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This poem is taken from PN Review 110, Volume 22 Number 6, July - August 1996.

Keeping House Vona Groarke

Undeterred by the absence of a Welcome Mat, I have settled into many rooms like this. Despite the kicked-in door, the smoke-scarred walls, the rancid stack of paper on the floor, I have rested, I have sheltered, I have made good plans. Not intentions, granted, but designs. In matters such as these, contrast is all.

Or should that be context? Against which my worldly goods are scant but adequate: a sleeping bag, torch, tilly can, Swiss army knife, and radio to second-guess the skies. These rooms will gift me sleep. And also, no doubt, lurid dreams of home.

Which is another way of saying 'I live here', though not without reservation or restraint. The days are long. I have nothing to do but sit it out and wait for night to fall. Which is adequate time to learn the run of the place. I know it well. I do not foresee forgetfulness.

Beneath what was once, I think, a graceful stair, I have found a message scratched (with a coin?) on the skirting board. It reads 'Grace'. I spent a morning there, taking in its excess of confidence, its unforgiveable poise. I am not one for gratuitous faith, but I tell you, I believe this house is cursed. Is one word enough? When that work is hard, and bids you to reflect and to appraise, then I say 'Yes'.

*

Perhaps nothing will come of it. I have hidden it now, obscured its crassness with the remains of curtains taken from the hall. Still, it worries me. I have found myself, twice now, unveiling it again. Each time disgusts me as a fetid love affair. I will not have it. Though it seems I must.

Before this, other occasions of dismay, beginning with the wind. Imagine a set of rooms inhabited once by sounds attending circumstance and state. Be it the hushed chatter of servants, working in pairs: thin scales forced from the drawing-room: a needle dissecting a difficult design: or carriage wheels grinding to a halt. Imagine a canopy of administered sound, under which nothing jars, nothing is out of place. Imagine silence, arranged as colour, to draw the vacant hour.

What of it? Year after year spent circumscribing fault, and all the while, the circle closing in with some impenetrable end. At every turn, another room is shed. At every twist, the void beyond the windows framed in innocence and light, proceeds. Shutters boarded: furniture contained: grates allowed to wither through the year: staff let go. A crate of family portraits is shipped to London and sold piecemeal. Even the greenhouse is exposed to unpredictable air. By which time, the shards of glass and shattered plants mean nothing, signify no stranger place.

*

Which is where I come in. A place such as this ideally suits my purposes, affording me cover and a framework for my days. I am not the first, but while I am here, it is mine to keep. I keep it well, by which I mean that I do not impose my presence on its plan. The rain is free to come and go, and the jackdaws in an upper room. I do not require the house to take its reference from me. But the wind is a different matter. There, I have no choice.

It's not a question of ghosts, though this has crossed my mind. But a door closing, a shadow on the wall, or the sound of footfalls on a wooden floor can do this too, though more predictably. The impulsive, sudden noise upsets me not at all. But the gratuitous half-notes of the wind unnerve me because they suggest not a moment, but a life recurring in this place, in which I might play a part.

This cannot be. The wind appears to be always reaching for me. Regardless of where I hide, it will find me out to level invitations at my head. Too often, I cannot resist, and must observe my breath collude, my skin attend on its insidious blaze. In this way, I am taken up, pitched past my course of guiltlessness. Involved, against my judgement and my will.

The wind is merciless, seems fired by something stronger than revenge. When I think of it, I picture a small child locked out, glaring at the intimate scene within. Inside, the others are determined to refute his punishment, but can think of nothing else. Though they sit with their backs to the window, and talk forcibly of weather and news, they feel only his fury, his brandished hurt. The wiser among them know that they will pay for this, and will go on paying beyond atonement, forgiveness and guilt.

*

If I think of it. Though there are times when I am pierced by it, - times when I must bend with or against it to survive - there are moments also, days sometimes, when it forsakes this house. At such times, I think I love this place. When it returns, it brings with it the usual desolation. This is not as it should be: I have done nothing and forebear to be the one who must endure the consequences of another life which I have not lived, which is not contained in me.


I pay my dues. I will leave this house exactly as it was before I came. My gift to this house will be this: that I have imagined it as it might have been. I have travelled the rooms and seen in each a sequence of restored indulgences. I have replaced the furniture, the drapes, the rugs, the oils: I am working on the fabric of the house, but the plaster moulds, the trompe d'oeil and the intricate labyrinth of walls and glass do not come easily to me. I have no prior knowledge of this sort of thing. Nevertheless, the rooms are taking shape.

How do I work? I take what is there, and elaborate. Where nothing remains, I extemporise, hoping for the best. Colour is my strong point: I have made an extravagant weave of advancing and receding shades named fantastically, the names of certain winds. The hall is a Sirocco Red and the library, Zephyr Blue. For the dining room, I chose a Mistral Green, for the bedroom, Monsoon. In this way, I hope to mollify the wind, or at the very least, to draw it from me.

The kitchen is my favourite room, now that I've done it over. The rows of crockery and copper pots are immensely comforting to me. I who have never known the like of this. And food - I may have been extravagant in this - but I have imagined, amongst others, pheasants, grouse, snipe, venison, partridge, salmon, eel. Plenty. An abundance. Enough for a household and a possible party from the town. This room is where I mostly spend my days, assisting at the busiest hour. I have learned to turn a hand to bechamel sauce and can render an acceptable roux. It seems that I take comfort in the company, the rush, the camaraderie.

*

It's such a pity that it all must end - that my imagined grandeur must expire, as it has done before. If I could only stay, perhaps I might complete the task - might construe the house from top to toe in colours so appropriate that its right to exist would be beyond a doubt. But I have difficulties with some rooms. As a rule, I am at home downstairs while the elegant, more composed apartments at times, I admit, confound me. Yet, I am, for the moment, sole possessor of this house. That there should be parts of it out of bounds strikes me as absurd. But there it is. I fear I must fail in my self-appointed role.
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