Friday, July 1, 2016

The Joy of Story: Elizabeth Goudge, Part II

 (Writing fiction about a real-life character isn't as easy as you'd think.  I don't know where this is going, but I'm going with it.)

                             PROLOGUE:  MARCH 31, 1984

          “There you go,” Jessie said.  She set the tea tray carefully down on the little table.
          Elizabeth smiled up from where she sat.  She picked up the dented but still elegant-looking coin silver spoon…one of the survivors of the set given to her parents as a wedding gift…and stirred her tea, remembering that long-ago day when she’d first met Jessie in the Providence Cottage garden in Devon.  Mother had just died, she recalled, and I was so horribly alone…glad that her suffering was over but feeling cut off from everything, even my writing.  And then Jessie came in response to my letter, her hair like a horse chestnut a-fire and her eyes clear and direct, and the loneliness began to let go of me….
          Jessie’s hair had gone rusty, and her figure was a tad thicker; but the face with its broad cheekbones was dearer.  Twenty-one years together had worn away all their edges, and they could talk about anything because they knew each other and each other’s stories inside-out.  The young woman who’d come to her as a companion had, in a sense, become the daughter she would’ve like to have had.
          All this and more passed through Elizabeth’s mind as she studied Jessie’s tired comfortable face….”I’d give anything to be able to go out into the garden,” she said with sudden wistfulness.
          “I know, love.”  Jessie’s voice was sympathetic yet matter-of-fact.  “But it’s much too damp for you with your arthritis.  Give it time, Elizabeth – it’s not as though there’s anything much out there to look at yet.  It’ll be warm soon enough for you to sit out there and soak up the sun while I get busy with the flowers again.”
          “You’re just itching to get your hands back in that soil, aren’t you?”  Elizabeth played with half her sandwich:  she wasn’t really hungry, but Jessie had gone to such trouble.  “And the dirtier you get, the happier you are.”
          Jessie grinned.  “You know how it is with me, Elizabeth.  I’m my best self when I’m gardening.  I come alive like one of the flowers and lose all sense of time.  It’s like what you feel when you’re writing, I expect.”
          Elizabeth abandoned her sandwich and reached for the tea.  She sipped it appreciatively.  One of Jessie’s own special teas, brewed from the comfrey she grew in the garden and thickly laced with honey.  And as she drank, her mind flitted about, landing like a butterfly first on this thought and then on the next.  “I wonder what those readers of mine would think if they knew that you’re the one who gives me the information about flowers and herbs that I work into my books,”   Elizabeth chuckled.
          “Ah, some of that’s from you,” Jessie replied.  She slipped a cushion behind the older woman’s bony back.  “And the soul behind them, that’s all you.  I can’t lay claim to any of that.”
          Elizabeth glanced up.  She tried to keep a straight face, but the corners of her mouth quirked up.  “Why, Jessie, you’ve been reading my books!”
          Jessie had come into her employ never having read any of her novels, something that Elizabeth had found refreshing.  She had always loved the letters from her readers, of course, but she’d also worried that they might have this impossible-to-live-up-to stained-glass image of her.  People never could separate fact from fiction and were always so sure they knew you better than you knew yourself after reading your books.
          “Well, I was bound to come to it sooner or later, wasn’t I?”  Jessie demanded with mock fierceness.  She walked over to the front window and began twitching the drapes unnecessarily.  Elizabeth sat there, nursing her tea.  You got the best revelations by holding yourself still and waiting; she’d learned that much over the years.  “I like them, Elizabeth, I do at that,” Jessie said slowly.
          She tilted her head to the side with an expression that made Elizabeth think of the robin from The Secret Garden“You know what I think?  I think you’ve got to read your books more than once.  Once just for the story, a second time for the descriptions – they’re rich, they are, Elizabeth – and a third for the meaning.”  She smiled – a warm, awkward smile like a fire slow getting started.  “So I expect I’ll be reading and re-reading them for quite some time.  Rest of my life, probably.”
          Elizabeth folded her thin hands, letting them rest on the edge of the table.  It had been worth waiting over thirty years to hear Jessie make such a speech and sweeter than any review she’d ever gotten. 
          Jessie ducked back out into the kitchen, leaving Elizabeth staring out the window.  Such a gray day, she thought.  Tomorrow would be April.  Her month.  I’ll be 84, she told herself and shook her head.  I don’t feel 84.  She glanced down at her hands lying so veined and fragile against the table’s wood and grimaced.  Mother was right:  your  hands do show your age faster than the rest of you.  And, of course, there was the osteoarthritis.
          She reached down and stroked her skirt, her right hand moving against the fabric with a kind of rhythm despite its swollen joints.  She’d always liked pretty clothes and things.  Never had thought much of her own looks, although she had rather liked her figure.  Tall and slim, she’d been, a feminine version of her father.  And her hair.  It had been long and beautiful….
          My knees didn’t bend outward back then, and I walked straight, Elizabeth remembered.  That’s what he said I was, straight and slender as a birch.  A dryad come to life.    She found herself yearning over that young woman, unencumbered by osteoarthritis, bright of eye (no thought of cataracts then!), and in love for the first time.  And she found herself yearning over Julian, too.  He had gone to dust and ashes years ago, and yet he was more real to her now than anyone, excepting Jessie.
          He had been married.  That and her upbringing had kept them in check.  But the memory of his touch still sent the blood in her veins thrumming…still made her paper-thin skin feel as though it was about to burst into flame.  It’s surprising how hot a man’s lips can be when he desires you, and there are times you think his arms will crack your ribs, and yet you glory in it.  The words of Harriet, her people-wise old woman from The Rosemary Tree, wandered unbidden into her mind just then, and she smiled wistfully.  Funny how the characters from her novels and the people she’d known were beginning to blur together in this last stretch.  Maybe it was because so much of her life had gone into her books.
