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Shakespeare's Daughter
By Mary Burke

"This is Lucia, " the nurse whispers to the two young scholars peering through the curtains that are supposed to give an old woman privacy, "I'm sure I don't need to tell you who her famous Irish daddy was." The men nod, staring at me baldly as though I cannot see them.

They say I'm mad, but they can't tell me that I'm blind. All these maniacs have stolen my father from me, for his face recedes further and further while hers draws nearer.

Why do I remember Shakespeare's wife, but not Shakespeare himself?

As the limbo hour of twilight descends and light begins to glow from within the apartment on rue de l'Universite, I stand on the veranda and watch my parents as they sit closely together, drinking wine and speaking of their day. They are unaware of my presence, presuming me to be elsewhere, if they think of me at all.

A girl of poor family from a tribal town in the storm-buffeted west, my mother had reserves of composure that I, continentborn, continent-bred and everanxious, can only be puzzled by.

My father's background you doubtlessly know much of already. My mother triumphed over my father in a way that I could not because she was blessed with a blithe disregard for authority and nuance, both of which amount to the same thing in the end. Little better than a skivvy when she discovered him, he found to his surprise (and that of the boon companions who advised him to bed her that she might wash his sheets after offering herself upon them) that she was not as obedient as his superior education prescribed.

She refused to read his writings unless nothing of greater interest was to hand . . . romance novels, entertainment periodicals, outof-date newspapers . . . and could only be very occasionally bribed to act as amanuensis.

Sometimes, when he'd angered her for reasons she refused to reveal to me, she deliberately memorised old and flawed versions of lines that he'd long revised to his satisfaction, which she insisted on quoting to his disciples as his latest work.

When a compelling monologue of my father's was hailed by a renowned psychiatrist as demonstrating unique insight into The Mind of Woman (he wrote it thus), my mother snorted derisively, though she had not read it at the time.

One day when she was bored, my mother finally lay down in her robe to read my father's Compelling Monologue Revealing The Mind of Woman, since everyone assured her that it was a remarkably insightful portrait of herself. She sighed with the effort of ploughing through the dense soil of his rich and tightly-packed prose, though she guffawed with delight at the racier meanderings of the narrator, which she read out loud to our heedless ginger-haired cat.

He lay on her feet, as she always encouraged him to do, for she coveted the silky warmth of his overfed and generally motionless body. The cat and my mother made for a well-matched pair during the long, oppressively hot days of summer when my father disappeared into the cool of the library, often lolling for hours together in a companionable silence broken only by the sound of lapping, when my mother allowed the creature to lower his face into the large bowl of chocolate she kept by the daybed.

He seemed to know instinctively when to awake, for it was always when it was time for my mother to fix herself some dainty or other. "That cat has a clock in its belly, " she'd comment with obvious admiration. For all his taste for luxury, the creature's appetites were admirably adaptable, however, for when we were reduced to eating nothing but boiled carrots at one particularly low point, he temporarily took to vegetarianism too, while the mice in the larder continued to breed without interference.

That particular afternoon, my mother lay on one well-padded hip and intermittently popped a bonbon into her mouth, a treat with which my grateful father had awarded her for finally agreeing to read the monologue.

She slowly mouthed aloud the descriptions of the sensuous, lazy narrator with a slightly puzzled look on her face, as if she wasn't quite convinced that the female described was much like herself.

Just as she seemed to have made up her mind that the woman might possibly resemble her a little, she scowled abruptly at a description of the narrator's soft curves. "For the love of Jaysus, " she sighed, flinging the manuscript with finality on top of a pile of discarded clothes, and turning her attention to making sure the cat didn't drink the last of her chocolate, "sure I'm not fat."

