Including the award-winning ‘La Scala Inflammata’, this collection brings together published and unpublished stories: each a delicate tribute to the minutiae of life and love, and each a profound meditation on the true, often unsettling, desires people hide beneath the veneer of social convention.
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About the Author
Christine Harrison was born on the Isle of Wight. She lives and writes on the west coast of Wales, which has been her home for many years. Her award-winning short fiction has brought her national acclaim and recognition. She won the Cosmopolitan Short Story Award with ‘La Scala Inflammata’ which was then published in an anthology, The Best of Cosmopolitan Fiction, and she has been a contributor to many anthologies of women’s writing from Wales. Fig and the Flute Player, Christine’s debut novel, was published by Parthian in 2014.
Read an Excerpt
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
By Christine Harrison
ParthianCopyright © 2017 Christine Harrison
All rights reserved.
Moths Don't Have Nests
'Try it on,' he said in an offhand way.
A moth flew out as he shook it. He held it out, opening up the pale heavy satin lining to view.
At this my heart beat a little faster.
'Has the moth got it?' I sounded as if it didn't matter one way or the other. 'There was a moth. Did you see it fly out?'
'Only one,' he said, then, 'try it on.' He held it out now as if offering an embrace. I slipped myself inside it – it felt different from any coat I had ever worn. Putting on this coat, I was wrapped at once in all the queer bitterness of the past.
'I wonder if there's a moth's nest,' he said, putting his head inside the wardrobe's cavernous space. He folded back the wardrobe door so that I could see myself in its long looking-glass. I fastened the single button of the coat. This fantastically elegant woman in the mirror looked at me.
'Moth's don't have nests,' I said rather absently.
The coat was circa 1920 but in perfect nick. Fur trimmed at neck, cuffs and hem. Voluptuous but not vulgar ... I felt unusually lady-like in it.
'Smells sort of spicy in there,' he said. 'Nutmeggy. Not moth balls anyway.'
'Mmm.' I pressed the fur cuff to my nose. 'I really like that smell.' The cloth was the colour of a cut-open nutmeg and with a grain like that too.
'It suits you,' he said. 'You look very posh.'
'Will you wear it?' His voice trailed off inside the wardrobe again. 'Books, books, books,' he was saying in a muffled voice. When we bought the house this huge old wardrobe had understandably been left. It wasn't empty.
'Calf bound,' he said smugly. 'Smollet. Gold leaf. Most of the pages still uncut by the look of it. Blast. One volume missing. Blast.' He sat back on his heels, looking at his find.
'Possibly. Probably,' I said. 'Yes, of course I'll wear it.' But perhaps I shouldn't wear it that afternoon to visit my friend with her new baby in hospital. If I picked the baby up it might be sick on it.
I would look all right bringing the flowers though. Lilies perhaps would go. Red carnations would look very nice.
'Does Helen like carnations?'
'How the hell should I know?' He had found something else. 'Another book. Russian. Handmade. Just after the revolution I'd say. There was this state-run craft movement. Look at those dyes.'
I looked over his shoulder. It was a fairy story book: 'Baba Yaga and the Fence made of Human Bones'; 'The Frog Prince'. He turned the pages with careful fingers.
'I wonder who she is,' he said. We were looking at this beautiful hero girl, fur-hatted and with a coat not unlike the one I was wearing. Underneath it she had on a dress of deepest blood-red. There was a certain look about her of confident savagery, of perhaps ambivalent sexuality, of being part of the natural world and yet having a sophistication that was strange and attractive.
'I don't know who she is,' I said.
We stared at the Russian text which held the answer to the mystery. I felt that I had met her somewhere before. This was no doubt because of the coat I was wearing, in which messages were stitched with invisible stitches. These messages have changed my thoughts.
'Stephen, I must go to the florist,' I said. 'It's nearly visiting time. Will you come?' He was looking through all the little drawers inside the wardrobe and did not answer. 'I'll be off then,' I said as I swept out.
The thing is you can't do that – sweep out – in a modern coat. It would be too lightweight for one thing. A lovely wool and cashmere coat is warm, light as a feather, but has an ephemeral, minimalist feel. This coat had an erotic weight to it and wearing it I was a different woman.
