The Blind Daffodil (Part II)

The house was always dark. Even when the meter was fed and the lamps were on, there remained a heaviness to the rooms that went beyond the smoke in the air and the dust in the corners. Katherine, her patch on; her good eye weakening, would tilt her chin upward, so that she might see better beneath her drooping bad eye. The drawing room took the most effort, with its damask curtains, its deep maroon carpet, its moody wallpaper with the looping vine pattern that, when seen from the right angle, seemed to reach out from the walls.

She took to navigating the house with her eyes pointed to the floors, most of which were bare besides the drawing room. And there would be her biggest obstacle – the cracks in the wood, the splinters, the gaps, the nails that had never been hammered back down. This, said Mrs Sayers, was a man’s job – and until such time as she could find a man to do it, Katherine would have to be careful.

Mrs Sayers was a slattern, and it was only her pride that kept her from abject squalor. She cleaned only on alternate Sundays, when the lack of things to do made her restless and on edge. She would ask Katherine to read to her from her magazines –  Picturegoer was her favourite – to read articles from end to end; to describe to her the photographs and what the stars were wearing. This, Mrs Sayers said, was part of her education. It took Katherine great effort to read. Sight notwithstanding, she struggled to raise her voice over the sound of the bristle brush at the kitchen tiles, or the carpet sweeper in the drawing room. She became inpatient with photographs – images of normal women with beautiful hair and perfect eyes – so she would flick through the pages when Mrs Sayers wasn’t paying much attention, determined to find someone, anyone, who looked as she did. There was one that tricked her – a black-and-white photograph of a glamorous starlet made over to look like a frump for entertainment, side-by-side with a colourised image of how the real star looked in real life. She longed for the radio, but Mrs Sayers had sent it back to Dr Ewend.

*

Dr Ewend did not visit again. He wrote to her, once, and Mrs Sayers collected the letter from the postbox and the small parcel she had ordered. She clutched the items to her breast as she went back into the house. Katherine, who often waited in the hallway to see if anything had come for her – not that it ever did – stood back from Mrs Sayers, and listened. To the sweet sounds of the birds settling outside for dusk. To the urgent, unforgiving march of Mrs Sayers’ heels as she ascended the staircase. That evening, they dined at the usual time, and ate an ordinary meal without ceremony. After pudding, Mrs Sayers presented her with a gift, and promptly retired to bed.

It was wrapped in plain brown paper – no ribbon. Katherine balanced the weight of it on her fingers, and ruffled the edge of the paper with her nails. What an odd shape, she thought. A long thin stem and a hexagonal head. She imagined a tall, exotic flower with beautiful petals. Royal blue, or perhaps crimson. She favoured the blue – a colour Mrs Sayers never wore. As she dreamed, she caressed the box, until her fingernail caught on a card. She opened it, and squinted to read:

To Katherine.

On your Eleventh Birthday.

The letters, deliberately written with curlicues looping across the card, blurred her vision. She blinked, set down the card, and carefully unwrapped the gift. At first she did not know what it was. A brass frame. A dead, pressed flower encased in plastic. No, not quite a flower. Stalks, certainly.

Daffodil stalks.

Daffodil stalks that had not bloomed.

Katherine wanted to fling the object across the room, but instead turned the handle over, and in doing so confronted herself with her own reflection. She gasped – she was worse than she remembered; worse than she imagined herself to be – and let go. The mirror fell glass-first upon one of the many nails that jutted out of the floorboards. Little fragments of glass sprinkled across the kitchen floor. Katherine winced, but no footsteps came.

*

Katherine became fascinated with the dark, glossy eyes of the film stars in Mrs Sayers’ magazines. She longed to see the eyes alive and burning through the celluloid of the screen. But Mrs Sayers lived her life through paper, and never went to the pictures.

Katherine got it into her head that she might one day grew into a beautiful woman – a Barbara Stanwyck in her own right, perhaps – and she made the error of confessing to Mrs Sayers that she would very much like to be an actress. Mrs Sayers encouraged the dream at first, with the strained amusement of someone who knows what is impossible. One Christmas, when Katherine was thirteen and Mrs Sayers was three sherries deep, she said – “You’re a little far off Barbara Sandwich, darling, but I’m sure they’ll let you do the stunts.” In private, Mrs Sayers had prayed for Katherine to become normal; loud-whispered prayers that drifted easily between rooms. Finally, as Katherine approached the age of eighteen, she resigned herself to a child unchanged.

In town, the old picture-house that Katherine had tugged at her Mrs Sayers’ arm for had been replaced a vast hotel – which now held court as the centrepiece of a crescent of old shops, including the tobacconist frequented by Mrs Sayers. It was there that she heard talk of some grand opening – a ball, no less  – the perfect setting, she thought, for Katherine to début. She left the tobacconist with a feeling of giddy anticipation, and went directly to Sopers, intent on teaching Katherine how to use make-up. The right amount of make-up. Yes, Katherine knows how to cook now, how to clean, how to mend clothes – all of which I have taught her myself. She knows how to walk, even when she does grow tired and dizzy. She knows how to talk in good company. But what are we to do about her face? She marched to the cosmetic counter, to the gleaming burgundy red vanity case she had intended to buy for herself someday. She bought it before she could tell herself not to, and set off home to teach Katherine the art of putting on a good face.

