I have a draft of a novel. A rough draft. A very rough draft that needs more work. And I am reminded of a paragraph in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:
‘Thought – to call it by a prouder name than it deserved – had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until – you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked;’
That’s just how I feel about this draft. So word by word, line by line, I need to look at this small draft, hauled out of the stream after six weeks. I will weigh it and examine it, maybe throw some of it back, but I think it may prove to be a worthwhile catch.
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