Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests
Monday, October 15, 2012
The Unlife of Ma Parker by Matt and Debbie Cowens A Short Story
Not long ago I posted on a wonderful collection of short stories, Mansfield with Monsters: The Untold Stories of a New Zealand Icon by Matt and Debbie Cowens (2012, 232 pages). The stories are presented to us as newly discovered Mansfield stories that show her great interest in paranormal matters. I loved the book and the stories were all wonderful and a lot of fun. I think Katherine Mansfield would have liked them and I am sure John Middleton Murry would have demanded royalities and claim he was planning to publish these stories soon if he were still with us. One of my favorite Katherine Mansfield stories is "The Life of Ma Parker." I am very honored that Matt and Debbie Cowens have allowed me to share this wonderful story with my readers.
"The Unlife of Ma Parker"
A Short Story from Mansfield and Monsters
by Matt and Debbie Cowens
When the literary gentleman, whose flat old Ma Parker cleaned every Tuesday, opened the door to her that morning, he asked after her grandson. Ma Parker stood on the doormat inside the dark little hall, and she stretched out her hand to help her gentleman shut the door before she replied. The skin on the back of her hand had a greenish, sickly pallor and a line of stitches peeped out from under the cuff of her coat. "He's breathing easier now, sir," she said quietly before tugging her coat sleeves back down to her knuckles. "Oh... good! I'm delighted to hear that," said the literary gentleman. In spite of the good news, Ma Parker looked worse than usual. Any trace of colour had withered away, leaving only sallow grey skin and unsettlingly pale eyes staring out of dark and swollen eyelids. A worn, greasy scarf was wrapped about her neck, bulging at each side as some hidden bulk forced it out. But he felt awkward. He could hardly go back to the warm sitting-room without saying something―something more. Then because her sort set such a store by the meanest sorts of education he said kindly, "The young lad will be in school soon?" "Beg parding, sir?" said old Ma Parker huskily. Poor old bird! She did look dashed. "I hope the boy will begin, ah, school," said he. Ma Parker gave no answer. She bent her head and hobbled off to the kitchen, clasping the old fish bag that held her cleaning things and an apron and a pair of felt shoes. The literary gentleman raised his eyebrows and went back to his breakfast. "Taken ill, I suppose," he said aloud, helping himself to the marmalade. There was no other explanation for her strange behaviour and disturbing appearance. Ma Parker drew the two jetty spears out of her bag and hung it behind the door. She unhooked her worn jacket and hung that up too. Then she tied her apron and sat down to take off her boots. To take off her boots or to put them on was an agony to her, but she had been in agony for days. In fact, she was so accustomed to the pain that her face was drawn and screwed up ready for the twinge before she'd so much as untied the laces. That over, she sat back with a sigh and softly rubbed the stitches above her ankles. The feet which were now attached to her legs were larger than her own had been and concealing them under the boots had made the pain so much worse, but what else was she to do?
"Gran! Gran!" Her little grandson stood on her lap in his button boots. He'd just come in from playing in the street. "Look what a state you've made your gran's skirt into!" But he put his arms round her neck and rubbed his cheek against hers. "Gran, gi' us a penny!" he coaxed. "Be off with you; Gran ain't got no pennies." "Yes, you 'ave." "No, I ain't." "Yes, you 'ave. Gi' us one!" Already she was feeling for the old, squashed, black leather purse. "Well, what'll you give your gran?" He gave a shy little laugh and pressed closer. She felt his eyelid quivering against her cheek. "I ain't got nothing," he murmured...
