Flower girls and horror movies

It’s happened before. I sit in front of the computer and type away, eyes on the keyboard. I cannot see the screen or notice, not a single word I’ve typed has registered.

A blank page and I have been writing for over fifteen minutes. 

I could go back and try to write all the things I put down earlier but now it’s boring. I’ve already been there, and I don’t want to return to the same old territory. 

Nothing to show for my efforts. It demands a certain calm, otherwise, I might be left feeling even worse than when I began.

So I start again.

My mother’s cousin Ria worked for the VVV (the tourist bureau) in Haarlem, Holland and every year she arranged for a different group of girls to represent her city as flower girls, Bloemenmeisjes.

They dressed similarly in the fashion of the day and each carried a flat basket of flowers and wore a wide smile. They travelled on a float throughout the city as part of the celebrations. 

There’s something icky to me about the concept of flower girls. I think of vestal virgins and young girls used as sacrifices to the gods, their beauty and innocence the biggest drawcard to seal their deaths. 

During my early twenties, I stayed one time on holiday with my husband, before he was my husband, in a basement flat, which my mother’s cousin owned. 

One-night late, curiosity overtook any respect I might have held for my cousin’s privacy, and I went exploring the secret places in her flat. 

In a separate bedroom from where we slept, I came across a deep trunk filled with photos and memorabilia of flower girls.

My second cousin had collected newspaper cuttings, photos of her bloemenmeisjes and photos of herself with the mayor and other dignitaries. 

My imagination went berserk. Fuelled in part by reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and haunted by memories of the film I had seen a couple of years earlier and based loosely around Du Maurier’s story, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as leads. 

The film follows a grief-stricken couple whose daughter Christine dies in an accident in the sprawling grounds of their country home after slipping into a pond in search of her ball. 

The daughter, Christine, was wearing a red hooded raincoat at the time of her death. The story is pockmarked with signs of what is to come. A naked woman’s dead body is winched out of the river in Venice. A killer is on the loose. Shots of gargoyles loom menacingly.

Christine’s father, who restores antiquities visits Venice to work on a crumbling stone church, flanked by monstrous gargoyles. His wife struggling over her daughter’s death accompanies him. In typical British style, the couple ships their son off to boarding school. 

The film then centres around their time in Venice. At dinner one evening, after a delicious lovemaking scene, the only joyous moment in the movie, the wife is fascinated by a couple of tourists, elderly sisters, one of whom is blind. The blind woman is a psychic and the wife encounters them in the toilets and begins a conversation. The psychic channels Christine who wants to warn them her father is in danger. 

The father won’t hear of it when his wife begs him to talk to the blind woman, and the film, which takes a long time to get you there, ends in tragedy.

I should not describe the end for fear of ruining the story, save to say when I first saw it I had not seen it coming. 

I should have seen it coming. In retrospect, there were plenty of warnings. A rock falls from on high as if pushed by a malevolent gargoyle and nearly crushes our hero. There’s the naked woman her dead body dripping wet, and in the blind woman’s future vision, we see flashes of a funeral, a coffin carried on top of a boat along one of the canals in Venice.  

Finally, the father races through the streets following a small figure in a red raincoat just like his daughter’s coat on the day of her death.

We think he might be following Christine, reincarnated. He thinks he’s following Christine, or someone come to tell him about her. But the red-coated creature turns into something from a horror movie. 

I refuse to go to horror movies and even as I write this, the horror stays with me. 

I could not sleep for days after I saw this movie and later in Haarlem when I stayed at my cousin’s house and decided I must read the actual book to put my mind at rest, I became terrified at the thought that my cousin’s preoccupation with flower girls might be something else. 

The two things merged in my mind, however unrelated.

In the flat below my cousin’s sumptuous apartment had windows in the kitchen that looked out onto the pavement. You could see people’s feet as they walked past. I sat in this basement apartment and read my book at the kitchen table becoming more alarmed every day. 

Haunted. 

In the haunted kitchen circa 1980

There’s no great conclusion here. I finished the book and it did not affect me so deeply as the film adaptation, perhaps made worse by the jenever (Dutch gin) and tonic I drank in copious quantities at night to help me sleep. 

When we left Holland for home, and I heard several years later that my mother’s cousin had developed Parkinson’s and died young, it left a hollow feeling. 

