We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours.
Dag Hammarskjold (1905 - 1961)
Once upon a time in 1958 in a north east English town, the zeitgeist was hard at work, kicking the traces of convention and opening doors for the young. Truth is multifaceted according to who is telling the tale, and who is listening. A judiciously placed fly on the wall might have described the unfolding events as follows.
The bus raced past, throwing up dirty water is in its wake. The young woman who'd attempted to hail it was drenched by the rank and oily spume. Ignored and desolate, she gave up and made to return to her room in the boarding house. Linda had worn her one pretty dress, a lightweight cotton garment more suited to summer nights than this October gloom. The sodden cloth now clung indiscreetly to her goose pimpled thighs. Her mac offered her no warmth and little protection from the fast falling rain. Recklessly she'd dared to dream. She'd thought that this canny lad, who she'd shyly warmed to when he came to pick up his wages each week from her accounts desk at the factory, might be the one for her. Her fantasies careered skywards when he'd invited her out last week. Now they spluttered out like a damp squib. More fool her, she berated herself. Normally she was more modest in her aspirations, she'd had to be after life in the children's home where she had grown up. She'd learnt her place in the world right enough. She remembered asking the careers advisor about teacher training college in her last term at school. A modest enough ambition for most bright girls, but for her? Well, the woman's face said it all, her mocking frown, then her attempt to erase it with a smile, as she counselled this silly child to be realistic.
Outside the Trocadero Cinema David Sinclair looked at his watch for the tenth time in the last minute. 'Ok mate, face it,' he muttered to himself, 'she's not coming, probably couldn't care less.' He turned and went into the picture house. He swallowed hard as he asked for just one ticket. After all it had always been a long shot, a classy girl like Linda, what would she have seen in him anyway? He caught sight of himself in the shop window opposite, his trousers were at half-mast displaying bony ankles, his flat feet looked huge in the winkle pickers that had seemed like a savvy buy but yesterday. He was further bothered by the angry pimple that had erupted on the tip of his nose last night, further confirmation if any was needed that he was a ridiculous clown.
Linda let herself into Mrs Walter's rooming house for young ladies. She climbed the stairs quickly to her garret room. She had the pace down to a fine art since each landing light switched itself off exactly twenty seconds after she pushed the grimy round knob, cutting her landlady's electricity bills down to a minimum. Once inside her little haven she stripped off her clothes, and towelled herself dry. She caught sight of her perished flesh in the mirror by her bed, her nipples dusky and erect. Just then a ray of watery sunshine leaked down from the cracked window high above her and for a moment she was bathed in gold. She melted as she put her hand onto her belly and soothed herself. Later she dozed and dreamt of David.
David was soon bored by the film, so he eased himself out of the velveteen seat and tiptoed out before the end. As he emerged onto the damp street he caught echoes of a familiar voice. He remembered his Dad saying that fortune favours the brave, and that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Another favourite: people shouldn't judge a book by its cover. He used to hate it when his father trotted out these pearls of wisdom, as if he'd made them up on the spot, especially if his friends were there to hear. But then his daft Da' had dropped dead of heart failure, and now these sayings seemed improbably wise. When David remembered them, as he often did, he was walking alongside his old man all over again, his Dad's arm slung casually over his shoulders.
Mrs Walters plodded upstairs, her heavy gait announcing her arrival. She rattled Linda's door handle, 'Open up miss, I'm just checking you've no lad in there. I saw you going out got up like a dog's dinner. Mad in this weather if you ask me.'
Linda surfaced drowsily, unsure of where she was in her fuddled head. 'Wait a minute Mrs Walt, I'm coming.' She pulled on her pink candlewick dressing gown, a sixteenth birthday gift from her old house mother. As Linda unlatched the door she was blasted by fumes of Bristol Cream that clung like a sea fret around her landlady. 'Nothing going on, Mrs Walt,' adding cheekily, 'I wish there were.'
'You'll come to no good with an attitude like that my girl,' puffed Mrs Walters. She was annoyed that she had mounted the stairs unnecessarily, frothing with disappointment that she had failed to find any excuse to hector the hapless lass about her lax morals, for now at any rate.
David rummaged in his pocket, knowing that he had Linda's address somewhere. He found the paper scrap tucked into the leather sheath that held his Dad's ivory comb. He unfolded it and saw the instructions, they were written neatly in her italic hand. She might have had a good reason for standing him up after all. So he resolved to catch the bus and call on her at home. Decision made, he strode out smiling wryly to himself, better this than chasing celluloid dreams in the local flea pit. He called into the gent's lavatory at the local bus station and relieved himself. He looked up into the mirror as he washed his hands and squared up to the invading spot, scarlet with a prominent yellow head.
