There are books that I had meant to read for decades and Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is one of them. I had a false start a couple of times and I am truly glad that I have finally read it. Margaret Atwood is an awesome writer and she has an acute and insightful observation about friendships between females. I have never thought that the female sex is perpetually benevolent even though social expectations appear to typecast the female sex as such. Growing up, I have encountered female friends who had a tendency to make offhand remarks that did come across tactless or unkind, mostly were inconsequential. There was this one time when I was in my early 20s, I remember feeling appalled as X, my one time best buddy from early teenage years told me that my younger sister was more of a grown-up than me. I guess I did not like to be judged. Surely everyone comes of age in his or her own time. In our twenties, X became a wife and mother while I was still footloose and unsettled. Decades later, when we caught up at school reunions, I finally saw her for what she was. On reflection, my best friend from school had always been a focused individual and knew her priorities. I used to think that we had shared common ideals when we had spent endless hours discussing about social norms and the school system. We were in our early teenage years. I was twelve and she was thirteen, the normal age for our year then. We were both newcomers in the Convent school that we were attending. For a year or two, she was close to Sister G, one of the Irish nuns before they were all sent away. She might have been curious and was even privy to some of the details of the nuns’ daily lives but such details, if she had possessed them, were guarded from me. I suppose I was never really curious to find out. Subsequently she became a Catholic. As we giggled and wondered about what our parents were doing behind closed doors, we were also vocal in school being members of the students’ council and we performed skits before the old folks at the Home for the Aged making a fool of ourselves as comedians. I cringe when I think about how self- righteous we were. We were righteous alright. We scoffed at how the society should place much importance to external beauty, material wealth and social standing. We definitely aspired to be strong women and I know she must be one. When I was eighteen, I had my first opportunity to go abroad with my father sponsoring my studies. X became a teacher and settled down. She and her husband moved to a bigger city. Her husband is now a successful businessman whose company had gone public and listed. We lost contact for years until the time when schoolmates started locating friends with a view to reconnect with each other two decades ago. During one of the first gatherings with some school friends, one former classmate casually quipped along these lines, “ Hey you know I bumped into X and she is investing in properties and she is now a Datin and her husband is a developer, why don’t you contact her for some work?”
My secondary school classmate obviously knew that legal practitioners always look out for new clients and real estate work is one of the areas that are being sought as it is usually straight forward and can generate steady income if the development is selling well. In my experience as a solicitor, we know that developers and the public generally make unreasonable demands on law firms in terms of fees chargeable and services provided by us .
These offhand and careless banters might have appeared to be inconsequential, but they represent the kind of values we are contending with. They are neither good nor bad, friends were just offering pragmatic advice about the planet we live on.
Cat’s Eye is largely a meditation on ageing and what ageing does to our memories of the past.
Approaching 50, Elaine Risley is back in Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her paintings and she finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her childhood. Her parents had moved there when she was nine and she grew up along some girls. Before her family settled in Toronto, they had led a nomadic life. They ‘spent a lot of time driving, in low-slung, boat-sized Studebaker, over back roads or along two-lane highways up north, curving past lake after lake, hill after hill, with the white lines going down the middle of the road and the telephone poles along the sides, tall ones and shorter ones, the wires looking as if they were moving up and down.’ Queen Mary Public School, the school both her brother and her went to was some distance away, past a cemetery, across a ravine and they took the school bus to school. While she was close to her brother, Stephen when she started going to school, she wanted to be initiated into the female realm.
Despite her success as an artist , Elaine is still taunted by memories of what Cordelia, Carol and Grace did to her. The irony is these girls behaved the way they behaved not because they were her enemies. To her understanding, they were her best friends and they wanted to help her improve. Amongst the girls, Cordelia’s mother was the only one of their mothers who had a cleaning lady. Cordelia told her that she was not normal and she was not like other girls so she needed help and Grace and Carol would help her too. She did not want to lose these girls as friends. It was in the late 40s.
Then they were in different school after completing six grades.
