Authors: Judy Nunn
8th Nov. 1948, my beloved Harry died,
A tear blurred my vision. Harry’s prayer had obviously been answered. Emily had indeed been by his side until the very last breath he’d taken.
I was tired, I decided as I wiped away the tear. Tired and overly emotional. I hadn’t eaten, I was cramped and cold from sitting on the floor – I should go to bed. I could leave Margaret’s letters until tomorrow. But they sat there looking at me. ‘Mrs Harry Roper’, they read. By now Emily was married. Maybe I’d read just the first few. I opened the top envelope.
How strange to be addressing you as ‘Mrs Harry Roper’. My dear friend, I am so happy for you. I am happy for you both. Do give Harry my very best wishes. Although we only met on those several occasions when I returned to Halstead, I liked him very much and it is obvious he loves you dearly.
Yes, I have heard that Sydney is extraordinarily beautiful and I am delighted that you are so taken by the city. But then I am not particularly surprised – you seem to delight in your surrounds wherever you are. It is possibly your greatest charm and one I quite envy from time to time. Personally, I find so many places and people tedious.
The house sounds picturesque but, truly, you must have the bathroom built as soon as possible. It sounds positively heathen bathing out of bowls and buckets.
Margaret went on with a bit of a whinge about her job at the library and the London summer.
Thank goodness autumn is coming on, I do so hate the heat. How you are going to handle your first Australian summer is beyond me. I shall think of you, my dear, when I return to Halstead for Christmas. I shall think of you as I nestle before the log fire in mother’s front sitting room and look out at the blanket of snow and the old elm tree we used to climb all those years ago, remember?
Oh, Emily, I do miss you so and I do wish you every happiness in your new life.
Your loving friend,
On to the next letter (I’d read just two more, I promised myself). It was dated 24th November, 1921.
Emily, My Darling,
What thrilling news! And of course I am deeply, deeply honoured that you should ask me to be the child’s godmother. I have posted you a gift, which I have had specially made. It will reach you well before the event, but I am not going to tell you what it is. Oh, my dear, I am so excited.
And the bathroom! Well, about time! You will certainly need a bathroom with a baby on the way.
I skipped through the rest of that letter and went on to the next. Margaret’s present had arrived. It was the christening robe, of course!
My Dear Emily,
I am so glad you like the robe. Yes, it is beautiful, isn’t it? I had it specially sent from France. It is of handmade Chantilly lace and will last from generation to generation. The sons and daughters of your own children can be baptised in that very same gown, my darling. Just think!
I did think. I thought of the sons’ wives who had explored the wardrobe. I thought of the sons themselves who must have been told of the robe.
I lifted the parcel out and laid back the tissue paper. There it was. In cream lace. Sitting on top of the old dressing gown. I stroked the satin ribbon and lifted the scalloped hem in my fingers. It was beautifully made.
I felt a shiver run down my spine. Was it the ghosts of the wardrobe? No, I was cold, I told myself. Freezing, in fact. Although it was early spring, the night held a wintry chill. And so I put on Harry’s dressing gown. It was warm and clean and smelled of mothballs, and it seemed the natural thing to do.
Then I curled up on the floor with the next letter, promising myself that it must be the last. Take yourself to bed, Nance, for God’s sake. It’s nearly one o’clock in the morning and there must be at least forty or fifty more letters to go, they’ll keep till the morning.
My Dearest Darling,
What can I say? There is nothing, of course, nothing I could say could possibly ease the burden of your sorrow. But you must be strong. For Harry’s sake as well as your own.
Is it of any comfort to tell yourself that your little girl simply didn’t awake? That she slept peacefully on and knew no pain? Oh, Emily my dear, I feel so far away and so powerless when I do so long to help.
So that was why there was no christening photo of Elizabeth Jane. Emily’s first child had been stillborn.
I finally went to bed. I was too tired to eat and too tired to shower. I stripped off to my T-shirt and lay with the covers around my chin, my mind awash with thoughts and images, and I wondered whether, indeed, I was too tired to sleep.
But I wasn’t. It must have been minutes after my head hit the pillow that the thoughts and images became dreams.
