By Cyrine Sinti
Mother knows the importance of femininity. Its balance, its charm and its part in the forming of Human.
She sets the beer barrels against the walls one evening every month after closing, sweeping the floor of stray glass and bugs. She knows how precarious my steps are in those shoes we’ve wrapped in plain cloth and hidden under my bed. Away from Father, away from the world. I need a floor free of debris and obstacles.
Only Mother can promise me that.
I spend all day the faithful son of the Kenton family. Lifting barrels, throwing out ruffians, doing all the things that make men like me ‘achievements’ to failed men like my Father. He sits front and centre, each day, puffing his chest as if those medals he pins on to his filthy shirt are his and not his older brothers.
Lavender-painted paper wisteria Mother and I cut out last Christmas hung from the rafters. I liked the shadows it cast over our faces in candlelight. Ethereal glows in the darkness of secrecy and London. Footsteps hurrying past above as if this is a city of significance and not just a hovel of debt and rats.
“He’s asleep” Mother hobbles down the wooden stairs holding a pillowcase of clothes and powders. As I’m flowering, she’s withering. I always pray she will stay alive long enough to see me in full bloom. When I can stand behind the counter at ‘Kenton’s Pub and Inn’ with rouge on my cheeks and frills on my cuffs. She coughs as she sets down the pillowcase, admiring me.
“You would have loved your Auntie Sybil. She knew how to hide rough beards like yours.” She winked. My beard is a glorious homage to St George himself. Dragon-slaying and flag-wielding. I wonder if Mother sees Auntie Sybil in me, before she danced away to the farthest corners of Bohemia to live as Sybil and no longer as John-Timothy Thistleworth. My Grandmother openly declared me her penance for ‘idling by while my darling baby lived in the agony of rigid britches’. She threw all she had at me and nurturing my bud of Woman.
Embroidered gowns, frilled parasols and china sets. That was all we needed to begin the IOF society.
Mother handed me my favourite dress. A jewelled lilac gown with thick yellow thread work and satin, yellow gloves to match. I disappeared behind a row of stacked barrels near the entryway. Designed to act as a screen for dressing and preparing in case there were some, like I, who were not yet ready to peacock ourselves to the world.
“Let me do your lips, please! You always look like you’ve had one too many jam tarts.” Mother laughed.
“Mother, why don’t you join us tonight?” Like a ritual so practised its true origins were lost to the ticks of time, I asked. I knew her answer. ‘No’. She thought I put it down to her needing to keep Father away from the basement. But I knew it was because she felt like an imposter. An intruder, a boaster. She always declined.
“No, no. I have places to go for all this, these nights are for you. You enjoy yourselves.” Her soft face peeking behind the barrels, brandishing her pot of red lipstick. Swiping my adult lips with the same tenderness as she would wipe milk from my new-born lips. She finished and we held each other’s gaze for longer than most would feel comfortable. But we were comfortable. We were content. We were rivals in proclaiming ourselves the luckiest for having the other.
She kissed my hair and carried on setting up the large table we bought especially for our tea-parties. Pristine white cloth dotted with the handfuls of fresh rose petals Mother insisted on sprinkling down before layering lilac lace on top – the unapologetic whimsy was all her work.
“You’re better than me at this” I said as I filled the teapots with flavoured teas we made ourselves from crushed tealeaves and juiced fruit.
“No. I’m just more confident.” Mother said as she piled handmade sandwiches and cakes in large, lace-covered platters. “You’ll get there too. You’re a shy girl now, like a teenager discovering herself, but you’ll blossom like all women do.”
It seemed funny calling an adult man a teenage girl. But I spent all month waiting for the chance to be myself and then I’d spent the first half of the evening doubting myself and wanting to be in the comfort of crying silently in my bedroom.
Finally we were done. People had started to arrive and dress behind the barrels.
“Here!” Mother held my shoes in her hands. She’d discarded the plain cloth and polished the lilac shoes until they were glistening. Glistening!
I cupped her small face in my hands and squeezed gently. She looked watery eyed, as if holding back the urge to choke as perfume wafted past the barrels where more and more people were dressing.
“I’ll keep him away. You have fun!” Mother waved and left as women filled the basement. Greetings, gowns and glamour. Our nights were always special. I slid on the shoes, now loosened enough where I don’t need to pull them on with prayer and tears.
