Heart Failure, 2021
Violet Vee lies on her deathbed in the Cornflower Room of her local hospice. They’d given her the choice of here or Sunflower but this was an obvious choice, cornflowers taking Violet back to another life where flowers bloomed bright as the sky and she herself began her own blooming.
Violet is comfortable, a recent top-up of Morphine nicely softening the edges. She smiles, casts her still piercing eyes over her surroundings. Paul sits beside her, his wide hand hiding hers. She examines his face – poker-neutral. She isn’t surprised, he’s had plenty of practice at giving nothing away, but he catches her eye and she knows. She can read him as only a Russian native can truly read Cyrillic. After she’s gone, people will wonder at his lack of grief – they’ll collect in the church hall and comment how he’s never shed a tear. Tut-tut, they will say, perhaps he never truly loved her. But only Violet knows about the secret chamber of his heart. Only Violet has the key. He squeezes her fingers and she squeezes back.
At the foot of the bed, grasping one another’s hands are Karla, Yasmine and Francesca, Violet’s daughters. She still thinks of them as her girls, but now she’s ninety-three, Violet concedes her girls are getting old themselves. Francesca is even a grandmother! Violet snorts at the madness of it all, causing Karla, her youngest, to half-stand, half-dive towards her. Violet raises an enquiring eyebrow.
“I’m quite fine, darling,” she says, “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
The door swings open and in peers Father Francis, the Catholic priest.
“Sure, Violet, I had a call from the sister – she says you requested the Last Rites?” he says in his Irish brogue. “Would now be convenient?”
Violet nods. She waits a beat.
“I’d like some privacy,” she says, “If no one minds?”
Paul and the girls dutifully stand and make their way out of the private room.
“We don’t think she has long now,” Francesca says to the priest in a terrible attempt at a whisper, “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Not at all, not at all,” he says, winking at Violet as they file out.
He looks at the chair where Paul was seated as if his ghost remains, before moving to the other side of her bed and taking her other hand.
In the corridor, her girls wonder at the confessions their mother evidently wants to make on her deathbed. Paul stares at a fixed point out of the window.
“Do you think she has secrets?” they say.
“Mum? I doubt it.”
“No, we know all there is to know about mum.”
After a while, they file back in and resume their positions.
Violet thinks she should probably give them some motherly reassurance. But then again…
Violet looks at her daughters until she catches Yasmine’s eye. She takes a croaky breath and allows her eyeballs to roll backwards.
“I think she’s…”
There’s a collective intake of breath. They all stand and lean towards her.
Violet slowly opens her eyes and grins. There’s no rush, she thinks, no rush at all. Perhaps there’s even time to remember it all one last time…
Broken Ulna, Fractured Radius, 1945
It’s a dusty day in an unrelenting August when Violet decides she cannot stand another second of soul-crushing boredom. There has to be more to life than this. So she packs her red leather portmanteau with a small selection of essentials and simply walks out of the family home.
When she reflects on this moment later in life, she’ll think only of the pain she must have inflicted on her parents. But, at the time, Violet is seventeen, assumes her parents are far too consumed in their own business to even notice she’s gone, feels the world owes her something. Her teenage years have been stolen by The War. It’s as though she has been paused since she was eleven, recently unpausing and finding she’s a woman. A woman who is not suited to a life of cooking and sewing and keeping house.
So Violet places purposeful steps on the hot pavement and takes herself away.
She walks in a straight line until something blocks her path. This is where she’s meant to go, she tells herself. The thing that blocks her path is an enormous white tent with a wooden sign above its door inscribed in a gaudy red and yellow with ‘Spencer’s Circus’. Without pause, Violet strides into the tent. On the central circular stage is an elephant topped with a fairy-like girl in a pink tutu. In front of the elephant, holding a curling whip is a tall, slim man with impossibly black hair.
“We open at seven tonight,” he calls in an accent Violet associates with the aristocracy.
Instead of leaving, she strides closer.
“I’m here for a job,” she says.
The man appraises her from his elevated position. A finger and thumb roll one edge of his handle bar moustache to a shiny point.
“Are you a circus artiste?” he says.
“Yes,” Violet replies, the lie as easy as leaving home. She quickly scans the tent. “I do trapeze.”
“How unusual!” Spencer says, “And absolutely fortuitous – we lost our trapeze girl just this morning.”
By the time Violet has met the whole crew, been fitted with a costume and caked in an obscene layer of make-up it is too late to practise before the evening show. Gamely, and without fear, Violet climbs the rigging to the waiting trapeze. She holds tight, lets her feet leave solid footing. She flies!
This, this is better than darning socks.
It is only when she brazenly tries to hang from her feet, letting go with her hands, that Spencer sees this flame-haired beauty is not a trapeze artist at all. By the time she lands in a crumpled heap beside his best stilt-walker, Spencer is sure. But still, Spencer is awed. He doesn’t meet many with the bottle of Violet Vee – to stride into his tent and onto the trapeze without so much as having visited a circus before (an admission she makes later). She may not be an artiste yet but, by gum, she could be. And perhaps, he cogitates, so much more even than that…