Harriet Fisher Mona Lisa Mona Lisa 27/08/07 We sit outside in the shelter of the veranda, uncomfortable on old wooden chairs which make marks on the back of my legs and cause pools of sweat to gather behind my knees. I check the thermometer, wiping away the dust with my finger before peering at the thin line of mercury just reaching above 35c. ‘It’s 35. In the shade!’ No one replies. It is hot and they don’t need a thermometer reading to remind them of the fact. I am visiting my grandmother in France, where she lives with my uncle. My aunt is here too visiting her mother and brother, this is the only time that we have been together in this particular family configuration and we make a motley, slightly awkward group. I am obsessed with the thermometer, I check it in the morning, afternoon and evening, when I am outraged and impressed that it can reach temperatures of 35c after six o’clock in the evening. The heat means that large periods of the day are spent doing little or nothing. I feel the lack of any kind of natural water, no lake, no sea for miles, no river. There is only an old plastic paddling pool sitting on the dying lawn, a hopeful shade of blue with waves painted on the side. It was as big as a swimming pool when we were kids but is now used as a sort of extra large footbath. As soon as six o’clock arrives I become convinced that we can do all of the things I wanted to do earlier, but couldn’t because of the heat. I march my aunt around the village in an attempt at a cooling evening walk. We are both red faced and sweaty before we have gone half way. The thin, grey road stretches baldly ahead with no suggestion of shade, parched tufts of grass lining the way, the odd flower adding a dab of colour to the yellowing ditches. There is absolute quiet around us, the squat brick houses showing no signs of life, the shutters closed against the heat of the day. I cannot bear the stillness, the endless hours given over to nothing but rest and the roads that go nowhere but round and round the tiny, featureless villages. ‘Look at that view’ was the constant exhortation on childhood holidays. I invariably had my face in a book and thought the view worth only a glance, never understanding the long and arduous walks whose only point was to look at the same view from a slightly different vantage point. Now, walking is my only way of escaping the house and of introducing activity and focus into the long, heat warped days. We wake up early and visit the food markets, my favourite part of the day. We buy food for lunch and dinner, sometimes stopping for a coffee, running back to the car before the tourists, known by my grandmother as the Ghastly English, arrive in large groups. We thankfully escape the same classification: she is Scottish and we are exempt from Ghastly Englishness through our relation to her. We are back at the house by about ten, the rest of the day looming emptily ahead. My Grandmother takes to her bed for long naps and my uncle busies himself in the kitchen, making small tray based meals for my grandmother and nothing for anybody else. My Aunt sits alone in the garden reading, protected by a large straw hat and a long sleeved cheesecloth shirt. She looks content and I envy her the ability to be still. Harriet Fisher Mona Lisa 27/08/07 I move around the dark, damp interior of the house examining photographs, dusting furniture and removing dog hair. Things cover every surface, some precious, some not, all of them neglected. Tarnished silver boxes hold jewellery covered in mould, old wooden cabinets are covered in coffee cup rings, small draws are locked and the keys lost. The house smells of mildew and after a few days and nights here so do I. My grandmother stays mostly in her room, surrounded by mounds of clothing and soft toys, given to her by us, her grandchildren, knowing she can never throw any of them away. A television is perched at the end of her bed and her bedside table is lined with tissues and cold cups of tea. She receives visitors, after a knock on the door determines whether she is awake, and eats all of her meals on a tray in her room, which my uncle brings in and clears away. I am unclear whether she is actually ill or simply bored. ‘How are you feeling?’ I ask on every bedside visit, ‘dreadful’ ‘tired’ or ‘alright thank you, darling’ being the varied responses. We watch television together in French, she is absorbed and I am confused. Sometimes I bring in the Scrabble board and she wins by cheating with words like ‘Jez’ and ‘Quefl’ which she maintains are obscure printing terms. Her second husband, James, who has been dead for 20 years, did something in publishing and she considers herself an expert on the subject, or more accurately she knows no one will challenge her. It is my last night here; I am catching a train to Paris tomorrow to meet my sister for a real holiday. My uncle is driving me to Bordeaux station early in the morning and is already moaning about my inability to drive. We are having a farewell dinner outside and I have spent the day clearing up the patio area that overlooks the rest of the garden. Old, unused dog beds have been thrown away or sprayed with fly killer, animal hair and cigarette ends have been raked from the gravel, plants watered and the table repeatedly sprayed with Dettol. My aunt is cooking, which means she has had to move my uncle out of the kitchen. He is now standing outside puffing on a cigarette, watching me clean, ‘Why don’t you just relax? You’re supposed to be here on holiday.’ ‘I am relaxed’ I say spraying the white plastic table with Dettol again and scrubbing it vigorously with a sponge scourer. He throws the cigarette end onto the gravel, ‘You don’t need to do this you know, I’ll do it, when I have the time.’ I pick up the butt and drop it into an ashtray, saying nothing; I have long given up trying to guess what exactly he does do with his time, he certainly doesn’t spend it cleaning. He looks after my grandmother, that’s what he does and it elevates him above everything and everyone, above questioning, suggestion and suspicion, although I am still unclear as to why she needs looking after. I continue cleaning. ‘You’re supposed to be on holiday’ he says, sitting down on the wooden armchair I have just cleared of old floor cloths. The dog approaches, un-brushed hair floating from it in clouds as it moves stiffly towards me. It sits on my feet. ‘Oh for God’s sake, dog, get off me!’ My left leg is now covered in hair, I nudge the dog away and my uncle leaps to his feet, ‘Oh you poor leeedle thiiiiing! Is she being nasty to you tiggy wiggy? Is she? Is she?’ His face is now pressed up against the dog and he is ruffling its ears. I fight the urge to kick them both. ‘She needs a brush. Her Harriet Fisher Mona Lisa 27/08/07 hair gets everywhere, it’s disgusting,’ I soften my tone, ‘and it can’t be very nice for her to have all that hair hanging off her, she looks uncomfortable.’ He plants a kiss on the dog’s nose and starts pulling out handfuls of hair with his hands. I have laid the table and dragged it across the gravel so it sits under the large lime tree and is a safe distance from the remaining dog bed. The sound of flies is constant. I am starting to fantasise about our clean, featureless Parisian hotel room, with air conditioning, soft carpeted floors and a shower that I am not afraid to step into. The sun is retreating down the garden and up here, on the gravel patch under the tree, a pool of shade is forming. I place candles on the table and anti mosquito flares around the patio. It looks almost nice. For the first time since I have arrived I stand and look at the view. An old metal arch, flowerless and patchy with rust, frames the stone steps that lead down to the balding, yellowing lawn. The end of the garden blends seamlessly with the gentle hills behind it. There are no houses in sight, just rolling fields and a sky that is beginning to pink. Shrubs and trees puncture the view and a fading yellow t- shirt flaps into view, forgotten on the line. There is a breeze blowing at the trees and I can hear the intermittent buzz of next door’s watering system. For a moment I am still. It is a good view I think, although after a while its broad, empty, sweep starts to make me nervous. There is a noise behind me, the rustle of the mosquito net and then a dry but deliberate cough. I turn to see my grandmother, up from her bed and dressed for dinner. She stands framed in the doorway, her chin lifted slightly knowing the impact her presence will have on me. ‘Grandma, you’re up!’ I give her a hug, feeling her soft cheeks press against mine, inhaling the perfume she has put on for the occasion. ‘Of course I’m up. Why wouldn’t I be? I had every intention to be up for dinner tonight.’ She sweeps past me, dusts down the wooden armchair with a brush of her hand and sits facing the garden. She is wearing a pair of tartan trousers and an emerald green blouse with long sleeves and a high collar. A silk scarf decorated with butterflies hangs around her neck and she has put on make up. Her cheeks are dusted with pink and her lips are ruby red. ‘You look great.’ She tries to hide her smile. ‘Nonsense.’ She looks around her, ‘this place is a mess. What has he been doing?’ she says, searching the garden for my uncle. ‘The table looks nice,’ I say, trying to divert her from a train of thought I regularly follow myself. ‘Yes, I suppose it does. Where is Margaret?’ ‘Cooking. She wouldn’t tell me what.’ ‘Margaret! Cooking?’ She puts on a look of exaggerated shock. I frown and am about to plead with her to be nice when she smiles and lays a hand on my knee, ‘I’m sure it will be lovely. Although I doubt very much whether she will actually be cooking, opening packets and arranging is probably more accurate.’ Aunt Margaret emerges from the kitchen carrying a loaf of bread, a vegetable tart in a tin tray and a dish full of salad. I shoot my grandmother a warning look and go to help her. We sit around the table together in the fading light, the candles lending a softness to the scene that I am grateful for. It is the first time my Harriet Fisher Mona Lisa 27/08/07 grandmother has been present at dinner, at any meal in fact, whilst I have been here. The three of us have managed to fall into an acceptable rhythm over the past week and now we have to adjust to the very solid presence of my grandmother. She eats heartily but doesn’t comment on the food while I overcompensate by saying ‘lovely’ or ‘delicious’ after every mouthful. I talk too much and pour everyone wine; she sips obstinately at the same small glass throughout dinner, insisting that ‘one is quite enough.’ My uncle, stands up after every course and has a cigarette on the patio, slightly removed from the rest of us. He tosses the stubs onto the gravel and flicks the ash into the air so that it blows with the breeze, occasionally landing on the table. After the first glass of wine I relax slightly and the conversation hums along uneventfully, with my aunt and I relating mostly food related tales of our time in France. After the main course we clear the table and bring out the cheese. Our chairs are pushed back from the table, glasses are pleasingly full and my uncle now smokes with the rest of us at my grandmother’s request, ‘I do so love the smell.’ Talk turns to my trip to Paris and my aunt and uncle agree what a great city it is and what a good time I will undoubtedly have, particularly with my sister who speaks good French. There is a pause, a relaxed pause while we sip our wine or cut a piece of cheese. ‘I went there once,’ my grandmother says. ‘Paris?’ ‘Of course Paris! It is Paris you’re going to? Well, as I said I went there once, with J.’ J is how she refers to James, her second husband and the only person I think she ever really loved. Stories of her and James are rare, I barely remember him except as a shadowy and film star glamorous presence on the edges of my very early memories. ‘We were on our way somewhere, I can’t remember where, to look at a house and he insisted that we pass through Paris. I had never been and he thought that I should see it.’ She pauses and takes a mouthful of cheese. My uncle pours himself another glass of wine. ‘How was it?’ I ask, trying not to appear too enthusiastic as nothing provokes her scorn so much as eagerness or enthusiasm. She shrugs, ‘it was alright I suppose, although he did insist on going to see that ghastly bitch.’ All activity is suspended for a brief moment as we consider this. By the time I look round at the others my aunt has her serene, nothing can touch me face on again and my uncle is reaching for the wine bottle. I struggle for a second to think which bitch she means. By all accounts J was a bit of a womaniser and various photos of artfully posed society beauties have been found stashed in drawers around the house. ‘Um, grandma, which bitch?’ She wrinkles up her nose at my evident stupidity and manages to look both irritated and disappointed at the same time. ‘I refused to go, I mean, I really don’t see the point. People drone on and on about how beautiful she is, how enigmatic. And he was prepared to queue to see her, can you imagine? Queuing to see that cow! And all because of that bloody stupid smile.’ She takes a sip of wine. ‘Anyway I waited outside while he went in. I had no intention of going to see that silly bitch, but he was determined to see her for himself, so there you are. And no doubt you’ll be lining up with all those dreadful people to see her too.’ She sits shaking her head in quiet despair that we could all be quite so stupid. It is just beginning to dawn on me that she is in fact talking about the Mona Lisa. J’s betrayal was, this time, Harriet Fisher Mona Lisa 27/08/07 with a world renowned masterpiece hanging in the Louvre. I pour myself another glass of wine and clear my throat, ‘Grandma?’ She nods. ‘You don’t mean…Do you mean, you know, that he went to see the Mona Lisa?’ She rolls her eyes, ‘Of course! What on earth did you think I meant? He queued to see her. Extraordinary!’ My uncle and aunt are both laughing now and I look at my grandmother sitting there with her head raised, chin jutting out, always ready to defend off an attack and I feel a wave of what I think is love, but which ends up leaving me feeling close to tears. I lean over and give her a kiss on her aged, drooping cheeks. She is trying hard to hide a smile. My aunt and uncle start a story about a trip one of them took to the Louvre but I stop listening. My grandmother sits at the head of the table, eyes sparkling and cheeks pink, she looks happy for now and I find myself hoping that, after I am gone, she will refuse the dinner trays in her room, leave her bed and dress for dinner every night. I look round the garden seeing the piles of discarded blankets, cloths and old garden tools that I have not had time to clear up. The dog stands up and wanders towards us, leaving a pool of fallen hair where it lay. My uncle automatically puts out a hand to stroke it, my grandmother is laughing at something my aunt is saying. My aunt has one more week here and then my grandmother, my uncle and the dog will be left alone amongst the ever expanding piles of unwanted things and animal hair. I tap my glass with a cheese knife and rise to my feet. The others fall silent but look amused, my grandmother raises an eyebrow. ‘Um, I just wanted to say, thank you for having me this week, it’s been great and I’ll send you all a postcard from Paris. So, cheers,’ I pause, ‘Oh and I may well drop in and visit the old bitch myself, you know, see what all the fuss is about.’ She smiles at me, this time without trying to hide it, I raise my glass and the others follow. We clink the glasses together, I sit down and we stay there, finishing the wine and the cheese as the sun leaves the garden.