The Violet Room - short fiction
When I read about the TV series 'The Abbey' I was reminded of a short story I wrote a few years ago called 'The Violet Room'. It's a bit long - nearly 3000 words but read on, if you are interested. I wrote it after researching the lives of Julian of Norwich and Hildergarde of Bingen.
The Violet Room
The door is locked and I am enclosed. It’s Boxing Day: Jenna in a box.
A female resident must have painted the plaster walls violet, a feminist colour. It isn’t the choice of clerics in this college, a former monastory. This is a pristine space for forty days - the word ‘pristine’ not meaning ‘clean’ but ‘as it originally was intended’, a monk’s cell, a place of celibacy… poverty… obedience. I’m not a religious person, not focussed like they were. We’ll see.
The flat is on the second floor, above the student’s rooms. The inside window, which I could squeeze through at a pinch because I am small in build, opens to an echoing corridor, and the west window overlooks a thorny garden but I could jump onto a slate rooftop to a V shaped space between gables. But that’s not what it’s all about is it? I am a Performance Artist, thirty-three years old, and as an Artist in Residence my project is to experience seclusion.
Jules, the Gallery Special Events Co-ordinator, weaving about me with his bad breath, had said, ‘It will be a breeze for you Jenna. Easier than your Body Installation at the Sydney Bienelle.’
Well, I have the Internet and e-mail, my CD player, radio, a few books. Isolation won’t matter even with a locked door – from inside. I’m on my honour – there’s this obedience thing already. Radical solitude will be… difficult… or a delight.
The bathroom is so clean it’s luminous. I have my microwave, electric kettle and small fridge stocked with avocados, salsa, goat cheese, and spring water. Meals from the dining room will be brought three times a day and my washing done for me.
December 27th, Day Two, is spent at the Pentium. It’s about 30 degrees so I wear silk shorts and a loose top, bra-less. I access the Internet and print out eight pages about the recluses of the 12th century. An anchorite was shut off from the world inside a small room attached to a church. Food was passed through this window and refuse taken out by a servant. The time was spent in prayer, contemplation or embroidery. She was given the last rites, laid out on a bier, and then the door was blocked up. That bier of wood would become a table and bed inside the cell. I have a narrow bed, my doonah, and clean sheets and this is not for forty years.
Then I link to “Hildegarde of Bingen” a German woman a century earlier. Her music is popular today with Sequentia’s version of her Canticles of Ecstasy - disembodied music. She was in the monastery of Disibodenbeg. This interesting woman, the tenth child of a wealthy family, was tithed to the church, became enclosed at fourteen. Thank God she later got out into the countryside. She loved beautiful clothes, exquisite sounds, fragrant scents, brightly coloured gems and used them metaphorically in her songs. I print out ninety pages and am amused to find she wrote a treatise on female sexuality.
I receive an e-mail from C. who relishes in rubbing it in about enclosure. She informs me about a bottle shaped cave a hermit lived in. A bucket was used to drop meals down to him and to haul up refuse. When it rained the water dripped down the hole. The sound replicated the hermit’s heartbeat, which reverberated around the cave walls, and drove the hermit insane. Thanks C. for the reminder! Then she tells me her bi-polar illness is not getting any better. She also sends me a pic of the Hermit, from the Tarot.
December 29th, Day Four. Jules comes and takes away my Pentium and I am astonished because he didn’t tell me this would happen. My radio and CD are precious now with Ali Khan, the qawali singer turned up loud; perhaps the cause of a thick headache later that two panadols cannot dispel. Feverishly I paint a mandala on a wall and scribble with a white felt-pen: anachoreo – I withdraw, eremitai – desert dwellers, noche oscura – dark night of the soul, and viriditas a word made up by Hildegarde meaning greening power. Showered with greening refreshment, the vitality to bear fruit. The warmth of the sun keeps you moist like the scent of balsam. She instructed artists to paint a beautiful mandala with faces and wings in circles enclosed within circles.
Day Six is New Year’s Eve and I am alone. Then I hear a deep voice calling from the corridor, ‘Chenna?’ Of course I’m here! The Security Officer has brought me a bottle of champagne. Tupou is a Tongan, but from New Zealand. He says, ‘I ton’t know what you’re up to Chenna. It seems an itiotic thing to to. Ton’t you miss the sunshine? And, it’s so unsafe to hafe a locked toor. You’re preaking rules here, eh. See that window ofer there. Now, see if you can get out onto the roof. To that in an emerchency eh.’ He softens half of his consonants. I pat his hand, somehow moved that someone considers my well-being.
