Tag Archives: Water Wings

“Good thoughts will shine out of your face like sunbeams”

William Kilburn's 1777 watercolour shows the dandelion in all its elegance.

I got a note this morning from a friend, telling me that N has been regaling her daughter AW with stories of Harry Potter. And now AW and her family are reading Harry Potter before the lights go out and again at the breakfast table. And it occurred to me that good books are like dandelion seeds that just keep on floating and finding new homes. Not that good books are common, but that they are enduring. N has been asking about the meaning of the word “classic” lately, and dandelion seeds might make a good analogy. (In my mind, dandelions are a classic flower.)

Since I last posted about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we have carried on with our Roald Dahl mission. We’ve made our way through James and the Giant Peach, then The Twits, and are now halfway through Matilda. I remain a loyal Dahl fan, though The Twits disappointed.  It’s about Mr. Twit, a hairy, cruel, crass ex-monkey trainer with bits of tinned sardine and Stilton cheese in his beard, and his wife Mrs. Twit,  who’s grown ugly over the years because of her ugly thoughts. “If a person has ugly thoughts,” Dahl writes, “it begins to show on the face. … A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” (That part I liked.)

Together, Mr. and Mrs. Twit are “the smelliest, nastiest, ugliest people in the world.” Mrs. Twit walks with a cane, not because she needs supporting but because she likes to hit children and animals with it. Mr. Twit drinks beer at breakfast. They are united by their ugliness — Mr. Twit catches the birds that land on a nearby tree by smearing the branches with glue, and Mrs. Twit cooks the birds into a pie — but they are also ugly to each other. They’re constantly getting each other back for some nasty trick with a trick that is nastier still. Mrs. Twit feeds her husband worms disguised as spaghetti, and so Mr. Twit gradually lengthens Mrs. Twit’s cane to convince her she’s got “the shrinks.”

It is a funny story, though for me (admittedly not for N) it quickly wore thin. I kept asking myself, why isn’t this working? The answer lay more than halfway through the book, when we meet a family of monkeys the Twits keep in a cage outside. The monkeys hate the Twits and long to return to the African jungle, and to escape the people who’ve made their lives so miserable. These monkeys are our Charlie, our James of the Giant Peach, our Harry. They’re the ones we need to attach ourselves to in order to care about the story, and they are absent from the early pages. There isn’t enough time left in the story to really fall for them, though of course we want them to escape, and we are happy when the Roly-Poly Bird and the would-be pie birds help them pull the ultimate prank on the Twits.

Dahl himself wrote that he simply wanted to “do something against beards,” so I suppose I’m taking The Twits far too seriously. But what is so brilliant about Charlie and James and Matilda and the BFG is how quickly and unequivocally we bond with the main characters. Impoverished Charlie trying to share his yearly chocolate bar with his family; James held hostage in the cruel world of Aunts Sponge and Spiker; tiny Matilda forced to put her stupid book away and watch telly with her horribly uncouth family (“Don’t you ever stop reading?”); little Sophie quaking in the dark orphanage, only to be scooped up by a dream-catching giant.

The Twits has none of that. It didn’t diminish N’s enjoyment of the story, but she did ask several times, “Mom, who is more main? Mr. or Mrs.?” Which leads me to believe she was unsure of who was taking us through. I suspect the monkeys were meant to take us through, but arrived too late for the job.

Now Matilda, in more ways than one, is another story. I have a soft spot for Quentin Blake’s depictions of her, since they remind me of my own little N. The similarities stop there: N is smart, funny, and delightful, and Matilda is a genius. By five, she’s read Dickens and Steinbeck, despite the fact that her parents are monstrous and see her as “nothing more than a scab. … Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away.”

I wonder if it’s Matilda’s brilliance that has N asking about classics and reciting her multiplication tables to me. On her top bookshelf, she has a row of books written by me. Last night she pulled down Water Wings, my first novel, and began to read, grinning all the while. It’s not a book for children, and I’m sure she’ll lose interest soon.

“Did it feel weird,” she asked, “the first time  you saw your name on a book?”

“Yes,” I said. “But it feels weirder to see you reading it.”

She picked out lines she liked and read them to me. And they were nice ones, if I do say so myself, which is a compliment to both of us. As I pulled her door closed, she called out, “I like your book, Mom. It’s really good.” And though she only got a page in, it was strangely touching. Touching that she thought it was good, yes, but also that she had every confidence that her opinion mattered.



