The Perfect Home Show

Walking among the fabric-swathed frames, around tables loaded with objects, each scented with their own history, my sister Joanna was silent. I bent over every stall, touched lacquer, gilt, japan and ebony, fruitwood, oak and walnut, drinking in the liqueur of beauty and craftsmanship, taking deep breaths to savour antique auras, trying to bury myself inside cabinets, in the depths of years, to contrast with the newness and life that had filled my experience so overpoweringly as a new mother.

I felt a deep need to handle these pieces, to follow the firm hard lines of carving, feel the crisp sharp edges unyielding against my fingertips. I cradled a cherub in my arms, cold white porcelain against my cheek.

The stall holder took it from me, gently but firmly, and placed it back in the centre of his display. He did not speak, his look eloquently dismissive of myself, my intentions and my spending power. As I turned away, the part of the cherub I retained in my inner eye was his navel, surrounded by plump baby flesh, carved roundly, curved but so cold. I could feel beneath my fingers the soft tender flesh of my baby son’s tummy, his navel not yet convex, the remnants of his umbilical still binding him to me as he was bound in the womb. Once he was born, I had expected that biological bond to fade, as his cord withered, but it had not. As I sought for some object on which to fix my attention, to distract myself, my eye was drawn to a Victorian highchair amongst a collection of furniture. It bore traces of red paint on its tray-less arms and rocked on uneven legs. To me it said, quietly but persistently: "For Jamie."

Although this was the first time I had been apart from him since his birth, I felt his presence — the physical bond — as strongly as ever. Ruthlessly thrusting back the longing into my subconscious I repeated the mantra bestowed on me by Leo as I left: "Enjoy yourself, you deserve a treat."

I looked for Joanna. She was at a wood carver’s stall. Not antiques there, but contemporary wooden items carved in a variety of woods — all very simple — bowls, cups, platters, their perfect symmetry elegant to the eye and their smoothed texture satisfying to the touch. Joanna held a wooden mushroom, round, perfect, velvety. The domed top fitted snugly into her left palm, and she stroked the tapering stem with thumb and forefinger of her right hand.

She looked at the mushroom, not at me. I turned to the stall next to her. It displayed two beautiful oriental cabinets. In one there were two jade figures, both ladies, tall, serene, beautiful, in a cabinet of black lacquer decorated with gold detailing, painted with elaborate scenes of mountains, pagodas, bridges over water as in the Willow Pattern, also mountains, cranes and bamboo plants. Each little figure, about fifteen centimetres tall, stood on its own balustraded balcony, delicate gilding separating one from another, and sliding doors with gold trellis work leading to private spaces behind. Many of the pagoda paintings were on drawer fronts, but the effect was of a Japanese dolls’ house rather than a storage unit. Each jade figure was slightly different. I touched one. Cold creamy blue-green.

I sensed that Joanna had come to stand beside me, but I did not look at her. It was for her to start speaking.

"They are so alike," she said. "Two stately ladies, but each occupying her own space. Like us," she added.

"Each in her own separate box, visible to the other, but divided by a barrier," I said. I turned to her. "It used not to be like that!"

"Look, I’m sorry, I haven’t been very friendly recently," Joanna admitted.

"If I hadn’t been so busy looking after Jamie, I might have noticed sooner," I said. "We used to do everything together."

"I know."

"It’s as if Jamie has come between us." I was teasing.

"He has, in a way."

I was taken aback. "That’s brutal!"

"But it’s true!" Joanna insisted. "Look, I can’t talk here, I need to tell you all about it, I owe it to you, but I can’t talk here!" She indicated the bustle of the Home and Furnishings Fair. "I think I know where we can go."

In a side corridor couches and armchairs were pushed higgledy-piggledy, most with large SOLD stickers attached. It was relatively quiet away from the bustle of the fair. I sat down on a small padded chair with gilded arms, upholstered in cream sprigged with a pale brown and pink flower motif. The chair was low, tiny like a child’s. It fitted me perfectly and as I sat there the umbilical pulled and I knew what kind of chair it was. A nursing chair.