Never as it seems

A friend told me recently that the French translation of Little Women, the book by Louis M Alcott, reads as The Daughters of Mr March because there is no equivalent expression to convey the essence of Little Women in French. 

Is it patriarchal and possessive? 

I prefer the word ‘woman’ to ‘lady’. The word ‘ladies’ has such a ring of gentility about it. 

The other day, I went with my own little women. Or at least three of them, as the fourth is busy trying to rebuild a kitchen in her house. 

We were joined by a very old friend. 

Many years ago, we went to see the Gillian Armstrong 1994 adaptation of Little Women with a good friend when she was younger than I am now at the Carlton flea pit as they called the Carlton movie house in those days.

It had individual leather seats whose inner springs were almost collapsed to the point you almost sat on the floor. 

My daughters, one a baby, were still young children only one nudging adolescence then. 

I enjoyed this latest version of Little Women for its non-chronological effort to keep pace with the spirit of the book, a writer whom I imagine was trying to shift out of convention into a freer view of the world. 

How could any such view be experienced in a deeply Christian household struggling in poverty alongside much richer neighbours and relatives, and also against a backdrop of the American civil war? 

A minister father, a dedicated mother who gave up her dreams for her good works and her children. Reminds me somewhat of my own mother, only unlike Marmee, my mother was not married to a religious Chaplin. 

My mother might have liked that. To have been married to a priest. But Catholic priests were/are not allowed to marry. 

When I was young, I held the same view of priests as did my mother. She thought they were a cut above the vanities of ordinary men. The priests in her mind, were all ‘good’ men who knew how to be empathic and kind, who knew how to consider other people, who never got angry or drunk like our father. 

They would have been much better as a partner. Though my mother once told me she preferred that priests stayed celibate. She was fearful of whatever pillow talk might ensure.

‘I would not like the priest to tell his partner what I told him in confession,’ she told me once. 

Funny to me, the parallels to other more secular worlds.

When I moved first into social work and later into therapy, I imagined that any man who went into one of the helping professions must be a cut above the rest. 

In the mid-1970s, I went on placement with one such good man, the two of us, me and (I shall call him) Tom were appointed to work within the Northcote community. 

We were stationed at the Northcote Town Hall for six weeks over the Christmas period. Our job to travel throughout the community to interview the local charities and services and draw up a booklet of what was available to the community.

A list of community services. 

My mother included this newspaper clipping in her autobiography. Perhaps she was proud to have a daughter whose name featured in the newspaper then. She never told me as much.

The task itself was not of much interest to me, but travelling every day across town to Northcote was exciting and moving into a new neighbourhood, taking on the authority of one who knew how to do these things – when I did not – most of all working alongside Tom, was such a pleasure. 

He was married at the time to a woman who was as charming as he and they had a small daughter. It was my first glimpse into new parenthood and these two impressed me as the most loving of couples. 

I went over some weekend evenings with my then-boyfriend Paul and we spent hours playing card games, eating cheese and drinking, the men beer, and the women, Pimms and lemonade (or some other such sweet concoction). 

We fell out of contact once I finished my degree as well as switched boyfriends for another and entered a different life in the therapy world. 

Tom became an administrator in community services, the branch of social work that can lead people into higher places. I stayed at the grassroots of working with people.

I think of Tom from time to time, googled him once. Heard somewhere that he and his wife had split.

This put a nail in the coffin of my most delicious fantasy, that marriages to men who are social workers or therapists must be marriages made in Heaven.

I started watching a Netflix show called Bonus family the other night. 

It’s Swedish, (subtitles needed) and features a couple who work together as therapists to help couples who are struggling.

I won’t go into the details other than to observe the strange antics of this therapist couple who sit side by side as they seek to help the couple seated opposite.

They come across as thoughtful and wise.

Later we see the therapists in their kitchen between sessions bickering in a way that puts any fantasy of them as an ideal couple to rest. 

Truth is there’s no such thing as an ideal couple any more than there’s an ideal person, despite our tendency to want to include saints, heroes, and celebrities in our lives. 

We are all ordinary folk, mere mortals, flawed and prone to failure, including in our relationships. Despite the romantic ideals evoked in books like Little Women.

Oh but the fantasy is such a pleasure, as the fictional little woman, Jo Marsh will tell you.