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The rhubarb patch and other places in other times

darwin copy

When I was little, we had a huge rhubarb patch in our backyard. My mother made rhubarb crumbles and pies and jams, mixed with strawberries to sweeten the sour taste, but we would also eat the long stems raw, fresh from the yard, dipped in sugar. This is the house we left long ago, when I was a teenager, but (along with the place I live now) still “home” when I think of the definition of that word.

It was a funky kind of place in the seventies, with an orange carpet and a striped green couch, and various things my mother had made: beaded macrame plant hangers, colourful papier-mache lampshades, still-life oil paintings. I wonder now where she found the time, having three girls and, for many of those years, a full-time job.

When I look at the picture above, I remember how the cat sat in the flower bed and scratched at the lower screen of the picture window to say he wanted in. And I remember the car in the driveway, a red Rambler convertible, one in a series of very cool but not terribly reliable vehicles my father acquired: a three-wheeled Messerschmitt, two Jaguars, an Alfa Romeo.

One of a number of tune-ups, this time in Italy, 1960

One of a number of tune-ups, this time in Italy, 1960

When we left this house, my sisters had already grown up and moved away. So this is the last place we lived together — my sisters, my mother and me — and for all of us it is cram-packed with memories. On a recent visit to my hometown, we all went for an evening walk together, and looped around Darwin Crescent (yes, named for Charles Darwin). This is something we’ve done often over the years, with casual glances towards the windows.  Earlier that day, Mom had been complaining that she didn’t have enough rhubarb for a pie, and we had teased her that she should pop over to Darwin to get more. And now, as we passed, she spotted the current owner in his driveway, and called over to him to ask if he had any rhubarb to spare. This is the beauty of small towns. He said she was welcome to it, since it was hers anyway, and the next thing we knew we’d been invited in for a tour.

It’s a strange thing to visit your old home after nearly thirty years away. Almost everything was different. Rooms had been torn out and reconfigured. An addition stretched into the backyard, where our picnic table used to be. The bedroom where I slept (the one mentioned in earlier posts, with the Farrah and Vinnie posters and the barrel of barbies) remained more or less in tact, but the room across the hall was a bathroom instead of a bedroom, and our bathroom, with its bright flower stickies in the tub, had ballooned in size and morphed into a bedroom. And yet there were tiny spaces that looked just the same. A strip of wood paneling around the front door. The long hallway down which I raced two small elves tucked into their glass candle holder cars.

Recently a photographer friend told me he had finally, at 50, let go of this kind of nostalgia. He is one of that unusual breed whose father still remains in the family home, and he had an idea that he’d like to document the place with its contents, room by room. But when the time opened for him to move forward with the idea, he realized he’d lost the need to do so. He says his focus is forward now, rather than back.

I like looking backwards. Maybe because I have a child now, I’m even more curious about the child’s world — what sorts of things impress them, how and why their perspective differs from ours. Writing from the child’s point of view feels both strange and natural and the same time. The house on Darwin Street is more or less the house in my first novel, Water Wings, and though the novel is indeed a novel, there are many details stolen from real life. The Rambler and the Alfa Romeo, even the rhubarb patch.

Every home teems with artifacts that hold the stories of its inhabitants. This is the why the childhood home leaves such an impression on us — not for the things themselves, but for the lives that take shape around them. When I first met my now-husband, he was at work on a project called Habitat, for which he photographed the interiors of abandoned houses. I was stunned by the things that had been left behind, and by the sense of loss that emanated from the images.

shane's room

Detail from Jeff Winch's Habitat series

When we were researching The Occupied Garden, set sixty years ago in Holland, we circled my father’s house in Leidschendam. We paused at the front of it and crept down the back lane. We peered through the wooden fence and noticed the patches on the brickwork, where, in the ’40s, new bricks had replaced the ones damaged by bomb fragments when my dad was a boy. I often wonder why we didn’t muster the courage to ask if we could go inside. What would that have been like for him, now in his seventies? Many times, during the course of our research, he was surprised by his own emotional response to something he didn’t think would effect him — this likely would have been one of those times.

In the home I have now, there are clues to the family who lived here before us, but over time they are disappearing with our updates and minor renovations. We noticed when we first moved in that there was a figure etched into the glass of the kitchen window. You could only see it from certain angles, in certain lights, but it was there nonetheless: a childish stick figure of a girl with a triangle dress. The artist must have stood on the counter to scratch it into the glass — certainly a wayward act at the time but a curious surprise for us later on; a glimmer of what had been.


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