The slim, shadowy figure of a girl – I couldn’t see her face. She was climbing a tree. A huge tree, possibly an elm. The girl had to be Emily, surely, And there was another girl with her. That had to be Margaret. Emily called her name, laughingly. ‘Margaret!’ Over and over. And, gradually, the image of Margaret became me.
Then we were in the old house, sitting together in the downstairs front room, a cosy fire crackling in the grate. And, as we talked, Emily’s image slowly became clear to me. But she was no longer a young girl. Her hair was white and I watched her gnarled hands as they busied themselves with the hot water bottle cover she was crocheting. I couldn’t see her face.
‘It never ceases to amaze me how cold a Sydney winter’s night can become,’ she was saying. ‘Not as cold as Halstead, I’ll grant you, but they come as a surprise nonetheless.’
Then she turned to me. ‘You must write that book, Margaret, she said suddenly. And it was the face of Grandma Rose. ‘You owe it to me to write that book, my dear.’ It was said kindly enough, but it was an order. ‘I want to see your words in print. A published author. That would be something to be proud of, don’t you think?’ She put down her knitting and stared into the fire. ‘Writing is such pleasure, do you not agree? The English language is so rich.
Out of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through -
You English words?
‘Do you remember?’ She turned to me. ‘I sent you a copy all those years ago. Edward Thomas.’ She smiled and the face was no longer that of Grandma Rose. This had to be Emily.
It was a beautiful face. The eyes, although faded with age, were alive, exhilarated. ‘Edward Thomas,’ she repeated. ‘To think that Harry knew him – a man who wrote a verse like that.’ Then she turned back to the fire. ‘It was always my favourite poem.’
Other images followed, but they all became a blur and I awoke the next morning with nothing left but the shadowy figures of the girls in the tree, fragments of the poem and the old lady’s face as she smiled at me. But that face was not a blur. Emily’s smile and the life in her eyes were strongly etched in my brain.
I made myself shower and eat a proper breakfast, and then the telephone rang. Again and again. The magazine editor, Sandy.
The Sunday Times
with an assignment for next week. But my mind wasn’t functioning on a normal level. I was haunted by the image of Emily and the fragments of the poem that hung in my memory.
Finally, I took the telephone receiver off the hook. The poem. I had to find the poem. Words. It was about words. And it was by Edward someone. Hopeless, I thought. How many English poets were there called Edward someone. Then I remembered. Harry knew him. A contemporary of Harry’s. Well, there was a starting point.
Less than an hour later, at the library, I found him. It. was incredibly easy. Flicking backwards through an anthology of English poets datinG from the year Harry returned to Australia, 1918, there he was. Edward Philip Thomas, a list of his works, and the poem was called ‘Words’. He had been killed in action at Arras in April 1917. Had Harry served with him in the Great War? Is that how he knew Edward Thomas?
I found the poem itself in a collection of war poets and, as I read it, a shiver ran down my spine. I had never before in my life read or heard of this poem. That is, not until last night. Now every word of the opening stanza Emily had quoted returned to me, and I could once more hear her gentle voice:
‘Out of us all
That make rhymes …’
I went home and noticed that I’d left the telephone receiver off the hook. I wondered briefly whether I’d lost a job as a result and then I thought, damn it, and I left it there. Upstairs, I opened the Arnott’s biscuit tin and sat down with Margaret’s letters.
I savoured every word as, hour after hour, I lived Emily’s daily existence. She obviously wrote of everything and anything except the loss of her baby girl, and Margaret tastefully kept her letters in the same lighthearted vein.
A gas stove! My dear, you hadn’t even told me you’d been stoking wood fires all this time. Unthinkable horror. And a ‘Kookaburra’. How delightfully humourous. Mind you, I have discovered a picture of a kookaburra in my encyclopedia and it is such a fearsome-looking creature. Do they really laugh?
