The Butterfly House

 Valerie Grosvenor Myer


An original paperback

first published in 1998 by Fern House

19 High Street, Haddenham, Ely, Cambs CB6 3XA


© Copyright Valerie Grosvenor Myer 1998

All rights reserved


The right of Valerie Grosvenor Myer to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with The Copywright, Design and Patents Act 1988 


ISBN 0 954897 2 4





Jilly Drybrook breathed deeply, listening to the tinkling waterfall, the tropical soundtrack of parakeets and cicadas. Once she idly asked a man who worked there where were the birds of bright plumage, where were the monkeys abseiling down lianas? What wild creatures were kicking up this sweet racket, turning the enclosure into a Prospero’s Isle in the middle of suburban London, haunted by the music of equatorial forests? He told her what she already knew, but childishly hoped wasn’t the truth, that it was an audiotape, to fool visitors – and perhaps for all anybody knew the butterflies, whose gilded cage the artificial paradise was – into believing they really were in the jungle. It was a miniature and sanitized jungle, without snakes, mosquitoes or leeches, but with a glass roof, reinforced with wire mesh, and neat gravel paths. The butterflies, in their model village, probably knew no better: great four-inch flutterers from South America swooped about like bats, blazing with tropical scarlet, deep violet and peacock blue. The paying public were warned not to handle these fragile insects, with their iridescent scales and delicate antennae. A food tray held slices of rotting banana, brown like decaying teeth, and deliquescent pineapple. Speckled brown, a huge owl butterfly, with a great, glaring false eye on each wing designed to scare away potential predators, was busy gorging.

The womb is a noisy place: thumping heart, rushing blood, gurgling digestive juices, chugging peristalsis, in the humming factory of the human body. Lambs and human children while still in utero preferred, according to experimental evidence, Mozart to heavy metal. Who could blame them? I come here to get back to the womb, she said to herself: this is my chosen retreat, warm, a gently humid biospheric environment, with trees and water and artfully winding paths, cultivated wilderness, the compound tiny, convolutions creating a maze.

She reached the enclosure for British butterflies, where common weeds had been planted and cherished, but among those thistles and nettles there didn’t seem to be many British butterflies about. Psyche, the Greek for butterfly, the Greek for soul. Did the butterflies know they were in prison? What use was freedom, without food, warmth and shelter? Did a modern materialist believe, wondered Jilly, in the soul? The Communists sought to harness spiritual energy to Party loyalty.

‘I loved the Party,’ Professor Zhang once said mournfully to Jilly. ‘But I was criticized for speaking truth and sent to the countryside to be re-educated.’ Re-education for Professor Zhang had meant work in the fields, carrying two buckets of liquid manure on a shoulder pole. This called for a tripping step, or the buckets would not balance. ‘Very tiring,’ Zhang had said. Now Zhang was rehabilitated and had her teaching job back. She had invited Jilly to work in China as a teacher of English.

Another notice told Jilly that the buddleia which attracted butterflies to her patch of garden in Isleworth was the food of adult butterflies, but that caterpillars needed stinging nettles to live on. Jilly’s garden was tiny, with no room for nettles. Anyway, there was a small patch of wild ground not far away, bordering a small tributary of the Thames. The district was being redeveloped – overdeveloped, some people said – and prices were rocketing. Everybody told Jilly that her house must be worth a fortune, but she needed it to live in and anywhere else would cost even more. It was small, terraced, two bedrooms and a boxroom, with a narrow hallway, the house she and Robert had struggled to buy when they married, a quarter-century ago, for six thousand pounds. Teeth picked out of his lungs after the accident. Jilly watched the caterpillar on the leaf. Repeats to thee thy mother’s grief. Something had been chewing the leaves of her plants into fretwork, and she suspected caterpillars. No butterflies without caterpillars, no grown-ups without labour pains, nappies, vomit, cut knees, adolescent rebellion.

