Letters from The Poet
Eve felt it was never ending the things that needed to be done after her mother's death. Her father, as he always did when faced with something he didn't like or understood, sat in his armchair and hid himself away behind a newspaper. Therefore, as the daughter, all the responsibilities fell onto Eve.
Steven, her brother, had returned to his home as soon as he was able. In Steven's case that meant a few hours after their mother's funeral. He reassured her that he knew she was able to cope with everything, and then he left.
Her mother had had cancer, slow and lingering cancer, which had seemed to eat her alive over months and months. Eve had spent many hours sitting at her mother's bedside, in the hospice, just waiting with her. At first, she had simply sat there, waiting and watching her mother sleep. Soon, though, she was quietly sitting by her mother's bed, reading one book after another or checking Facebook on her phone, and waiting. Her mother died, early on a Tuesday morning, after slipping into a coma three days before. Eve had been at home, dozing on the sofa, when the telephone rang and the soft voiced nurse in the hospice told her that her mother had died. Eve's first reaction had been relief, she could go back to dozing on the sofa, she was so physically tired (Guilt would always haunt her for that thought). She only cried the next day when the realisation of what had exactly had happened sink into her mind.
She hadn't realised how much her mother's death would affect her. She had thought she'd prepared herself; her mother had been ill for so long with cancer, but when her mother died all Eve still felt was shock. Suddenly her mother was gone and she no longer had the chance to see her again or to speak to her one last time. It was all gone.
Suddenly she had a large hole in her life. Daily she had visited her mother, sitting by her bed for hours at a time (the excuse was that she was giving her father a break; but she needed to be there as well, to be there with her mother), and each evening she had telephoned the hospice to find out how her mother was. Suddenly that was all gone and she had hours of her own time back.
Sam, her husband, was caring and supportive. He gave her time, allowed her time to herself and was so caring towards her. His behaviour was wonderful, never a word of complaint, but part of Eve felt tense whenever he said he understood what she was going through, because how could he know, both his parents were still alive - though she never said it.
Her mother's funeral had been a relief but also a trial. To her relief the church seemed almost full of her mother's friends and relatives (she had feared the church would be more than half empty). The vicar, a man who hardly knew her mother, had given a glowing elegy; glowing but bearing no resemblance to the woman her mother had actually been. Eve had sat through it not knowing whether to laugh or be annoyed, the elegy was so unlike her mother. Eve glanced over at her mother's coffin and for a long moment she just stared at it, at the dark wood of the coffin and the three wreaths on top of it. It wasn't her mother in there, not her quiet and house-proud mother, not her mother whose most disapproving comment was a quiet sigh; it was only a husk. This thought was comforting, in a way.
Sam had reached over and squeezed her hand.
"How are you?" He’d whispered.
"OK," she had whispered back.
It took her two weeks to get around to finally tidying out her mother's bedroom. Her father, who hadn't shared a bedroom with his wife for over ten years now, had simply closed her mother's bedroom door, the day after she moved into the hospice, and left it like that - untouched. Eventually Eve stole herself to it, knowing that if she didn’t do it then no one would.
With a role of black plastic bags and sticky labels Eve walked into her mother's bedroom, early that afternoon. As a child she had crept in here to play at being an adult, playing with her mother's clothes and make-up, her secret childhood game. Now she was an adult and this was no game, she was tidying away the last remains of her mother's life. But for a moment, stood on the threshold of her mother’s bedroom, she’d felt like a child trespassing where she wasn’t allowed.
Once down to it Eve found the job relatively easy, as long she did not think too hard about what she was doing. She divided things up into three piles: things to keep (a small pile), things to go to the local charity shop (a slightly larger pile) and things to be thrown away (the largest pile).
Her mother had always been a quiet, little woman. Her life had seemed to revolve almost totally around her home. She was almost the stereotype of the perfect wife and mother. Whereas her father had always been ready with his opinions, he would often shout his opinions at the television, her mother only let it be known she disapproved of something by letting out a little sigh. Her usual reply, when asked for an opinion, would be: "that sounds nice."
As a child her mother had been a quiet, constant in her life, always ready with a meal or a clean house or a simple act of comfort. She was always there in her plain clothes, neat but unassuming hairstyle and very sensible shoes. There were never flashes of heightened emotions or attacks of anger; the worst Eve ever got from her mother was a disapproving look and sigh, or the silent and deeply hurt look, the one look as a child Eve couldn’t cope with.
As a teenager Eve had grown to resent her mother. Her mother was such a little wife, such a shrew, and such a doormat. She wanted to scream at her mother to stand-up for herself, to speak her mind, to do something different. Instead her mother carried on with her little life as a housewife, waiting hand and foot on the men in her life - her husband and son. Eve also resented her mother for being so dull. Her friend's mothers did exciting things, said outrageous things, and behaved comically or tragically, or best of all outrageously. Her friends were always talking about their mothers, always regaling each other with stories about what their mothers had done or been outraged by their mothers’ crass or unfashionable behaviour. Eve had just kept quiet, resenting her mother of being so dull.
As an adult Eve and her mother came to a comfortable understanding. When, after five years of marriage and endless tests, they found out that Sam was infertile her mother had quietly accepted it, simply nodding her head and asking how Eve was. Her father had exploded in bluster, complaining endlessly about not having any grandchildren (Steven being married to James, and both of them being career men) - only making matters worse. But even with all her care and concern Eve still felt, deep down inside herself, that she didn't really know her mother. As she grew older her mother still remained that quiet presence in the background, never pressing herself forward. Eve, as an adult, had lost her frustration and disappointment with her mother, but she still had a sense of regret that she didn't know her mother better.
Now, at thirty-five, Eve found it unnervingly easy to pack away the remains of her mother's life. Her mother left so little behind. Old clothes, half used make up, paper tissues, wool and knitting patterns and numerous albums crammed full of family photographs. It was when she was clearing out the back of her mother's wardrobe, clearing away her mother's shoes, that Eve found the old shoe box so tightly tied up with string. Once she had opened it Eve found it contained letters, over a hundred different letters, all addressed to her mother, all still in their original envelopes.
Almost stealing herself, Eve began to open them and read the letters, one by one. They were all from the same man and all began in the same way.
"My Dearest Lydia,
Today I missed you more than I expected to. I know we were only together two days ago but today my longing to see you was like a physical ache, in the very pit of my stomach…
"My Dearest Lydia,
I think you would enjoy America. It is so unlike England in so many ways, yet underneath there is an element that is still very English...
"My Dearest Lydia,
I know you can never accept any of my gifts but I still long for the day when I can see that locket, I bought you, were it belongs, nestled between your breasts…"
Eve found some of those letters difficult to read, they were so passionate and intimate in tone. They were all to her mother and all from someone called Oliver Bailey. For a long moment Eve didn't recognise the name, though it sounded so familiar. Then it came to her. Oliver Bailey was a writer Sam liked to read. Sam had several volumes of poetry and a handful of novels by him; she had read one of the novels at Sam's behest, but she hadn't really enjoyed it.
As she read the letters, from the first one to the last, the story slowly began apparent to her.
Her mother and Oliver Bailey had met twenty-three years ago and for eleven years carried out a passionate and very secret affair. They would meet, two or three times a month, at Oliver Bailey's studio, were he did all his writing, to make love. They only ever met at Oliver Bailey's studio and only ever in the early afternoon, nowhere else. Her mother always refused to meet him other than at that studio. Then abruptly, twelve years ago, her mother broke off the relationship and a refused to see him again.
Eve only read Oliver Bailey's letters, none of her mother's letters were there, so she was only able to get half the story, she did not know how they met or what caused her mother to end the affair. But from his letters Eve felt the passion and depth of his feelings; he actually loved her mother and loved her with a passion. It made her feel uncomfortable, someone having feelings like that for her mother - her father certainly never showed such feelings to her mother. She barely remembered any shows of affection between her parents, except a dry and brief kiss on the lips.
Her parents had been such a conventional couple; her mother the perfect, quiet wife. Her mother had been so quiet and conservative, never loud or shocking, always quietly at the back of a room. Suddenly that whole image was stripped away and Eve saw a new side to her mother, a passionate woman who had carried on a deeply sexual affair in total secrecy. She would slip away from her ordinary life for this passionate affair, and then slip back into her ordinary life so well no one noted she had been away.
Eve wasn't disgusted, she actually felt a certain admiration for her mother. Her mother had done something different, had a depth to her, had been the kind of mother Eve had dreamed of as a teenager - only done in careful secrecy. With those letters she felt she had a window on her mother, knew her mother that little bit more. Also, she felt a deep stab of regret. She had never really known her mother, and her mother had never really known her.
She stacked the letters back in the shoebox. She had no intention of telling her father about them, if he knew about them he would only be hurt and he had already lost his wife of over forty years. She couldn't do that to him. She would take them home with her and keep them hidden away. She would show them to Sam but no one else, she owned that to her mother.
Then it came to her, the one Oliver Bailey's novel she had read was The Beggar’s Wife. She had only done so at Sam's insistence. He had read it and said it was one of the best novels he had read, certainly Oliver Bailey's best work. Eventually, after Sam had repeatedly said how good it was, Eve read the novel. It was about the affair between a middle-aged couple, both married to other people. At first the couple meet, once a week, at a friend's flat just to have sex. Soon, though, they were talking together and slowly they fell in love. The novel had interested her until it's ending, when out of the blue the couple ran away together. It was so out of character that it felt false and contrived, especially as the woman had repeatedly talked about her responsibilities to her husband and family. The poor ending had spoiled the novel for her, leaving Eve feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. Now, as she glanced at the letters, stacked neatly back into the shoebox, she wondered if the ending to that novel had been Oliver Bailey's true wish, the ending he wanted in real life.
As Eve put the lid back on the shoebox there was a knock at the bedroom door.
Quickly she pushed the shoe box under her mother's bed and then called out:
"Give me a moment."
She opened the door to find her father standing on the other side of it. He seemed so old and tired and grey standing there, dressed in his old cardigan and faded cord trousers, his chin unshaven and his hair un-brushed for days. He held out the cordless telephoned to her.
"Steven's on the phone," her father said in a flat voice. "I've told him what you've been doing and he wants a word."
"Thanks Dad," she said as she took the handset off him.
"I'll be watching television downstairs," he said before almost shuffling away. He looked heartbreakingly pathetic.
"Hello?" Eve said into the cordless telephoned.
"Hi sis, it’s Steven. What's Dad up to?"
"He just rang me and said you're cleaning out mum's room and did I want any of her clothes or jewellery."
"What did you say?"
"Save her costume jewellery and evening dresses for me for doing drag."
"Thank God. What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to know if you're all right."
"I'm fine. I've nearly finished here. Is there anything of mum's you do want?"
"No… Have you found anything interesting?"
She glanced down, for a brief moment, at the shoebox of letters as she eased it out from under the bed with her foot.
"No, nothing," she told Steven.
"Thought not," he replied.