I realised recently that there are three of us in this marriage, as somebody once said. No, not a physical entity, but a character, who comes to bed with me and wakes up with me. I’m finding myself thinking of her all the time and as I begin to fall asleep, she talks to me. Last night she said, “The matches are next to the silver-capped scent bottle”. If I’d had my notebook on the bedside cupboard I’d have switched on the light and noted it there and then, but I shut my eyes tight and remembered her words this morning. I’ve thanked her for that little detail and I’ve added it to that scene. She’ll probably talk to me again tonight.
A Writer Writes
No, it’s not quite what Hemingway actually said, but the sentiment is there. If you are a writer, you have to keep writing. But how?
Last week I posted the conclusion to The Way We Lied. If you want to read the early chapters, they are available in the archives, starting in October 2015. And now, while I await reactions to a recently completed novel, set in Corfu, exploring the consequences of deception and the island’s hidden wartime history, I’m going to post about writing habits, good and bad.
Of course, while keeping fingers crossed for the Corfu novel, I’ve not been able to resist starting another project. I’ve got 52,000 plus words so far, but whether they are all the right words I have yet to decide. Today I only managed to add 150 words, which is not much of an achievement considering I worked for three hours. But, after reading through the work in progress, then deciding to weed the garden in the sunshine, my writing brain continued to work and now I have a clearer idea of what to write next.
So, today’s rule for writing is: sometimes you have to take a break and weed the garden. Who knows what idea will pop up as you wrestle with the ground elder.
The hospice was peaceful the following evening. My mother was lying in her bed, supported by soft pillows. Her favourite piece of music, that sacred composition by Thomas Tallis, was playing again; the repetitive chanting encircled her in a choral spiral that was slowly lifting her to heaven.
She turned her head a little as I entered, her thin hair and bruised hollow cheeks the most obvious signs of her diminished body. She was no longer the bold, strong mother of my youth; she was a little broken bird. I could do nothing to help her now. I could only try to give her the gift of a peaceful, untroubled death and the reassurance that I loved her for being a devoted mother. I could only give her one more lie to preserve all the lies.
And then I told her that I had been. I told her what I had found. And I told her that none of it could be read. She closed her eyes for a moment as if she was relieved, then she looked at me and laughed, the tiniest rustling tissue of a laugh that shook her shoulders as if she had just heard the funniest joke in her whole life.
“All that is past is forgiven,” she whispered through her laughter. “I have never put my hope in any other but you.”
Then she closed her eyes for the very last time.
“So tell me,” said Rob as he handed me a chilled vodka and tonic and came to sit with me by the blazing fire, “have you solved the great Millennium mystery yet?”
I had told him what the letters said and also that I was meeting Mary, but I had not told him everything. I had not told him and will never tell him, that her eyes and her kiss haunt me. And I could not tell him that I was at fault and that Mary had said I would be forgiven. So all I could say was, “It was all such a long time ago, that it is nothing and yet it is everything to my mother. I think I can see now why Mum was so concerned. While she probably could not have known what any of the other letters said, she knows what she herself wrote. She knows it could be sensationalised in the hands of the wrong people and could distress my father. And yet I don’t think, from what I have read, that anything actually ever happened between my mother and Mary. Even if it had, I would not think any the less of her. She has always been a wonderfully devoted mother. I don’t want her to feel afraid of what we might think of her now, at this stage of her life.”
“And what did you make of this Mary?”
I was quiet for a moment, remembering her words and her touch, “From the little the letters can tell me, I know she had an impact on everyone who met her. She’s a charismatic character even now and my instinct tells me she was essentially good, yet highly controversial. She seems to have ruffled quite a few feathers in her time. But Mum loved her. That’s all that matters. My mother loved her. She was enthralled and tempted but I believe she resisted. And, as far as I know, I don’t think she ever saw Mary again. I honestly had no idea she even knew her and I never heard her name mentioned, ever.”