"Jamie’s hungry," I said. I could feel the pressure building up inside my breasts.

"How do you know that?" asked Joanna, exasperated, choosing a seat on a green and gilt daybed nearby. "No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. That mysterious mother/child bond. That’s part of the problem."

"There’s nothing mysterious about it," I said. "It’s the law of supply and demand. My milk supply’s attuned to Jamie’s demand. So I know when feeding time’s due!"

Joanna looked disgusted.

"You’ve been avoiding me," I said. "At first I thought you were leaving me alone because you didn’t want to disturb us while Jamie was new. Then I started to miss you. You came to town with me once, didn’t you? Then you wouldn’t come again. There was always an excuse."

"I’m sorry," said Joanna. "Look — I just couldn’t — I couldn’t bear — It was too…"

I thought I knew the problem. It had become obvious.

"It’s this motherhood thing, isn’t it?" I suggested. "It’s totally repellent? Crappy nappies, damp bosoms and constant crying. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to change Jamie. I won’t even ask you to hold him. But I’m still me — more or less — I still want you to be my best friend!" I put my hand on her arm, pleadingly. Her shiny cotton jacket felt cold, the arm underneath it stiff. She picked at the hem of her sweater.

"You've no idea, have you?" she said quietly. "In fact it’s the opposite. It didn’t matter when you were pregnant. We still did the same things we always had. It was fun shopping for babygros and suggesting outrageous baby names. It was nice me being the thin one for a change! But when you had him — oh Paula! I couldn’t bear to see the way you looked at him. In the hospital, that first day when we came to see you, you never looked at me — or Tim — or Leo for that matter. You talked to us, but you never took your eyes off that baby. You’re in love with him!"

"Isn’t every mother in love with her baby?" I murmured.

"No, listen. You don’t know this, but I’ve always been glad I was the eldest. You were the pretty one, always doing the right thing, apple of everybody’s eye..." I raised a hand to stop her, but she pushed it down and continued. "You know it, you were always the favourite. But at least I was the oldest. You couldn’t take that away from me. I was first, first to go to secondary school, first to have a boyfriend, first to go to University, first to get married. Even if you were the best loved, at least I did everything before you did. I was ahead of you in that way..."

Her words were beginning to come from far away. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I looked at my sister, my big sister, bigger than me, always there, always there to follow, always there to show me, my safety net. My lovely sister, elegant and attractive, successful in every way, an icon, an idol throughout my childhood, an award-winning architect while I was still a research assistant — SHE was jealous of ME! I opened my mouth to say these things but only got as far as: "Of course you’re just as loved…" before she interrupted.

"Think about it, Paula. Be honest. Look at you, still pretty as a picture with that curly blonde hair — and you’re getting that lovely figure back already. And look at me — honestly. I’ve got the family nose — to say it’s Roman is about the nicest thing you can say about it!"

"Joanna, you know you are attractive and successful. You've never struck me as lacking in confidence. What are you getting at?"

"OK, you're the first to have a baby, and I hate it. You've beaten me to that and I find it ... difficult."

"Joanna, you're being silly." I didn't want to hear more. I'd been up three hours during the night with Jamie and it was catching up with me as I sat. I got up from the chair.

"You're not listening to me, Paula!"

I leaned over and patted her on the arm. "Just forget it. You're seeing a problem where none exists. So I had a baby first. Big deal! You'll be next, soon enough."

"You don't understand, Paula. It's different for me..."

I went out to the show. I would get that highchair for Jamie. Leo could easily fix it.

"Come on Joanna, let's spend some money!"

She followed me, silent again. In her hands she still held the wooden mushroom, turning it, twisting and turning.

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Helen Whitehead

Part of this work was submitted as the Dissertation for the MA in Writing

Nottingham Trent University

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Last amended on 10th September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead