Ann Quin’s contemporary, the British writer Christine Brooke-Rose, declared in her wittily furious essay “Illiterations” that to be an experimental author was one thing, but to be British, and not only British, but a woman, and not only a woman, but working class, was quite another. Quin was all four, and so she went into self-imposed exile. For nearly a decade she was a “gonzo” novelist, creating her own biographical picaresque of writing, journeying, and free-loving across Europe and America, and living hand-to-mouth by the grace and favor of her publisher’s advances, Arts Council grants, and university fellowships—until, having wandered too far across the terra incognita of map and mind, she reluctantly returned. Quin suffered frequent and extirpative bouts of mental illness and died young, at thirty-seven and by her own hand. She drowned off the coast of Brighton, the south coast seaside resort which provides the setting of Berg and where she lived intermittently throughout her life, in the summer of 1973.
Quin was part of a remarkable coterie of innovative writers that emerged in Britain during the 1960s, including B.S. Johnson, Brigid Brophy, Alan Burns, Robert Nye, Brooke-Rose and others. After a long period of relative obscurity, she now seems to be enjoying a minor renaissance. Her four published novels—Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969), and Tripticks (1972)—are all back in print with Dalkey Archive Press, and the unpublished ones, together with a cache of her uncollected stories like the one printed here—I hope—on their way too. A critical biography has appeared: Robert Buckeye’s Re: Quin (2013) and profiles have begun to sprout up in the mainstream press. And Eimear McBride’s rapturously received, multi-award-winning A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (2013), for its similarly wicked challenge to notions of narrative convention, has been likened to Quin.
“Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking” was published in the radical women’s monthly magazine Nova in December 1966, the same year that Quin’s second novel, Three, appeared. The story depicts a child, her maiden aunts, and her grandmother, living in genteel impoverishment. Aunt Molly with her asthma and her bedpan; Aunt Sally, rootling endlessly through her hoarded belongings; grandma, Havisham-esque and bedbound—all of them marking time in anticipation of a much-deferred visit from a spivish brother, the absentee father of the child. Quin has a keen eye for how people eke out the meager quotidian, for the furtive ways in which they sequester their longings and their disappointments into tics and flummery and empty rituals. Seldom-seen bright interludes are provided by the baking of a batch of bread-and-butter pudding, an impromptu rendition of “Little Brown Jug.” The family’s drafty mansion functions as a repository for the suppressed drama of the character’s inner lives, and seemingly animated by its freight of secrets it emits a clamor of shrieks and groans.
Many of the tropes and techniques developed in her novels are here. Marginal characters with marginal lives roam, fruit is waxen, milk topped by a coagulated skin, shirt cuffs are tide-marked and one is kept awake by phlegmy coughs in the night. In Quin’s books, human perspective is generally found kneeling at keyholes, or pressing an ear against a flimsy partition wall. But through the eyes of the child through whom this narrative is focused, the world is more bewilderingly distant and irreal than ever. It is rendered in chopped syntax and anacolutha; meaning doesn’t so much accumulate as is falteringly established and then partially scrubbed out or welded on or overlaid. The verb “to be” is frequently redacted and therefore sentences describe whilst never quite bestowing existence upon. Objects lack solidity and consistency, events a sense of having actually occurred. The undifferentiated dialogue always conveys more or less than what is actually said. Stock phrases trail off because, well, they hardly need completing. Or, what’s actually meant has been redacted, and lies hidden somewhere behind the ellipses.
She may well have borrowed her title from the Irish writer Brendan Behan, but Behan’s optimism is scarcely to be found. Rather, what animates Quin’s work here and elsewhere is a profound dissatisfaction with abiding, with going through the motions, with, as she puts it, the “never changing rituals” of everyday life, together with the hope that something else might be possible.
The house was old. They were older. The sisters. They celebrated Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Cried at her funeral. At least if they hadn’t actually seen these events they witnessed it all in the newspapers. The house full of newspapers. Paper bags within paper bags. Letters. Photographs. Pieces of brocade. Satin. Ribbons. Lockets. Hair. Broken spectacles. Medicine bottles. Empty. Foreign coins. Trunks. Cases. Cake. Biscuit tins. And mice. The child never knew whether it was the mice or one of her aunts wheezing in the long nights. Or maybe just the wind from the sea. The downs. Whistling in the chimney. Other nights she knew it was Aunt Molly battling with her asthma. Or Aunt Sally sucking tea from a saucer. And the bed creaked in the room below. As grandma turned over. Back again. From the waist up. Did she have legs? The child thought of them. Thought she saw them like sticks under the sheet. About to thrust up. With barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging. The old woman’s flesh. Scaly. Her eyes like someone just risen from the ocean bed. But then she was grandma. And all grandmothers must look like that. Confined to an enormous bed. Yet not so enormous. For she filled all parts. At all times. As she filled the house with her demands. Commands. In her little girl’s voice. When not eating. Not sleeping. Whined for the bedpan. Another cup of tea. And if Aunt Sally stopped making kitchen noises then she whined for the bedpan again and accused her younger sister of indulging in forty winks. For the house belonged to grandma. Every item down to the shrimp pink corset and purple dress Aunt Sally wore had been billed to grandma. She after all had been married. And no one now would point out she had stolen Aunt Molly’s intended. That a long time ago. And he who had made the mistake by proposing in a letter from India to the wrong sister had long since departed. They lived as best. The three. In the worst. Through thick and thin. They lived their roles. Respected. Detested. Each other’s virtues. Little vices. Whims. And waited for the day the child’s father would pay a visit. That day would surely be tomorrow. If not tomorrow then the next day. When Nicholas Montague. Monty to them all. Would tread the path. Into the house. Receive their love. And tell them of his travels. Successes. Though Aunt Molly would look past him. As if she recognised in his shadow some remembered dream. Go on sorting out little bundles of letters. Comb her long white hair. Thin. So thin it was more of a veil covering her head. Face of crushed carnation that sprouted from the black bent root of velvet. The child would look past him too. Perhaps. At the portrait. For comparison. While Aunt Sally clucked around him. Teeth clicking. Little bird eyes upon the nephew who could do no wrong. If he did a wrong in others’ eyes then he did it because there was no alternative.
The days grew into each and out of each night. With the habits. Dreams. Tales of days gone by. The horse-drawn buses. Dinner. Tennis parties. Musical evenings. Picnic outings with cousins by the Thames. Sunday strolls in Kew Gardens. And the Crystal Palace. For the child these stories merged with those of The Goose Girl. The Snow Queen. And Cinderella. Each of these she was. Saw her aunts as grown ancient but with a wave of the magic wand they would change into beautiful queens with quick queenly steps. She felt sure her father would have this wand. Transform the old castle on the hill. The old ladies. Herself. Into a magical world where they would all live together happily ever after.
Weeks. Months. Years. Came. Went. After hours of anticipation. The child saw the calendar only in the mirror. She was still not taller than Aunt Sally. She thought the day would never come when she would be. Though she forgot this problem when she didn’t have to bend to peer through the keyhole at Aunt Molly. Whole morning spent on the landing. Watching her aunt go through the never-changing rituals. Always the child hoped that some morning. Some time the white-hair apparition would do something different. Or maybe not do anything at all. Lie motionless in her black velvet. This the child hoped for more than anything. The door then would surely magically open. The room at last hers to explore. There were the corners. Dimensions. She never saw from her one-eyed viewing. Then there were the cupboards. Drawers. These must be filled with all kinds of mysterious things. Boxes her aunt bent over. But never brought out whatever lay there. Her hands shook. Hovered over something. Then the lid closed and her aunt locked the box. Held the box. Nursed it in her lap. Her lips moved. Drawn in. The child tiptoed along the landing where the wind mocked the carpet. Played with the carpet on the stairs. Down into the kitchen the child crept to make Aunt Sally jump in the larder. Oh you wicked child you’ll be the death of me yet here take this into your grandma her tongue’s hanging out for a cup of tea quick now and I’ll give you a piece of bread and butter pudding.
The child took the tray. Tried not to spill the tea into the saucer. If she did before reaching grandma’s door then the lions would eat her up. But they were preferable to the lioness with the little lion’s growl that greeted her offering. So there you are well bring it over here that’s right now care – ach child you’re so clumsy and what’s your Aunt Sally doing taking another nap I suppose well don’t stand there child like an imbecile just like your . . .
