THE SMELL OF BURNING
This is a story about possessions, and about how memories, guilt and grief can be wound around them so tightly that the only solution is an almighty bonfire. It is also about the inexorable logic of psychic cause and effect. There is no such thing as a free lunch, emotionally speaking. Every choice has its price.
Valerie and Sarah met at University when they were both 18. Sarah was immediately struck by the contrast between them. Val was tall, upper-middle-class, and with that drawling confidence which comes from knowing where everything should be. She could drive, she could read music. Sarah could do none of those: little, awkward, working-class, all she had was her cleverness. They shared a flat, and Sarah saw how the management of objects was a mark of one’s inner being. She had always been a late riser and a slattern, whereas Valerie rose at 6. Sarah asked in wonderment what Val did at that hour, and she replied: “I polish the furniture.” Sarah imagined her thin figure in the dawn light, flittingly reflected in the armoires, flapping a feather duster in her hand.
Digging down, Sarah saw that the contrast between them was more extreme than she had thought at first. Valerie’s mother hated her: she came late in her life, and the mother viewed her young beauty as a threat to her own. Mother’s specialism was humiliation of the vulnerable. Sarah saw in photos and in life how Val’s characteristic half-smile, her moue, came into being. She could not afford to be joyful, lest she be caught in her mother’s trap. Sarah’s own background was different. She was deeply, almost obsessively loved by her mother, with an intensity that made her uneasy. She could do nothing wrong: and that gave her an unholy desire to jump feet-first into any mess. Sarah’s mother, generous to a fault, had instilled that quality in her, and it easily turned into recklessness.
The stage was set for a life-long relationship between Sarah and Val, but it was not one of mutuality. It was one of unequal fascination and savage dependance, which shifted its balance of power from one decade to the next. A perfect image of it was caught in one particular day in the Welsh border country. They went there in search of the haunts of Edward Thomas, one of Val’s favourites. They borrowed a horse (by this time Sarah had learned to ride, very badly) and they took it in turns to ride, with the other one running along beside. Each runner wished she was the rider, and vice versa. And so it went on.
Sarah was chronically insecure about some things: “does this dress suit me?” - “shall I go to bed with him?”- “shall I take this job?” Economical with her words, Val’s reply was always the same: “of course”. What Val was unsure about was the world of ideas. But these were Sarah’s forte; and she always knew, with the speed of an arrow, what path she should follow in the forest of concepts. This split in their competence had far-reaching consequences.
Sarah got married, finally, and Val was her bridesmaid. The contrast in their appearances was comic. Suffering from her first bout of self-inflicted over-eating, Sarah was like a small blonde barrage balloon, while Val had succumbed to anorexia and was like a wraith. She insisted on wearing a dark velvet jacket with a shimmering gold skirt, and had dyed her hair and eyebrows black. She was an elegant, sinister outrider to the procession, and would not, or could not, smile for the cameras.
Time passed, and they lost touch. Sarah became very successful academically, and Val found (and then dismissed) a partner and threw herself into equestriana and the purchase of more and more horses. After a while she decided to re-ignite her intellectual life, and contacted Sarah. She needed help in setting up a project in an area in which Sarah had a lot of expertise. She was flattered: in any event, it was nice to be wanted. But the problem was that their intellectual landscapes were totally irreconcilable. Both of them defended our territories fiercely, so that in the end they could not hear each other’s argument.
Val was now the one needing reassurance, and would phone Sarah several times a day: “shall I get rid of X?” - “should I knock down that wall?” - “shall I do that dressage job?” But Sarah could not answer “of course”, as she had done before, and so she puzzled and agonised over her replies. It was a sort of impasse: and as a solution, the friendship began to be conducted entirely through orgies of consumption. They made forays into every antique fair and every garden centre for miles around, and came staggering home with statues, trompe l’oeuil paintings, rare plants, and objects which were often as useless as they were ugly. These folies a deux , which nearly bankrupted both of them, took place in the summers, and each one ended the same way. When dusk fell, either in Val’s garden or in Sarah’s, Val would light dozens of candles and compare them to the stars: “I love the smell of burning”.
Things went badly wrong. Val had a catastrophic stroke which left her paralysed down one side. She learned to ride and drive again, and went back to work, but something was askew. Her diffidence was replaced by a powerful assertiveness. Sarah was torn between compassion and rage: pity for Val’s state, and anger at her imperiousness. To be sure, their outings continued after a fashion, but now they took the form of Val buying pieces of woodwormed junk, which Sarah lugged behind her, swearing under her breath. With a curious irony, their sizes were reversed. Val became fat, and as she did so, Sarah became thin. But this did not make her happy. She wanted to be a loving friend to the fallen Val, but to her dismay, she boiled with resentment as she cleaned the kitchen and brought in the wood.
After ten years of such a reduced life, Val died very suddenly as the result of an accident. Sarah came up immediately, and wanted to see the body to prove to herself that Val was gone. But the undertaker dissuaded her, saying “some people decayed very rapidly” after a post-mortem. At once Sarah knew that Val must be burned, as a way of neutralising the decomposition. And so she had her cremated, on a bright winter’s day, in a muddle-headed attempt to make everything clean, and to deal with the contradictions of her feelings.
Val had left everything to Sarah. But that was not as nice as it seemed at first. The 8-bedroomed house was stuffed to the gunwales, since Val had literally never thrown anything away. Sarah filled skip after skip, and the charity shops eventually closed their doors when they saw her coming. Val’s collecting habits had changed, and she had developed a taste for Eastern exotica, so there were marioshkas, full-size Japanese bridges for the garden, torn silk embroidery, kimonos, netsuke, and then (digging further down) Victorian underwear, Masonic regalia, iron fire-dogs, old leading reins, opera scores. And then the letters. There were suitcases of letters from old lovers, but of course none from the recipient: she was silent forever. Boxes of photos of relatives long dead. Sarah thought again that the fire was the only solution, and so night after night the smell of burning filled the house and the garden and her face became black from the smoke.
This all took a long while. Eventually it was done, the house was sold, the cash arrived. But here was the rub. Sarah could not bring myself to touch much of it. This was not like her, as she was usually the most spendthrift and profligate of souls. But the money seemed to have become Val’s body. Like a cutter-up, secretly scarring herself and gaining release through the cuts concealed beneath the sleeve, Sarah started to burn the money, a few notes at a time. She noticed that the smell of burning clung to her hair and clothes, but the inconvenience of this was outweighed by the relief she felt.
In the end, common sense would prevail and the slightly-diminished heap of cash would remain as it was. But for the moment, Sarah’s secret pleasure was to throw away that which most people treasure, and to watch the ashes float away into the sky.