The following piece by the post-war experimental writer Ann Quin (1936-1973) was originally published in the July 1966 issue of The London Magazine, but was last year re-published in the sublime collection of short stories and fragments The Unmapped Country (ed. Jennifer Hodgson, And Other Stories, 2018).
Bound by perverse securities in a Convent, RC Brighton for eight years. Taking that long to get over. The Holy Ghost. The Trinity. The Reverend Mother. I was not a Catholic. I was sent to a convent to be brought up ‘a lady’. To say gate and not giate—the Sussex accent I had picked up from the village school in my belly-rubbing days had been eliminated by How Now Brown Cow, if I wanted to make my way in the world. According to Mother.
Non-Catholics attended chapel every Friday. Joined in the morning prayers. Hymns. Marched in the Corpus Christi processions, dressed in white, knelt on hot tennis courts, but not allowed to throw petals. Listened to scripture lessons. Struggled up from desk at noon and mumbled the Angelus. At fourteen I wanted Heaven and Hell to be defined, never believing in Hell fire, nor that Heaven consisted of being completely content looking at an old man, white-haired, bearded, called God. Limbo always made more sense. Not being baptised, that was where my soul, uncleansed from Original Sin, would end up. I believed in that then.
Enclosed by grey walls. Were they grey? Corridors. Women fettered from head to toe in black and white. Their white faces. Did they use rice powder for such an effect? Black habits whispering. Sound of bells. Rosaries. Holy pictures exchanged. Statues and candles. Sun caught in the chalice. Did they use real blood? Impact of wooden pews. The devil was close, hiding in the folds of black gowns. Cracks of playground. He grinned from the shadows between statues, and was secretly conjured up, after school, on the Downs. Christ was distant, wearing his crown of thorns, body bleeding. He had redeemed every one of us. Hail Mary Full of Grace looked so sorrowful I felt more pity for her. Christ after all had been made in the image of man, and men were to be distrusted. Life was but a preparation for the greater life hereafter. A ritualistic culture that gave me a conscience. A death wish and a sense of sin. Also a great lust to find out, experience what evil really was.
Weekdays I sleepwalked through. Evenings spent in reading; half-heartedly doing homework, preferring to explore books discovered in the Public Library: Greek and Elizabethan dramatists. Dostoievsky (Crime and Punishment, and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves made me aware of the possibilities in writing). Chekhov, Laurence, Hardy, etc., rather than learning the coal fields. The Corn Law. Amo, amas, amat. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ off by heart. Irregular verbs. More fascinated by the colour of Mademoiselle’s bloomers. The way her face shrivelled, changed from ash to the colour of her bloomers, than her attempts to manipulate my mouth into an uuuuuuuuu. More stimulated by the girl who had a crush on me, than hearing about the Poor Law. More worried about my stained gym slip growing up my limbs to meet my navy blue knickers, than chalk marks on the blackboard dealing with measurement, relationship of points, lines, angles, surfaces and solids. More curious by what the nuns wore in bed. If they were really bald. If they stripped completely for a bath, than split infinitives. More excited in getting into into the Sixth Form, not only because the classroom windows overlooked the boys’ college, but on the whole sinful world lay before me at the end of the year. That world at seventeen consisted mainly of the theatre, having spent every Saturday queuing up for a seat in the Gods at the Theatre Royal to witness a fantasy world that relieved my many desires, frustrations. I decided to go on the stage. I longed for roles that would suit my varied moods, and for an immediate audience. I had been writing stories since the age of seven to entertain myself, and writing in comparison to acting seemed such a solitary occupation. I lived in a dream world and created dreams out of everyday situations until nothing ever seemed what it appeared to be. At fourteen I met my half brother for the first time and fell desperately in love with him; he died five years later and I saw myself as Antigone. At eighteen I went up to London to spend Saturdays with my father (he had left my mother when I was ten) and pretended he was my lover.