Her mouth filled with cake. Tea. Denture coping. Body manoeuvres. Just her eyes. Waterlogged. Stared at the child. Her head moved in time to the munching. Sipping. Swallowing. Plump ringed fingers filled the space between eiderdown. The small hole that presumed to be a mouth. The child held her breath against the smells. Urine. Stale food. And medicines. She counted the flies on the limp strips of sticky yellow near the curtained windows. Listened to cupboards. Drawers being opened. Closed. In the room upstairs. Unable to hold her breath any longer she rushed out. From grandma’s munching. Grinding. Into the kitchen where Aunt Sally hardly bent over the oven. Drew the baking tin out. Blinked in the warmth. Her own warm approval. Pleasure. Ah it looks a good one this time. She tested with a knife. The two of them bent over this treasure of golden brown. With little smiles. Hands of assurance. They ate. Hardly two mouthfuls when the child begged her aunt to sing. Sing anything. But you know all I know is Little Brown Jug. Well sing that then. The child clapped her hands. Licked the sticky remains from around her mouth. And felt even the wind under the back door sounded friendly now. Plants in the outhouse nodded in their full row of participation. Clouds danced lightly on the brow of the hill. Poppies and blue flowers bowed in acknowledgement towards the house. And the child knew if the sea was nearer that too would chuckle in the warm conspiracy. Sing sing Auntie and do that little dance you do. Ah you little devil I haven’t got all day to play with you so get along with you now go and play in the garden. The child laughed. Made to hug her aunt. Made all kinds of promises. Pretended to cry. Tickled her. Until the demanded song burst out and her aunt skipped one. Two. Three oops there now you’ll be the death of me oh my oh dear little brown jug don’t I love theeeee there I’m worn out and there’s your grandma calling. Off she went muttering. Dress dusted the floor. Caught in the door as she wiped the tail ends of pudding from the corners of her moustached upper lip.
The child amused herself in the garden. Mud pies. Went in search of the tortoise. Poked sticks in the mole hills. Lifted stones from the path. Watched ants go this way and that. Some took cover under her shoes. When she pressed down. Stared for a long time at the little red stains on the stonework. The house stared back. With heavy lidded eyes. She looked up and thought she saw the sea had rolled itself into the sky. Then down. She saw Aunt Molly draw back from the window. Hands that came from the dark space behind. On their own. Drew the curtains closer together. She raced with the wind round the house. Jumped over the path. Crawled through the long grass. Weeds. Startled a blackbird that was after her nose. The army of wallflowers shook with astonishment. Behind them the overgrown hedge held strange shapes. Shadows fell out. Crawled towards the child. Knocked on the windows. At night. Noises of the dark joined the nightly noises of those who inhabited the house. And those who didn’t. If only she had wings she could fly away from them all. And then.
Well then she could search for the one who would be sure to wave them all away with his wand. Flapping her arms she ran screaming into the house. Up and down the stairs. Two. Three. At a time. The wind joined in. Grandma collaborated. Until the house screamed its way out of the day.
The night noises entered. Tomorrow I think he’s coming I can feel it I can sense it. Who’s coming Auntie? Why your father of course. And Aunt Sally’s eyes rolled away. Back. Towards her flushed nose. What’s he like? He’s a good man and he’s your father yes Monty is . . .
The child turned away from her aunt’s muttering. From the glazed eyes that would soon be dabbed with a handkerchief smelling of mothballs or the sleeve of her purple dress. She crept up to the landing. For her last goodnight spying on Aunt Molly. Who dipped fingers into her dinner. Surrounded by boxes. Letters. Coughing. Her whole body heaved as she stretched up. Bent over. As though attacked by some unseen spirit. Strange noises came through the keyhole. Came from her aunt’s open mouth. The child turned into the noise of the wind that attacked all sides of the house. All corners. Gaps. Cracks. In doors. Windows. Struggled with something. Someone. Way up in the loft where the hotwater tank hissed. Where the mice waited. In her own room the child rearranged dolls. Told them tales of the magician they would see tomorrow.
Tomorrow came as yesterday. And the next day. With the wind. Rain. The child stayed in the house. Listened to what the wind told the walls. And then again to what the walls told. Showed. What was shown when a door flew open. When closed. At times the house had secrets the child found were not revealed to her. When the place wrapped itself up. As if wounded. Like an animal refusing to show itself. At such times the child curled up with a favourite toy and tried to sleep. Often she did sleep. Feeling that if she ignored everything then they would emerge. Give their secrets to her once again.