The old woman heaved her body upright, seized the iron kettle off the gas stove and took it over to the sink. The noise of the water drumming in the kettle deadened her pain, it seemed. She filled the pail, too, and the washing-up bowl. The extra tendons the doctor had inserted into her forearms made light work of the lifting, but the weakness in her chest prevented her from taking any pleasure in it. It would take a whole book to describe the state of that kitchen. During the week the literary gentleman "did" for himself. That is to say, he emptied the tea leaves now and again into a jam jar set aside for that purpose, and if he ran out of clean forks he wiped over one or two on the roller towel. Otherwise, as he explained to his friends, his "system" was quite simple, and he couldn't understand why people made all this fuss about house-keeping. "You simply dirty everything you've got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing's done." The result looked like a gigantic dustbin. Even the floor was littered with decaying toast crusts, envelopes, cigarette ends. But Ma Parker bore him no grudge. She pitied the poor young gentleman for having no one to look after him. Out of the smudgy little window you could see a dark alleyway with a thin strip of sad-looking sky, and whenever there were clouds they looked very worn, old clouds, frayed at the edges, with holes in them, or dark stains like tea. While the water was heating, Ma Parker began sweeping the floor. "Yes," she thought, as the broom knocked, "what with one thing and another I've had my share. I've had a hard life." Even the neighbours said that of her. Many a time, hobbling home with her fish bag she heard them, waiting at the corner, or leaning over the area railings, say among themselves, "She's had a hard life, has Ma Parker." And it was so true she wasn't in the least proud of it. It was just as if you were to say she lived in the basement-back at Number 27. She'd had a hard life, but now? Now what did she have...?
At sixteen she'd left Stratford and come up to London as a kitchen-maid. Yes, she was born in Stratford-on-Avon. Shakespeare? No, people were always asking her about him. But she'd never heard his name until she saw it on the theatres. Nothing remained of Stratford except that "sitting in the fire-place of an evening you could see the stars through the chimney," and "Mother always 'ad 'er side of bacon, 'anging from the ceiling." And there was something―a plant, there was―at the front door, that smelt ever so nice. But the plant was very vague. She'd only remembered it once or twice just before the operation, when she was lain out like a corpse on the table and the gas filled her lungs.... It had been a dreadful place―her first place. She was never allowed out. She never went upstairs except for prayers morning and evening. It was a fair cellar. And the cook was a cruel woman. She used to snatch away her letters from home before she'd read them, and throw them in the range because they made her dreamy. When that family was sold up she went as "help" to a doctor's house, and after two months there, she married her husband. He had been a baker and she had been desperate to leave the doctor's house. The doctor had scared her from the first day. He wasn't a cruel man; he was kind in his own strange way but she had been terrified by those unnatural experiments in the attic... "A baker, Mrs Parker!" the literary gentleman would say. For occasionally he laid aside his tomes and lent an ear, at least, to this product called Life. "It must be rather nice to be married to a baker!" Mrs Parker didn't look so sure. "Such a clean trade," said the gentleman. Mrs Parker didn't look convinced. "And didn't you like handing the new loaves to the customers?" "Well, sir," said Mrs Parker, "I wasn't in the shop above a great deal. We had thirteen little ones and buried seven of them. If it wasn't the 'ospital it was the infirmary, you might say!" "You might, indeed, Mrs Parker!" said the gentleman, shuddering, and taking up his pen again. Yes, seven had gone, and while the six were still small her husband was taken ill with consumption. It was flour on the lungs, the doctor told her at the time.... Her husband sat up in bed with his shirt pulled over his head, and the doctor's finger drew a circle on his back. "Now, if we were to cut him open here, Mrs Parker," said the doctor, "you'd find his lungs chock-a-block with white powder. Breathe, my good fellow!" And Mrs Parker never knew for certain whether she saw or whether she fancied she saw a great fan of white dust come out of her poor dead husband's lips.... But the struggle she'd had to bring up those six little children and keep herself to herself. Terrible it had been! Then, just when they were old enough to go to school her husband's sister came to stop with them to help things along, and she hadn't been there more than two months when she fell down a flight of steps and hurt her spine. And for five years Ma Parker had another baby―and such a one for crying! ―to look after. Then young Maudie went wrong and took her sister Alice with her; the two boys emigrated, and young Jim went to India with the army, and Ethel, the youngest, married a good-for-nothing little waiter who died of ulcers the year little Lennie was born. And little Lennie―her poor little grandson. She would have done anything for him....