I passed the GCE in one subject: English language. I failed in literature. Half the paper was based on The Tempest, which we had done for an end-of-term production, I had played Caliban; I filled the exam paper with Caliban’s speeches, and philosophised on his good and evil aspects. So at sweet seventeen and never been . . . I passed through the Gates of Eden. Threw away my uniform, thick lyle stockings, wore make-up every day, bought high heels, nylons, and joined a Rep. Company as an ASM. Pocket money spent on the train fares. I worked from 8.30 am to 11 pm. Collected props from sceptical antique dealers. Scrubbed the stage, where I recited Shakespeare, if no one was around. Sewed costumes. Made tea, coffee. Shifted scenery. Knocked on dressing room doors, and stood back in envy, awe, as the cast transformed themselves. And attempted to laugh at the camp jokes I didn’t understand. During lunch breaks I ate sandwiches, made up poems, in a church nearby. Six weeks spent hanging between what I had anticipated, and clinging to what had been known within the convent walls.
I had a row with the stage manager. I think it was over the hem of a costume I had sewn crooked (only ever having done embroidery). I was asked to leave. I left in tears. Back to the world of books, and efforts to have some kind of social life with ‘people of my own age’. I joined the Young Conservatives’ Association, and sat in the Grand Hotel on a Saturday night, dressed in long white, next to a similar wallflower friend, longing for a Paul Jones, and when that came, my partner would be shorter, fatter, breathe down my neck, and step on my toes. I sold my soul to the devil for a Heathcliff, and to be very rich and famous. I wrote inspired poems in the middle of the night, mainly religious and surrealistic. I won a poetry prize. The devil had obviously accepted my offer. When I arrived to collect the prize, a 10s. book token, I was greeted by half a dozen very old dears, some in wheelchairs, who clapped enthusiastically after I read my sonnet, called ‘The Lost Seagull’ – about gulls being damned souls.
Still interested in going on the stage, I tried getting into RADA. I learned two pieces for the audition. I expected a stage, even a platform, instead a smallish room, brightly lit; ten or twelve people faced me. I began, froze, asked to start again, but was struck dumb, and rushed out, silently screaming down Gower Street. I would be a writer. A poet. Where what I had to express, say, would be my own interpretation, my own vision, and be accepted by an unseen audience.
I took a secretarial course, and only my determination that it would be a means towards bread and butter, kept me at this for a year. Armed with shorthand and typewriting certificates I went to a Secretarial agency in London, and got a job in a newspaper office, a small concern, but in Fleet Street. I got up at 6 am to catch the train, and would be back at 8 pm thoroughly exhausted. A nightmare that was extended by the editor hanging himself in a cupboard, who left a note beside the whisky bottle to the effect he had contemplated suicide for forty years. Soon after, thankfully, I had appendicitis. Not very keen on getting another job I prolonged convalescence, and took a part-time course in painting. I had noticed a Heathcliff walking along the seafront, who was obviously an art student. The devil was apparently still acknowledging me. I fell in love, and that world merged with what I had seen at the theatre, what I had read, until nothing, no one else existed. I wrote more poems, less religious, started a journal and wrote beautiful love letters.
Eventually I took a job in a solicitor’s office in Brighton. Again days spent in sleepwalking, through Abstract of Titles; letters that never varied. But the world of love awaited me every evening, I lived for that, would have gladly died for it. The job, the love lasted two years.
Heart-broken I tackled London again. I got a job as a secretary in the foreign rights department of a publishing firm. Found a room in Soho, and began my first novel, called A Slice of Moon, about a homosexual, though at the time I had never met one, knew very little about queers (maybe I had read something on Proust?). The salary I earned was barely enough for rent and food. In winter I lived on potatoes, saved on the gas fire by going to bed, hotwaterbottled, typewriter balanced on knees. I rarely went out in the evenings, but was a voyeur, in the sense of watching from my window the prostitutes, and became fascinated by a blonde one, by the type of men she picked up, they all seemed the same in their fawn raincoats, trilbies, the same age. I timed her by watching for the light in her room to go on, off. Never longer than ten minutes. I contemplated what an easier existence I might have by doing similar work, earning in one day what I received from my job at the publishers in a week. However, I continued going into the office, a whale’s mouth of a place, small window overlooked fire escape. Days spent in typing out contracts, answering the telephone, taking letters and so on. And going back every evening to my novel. A time when I worked the hardest at writing, more disciplined than I have ever done since. This lasted eighteen months or more.
