The sender of the letter I held in my hands had signed herself Madeleine, and how could she possibly have known how deeply that name would affect me? I felt the world around me cease to spin, a jumble of memories tumbling out from a cupboard stuffed with junk: balding teddy bears, cassette tapes with handwritten labels, pens with shattered nibs, yellowed birthday cards, dice from board games long since binned, luggage labels, school ties, smooth pebbles, broken jewellery, pictures torn from magazines. Reminders of people loved, admired, lusted over, despised. Names that no longer meant a thing, others that were invisibly tattooed on the fragile skin on the insides of my wrists.
Not difficult to imagine the grief, the tears, the unctuous if heartfelt outbursts of emotion along the “taken from us too young” lines Madeleine’s death occasioned. My best friend since our first day at school. Dead at twenty-two. Her light snuffed out, at peace with the angels, et cetera. Mutely I accepted the commiserations, the clasping hands, the condolence cards littered with silver crosses and embossed lilies. Worse for her parents, of course. Like me, Madeleine had been an only child; unlike me, brilliant, brimming with that vague quality called potential.
Grief fades, but bombs leave black craters that can never entirely be filled. Weeks, months went by when I didn’t give Madeleine more than a passing thought, though she was never entirely absent from my mind. But the letter, signed Madeleine, was enough to invoke that well-remembered face, and for too long I remained in my armchair, unable to summon up the will to move, to switch on a light, to eat.
The letter was similar to others I’d received in dribs and drabs over the past twenty-odd years:
Dear Ms Price,
I’m sure you must get letters like this all the time, and I apologise for adding to their number. I first read your novel when I was 17. I was a typically intense, literary teenager, in love with Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and green-spined Virago Modern Classics. I came across your book quite by accident in the library – I couldn’t even tell you what drew me to it, and I can’t explain what it means to me without gushing like a crazy fangirl!
I’ve never written a fan letter before (I’m sure everyone makes that claim) and I’m not sure why I felt compelled to do so now, except that I came across your book when I was packing up my stuff (first home of my own – can’t really afford it, but I’ve got to move out sometime and it’s about time my parents had the place to themselves!). I picked it up and found myself rereading it straight through, unable to tear myself away.
Once again I was blown away by the sheer power of the story, the beauty of the language, and I fell in love with literature all over again. I just wanted you to know that the power of your novel reverberates and will never stop.
With very best wishes,
Generally my correspondents were PhD students, or would-be writers asking if they could send me their manuscripts. This one asked for nothing, not even an autograph; nor did she expect a reply, though a return address label had been sloppily affixed to the back of the envelope. I was intrigued, and not just because of her name. The letter arrived at a point in my life when my early literary fame was not even a hazy memory for most people. One novel to my name – one, and one only.
Unable to repeat the trick, I’d long since been written off as a one-hit wonder, albeit that one hit had been enough, at the time, for reviewers to declare it a “masterpiece” of “extraordinary vision”.
‘One might almost,’ one reviewer speculated, ‘be tempted to pronounce it a work of genius.’
Naturally they clamoured for more, and I dined out quite comfortably on this early success for a couple of years until the novelty wore off and I was dismissed as another literary fluke: a thrilling one night stand, but clearly not a stayer. A tease, in fact. The fairy dust settled and I retreated, the heavy gilded doors to the literary world closing on me until such time as I could present it with another glorious offering.
One gets over every disappointment eventually, or learns to live with it. Unable to settle to regular employment, I took a succession of part-time jobs, more or less unsatisfactory, before I found what I must think of as my niche. My current job – housekeeper, cleaner and cook for a vicar – was a good fit and I was tolerably content in a minor-key sort of way.
Madeleine’s letter arrived on the doormat like a flare from another world.
Thank you for your letter. I receive so few “proper” letters these days. It’s heartening to know my solitary novel is still being read and enjoyed. Literature has always been, for me, a solace and a source of wonder, but I sometimes think I would have retained my sense of wonder rather better had I not felt compelled to make my own contribution. The weight of expectation – publishers and readers too eager for a second novel – did rather crush me, the result being my well-documented literary constipation.
