Letting down her hair
Bianca was at the door. I smelt her as soon as I opened it: rose and lavender with a hint of mothballs. Rose was that day’s theme. A floaty chiffon scarf around her shoulders, rose coloured. A gauzy print dress, rose patterned on deep purple, the asymetric hem falling in as yet unfashionable waves. All topped off with a large straw hat encircled with faded silk roses, crowning shining plaited coils of fox red hair.
Purple was the background theme of my childhood, much favoured by members of The Order of the Cross. Their scriptures, invented in the 1930s and 40s by the Reverend J.Todd Ferrier (‘Our Friend’) were heavy tomes covered in …purple damask. Order members were all pacifists and vegetarian. On Sundays at the Sanctuary (an upstairs room above my father’s surgery) my parents and their friends, fellow members, would in turn transmogrify into preachers, cloaked in soft purple satin robes. During the long and incomprehensible services, with wheezing hymns pumped out on an organ, I watched the coils of incense rise. I listened to the caged budgies in Gloucester park opposite, and felt the hard rush seats barcode my bare thighs and dreamt of escape and the nut roast for lunch.
Bianca was just one of the colourful characters of my childhood, where a FatherMother was worshiped instead of god, Christ was ‘The Master’ and where angels hovered everywhere. Androgynous pictures of them in floaty garments hung over my parents’ beds. A Guardian Angel, I learnt, was always there to protect me. (A dangerous idea for an adventurous child addicted to the Famous Five books). Bianca, of all the members of The Order, transfixed me. She sits here by my desk. A little cloth sculpture by a fellow member. Her hands are suspended in front of her chest; the knitting needle pins that held a tiny ball of wool have fallen out of them long ago. Her neck is broken and her head would lol onto her chest without the strip of masking tape that holds it up, so you can see the coils around her head. Nevertheless she is every last stitch the Bianca I knew.
A ‘grunge’ dresser long before the word was invented, before charity shops existed, she would trawl jumble sales to assemble her outfits; topping them off with gaudy paste broaches. She already seemed ancient when I knew her – but then most grownups did. By the hairs on her chin, and freckled arms, she must have been in her mid 50s or 60s when my five year old self opened the door to her.
In ‘reduced circumstances’, I believe Bianca lived in a grace and favour caravan in the woods next to Resthaven, an old people’s home near Stroud. On Wednesdays she would take the 56 bus from Pitchcombe to our house in Gloucester to help my mother with the ironing. Ours was a busy doctor’s household. In school holidays there would be shirts for four brothers and my father to iron, whilst my mother fed sheets through a rotary iron. But on quieter visits, when my big, rowdy, messy brothers were all away at boarding school, I would have quality time with Bianca. I would be ready for her with a little hoard of gold coloured hairpins clasped in my hand, pins that she had shed around the house the previous visit. Pins that held the coils in place.
Taking a break from the singeing hot kitchen, Bianca would retreat to the cool of the downstairs cloak room, which smelt of damp woollen coats and air-wick loo freshener. There she would indulge me by letting down her hair. Hair that when released fell heavily down to her ankles in fiery Rumplestiltskin waves from the plaiting. She brushed and brushed it till it shone and crackled letting me feel it’s silky softness. How I envied that hair. My brother Ian once found me sobbing in front of the slightly foxed bathroom mirror after the savage haircut my mother favoured. “No one will marry me now” I wailed. It became the family joke for a while, making me blush to my roots each time it was mentioned.
I asked Bianca one day “Did you ever have a fiancee? Didn’t you want to marry?”
“Oh dearie me. What a question. Well as a matter of fact I almost did. He was an emperor and a king you know.” My eyes widened. “Black and beautiful and his chest was covered with gold medals and chains. A neat silver beard – oh he was so handsome. “
Emperor (and self appointed King) Haile Selassie was exiled during World War II to Bath, in the West of England. She told me that at the time she was a companion to *Lady Macaulay and often attended elegant social events with her. Presumably it was at one of these events she met Selassie. I found this picture of her in fancy dress. She stands on the far right, hair not yet ankle length, but well on the way. I imagine him transfixed, like I was, by her long red plait, and graceful bearing.
“He proposed to me darling, and gave me a black-stoned ring. I had to turn him down. He was King of Ethiopia. It’s very hot there. I didn’t think the sun would suit my complexion.”
Many years later, when I was in my 30s, it fell to my mother to clear out Bianca’s possessions when she died. A kindly duty she often did for friends and one I was always eager to help with because who knows what treasure might be unearthed? Bianca had ended her days in a high ceilinged, but small room in Faithful House in Cheltenham. A home for elderly nurses who were on their uppers. The staff were rather keen for a quick and thorough clear out, she had piles of suitcases in her room and in their storage. I searched every little faded box, tissue paper screw and suitcase for that ring. I didn’t find it. Perhaps she gave it back? What I did find, however, was pure gold. In a long box, wrapped in tissue, tied at each end with a pale blue satin ribbon, was folded a fox red plait.
*A Wiki search for information on a Lady Macaulay has sadly revealed nothing. However I did find this woman, a writer, Dame Rosa Macaulay, whose home was completely destroyed in the blitz. Might she have fled to Bath at that time? She too was drawn to deeper spiritual dimensions. Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity”; her writings reveal a more complex, mystical sense of the divine. Her unusual take on Christianity would have been right up Bianca’s street, she would have made a perfect companion. Like Bianca she too was a pacifist and between wars was a sponsor of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, until she recanted in 1940, after her home was flattened perhaps?
I want to believe this is the Macaulay that Bianca companioned in Bath. Who could not resist someone who writes this memorable first line from her book The Towers of Trebizond: ‘”Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’