“And are you sure your mother could not have known what any of the others had written, not even your father?”
I stared into the fire, recalling the preparation of the time capsule. The letters had been left in the kitchen and then everyone gathered around the kitchen table while my mother put all the contributions into the box. “From what I can remember, the envelopes were all sealed. So I don’t think she ever had any idea what the others said. I think she can only be worrying about her own letter. I think she is just concerned with how we might regard her in the light of this confession.”
Rob was silent for a minute or two. He was extremely fond of my mother and they had always been very good for each other. “Are you going to tell your mother that you’ve been to see Mary?”
And then I was quiet for a while before I said, “I’ve been thinking about it. But that would mean letting her know that I’ve read her letter and that I know how much Mary meant to her. She’s been trying to conceal that from us all these years, so no, I can’t tell her. And also, she made the decision to say goodbye to Mary a long time ago. So I don’t think telling her we’ve met would help her feel at peace now.”
“And have you told your father that she asked you to go back to the old house?”
“Not yet.” I shook my head and concentrated on my drink. I had been contemplating this question too.
“Will you tell your brothers?”
“That I went back? Probably.”
“But will you tell them what you found?”
I sighed. “That’s what I’m trying to decide, Rob.”
He put his arms around me and I rested against his warm chest. “You should do what you think is right,” he murmured, putting his lips close to my cheek.
“I’m going to try.” I looked up at him. “Don’t let’s leave any surprises for our kids. Let’s have a big bonfire before we’re too old.”
He laughed. “A really big one. We’ll burn all our dark secrets. There’ll be nothing nasty left in the woodshed.”
And then I knew what had to be done. I gathered up the letters, the envelopes and the newspaper cutting and threw them all on the fire. They caught instantly and in seconds there were only charred shreds.
I watched all the hidden lives burn to nothing and then sat back, unburdened. “I’ll tell them nothing survived. I’ll say it had all disintegrated in the box. None of it could be read. And that’s what I’ll tell my mother too.” Rob held me tight and we were silent
She turned back to me and said, “I long for the air of the countryside, but London is far more convenient for me these days. I can do all I need to do far more easily here. It’s everything I need now; home, office, studio, all under one roof.” She stared at me, then said, “You’re very like her, you know.” And then she was silent, waiting for me to speak, while a tray of drinks was carried out and placed on the table.
“Yes, everyone says I’ve got my mother’s colouring. It’s the hair, I suppose.” I instinctively touched my fine straight blonde hair, tucking it back behind my ears.
“No it’s not the hair, it’s more the way you hold your head.” She looked at me intently with the bluest of eyes. “Turn that way,” she gestured towards the balcony, “Now pull your hair back over your shoulder with your other hand.” I did as she asked. “There, I can see it now. The neck. She had a very beautiful neck.”
“She still has,” I said, letting my hair fall over my shoulders and turning back. “She’s very ill, but she’s not dead yet.”
“Of course. I read your message. So why have you come to see me?” She held her head erect, staring at me again with those piercing eyes.
I hesitated, then said, “I thought you might want to know she hasn’t got much time left. I suppose I thought you might want to see her or send a message.”
“You could have told me that in your email. So why have you really come here?” She sat there, an elderly woman in a wheelchair, but she didn’t look frail or vulnerable. If she could be like this in her eighties, and I think I’d calculated she must be about 85, how imposing, how commanding must she have seemed all those years before? She was upright, her eyebrows arched, her tanned skin emphasised by her crisp white shirt, the cuffs folded back to reveal strong sinewy wrists and hands. I could only see a sliver of denim below the hem of her shirt, as her legs and feet were enfolded in a soft dove grey blanket.
And she was so direct, with her voice, her eyes and her manner, that I knew I had to tell her the truth. “I came out of curiosity. I wanted to see you for myself.”
She laughed. “And why would you want to do that?”
