Joan Makes History: Extract

 P r o l o g u e

In the beginning was nothing much. Vague things swirled and whirled, impulses grouped and dissolved, light came and went. It was a fluke, or a leap of faith: but there it was all at once, the first atom, and everything else was just a matter of time.

Imagine the stars burning their hearts out in brand-new galaxies! Imagine the time when bundles of hot gas decided to draw together and be Mars or Earth! Imagine the first rain sizzling down on the first hot rocks, and starting the business of the land and the sea! What aeons of racket there were, of magma squirting up and lava gushing out: what tumult as the globe heated, froze, cracked, drowned: as rock wore away to sand that ebbed and flowed on the floors of warm seas. What convulsions there were, as the bottom of the sea became the top of a surprised mountain steaming in the sun and melting away again, until at last it formed the shapes of Africa and Iceland and the Great South Land!

Imagine dew forming, sun scorching, winds whipping: lichen grasping the side of a rock: grass sprouting and dying, small flowers holding their faces up to the sun. Imagine saplings thickening, putting forth leaves and dropping them off: imagine them swelling at last beyond the strength of the roots and crashing back down to the ground, and from their ruin new trees springing.

Consider the extravagant excess of nature, providing every different bit of earth with its particular kind of life: with Pale Prickly Moses, with the Leafless Milkwort, with the Spoonleaf Sundew: with the Gregarious Stick Insect, with the Sugar Ant, with the Small Green-Banded Blue Butterfly, with the Pie-Dish Beetle, with the Yellow Monday Cicada and the Shining Swift Moth: with the Yellow-Bellied Black Snake, the Sulphur-Crested White Cockatoo, the Frill-Necked Lizard: with the Crest-Tailed Pouched Mouse as well as the Flat-Headed Pouched Mouse: what an unnecessary prodigality of supply!

Imagine, too, those formless jellies from which they say we come: something - what was it? - made them desire history, clustering together and becoming particular: You be skin, I will be legs. What a journey it was, from the trilobite, the graptolite, the pterygotus, to the pterodactyl, the brontosaurus, the tyrannosaurus rex! Things with teeth where their ears should have been, things with four mouths and seven feet, things with eggs the size of houses and tongues as long as tree-trunks!

They trundled and hopped, slithered and leaped, swam, flapped and waddled, and after them came the humans who left footprints in the dust. So many births: imagine them, born every second of every day, year after year: now, and now, and now, and now, just now there are three, four, five new humans in the world, I cannot speak quickly enough to outstrip them. They are pink, brown, or yellow, angry or solemn, arching in a midwife's hands or staring around in a knowing way: bursting forth with a roar, or being lifted astonished out of cut flesh. They suck blindly at nipples, they whimper or crow, they lie in possum-skin rugs or a proud father's arms. Imagine them in their millions, all driven by the same few urgent promptings: to suck, to grasp, to kick, and at last to smile, and with that smile to begin their public life.

So many lives! Being explorers or prisoners of the Crown, hairdressers or tree-choppers, washerwomen or judges, ladies of leisure or bareback riders, photographers or mothers or mayoresses.

I, Joan, have been all these things. I am known to my unimaginative friends simply as Joan, born when this century was new, and now a wife, a mother, and a grandmother: Joan who has cooked dinners, washed socks and swept floors while history happened elsewhere. What my friends do not know is that I am also every woman who has ever drawn breath: there has been a Joan cooking, washing and sweeping through every event of history, although she has not been mentioned in the books until now.

Allow me to introduce myself: Joan, a woman as plain as a plate, and devoid of bust, a grandmother you would pass on the street without a glance. Allow me also to acquaint you with a small selection of those other Joans, those who made the history of this land.

I will begin in the beginning, with myself.

 

J o a n

My conception: It was not night, no, Europeans have no shame and do not trouble to wait until dark for lust. It was the middle of a hot afternoon in the first year of the century, with the sun blazing down outside on planks steaming and adding their salt dampness to air that was already too thick to breathe. It was afternoon, and the rhythm of a thin woman and a thick balding man was attuned, after so many months, to the restless rocking and shifting of the boat under the mattress - oh, that mattress and its manifold rustlings! - on which they coupled.

This was a ship built for the transport of many in cheapness rather than of a few in luxury. It was a mean and cramped ship, a ship of tiny airless cabins with peeling walls, cracked ceilings, and dripping pipes in the corners that conveyed other people's plumbing with a rush and rattle late at night.

Those seedy cabins had occasionally heard the roiling and difficult syllables, the guttural hawkings and strange sibilances of some of Europe's lesser-known languages, and had echoed even more to the ingenious obscenities and sly rude wit of many folk from Lambeth, Bow and Cheapside. They had echoed to the sighs of gentlewomen in reduced circumstances, weeping into embroidered lawn and hankering for home: weeping, but knowing that their chance of husband and hearth, livelihood and life worth living would not be found in the genteel squalor of some seedy out-of-season Brighton boarding house, but here, in this savage new land that wanted everyone: carpenters, cooks, governesses, dentists and hopefuls of no defined skill.

