirm that he was there. One spring afternoon I watched him, from the top of the stairs, smuggle a painting up into the attic. The painting was wrapped in brown paper so that I could not see what it represented.

THREE

My mother worshipped at her mirror’s shrine: she adored beauty and her own was no exception. She would gaze upon herself for hours and I would watch her gazing. Idolaters came from all over the country to pay her tribute. They came in the form of men. Their bodies were dark-skinned and pale, svelte and gauche, but they all spoke in the same tongue.

The heat of my thirteenth summer melted the days and nights together into a cauldron of gold. Time collapsed. Every morning seemed like a drained-blue memory of yesterday. At night, as I lay in bed, my window wide open to the sound of the owl, the heat of the day would slide insidiously into my bed beside me. The heat of the day kept me awake with its feverish stroking turning me from side to side and licking my skin with its hot tongue, as the moon hung quietly outside in the swollen sky.

One evening, the heat turned me out of my bed, pushed my naked body out with its hands. It forced me to run out of the house down to the lake, past the walled garden. A boat was moored to the small wooden pier. Rowing out into the centre of the mirrored lake I anchored over and below the moon. I stood for a moment balanced on the gunwale of the boat looking out into the night stillness. I dived. The cold water parted open for my body only to grab hold of me again in its icy grasp. I opened my eyes as I plunged down into its blackness, and it was as if I were flying up into the night sky.

Although I neve ...

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