                  Or maybe it was simply because her characters had always been so real to her.   Harriet…the Eliot Family, whose trilogy she still loved best of all novels…Fronigna, her white witch.  She still remembered that day so long ago, when she’d seen the beautiful woman step through the hedge, then vanish, though Elizabeth had never taken her eyes off her.  And that had paved the way for her novel The White Witch.
          Harriet…the Eliots…Fronigna….There was a pattern forming, if she could just grab hold of it.  Moving about the room – any kind of physical activity – helped whenever she was wrestling with something.  And movement wasn’t something that came easily to her these days.  Elizabeth frowned, biting her lower lip.  Jessie would be cross with her for risking it.  But she had to try.
          Grabbing hold of her wooden frame, she slowly got to her feet, every muscle and tendon screaming in protest.  She teetered and almost pitched forward.  What if her barely healed leg gave way and she did further damage to her already disintegrating spine? But then, just as suddenly, she righted herself and inched over to the front window.  “’Creep-mouse, creep-mouse,’” she murmured, the words of the old childhood rhyme tap-dancing in her brain.
          Finally, she stood, leaning into the glass, her eyes greedily taking in the landscape.  Didn’t matter that it was sodden and without any redeeming touches of green.  That would change, and she would be here to welcome it once again.  The familiar walls fell away, and she stood – well, metaphorically speaking -- on the threshold of yearning, unable to tell where the pain left off and the joy began.  But, then, it had always been that way with her, even in the days when her love for Julian had colored the picture, spilling over the lines.  Nothing had ever been unmixed for her:  tears in the midst of laughter, blessing bleeding heartache and piercing her soul.  I, crucified, become real.  More words, and she wondered which of her poems they had come from.
          And then she remembered.  It was the poem she’d started to write after Julian had left Ely; unable to finish it, she’d torn it up and fed the pieces to the fire.  She hadn’t thought of it since.  But this little ghost of a line had somehow survived and come back to haunt her now…
          Elizabeth’s eyes traveled to the large crewel embroidery piece hanging to the right of the window.  She’d done it years ago, just as the arthritis had started creeping up on her.  Two stags rested face-to-face under a tree; flitting under the tree’s flower-starred branches  were several birds, able to move freely while her fingers grew more swollen and knobby and her joints screamed at her to stop reaching, stop moving…
          She hobbled over to the needlework and touched the satin-stitched wing of one of the birds.  “’But they that wait upon the Lord shall have new strength,’” she murmured.  “’They shall fly with wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.’”
          She found herself thinking back to her stay in hospital a few years earlier.  How she’d been lying there in the public ward after her fall, feeling pretty weary herself – weary of the pain, weary of everything – when a poem had come to her.  And because writing had always been a spiritual thing for her, the poem had been a sign.  A finding – or, rather, a re-finding – of faith and brought on by something as simple as Ida, one of the volunteers, wheeling the tea trolley on that Easter morning, “rattling and banging,
          Swaying and singing down the long ward
          Like a ship in full sail was Ida
          Crying aloud the tidings of joy
          ‘Cup of tea with sugar?    With sugar”’
          …The risen sun filled the ward with light,
          We held out our hands for his bounty,”
Elizabeth murmured, remembering.  And the remembering sent out ripples, widening, ever widening….
          She turned from the embroidery piece, and there he was again.  Julian with his kind, amused eyes that missed very little…his lean face lined as it had been when she’d last seen him, then young and smooth as tanned leather.   The two faces flickered back and forth…a magic-lantern show…and she could not honestly say which she loved more.
          Loving him had been easier than breathing; the holding back had been the hard part.  And yet with them, the non-physical had been as powerful as the physical.  Perhaps more.  They had been circles overlapping one another, their souls somehow recognizing each other right from the start.  She reached one arthritic hand up, wanting to touch that face just one more time:  it flickered brightly, then gently faded away.
          Elizabeth sighed, her shoulders slumping.  She would’ve liked for Julian to stay longer.  She couldn’t always will him back, any more than she could always recall the words to her poems. Still, he seemed to come more often these days.  One of the perks of growing old, she supposed.
          Slowly, biting her lip, she made it back o her chair.  That certainly took the starch out of me, she thought, leaning her head back against the cool chintz fabric.  She glanced at the sandwich on her tray.  I’ll eat later.  A catnap is all I need now.
          She closed her eyes, letting the room wrap its silence around her.  Only as she was on the verge of dropping off did she become aware of a breeze flirting with her hair, which seemed oddly longer.  The curls were brushing against her neck, and the smell of sun-warmed raspberries teased her nose.  And then, suddenly, she was swaying and stumbling as she made her way along the tree-shaded path, the flecks of summer sunlight dancing on the leaves.  There was someone she had to find, but the trees confused her, there were so many of them, and they were so much taller than she remembered them being.
          Then Elizabeth saw him.  She had forgotten how slim and quick-footed her father had been in his younger days, had only remembered the frail old man she had sat with during his final illness.  He moved among the raspberry bushes now, picking the fruit and completely unaware of her.  Mother must’ve sent him to do that, she thought, knowing how much he hated doing anything domestic.  She hastened to catch up with him.
          But her legs had grown shorter and her skirts bunchier.  She tumbled over.  “Papa!”  she cried, but he was already disappearing among the nearby trees.
          Tears stung her eyes, but she blinked them back.  The sky was darkening, and the trees crowded around her, trying to keep her from him.  But she could still see a bit of the path…could just make out that long-legged well-loved figure disappearing down it….
          There was only one thing to do.  She picked herself up and ran on her stubby little legs after him.