In many languages, the voyagers squeezed into their cabins had spoken of hope, of futures, of the blank sheet of new possibilities waiting for them. They had left behind the squalor of cities so old the very cockroaches were descended from those that had been crushed beneath the buckled feet of Goethe and Shakespeare: they had come with a few plates or bits of embroidered garments, leather-bound books with silverfish in the endpapers, or an engraving or two of Tower Bridge or the Danube, with a pair of candlesticks or their grandfather's chased silver double hunter, with their love of dumplings and pale ale, with their heads full of things in dark forests and wolves on cold plains, or of the way the Thames looked on a spring morning at Wapping: with all this useless baggage they had come, bursting with hope, to the Antipodes for a new life in a new land?

And what a land! Here, they had been told, the sun rose on the wrong side of the sky, stones lay upside down and the trees grew so thick together you could walk for miles along their crests. Now, on this glassy afternoon, their tiresome ship was passing between the headlands that were the gates to that new life, and all those weary folk were gesticulating at the foreign gum trees and asking their hearts what the future held.

My coming into existence was the main thing that made that day so special, but I am a person of magnanimous turn of mind, not one to hog the stage of history. Up on deck those muddles of mixed people gaped at their first sight of their future, but down below in their cabin, my thin woman and her brown-eyed man celebrated their new life in the way they loved to celebrate anything at all, or nothing in particular.

That balding man whispered in an oily language to that thin woman under him: Darling, he whispered, and caressed the bit of cheek beside her mouth, that favourite bit of his wife's face. Darling, we have arrived, he said, and for the last time they heard the mattress rustle and creak under them, and the pipes in the corner mocking them. It was an episode appropriate to such a significant moment: while my father groaned and my mother wept with the storms of pleasure he gave her, a vigorous questing tadpole was nosing into the skin of a ripe egg waiting to be courted, and in that moment's electric interchange, I, Joan, had my beginning.

Those two humans who had come together with lewd and effortful noises to conceive me, who were they, making history in a sound of sighs? Well, there was a thin woman, and a man chunky like a block of chopped wood, and balding so the dome of his cranium was egglike. The thin woman was thin by nature, not design, was in fact not in any way a woman of design, her long face, with its tanned-looking skin, having only its own features for adornment. She was a woman of narrow mobile lips with fine creases at their corners from years of finding things funny. When she smiled or laughed, gold glittered in that mouth, for back in the country they had left behind, that tiny country of werewolves and vampires, the father of the thin woman spent his days peering at molars, and loved nothing better than a bit of fine work on a gold inlay.

And the balding man, who was he? Just another stocky man in a lumpy cheap suit, with his father's signet ring on his little finger. He had always had a way of clutching at the handle of his heavy leather briefcase that had made the thin woman love him, there was such determination, and such innocent hope and purpose in that grip. In the briefcase, she had learned, was not much: a clean handkerchief, a notebook for great thoughts as they occurred, and a few bits of paper relating to enterprises that flickered and smouldered but never caught fire.

My love for you is hunger, he had whispered to the thin woman on the dentist's slippery couch, which during the day was the place where anxious folk squirmed and waited with their toothaches. My love for you is hope.

What is your thinking about a new life in a new land?

The thin woman loved this man in his suit that bulged and buckled, had loved him for a year or more, and had long ago decided that this was the man she wished to spend her life with. She was impatient with dentists and their cautions, their painstaking days fiddling with the endless decaying molars of folk stiff with the apprehension of pain, and was even willing to undergo the rigours of being foreign, and go to a new land on the bottom of the earth, to be with this man.

He was a man of wit, a man given in a mild way to the extravagant gesture, and he was a man of intense brown eyes and a mouth that made most things plausible, but it was for none of this that the thin woman loved him. It was for his adoration of her that she loved him, knowing she would never again meet with a love like his.

My pink-scalped father panted, then, and groaned with the pain of adoring his wife, that no amount of penetrating her flesh could assuage, and while he panted and history was being made in the interior of a thin woman, other kinds of history were also being made.

In the new land they were approaching, men with frockcoats and small knowing eyes spoke of the birth of a nation, and thought with satisfaction of their fertile acres and the cash in their strongboxes. These were starchier folk, not eaters of garlic or wearers of rustic embroidery, they were folk who had never had to confront jellied eel, or the bailiff on an empty stomach. They were folk made uneasy by gesticulation and suspicious of too much hope: they were men in frockcoats and side-whiskers that hid the shape of their faces, they were women with heavy cheeks made bland by privilege.

The birth of a nation, the men brayed, from their mouths concealed under heavy moustaches that smelled of mutton. Our debt to the mother country, they intoned, and turned up their small eyes piously. They thought, or said they thought, that this was the moment at which this barbarous land was entering into its glory after a long and squalid beginning. In their folly they thought that was history. But the real history of that moment was known only to myself, where something as real as a human was being made.

No book has yet recorded that event, though whole forests have been sacrificed to all those men with their frockcoats and to princes burdened with frogging. The books are strangely silent on all that matters, so here I am to put them right: watch, and you will see history being made in front of your eyes.

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