Submissions to agents are such a leap of faith, that I’m sure I’m not the only writer to take a crumb of comfort from a rejection, particularly when it includes the words ‘enjoyed reading the pages you sent’ and ‘there’s much to admire about your writing’. Of course, those encouraging words are followed with ‘but’, so the Corfu novel hasn’t yet found a home, but I live in hope that it will find its place in the sun.
But sometimes a writer takes inspiration from what others have written, like this letter sent by my great uncle to his young wife on May 19th 1940, shortly before the Battle of Dunkirk. I have transcribed a cache of letters written by this young couple in the early years of the war and have never been able to read this particular letter aloud without feeling a lump in my throat.’Tiny’ died in a training exercise two years later, so I never knew him, but I am grateful to him and many others for their courage at that time.So now, with a film coming to our screens, I’d like to share this one short but very poignant testimony to those brave men.
My own darling Nora,
I find it difficult to write this but I know you will understand if it sounds sentimental.
Nora dearest, this may be the last letter you will receive from me. The whole B.E.F. is withdrawing and the H.L.I. have been detailed to cover the withdrawal, in the words of the order “To the last bullet and the last man”.
I find that I am not so courageous after all, in fact at this moment I am trying hard to keep a lump from my throat and a smile on my face.
We have been bombed and machine gunned for the past two days but at the moment it is quiet.
My darling I love you so terribly and that’s what makes it so hard.
Please don’t think I’ve given up darling, I’m not dead yet and something may turn up.
Sweetheart, if the worst happens, think of me sometimes and know that I loved you more than anything in the world and that I am thinking of you to the last.
So I am going to sit down quietly for a while and think of all the little things we used to do, the room at Euston and our flat at Highbury – and that marvellous 10 days leave.
I have 9 men with me, and they are working hard to strengthen the post, so now, my sweetheart and most wonderful wife, good night and good luck,
P.S. I love you.
P.P.S. If, by the time you get this, you have received no official news – don’t worry.
It’s early days in the life of this novel, but there are already four drafts and four working documents from its beginnings. No new words have been written for a while, but I’ve summarised each chapter on an index card and added a page number to record its place in the manuscript. This process has helped me identify gaps in the narrative and lack of progression, so a few cards have moved around. But I’m now tempted to shuffle the whole pack of cards and deal a new hand. Or maybe I’d better try Patience.
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.
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.