Caroline England

The searing heat of righteousness kept Mrs H company through the night, at least until the early hours, and even then the feeling of having been wronged, indefinable though it was, still burned in her dreams.

During her waking moments, she tried to identify the cause, to concentrate on the nub, but her mind was in spasm, convulsing with thoughts, moments and memories but unable to focus on any one thing. Archaic, antiquated. No longer of relevance, she thought. Mrs H closed her eyes and recounted the books from the well-stocked library of her childhood home.

She slept again, eventually, and woke at dawn feeling thirsty and vaguely bereft. Getting herself out of the lofty bed was more of an effort than usual, and she averted her eyes from the looking glass as she always did. She had been almost beautiful once and didn’t need to be reminded of a face consumed and robbed by lonely old age and secret obsession. She cleaned her teeth for longer than usual, focusing on nothing except the swirl of blood in the bowl when she spat.

Her mind was merciful for the first few hours of the day as she methodically replaced books in the reference chamber, but it didn’t take long for doubt, regret even, to elbow through the haze. Sentiment long out of fashion, she thought, lamentable excess of gush.

Mrs H shook her head from time to time as she cautiously climbed the ladder to reach the topmost shelves. She had been so confident, so convinced that she was right, that the time was right. But now she was not so sure. She needed to concentrate, to think it through, to examine every word, every thought, every nuance, but despite the notices demanding silence in the chamber, people kept talking, whispering loudly, asking her questions and interrupting her thoughts.

It wasn’t until Mrs H unwrapped the cloth from her cheese-and-tomato sandwich at a table in the far corner of the staff room that she had time to think, and even then she found herself jotting down words and abstract phrases because she still couldn’t focus. Sentences popped into her head unbidden. Want of originality, want of intensity and, worst of all, want of concentration. There were gaps in her memory, gaps she didn’t realise were there until she let her mind drift to fill those gaps with horrible recall. Things that were written, things that she had written. Things that had seemed so important at the time, but now she was doubtful.

Lacks perfection and inevitableness of expression, either in the splendid, or in the simple, style, she recalled. Mrs H sighed and put her head in her hands for a moment before pulling away the upright chair, causing her untouched sandwich to fall from the table and collapse on the red-tiled floor. Too many flowers, she thought, too little fruit. The trouble was that she was still having difficulty in getting to the end of the story in her mind. At every turn she was diverted to another path of thought, dismal, dark and full of doubt.

“My, you’re in a hurry, Mrs H. No books today, then?” Joseph, the caretaker commented as she spiralled through the doors of the building. “You’ll be pleased to see that your New Monthly magazine arrived in the post. I left it on your bureau,” he called as Mrs H brushed by without saying a word. He stopped sweeping the steps and looked at her with a frown about his bushy eyebrows, but Mrs H really didn’t care that she had offended him by failing to stop for a word as usual; she couldn’t wait to get to the peace and quiet of home. She needed to steady herself, to think, to prepare for what she had done, for what her future may hold.

The hot breath Mrs H imagined she had held in all day streamed out of her as she locked the old oak door behind her and waited for her eyes to become accustomed to the dark of her hallway. But the silence she had craved all day suddenly oppressed her, filling her with an urgent desire to speak to someone just to assure herself she was real. She had been married once, in her nineteenth year, to George Henning, a Captain of the 3rd Regiment. She had never loved her husband, nor had she given birth to any child. The Captain was much older than her and as his health had become impaired by Foreign Service, he had become a permanent resident in Italy only nine months after their wedding. Since then she had lived in solitude, with only the companionship of books, for so long that the only person she could think of was her dear brother, and Harold was long since gone.

The embers in the grate had lost their blush and the untouched mug of cocoa had formed a skin, but Mrs H’s milky eyes stared at the benevolent shadows of the books dwarfing her bedroom. Even with her eyes closed, she could smell their company.

No enjoyment of extraordinary stimulous. Little evidence of accumulation of time to bring perfection, she recited to herself. Mrs H closed her eyes and drifted. It was the right thing to do, the right time to do it, she repeated through the treadmill of unwelcome thoughts as the second night droned on. She must have slept at some point as her pillow was wet at daybreak with the evidence of sleep—saliva, she supposed, or perhaps even tears. It wasn’t until much later, when enough daylight cheated its way through the gap in the heavy curtains that Mrs H noticed the stain was a shining deep crimson.

“You alright, Mrs H? You look like death!” Joseph called as she hurried up the sodden steps of the library. “You’re early, even for you. I haven’t opened up yet.”