A moment later, my redheaded mother looked keenly at her supine animal doppelganger, as if seeing his flopping ginger fatness for the first time, and without warning, pushed him onto the floor. "You bloody lazy lump, " she shouted as her former companion in pleasure lay prone, both rapidly blinking eyes open simultaneously to daylight for the first time in weeks, his underutilised brain reeling from the unfamiliar velocity with which he had progressed through the air, "go and ate those mice that chewed through my flour bag yesterday." Quickly recovering from the indignity of sudden movement, the cat shook himself, and throwing my mother a look of withering disdain, he slowly exited the room.

The robust seasonings of the continent perplexed the boiled mutton tendencies of my mother's country and station.

She reheated the same soup day after day, gradually transubstantiating it from dirty water to mud. Looking back, I think perhaps she had slyly feigned incompetence that she might free herself from the servitude demanded of even the liberated wives and lovers of the male artists and writers in our enclave. My mother left the food to reheat and her daughter to crawl unattended in a dirty smock while she smoked and gossiped across the sunny veranda with Henri, the artist in the next apartment. Henri was free to chat because his wife sweated in the midday heat of the dank kitchen preparing the simple but delicious local cuisine.

Of course she would never have referred to herself as a 'housewife'. That was a dirty word used by the immoral bourgeoisie. No, Henri's wife was, as he liked to inform all-comers, both his goddess-muse and his radiant life model. That is to say, she sometimes leaned down from her pedestal in order to polish his shoes. "All wives are equal in the dark, " Henri whispered to my father when my mother was absent. Henri's wife (or whatever her true relation to him) was his fourth in as many years, and I knew from the speculative examination he gave my mother when she sat for a portrait that he was wondering if he could make her his fifth. "Lack of variety is the bane of creativity, " he whispered to my mother when my father was absent. It was probably Henri's need for good food that prevented him from making a serious play for my mother, however, for that speculative light died in his eyes the day he found her cooking a chicken without having removed the entrails usually considered unfit for human consumption, even in Bohemia.

At the time, when I howled for her attention and she remained absent, I resented my mother's slatternly ways immensely. She'd sworn never to handle a mop again the day she'd bundled her hated maid's uniform under a suburban bush when running off to the continent with my father, and considered any occasional lapse into her old profession an entirely unacceptable interruption of the early retirement she'd taken that happy morning. My mother was wise, for all her lack of education.

She once leafed through an enormous and very famous seventeen-hundred page encyclopaedia of household management by the stout and hectoring Mrs Beeton for a brief moment. She usually didn't bother groping around in the pile of cheap books my father always kept carefully in a heap on the floor (our shelves were reserved for the rare, leather-bound kind), but this volume she remembered having seen on the shelf of a housekeeper she'd worked under, and it piqued her interest. (My father had picked up this oddity in a flea market for his research:

the variety of trivia and nonsense he had to swallow in order to regurgitate his most complex novels was astounding. ) "It is not enough in cleaning furniture to pass lightly over the surface, "my mother began to slowly enunciate, "the rims and legs of tables, and the backs and legs of chairs and sofas should be rubbed vigorously daily; if there is a bookcase, every corner of every panel and ledge requires to be carefully wiped, so that not a speck of dust can be found in the room."

After about one minute, my mother put the book.

"Seventeen-hundred long and boring pages of pig's shite, " was her only response as she tossed it back onto the pile, "sure it's almost as bad as your father's stuff."

"Hey, Lucia, " she guffawed a moment later, pointing to the collapsing heap of volumes on the floor, "Go and clean your father's bookcase. I think I see a speck of dust."

My father was rarely bothered by the chaos, unless it involved his valuable volumes in some way. The only promptness urged in our household was in the timely return of the books he continually borrowed from the library, a task for which I was always delighted to volunteer.

And so, dust accumulated, the larder mildewed and rustled with mice, mattresses teemed with miniscule creatures, and skin itched and collected little bites at regular intervals. But we never received library fines.

