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Authors: Camille Di Maio

The Memory of Us: A Novel

BOOK: The Memory of Us: A Novel
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Text copyright © 2016 Camille Di Maio

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

www.apub.com

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

ISBN-13: 9781503934757

ISBN-10: 1503934756

Cover design by Danielle Fiorella

For my husband, Rob. You are my personal romance story. Your encouragement, support, and wild ideas were essential to this book happening.

For my dad, Pete. Without you introducing me to the beautiful music that inspired the story, this book would not exist. Your contributions over breakfasts and coffees were invaluable.

For my mom, Chris. You believed, even when I wrote silly stories as a little girl, that there was something publishable there. Thank you for sharing your love of reading, and for drilling me in vocabulary lessons!

Abertillery, England—1961

 

The commotion outside startled me, and the pills in my hand spilled out onto the carpet. My palm was stained a sickly ochre from the dye blending with perspiration. How long had I been clutching them? Across the room, the face of the clock was blurred. But it must have been hours.

I ignored the knock at first, determined to swallow the rest of the little capsules, each one bringing me closer to the sleep from which I would never wake. Surely, two decades was enough penance. Maybe tonight I could do it.

But whoever was at my front door was persistent. I left the pills on the floor to be considered later, and fumbled around the top of the chest of drawers until I found my spectacles. My hand brushed against the side of a tarnished silver picture frame, teetering it until it landed faceup. It was the only photograph I possessed. The sepia-toned visage of a young man looked back at me, mouth bent to the side in a whistle, captured unknowingly. The only evidence I would allow of my sin.

My feet found the slippers, laid symmetrically beside my bed, and I picked up the housecoat folded over the chair. With the habit of a distant vanity, I ran my fingers through my hair. But I had long since learned to avoid mirrors, and did not glance at the one that came with the rented rooms.

I flipped the switch and grimaced at the flood of light. The knocking stopped. I slid the chain off its track, and opened the door just enough to peer out at the intruder.

It was one of the Campbell children. There were so many, but this towering boy was one of the older ones. Thomas. Tommy. Timothy. It didn’t matter.

“Miss Bailey?”

“What do you want at this hour?”

The moon was high in the sky, and the night had already taken on the stillness that invites ghosts and nightmares.

“It’s my mum. She’s sick. Bad.”

“Is it the baby? It’s not her time for another few weeks.”

“I guess God thinks differently. It’s coming. But something isn’t right this time.”

“God has nothing to do with it.”

He disregarded my blasphemy. Most people did when the demand for my nursing skills in these nothing towns outweighed their desire for pious company.

“I brought the truck.”

It was a charitable word for the sad scrap of metal that awaited us. It caved under our collective weight, with his being woefully undernourished and mine making up the difference. I thought for a moment that it would be faster—and less perilous—to walk the four miles to the Campbell farm. But I said nothing. Perhaps it would combust into a fiery pyre, and the pills would be rendered unnecessary.

We drove in silence, save for the sputtering of the engine and the crackle of the poorly paved road beneath the tires. In the illumination of the stars I studied my hands, their spiderweb scars mangling them into something that still appalled me, even after so much time. My nails remained incongruously pretty, although they hadn’t seen polish since the war.

The boy spoke only once more, words that were innocent enough. Words that brought me back to the aged photograph lying abandoned at my bedside.

“My brother went to fetch Father Trammel, but he was out of town. He had a houseguest, though. A Father McCarthy. He’s coming straight away.”

McCarthy. I froze as the words possessed my ears. Of course there were thousands of people with that surname, but I had not encountered one in some time. And there was only one McCarthy who had meant anything. Who had meant everything.

Chapter One

Bootle, May 1937

 

“Good afternoon, Miss Westcott. How nice to see you.” The soft garnet cheeks of the secretary matched my own, though hers were painted on with enthusiastic strokes and mine were the consequence of an unintended sprint through the pockmarked streets of Bootle.