Garden pests had at one time been kept down, Jilly believed, by a hedgehog, but it had been flattened by passing traffic and now, it seemed, none of her plants escaped. Too squeamish to lay down slug pellets, although she was assured they were harmless to the cats who used her garden as a lavatory and scratched up her bulbs, she had laid ecological slug traps: unwashed jam jars, half filled with water and buried up to their rims in soil, drowned the slugs. A nasty method of execution, like burying an enemy up to the neck in sand and leaving him to die of thirst...jars of boiling oil...Professor Zhang said that Chiang Kai-Chek, Britain’s friend and ally with a Christian wife, had boiled Communists alive. Or you could put salt on slugs and watch them fizz to death. Warfare over food, eating and being eaten, that’s nature. Even Buddhists eat vegetables. Zhang said religion was now once more permitted in the People’s Republic of China.

The butterfly house was where Jilly did her thinking. She imagined nuns must feel the same way about their convent chapels.

‘I’m a latchkey child,’ moaned Clytemnestra endlessly, enjoying the expression. ‘Why can’t you be like Mary’s mother, at home all the time?’

‘Mary’s mother has a husband,’ snapped Jilly. ‘She doesn’t have to keep herself and Mary. She doesn’t need to work.’

‘She does work! She knits sweaters at home so Mary can go to the convent. Why can’t I go there? Mary doesn’t see me any more. I hate my school. They call me a swot and say I’m posh. It’s not fair.’

‘You know perfectly well I can’t afford school fees,’ said Jilly wearily. In a class full of children whose parents were separated, divorced or not married at all, Clytie played the orphan card relentlessly. Jilly’s own father had come back from the war after four years as a prisoner, a stranger. Unable to recognize him, she had resented an interloper and treated him with suspicion. Clytemnestra blamed her mother for everything. Jilly was her own handyperson: she had to be. She painted, papered, did bits of carpentry even. Clytie, sulking, announced as she watched her mother struggling with wallpaper, already pasted and sticking to itself, needing to be forcibly unstuck and ending up crumpled and useless, that Jilly was ridiculous and that she, Clytie, would see she had things done for her. ‘You just want to be an ornament, my girl,’ snapped Jilly, wiping sticky hands on her jeans, while her beautiful bone idle daughter jeered. ‘I’ve spoiled you.’

‘Spoiled? I’ve never had anything I wanted,’ retorted Clytie in what Jilly liked to call her ‘tragedy queen mode’. If only, Jilly sighed, she could have said, as her own mother had done: ‘Just you wait till your father gets home.’ Jilly had been afraid of her father. Her parents had been disciplinarians, operating a reign of terror. Jilly wondered how on earth it had been done. What was to blame – the generation gap, a changed social climate, or being a single parent? Clytemnestra grumbled because her mother did not keep sweet biscuits in the house. Jilly could not afford biscuits, but to Clytemnestra’s disgust smoked cigarettes. Clytemnestra, ashamed of having only a black and white television set, sneered that Jilly was merely stingy. Jilly expected her daughter to praise her for doing so much on so little, to be proud and grateful to her plucky little mother, who barely reached Clytemnestra’s shoulder, for doing so wonderfully well, for knitting sweaters Clytie refused to wear. Clytie treated Jilly’s efforts with contempt and between dropping out of university and her marriage to Charles had lived on benefits, manipulating the system. Clytie despised money. Even more, she despised those who had not got any for not having it. She told her mother, accurately, that her classmates rode in taxis and ran up telephone bills. Clytie was allowed to receive telephone calls but was not supposed to make them. She whined and screamed that she was an outcast. Clytie bought an old satin jacket for almost nothing and patiently embroidered it with her own design of flowers and butterflies.Claiming that she had no friends, she went to parties in clothes made by herself out of scraps, cursing because she had no dress allowance, and looking exquisite, far more beautiful than I ever was, reflected Jilly, with Robert’s delicate bones, his silky black hair.

After Robert’s death, Jilly haunted a clergyman who was committed to non-directional counselling. He did not believe in the Resurrection, but did believe in what he called the integration of the personality. The Revd David Loveday revelled in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and had believed he had a mystical communion with nature. On reading in Don Cupitt that nature mysticism was no rare or special gift, he unfrocked himself and tried to become a painter of abstract pictures, while his wife, a teacher of cookery, kept the home fires burning. His pictures did not sell, his wife left him and he trained in marriage guidance, having joined a socialist splinter group, standing on street corners at weekends hawking its newspaper. Nobody, not even the Revd David Loveday, spoke of sin any more. Even right and wrong seemed outmoded notions.