Such an afternoon when she woke up. Heard laughter. Strange tinkling laughter as though the house had suddenly filled with young girls. She ran downstairs. The laughter came from grandma’s room. She peered in. Aunt Sally sat on the end of the bed. Legs swinging as if she were on a swing. Her face expanded in smiles. She nodded over a piece of paper. Well well he’s really coming tomorrow oh my goodness oh dear. About time too. The child heard her grandma grunt then whisper. Saw her aunt frown. Of course he will after all she’s his child there’s no denying that and my goodness how surprised he’ll be to find what a big girl she is now. Well see she’s dressed properly the way she goes round why it’s a scandal a proper little tomboy and see she washes behind the ears tonight Sally. Yes yes oh my goodness he’s really coming Monty’s really coming I must make a nice bread pudding perhaps we should get a little wine in I mean just oh well I have a little port left I think Monty likes port just a little port. Her words lost somewhere in the small piece of paper she brought up. Adjusted her glasses. Nodding. Lips moved. While the bed creaked under her. Oh Sally for heaven’s sake you’ve read that at least half a dozen times you must know it off by heart now go and make some tea I’m dying for a nice cup of tea and don’t forget to ring Goodmans order a chicken Monty likes chicken I remember as a little boy he . . .
The child went quickly into the lounge. And looked at the portrait. Bent closer. She whispered. In front of the grand piano she put her wet thumb on a black note. Held there. Put all her fingers on black and white. Leaned over and watched the insects with white fuzzy heads rise to greet her. Up. Down. Until her aunt trotted in. Shouted stop that your grandma’s trying to sleep and you know you mustn’t touch the piano Monty will – your father doesn’t like his piano touched by anyone except himself and he’s coming tomorrow we’ve had a telegram yes Monty will . . .
The child swung round on the stool. Kicked up her legs. Will he bring me a present? Perhaps perhaps but he’s bringing himself and that’s enough now upstairs with you it’s late.
In the dark. In bed. The child thought she heard the laughter again. Thought she heard steps on the path. She leaned out of the window and watched the gate swing. The shadows swung out. The shape on the hook attached to the door grew a monstrous head. But tomorrow everything would be all right.
They waited all day. Waited in retreats. Pursuits. Tidying rooms. Dusting the piano. Baking. Cups of tea breaks. Grandma shrieked every half-hour. Aunt Molly continued as all the days before. Combed out her hair. Plucked the strands from her dress. Rustled amongst paper. Boxes. And had two attacks between meals. The child hid behind the hedge. Watched every bus. Every car. Until the wind. Rain. Swept her back into the house. Well maybe he’s had an unexpected engagement held up in the traffic caught the flu. Aunt Sally muttered. Grandma screamed from the bedpan. Where’s Monty then what could have happened? The child sat in front of the portrait. Stared into eyes she had been told were velvet brown. She saw them as black as Aunt Molly’s dress with flecks of white he might pluck out in moments. And the wand? Well even if he didn’t appear to have one he would have it hidden up his sleeve and she alone would know his secret.
She heard a car drive up. Stop. She ran to the window and saw a man step out. Down the path. She thought she saw a woman sitting in the car. She hid behind the curtain. Heard Aunt Sally shout. Her feet tapped from the kitchen to the front door. Monty oh Monty how lovely to see you we thought you . . .
Then his voice. Rising. Falling. The child wrapped the curtain around herself. She heard the steps. The heavier tread behind the tapping go into grandma’s room. Grandma’s little voice that seemed to be quieter. Almost a gurgle. The door closed. She waited. Heard the grandfather clock strike in the hall. And knew she had missed the cuckoo clock upstairs. Perhaps . . .
But the door opened. Again she heard the heavy tread. Her aunt’s voice high pitched. The man’s low. Rising. Falling. In a lowness that seemed linked to the wind coming off the sea. Well where is she Sally? I just don’t know Monty where the child’s gone perhaps she’s in the garden playing I’ll go and see. The child held her breath as she heard the tread fall into the room. Saw a shadow on the wall opposite. That moved across. Vanished. She peered round and saw the man stood near the piano. Heard her aunt call. Calling. Saw her on the garden path. Turn and enter the house. Well Monty I don’t know where she could have got to I expect she’ll be around soon are you hungry Monty I’ve got the dinner on some nice chicken andhowlongareyou . . .
