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The Picton boat was due to leave at half-past eleven. It was a beautiful
night, mild, starry, only when they got out of the cab and started to walk
down the Old Wharf that jutted out into the harbour, a faint wind blowing
off the water ruffled under Fenella’s hat, and she put up her hand to keep
it on. It was dark on the Old Wharf, very dark; the wool sheds, the cattle
trucks, the cranes standing up so high, the little squat railway engine,
all seemed carved out of solid darkness. Here and there on a rounded wood-
pile, that was like the stalk of a huge black mushroom, there hung a
lantern, but it seemed afraid to unfurl its timid, quivering light in all
that blackness; it burned softly, as if for itself.
Fenella’s father pushed on with quick, nervous strides. Beside him her
grandma bustled along in her crackling black ulster; they went so fast that
she had now and again to give an undignified little skip to keep up with
them. As well as her luggage strapped into a neat sausage, Fenella carried
clasped to her her grandma’s umbrella, and the handle, which was a swan’s
head, kept giving her shoulder a sharp little peck as if it too wanted her
to hurry…Men, their caps pulled down, their collars turned up, swung by;
a few women all muffled scurried along; and one tiny boy, only his little
black arms and legs showing out of a white woolly shawl, was jerked along
angrily between his father and mother; he looked like a baby fly that had
fallen into the cream.
Mansfield’s world is full of departures as a friend very recently remarked. Here the sculpturing details of this late night world reflect both the wide eyed fascinaion of a child’s venture into a new place and situation as well as suffusing the landscape with a darknes that is suggestive of sorrow and unresolved loss. Night time observations are translated into slightly surreal and even grotesque images though I think they just hold off the grotesque in favour of this unresolved looming physicality. I do enjoy this womb like world of the wharf. It has a solidity and independence that thrills as well as unnnerves and this muted conflict between excitement and sadness remains present throughout the story.
The light burning ‘softly as if for itself’ operates almost autonomously in the consciousness of the fiction’s narrative. Perhaps it signfies Fenella herself with her isolation and yet hope. The death of the child’s mother remains the absent centre of the story, being the origin and source of the narrative. Yet here too, as in the New Zealand fictions, the grandmother functions as a profoundly protective figure; a bastion of stability and nurture.
All the hectic anonymous movement of grouped humans in the second paragraph contrasts with the self conscious whimsy of the umbrella and the purposeful nervousness of the father and grandmother as they try to access the boat. Of course the final simile in the paragraph expresses the horror of broken relationships in childhood and once agin hints at parallels between the protagonist Fenella and her bereavement. The foreignness of this departure and the probability fo the new, usurping the old, is reflected in the womb like impressionistic details suggesting that Fenella’s excursion may be far longer and more life changing than any of the protagonists might know.
How visual and feeling this world. ……Word sculpture!
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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