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09/06/2016

THE JOYCE GIRL

Annabel Abbs

SEPTEMBER 1934

KÜSNACHT, ZURICH

I stand on the deck watching the trailing seams of white foam.  Zurich recedes into the horizon and I wait for Küsnacht to appear ahead of me.  On the banks the trees are shaking off their curling leaves. There’s a shiver in the air and a thin odour of decay drifts across the lake.

I’ve been seeing him for three weeks, in his square shuttered house at Küsnacht. Three times a week I come by boat and sit with him. And still I haven’t spoken. But today something inside me is stirring and my silence feels oppressive.

The lake is alight with autumn sun. Beside the ferry tiny fish flounce and turn, their spangled scales flashing like fallen stars. And as I watch them, something begins to creep through the soles of my feet, up into my ankles, my calves. I feel it skim along my spine. My hips begin to sway, my fingers start to rap out a rhythm on the railing. As if my dull plain body wants to be a thing of beauty again.

Today I shall speak. I shall answer his tiresome questions. And I shall tell him I must dance again.  Yes, I must dance again….

~~~

Doctor Jung steeples his fingers in front of his mouth so the tips brush his neatly clipped moustache. “You shared a bedroom with your father until you were eighteen. How did you change your clothes?” His eyes are like small hoops of light that never leave my face.

“I slept in my clothes.” I shift awkwardly, knowing what questions are coming next. And I’m sick of them. Sick and tired.

“Why did you not undress?” His words hang in the air as I pull my mink coat tight around my ribs. That eager little housemaid had tried to snatch it from me at the door. Kept telling me how warm the Doctor’s room was, how she’d laid the fire herself.

“Rats don’t change for the night, do they?”

Rats?” Doctor Jung pushes back his swivel chair and starts pacing the room. “I’m glad you’ve finally decided to talk but you must explain yourself, Miss Joyce.”

“We lived in hundreds of places … rooms … apartments. Italy, Switzerland, Paris.” Already I can feel my mouth stiffening, as though it’s had enough of all this talk, enough of the Doctor’s endless questions.  I run my tongue quickly over my upper lip, willing myself on. “We moved into Robiac Square when rich people started giving us money – my father’s patrons. Before that my brother, Giorgio, called us migrant rats.”

“And your father called it exile.” Doctor Jung stoops, brings his face level with mine. And I wonder if he can see inside my empty plundered soul, if he can see how they’ve robbed me and betrayed me.

“Tell me about Ulysses. I confess I fell asleep when I read it.” He eases himself back into his chair, scribbles something in his notebook, turns his gaze back to me. “Banned for obscenity.  How did it make you feel having a pornographer for a father?”

Outside a cloud drifts across the sky and blocks out the sun. “Ulysses…” I echo, searching my moth-eaten mind for memories and clues. Fat blue spine…Gold lettering…Mama snatching.  “My mother saw me holding it once and took it from me.  She said my father had a dirty mind and I could read it when I was married. Married!” I give a small mirthless laugh.

“So, did you read it?”

“Of course. It’s the greatest book ever written.” I don’t tell the Doctor that I too found the plot dull, that the odd, unfamiliar characters eluded me, that I never reached the ‘filthy bits’ everyone spoke of. Instead I blurt out my question about Babbo, the question still gnawing at me after all these years.  “Doctor, is my father a perverted lunatic?”

Doctor Jung looks at me through his gold-rimmed glasses. His eyes widen as the breath escapes noisily from his nostrils. There’s a long silence during which he nods his head gently, as if expecting me to speak. “Why do you ask, Miss Joyce?”

My mink coat is now so tightly round my body my rib cage contracts and the air catches in my throat. “I saw it in a newspaper. They called him a perverted lunatic. They called Ulysses the most obscene book ever written.” As I speak my voice detaches itself from my body and slips away, as though the words, the sounds, are nothing to do with me.

“Why do you think your father chose a chambermaid for his wife?” The Doctor leans across his desk, pushes his glasses onto his forehead, prepares to inspect me again.

“He doesn’t like intelligent women. He said that once.” I don’t tell him I know exactly why my father chose a chambermaid. There are some things that can’t be spoken about.  Not to fat Swiss men with pocket watches who are paid by the hour, like common prostitutes. Not to anyone.

