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Excerpt from 'Vanessa and Her Sister'

"Vanessa and Her Sister" by Priya Parmar (Ballantine, December 2014). Photo Credit: Ballantine

THE PARTY

Thursday 23 February 1905 -- 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London (early)

I opened the great sash window onto the morning pink of the square and made a decision.

Yes. Today.

Last Thursday evening, I sat in the corner like a sprouted potato, but this Thursday, I will speak up. I will speak out. Long ago Virginia decreed, in the way that Virginia decrees, that I was the painter and she the writer. "You do not like words, Nessa," she said. "They are not your creative nest." Or maybe it was orb? Or oeuf? My sister always describes me in rounded domestic hatching words. And invariably, I believe her. So, not a writer, I have run away from words like a child escaping a darkening wood, leaving my sharp burning sister in sole possession of the enchanted forest. But Virginia should not always be listened to.

A list. Parties begin with a list. Grocer. Butcher. Cheesemonger. I wish Thoby had some idea of how many are coming tonight. I suggested to Sophie that she make only sandwiches. She said it was barbaric and flatly refused.

Neither Thoby, nor Adrian, nor Virginia would ever think of anything so banal as sandwiches or napkins or tea spoons. Mother or Stella was always there to do that for them. Now I do it. I will speak to Sloper.

I am sure we should order more whisky for Thoby and wine for Adrian. And for the guests? Does Mr Bell drink whisky or wine? I can imagine him drinking either. I have no idea what Saxon drinks, but we have cocoa for Lytton, and I am sure that Desmond will drink anything we put in front of him and declare it to be his favourite. Virginia of course will drink nothing.

Later (8.30am)

The morning's heavy quiet was split in two.

"Nessa!"

Virginia was shrieking downstairs.

"Nessa!"

I ignored it. Thoby was insisting that she eat her breakfast, and Virginia, enjoying his attention, was refusing. Virginia, as a rule, does not eat her breakfast. But last week Dr Savage told us that eating is crucial if we are to avert another disaster. He was dismayed when Thoby told him that Virginia's room was at the top of the house. He suggested we either relocate her to the ground floor or nail her windows shut.

Scraping chairs. Slamming doors. The escape. Quick cat's-paw footsteps on the stairs, and Virginia barrelled into my sitting room without knocking and hurled herself into the low blue armchair.

"Ginia. I have asked you to knock in the mornings. Just in the mornings. Any other time, you may behave like the little savage you are and barge in," I said without looking up.

"Nessa!" she said loudly. "I am being oppressed! Thoby forced oatmeal down my gullet. Libre Virginia!"

The morning was off to a roaring start.

Later (after luncheon)

The interval before the second act. Adrian is down from Cambridge until Monday, and I will not let him out of the house until he unpacks his boxes from Hyde Park Gate. We moved six months ago, and they are still in the hallway. We walk around them like they are furniture. The servants shake their heads at us in disapproval. I can hear Thoby thumping around looking for his field glasses, and Virginia is out visiting Violet Dickinson in Manchester Square. Violet, older, calmer, and robustly good-natured, soothes her. And so we have peace.

A wobbly three-legged day. A current of expectation has rounded through the house since this morning. It races and puffs up the stairs, sifting through the bedrooms in a blur of undefined something, knocking us out of stride. Thursdays have become important, like a bump that defines a nose, or a fence that marks a field. Thoby's Thursday "at homes" for his friends from Cambridge lend shape to the week. This will be Thoby's second at home -- no idea why he chose Thursdays. He said Mondays were bulky and Wednesdays were flat. I do not mind. George and Gerald always try to frog-march Virginia and me to a gruesome dinner or dance on Thursdays to meet the eligible young men of Belgravia and Kensington. It embarrasses our half-brothers to have such conspicuously unmarried sisters. George is less concerned about Virginia -- at twenty-three she can get away with it -- but at twenty-six, I am a desperate worry. Strangely, I am not worried. I hate wearing white gloves, and I always find the young men undercooked and sweaty. We were meant to go with George to a dance in Mayfair this evening, but I just sent round a note with my apologies.

I can't think what to do with the house tonight. Gaslights, which flatter everyone, or the harsh, unreliable new electric lights? Thoby, ever in favour of modernity, wants electric, but they make Virginia and me look washed out and greenish as though we have been eating bad fish. My painting sits on the easel in the corner of the drawing room. Do I pack it away? Do I put away Thoby's books and Adrian's exam papers and Virginia's notes and our decks of cards? Do I pretend that we four siblings do not live here? Stella would have ordered menus. Father would have received guests in his library. Mother would have sent out cards. We four will take our chances and see who turns up. Last week the last guests left at half past two in the morning. At midnight I told Sloper he could go to bed and Thoby's friends could see themselves out. Sloper looked appalled and ignored me.

Thoby's at homes have the soft, unpredictable feeling of a hat tossed high in the air. When we moved last autumn, not to a suitable address near the Round Pond in Kensington, nor to a pretty side street in Chelsea, but to the once elegant but now shabby Georgian squares of Bloomsbury, I did not realise what a shocking thing we were doing. Mother and Father's friends, feeling a sense of responsibility, tried to dissuade us from this bohemian hinterland, and of course George and Gerald objected, but we decided to ignore that. Because there is a sturdy beauty here. These Bloomsbury squares are set in their ways: no longer smart, no longer chic, they remain defiantly graceful. A good bone structure is hard to deny.

And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who don't know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like.

Just us four.

There is a lovely symmetry in four.

From "Vanessa and Her Sister" by Priya Parmar. Copyright © 2014 by Priya Parmar. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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