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Miss Polly

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta [1]

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna Litta

3,068 words

They were sleeping apart after Yusuf had yet again failed to stand up to his parents, who still refused to acknowledge their son’s de facto relationship with her. Maureen had just overheard heard him yet again tactfully and without remonstration decline to be set up with someone more to their liking, who would make him a “good wife.” They would sleep apart that night.

Her bed was a raft out in a pitch black sea reminiscent of an illustration in a book of nursery rhymes from when she was a child. No sight of land anywhere. There was a mysterious columnar object on the horizon which might have been the vortex of a tornado—but which turned out, provisionally, to be a lighthouse. When she saw it, having almost given herself up for dead, she wept tears of relief. Besides its disturbing blackness the ocean was full of sharks, their fins above the surface, and it had been only a matter of time before they got her; also, the wind was starting to blow, summoning huge opaque swells that threatened to graduate into breakers.

The lighthouse was drawing her to it, getting bigger and bigger—faster, in fact, than it was growing closer. She began to experience vertigo from looking up at its light, while continuing to pray (as she never did in waking life). It grew blindingly bright in the mounting darkness.

Then the lighthouse bent down towards her, and she saw that, in fact, it was an angel, the lofty beacon shining from behind his ineffably beautiful face. He smiled, recognising her as his own, and reached down to gather up her thrilled and terrified self in his strong arms that shone like moonlit marble. Then, her skin burning at his touch, he held her up to his face from which she was unable to look away, and she saw there an indescribable kindness and beauty. It was with a shock that she realised her kinship to this fantastic being: it was now nearly human in shape and size, a gorgeous fair-haired man like an image in a Renaissance painting.

The angel spread his wings and flew away with her tucked under his arm. The scent of his body was delightful, complex and evocative as the bouquet of a fine wine, and more intoxicating. She looked down at the opalescent clouds and thought, in as many words,

“Wow, I’m having a genuine religious experience!”

The experience was not a purely spiritual one, however; the angel carried her away up higher into the clouds, where he made love to her, nothing but his embrace preventing her from falling to her death into the shark-infested, unnatural waters below. Yet, while it was a vastly thrilling experience, she felt completely safe at the same time.

Afterwards, they were sailing through the air over an urban landscape, low enough for her to see the swarming cars and people. Then the angel kissed her on the back of the neck—and released his hold. She hurtled down towards the pavement, narrowly avoiding being skewered by the spire or antenna of a skyscraper, before seconds later, with a great smack she hit the pavement.

Maureen gasped and woke with a much-magnified version of the jolting sensation one often has of slipping and falling on the way between waking and sleep. The knowledge that the angel had been only a dream took a few seconds to catch her, and when it did, tears formed in her eyes, as she started ahead at the bare grey wall of the bedroom.


* * *

The following weekend they were having dinner with her friend Vashti, an orchestral violinist, and her husband Oskar, the orchestra’s conductor, in the latters’ warehouse apartment. Maureen herself hardly played any more; it was too depressing to feel the stiffness of her joints and reproach herself for having worked as a barista during her years at the Conservatory, so that now she suffered from a case of carpal tunnel syndrome that had grown severe enough to begin interfering with her reception work at a suburban music school. Vashti, on the other hand, had had wealthy parents and never needed to work during her student years. She and Oskar had no children, but were thinking about it. It was distressing to Maureen that Yusuf, who was visibly bored, didn’t fit in to the high-toned conversation. She herself barely did.

About an hour before sunrise next morning, she found herself alone in a certain vast and palatial warehouse apartment. A feature, which had also been present at her friends’, was a big Japanese screen in the middle of the floor, subdividing the living from the dining area; but this one, rather than cherry blossoms, was decorated with a dark pattern of stylised ocean waves. Maureen was preparing some kind of meal for guests who were coming to dinner, and she was there alone, knowing that it was not her home but that she was house-sitting for someone very important whose identity she couldn’t recall. There was a sense of time passing in fast-forward; it was getting late and a feeling of panic setting in. Would the guest—who was surely none-other than the owner—arrive, and would she be ready for him if he did?

Then the door to the apartment, concealed by the silk screen, creaked open like something in a haunted house. Was this her mysterious guest, or an intruder? She felt her aloneness and vulnerability like a stabbing pain in the heart. The timber panelling of the roof and floor might have stretched like rubber in that moment, lengthening the prospect of the interior. Then, through the screen, she saw a light coming towards her. It was as though someone were advancing with a flickering lantern.

