Treading the path of loss: Thoughts on A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold
Psychoanalyst Adams Phillips writes, “Our lives are defined by loss”. For when we lose things they disappear, yet we remember, recall, and, in turn, we become inhabited by that which is no longer there. Lost things live on in us, vacillating between absence and presence.
Set in a crumbling post-WW2 London, A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold is a book about loss, a delicate, haunting meditation on a generation both engulfed and shattered by war. The Allies have been victorious, and everyone should be celebrating, but inside the tiny house in Llanvanor Road, Sylvie has lost one of her twin sons at birth; she seems to be losing her mind. Two years later, Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt little Arthur, a concentration-camp survivor, as a replacement for their dead baby. The child has been dispossessed of his own identity, is given the name of the deceased twin. He is “someone else’s little someone”. The father, Gerald, has also lost, or is trying to lose, his family’s Jewish identity. The book translates intelligently the unshakable fear Gerald still feels of being Jewish in Europe. His hands shake relentlessly and he is suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The war is over, yet things for the family will never be the same again. It is, Gerald believes, “tabulae rasae … records had been scattered, blanks left pending…”
A Small Dark Quiet is also the story of how we fill these blanks, how we live with the real and metaphysical horrifying gaps, described by Edna St Vincent Millay as the “hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” “Let’s find her smile. Let’s find her smile,” Gerald repeats cruelly to Sylvie in their kitchen, trying to recover, resuscitate, the Sylvie he once knew. “My Sylvie had a nice smile,” he says.
Interweaving scenes from 1950s and 1960s, darting between Freud’s mourning and melancholia, as the book advances, author Miranda Gold reveals the stories the characters have told themselves to make sense of their trauma. Each of them tries to deal with their past selves, those which they have relentlessly tried to get rid of, as Roxanne Gay describes, “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere.” We follow Arthur through his own attempt to build an adult life, to understand where he belongs. We meet other characters living with “small dark quiets”: a Polish caretaker with a number tattooed on his arm. Lydia, Arthur’s lover, who is repairing her own past by playacting the role of her previous employer, Mrs Simons. Lydia was the Simons’ nanny, and has stolen the family’s two dolls, and now, grotesquely, pretends they are her children.
In the novel, the strongest, most haunting image of loss and its replacement is the infant Sylvie fabricates from twigs and minuscule buds of white flowers to replace (or make living) her dead baby. This “twig baby” encapsulates “the story of the other little Arthur that Arthur never was…” In the novel, Sylvie believes her baby is buried in the park and visits the grave every Thursday, trying to find “a grave that would keep him.” In one exquisitely painful scene, she takes Arthur to the park; they dig in the soil and grass, hands muddy, trying to find the baby. Gold’s visceral image is macabre and tender, frightening and soft. Sylvie clutches a bundle of twigs, placing her hope, her longing in withered ivory petals.
In A Small Dark Quiet, Miranda Gold’s force is her concentration on ordinary darkness, the banal, yet ruthless effects of war and trauma on the everyday. In keeping with this focus on the intimate life of a family, the book takes place in restricted locations: Llanvanor Road, the park, Arthur’s workplace, the squalid room he rents when he seeks independence and meets the unstable Sylvie. Yet, while the cast and places of the book are clearly identified, the writing darts endlessly back and forth in time. Whilst this is in keeping with the effects of trauma, which exists outside of time, the latter part of the book can be confusing to follow.
Overall, however, A Small Dark Quiet is a highly perceptive, beautifully crafted, lyrical book, highlighting aspects of the trauma of WW2 often ignored. Books like this must be written and read, for as the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, “to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” This is a loss we cannot neglect.
“Grandma, it’s as fresh as new paint,” whispers Trudy. She edges her big, pliable body into the uncomfortable chair. Trudy’s flesh smells of synthetic strawberries, is soft as spreading butter. The room in the Bellevue Retirement Home is too small; there is only enough space for a chair, for Trudy, for a bed and for Grandma Violet.