The piles of dirty cups, dirty dishes, were washed and dried. The ink-black knives were cleaned with a piece of potato and finished off with a piece of cork. The table was scrubbed, and the dresser and the sink that had old sardine tails swimming in it....
Lennie had never been a strong child―never from the first. He'd been one of those fair babies that everybody took for a girl. Silvery fair curls he had, blue eyes, and a little freckle like a diamond on one side of his nose. The trouble she and Ethel had had to rear that child! The things out of the newspapers they tried him with! Every Sunday morning Ethel would read aloud while Ma Parker did her washing. "Dear Sir, Just a line to let you know my little Myrtil was laid out for dead... After four bottles... gained 8 lbs. in 9 weeks, and is still putting it on." And then the egg-cup of ink would come off the dresser and the letter would be written, and Ma would buy a postal order on her way to work next morning. But it was no use. Nothing made little Lennie put it on. Taking him to the cemetery, even, never gave him a colour; a nice shake-up in the bus never improved his appetite. But he was gran's boy from the first.... "Whose boy are you?" said old Ma Parker, straightening up from the stove and going over to the smudgy window. And a little voice, so warm, so close, it half stifled her―it seemed to be in her breast under her heart―laughed out, and said, "I'm gran's boy!"
At that moment there was a sound of steps, and the literary gentleman appeared, dressed for walking. "Oh, Mrs Parker, I'm going out." She kept her back to him, rude though it was, for fear he would see her arms and grow curious. "Very good, sir." "And you'll find your half-crown in the tray of the inkstand." "Thank you, sir." The door banged. She took her brushes and cloths into the bedroom. But when she began to make the bed, smoothing, tucking, patting, the small lungs in her chest ached, making the job almost unbearable. She thought of little Lennie and his suffering. It hadn't been right. That's what she couldn't understand. Why should a little angel child have to ask for his breath and fight for it? There had been no sense in making a child suffer like that.
A sound as though something was boiling came from Lennie's little box of a chest. A great lump of something bubbling in his chest that he couldn't get rid of. When he coughed the sweat sprang out on his head; his eyes bulged, his hands waved, and the great lump bubbled as a potato knocks in a saucepan. But what was more awful was when he didn't cough he sat against the pillow and never spoke or answered, or even made as if he heard. Only he looked offended. "It's not your poor old gran's doing it, my lovey," said old Ma Parker, patting back the damp hair from his little scarlet ears. But Lennie moved his head and edged away. Dreadfully offended with her he looked―and solemn. He bent his head and looked at her sideways as though he couldn't have believed it of his gran. She couldn't lose Lenny, not while she still had breath in her body. She went to see the son of her old employer―a doctor, carrying on his father's work―and asked him about one of those experiments in the attic. She'd been cleaning when she'd come across it all those years ago―a rabbit pinned to a tray of wax, severed in half and stitched back up across the belly, and a large number of wires clamped here and there, and even sewn into the creature's chest and temples. "Ah, I see you're admiring my latest patient," the old doctor had appeared at her shoulder, making her start. "Sorry, sir, I was only..." "No, need to apologise. It's fascinating. The power of electricity. We still know so little about its true potential, but I have been conducting my experiments and if you'll now observe..." He switched on a contraption by the table and with a crackle the rabbit jerked in a violent spasm. Then its little chest moved up and down, and it turned its head ever so slightly towards her, and blinked... The doctor's son had carried on his father's work, and seemed excited at the prospect of some human subjects. "You understand there'll be risks," he said. "I may be able to get your lungs into the little boy, but you'll almost certainly perish while I attend to him. Should the reanimation process then bring you back it may have serious complications. There's a very real possibility of tissue damage in the extremities―lower limbs, hands, feet and so on." "Do whatever it takes, sir. Just help my Lennie." What was the good of her having a strong pair of lungs in her old body when little Lennie suffered? Lennie thrived after the operation and was stronger every day. She had woken into an unlife of fresh agony. How long would her aching body struggle on in this wretched state? The doctor had no answers to comfort her. She had died on the surgeon's table, her body torn open and her lungs removed. Little Lennie's twisted lungs had filled her chest cavity and some pickled hands and feet had replaced her own. An intricate clockwork ticked away beneath her sternum, keeping the dead, foreign body parts in time with the spark of life that the electricity had rekindled. When she asked him about the layers of muscle and bone that he had grafted to her healthy limbs, the doctor had chuckled and said that his curiosity had got the better of him.