On January 2nd, Day Eight, my radio and CD player are tugged off me. However my cassette player, microphone and camera must stay to record my daily experiences because the Gallery will expect a Sound and Light show for the ‘baby-boomer’ voyeurs. . Ten photos per day will suffice as a record. I can pass the rolls through the window to be processed and kept elsewhere.
If I become an acrobat at my corridor window, I can watch the shifting light transforming bubbles to luminous threads in a fish-tank. A large black and silver-scaled fish ogles me. A circle of smaller fish in a never-resting pirouette scares me and reminds me of enclosure.
I daydream of a skipping woman, yet there is no rope, just a contour of sunshine touching her hands. The landscape beyond is made up of curved fields, floating houses and violet trees. A bird flaps overhead then falls. The cream cheese moon has a smile. The woman is me, once upon a time, out there.
On January 8th, Day Fourteen, a migraine dominates everything. When the tablets prove to be inadequate, all I can do is curl up and will the day away. Hildergarde was dedicated at birth to the church. The girl started to have visions of luminous objects at the age of three, but soon realized she was unique in this ability and hid this gift for many years…. She suffered from appalling migraines. Hildergarde’s visions were a result of her mental condition, with hallucinations but mainly the scotomata which follows perception of phosphenes in the visual field. There are also areas of total blindness, points of intense light. After the attack she would rebound and feel a euphoria. I don’t see any stars or visions or feel bliss.
On January 11th, the Seventeenth Night, I hear coarse laughter and I remember lovers. I realize that the absence of humour, of real uncontrollable laughter, of the gloss of wit is a concern with my isolation. You don’t laugh at your own jokes. Really! You need eye contact usually or at least a connection.
I can hear the lovers still at it. Let down your hair Rapunzel, the young man calls up to the longhaired princess in the tower. Why can’t he climb the stairs like an ordinary bloke? Why must he grab her by the hair? Is she a virgin locked in her room by a jealous father who molested her once? The girl can only peer through her window, longing for rescue and sexual experience with the right partner. I write a coarse limerick onto my wall about Bobby and his Blanche, then smoke two cigarettes.
Clothes become a bore without social contact; I leave off underwear and earrings, and even wonder about bathing so often. No, I love the feel of warm water running over my skin, and to touch the softness of cloth, and especially the skin of another person, any person. It is Day Twenty-two. I stencil hands today by blowing paint over my left hand using a straw. I cut out cardboard hands and spray around them. But then I have to clean up and the paint does not come away from my knuckles and nails. My ‘sinister’ hand is a mess indeed. My mural is overpainted twice now, my spray cans empty, my felt pens dry. I am tired of the texture and smell of paint. I have been in a rush to do things; those hermits stayed still. I must slow down.
A mandala shaped patchwork quilt using motifs and shapes from my prison will be more appropriate. Carmel, the kitchen helper can contact Jules to bring me scissors, cottons, ribbons, braiding, beads, broken jewelry, and bags of cloth from costume left-overs at the repertoiry theatre; velvets, satins, broderie anglais, damascs, Indian mirror work.
Black plastic bags arrive full of treasures and I am mesmerized by the possibilities.
Then Carmel does not come with my evening meal, so I am hungry by breakfast and again, I am forgotten. By lunchtime I frantically yell for attention, like a panicking mother in a famine. Carmel brings me the customary bland food but also a small dish of lasagna she has made herself. A small miracle.
It is January 20th, Day Twenty-seven, and a hot day. The quilt, commencing in the centre like a mandala is taking shape and I am content. Someone down the passage is playing Bolero. I want to spin like a Sufi Dervish, ecstatically reaching for mystical love. I whirl and whirl, holding my quilt, my flared skirt flying, then feel foolish and crawl back to my stitching and knotting.
I have a young visitor to my corridor window, a hairless child, a girl with bright blue eyes and a steady direct gaze. She brings me a gift, a small snail curling asleep on the white veined leaf, antenna a V for victory and shell perfectly made. I am overjoyed by the perfection of the network of veins like a river delta. Size is all relative isn’t it? Julian of Norwich wrote, All will be well, all will be very very well. You hold us in your hand as a tiny hazelnut. I place the the vine leaf on the west window-sill where it will brown as the chlorofil breaks down. It will wither like all of us, but I will use these motifs on my quilt.
The helper guides the child back to the hospice in a wheel chair. I will give my quilt to someone like her.
I wake up breathless after dreaming of miniature children with doll-like features. Anti-panic tips become my mantra. Breathe in deeply through the mouth and out through the nose. Close your eyes and transport your mind to a time and situation where you felt calm and relaxed. Play through the memory of the Spartacus Adagio or the Gayaneh Waltz.