Jilly sighed and moved over to the incubation tanks, where she stared at caterpillars and chrysalids. Giant butterflies had giant caterpillars, four and five inches long, camouflaged among the foliage they were munching, bright green like living leaves, dull brown like dead ones. Camouflage was Mother Nature’s way of protecting creatures from predators, Jilly’s teacher at the village junior school told them. Jilly got into hot water for wondering whether, in that case, predators starved to death. Miss Porter was a Christian vegetarian who believed her vocation was to inspire pupils with the miracles of God’s handiwork. Miss Porter said that though some people believed we were descended from monkeys (sniff) other people thought the world was only six thousand years old, two thousand from Adam to Moses, two thousand from Moses to Jesus. When a boy asked what about dinosaurs, Miss Porter, who had taught that boy’s grandfather, said, well, different people thought differently. Some people thought that losing the British Empire was a punishment for not going to church. Pupils must make up their own minds. China had five thousand years of civilization.

Jilly watched a butterfly being born. Cautiously, slowly, lingeringly, with pain it emerged, stopping every few seconds to fold damp, delicate wings patiently, in exhaustion. Jilly’s daughter had been taken from her, washed and laid in a cot away from the maternity ward, a converted workhouse. It had been some time before she was allowed to hold her own baby. Brave New World’s bottled babies, still science fiction at that date, seemed to Jilly a good idea: evolution had taken a wrong turn, confining marsupials to Australasia. Lucky kangaroo, six foot tall, giving birth to a beesized baby, who would climb up her fur unaided to her pouch. Why do we not have pockets on our stomachs, she was thinking. Perhaps birth was a struggle for most creatures, except for fish. Butterfly mothers laid their eggs presumably without after-pains, prolapse or post-natal incontinence.

Today’s babies, papooses, seemed placid, unlike their grandparents’ generation, sternly banished to the garden in their coachbuilt prams, taught the discipline of isolation. Had the reaction swung too far? Jilly was preoccupied with the cultural pendulum. An agnostic, her agnosticism was Protestant in its assumptions, yet oscillating between admiration for the austerity of whitewashed chapels, the upright heart and pure, and seduction by smells, bells and lace, ‘gay religions, full of pomp and gold’.

Politically Jilly was uncommitted and refused to believe Communism could be all bad, though her former employer, Josef, an escapee from Eastern Europe, had no good word to say about it. Jilly wavered between what she herself mocked as ‘bleeding heart liberalism’ and cynicism. Did a woman have the right to choose or was abortion slaughter of the innocents? Crushed heads and tender little limbs torn from baby trunks were not pleasant images. Rabbits often devoured their young or even reabsorbed them before birth. Zhang had told Jilly of a colleague who had come to Britain to research into radioactivity. A Chinese woman, she was appalled to discover on arrival that she was pregnant: her work would be dangerous to the foetus, and Chinese citizens are forbidden to give birth abroad. Expecting an abortion, she was amazed to find herself refused.

‘You got the baby in China,’ shrugged the doctor. ‘It’s no concern of ours.’

‘I thought you had a National Health Service!’ cried the girl.

‘You are a foreigner, not eligible. Try a private clinic.’

‘It cost five hundred pounds,’ Zhang told Jilly later, ‘My salary for a whole year! Of course, we all gave her money. We were astonished. In China, it is so easy to get an abortion. We are encouraged, sometimes forced, if we have a child already, or are not married.’

At fifteen, Clytemnestra had an NHS abortion, arranged in conjunction with her headmistress. She had sulked because she wanted to keep the baby and assured her mother she would look after it. The state would keep her and it in comfort, she said. Jilly called Clytemnestra a little slut. Clytemnestra said a girl she knew was only sixteen and she had a baby and her own council flat. Jilly said Clytemnestra ought to be concentrating on her O-levels. Jilly told her pregnant daughter she was too young to be having sex. It wasn’t legal. Clytie said sex was no big deal. Jilly had waited until she was safely engaged.