“And the same to you, Miss Ellis,” I replied. “Are you feeling better? They said that you were out sick last time I came.”

“Doing much better, and you’re an angel for asking.” She glanced at her wristwatch. “You’re a bit later than usual, aren’t you, my dear?”

“The bus got a flat down on Southport Road, and I came the rest of the way on foot.”

“That’s quite a hike for a young lady.”

“They didn’t know when a replacement would arrive, and I wanted to catch Charles before his nap.” I had been unsuccessful in avoiding the asphalt cavities filled by a rainstorm the previous day, and the left side of my skirt displayed fan-shaped remains of mud kicked up by a motorcar in a hurry of its own. But, seated behind the opaque glass window that she had opened at the jingle of the front door, she was unable to see below my waist.

Miss Ellis nodded in a robust motion that emanated from her shoulders. “Aye, you’ve not got long. He ate just a bit ago and should be out on his walk now.”

I glanced at my own wristwatch. I couldn’t miss the last bus back home. How would I explain what I was doing outside of Liverpool?

Miss Ellis’s attention returned to the shiny black typewriter in front of her, and I watched as her fingers danced across the keys. They paused midair, and she looked back up at me. “Did you need anything else, my girl?”

“I just wanted to ask you a favor.”

“Anything for you. You know that. Now, what is it?” She patted my hand in her familiar fashion.

“I’m going away at the end of the summer. If I write to Charles, would you read my letters to him?”

Her brow furrowed in confusion, as if I had forgotten that my twin brother was deaf and blind.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Miss Ellis. I know it sounds absurd. But I want to believe that he’d feel the vibrations of your voice, and it would comfort me to know that he had a bit of companionship in this place.”

“Heavens, dear—of course I will. But you don’t have to worry about him being lonely. He’s made a friend.”

“He has? Another resident?”

“No, no, not one of them. It’s the gardener. Well, the son of the gardener. Weekend help. He spends a bit of time with your brother when he’s here. It’s not much, but it’s a bright time for the poor boy. I’ve even seen a smile pass on Charles’s face. Twice now!”

I stood up straight, heartened by this revelation. My brother could be difficult at times, and his care was generally relegated to the newest orderly, like an unwanted midnight shift at a factory.

“Yes, it’s true,” she added. “You’ll see soon enough. But, tell me. Why the letters? Where are you going, love?”

The envelope had arrived in the post just two days before, and I had not yet told my parents. Nor had I seen Lucille to break it to her, since she was needed at her father’s shop now that school had ended. So this was the first time the news would cross my lips.

“I’ve been accepted to the Nightingale School at Saint Thomas Hospital in London.”

“Oh, if that isn’t the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. You stay right there!” Miss Ellis vaulted from her seat, leaving a concave impression in its tweedy fabric. She swept open the door to the lobby and encircled me in an embrace far warmer than any I expected my news to earn me at home.

Just as I thought I would never again draw breath, I was released. “We will surely miss you around here, you know that, but you will be the best and most lovely nurse in the country, I’m absolutely sure of it. Don’t you go forgetting all of your old friends now that you’ll be living down in a fancy city.”

I took her hand in mine. “Of course I won’t. I’ll write to you as well.”

“Never mind. I will learn all I need to know from the letters to your brother. You need to spend your time studying. So, don’t you worry. Just make us proud.” She squeezed my arms and then looked down, concern spreading across her face as she saw the grim state of my skirt and shoes.

The telephone rang, sending her back to the room behind the wall. She picked up the receiver, only to cover it and point her head in the direction of the hall.

“Towels,” she mouthed, “in the room marked ‘Laundry.’” She returned to her call. “Bootle Home, how may I help you?”

It was the same conversation I’d heard nearly every time I visited. Another desperate couple on the other end, willing to cover great distances to come here. Their child was not what they expected, and they were anxious for a place to relieve their burden. To tuck them away on a shelf, rarely visited and often forgotten. Except for the regular invoices that assuaged their consciences, satisfied that the opulence of the institution was a reasonable substitute for the loving care of a family.