"What's it matter if Lenny lives and breathes?" she whispered, rubbing the trail of surgical thread round her throat beneath her collar. The steel bolts protruding from either side of her neck tingled as her fingers―the pickled fingers of a long dead woman―brushed against them. Now even the feel of her boy's warm arms about her neck gave her pain, but she couldn't let him know that. She couldn't wince at the sharp twinges of the stitching at her throat, wrists, and ankles. She couldn't let herself cough though the small lungs in her chest were so clogged that she felt that she might never breathe clean air again. "I can't ever let him know." As she said those words she suddenly let fall her brush and doubled over in a fit of violent coughing. She found herself in the kitchen, unable to breathe as though she was drowning in a sea of flour and ash. It was so terrible that she flung open the back door of the flat, gasping for air. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of a man leaning against the wall in the alleyway. He was tall and thin, a knitted cap pulled low over his brow and the collar of his worn, dark coat turned up. He smiled at her, broad yellow teeth showing behind a coarse beard. "Stuffy in there, eh?" he asked, pushing off from the wall and swaggering toward her. His right hand was pressed against his leg, and she saw a sturdy black poker swinging behind his coat. Its sooty end bore a nasty looking hook. Ma Parker stepped back into the kitchen without a word and swung the door shut, but the man lunged forward and thrust the tip of the poker into the gap. Ma Parker staggered back, her heavy feet clumsy beneath her. The door swung open and the man stepped into the kitchen, still smiling. "I saw the gent leave," he said, lifting the poker and resting it on his shoulder. He looked around the room, picked up a silver salt shaker from the bench. "He'll be back any minute, I'm sure," Ma Parker said, backing up against the door to the hall. "Oh, I don't know as that's fer certain." The man's smile faded and he unbuttoned his coat with his left hand and licked his lips. "I reckon there's like to be plenty of time." Ma Parker knew she could not run. Even before the surgery she'd moved slowly. Now she could barely manage more than a shuffle. She straightened her apron and muttered, "You'd best be on your way." There were no more words. The man crossed the kitchen in two quick strides, brought the poker up as high as the low ceiling would allow, and swung it with deadly force. Ma Parker thought of her little Lennie, his bright face and scarred chest with her lungs inside, and she smiled. The poker caught her in the neck. The force of it was terrific―enough to knock her off her feet. She sprawled onto the kitchen floor and waited for the darkness to take her. She saw the man step over her then push open the door to the hall. His feet were enormous. So were his hands. She was surprised to find that the pain of the blow was quick to fade. It had ripped fire across her throat when the poker struck, but now it was back to its dull ache. She raised a hand to her neck and there was blood, but not the fountain she'd expected. She sat up. Taking a polished pot from the stove, she inspected her reflection. The bolt on the left side of her neck was bent and her stitches had pulled, but that was all. She slipped off the apron and inspected her collar bone. Blood oozed from the scar where the clockwork had been inserted down into her chest cavity. And yet, she was alive. Or undead. Whatever the case, the assault had not left her worse for wear. There was no guarantee that her attacker would leave her unmolested as he made his exit, though. Ma Parker rose to her feet, looked to the open door to the alley, hefted the pot, and stepped into the hall. She found the man in the sitting room, bent over the literary gentleman's writing desk. Ma Parker stepped into the room and tightened her grip on the pot handle. "I've had a hard life," she said. She shuffled forward on tender ankles. "Hard and brutal and full of grief." The man turned, his face drawn. His eyes flicked toward the hall, where his poker rested against the wall, then back to Ma Parker. He looked from the pot to the neck bolts to the swollen purple scars which crossed her collar bone and disappeared under her dress. "There's no need for you to get hurt," he said, raising his calloused hands, palms open. "Too late for that," Ma Parker replied, eyeing him up. "'Ave it