‘Probably we had something in common which I shall never find in anyone else.’
– The Diary of Virginia Woolf, 16 January 1923
For Katherine M. with my LOVE and devotion.
For Claire Tomalin, for her excellent biography of K.
La Première Voyageuse
She is sitting beside me. She takes a packet of biscuits out of her handbag and offers me one.
‘No, thank you,’ I say.
In fact, I’m as hungry as a biscuit-crazy she-hound.
‘Go on,’ she says, ‘I can’t possibly eat all these on my own.’
My hand says Yes as I take a biscuit.
‘No, take more!’
I smile awkwardly. But my biscuit-craving hound of a hand is hungry and demonstrates this by grabbing six biscuits or possibly seven, I can’t remember now.
A man in uniform approaches and asks to see our tickets. He is fat, ugly and his dental hygiene is just atrocious. I feel for my ticket in my pockets.
‘Here,’ I say, but he is too busy staring at her to hear me.
She really is beautiful, even I could happily spend my life studying her. And those eyes . . . heavens! She has ‘the look of a Japanese doll’.
‘Just like Katherine Mansfield,’ Virginia would say if she were here.
She takes the ticket out of her purse and hands it to the man.
‘Would you like one?’ she says, offering him the packet of biscuits.
He accepts. I look at him with utter loathing, not that he notices. My she-hound of a hand tries to bite him, but, thinking better of it, merely gives him the ticket.
He leaves. The young woman is looking at me and gnawing her lower lip, which doubtless tastes of French cuisine.
‘Bon appétit, madame!’ I think, but am interrupted by a new offer of biscuits.
My she-hound of a hand takes two, shares one with my mouth and keeps the other one.
I remember that while looking for my ticket, I came across a small book in one of my overcoat pockets. I take it out and settle in to begin reading.
‘Oh, The Garden Party!’ she says. ‘I so enjoyed that story.’
‘Me too,’ I say, meanwhile thinking that her accent, when she says the word ‘party’, is similar to that of the girl who recites poems at the nightclub.
‘You like it, do you?’ she says.
‘I like you,’ I think, but manage only to lisp out a Yes.
I imagine standing in front of a mirror, giving myself a slap around the face for such gaucherie. I decide to say something, but she gets in first.
‘I’d love to read it again.’
I hand her the book.
‘You really don’t mind?’
‘No, not at all,’ I say.
She takes the book and starts to read. Katherine Mansfield has just stolen my chance to begin a conversation.
I closed my eyes and fell asleep. In my dream, I recalled her inviting me to have a cup of tea at her ‘garden party’ . . . that girl with the look of a Japanese doll. What a crazy dream! She really could be Miss Mansfield! She’s so beautiful. Her boyish haircut, among other things, really does remind me of her . . . sitting on the lawn . . . the taste of sweet tea and the tang of ginger fill me with joy . . . Suddenly, I don’t know how, we’re in a different place, behind the rose bush. You’re naked and dreaming, rather like the Sleeping Venus in the paintings by Giorgione and Titian, in precisely the same pose, with what looks to be a silken sheet in the foreground. One of the most beautiful pictures I’ve ever seen. You’re a goddess. I move closer. Now you’re Titian’s Venus of Urbino, but instead of lying in a luxurious room as you are in his painting, you’re still there in the garden, wide awake and looking at me like a very alluring geisha.
I like her hands. They’re touching me. At first, this gives me goosebumps, but only at first. I run my tongue between her fingers, as they caress my face . . . then my neck, my earlobe YES my shoulder YES my breasts YES my back YES my buttocks YES then my face again: beautiful fingers . . . they slide down to my . . . I’m alarmed to find, right there in front of us, various characters from Mansfield’s garden party: Laura giving instructions to four workmen on where to place the marquee . . . Another Laura, who was in fact the same one, eating a slice of bread and butter while she gazes at a boy. Then she runs off . . .
They don’t appear to notice us. They vanish, and we are left alone. Now that I analyse it, those characters from the ‘garden party’ were only here in order to underline the sense of intimacy, the splendour, rather like the two servants working away in the background of the Venus of Urbino.
I caress her. I hear the playful tinkle of piano keys and someone singing a sentimental song. We are sitting inside the marquee now, sipping tea. I offer her a sprig of lilac, which she accepts, smiling, as she holds it to her nose, enjoying the scent.
‘I love this part,’ she says, interrupting my daydream and turning to me. ‘Listen:
‘He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that – caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing. Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?’
We both laughed out loud. Our eyes met. This time, I savour the taste of my own lips, rather shyly. Not that she noticed.
‘That’s such a great scene,’ I say, and she nods. ‘You know, we haven’t even introduced ourselves, I don’t even know your name’ – although I only think this last part.
‘It’s better like that, exchanging names might break the spell,’ she would say.
She resumes her reading. I watch her discreetly. While she’s reading, I have the distinct impression that she’s also watching me out of the corner of her eye. God, I’m ridiculous!
You look like her, like Kathleen or Kass as almost everyone calls you.
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