At the beginning of the century, the only recourse for such a disappointing birth was the government-run Institution for Idiots and the Feeble Minded. But now, those with burgeoning coffers could select the marble halls and lavender-scented air of the Bootle Home. Leaded-glass windows, the best doctors. Their child surrendered to lonely luxury.

I found the correct room next to the lavatory, and marveled at the ceiling-high piles of perfect white towels on wooden shelves. My hands floated along their soft, rounded edges. Most were larger than I needed, but I found one that was suitable. I was pleased to see a sink located in the corner. I held the towel under the tap, wringing the excess, and dabbed it fruitlessly on my skirt. The mud only darkened, with edges that had now spread into an oval smear.

I sighed and found a bin for soiled towels. I adjusted my clothes so that the stain was only evident from the back and smoothed the new front until I was satisfied that I could do no better.

Miss Ellis was still on the telephone when I returned, taking notes and nodding her head. I passed the magazines laid out in rows on an elaborately carved cabinet. I made a game of noticing something different about it with every visit, and this time I spotted the profile of a cherub on a drawer to the left. Its face was enigmatic, and I was unable to decide if it was a happy angel or an angry one. Mother would love this. The cabinet no doubt had great value, and could stand with the best of them on the pages of a Christie’s catalog. Such was Bootle Home.

I reached for a
Vogue
, but it was an issue that I had already seen. So I closed my eyes and sank into the plush cushions of the sofa, my toes just skimming the floor. A clock across the room clanged a throaty sound once to mark the hour. I needed to leave by the time it rang twice in order to make it home before my visit was discovered, and there was still no sign of Charles.

I looked down at my nails and pulled at a snag. They were glossy, polished by Lucille last Sunday with a delicate pink that reminded me of strawberry chiffon. She had a steady hand, and though she chided me for having “twenty thousand colors,” my oldest friend smiled as she tapped the brush on the lip of the bottle.

The quarter-hour chime of the clock clanged the progression of time. But just as I was beginning to lose hope, I heard the twittering noises of adolescence beyond the large exterior doors.

They opened to reveal a motley collection of residents, some young, some fully grown, all suspended in an ageless innocence that still found delight in ladybirds and soap bubbles. I watched as they filed in, then I looked for my brother and found him, at last, near the back. He was being supported by a young man, one whom I hadn’t seen before. My breath caught uncharacteristically as I studied the stranger. He was tall, with wavy locks and malt-colored eyes. He wore heavy canvas trousers and a rumpled white shirt, a departure from the starchy, crisp uniforms of the orderlies. He held Charles’s arm with all of the patience that I could hope for, and with a tenderness more pronounced than I’d seen in anyone else I’d encountered here since beginning my secret visits.

I stood up and took another magazine, peeking out over its pages, and watched as they turned toward the dormitory wing. Everyone passed them by, but the young man took unhurried steps that matched Charles’s as he shuffled along.

A file cabinet drawer slammed next to me, and I jumped at the sound.

“Sorry, dear,” Miss Ellis said, whirling and opening another.

“Not at all,” I said, setting the magazine aside only to realize that its subject was fox hunting. And that I’d been holding it upside down.

“Going shooting anytime soon?” Her eyes grew large, and my smile was unconvincing.

“Who is the man with Charles?” I caught my faint reflection in a nearby window and tucked an errant strand of hair behind my ear.

“Ah, that would be the young McCarthy. The one I was telling you about. A good boy he is, and a handsome one, too. Such a shame, though. He’s a—”

But the telephone interrupted us before she could finish.

“Just a second, dear,” she said as she bustled to her desk. She caught it on the fifth ring. “Bootle Home. How may I help you?”

Her voice blended into the symphony around me, comprised of the dull whirring of a distant hoover and the clatter of plates being collected in the dining hall. The building was returning to life, awakened by the arrival of the residents from their daily exercises. My attention, however, was acutely focused on the retreating figures of my brother and his companion.

Before my precious minutes could disappear, I started down the hallway and up the stairs after them.

My steps were muffled by the immense Oriental runner, and I arrived at Charles’s door unannounced. I expected to find him being prepared for a nap, as the severity of his condition excluded him from many of the activities that the others enjoyed. My monthly visits were intended as a break from what must be a succession of monotonous days. Not to see, not to hear. Not to even think like others. Just following as he was led.

He was not in his bed, however, but next to the window, whose oversized sill was now accented with a row of colorful pots and budding greenery. He was leaning awkwardly on the young man. McCarthy.

He took Charles’s hand and touched it to the soil of each pot, one at a time. A smile appeared on the familiar face, one that, until now, had been reserved for my visits. His fingers caressed the softness of the leaves and traced the lines of the stems. He poked them into the soil again and again with the fascination of a child.

I stood transfixed, enchanted by his reaction to such an elementary thing. Then McCarthy pinched one of the leaves and pulled off what looked like a worm. He laid it on Charles’s arm, and my brother laughed. My hand flew to my heart in response to this delightful sound, which I had never heard from his lips. The worm crawled from his elbow to his wrist and back, finally stopping. McCarthy returned it to the pot and ushered Charles to his chair. He patted a cushion and placed it behind my brother’s back. Then he looked up, suddenly aware of my presence.

He smiled at me, and I was overcome with an unexpected feeling. Like the glow of a fireplace in a chilly space. I tried to convince myself that I was flushed merely by the warmth of the summer day. Certainly not because of those eyes, or the way his hair wasn’t committed to a style. I searched the room for anything that could divert my attention, but the unadorned walls were no help at all, leaving me nothing to do but return his glance.

“Good afternoon,” I managed. “Thank you. I mean, I couldn’t help but see how kind you are with him.”

“With Charles? Oh, he and I are buddies. Aren’t we, now?” He patted him on his shoulder, and I caught my breath in delight at the gesture.

“I’m Julianne Westcott. Charles is my brother.” The words were foreign to my tongue. Lucille was the only friend who knew I had a sibling, a revelation that I had shared through tears after discovering the documents in Mother’s dressing room just two years ago.

“I’m Kyle McCarthy. I’m helping my father with the gardens.” He reached for my hand.

Hoping he wouldn’t notice the quickening of my heartbeat, I took it casually, pulling back as soon as etiquette would allow.

“So you’re not an orderly?”

He laughed. “Oh no. Charles and I met a few weeks ago out on the lawn. He was sitting on the ground, running his fingers through the grass. The orderly was trying everything to get him back on his feet, but Charles was obstinate. I came over with a bucket, scooped some of the grass into it, and placed his hand into it. Then I raised the bucket a little bit, and of course he had to rise with it to keep hold of the grass. Bit by bit he rose to his feet, and then we walked that way all the way back to the dormitory.”

“You did that for him?”

“Well, it was better than the straitjacket. I think that was going to be their next move. He can be rather stubborn sometimes.”

Stubborn. That was what Mother had called me as a child when I refused to stop swinging my legs during tea. And what Father called me when I wouldn’t give up during a futile chess match. It saddened me to think that my brother and I could have had so much more in common if we were not separated by geography and the chasm of his inabilities. Real companions, we could have run through the wings of the manor house on Newsham Park, hiding and seeking until Mother or the newest governess instructed us to sit still and behave.

“In fact, it’s a little game we play now. Isn’t it, Buddy?”

The face of my brother reverted to the same blank expression that it always did, but I had to believe that somehow he was aware of the company of friends.

“Anyway, I brought some pots to his room this week. I thought I’d see if he can tell the difference as they grow.” He shrugged. “At the very least, it gives him something to do when he’s in here.”

“And the worm?”

“It’s a caterpillar. I found it last week and added it to our collection. The little dodger tried to crawl out, but now it seems he’s settled in just fine.”

“Whatever it is, I’ve never heard Charles laugh before.”

BOOK: The Memory of Us: A Novel
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