“Grandma Violet,” Trudy continues, a smile stretches across her flour-white, moon-like face, “I started my new job today.”
Trudy’s feet ache from standing eight hours at the All Day Breakfast Grill of the OK Restaurant, at the Take Time Services situated on Junction 56, on the M7 heading North. She wore her new blue shoes, as navy as the sea.
“I’ve got to look smart,” Trudy insisted to her best friend Carol, gripping a bag bulging with new clothes. But, Carol wasn’t listening. She was thinking about Marvin, her twelve-year-old son, who had been caught on porn Internet sites at school.
“Grandma Violet,” insists Trudy, “I’m working as a Catering Assistant. We have to wear a uniform and I’ve got a badge with my name on it, but they spelt Desborough wrong.”
Trudy blushes slightly. She recalls Richard, the middle-aged manager, pinning plastic onto her broad chest, winking and calling her,
“A big girl.”
Richard likes “his girls big,” yet is married to a woman as light as a feather, as nervous as a kite. Trudy has always been large, steady.
Last night Trudy slept on Carol’s sofa. After sunset, she multiplied and subtracted, structured her existence. She likes the feel of numbers, she can smell them as she counts, taste their shape. In the dark, she weighs figures on the scales of her tongue.
She has been here since Violet went into the Home. Four months ago, Trudy met the woman from the Council. She explained to Trudy in a very loud voice,
“You have to leave dear, we’re transferring this accommodation; your Grandma has been relocated.”
And she insisted on this word, relocated, like it was something understood, essential. Trudy stared at the woman’s earrings, large hoops strung with dozens of tiny wooden beads, which quivered and swayed as she spoke.
Trudy had been living with Grandma since she was twelve, since Mum left with Dave, an evangelical Christian, to spread the word of the Lord. Trudy’s bedroom had a poster of a kitten on one wall with the slogan God Loves You and Iron Maiden opposite. There was a yellow bedspread, and a tiny china dog that Mum had bought in Bangor.
When Grandma went into the Home, Carol and Marvin helped a tearful Trudy pack. Carol chucked the posters and the china dog, but Trudy held onto the bedspread.
“You can sleep on my sofa.”
Marvin laid the yellow bedspread on the sofa cushions.
Carol’s sofa feels hard against Trudy’s gentle flesh; she winds herself into the yellow bedspread. Trudy likes the endlessness of her body, is comforted by the yielding rolls of flesh; they are a trophy to her existence. Layers of overlapping skin, delicate and white like snowdrifts.
Marvin says goodnight and wonders how it would feel to venture between Trudy’s thighs, to seek out the opening like the explorer of a pyramid, to discover a jewel or a curse.
In the Home, Trudy explains to Grandma Violet,
“I caught a staff bus to work at four this morning.”
In the empty pre-dawn gloom, the mini-bus headed for the motorway services. The bus drove past Trudy’s old school and the vacant shopping precinct. It travelled through the new estates, past gravel drives, ponies and hot tubs and out onto the virgin territory: the motorway. Moving along the blankness of the tarmac, Trudy was as happy as a lamb, anything could happen here.
In the Home, Trudy reaches for a packet of crisps. There are seventy-six crisps inside each packet; that’s the average variation calculated by Trudy. Except for packets of cheese and onion crisps, which, she approximates, average on seventy-three. It’s inexplicable; but Trudy need not to know why, the important thing is the calculating; the numbers are as pretty as pink.
“You’re a dreamer,” Grandma Violet said. In the afternoons before the relocation, they would eat custard creams; dip the pale biscuits into milky tea. Trudy’s mug was pink with hundreds of tiny dots, sometimes she and Violet tried to count them.
“I reckon about five hundred,” guessed Violet.
“Not sure,” said Trudy. “You have to take a sample area and times it by the whole surface area.”