And then the wardrobe …
Oh, My Dear Emily,
How hysterical. To think that the first argument you and Harry ever had was all about a wardrobe. I am quite sure it is a hideous wardrobe and that it quite ruins your lovely bedroom, but Harry’s tenacity in getting it up there is to be admired. The picture you paint of his intricate pulley system and the neighbours risking life and limb to assist in the exercise is hilarious. And yes, I can imagine Harry’s fury when they tore out the balcony railing, but you really shouldn’t have laughed. Anyway, as you say, you are stuck with it now, so you may as well make the best of it.
It was shortly after the wardrobe episode that Margaret admitted to having a beau. Well, more or less. He was a lawyer, she said. His name was Geoffrey Brigstock. He was a very conscientious young man and he studied regularly at the library.
Geoffrey’s diligence was obviously a facade. The truth was he was smitten with the librarian. Not that Margaret said so herself. For someone so forthright she was uncharacteristically shy about her admirer, which led me to believe that she was equally smitten with him.
Yes, I do dine regularly with Geoffrey but I refuse to be drawn into discussion about him. I am sure his invitations are merely a courtesy in return for the assistance I have given him with his research at the library.
Then she rapidly changed the subject …
I have received the poem you sent. I agree, it is quite an inspiration for anyone with a love of the English language, particularly one such as yourself …
Gradually, over the following year, Geoffrey’s name featured more and more regularly in Margaret’s letters, and Emily obviously badgered her for details. Then finally, in a letter dated 20th June, 1924.
My Darling Emily,
It has happened. Geoffrey has proposed to me. Last night, in fact, and I simply could not wait to tell you. My dear, I have not been ‘keeping you in the dark’ as you suggested in your last letter. I have simply not been daring to hope. I love him so much that I have not dared to believe that he could love back. And, oh Emily, he does!
I am the happiest woman alive. Just as you and Harry found each other, I have found my perfect love. And now I promise you, my dearest, incorrigible friend, I shall admit my innermost secrets to you and you may tease me as mercilessly as you wish …
It was the following year, shortly before Margaret’s wedding, that she wrote:
My Dear Emily,
What a lovely, lovely present. How do you manage to crochet as beautifully as you write? The little poem accompanying the antimacassars is exquisite. I intend to have it read out at the ceremony.
But, my darling, your news is the best wedding present of all. I am so happy for you.
Emily, forgive me if I am being insensitive – I cannot help but ask. The fact that you inform me of your news so close to your confinement, is it because you are frightened? Please, please, my darling, do not be. You are strong and healthy and you will have a strong and healthy child, I know it.
The letters that followed were joyful. Margaret returned from her honeymoon, as in love as any woman could be, to discover that Emily had given birth to a boy at four o’clock in the morning on the 25th of February and that Harry had been most inconvenienced by the hour of his son’s arrival.
I sense that as he smoked four cigars and drank a half a bottle of cognac, Harry cannot have been quite as inconvenienced by the hour as you would have me believe, my darling,
By now my involvement in the world of Emily and Margaret and Harry and, indeed, Geoffrey, who was also proving interesting, was total. It was early afternoon but I couldn’t bear the thought of stopping to make a sandwich, or even a cup of tea. I read on. And on and on.
Geoffrey was made a junior partner in his law firm and was doing very well. He bought a house in South Kensington and the antimacassars looked beautiful on the new lounge suite.
Baby Stephen was walking and talking, and Harry tried to pretend that he wasn’t a doting father but he spoiled the boy rotten. Then the news of another impending birth. James Robert was born on the 9th of March, 1930. Late afternoon, five o’clock, a far more civilised hour.
Evidently Margaret and Geoffrey were unable to have children:
Emily, My Dear,
The copy of James’s christening photograph arrived last week. Already I have had it framed and it stands on the mantel beside Stephen’s. I look at them both in the christening robe and feel so proud of my godchildren. How I would love to hold them in my arms!
My dear, I sense a certain reluctance to discuss the children in detail as you used to do, and I can only surmise that you are being protective of me. Please do not be. If it is God’s will that Geoffrey and I do not have children, then so be it. It makes Stephen and James even more important to me and it gives me great pleasure to hear of every first step, every first word, every first tooth. You are my family, Emily. You always have been. And now your children are too.