I used to ride a horse that shied at his shadow. But maybe it was because he could see my shadow sitting on his. When I was seven, my father said he had something important to tell me. I had to sit nicely, and he announced that he was going to marry the latest young nanny. It didn’t seem so important to me. I thought he was going to tell me something I would like. Something me. After all, I was at the centre of my universe. Shadows are all about where the sun is in your orbit.
My husband began to see our sons once a fortnight. I’d drop them off at his brother’s flat, and after he got a house with his woman, the boys would stay on Saturday night.
My father put a sundial on a plinth in our garden. When my brother and I were in the woods, I could tell the time by the length of shadows. We used to blow dandelion seed-heads to see if it was true that they could tell the time. The French word for dandelion is pissenlit – piss in bed. I wondered if it was the dandelions that made my brother wet his bed.
A few months later, my husband declared himself bankrupt. The house was in negative equity. I began divorce proceedings.
Reflections are like shadows on shiny surfaces. Now I am reflecting on the subject of shadows. How funny words can be. My shadow used to jump all over the cracks in the pavement. Once with my big black dog in the orchards, I came across a burnt-out car, alarmed when I saw it so out of place. Rust, and the burnishing of flame, had patterned its surface orange and blue. Inners of seats were a maze of ringlets. A hail of tiny glass cubes caught the sunlight, and the tyres were just a fine wire mesh. An apple fell and rolled onto the border of scorched earth. A green trail of columbine tangled its way over the engine.
My little business continued to grow, despite Thatcher’s political and economic crisis. I was asked if I could repair antique dolls too.
It never occurred to me that the young nannies weren’t nannies. After all, we had our regular nanny, the one we called Auntie. She wore a floral pinnie and smelt of lavender polish and cake. She came every day to clean and cook. She gave us raw egg beaten in milk, because it would make us strong, and if we were peckish, sugar sandwiches, which reminded me of seaside picnics. Auntie was petite and practical. Her hair was always in curlers under a blue kerchief. She wasn’t good at answering questions, but very good at brushing my hair and homemade remedies for our childhood ailments.
I was running a hospital for injured and misused playthings – restoring childhood memories to the sentimental. I did it with true dedication and sensitivity, and felt my father would have approved of my neat racks of honey-handled tools. I liked old tools, and collected them too. I like the smooth wear and polish the craftsman’s hands have left. Tools like that are dependable.
My father smoked a pipe. I tried my first smoke at primary school in the shadows behind the new prefab classrooms. We had some blue Basildon Bond writing paper and dried sycamore leaves. It left us choking. Later we tried a good-size dog-end we’d found. My friend’s granddad had a shadow on his lung. She said it was because of smoking. Sometimes at night, to entertain my brother, I’d make shadow animals by torchlight on the wall. I’d use my hands and fingers to make a rabbit, and he would make one too, and our rabbits would fight. Then we’d hear someone coming, turn off the torch and pretend to be asleep. For six dolly mixtures, I showed a boy my wee-wee in the shadows behind the prefab classrooms.
BBC local radio called and asked if I would like to do a monthly live phone-in as their resident expert. I went to their studios, my stomach in knots, my hands shaking, and answered calls, mostly about values, letting people down gently, and tried not to make noises into the microphone when I said words beginning with p.
At weekends, my father would take us to London in his car. My stepmother sat beside him, wearing a fur coat, silk headscarf and gloves up to her elbows. She shaded her eyes with dark wing-shape glasses. As we drove through our village, some people would wave. I felt proud of our car. My father said it was vintage, and called a Bentley. He said it used to belong to a bandleader. It had big chrome headlamps, running boards, a hood like a pram, and wasn’t like any other car we saw. My stepmother said she’d prefer a Silver Shadow.
Sometimes before I got dressed, I’d study my body in the mirror. I was in good shape, though late thirties. A continental skin-type had saved me from stretch marks after pregnancies, and I’d stayed toned. A little underweight since my husband had gone, but I liked the effect. All going to waste, I thought, turning sideways and thrusting out my chest.
A boyfriend introduced me to the music of Cat Stevens. My favourite song was Moonshadow – ‘Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. Did it take long to find me, and are you gonna stay the night?’ Cat Stevens looked like Holman Hunt’s Jesus. I spent a long time gazing into the brown eyes of his picture, and read and re-read every lyric on the lp cover. And when I was sixteen, I saw the rock band Uriah Heep. I’d never seen musicians live. The lead singer wore a cheesecloth shirt with voluminous sleeves. When he held his arms out, the light from behind gave him angel wings, shining too through his long curly hair, making a halo. I had found my religion.
A free paper arrived every week. It had a lonely hearts’ column. One advert stood out, so I replied, dreaming of a refined man to give us a new life. I got no response.
When I was little, grown-ups who visited, or talked to my father outside Sunday-school, would exclaim about my long eyelashes. The comments annoyed me, so one day I cut them off. It was the oddest feeling to have no lashes. My nickname in my late teens was ‘panda-eyes’ because I used so much dark eye-shadow, liner and mascara. I studied pictures of Twiggy and other models to copy their eye makeup. I plucked out my eyebrows and drew them in higher, arched in permanent surprise. Lipstick was white. I wore my suede mini-skirt with thigh-length platform boots and a big floppy hat.
So I placed my own advert: ‘Attractive, artistic woman, seeks similar man’. To access replies, one had to phone a central number, dial in a personal code, then listen to the recorded voices. There were fifty messages.
Foreshadowing is a literary device. Really it should be called fore-illuminating, because it tells you something in the future of a story. For instance, if I were to tell you at this point that the introduction of a stepmother was to bring great misery, pain, and ultimately tragedy to this story, I have foreshadowed its direction. My stepmother brought a shadow over our cottage, one that starved our growing of light. But like all dark clouds throwing shadows on hills and grazing lambs, they pass. Nothing is forever.
At first, I was alarmed by my friends’ warnings of shady characters, out to abduct and murder women. I followed the advice and always met my blind date in a public place. I enjoyed the preparation, the dressing, the makeup, the anticipation.
Why are disreputable characters called shady? Is it because they lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce – a Dick Tracy baddie, eyes indiscernible under the brim of a homburg. Or is it a rapper rhyming the unspeakable – Slim Shady, won’t you please stand up? Vampires prefer the shadows. To them the light is fatal. As the genre has progressed, their stories have become overtly sexual, but I preferred the intangible tingle I had as a child, watching Christopher Lee lift the swooning, white chiffon-draped body of a virgin, her neck exposed as he drew back his lips to reveal those cruel fangs…
So many with broken hearts. So many traded-in for younger, richer, fitter models. A succession of sob-stories who WLTM someone with a GSOH, preferably with their OHAC – auditioning the short-listed for their suitability to administer plenty of TLC.
In art lessons I was taught the importance of shadows, the way they grounded a thing – gave it substance. But sometimes the substance steps away from its shadow, like Cliff Richard did with The Shadows. Then Hank Marvin shone. And in music, literature, architecture, they speak of light and shade – the need for contrasts, for definition, the two working together like good and evil. Would one know how to identify the former without the latter, or vice-versa? Would we know we were happy, if we had never been sad?
I was on the edge of giving-up on blind dates. But then there was a voice. A soft voice – confident without being arrogant. A voice with laughter. If I had been Goldilocks, and that voice porridge, it would have been just right.
Sometimes we need to shade our eyes – blinded by a low winter sun too near the horizon. Not like the summer sun, high in its prime, bluebird sky, causing our shadows to all but disappear. Sometimes we shade them into a sunset, astonished by the fire-heart clouds, burning with a fever that would frazzle long tall shadows, turning them all into trail blaze.