“Because I know that my mother loved you. And because you seem to have had such an enormous impact on so many other people’s lives too. My father, my aunt, my uncle….” I stumbled, shaken by the half smile on her bare lips and the glint in her eyes. Then I told her about the letters and, after some hesitation, how I felt guilty about taking them and she laughed even louder.
“How very quaint, how awfully Enid Blyton,” she said, fingering the scar on her forehead. “You surely don’t think I’m responsible for all those people? They were all quite independent adults, after all. I must have met hundreds of men and women in my lifetime who could say I’d influenced them. And I suppose some would say it was for the good and others might say the reverse. Am I meant to be the moral guardian of them all?”
She was right, of course, but I still needed to understand, so I persisted. “I wanted to make sense of it, that’s all. I didn’t understand then and I’m not sure I do now. So I wanted to know more about you.”
She smiled then, not cynically, not mockingly, but with gentleness and said, “Come with me. Then you’ll understand.” She pressed a button on the arm of her chair and it began to glide forward with the faintest whirring sound and she led me inside the cool airy interior and over to the lift. We entered and it carried us in silence to the ground floor lobby, where I had first entered the building. Opposite the lift door was a huge studded plate of steel, stretching up to the ceiling, which slid to one side when Mary pressed a button in the wall. Beyond was a cavernous hall, where several figures were at work, some drawing, some moulding clay, another sanding a bulbous stone form representing an enormous curved woman, her belly ripe with the child just emerging between her outspread legs.
“They aren’t art college students,” Mary said. “No one here has had a formal education. They haven’t been channelled into compartments, pumped with theories, they have come here to develop their potential, to grow and explore. That’s always been my mission in life.” She turned to look at me, then said, “I never tell people what to do, what to think, I just help them to find out for themselves. I may question their ideas, their motives, their ordered lives, but I’ve never made demands. Does that answer your questions?”
“Not entirely,” I said. “I wanted to know what sort of person could have such a powerful influence and especially to know what sort of woman could entrance my mother.”
“Come closer,” she said. I stepped towards her. “Kneel down,” she whispered, and I did. I knelt beside her wheel chair, facing her, my arms by my side. She lifted my hair with both her hands then bent forwards and kissed my lips. Her mouth was dry but still sensuous and I smelt, oh not the smell of an old woman fragrant with lavender soap and powder, but the musky scents of oak woods in autumn, beaches of silver sand and bleached shells and markets heavy with spices.
“Now you know, my child,” she said.
And I did.
Mary is actually still alive. And incredibly, she is still working. I don’t know why I didn’t realise before how famous she is, possibly because sculpture isn’t something I’m interested in, but she is acclaimed, honoured and hugely successful. Mary Reid, O.B.E., whether that’s for her artistic contribution or her charitable work, I’m not sure, but she’s certainly somebody.
And so, I arranged to see her. Wikimeets listed contact details for her East London studio. I emailed, explaining that I am the daughter of one of Mary’s oldest and closest friends and she agreed to meet me.
It would have been quicker if I had taken the Underground, but I’m paranoid about the trains and the tunnels since the gas attack three years ago. They keep saying it could never happen again since they installed super sensitive detectors, but I’m not so sure, so I travelled from Tooting to Hackney on the E-bus, checking my route with my I-map , which told me the journey should only take an hour.
I passed the time rereading the biography I downloaded, to remind myself of the highlights of her career. Honorary doctorates, the Venice Biennale, international prizes; her work is exhibited in major international collections and fetches phenomenal sums from private collectors.
And the whole way, I was also asking myself why I was making this journey. I hadn’t told my mother I was going to meet Mary and I really didn’t know how she would react if she knew. After re-reading her letter I thought she would not want me to know that Mary had meant so much to her. And I didn’t know how Mary would react either. Perhaps she would want to send some words of comfort. But I was curious to meet this woman who had such an influence on the people closest to me and was mentioned by all of them.
