Short Story – The Things That One Learns With Age

Some of the most entertaining chapters of The Pillow Book are those where Shonagon’s voice and opinions come most strongly through; it is these which inspired my newest writing. Our narrator tries to, with due respect, talk about the sorts of parties a family angling for social status might throw – but is unable to keep their own cynicism about this kind of showing-off out of it.

On the way, there are descriptions of fashion, and manners, and what someone either too cynical or too privileged to play at the usual social games feels are the good things in life. I am getting far more invested in this narrator now – they sit somewhere between Shonagon and Pliny in being perhaps over-cynical about the society they inhabit.

There is great relief among many of the sons and daughters of the wealthiest families when Her Divine Majesty lays down the dates of the observances and saints’ days at the turn of each season. Imagine, one waits for the chance to attend court, perhaps for the birthday of a noble of higher office one’s family knows, or for one of the many flower-viewings or poetry-readings or infrequent visits of some great preacher or musician or dancer that have been talked about in hushed ways for months previously – I hear so-and-so is coming to visit on the fifth, he is staying in the capital for only a week or so, or my cousin holds high office and is holding a ball to celebrate his birthday not three months from now – and then, in the summer’s announcements, Her Majesty orders that very day you hoped would be a chance to show off is one of great asceticism, great restraint – or even worse, all-night vigil, or the seeing in of the saint. Yet among others, of course, there will be crushing disappointment; it is always the way.

Not everyone launches themselves into the sacred calendar with the vigour that invites dejection. In the provinces, far from the particular attitudes of the royal capital that necessitate strict piety, there is a more compromising, accommodating approach to the festivals. What Her Majesty may describe as time for quiet prayer in the long halls of the capital may be joyful singing and vigorous sermons out in the far provinces.

But this is a digression to the scene that one should imagine. Today is not a festival, the temples are filled only with their usual occupants, and passing visitors. Instead, in one of the sea of minor officials’ houses that spread out along the Pine River, a family prepare to receive guests. Tonight there will be a celebration, because their son has been granted a position at court and obviously, the first thing to be done in such a situation is ingratiate him with others in the same position. It is hard not to see this sort of party, this gathering-together of friends and notables, for what it is – if you have already passed the age or rank where it is important. Of course, the food will be the best their status permits, the young girls will be pretty enough to be introduced to someone of this rank, and it will be a perfectly pleasant affair for those invited.

In the morning, a cart bringing those things needed for a meal of the highest quality arrives; the centrepiece a whole, enormous fish carried on cold stones and bathed every so often in water as if being purified for marriage. But there are also vegetables, bought fresh from the market, other meats – cured, preserved and fresh ready to cook – and rattling, heavy jugs of wine that will be drunk from far finer vessels. Choosing wine for an evenings’ entertainment is a cause of great consternation in any house; what is appropriate for the guests, what would you drink ordinarily, how much to be bought – these are all the questions that drive those entertaining to distraction. These things are taken to the kitchens, which sit on the outskirts of the estate on the far side of a courtyard in which, currently, the family’s youngest children play with a dog, and the preparation of food begins. The house is full of noise, servants cleaning and the very best things that the family can spare to look important brought out – a screen, donated by a great general who a distant relative performed a favour for, which shows a scene from scripture. Two matching shields, painted with scenes of summer and winter around a boss representing the sun. These will hang to the left and right of the son in his position as guest of honour, and the process of hanging them involves much considering of whether they are level from the men, and much laughter from the daughters of the family watching from the door.

The eldest daughter leaves the laughing gathering and – for this is a process that will take some time – begins to ready herself for stepping out into society. She is second-eldest among a family of five children – two sons and three daughters, the youngest of which are the twin sisters born only eight years ago. She can, with the help of a maid, prepare herself for tonight. The children will need constant supervision and assistance. The younger of the brothers hurries past her, on his way to deliver a message to the cartmen bringing the food and drink, and as he does he leaves a long streak of flour from his sleeves down her side. In the kitchen, there has been a problem with the ingredients. The flour is not enough to make bread for the dinner, and more must be brought. The Younger Brother has been sent to confirm this, once news of it reached the father by means of the cook, and now he must demand more be found.

These preparations continue throughout the day, the cooks endlessly baking and boiling and cutting, the children marshalled into formal clothes. The twins are wearing silver – heavy dresses that skim the floor with brocaded hems in dark blue to represent a stormy sea. That wave pattern is common for childrens’ clothes this year, and in some gaudier cases there are serpents or whales added, or a ship with bright sails. Each dress is tied with a thin cord of the same blue, and has half-length sleeves which leave forearms bearing fine bracelets bare. The girls’ hair is styled plainly, a simple bun that crucially does not take too long to tie, for children are impatient and hate the painful tugging and braiding that accompanies more fashionable hairstyles. Into the neatly tied hair is jabbed a long pin with flowers of finely-turned metal or wood at its end – in this case, only polished, lacquered light-brown wood, not gold or silver. Each child is also permitted a valuable treasure – a torc of twisted gold-wire that is displayed around pale necks with great pride, the first true jewellery they have ever been given.

Afternoon melts into golden early evening and guests begin to arrive, on foot or by coaches. The Older Brother steps ahead to greet them, wearing black with a white fur collar and trousers in dark grey. His moustache, an experimental thing in the style – so he hears – of those at court, is trimmed in harsh triangles tracing the line of his upper lip, and he wears it well on an angular face that, once the body it caps has experienced hard work, will seem lean and tough. Those senior to him are met with a polite bow, the dipping of the head and extending of a welcoming arm. Once they are hurried by, he greets good friends – those who have shared verses with him and will stand at court as his peers – with manly embrace and far more levity.

It is not long now until they will eat. The table is prepared, strewn with flowers that form a colourful carpet beneath waiting platters of food, and polished wooden plates sit awaiting use. The eldest daughter waits at the edge of the hall, minding her siblings and engaged in polite conversation with the sister of a man who is to become a scribe for the law-writers. They talk of their respective brothers’ follies in a way that tries to gauge the manner of friendship that can ensue. These sorts of events are a dance of words; families will speak deprecatingly to each other until they are certain to whom they are speaking, and then maybe through exchanges of verse or drunken reminiscence, friendship emerges.

You may think that this scene is described in cynical terms – that a social occasion which will doubtless end with new friendships, maybe even young love, and which marks the natural progression through life of young people deserves kindlier words. But it is dreadfully dull to be at such an event if one has already passed through this unkind age – and with respectful distance the absurdity of it all is clear. It is better to invite true friends to your house, share food and wine with them and talk politely of things under the pleasant long evenings than to be worried about appearances and suitable friends. True pleasure is an unhurried meal with someone you have not seen for a long time, and the witty exchange of verse on some event you both know of – like so-and-so’s gardens, or the receiving of good news by a friend or sister, or the way the lake looks under the dying sunlight. Maybe it is you who is receiving the famous musician, and everyone gathers – the youngest children sitting frozen-still with admiration, the grandparents in the back of the room talking about how so-and-so was far better in the time of the previous Majesty – to listen to them play songs you have not heard, or to ask what you wish to hear and to play a well-worn tune. For, if you have lived in the capital among that ocean of minor officials fishing for friendship all your life, you become tired of their entertainments.


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