‘Carol Campbell moves away and I hardly notice. I skip Grade Seven and go straight to Grade Eight, missing the Kings of England in chronological order, missing the circulatory system, leaving my boyfriend behind. I get my hair cut. I want to do this. I ‘m tired of having long wavy hair that has to be held back by barrettes or hairbands. I’m tired of being a child. I watch with satisfaction as my hair falls away from me like fog and my head emerges, sharper- featured, more clearly defined. I’m ready for high school, I want to go there right away.’
As fate would have it, Cordelia was going to be attending the same high school as her.
‘The day before the first day of high school the telephone rings. It’s Cordelia’s Mummie; she wants to speak to my mother. I assume it’s boring grownups’ business and go back to reading the newspaper on the living room floor. But after she puts the phone down, my mother comes into the room.
“ Elaine,” she says. This is unusual, as she doesn’t often use my name. She sounds solemn.’
Cordelia’s mother rang to ask if Cordelia and her could walk to school together. Elaine’s mother was a little anxious about the proposal but she did not mind as she had forgotten about all of the bad things that happened in primary school. She had other friends.
‘ “ Why wouldn’t I ?” I say. I’m already sliding into flippancy, which goes with high school, but also I can’t see what she’s getting at. I’m being asked to do Cordelia, or Cordelia’s mother, some kind of a minor favour. My mother’s usual like is that you should do these favours when asked, so why is she hedging on this one?’
But Cordelia has a certain power over her and it has continued to haunt her for forty years. She thinks of encountering Cordelia without warning and she thinks of all the scenerios that she might find Cordelia in. Somehow she is still haunted by memories of their past friendship.
‘ What do you have to say for yourself? Cordelia used to ask. Nothing, I would say. It was a word I came to connect with myself, as if I was nothing , as if there was nothing there at all.’
‘If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good?
Probably the latter, I still have that need.
I haven’t seen her for a long time. I wasn’t expecting to see her. But now that I’m back here I can hardly walk down a street without a glimpse of her, turning a corner, entering a door. It goes without saying that these fragments of her —-a shoulder, beige, camel’s hair, the side of a face, the back of a leg-belong to women who, seen whole , are not Cordelia.
I have no idea what she would look like now. Is she fat, have her breasts sagged, does she have little grey hairs at the corners of her mouth? Unlikely: she would pull them out. Does she wear glasses with fashionable frames, has she had her lids lifted, does she streak or tint ? All of these things are possible : we ‘ve both reached that borderline age,that buffer zone in which it can still be believed such tricks will work if you avoid bright sunlight.’
Early this week, when I started writing this post, I had thought of Y, a friend from my student days abroad. We were flatmates for one year before entering university. It was uncanny that a couple of nights ago, it was almost midnight, she sent me a photo of me and her taken when we were twenty years old. She is in a time zone that is hours ahead of mine. It was past her midnight. She said she was unable to sleep and began looking through old photos. Over the years, she had from time to time sent me greetings but I did not hear from this particular friend for a long time. What a coincidence. Due to our courses, we did not attend the same university. Y had tried to dissuade me from doing law as she was told that the passing rate was low. Seemingly my female friends had a tendency to offer unsolicited advice and they might have had good intentions. Perhaps I was dreamy and did appear to operate on a different plane at times. Incidentally, a few years ago, there was this one time X and I were visiting London around the same time, I managed to catch a coffee with her and her husband at Monmouth Café located in Covent Garden. As we ushered into the year of 2020, new year greetings were being exchanged in the Whatsapp group formed by former schoolmates, X had shared a spectacular video of the fireworks at Taipei 101, the landmark in Taipei. I had just caught the fireworks from an apartment facing the Taipei financial centre 101 at the time. My family happened to be invited to a dinner at the apartment where one of our relations presently resides. It was another coincidence that X and I happened to be travelling to the same destination around the same period. It was my family’s first trip to Taiwan and after being on the move for almost two weeks, I looked forward to winding down at the end of our trip with a book and drinking coffee, my favourite pastime. I did not think of sending her a message to see if she was still in Taipei and if she would have time to meet up.
Now that we are growing old and many of my school friends have retired, they get together regularly and on the odd occasion when I did join them, it was quite a jovial outing. I usually turn down the invitations to join the activities because I find that the dynamics can be overwhelming. While I appreciate the occasional hellos from friends who want to stay in touch, I am not exactly the sentimental kind.