It wasn't a restrictive eroticism, like a corset for example. The coat was loose and easy to wear; I could take long strides in it. I could have done cartwheels in it were I capable of doing cartwheels. At the same time it was heavy and nun-like and hid my body. I loved that.
I picked up the skirt with one hand as I ran down the front steps. Off to the florist to see what red carnations would look like with my coat.
There was a chilly wind. I could have done with gloves as the coat had no pockets. I comforted my cold hands with little strokes of the fur cuffs.
After all I took chrysanthemums to the hospital because of their wintry smell.
'Helen thinks the coat is ravishing,' I told Stephen. 'She wanted it off my back, she said why don't I give it to Christie's to auction.'
'Is that what she said?' His voice was interested but sarcastic as he helped me out of it.
'Or donate it to the costume museum,' I muttered.
I knew I would take no notice of either suggestion. And yet, oh dear, the weight of the past hung on me, it made my shoulders ache. I rubbed them. Please let me have transitory things. China I can smash; things that won't last. Paperback books I can lend to people who won't return them. Actually, I've always wanted to live in a tent. And here was Stephen finding more treasures: old cruets and things.
'I shall wear the coat to the concert tonight,' I said. After its years in the dark wardrobe I would take it on an outing that was befitting. In the abbey, listening to Monteverdi, everything would feel perfectly right.
And so it did. Walking up the nave in the interval, I put my arm through Stephen's and he patted my hand. We stopped and spoke to friends. Mary smoothed my fur collar. 'Mink?' she asked in a soft voice.
'She says they've been dead for ages,' said Stephen. 'Anyway, I rather like my wife wearing fur.'
I took the coat off.
'Are you too warm, darling? Shall we take a turn outside before the Finzi?'
I put the coat around my shoulders like a cloak. Cloaks are different. Quite different. Actually, it was a cloak the girl in the Russian book had. That was how you could see her blood-red dress. I was that girl – though my frock was not red but green. Not blood-red but forest-green.
I put the coat on properly though, to settle into our uncomfortable wooden pew. As the orchestra tuned up I thought I could catch the faint rustle of those stitched-in messages ... I couldn't make out what they were about. Perhaps they were in a foreign language. It was a relief to listen to the Finzi. I withdrew both hands into the furry cuffs and clasped them together. It was like having a mink muff.
I sighed and Stephen put his foot against mine. He gets quite bored in concerts if they're playing anything later than eighteenth century.
Anyway, I managed to give my attention to the music for a while. But occasionally other thoughts drifted across. It would be best to wear my coat only when going to certain places. Cathedrals. Especially nice tea shops. That sort of thing.
After the concert it was lovely going out of the abbey into the cold starry night and feeling warm, rich, and civilised.
But when the cold February weather became even colder and tempted me into wearing the coat to the supermarket my latent snobbery surfaced, making me despise the plastic-wrapped cheese and the mixed bunches of frightful flowers, and, well, practically everything.
'I must buy myself a practical coat,' I told Stephen. 'I haven't got a really warm winter coat – only this one.'
I was unpacking my purchases onto the kitchen table, which was littered with ornaments, books, and pictures – more of Stephen's wardrobe finds.
'If you want to help,' he said, 'put the cat food and the baked beans down that end, don't mix it all up. I'm trying to sort out what to keep. What about this thing?'
It was a sampler. They always made my heart sink. I wondered if it had been worked by the owner of the coat when she was a child. 'Susan Butler, aged twelve. 1889. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt.'
'We'll sell it,' I said. 'And I'll take that cruet. And that vase thing.'
'We'll keep the books,' said Stephen.
'I don't think we're going to read Smollet.'
'They'll look good on the shelves. What about the Russian book? We should have it valued.'
'Keep,' I said. I turned the pages to find the girl in the cloak and the red dress. She looked alive, as if about to speak.
'We could learn Russian,' I said.
'You can if you like.'
I put the Russian book in the Keep pile.
'Look,' I said, 'I'm going into Bath and I'll take the things we don't want.'
'What about the coat?'
'I'm wearing it.'
'It seems to make you cross.'