your way," the man growled, slipping a short-bladed knife out of his belt. He tried to circle round her but Ma Parker shuffled back in front of the doorway. "That's a nice voice you've got. Must have a good set of lungs in there." She shuffled forward, the pot hanging loose from her hand. He fired a quick rabbit punch into her leering face then brought the knife up in a thrust intended to slip under her ribcage. It hurt more than she'd expected as the blade lodged in the extra bones that the doctor had used to reinforce her chest. She nearly fell, but she managed to get a hold of his coat with her free hand and steady herself. As he tried to barge past her and reached for the poker she brought the pot around in an underarm arc and struck him on the elbow of his outstretched arm. There was a wet crack and the lower half of his arm swung up, then hung like a meaty pendulum. He would have screamed, but at that moment she let go of his coat and seized the back of his head. She meant to crack his forehead against the door frame, but as she gripped the back of his skull and pulled back in preparation for the blow, she felt something in her forearm tugging. Ma Parker could feel the new sinew and bone slipping into place, could feel the strength in her new limb, muscles yearning to be used. She gave in to the urge. The back of the man's head burst like a rotten egg. Ma Parker felt her fingers stretch then puncture the skin at the back of his head as his skull shattered. He twitched and danced for a moment, then slumped forward into the hall. Ma Parker looked down at her pickled hand, the tightly corded muscles in her forearm, the chunk of flesh with matted hair and blood in her fingers. "What 'ave I done?" said old Ma Parker. As she said those words she suddenly let fall her hand. She stumbled back into the kitchen, as though by leaving the hall she could escape her actions. She couldn't go home; Lennie was there. The blood would frighten Lennie out of his life. She couldn't go outside and sit on a bench anywhere; people would come asking questions. If she even sat on the doorstep a policeman might come by and speak to her. Wasn't there anywhere where she could hide and keep herself to herself and stay as long as she liked, not disturbing anybody, and nobody noticing her? Her chin began to tremble; there was no time to lose. She shuffled back to the hall with her heavy mop and bucket. "Nothing fer it. I'll have to clean this mess up." When the literary gentleman returned he found that the hallway carpet was quite wet, and faintly pink. Methods of cleaning being a mystery to him he thanked Ma Parker, who had stayed unusually late, but asked her to be less vigorous with the furnishings in future. She nodded as she left, her clumsy feet and shuffling gait as pitiful as ever. She didn't seem overly troubled by the enormous bundle she carried over her shoulder, something angular and bulky wrapped in two wet coats. She coughed up a gob of blood as she left, but it didn't seem to trouble her much. "Fresh," she muttered to herself as she stepped out into the biting wind. "Head's no use, but still plenty of good parts left." It was cold on the street as she began her long journey to the doctor's house. People went flitting by, very fast; the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats, but nobody paid any notice to the shuffling old woman with the heavy bundle. The icy wind swept up the street and blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain.
End of Guest Post
I thought a bit about publishing this story in observation of the birthday of Katherine Mansfield. To many, including those who have read only two or three stories, Mansfield is a sacred Icon of New Zealand culture. Many describe her as the greatest female short story writer. I have read all of the biographies of her (Katherine Mansfield: The Story Teller by Kathleen Jones is by far the best), all of her stories ( I know there are a few newly discovered ones), and many of her poems and a few of her letters and journal entries. I know she liked to thumb her nose a bit at the conventional world and I think it was more than her talent that scared Virginia Woolf. My guess is she would love this and the other stories in Mansfield and Monsters. Matt Cowen indicated to me they have receieved a very good feed back from the Katherine Mansfield Society so I am publishing it in honor of her brithday. October 14 will always be Katherine Mansfield Day on The Reading Life