Mother had let the vinyl scratch to life with our chosen song. Saltarello. Father saw it as status and boasted his son was classically minded, he boasted he was lulled to sleep by high society music. But Mother and I knew the life it breathed into me.
I noticed a new face. A slightly bruised new face. I recognised it almost instantly as the drunken face I had to box about the ears for wrestling an entire tray of meat yesterday from my hands and dropping it instantly. Gingerly approaching her I spoke in a low voice, “I do apologise for-”
“Not to worry. It gave me a chance to try a thicker rouge you see.” She shrugged and batted her fan a few times.
I began to object but I felt the room quieten down. I followed everyone else’s gaze to Josephine Port.
Josephine, renowned as the prettiest girl in London town, appeared behind the barrels timidly. She held her father’s pipe and bit her lip.
“Here….” one of the women pulled her arm out of sight. They emerged minutes later with Josephine wearing a top hat and silk sash around her waist to hold her father’s jacket in place. “It’s Joseph’s first tea-party, so let’s be kind!” the woman clapped.
Joseph strode to the centre as admiring women fawned over him. I rang the little bell that began our evenings. Pretty painted faces looked excitedly at me. The atmosphere of barely restrained liberty and expression had turned a grimy pub basement amongst London’s rough tenements into Versailles for men who preferred rouge and women who preferred pipes.
“Ladies and Gentlemen…. Let us take our seats!” I flourished.
Fabric rustling against each other, perfumes intimately intertwined – we were one. The table was laid with Grandmother’s china tea-set. I carried two heaving trays of various teapots, grateful for the reaching hands that placed them delicately atop the lace-covered table.
Fruit teas, jam sandwiches and cream cakes. Teapots, platters and lace-pinned petals. This was elegance in our world. We drank from precious cups and saucers as we gently took dollhouse spoonful’s of cake, preferring to remain hungry than ruin our make-up.
Polite chatter trickled into outrageous gossip. Friendly advice. Salacious fantasy.
Drunk on fruit tea and gorged on fruit cake, we wanted something more.
We stood, pushed the table as far as it could go without breaking Grandmother’s china and turned our attention to the wide, clear floor. Holding each other the ways we were forbidden under threat of prison, death, damnation. Looping arms with one but ending with another. Encircling each other like ancient worshippers.
Music washed over me, Mother’s acceptance washed over me, this mutual love that knew no gender, no language, no creed, no race washed over me. Drowning me, baptising me.
Joseph hooked me with surprising strength and inches from each other our eyes were brighter than we’d ever seen.
I spun round with such ecstasy, I needed to lean against the sturdy stairs to catch my delicate breath. Joseph looped arms with another and disappeared in the mass of stifled giggles, lace and dusts of perfumed powder. I had created this.
This pure, sweetened freedom. This happiness was all I could gorge on. Tankards of beer, platters of meat could never fill me the way this feeling could. If this was how life had to be, then so be it. I would live only for these moments. Mother and I setting up Eden for those born too soon in a time of imposed roles, wills and misery.
This moment that would sustain us all as we drudged through laborious days pretending women’s perfume excited us for carnal reasons and not vanity.
A muffled cough at the top of the stairs caught my attention. Mother, I began to shout to her to join us, but she was lost. Staring dreamily into the crowd. Swaying gently to the music as she clutched Auntie Sybils white hankie. I wanted to hold her and crush her with my love, pride, respect. I settled for watching her with love-filled eyes and a promise to make her the juiciest steak I could find tomorrow.
Her eyes were glazed. Clutching the hankie ever tighter. She coughed again; I began to ask if she needed a drop of water. I thought I did. In my memories I did ask her. In later life, in my retellings to my wife and four children, Mother said no to joining my friends and I in our drunken poker game and quietly passed away in bed that night.
Instead of spluttering blood into Auntie Sybil’s hankie and clutching the banister before falling forward. Landing at my polished heels in a crumpled heap with terror of death forever frozen on her soft face as the Saltarello played on.
Cyrine Sinti is a writer and dancer. She loves sharing her German and Gypsy cultures through fiction and is passionate about folklore and mythology. She is influenced by Slovakian as well as English beauty and heritage. Cyrine has been published in Crepe & Penn, Periwinkle Lit Mag, Analogies & Allegories Lit Mag and others.