A week, she thought. Let’s see what we can do in a week.

*

Katherine, who had hitherto never been allowed to so much as glance into Mrs Sayers’ wardrobe, was brought to her dressing table. She would not look at the mirror.

Mrs Sayers took out the powder brush from the vanity case, and tickled Katherine’s cheeks with it until both of them laugh. Then she began to apply the lipstick for her, and Katherine moved her lips, unsure if she could speak. When she did, she delighted in the way it seemed to make her mouth move with more confidence. Mrs Sayers leaned over, and placed what appeared to be a little black cake in the middle of the table. She turned over the hand mirror, and Katherine turned away.

‘Now, I’m not going to apply the mascara for you. You have to look into the glass.’ Mrs Sayers put a damp make-up brush in Katherine’s hand, and moved it onto the cake. She made her dab at it, and then brought it up to her bad eye. By then, Katherine was crying. Mrs Sayers sighed and dropped Katherine’s hand. The brush scuttled down the back of the dressing table. Mrs Sayers sighed. ‘Start counting, then.’ She began to brush Katherine’s hair out of its usual centre parting and into one definite direction; to cover the eye. It resisted, thick as it was. Katherine sobbed quietly in between numbers.

‘Everybody was envious of your personality, Katherine. The bright little girl who could speak to adults properly, and hang it all if she looked queer. It made people look differently at their own peevish children.’ She paused, turned the hairbrush over in her hand, and moved it over the bad eye. ‘You are awfully pretty, you know. We will find a way to make your hair go that way.’

‘Is it not enough to have a personality?’

Mrs Sayers laughed, and told Katherine to start counting again.

*

The tram stopped outside the Paragon and Mrs Sayers breathed in deeply. Tomorrow, she and I will enter society. At the chemist, she bought a large bottle of vinegar, and on the tram back home she tapped her foot to calm her nerves. She had forgotten to go to the tobacconist.

‘It doesn’t sting a bit!’ she said, as she folded Katherine over the little basin in her bedroom. ‘It’s simply meant to set the hair in place and make it shine. I’m sure you read me the article, once.’ She wrenched Katherine forward to offset her recoil. ‘I’ve heard,’ she went on, ‘no, I’ve seen that The Paragon is quite moderne.’ She poured the vinegar across Katherine’s scalp, and pinched her own nose. ‘I’m sure we’ll seem quite primitive in comparison.’ She turned on the hot tap and scooped the water over Katherine’s head. Then she stood back, nose wrinkling. Katherine gulped her breaths. ‘You see? It doesn’t sting a bit.’

When Katherine’s hair was half-dry, Mrs Sayers sat her down in front of her dressing table, and opened the vanity case. She took out the comb, and combed a fringe over the bad eye. ‘I was given the calling cards of – oh – at least twenty men.’ Mrs Sayers looked her up and down. Katherine reached for the compact, and with an unsteady hand – her breaths not yet resumed – she patted the first puff of powder onto her cheek.

‘We will do well,’ Mrs Sayers said – ‘No, I won’t be beastly, but a man generally does prefer a woman to have everything in good order.’ She paused to smoke, and gave Katherine a knowing look. ‘And that includes the face.’

Katherine looked down at the contents of the case; at the lipstick standing in the centre.

‘I’ve given you one of mine. It’s your favourite colour, isn’t it? Isn’t that lovely?’

‘You don’t know my favourite colour.’

‘Well, lipstick only really comes in red.’

‘Red isn’t my favourite colour.’

‘I suppose you’d prefer black?’

‘Blue actually.’

‘Well then you’d just look dead. Oh, let’s not quarrel Katherine. Just put it on, there’s a good girl.’

Katherine pursed her lips. The stick skidded onto her cheek.

‘You need to look at what you’re doing, Katherine.’

Katherine’s good eye flared, and she stared up at Mrs Sayers through the thin cloud of powder and smoke. She wanted to be sick. She wanted to spit. The taste of vinegar and tobacco was nauseating. ‘No,’ she said.

Mrs Sayers ran her tongue along her front teeth. ‘I think I have something–.’ She caught Katherine’s good eye. ‘Oh, dear, you look so miserable.’ She placed her fingernails at the corners of Katherine’s mouth, and she pushed her lips up into a beam. ‘There! Now if only I had a camera. You look so pretty when you smile.’ She ran her tongue again. ‘This bloody tobacco. What’s worse – I’m down to my last packet.’ She reached for the hand mirror.

‘No!’ Katherine darted forward and slapped the mirror out of her hand. ‘I don’t want to see!’

Mrs Sayers stepped back, eyes wide. ‘There’s something caught in my teeth, that is all.’

Katherine went red. ‘I thought–.’

‘Tomorrow,’ Mrs Sayers cut in, ‘you better hope that somebody falls in love with you, because I can’t look after you forever.’ She turned, and walked levelly out of the room, not knowing which part of the house she would go to.

Read Part I.

Read Part III.

Read Part IV.

Beren Reid | Mar 2017/Sept 2018

Photo by Beren Reid, April 2022

3 thoughts on “The Blind Daffodil (Part II)

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