'Don't be ridiculous,' I said. 'Help me out to the car, will you, I can't live with this clutter another minute.'
I took the country road.
Halfway there, after I had driven about five miles, I came to a place that always held a frisson for me. I didn't know why. It was moorland fringed with hazel coppice and reeds. It always looked different. In spring there were king cups. Now, on this cold, still winter's afternoon, the sky was richly coloured as if painted with deep dyes: ochre, cobalt blue and indigo.
I switched on the car headlights which picked up the eyes of sheep standing by the crossroads sign nearby. I saw a van disappearing in a cloud of smoke down the Bath road.
Then, standing there against the coloured sky, I saw a girl. I changed gear and slowed down.
She was just standing there in that desolate landscape. She didn't look lost. She looked as if she owned the place. Owned the world, in fact.
She was tall and had masses of hair, some of it in a wonderful frizz and some of it plaited into very thin plaits and twisted round her head like a crown or tiara. I slowed right down.
On the ground beside her was a cat in a cage. That settled it: I stopped.
'Yes, thanks.' She picked up the cat in the cage.
'Nice cat. Is it for sale?'
She didn't answer but started lacing up her long boots with the string that kept them together, sorting herself out to trek to wherever she thought she was going. I reckoned the driver of the van had left her there suddenly, or she had jumped out, half-dressed, in some sort of rage.
I started the car up.
'Hang on,' she said. I waited while she finished lacing her boots and wound a scarf round her waist. She got in and put the caged kitten on her lap.
'I'm going into Bath,' I said. 'Any good?'
'That's where that sod is going.' She had some sort of accent. Scottish, Glaswegian perhaps. 'He'll be round about the abbey square. I'll catch up with him.'
Her anger and the cold air had flushed her cheeks. She had a faint exotic smell – it wasn't patchouli. I was glad as patchouli gives me a headache. The little cat had set up a persistent meowing, showing tiny sharp teeth like little fish bones. She poked her finger in the cage and it chewed her already bitten-raw skin. The backs of her hands were scratched to pieces.
We travelled in silence. She did not seem to want to talk, sitting there eaten up with her thoughts. I felt the satin lining of my coat against my ankles as I changed gear, and the soft fur on my wrists. I felt more relaxed in my coat beside this ragged muddy woman than at any time I had worn it. She made me feel properly dressed. Was it because she just didn't care or notice, in her outlaw sort of way?
After a while she calmed down a bit.
'I've never seen a cat in a cage before,' I told her.
'Haven't you?' she said, as if there were probably a lot of things I hadn't seen. I could feel her, from time to time, giving little glances at my coat.
'Nice coat,' she said at last.
'I'm not entirely sure about it,' I said.
'Oh, I don't know. Feels too much like ... I don't know.' How could I explain my ambivalent relationship with a coat?
'I had this great hat once,' she said. 'I lost it at Glastonbury. It had magpie feathers in it.'
'Look,' I said. We were coming down into Bath. It looked like a city that had been sacked, smoke rising straight up in the still air to the darkening sky streaked with thin lines of colour.
'I'll see if there's room in the car park.' Unusually, there was plenty of room. It was so cold and there was such a feeling of bad weather to come, everyone must have been at home by their fires. Or perhaps the place had been sacked.
As the girl got out of the car she bent over to put the cat cage on the ground while she wound her scarf round her again. Her skirt was fastened with a huge pin at the back and the zip was broken. She appeared to be naked underneath – I had a glimpse of white goose-pimply flesh. I wondered if she had anything at all on under the old skirt and the shrunken Fair Isle jumper with its several moth holes. She stood up and fastened the scarf across her chest and round her waist. Already her hands were blue with cold. A snowflake drifted down from the sky like a message on a piece of paper.
I got out of the car and took off the coat.
'I don't want this,' I said. 'Have it.'
She looked it over carefully as if buying from a dodgy fur trader.
'Try it on anyway,' I said. I felt light. I felt a weight drop from me. I would buy a new coat in Bath that I could take charge of; that would not control me.
She put it on and I knew it was a splendid thing I was doing, giving it to her. The coat revealed who she really was. And I knew it would give her the strength to fight her corner when she caught up with the sod in the abbey square. It would be a weapon for her. It gave her a barbaric swagger. The real animal fur was even part of it. She looked bloody marvellous.