Doctor Jung nods and chews thoughtfully on his thumb, always watching me, staring at me, trying to climb into my soul. Then he picks up his pen and I hear the nib rasping as he scribbles in his notebook. I stroke my mink coat, so soft, so comforting. Like a pet dog curled in my lap. Already Mama’s face is dissolving in front of me, all of her fading away – her eyebrows like the feathers of a crow, her thin lips, her downy cheeks with their maze of broken veins. “I don’t want to talk about her anymore. It was she who did this to me.” I tap the side of my head three times with my index finger.

He stops writing and frowns for so long the muscles round his eyes twitch. “Tell me about your relationship with your father, before you shared a bedroom.”

“He was always writing. He barely spoke to me until Ulysses was finished.” I lower my lashes, look at my new shoes of softest Italian leather, feel my toes curling inside them. No need to say any more. Not yet …

“You were competing with a lot of people, real and imaginary, for his time.” Doctor Jung’s eyes are like pinwheels now, boring into my head.

“I suppose so.” I run my fingers through the fur of my coat, teasing it out and pushing it against the grain, as I think of my greedy siblings. All those characters wondering round Dublin. Yes, greedy siblings that had taken Babbo from me. I hold the Doctor’s gaze in a way I hope is bold and confident, but beneath my coat sweat is trickling slowly down my cleavage.

“What’s the point of me being here?” I need to get away from his interminable questions. Time is running out. Work in Progress is still not finished.  Babbo needs my help, my inspiration.  What use am I incarcerated in Switzerland? My feet start jerking to and fro, desperate little jerks like gasps of breath.

“You are here at your father’s request, Miss Joyce. But as you haven’t spoken until today we have a lot of catching up to do. Tell me about Giorgio.” Doctor Jung laces his fingers together, watches me, waits.

And when he says my brother’s name, I feel a surge of love. For ten years Giorgio and I were inseparable, like Siamese twins. I examine my hands expecting to see the white imprints of his fingers from where he’d gripped me. To drag me away from the thin-ribbed cats I longed to adopt, to pull me up the steep streets of Trieste, to stop me falling from the omnibus. There are no marks, of course.  Just the shiny puckered ghost of a scar on my thumb. But something else begins tugging and pulling at the edges of my memory.  I pause, expecting it to swim slowly into focus.  But it doesn’t.  Instead I feel a dull ache rising slowly from the base of my skull. I rub my temples for several long minutes as the silence seethes and swirls in my ears and the ache blooms in my brain.

The Doctor looks at the fat gold pocket watch he keeps on his desk. “We’re out of time, Miss Joyce. But I’d like you to write an account of your years in Robiac Square.  Can you do that for me?”

“For you? I thought this talking cure was for me?”

“It’s for me to help you.” He speaks slowly, enunciating each word as if he’s speaking to a child or an imbecile. He picks up the pocket watch and peers at it, pointedly. “Bring the first chapter of your memoir next time.

“Where should I start?”

“You are twenty-seven now?” He puts down his pocket watch and counts the fleshy fingers of one splayed hand with the other. “You said a Mr Beckett was your first lover, is that right?” He nods encouragingly. “Start with him. Can you remember when you first saw him?”

“Wait,” I say, closing my eyes as the memory floats towards me, bit by bit, struggling out of a shifting darkness. Faint at first … Now bright and sharp.  The smell of oysters and eau de parfum and Turkish cigarettes and cigar smoke. The popping of champagne corks, the cracking of ice in steel buckets, the chinking and clinking of glasses. I remember it all – the glare and rattle of the restaurant, Stella’s turbaned head like a small yellow pumpkin, the damp heat of Emile’s breath in my ear, the luminosity of Babbo’s eyes as he toasted me, the exact words of Mama and Babbo. Oh yes … all those words. Of birth and marriage, of my talent and my future.  Life had seemed to stretch out ahead of me then, all rosy and golden and shimmering with possibility.

I open my eyes. Doctor Jung has pushed back his chair and is standing at his desk tapping his fingers impatiently on the leather as if beating time to his pocket watch.

“I know where to start my memoir,” I say. I shall start with the first stirrings of desire and ambition that pushed their way, like the greedy tendrils of a weed, into my young heart. Because that was the beginning. No matter what anyone else says, that was the beginning.

The Joyce Girl is published by Impress Books.

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