With exquisite regret Maureen felt that she knew her visitor from long ago, but had unaccountably and perhaps unforgivably forgotten him. That was why he wouldn’t come round to her side of the screen; she had to go to him. With trepidation she did so, and, eyes smarting, found the shining figure of a child perhaps five years old, his back turned to her in reproach.

The child was dressed in a little suit, like a page boy at a wedding. She called to him hesitantly, but he didn’t respond. At length she grabbed him compulsively by the shoulders, but not daring to turn him around; no, she had to walk timidly around to face him—and then she was back in the clouds of the previous dream, the same brilliance cascading from the child’s eyes into hers, except that she was able to gaze back into it. The golden statue was coming to life. She went down on her knees, and he placed a hand on her head in gesture of benediction.


* * *

Maureen was riding the train home after one of her late nights at the music school. Her car was at the mechanic’s, and Yusuf had the other one. It was his, after all; she was never allowed to drive the stupid thing. Sure, his workplace was slightly farther from home than hers, but she felt nonetheless that he might have shown a little more consideration, a little more concern for her welfare.

A few stops out of the city the door to the carriage opened and several youths dressed in baggy jeans and hoodies entered, one carrying a stereo that was blaring the kind of music one would expect based on all available visual cues. Maureen tried not to mentally over-react.

They accosted an Asian girl who was sitting alone on one of a pair of facing seats in the opposite aisle, forcing her to take her earphones out while they gestured suggestively. It was impossible to hear any words over the noise of the boom-box. The girl moved over one seat, so that one of the youths, of whom there were five, sat down beside her and put his arm up on the seat behind her head. Maureen gathered that the girl was in distress; another of the youths was standing in front of her, his groin almost at the level of her face.

The carriage was something under a quarter full. Among those she could afterwards remember being present as onlookers were an old man, who looked on disapprovingly but ineffectually, and a heavily overweight woman who was struggling to rubber-neck around to see what was going on. There was also a young guy who obviously went to the gym, but he was listening to music on his earphones and playing on his phone, pretending that he saw nothing.

Three of the youths continued up the aisle towards Maureen. Their dark eyes had selected her without doubt, white teeth bared in predatory grins.

Then from somewhere behind her, suddenly an unaccompanied child appeared between her and them. At first glance she had been dazzled, and now he had passed, so that his face was hidden from her. He could only have been five years old, to judge by his stature, but he seemed to walk like a grown man and with an air of authority. The trio were distracted and as one refocused their gaze on the child, stopping in their tracks. “They wouldn’t!” she thought fearfully at first, then angrily: “They’d better not!”

They didn’t. What came about then was a remarkable anti-climax which afterwards made her feel like questioning the truth of her memory.

Wasn’t it an expression of awe that she had seen on their faces, staring at the child? That she could hardly doubt, as absurd as it seemed: the way those hoodlums had retreated back the way they’d come, the three turning around as one and falling in with the other two, to again plague the travellers in the preceding carriage. When the little boy turned to face Maureen, she saw that he was indeed the familiar angel-child of her dream. He was incognito to the extent that the only halo he wore was one of great beauty and radiant inner power. He was as physically real as anyone else on that tram.

She glanced after him as he walked back up to the end of the aisle, turned around and came back again, his demeanour softened now that the threat had been seen off. She couldn’t think what to say or do. When he reached her this time, the boy stopped and touched her leg, which instantly broke out in pins and needles.

“Have you got a baby in there?” he asked, nodding towards her belly and pointing, the electrically charged finger only centimetres from her abdomen.

“Yes,” she whispered, wanting to feel his touch on her belly.

“Oh,” he said indifferently.

It was Maureen’s stop. She didn’t know what to do; it was as though she were passing up some mysterious opportunity by disembarking, even though the child had already moved on past her. Where were his parents? She felt troubled and, somehow, ashamed.


* * *

In the next dream there was not one child but many.

She was sitting in a field somewhere she had never been in waking life, a picnic rug laid out and a basket full of good things. There was a sense of the galloping passage of time in the sky, whose dome went from bright to dark blue while the distant, unimpeded horizon soon began to glow with evening colours. At the same time Maureen began to feel a mounting unease and coldness. She was wearing a short summer dress and had to pull it down over her legs, which were breaking out in goose pimples. She didn’t know who she was waiting for, and there was nowhere to go as the lawn spread out, seemingly infinite, in all directions. To follow the horizon with her eyes was to invite vertigo. But with the sunset, the grass and the foliage of the solitary tree behind her began to come alive in a cool breeze that nevertheless seemed inadequate to produce such a lively effect on its foliage. She heard it whooshing with a noise like surf against rocks, and even the grass, not overly long, seemed to be dancing. An over-large and intensely coloured butterfly landed on her pregnant belly for a second, settling its wings, only to fly off again in a moment.