Trudy learned this in Maths at school, but no one ever realised she understood. She loves the shape of numbers, especially square roots, what the teacher called the numerical element. Maths are beautiful in Trudy’s mind, they contain a kind of truth, as ivory and pure as her skin.
“I met the forecourt manager,” Trudy tells her Grandma, wiping crisp crumbs from her lap. “He took me around. It’s really posh grandma, spanking new.”
At four-thirty, Richard shows Trudy the Take Time Services. The building smells of stale fat and cleaning products. Almost empty, in the half-light, it glowed like a forgotten spaceship. A figment of a planning god’s imagination, the Services were nowhere, belonged to no one, were unburdened by history. The only relic left for future generations was congealed fat in plastic pipes.
“Take Time Services are like villages,” Richard explains to Trudy in the darkness, “there are shops, garages, the forecourt, hotels, the Game Zone and, of course, catering outlets. We’ll be trying you out at the All Day Breakfast Grill of the OK Restaurant.”
Richard introduces Trudy to Bob, the PSCO, the Police Community Support Officer.
“I met Bob who does “front-life staff security and fights against gang crime.” Trudy recites to Grandma Violet. “He had a uniform and a hat.”
Bob is an ex-SAS man, now in private security.He tells Trudy that the real challenge,
“Is dealing with the anonymous nature of the Services, as criminals like anonymity.”
Trudy smiles and counts the buttons on his jacket; there are seven, including cuffs.
“Hundreds of people come through here everyday,” Richard explains. “Eighty million people a year visit Take Time Services across the UK. Some get petrol, most eat and shop. Some gamble, a few sleep. Nobody stays.”
Richard imagines the mass of hands and feet that have walked on the fake marble floor. Faces recorded on CCTV cameras. Skin on metal.Sometimes, he dreams of a deluge of dismembered toes and fingers, lost in the Service Area, stranded inside the perimeter roads, unable to find their way home. He awakes, terrified, by his tiny wife, so light she barely seems to be there.
At five thirty, Trudy is introduced to Colin, the chef. He explains about preparing the All Day Breakfasts. He shows her the piles of frozen bacon, sausages, tins of beans, hash browns, mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and loaves of bread.
“It’s all about timing and keeping things hot,” Colin says. Trudy nods. She likes time.
“Grandma Violet,” Trudy declares, crunching on a salty crisp, “I cooked one hundred and twenty-seven eggs this morning.”
Trudy counted them, golden globes of yellow; precious secrets surrounded by a sea of white. Standing by the heat of the griddle, she watched the chef Colin, felt her face flush red. She saw him flip eggs with a metal spatula, his large hands bright beneath the hot counter glow. Colin has spiky hair.
“The chef looks like a pop star,” Trudy tells Grandma. Trudy has decided she will fall in love with Colin; they will marry and have two sturdy little boys. Trudy does not want a girl, she would be afraid that a princess would break. Colin’s hair frames a pale face, brown eyes and a sudden smile. He has a wife and a little girl,
“Called Madison,” he tells Trudy, as he fries the eggs.
Yet, Colin’s family do not feature in Trudy’s plan, they float at the edges fuzzy, unreal; faces blurred out of the picture.
“You need a man,” Trudy’s friend Carol tells her. Carol is much older than Trudy, they met at college doing ‘Basic Skills’ training: Reading, Writing, and Maths. Nobody can imagine that Trudy can understand. She can barely read and write. Trudy is a virgin,
“White as snow,” says Carol, screaming with laughter after alcopops. But Trudy knows how sex is done. Marvin has shown her the porn videos that Carol’s brother Phil sells on eBay.
“I served two hundred and thirteen truck driver’s breakfasts,” Trudy says cramming more crisps into her mouth. She has almost finished the Salt and Vinegar packet. She sticks her little finger into the corner to reach the last few salty crumbs: sixty-seven crisps, an average number.
