So, if you’ve been following me on Twitter you’ll know that I’m working on a novel. I’ve been writing it since November and I’ll be honest, I’ve gone a wee bit stale around the 30k words mark. So in an act of self-indulgence and seeking support, I thought I’d post the first few pages so that, if you lovely readers like it, it might give me a kick up the ass to keep going. Enjoy.
Two words adorned the page, black ink glistening in the low light. The letters seemed over pronounced, and cut into the thick paper. Written slowly, methodically; a sentence cut off before it could begin. How appropriate.
Past tense. I’d arrived at the final curve of the S only to find myself winded at the sight of the partial phrase.
28 years of life and this is what she’d been reduced to. I pointedly looked away from the notebook splayed open on my desk, ignoring both its contents and the fact that the corners of my mouth were forcing themselves down as my throat tightened. I fought stubbornly the urge to cry, before trembling to pick up the pen and try again.
I had not felt grief before. I thought that I had, as each of my grandparents had passed. But they were cold people, if you don’t mind me speaking ill. Not cruel people but, neither were they warm or affectionate.
This was different. A part of me had been torn away, wrenched across a distance too far to comprehend – and yet I still felt connected, tethered to her. The sheer agony of that string of entrails tugged at the wound Ellen had left, leaving me hollow, torn and stung. It was too much too bear. This, I thought. This is real grief.
Ellen had long since been estranged from what little family she had left – and as such, I was the only soul left who would offer a eulogy. It had seemed like a simple task; all I need do was talk about how wonderful a woman she was – and she was a wonderful woman. Yet now, sat in my boarding house bedroom, fountain pen hovering over the diary page, I could not form the words. The emotions I wanted to convey seemed to burst from every inch of me, all fighting for a chance to lay on that paper, but the result overwhelmed me.
The room I rented in the Whitechapel Women’s Boarding House held a single bed, a small and battered table and chair, a sink, and one lonesome bookshelf, atop of which sat the since untouched Bible that my parents had forced on me during their first visit to London five years ago, in 1935. They had declined the funeral invitation; I hadn’t blamed them. London was far too tense since the War broke out nearly a year earlier. We’d not seen any attacks, but we’d heard rumblings and rumours of their imminence.
Ellen’s room was the same as mine, mirrored on the other side of the thin wall, through which I could more often than not hear Bob Crosby or some other Orchestra hissing from her wireless. I’d complain that she had it too loud, that it was disturbing my reading. Without it, the silence screamed louder than any overture could have.
Ellen was my best friend. My confidant, my platonic soul mate. Far too stubborn, far too superstitious, and not quite as intelligent as she thought she was. She had a sharp tongue and her wit was sharper, still. We’d spent five years living in each others’ pockets, drinking cheap sherry in jazz bars, claiming to be artists and bohemians despite not having an ounce creative talent between us.
Ellen was hilarious, and flippant, and altogether rebellious. Her mother had been a suffragette; even been in prison and gone on hunger strike. She ultimately died from complications of pleurisy, which she’d developed from the force-feeding. Ellen spoke of her often, despite having been just six when she died. Unable to handle raising her alone, her father had sent her to boarding school as soon as she turned eleven. This, she did not speak of often. As far as I knew, she hadn’t spoken to him at all since coming to London some six years later.
How do you sum up a life, everything it stood for, everything it accomplished, everything it meant, every breath it drew, in a sentence? How do you reduce a human being to ink and paper?
I heard the door to the shared bathroom finally open and grabbed my tatty wash bag, sprinting to the room in my dressing gown and leaving the eulogy. I habitually raised a hand to knock on Ellen’s door, to let her know she could wash when I was finished. I caught myself mid-knock. Winded again.
The only sensible black suit I had access to was cruelly the one I borrowed from Ellen for functions. Once scrubbed and dressed, I buttoned my coat and walked, alone, to the church yard.
Ellen’s one remaining family tie, her younger brother Tom, had been the one to plead with her to accept the vaccine, but she remained convinced that it was laced with something; that she’d be making herself vulnerable to poisons and other ailments. She ignored Tom’s pleas. London was straining under the threat of air raids and real life villainy, and here she was, succumbed to a bout of damn influenza.
Tom braved the journey to the capitol, from his home in Kent to mine in Whitechapel, and greeted me with a warm, lingering embrace outside the church.
“Cassidy, thank you so much for arranging this,” he attempted a watery smile.
“Somebody needed to,” I tried not to sound bitter thinking about the pair’s father and how he had ignored my letters.
Once my dear Ellen had been lowered into the cold February earth, entrapped in a cheap unvarnished crate to the accompaniment of a low wounded moan emanating from my throat, Tom offered to buy me a drink. “I know I need one,” he half-smiled, timidly.
The pub landlady, who had grown used to seeing Ellen and I gossiping most nights, clocked our black clothes and sullen faces, and refused to take any money for our drinks. The short, rosey woman rested her hand on mine and gave me a warm, slightly pitying smile. I avoided her gaze, mumbling a thanks for the sherry and shuffling towards Tom, who was still wrapped up in a grey scarf despite the fireplace in the pub burning a cushioned warmth into the air.
We sat quietly by the window of a tiny, almost empty pub; me facing the muscular but shorter-than-average builder in his ill-fitting suit and incorrectly knotted tie.
“What’re you thinking?” he looked genuinely interested, as though my expression had been one of sudden epiphany.
“I’m not,” I replied. “I just…what do I do now?”
Tom didn’t answer.
My life had revolved around Ellen. I hated my job, I had no husband, I’d run away from Devon and my family six years earlier when, at 23, my father had introduced me to his friend’s son – a 30 year old life insurance salesman to whom I quickly became engaged. I’d seen many girls go the same way – married and in love and then suddenly withdrawn and shy until you’d never see them again. I refused to become that woman, and so the first time Charles hit me was the only time. I stole cash from his sock drawer, packed a bag and headed for London. I found a job in a laundry, a room in a boarding house – and a friend in Ellen. Charles must have loved me at least a little; he never phoned the police about the money. And so my life of daily torment and nightly bourgeois began.
A group of school children passed by the window, blurred by the frosted glass. I followed them absent mindedly with my eyes.
“More and more of them coming back, now,” Tom said, lighting two cigarettes in his mouth before casually handing one to me. I took a long drag. “They reckon the threat was a load of rubbish, now. No Germans are about to bomb London, it’s a load of madness,” he rolled his eyes.
“It certainly looks like they’ve changed their mind at any rate,” I flicked ash into the crystal bowl in front of me. “It’ll be over by the time spring rolls around, that’s what everyone’s saying.” I half-heartedly echoed chat I’d heard from the delivery men in the laundry, unsure whether I believed the words.
The political small-talk distracted me for a moment. I swirled the dregs of the dirty golden liquid in my glass and my stomach let out a groan. It struck me that I hadn’t eaten all day. The nausea I’d attributed to grief perhaps was some percentage of hunger. I took another long drag on the cigarette, hoping to maybe fill up with smoke so that I didn’t have to think about food. I didn’t want to think about how dinner would be served at home in an hour, or how I’d sit in my assigned seat opposite no-one. And so I continued to drink.