But he silenced her by playing the piano. The child watched him. Watched her aunt quietly take a chair and sit down. He played and hummed. Then as suddenly as he began. Stopped. Well Sally I won’t be staying too long. Oh Monty we thought . . . Well you see I have a concert tomorrow and I must get back tonight – just a short visit I’m afraid just to see how you all are and also pick up a few things I need this piano will be collected tomorrow also those chairs by the way what’s Molly got in her room I’ve forgotten hasn’t she that ivory table and how’s her asthma these days of course she’s getting on now has she made her will Sally you must make sure she does that I’m certain she’s got quite a little gold mine up there no one knows about eh? Yes yes Monty but I’m sorry you won’t be staying long – are you – I mean are you in need of – I’ve saved up a little for you Monty I know things get difficult for you and well…
The child moved. Made towards the door. Ah there you are been hiding all this time from your father then come here darling my Sally hasn’t she grown come on then don’t be frightened of your own father. He moved towards her. Arms outstretched. She looked at his feet. Her own. Felt his arms enclose her. Pick her up. Swing her round. She closed her eyes. When she opened them she saw their faces below. The walls spun. Collided. She leaned away from the man whose lap she sat in. Felt his hands on her head. His body pressed against hers. Smelling of tobacco. And something else she wasn’t sure about. But she felt sure he didn’t have the wand up his sleeve. Or anywhere. He hugged her. Hugged the breath from her. My little girl my she’s quite a big girl now eh is she a good girl and is she behaving herself Sally? She saw her aunt smile. Nod. Head tilted. Little bird eyes raised towards the man who held on. Grasped. Fondled. Clutched. The child struggled. Fell away from the arms. She stood back. Looked at the portrait.
Looked at the man who grinned down at her. His arms now limp. Hung over the leather chair arms. One hand came up. Burrowed in his pocket. Then out. He held a bright coin between finger and thumb. Look a present for you darling buy some sweeties with or something eh there’s a good girl. The child wondered if this coin had come out of her aunt’s little box she knew Aunt Sally kept these round shiny coins in a box maybe he did too. She went forward. And again came into contact with his arms. Legs. Covered in tweed. Tobacco smelling. And the other smell. Like the bottle grandma dabbed herself with. Only stronger. Much sweeter. She took the coin. Pressed the warmth into her own warmth. While the man jogged her up and down on his knees.
Later she felt his knee under the table. After the meal he picked her up. Kissed her. Said he would come up later and tuck her up.
She waited. The light on. Listened to the voices way down below. Until the wind rose. She heard only that caught in the chimney. She crept out. Down the stairs. And leaned against the door. Grandma’s voice wailed. Aunt Sally seemed to be crying. The third voice mumbled. The child looked through the keyhole but saw only a hand clutching a pipe. Soon not even that. She curled her toes and watched the rug lift up and down in front of the kitchen door. Until movement in the room made her run into the kitchen. Into the larder. The voices everywhere. Coming from all corners of the house. Even the wind had fled. The heavy thud of doors. Heavier tread in. Out of rooms. Lights switched on. Off. On in the kitchen. She saw her aunt empty the little box. Count the bright coins out on the table. Saw her pick them up and patter out shouting Monty Monty here before you go just a little something to tide you over for a few days. The child crouched. Breathed in the cake smells. Biscuits and candles. Smelt her own hands that had the smell of tobacco like the damp earth that lingered after her games in the garden. She heard the front door open. Close. The house was silent. She crept out. Ran up to the landing. Aunt Molly stood at the window. Half behind the curtain. She seemed to be chuckling. Hair in one long plait ended in a pink bow in the small of her back that swung from side the side.
The child ran into her room. Looked out of the window but saw only the gate swinging slightly. She jumped into bed. Threw the bedcover over her head. She heard Aunt Sally mount the stairs. Grandma’s voice shrieked Sally Sally when did Monty say he’d be coming again? Her aunt paused. Breathed heavily. Oh Monty will be here again soon don’t worry go to sleep now yes he’ll be back and maybe he’ll stay a bit longer have some bread pudding next time.
The child turned over and listened. Listened until the walls. Doors. Breathed in quietness. In the dark. She gave her secret to the house.
Jennifer Hodgson is a writer, researcher and teacher whose work has featured in The White Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. She is currently working on editing a book of Ann Quin’s unpublished writing and on a study of writers’ inner voices.
“Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking” is courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.