Although her chest hurt and she needed to cough, she smiled at Joseph. Her need to get to the literature library an hour before the general public made the effort worth her while. “Open up will you, Joseph. I have so much to do today and I’m not feeling so good.”

For a few minutes Mrs H stood soundless as a statue in the huge domed room; she looked all around it, then closed her eyes and breathed deeply to take in the smell. She then hurried to the section she was looking for, not even bothering to take off her hat and coat, and slipped into a chair at the vast oak central table. For a moment she held the book, the original illustrated copy, to her chest and then carefully laid it on the table, automatically opening the cover to check whether anyone had borrowed it recently. But as soon as the page was open, a drop of liquid spilled onto the page, landing in a perfect pear shaped bubble before dispersing into the absorbent old paper. Mrs H immediately put her hand to her mouth, drawing it away slowly, and then inspecting the palm of her shaking hand. There was no doubt about it, she was still bleeding. Someone might notice and make a fuss, the thought of which was unbearable. Mrs H hadn’t taken a day’s illness for over thirty years at all the different libraries she’d worked, but she knew that today there was no alternative but to go back home.

“That was quick, Mrs H. You’ve left before you’ve arrived,” Joseph chuckled at her departing back. “Tell them you’re not well, shall I?” he added, as Mrs H and her bag full of books disappeared towards the tram stop beyond the willow tree.

As the day drew on and evening emerged, Mrs H toyed with the idea of writing another letter asking The New Monthly to discard the first. She had spent so many years in the comfort of the shadows that she was fearful of notoriety, of attention even. She was aware that many people found her uncommunicative and eccentric, yet the distance it had created suited her. But now the truth was bound to come out and Mrs H had no idea of how her fellow workers might react to her carefully concealed secret.

After sporadically pacing the floor boards over several hours, Mrs H sat down at her bureau, and put ink pen to parchment. Dear Editor, she wrote, but by then her coughing had become so severe that she could do little else but lie on her bed, head slightly raised on the pillow with a bundle of rags held to her mouth.

As Mrs H fell in and out of consciousness her mind seemed to recover some of the clarity she was once famous for. She held up the article in her mind’s eye. Very popular in her day but archaic, antiquated and no longer relevant to modern times, she read. Her sensibility has long been out of fashion, her technique deplorably bad. Her popularity set a most unfortunate precedent for women.

Mrs H felt warmed by her outrage once again. A lamentable excess of original gush, she continued to read through closed eyes as the night fell away. Her work suffered from her restricted experience. She relied too much on the influence of others and often used stereotypic images.

In delirious dreams Mrs H rose from her bed to open the bureau and search for her letter to The New Monthly. A beautifully composed missive in her best long hand, she recalled. A vitriolic letter, responding with vigour, putting them straight. She could remember that much, but the rest of her words were a fog. Try as she might, her recall was poor, her memory dim. Had she really told them she wasn’t finished or dead but working at a library in Slough? Had she really walked all the way to the post office in the rain and placed the letter in the gloved hand of the post mistress?

Mrs H reached the bureau in stockinged feet and found the unopened letter on the desk. With fumbling fingers she tore open the seal but when she peered at the parchment, the page was blank.

As Mrs H’s breath became shallow, she remembered that her husband, the Captain, had once written to her brother: “Dear Henrietta has such a young enthusiastic nature and I wish her the best. My fear is that one day her dreams of happiness will be overtaken by sad realities”. Mrs H had disagreed with this sentiment at the time, thinking she would write forever and be happy, but she now felt that perhaps the Captain had seen something she had been unable to see.

Mrs H lifted her head and gazed towards the pile of books neatly stacked in the open trunk as her light began to fade. The first editions of all twenty volumes were there, in pristine condition in the main, permanently borrowed from libraries over the years. Some of the cheap editions, without plates, were still in the library. She fleetingly wondered if she would have the strength to go back into work and bring the final few copies home.

Mrs H shook her head almost imperceptibly, smiled and sighed. Her soul was poetic, but it was not a hardy one and it neglected to follow what star it had. Perhaps they were right, but Mrs H didn’t think so. She could no longer focus on the top cover title but she knew what it said: POEMS BY MRS HENRIETTA HENNING WITH ILLUSTRATIONS, cloth edition 2s. 6d.

Not well known for her pyrotechnics, Caroline’s had some stuff published in magazines—Transmission, Parameter, Pipeline, Chimera, Lamport Court, Peace and Freedom Press, nr1, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Recusant, Succour, Pen Pusher, Positive Words, Twisted Tongue, The Text, White Chimney and The Ugly Tree. She is currently working on a novel. E-mail: caroline[at]englandc.fsnet.co.uk

Print Friendly, PDF & Email