‘It’s not fair,’ was Clytie’s war-cry. Stuffing her long black hair into her mouth, she rocked on the window-seat, a romantic icon of grief.

‘For God’s sake, what grudge have you got against the world? Why is nothing ever right for you? I wish I’d never had children!’

‘I hate you, too.’

‘I’m worn out trying to make ends meet and you won’t lift a finger, just keep whingeing all the time. You make me sick, you rotten little bitch. Why have you such a negative attitude? Where’s your motivation?’

And so forth. Staring into the glass tank, pullulating with insect life, Jilly saw a slim girl in a white summer dress standing behind her and reflected in the glass. Jilly was visited by the ghost of her daughter, an ivory statue in her wedding dress, reflected in the glass partition of the non-denominational community centre where the wedding was celebrated, for Clytie the rebel had insisted on a conventional wedding. Charles and his best man had even put on morning dress. Clytie, after some tiff with Charles during the cutting of the cake, had flounced behind a tinted glass screen. The girl in the white summer dress moved away. Lucky or not to see the new moon through glass? Jilly could not remember. Suppose the earth were a giant observation tank for unimagined gods to watch us? Jilly was watching leaf-cutter ants building their nests. An ant busily munched a perfect semicircle from the edge of cabbage leaf, using powerful mandibles like an electric saw. Messengers ran deedily with the chopped-up sections along the two-yard log and back again along the one underneath the rotting stump where the circular route began. They didn’t seem clever enough to just crawl down the side of the stump and save themselves the journey. Wild leaf-cutter ants used trails over three miles long. Running as fast as their little legs could twinkle, they reminded Jilly of herself loaded with shopping, running for a bus. Ant or sluggard, which was wiser, toiling masses planting rice, gentle scholar Zhang among them, or hippies in the sixties, taking life easy? Ants behaved as if time were money, for all the world as if their rotting log was New York or the Tokyo stock exchange. Man’s time a moment and a point his space.

In London, where Jilly was, it was 11 am; in Beijing, whither Professor Zhang had returned, it was 7 pm. Slender men on pedicarts were straining and sweating on their way home, pedalling strenuously to shift weighty loads from one part of the city to another, three-piece suites tied on with rope, flattened cardboard boxes, mixed garbage, quilled like porcupines with plastic Pepsi bottles. Men on bicycles precariously balanced rolls of linoleum on their shoulders. Pedicarts are versatile. Bamboo shelves serve as load-bearing space, as display space, as couch for a snooze or as a stretcher. Endlessly men stripped to the waist, one cotton trouser leg rolled up to avoid being caught in their heavy bicycle chains, toil through the grid of Beijing streets on circular journeys.

Work: the curse of Adam? Ants with the Protestant ethic? Work as identity. Jilly was a supply teacher, a job she hated, her real work in publishing having collapsed. Providence, whatever Miss Porter had told her pupils, offered the worm no protection against the early bird, the small firm against the asset-stripping conglomerate.

Jilly reached the funnel-web spider lurking in her cave, a web of her own skilled weaving above her. Allegedly docile, black hairy monster, obscene female emblem with a poison kiss, a Medusa, she was terrifying. Did she eat her lovers? Here was the notorious praying mantis, three inches long, bright green, a feminist revenge, chewing her mate’s head off after extracting his genetic material and perhaps pleasure. Some male spiders wrapped something nice to eat in a parcel of silk and presented it to the female before sex (dinner first). Some crafty fellows, though, wound up an empty parcel, and gave it to the lady with a flourish. While she unwrapped the barmecide gift the male sneaked in behind and had her. Josef had been like that. Rumour said he had died in bed with a woman not his wife. Probably where Josef came from mistresses were still an accessory, customary and traditional, like wood-burning stoves and tea drunk from a glass. Jewels, furs, carriages? In nineteenth-century novels, perhaps. She was glad she had two-timed him once at a book fair. But the sexual revolution, like the economic boom everybody talked of, had passed Jilly by. She was ashamed of having had only three men when other women, power-suited and highly-paid, were apparently sleeping their way to the top and having fun at the same time, with children as a bonus. Jilly wore Laura Ashley and a wash-and-leave perm. Josef had frequently told Jilly how generous he was to employ her, but he never took her out, for fear of scandal. Robert had worked for Josef and after Robert’s death Josef had taken her over as his responsibility, letting it be understood that as Robert had been a high flyer Jilly must not expect as high a salary. He took Jilly’s sexual compliance for granted.