The ease is not lasting though. I feel so hot and cannot stand this room any more so I climb through the west window, step down to the V shaped rooftop. A hot cat on a cool roof this night. Is this breaking the rule? I rationalise the aberration.
Below me the Security Officer is checking the grounds. He notices me, awkwardly climbs the ghost gum, takes a long leap, then sits down beside me on the slate roof. ‘I knew it woult ket you Chenna. It was 38 tegrees totay and still must be apout 25.’ His re-sorting of consonants makes me want to laugh. He offers me his bottle of chilled mango juice. He talks to me of his imagined Islands, his longing to return, a myth of course because he’s never been there and his relatives are in Auckland. I like him. He a person without judgement, does not patronise others and he has a steady gaze.
It is Day Thirty-one, I think. Perhaps January 24th. I have made a mistake in not counting lately. I see a black cat stretched out asleep in the dappled grass under the ghost gum, unfraid of intruders.
The phone rings; this is an unexpected gift because I though it was disconnected. A single inward call. It is my mother. She’s only 72 but frail. I had forgotten what my silence would do to her. She asks why I haven’t rung up for weeks. She is excited because she has moved to another room, closer to the dining room. Twenty-two paces less than before is so important to her.
An elderly lady sits in her expensive armchair watching television, engrossed despite her myopia, guessing the meanings because she is also very deaf. She still keeps photos of us as babies and her favourite program is cricket. Her walking frame leans against a plaster wall, within reach. Soon the bell will ring to allow fifteen minutes for her to walk with a hobbled gait to the diningroom. This happens three times a day, every day. Does she ever daydream of distant lands? No, I don’t think so. She hums an old tune, then forgets it. She tunes in and out to cricket, the news, until she slips away in painful dozes, after taking tablets every four hours.
There is a Bistro called the Cave and I remember seeing the two TAFE students, hands touching across the little table. I can’t get that melody out of my mind, who is it – Nat King Cole, is it Somewhere along the Way? They lean towards each other from wheelchairs, their eyes shining. They are free because they can communicate. They know they can’t change things but they can control their responses. Perhaps an extreme situation makes you confront your fears, examine who you are, where syou are going – as in that brilliant painting by Gauguin.
Day 34, I think, perhaps January 27th. I have missed Australia Day it seems. The creeper has moved several centimetres and the belling flowers are the colour of my prison walls. I want to steam them into tea but they are beyond my grasp. I imagine their taste and after-effects. An insect trapped inside one of the cups would add flavour. A wisteria curtain almost hides the window of the room opposite where I often see a doll-face looking out.
The next day I am stricken now because my spectacles, my lifeline to the visual world, are taken away. This is the last straw. I have to peer closely at everything if I want clarity. Really close up. I cannot read the words I have written on the wall. I will never finish the quilt either.
The electricity is turned off and I am left with sixteen candles. It is Day 37 and I am in a mess. I have become dirty, untidy, careless, and feel sick most of the time.
I want to cut holes in the wall. Perhaps a candle-burn here and there would be impressive. Hildergard wrote, And it came to pass. When I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame not burning but warming… and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books…I hear laughter outside the room but cannot discern what is happening. I want to burn, pick up a candle, holds it up high, see the walls glowing, an aura around my own body, instead of this fog of myopia and shadows.
When I hear women’s voices, I know I am becoming Hildegarde. Many times a day we fall out of sorts, lose our way or find ourselves off centre. Art can best tune humanity, redirect our hearts towards heaven, bliss: of writing, seeing, hearing, and knowing, all in one manner.
Then a child’s voice sings in my ears, tells me to go to my sky space, heads me to my mossy tiles. I scrabble for a cigarette and lighter – my private sin that no-one could take away from me in thirty-eight days. A black animal is moving towards me, looming large. I huddle into the V shaped hollow, but somehow it sees me.
‘What are you toin’ up there this time?’ A man’s voice, Tupou of course, always keeping an eye on me, as he said. I drop the butt. ‘You’t better get town,’ he instructs quietly.
‘I’m okay here.’ I feel elated, electric and glowing, even see an aura and colours like Hildegarde's visions. The ghost gum in the garden glows orange though it is night. Sounds fill me with a sense of power, highpitched shouts, a crackling noise, even a siren. My skin is shining gold. Suddenly I understood of the meaning, she had said. The hairless child, the two in their wheelchairs, my mother awaiting death. A feather on the breath of God.
Then I feel the strength of a human hand. ‘Hang on Chenna.’