Sheenagh Pugh

Poet and novelist

Folk Music

"Folk Music" is a novel about customs and traditions, how they form some people into a society and leave others on the outside. It's also about communication. how do you get through to others, and they to you, if you can't speak aloud, or can't hear others speak? Or if you're afraid or embarrassed to speak your mind?

From Chapter 5

Anni, just married to Andras, lives in a society where a bride is veiled and can't, for the first year of her marriage, talk to anyone except her husband (and then only when alone with him). Her mother has come to visit her in her new home and pass on news of her grandfather (Bapa) and other relatives.

O f course I wanted to come straight away, but you have to give it three days; it's traditional.
       Emmi opened the door. "Oh, it's you; come in, I was expecting you". I took my shoes off - it was turning out terribly wet for May; we were lucky to get a good day for the wedding really - and she padded in ahead of me, to the house that always seems so quiet compared with ours. Andras was still out at work, so there was just her and the old great-aunt who lives with them. And her, near the inner door, so that she could slip away out of sight quickly if the visitor turned out to be a stranger. My breath caught in my chest when I saw her eyes.
       Andras's mother had gone to see about coffee, so I said hello to Auntie and chatted about nothing much while I tried to speak to Anni with my eyes. She should really have gone to help Emmi make the coffee, but she couldn't take her gaze off me. I was nearly as bad. I'd forgotten, stupidly enough, that she wouldn't be wearing her everyday clothes, or rather that she'd still have the long, silver-encrusted coat over them; she didn't look herself in it somehow. I tried to read her eyes - I'd never realised, before, how much the corners of her mouth used to say about how she was feeling.
       Auntie wasn't much use. She'd never been married, so you couldn't expect her to know what questions to ask. But generally she was a great one for gossip; it was just that this particular day, she wanted to tell me all about some other folk none of us had the least business with. When Emmi came back, though, things went all right.
       "How's Marti? And everyone else in your household?"
       "Fine, very well. We all miss our daughter, of course, but we're well enough in ourselves."
       Anni. My name's Anni.
       "Any news?"
       "Not much, really. Marti's been working all hours at the yard, but you probably knew that from Andras. Nico's got into the school choir, so we hear nothing but that now. And Stevi's in trouble with his teacher again, I'm afraid. I'm sure your Andras was never such a trial at his age."
       What trouble? That teacher's got a down on him. He's got a name for it; he was horrible to Edo.
       Emmi laughed wryly. "Just as much, and only me to sort it out. Have a biscuit?"
       "Thank you." I hesitated. "How are things here?"
       "Couldn't be better. Andras seems very happy and we all get along fine." She smiled with her eyes at Anni. I felt a bit relieved. Ever since Anni got serious with Andras, I'd tried to get to know Emmi better, but she wasn't the easiest. I'd known her as a girl of course; very chatty and lively she was in those days. And then she married, a year or so before I did, and by the time we could speak to each other again she was already left a widow with little Andras. And she was different; everybody is, but she more than most. Much more self-contained, more inward. I sometimes felt she was talking to someone inside her head.
       She was very close to Andras, naturally, not that she made much show of it but it was all there in the way they didn't have to say things. I'd been really scared she would resent whoever he brought home, but she seemed to be coping very well. I wished Anni would answer her looks more. She did try, in a watery sort of fashion, but her eyes were still on me and I could see she was hungry for my voice. Calling yourself by a different name is one thing, but it's harder to tell yourself you belong to a new family.
       "Marti's old father has got over that chill we thought he was in for. I found some peaches for him in the market in town yesterday; he loves those."
       "It's early for peaches"
       "Yes, they came from way down south, cost a fortune, but I like to see him in humour. Ria's been very good to him, amazingly enough; stayed in and played chess with him a couple of times."
       Ria. What does she know?
       "Oh, that's nice. But he's bound to miss his other grand-daughter; she was so good at getting through to him."
       Anni. My name is Anni. Use my name.
       "Yes, I'm sure he does, but we're all doing our best to see he doesn't feel left out. It's hard sometimes though, when you have to repeat a thing so often..."
       Change the words, then. You know he reads some shapes better than others; it's pointless saying the same things over and over.
       "... but he's getting along fine, on the whole." It was so hard to strike a balance. I didn't want it to sound as if we were no different. Everybody wants to be missed. And I had to remember to mention everyone; I think I probably mentioned most of them twice, just to be sure.
       What about my kitten? Who's looking after him?
       I told Emmi several more things she couldn't possibly have wanted to know about our household and she listened attentively and asked questions as if she couldn't hear enough. I was very grateful to her; she couldn't have behaved better. But then Andras was a nice lad; he didn't get that way by accident and she'd done all his bringing-up. I stayed till he came home.
       (I hadn't really seen him since the wedding. Right afterwards, we'd gone up to them and Marti welcomed him into our family. Andras thanked him, and then I said "And welcome from me too". He looked thunderstruck, and then it dawned on him and his face lit up. "Of course, I can talk to you now!" It seemed funny at the time and I nearly laughed, until I saw her eyes.)
       When he came through the door, we all perked up, just like in our house when Marti gets home. Suddenly Emmi was bustling round again, and the old auntie was twittering and laughing with him, and Anni's eyes were like a wild bird's that sees the cage door open. He went to her first and hugged her, and then sat and chatted with me while she and his mother brought the supper in. I loved being able to talk properly to him; he was a sweet-natured lad and he went out of his way to tell me how happy they were. He even asked me to stay and eat with them.
       She wanted me to stay; I could see that. I wanted to stay where I could see her, too. But it wouldn't have been kind. If she and Andras could have disappeared straight to their room for a talk it might have been all right, but they'd have to get supper over first and she'd need to contain herself till then. I could see the fight she was having, to keep things in check; once or twice I was sure she'd been on the verge and had to bite it back. It takes a while before it comes natural. She was still twisting a finger, sometimes, in her veil, around where her curls would have been.
       So I thanked Emmi, and said goodbye to her, and to Auntie, and then turned to Andras.
       "Goodbye, Andras. We'll meet again soon. Wish your wife well from me." And I went home to Marti and the children.