She strode off with the cat, the coat undone, flying out behind her; her wonderful hair and the boots done up with string: going into battle.
I knew she wouldn't look after it. She was never going to hang the coat up carefully in a wardrobe. She would probably fling it on the bed at night for extra warmth. The cat would curl up in the mink collar on winter nights. It would start to smell smoky from a wood-burning stove. The moth would eventually get at it. I was glad.CHAPTER 2
Coquette au Café
Reaching out, she touched him ever so lightly on the arm.
'It's you,' she said.
She felt that, if she let him pass by, she would never see him again.
Her fingers blindly searched her purse. The flower-seller was wrapping mimosa in cellophane.
'Just a minute. I must pay for my flowers. What are you doing here?' There was a dark, unsteady jump in her voice.
'Paying for your flowers,' he said.
'Yes, thanks. Thanks.' Paying for her flowers was not the same as buying her flowers.
He should have walked on, he supposed, but it was too late. Especially as, in reaching over with the money, his hand accidentally touched her wrist. He had not seen her for six years.
'I always buy the first mimosas I set my eyes on,' she said.
They stood there on the pavement, not really knowing what came next. There was a faint impatience between them, whether to go or linger.
'I had one or two things to do up here,' he said. They began walking slowly away from the High Street and turned into an alleyway which was quieter, where they could think what to do, after six years.
The alleyway, with its small shops, was darker as well as quieter. They passed the second-hand bookshop and a couple of antique shops, their pace becoming even slower. Someone suddenly switched on a light in the window of the French pâtisserie, one bright window in the gathering dusk in that dim alleyway. The shops on either side had already closed early this winter's afternoon.
But the pâtisserie was lit up. It was a window of perfection. All the little cakes were sitting there in their frilly paper cases, all so different, so tempting, so seductive with their glamorous icings and pretty decorations, waiting there in the window.
'There's a room in the back,' she said. 'Let's go in.' She laughed at his look of alarm. 'It's a sort of tea-room,' she said. 'Let's have a cup of tea.'
She meant, Let me lick out an éclair, light as air. Let me taste an orangey madeleine or one of those chocolaty things. Come buy, come buy, her thoughts tried to whisper in his ear. He pushed the door open for her. It made a silvery bell ring. Elfin bell. Goblin bell.
But there was a screen across the little tea-room.
'It's closed, madam,' said the woman behind the counter, 'and the shop's closing soon.'
Her face was closed too: a 'seen it all before' sort of face. There was a notice on the folding screen saying 'Tea-Shop Closed'. The notice was pinned on, a last minute thought; a sign saying Not this way, not here. Somewhere else, perhaps. Go up to the end of the alleyway, turn right.
'Let's take a cake home,' she said suddenly, not looking at him as she spoke. 'We'll have a pot of tea and just one cake each. Only one, mind.'
She had a funny strict look – he remembered it.
She shifted her flowers onto her other arm, her coat falling back from her wrist. The yellow flowers and green leaves slid inside the crackling cellophane as under a skin of ice.
'I must leave you now,' he said, 'or I shall be late.'
Their eyes met at last.
'Oh, well, it doesn't matter that much,' he sighed. 'It can wait.'
She smiled. 'Choose your cake,' she said. 'What about one of those apricot things? Or frangipane? You like almonds; I do remember that.'
But there were so many little cakes. How to choose just one? The cake tongs in the woman's hand hovered over the scallop-shelled madeleines, éclairs, cigarette russes with ends dipped in chocolate and chopped pistachios, the pretty tartelettes aux fruits with their glazed black and white grapes, wild strawberries, cherries and loganberries, and all the other sweet little tempting things. All of them waiting to be gobbled up.
Excerpted from Red Roses for a Blue Lady by Christine Harrison. Copyright © 2017 Christine Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsAbout the Author,
About Janet Thomas,
Foreword by Janet Thomas,
Moths Don't Have Nests,
Coquette au Café,
Come, My Darlings,
La Scala Inflammata,
Red Roses for a Blue Lady,