He positioned his forefingers with surgical precision and squeezed the head. He heard a muted 'pop', followed by a 'splat' as the contents hit the looking glass and dribbled downwards. A bead of blood followed and he stemmed it rapidly, leaving bright streaks on his best white handkerchief. Satisfied, he smoothed his hair, undid a notch on his belt to lower his trousers (hipsters were in fashion now) noting that at last his socks were decently covered. He was on his way.
Linda was wide awake after her nap, and the tetchy encounter with Mrs Walt, and she was feeling peckish. She lit the spluttering gas fire and set about toasting a slice of Mother's Pride. As she squeezed the Primula cheese onto the toast she was heartened, she might get another chance after all.
When David found Linda's road the clouds parted a little and over the wet roofs he glimpsed a rainbow. As his confidence built, his course was clear and he would make his own luck. Fate was too fickle to trust, too inclined to twist and turn before trickling away. At the front door he ran his fingers over the ridges of peeling green paint before he grasped the brass knocker and brayed it firmly on the pad. The matron who opened the door was stout and florid, possibly a little drunk. The sherry glass in her hand was testament to her tastes. She looked him up and down and said, 'And, young man?'
David smiled winningly and said, 'Good evening madam. I'm after seeing Miss James, Miss Linda James, I'd be grateful if you could ask her to come to the door.'
So it was that the goodly Mrs Walters boomed up the stairwell, in the enunciated tones that she usually reserved for answering her telephone, burnished and almost posh, 'Miss James, a gentleman is calling for you, I will take him into the parlour whilst you make yourself respectable.' Linda immediately felt sick and giddy. With a shaking hand she brushed her hair, and reapplied some lipstick. The cotton frock was out of the question, creased and crumpled, merely a damp smudge on the brown linoleum. Hurriedly she shuttled through the meagre contents of her wardrobe; the black skirt and wine polo necked jumper would have to do. As she descended more slowly than usual she found herself pitched into darkness; luxuriantly she stroked her breasts through the warm wool, before groping for the light timer and continuing downstairs.
The fish supper that David and Linda ate together that night felt like a banquet.
As with all good stories this one was repeated endlessly over the years, My Mum and Dad gloried in the tale when they told it to me and my brother, mostly omitting any saucy bits. Sometimes they changed the details, adding in and taking out. As children we begged to hear it again and again. The noble gist was this, our parents very nearly missed each other that night, but for my father's courage and determination and my mother's gentle submission we might never have been born at all.
Time marched on as it is wont to do and remorselessly our worlds change, not always for the better. Suddenly everyone seemed to be seriously grown up, middle aged, old or dead. Then the navel gazing is apt to start, an earnest quest for meaning before our own demise. On cue 'Marianne, do you think that they were happy together?' asked my madcap brother Robbie as we celebrated my fiftieth last year. A strange question, but he always was a one for the curve ball.
I'd laughed it off as I replied, 'What is happiness anyway?' However, as the weeks passed Robbie's enquiry bubbled on in my mind, mainly when I was driving, or falling exhausted into a restless dream ridden sleep. In time I was contemplating their lives whenever I had a spare moment. Was it really fortuitous that Dad had gone to find Mum on that rainy night so long ago?
My Dad had died the year before, so I couldn't ask him. Mum was drifting in her own internal oceans of memories, as dementia redefined her 'here and now' into her 'as it was then', whilst destroying the link between the two. As she ate lunch in her care home, she knew for certain that she was in her school dining room at Station Road Junior School. She regularly startled the man sitting opposite her by kicking him under the table and calling him a bad boy for kissing her in the playground. She might give me some clues about her life with Dad, but deciphering them would be an Olympian challenge for sure.
Why had finding out become so important to me? Maybe because I was facing other questions about the nature of truth, as I raked over the dying embers of my second marriage. Furious with the man I'd loved for his flawed foolishness I'd cut him loose to go his own way and get out of mine. Confoundingly having taken control of my life, I sorely missed my fellow combatant. I was too proud to let him know and I was determined to cut my losses. As a result, though my law practice was flourishing, my personal life was creaking with imbalance and at home I was fraught and unfulfilled.
Thus the tricky trail began at my parents' home, Rosegarth. It had to be packed up ready for sale, and I had already prevaricated for ages. The time had come for action and, as Robbie lived 280 miles away in Scotland, it was easier for me to crack on alone.