Anni. Anni. Anni.
       All right, I'm not being fair. I know why they do that. Mum told me before the wedding; his mother too. Because it's hard not to react to your name, not to speak back when you hear it. They're trying to help. It gets easier after a while, they said; it gets to be habit and you don't even think of doing it.
       I don't believe it. I thought I knew all this; I'd seen friends go through it. I knew the rules; my mother and I went over them often enough. Who can you speak to, and when? Your husband, when alone with him. Your children, as soon as they're born, and then you can speak to Andras in front of others too. After the first year, your mother-in-law. In another year, your own mother. After the third year, all the women in your husband's household. After the fourth, your father and sisters. After five years, all women and any man closely related by blood or marriage. ("Does that mean Bapa?" "Yes, Bapa, Stevi, Nico and your uncles. Brothers-in-law, if anyone'll ever have Ria. Andras's uncles, his father and brothers if he had any." "What about cousins?" "It's probably best to forget about cousins") Never again any man not related by blood or marriage; never Jos's tall tales or Edo's heartaches.
       It never sounded easy, of course it didn't. But it did sound possible, if only because I'd have him to talk to, and I didn't think I'd need anyone else. In those last weeks before we married, I hardly did talk to anyone else. I couldn't be bothered.
       The table's laid. She calls him.
       "Come and sit down, supper's ready."
       "I need a wash first; we've been mastering glove hides and I feel steeped in chickenshit."
       I knew that already, as soon as he came through the door.
       "There's hot water in the kitchen. I expect Anni can find you a towel"
They're right; it is the hardest thing to ignore. My eyes went straight to hers and my lips parted; it was only the feel of silk brushing against them that reminded me.
       The kitchen isn't really "alone"; they can still see us. But Emmi's making a business of talking loudly to Auntie and clattering plates. I help him off with his shirt and he whispers behind it
"Love you".
       "I love you too." I breathe the words into his hair; it's all silvered with little drops of rain from outside. I've been hearing the rain all day. He washes his face and arms; I dry him; the rough towel fills with whispers: love, missed, dying, soon, you, me, talk, soon, talk, love, talk. My words, filtered through silk, how do they sound outside? His seem so clear, I'm looking over my shoulder in case. Every word a secret. An achievement, something snatched when no-one's looking, like a kiss in the garden. We don't think of kisses; there's only a few moments and words are more precious. My stomach is knotted and my heart's thumping really hard; I can feel his body trembling under the towel. Then he goes back in, and I fold all the words up in the towel and put it away and follow him.

Folk Music is published by Seren, 57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, CF31 3BN, tel.01656 663018

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