Here was a beautiful green spider with creamy freckles on her body and eight legs. A two-legged featherless acolyte carefully opened the zip on the mesh at the side of her tank and offered her a juicy live bluebottle, placing it delicately on the web, to fool the spider into thinking she had caught it herself. The spider was fed at another’s expense, like a kept woman. Josef had not paid the mortgage but he had paid the modest salary which did. Sexual behaviour a social construct, rats and monkeys, even men had to learn how. ‘Suffer, bitch!’ screamed the flea as he raped the elephant. Jilly wondered whether she had ever had an orgasm. She had heard a woman on radio saying. ‘My first orgasm literally blew my head off,’ which merely added to Jilly’s bewilderment.

‘Bit rough on the bluebottle, isn’t it?’ Jilly murmured.

‘Oh, the spider’s a new arrival from South America. We’re helping her to settle down. Wouldn’t do if she went off her feed.’ Clytie had been anorexic.

Jilly went to the scorpions, big black armoured brutes six inches long. Full of scorpions is my mind. Then the locusts, whose jaws were even busier than those of the leaf-cutter ants. The locusts seemed unhappy, flying aimlessly about, cracking against the sides of their glass box, their destructive potential confined, like Napoleon’s on St Helena. Two inches long, they coupled in mechanical frenzy, in orgies piled three high, dropping off exhausted. Perhaps it was their version of safe sex, like the old custom of bundling? They stared with glazed eyes at Jilly the voyeur. Clytemnestra at fourteen had come home early from school, with a period pain, and found Jilly in bed with Josef. When Jilly was at grammar school, you were supposed to grin and bear it, do gym, play hockey, no excuses. If you suffered, it was your own fault for rejecting your womanhood. Now they let girls loose to come home and find their mothers in bed with their bosses.

The abortion crisis over, Clytemnestra passed her A-levels and went to Leeds University to read history, having been rejected by Durham, her parents’ university. After a few weeks she complained Leeds was institutional, shaved her head and became a Buddhist before having a breakdown. In the mental hospital she met Charles, son of a classics don. Charles was interested in animals and growing things but, as his parents constantly told him, he’d never get the grades to be a vet. He suggested he might go to horticultural college but his parents said it wasn’t a proper career. They sent him to study chemistry at university. Everybody knew in the early eighties that now so few schools offered Greek or Latin and fewer and fewer students applied to read classics, only scientific subjects led to a secure future. Charles would have preferred to read biology but his parents felt biology was a soft subject and chemistry more reliable, not to say respectable. At the end of his first year he dropped out. After a spell in the funny farm, he got a job in the city parks department as a gardener. Jilly hoped he was happier. The post was not well paid but brought accommodation with it. God knows how it will all work out, thought Jilly, as she walked out of the butterfly house and down the drive. All over the world the females of various species were busy giving birth, feeding and nurturing young, tidying their nests, that unpaid cleaning and maintenance work that holds the world together. What sort of housewife would Clytie make? Would she and Charles be happy together? Clytie’s resentments included being kept from her father’s cremation ; she grieved that his ashes had been scattered.

‘But you were only six, just a baby!’

‘He was my daddy, and I loved him.’

Robert had driven out into the night after a row. Jilly had given Clytie a quick slap for some trifling disobedience. Robert gathered his howling daughter up in his arms, on to his shoulder. Jilly, exhausted, screamed at him for taking the child’s part against her. Clytie was becoming a spoilt brat, all Robert’s fault. Shouts, screams, a smashed cup, smashed car against lamp-post on wet road, corner taken too fast, seatbelt not done up, head through windscreen, teeth scattered, some found in lungs.


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