So, one Sunday last June I climbed up the fold down ladder and breached the attic. To my certain knowledge no-one, except my father, had been up into this roof space since 1965. Should I have asked his permission? I marked my entrance by smacking my head on a cross beam, and it hurt, but not enough to explain the torrent of tears that followed. Then I remembered how my Dad used to come into my bedroom to calm my cries, when the shadows on the walls had scared my seven year old self witless. His hug was potent when defeating demons, and pulling myself together I got down to work. The dust and threads of fibre glass irritated my nose and throat, and I coughed and sneezed relentlessly.
Being red eyed and itchy brought out my stoic side and over the course of that morning I cleared out the loft, stacking the contents into tumbling piles on the landing. Christmas decorations, including an old fashioned artificial tree, unleashed a string of memories. Stoicism dissolved in a seiche of nostalgia that I indulged in spite of myself. I shuddered remembering the cat that'd eaten the dangling chocolate pennies, foil and all, and was sick over the assembled presents. One year Robbie and I tried to stay awake all night to see Santa and then overslept on Christmas morning, leaving our parents impatient and let down as they had to delay the celebrations, a good bit of role reversal. In 1967 we ate Christmas dinner in bed on trays as we recovered from chicken pox. We'd felt like royalty as we were waited upon, smothered in calamine and let off washing up. I fingered the carefully painted pine cones still faintly coated with glitter from my teacher's serried tubes of blue, red, gold and silver. I'd been so proud when mine had won a prize until Miss said it was for effort rather than outcome. Best of all for each child, every year, there was one very special present from Mum and Dad, they knew us well and never let us down. Remembering this drew more tears from my sore eyes.
Then, turning to summer delights, a beach parasol with rusted spokes sang to me of holidays and sandcastles, midges and sand flies, of the family's favourite meal of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper to be eaten outside on the pier, unless the seagulls got there first, and Mum and Dad cuddling lazily in the sunshine with hankies on their heads. My Dad's angling rods caught the essence of autumn weekends as Dad taught Robbie and me to fish along the River Coquet, whilst Mum had her hair done to lacquered perfection. My red wellington boots, size 4, recalled the deep snow of winter, snowmen and snowball fights, freezing fingers in wet woollen mittens, then thawing out at home, our skin tingling before the coal fire. Afterwards we'd feast on Heinz tomato soup and buttered toast, hot chocolate and crumpets, greedily filling our empty stomachs. There in the sewing basket was my bicycle puncture kit. One spring day when we were older Robbie and I had gone for a bike ride together, when we came home the front bedroom curtains were drawn. We tiptoed upstairs, and listened at the door: we were astonished, Mum and Dad gasping and moaning, they were 'doing it'. Muffling giggles, we escaped downstairs lightly taking two steps at a time, and ran into the woods behind our garden. I don't think they ever knew that we'd heard them.
The tangled threads of many family yarns lay unravelled all about me. I was just about to call it a day when I noticed a faded Yardley soap box, still smelling faintly of lavender. I opened it and saw a book mark, a present from me to my Dad, embroidered carefully in cross stich, chain stitch and French knots. Dad had been working away in Cyprus as a telephone engineer. His long term employers had won a lucrative telecoms contract and they sent him as a trusted employee to deliver it. I'd been waiting excitedly for his return for ages, full of news about my new grammar school. When he arrived back home one Sunday in December, Robbie and I were beside ourselves with excitement. The Cypriot doll delighted me and Dad praised my careful stitching. With the peculiar selfishness of the very young we barely noticed that our parents were distant with each other, that they'd only exchanged formal niceties after four months of separation. But I remembered more now, recalling details that I must have stored away. I saw Mum's shaking hands as she served our lunch with care. I'd glanced into my father's mournful gaze as he shot quizzical glances across to my mother when her face was turned away. My Dad never worked away from home again.
Now I read this scenario with an adult's eyes. Had he cheated on her? Had she found out, how had she known, why had they stayed together, had they recovered, what the hell had happened? I found myself trembling, and I poured a brandy from a dusty decanter in the sideboard. I went back upstairs and sat on the top step. I vacantly picked things up, and put them down, as the warmth of the spirit spread through me. I recognised my Dad's briefcase, the leather cracked and worn. I saw that it was locked, and feeling careless I forced the clasp. Inside a cardboard folder held envelopes addressed to 'David' in my mother's bold italic script.