No longer mentally comfortable with her back to the tree, she stood up, took a few steps, and turned to face it. In its branches there were many little pink-gold legs dangling down, blushing brightly as the sky behind them, their owners sitting still as birds of prey but relaxed as rococo cherubs. The idea then occurred to her that, since whoever it was she was waiting for was evidently not coming, she would instead share the contents of her hamper with the children. Let’s see, what had she brought . . .

Her senses were assaulted by a foetid, stinking mass that looked as though it might have been dredged from the bottom of a waste bin in some alleyway. She slammed back the lid of the hamper, heart pounding in disgust.

Now, looking back up at the children, she saw that they were not as they had been a moment ago. Those legs, along with the rest of their bodies, were somehow misshapen and no longer glowing. In a moment one of the creatures, its eyes meeting hers, dropped down out of the tree like a rotten piece of fruit a couple of metres away. She jumped up and backwards in fright. The thing was naked. Its head was bald, its body covered in a patchy coat of dark hair. Its face was horrible: thick, ropy lips wet with slaver and avid, bulbous eyes, sloping brow and aggressively flared nostrils that she could see were twitching at the scent from her basket. Plop, plop! A couple more followed. They were coming toward her as she backed away, convinced that the thing to do was not to appear frightened, not to run lest they chase her. But then, as she retreated warily without turning around, she realised that they were not interested in her. They were not beasts of prey, but scavengers. They were headed for the basket, which the leader of the pack had already opened and thrust his snout inside. She continued backing away as they fought and snarled over the revolting contents.

As she ran away there was a kind of temptation to turn and look back that was hard to resist. How many were there? What were they? And above all, what was at the summit of the tree? She had caught a glimpse of it before turning her back, and had to look away as from the sun itself—which made no sense, as it had sunk well down by this time . . .

* * *

Maureen went into labour one at work one afternoon. She was halfway through a phone conversation when her waters broke. Her boss, who liked to be addressed as Mr Ming, was not particularly sympathetic, but he lost his mandarin composure at the sight of her abjection. It was horribly embarrassing.

Yusuf had his phone switched off and didn’t manage to show up until he was well into “the zone,” at which point nothing external to her own body made any difference.

After the birth, she slept.

Standing over her was the Angel from the first dream; opposite him the child they had conceived together. When her eyes grew accustomed to the light, she noticed that the expression they shared on their faces was quite inscrutable; their eyes did not quite meet hers. For a long moment she failed to look down at what they were seeing, namely, the thing that was making that horrible sucking noise at her breast. Maureen looked down at the dark shapeless form and up again at the faces, in panic. She might have uttered some words along the lines of, “Oh my God, what should I do?” But those hard, judgemental faces (as she now understood their looks without any lines having formed across the impassive brows) had no friendly advice to give, no reassurance.

At her breast, sucking in a feeding frenzy, was something like a giant leech, dark, and largely greyish-green in colour, patterned with blotches and strips of dark hair, and in- between them throwing off other ephemeral hues like an oil slick in the light from the Angels’ faces. It was the larval form of the ape-creatures from her dream—not themselves juveniles, she now realised, but rather imagos of the same ghastly species. She could see and feel the waves of her blood swelling its pulsing body—and there it was, running down to stain the white sheets. As she tugged at the parasite in ineffectual self-defence, its wiry hairs, stood on end as if in a warning sign, while it continued to drink. She was numb with horror. The only human thing about this creature was its eyes—those brown, apparently soulful eyes that contrived even now to seek out and exploit her motherly instinct. But she knew there was no soul behind them, not really. They were like the defensive eyes painted on the wings of a moth.

“Get it off me!” she tried to scream, “Please!” but found herself paralysed now, reduced to utter passivity while her life-essence was rapidly drained away. After a pause in which the pair of divine beings before her seemed to consider whether she was worthy of, or genuinely needed, their help, it was the child, still held upright in the crook of its father’s powerful arm, who reached out to her. Immediately the changeling relinquished her breast. She saw its contracting maw, its annular mouthparts, as it bucked and writhed; but the child now took and held it up before his face, unafraid, so that it shrunk away—literally, drying up like salted beche de mer. At the same time, the child’s face emitted ever more light, until she had to look away, knowing that whatever came next would be a miracle too great for her comprehension.

The next thing she knew, she was holding a baby in whose helpless form her saviour of a moment ago was now incarnate. Its father had vanished, for now, leaving behind a blessed assurance to protect his family from the breaking nightmare that would otherwise have overwhelmed them without remedy.