Nobody cared that Henri sometimes polished his shoes with the corners of the tablecloth. In that humid climate and with water only available two flights down, what was the point in battling? "Besides, " my mother assured my father when an avalanche of his books and discarded manuscripts toppled onto the sleeping cat one winter's morning . . . the creature barely noticed . . . "cleaned rooms feel colder." However, I think she seriously considered Henri's very artistic suggestion that we dye our ginger cat black to make its all-pervading shed hair less conspicuous on our dark furnishings. My wise mother eventually wholly liberated herself from the tyranny of housework in the manner in which many women manage the task: she simply waited it out until my father's success was sure and we'd moved to a nicer apartment and could afford our very own maid.

"It's not that we owe the landlord rent, more than he doesn't realise yet that we are his distinguished guests, " my mother told me once. "So don't ever bother your father about rent or food or dust or missing furniture.

A genius doesn't worry about such things, apparently." She emphasised the final word with a raised eyebrow, so I knew she was quoting one of his adoring disciples. "And as for me, " she concluded briskly, "I don't care."

As she turned on her heel to leave the room, she stopped for a moment and added, "He'll notice if the wine runs too low, though, so always talk to us if you see that."

For my father, floating in his sea of allusions and metaphors as the little paper boats of his discarded drafts bobbed by, tidiness came after Art.

For my mother, tidiness came after Life.

The secret of my parents' relationship was not just that they loved each other. No, love is cheap; it is discarded every day.

No, their secret was that they liked each other. She had the insolent disregard for the hypocritical trappings of respectability of the former maid who'd literally aired her employer's dirty linen, while he could dismantle the duplicities of the Establishment in a manner in which only one who'd easily have been initiated into its ranks was capable of. In the warmth of the dark night, their entwined souls sniggered together at the false pieties of the world.

My mother was desirable to many men, or so my father liked to believe with an insistence that was both masochistic and swaggering. He swore that a scent more heady than anything that could be obtained from a bottle emanated naturally from my mother's skin as she moved, so that a trace of her always haunted the rooms she'd just abandoned. He could leave her for short periods only, for the invisible allurement that swayed about her clung to his clothes and caused him to instinctively return to her arms. She was a poem whose lines mutated with every hour, so that he could never be done with trying to fathom her meaning.

They fought with a viciousness that only really happy couples possess, and once left me behind on a tram when arguing about each other's spendthrift ways.

Every couple is a heavenly body that imagines itself alone in the universe, blithely uncaring that millions more like itself probably exist. Those whores who chased my father were mere meteorites that pockmarked the surface of their world occasionally, stray women who could never cause the cataclysm they'd envisaged. On entering the icily indifferent atmosphere of my mother's orbit, they shattered into fragments and lost their strength entirely. Of course, my mother always told me that she and my father had been destined to meet, so I suppose that I was the random element in the family, the lifeless moon caught in the inescapable magnetic field of the glowing planet. After all, they had chosen each other, but I was the outcome of a burst prophylactic.

They constituted an oasis of familiarity for each other amidst the ever-changing Bohemian scene, for there were so many things that did not need to be explained or translated, as was often necessary in the crosscultural chatter of that town. The humour they shared had evolved from the in-jokes and catchphrases of the long-ago era when they had begun to circle one other, and they conversed in a kind of short-hand I could never fully decipher, for I was conscious that the heavy ghosts of a secret history clung to every word of their ostensibly casual conversations.

How could I ever have thought to compete with a woman who had known my father so intimately and for so long?

They say that the face of the mother is the last thing one sees before dying, whether one loved her, hated her, or merely envied her.

Before I descend towards the glowing orb of life, I am momentarily suspended amid ice, solar dust, and stray feathers from angels' wings. I plummet in succession through the crowded realms of the dead, the sleeping, the drugged and the mad, through clouds, wisps of smoke, and the dying vibrations of church bells. A billion points of light rise upward to meet me, but I seek the radiance of one window alone.

As the limbo hour of twilight falls and light begins to glow from within the apartment on rue de l'Universite, I stand on the veranda and watch my mother as she sits alone, drinking wine. She is unaware of my presence, presuming me to be elsewhere, if she thinks of me at all.

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