At seven o’clock the flow of customers at the All Day Breakfast Grill increases. Trudy watches Colin working fast until nine. She slumbers back and forth, brings Colin sausages, eggs, mushrooms and bread. She drops a packet of bacon, fumbles with the lock of the fridge. Colin does not imagine that she will stay.
“The morning is the busiest time of day,” Colin explains. “Then, we have a break until lunchtime. All sorts of people eat All Day Breakfast’s: lorry drivers, sales people, retired couples on holiday.”
Trudy looks at her Grandma in the Home. She is hungry. There are chocolate bars in her new handbag. She bought the bag from a cheap shop where Carol says,
“Everything costs nothing.”
Trudy thinks about calculating these quantities: everything, nothing.
“They give it away,” Carol says.
Colin cooks the breakfasts, Trudy watches.
“Today you observe, tomorrow you’ll be frying,” says Richard, at nine thirty, winking. Colin sighs when he sees Richard flirting with the new girl; he doesn’t like the manager.
“It’s all swings and roundabouts,” Colin’s dad told him too many times, dying just before retirement. Colin has worked in the Service station for several years, is looking to get a job as a chef in a pub. He has a dream, but it seems to be melting. His wife says he should be on the television.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” she tells Colin.
At ten thirty, Colin and Trudy have a break, drink a coffee.
“I had a cappuccino with two sugars,” Trudy tells Grandma in the stuffy room in the Home. “Colin had his black with no sugar.”
Trudy sips her hot, sweet drink, slips off her new shoes, which are giving her blisters, hopes that her feet don’t smell.
“Wear extra deodorant,” Carol warned her, “You don’t want to sweat like a pig.” Before leaving the house that morning, Trudy enveloped every square inch of her skin in strawberry body spray.
“The last bit of the day was the lunches. Well, I mean, breakfast as lunch. All day breakfast,” Trudy explains to Grandma.
At eleven thirty it started to get busy again. Trudy and Colin worked until two.
“You get some regulars,” Colin tells Trudy. “But mostly it’s all new faces. You know, anonymous.”
Trudy still doesn’t know what this means, maybe it’s like enormous, which means very big. She likes all these different, large faces; she counts them as they arrive. She calculates that twenty-seven of the men who order a Full Cracker Jack Breakfast with chips are wearing dark-coloured fleece jackets.
At one thirty, Richard asks Trudy to come into his office before she catches the staff bus home.
“I just want to evaluate your first day,” he says, winking. Trudy smiles.
“I like big girls,” he says. Trudy looks at his eyes, his middle-aged spread and remembers Colin, their two sturdy little boys, their wedding plans, the princess girl that they will never have. Trudy closes her eyes and numbers floods her mind. This occasionally happens to Trudy. The figures integrate, reduce and map. Shapes dance in algebraic extrapolations, permutations and perform calculus of variations. Trudy opens her mouth and the numbers fall, like snowflakes, on her neat little tongue. They taste lemony, bitter and slightly sweet. Richard watches the fat girl standing, eyes closed, mouth open. He moves away, embarrassed now. Trudy opens her eyes, smiling, slightly exhausted.
“Well, we’ll ring you if we need extra staff,” says Richard brusquely. Trudy leaves the Take Time Services. Her heart is beating fast. She gets the staff bus back to town and walks straight to the Home to visit Grandma Violet, stopping on the way to buy chocolate and crisps.
Trudy glances at her Grandma, lying in the bed, staring at the wall.
“I’ll be off now, Grandma,” she says. She’s eaten the last bar of chocolate and finished all the crisps.
“She can’t see or hear anything since the stroke,” the nurse explains at the Home. “But they say people can feel your presence.” Trudy strokes her Grandma’s hand, says goodbye. She wonders if Grandma will come to her and Colin’s wedding; she thinks about relocation, movement, and home.
That evening lying on Carol’s sofa, Trudy cannot see the sky. The milky yellow light from the street lamps muffles the extraordinary astral truth, the beauty of the stars.