I'd forgotten my mother's love of writing, anything important or funny and she flourished her pen, bent on capturing the moment. The letters evidenced her skill and told vividly of phases of her married life. Young love inflamed with lust and hope. Early marriage dynamically charged with quarrels and joyful reconciliations. Proud parenthood, first my birth then their family completed as Robbie followed me in eighteen months. The middle years, and my mother speculatively sought more. Maybe a life beyond the home, she wanted to train as a teacher, her childhood goal. She railed against my father's stubborn refusal to countenance her plans, but years later she made her dream come true after all. Letters from those later times reflected a confident woman at the height of her powers. But before this resolution came, it was obvious that my father's posting abroad had caused her to fester with frustration and resentment. In her reckoning he had abandoned her leaving her in life's margins, bereft and bored.
Then the dynamite.
I have tried to be satisfied with my life as your wife, and as a mother. You are a good man and you have worked hard for us all. I know that you have always loved me, even when I have tested you with my whims and fancies. It is with shame and sadness that I need to confess to you that in your absence I fell in love and began an affair. This all started shortly after you left for Nicosia. Her name is Jean. She has gone now, she needed to travel and I could not. I can hardly believe how my mind and body have opened up over these last months, but what price must we all pay because I broke the rules? If this spells the end for us then I must accept it. I am more alive now, even with my guilt. I face the crushing knowledge that when you return home as soon you will, I must face a cruel reckoning. I throw myself on your mercy.
I will wait to hear from you.
Much love, even now.
As summer passed I worked on, steadily clearing Rosegarth. The process triggered myriad memories as I unearthed boxes of Kodak snaps, assorted remnants of times past, and the routine effluvia of ordinary lives. Mostly it was just a hard slog, eased at times by the presence of my daughter, Nell, home from her research fellowship at the University of Berlin. When Nell came down with me we played music and sang along as we laboured, finishing off with a pint in my Dad's old local at the end of the day. By September our job was almost done. I had found nothing as significant as the letter in the weeks since June.
My visits to see my mum were increasingly disorientating as she insisted that I was Hattie, an old friend from her children's home. She was always happy to see me, and contented in her own way. She had stopped attacking the man at the dinner table, and had taken to introducing him as, 'David, my boyfriend.' She giggled flirtatiously as they walked hand in hand around the garden.
Mid-September marked the start of an Indian summer. At work in my Chambers I was glad of the air conditioning as frequent hot flushes (that I optimistically renamed 'power flashes') disturbed my equilibrium. My sleep at night was fitful, and I resembled a beached whale as I prowled naked around my flat, my pendulous breasts glistening with sweat, my aching body yearning for relief.
One day after lunch when the heavy air signalled a likely thunderstorm, I absentmindedly answered a phone call. A professional but disembodied voice offered condolences, 'I'm so sorry to have to tell you that your mother passed over this morning. She went to lie down after breakfast and slipped away. Her end was peaceful.' I was stunned and disbelieving, and I struggled to find the simple words to let Robbie know that our mother was dead.
After making the call to Scotland I consulted with the Clerk and took leave of absence. I went directly to the care home to retrieve my mother's belongings. Not much at all to show of her life, her complexity and her loves. It all fitted into my Audi S5 sports car, with room to spare. That night at home, hungry and light headed, I opened her handbag not expecting to find any further answers. But in the inner pocket, safely zipped away, I found another letter. This envelope was written in my father's spidery scrawl and marked for 'Linda. My darling wife.'
I'm writing this to you on our Ruby Wedding Anniversary. There are things that I've never said, that I want to now. I want to dispel any doubt that lingers in your mind. I count the day that I came to find you at your lodgings as the luckiest day of my life. You have been my best friend, and the only one I ever wanted. Yet with all of that, I clipped your wings, wanting you to stay at home, afraid to let you fly out into the world of work in case I lost you. In doing this I so nearly lost you anyway. Over the years, after we found each other again, you told me more about Jean. I asked you to tell me, because I needed to understand. Today, looking back, I am grateful to her. So be in no doubt: I have no regrets, and I would do it all again because I love you more than life itself. One day death will part us, please remember me well until our paths cross again, as they surely will.
Your ever loving,
I opened a bottle of Barolo and drank to their fortitude, my Mum and Dad. Thinking ruefully that I might do well to learn from them, I let the wine warm me and I unclenched my mind, allowing my body to follow. A couple of nights later I texted Robbie. 'Your question? Yes, they were happy - we've got a hard act to follow! Xxxx.' He's coming down tomorrow to help to plan Mum's funeral, and I'll explain things to him then. My own story has shifted to a higher gear, for the first time in years I feel some courage in my heart. I pick up the 'phone to talk to my distant husband.