Her studio is actually in a workspace and apartment complex in an old warehouse, in an area that used to be known as the creative hotbed of London about 20 years ago. Now it’s become so expensive and so exclusive, with high spec flat conversions all around, that all the young creatives and geeks are swarming round Peckham and Deptford.
I was buzzed in instantly once the entry system recognised me from the profile photo I sent when I confirmed the meeting. Take the lift to the third floor, announced a disembodied male voice, echoing slightly in the steel and brick foyer. I did as instructed and when the door opened, I was greeted by a tall black man with cheekbones carved from ebony. “Miss Reid is waiting for you outside,” he said, leading the way through a lofty room to a wide terrace, bordered with glass and steel, giving a view of the surrounding streets and the park. Gigantic galvanised steel urns, planted with airy bamboo and clipped cones of box, were spaced along the balcony at regular intervals in the warm spring sunshine and at the far end, sat beside a glass table and sheltered by a large cream canvas canopy, was Mary, in a wheelchair. Her hair was shorter and silvery now, her face older, with a ragged scar over her right eyebrow, but it was definitely her.
I hadn’t expected her to be incapacitated, but I concealed my surprise well I think. “Thank you so much for letting me come here,” I said, holding out my hand. She took it in hers, old with veins and spots of age, the fingers heavy with silver rings set with turquoise.
“I’m delighted to meet the daughter of an old friend,” she said, her voice deep and rich. She turned to her assistant, “We’ll have coffee out here, Ahmed. It’s such a lovely day. Far too good to be cooped up inside.”
That is, I never looked at them again until now. When I came back from our old house with the contents of the buried box, I took the letters from the hidden drawer. I read them once the children were asleep, while Rob cooked our supper, so he didn’t see my tears and was unaware of my shame. I sat alone at my desk and read them one by one, then read them all again. It did not take me long. The eight letters were very short, but their words will stay with me for a long time. I understand them only too well now, and know why I should never have taken them.
I sat there once I had finished reading, thinking about the eight people who had written them with such frankness. I could not play the video Amy had filmed, even if it had still been functioning, as videos are a thing of the past. But I dimly remember it contained some images of my father, so I stamped on it and crushed it to be sure there was no possibility it could ever be viewed again.
And I wondered about Mary Reid and why she had had such an impact on all these people. Her name was vaguely familiar. Had I read about her in an article on an exhibition or was I thinking of her obituary? And whatever the implications, did it really matter? It all happened so very long ago.
Nick paid for his love of rich food and wine, when he was disabled by a severe stroke in his early sixties and now he cannot walk or speak. He requires constant care and has been living in a nursing home for the past fifteen years. Sarah visits him once a month and reports that she cannot stay long as her presence upsets him and she cannot bear his tears. She is still highly critical of others, but satisfies her own feelings of importance and entitlement by being chairwoman of the regional antiques appreciation society, a vocal member of the parish council and also chairman of the local village hall committee.
Dear Charles is still decent and charming and has been applauded and honoured for his charitable work, while Alex is eternally elegant and loves her recently acquired title of Lady Wilson. She is quite charitable herself these days, although I suspect she enjoys the celebrity garlanded events more than the organisations which benefit from the funds she helps to raise. And Helen is serene and her work is deservedly acclaimed. She eventually divorced Simon and he moved away so we never see him now.
And my father …… my father has worked conscientiously and tirelessly for peace for as long as I can remember. He is a good, good man and I will not allow anything to tarnish his name and his honourable record.
And my mother is dying. And her feelings are all I care for. I unfolded the crumpled press cutting she had enclosed with her letter. If this was all my mother had ever had of Mary, then she had kept nothing of this remarkable woman or their relationship for herself. She had devoted herself entirely, for the rest of her life, to her children, to her grandchildren and to my father. I felt she was blameless. But if this friendship was so precious to her, I wanted to know more about Mary. If she was still alive they could have one last chance to speak, to meet, to maybe say goodbye. Would that make amends for the terrible wrong I had done?