I decided to go back to Brighton, live at home, and take a part-time job, while finishing the book. I worked at St Dunstan’s, in the office, but as there was very little work there, I also took the blind men out—or rather they took me out: straight to the nearest pub, it was up to me to bring them safely back. After one episode of leading two blind men, one either side of me, on to the grass verge, they precariously balanced on the bank, shouting, waving their sticks, thinking I had led them to a cliff edge, I gave the job up. The novel finished I sent it off to a publisher. Rejected. I sent it off to another publisher, likewise rejected. I put it away, and began another book.
Back in London I took a part-time job in a solicitor’s office: three days a week, and began a social life of allowing men to wine and dine me (I’d had enough of potatoes—besides they made me fatter) but somewhat guiltily refused to invite them up for coffee afterwards. I fell in love with poverty-stricken painters, who needed feeding as much as I did, so that never lasted long. I spent a winter, spring, doing office work in a noisy basement, and decided I couldn’t face the summer there, so applied for a hotel job in Cornwall.
Bearing books, half-finished novel, I arrived at the hotel. The setup there consisted of three other girls, a Welsh chef with medieval face, round eyes, who followed me on my solitary walks along the cliffs, and jumped out from behind the bushes. The proprietors were always having rows. She lived on drugs. He on drink. Work consisted in making beds, peeling potatoes, washing up, hoovering, and serving thirty/forty British holiday-makers lunch, tea and dinner. Being a waitress was not unlike going on the stage. I had little time for writing. The rows behind the scenes intensified, the chef threatened to leave. I collapsed one morning. I had given my notice in, but been persuaded to remain. I reached the point when a moonlight flit seemed the only way out. I arrived at the railway station in utter terror of being discovered, made to return to the hotel. I reached home speechless, dizzy, unable to bear the slightest noise. I lay in bed for days, weeks, unable to face the sun. If I went out into the garden I dug holes and lay in them weeping. I woke up in the middle of the night screaming, convinced my tears were rivers of blood, that my insides were being eaten away by an earwig that had crawled into my ear. I went to see a psychiatrist, going more from curiosity, and spent a few hours entertaining the horrified lady. I decided to climb back out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping wit day to day living.
I escaped to Paris, only to shut myself up in a room for a month. I returned to London, and found a part-time job as secretary in the painting department of an art college. I had a nice room nearby, but was turned out because my typing late at night disturbed the landlady. I moved into an attic kind of place, a small skylight, gas ring; partition next to my bed shook at night from the manoeuvrings, snores of my anonymous neighbour. I spent a winter there, writing my second book about a man called Oscar, who kills his monster child—a novel that developed into telephone directory length of very weird content, without dialogue. I finished this, rewrote it, and duly sent off to a publisher. Again rejected, but with an encouraging letter. I tried three more publishers, then gave up, put the book aside, and started another one.
My job at the art college lasted three years, and before leaving I finished the third novel, of which I did three or four versions. This was accepted. Soon after I went down with glandular TB and spent several happy months revising the book while convalescing; dreaming in fact of months, years maybe, of being in a sanatorium somewhere in the mountains, and writing masterpieces. Instead I had to face the world again, and the problems of being published. The proofs finally arrived, I couldn’t open them, and spent the whole day vomiting from anxiety and depression. Eventually the galleys lay all over my room. The dream had been realised, but reading what I had written seemed someone else’s dream. A kind of involuntary commitment. And like Camus I became aware that: ‘There is in me an anarchy, a frightful disorder. Creating costs me a thousand deaths, for it involves an order and my whole being rebels against order. But without it I should die scattered’.
For more on Jennifer Hodgson, who edited the The Unmapped Country and whose work is leading a revival of interest in Quin’s brilliant writing, visit https://jenniferhodgson.co.uk/
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