People tell me I’ve secured a kind of immortality and that some of the greatest writers are remembered primarily for a single book (one thinks of Lolita, Vanity Fair, The Great Gatsby) that soars above the rest; not to mention the number of writers who only ever produced one novel (you can supply the titles as well as I).
Still, I would feel a fraud to describe myself as a writer and I rarely give the book much thought, so it’s nice to discover that it has a life of its own, independent of me.
I broke off, unsure how to continue, conscious of speaking too much of myself, yet what else could I write about? “Madeleine” had told me hardly anything about herself, and to ask questions would be to invite a correspondence she didn’t necessarily want. (Did I? Hard to say. I had a few acquaintances, a job; even, until six months ago, a lover; but since the death of Madeleine – my Madeleine – I’d always felt a sort of spiritual loneliness.)
If I didn’t finish the letter now, I knew I never would. It would remain on my writing desk, one of those little jobs one means to get round to but never quite manages. The longer I left it, the harder it would be to complete, the less urgent it would become, until eventually it would be swept into the waste bin along with ancient cheque stubs, dentist reminder letters, bus tickets and all the other administrative detritus one hangs on to for no good reason.
Perhaps what I’d written thus far would suffice. I had, indeed, written far more – and rather more candidly – than I had in response to the first flurry of letters I’d received when the book was published.
Back in those golden days I treated unsolicited correspondents with a kind of patronising tolerance, accepting praise, the gushing insistence that my book had “spoken to them personally” as my right, responding with a few scribbled lines of thanks and, in the case of would-be writers, advice on how to find a literary agent. I cringe now – of course I do! – at how little thought I gave to those people who’d been moved enough to put pen to paper. How had I dared to dismiss them so readily? Yet it wouldn’t do to attempt to atone for the scant interest I’d shown in the lives of my admirers by writing an inappropriately lengthy letter to Madeleine.
Therefore I added a couple of lines wishing her all the best and thanking her for taking the time to write. Trite, commonplace words. I added a PS: Hope you’ve settled into your new home, which struck a false note. It would have to do. I’d post it when I went to work.
My employer was not one of those modern, enthusiastic clergymen. He would have been ill at ease in an urban landscape and once frankly admitted he had more in common with Trollope’s gentle Septimus Harding than with the type of priest who wants to change the world or, at the very least, get his face on Songs of Praise. He hired me, I believe, because of a shared fondness for the books of Barbara Pym. When I turned up for the interview, he excused himself to take a phone call and I occupied myself in browsing his bookshelves. He returned to find me with his copy of Some Tame Gazelle in my hands. Once he knew I was a fan, references and relevant prior experience no longer seemed to matter. He would be my timid curate and I his excellent woman. Not, I hasten to add, that there was so much as an atom of romantic, let alone sexual, frisson in our relationship. We suited each other, that’s all. I poached eggs the way he liked them, didn’t pester him to update his soft furnishings, and never, ever gossiped. I wasn’t even a member of his congregation, or any other.
The vicarage was spot-on Barbara Pym. A rustic kitchen, lots of chintz, everything with the faded patina of upper-middle-class shabbiness that can’t be faked. It was a family home, far too big for the unmarried vicar.
My duties were to cook his lunch and prepare evening meals for him to heat up later; he would delve into the freezer for one of the labelled plastic tubs of Bolognese sauce or stew I cooked in big batches. I saw to his washing, gave everything a dust and a vacuum, and generally looked after him. Not a demanding job, but it suited me. I could imagine pottering around that kitchen when I was well into my seventies, for my vicar wasn’t the ambitious type and would likely remain there until he ended up on the wrong side of a funeral.
It was one of those glorious September days that provide the backdrop for every pretty costume drama, every gauzily imagined Edwardian picnic. The lazy drone of bees; the sense of outwitting autumn for a few weeks more.
When I took his lunch in to the study, the vicar removed his specs and smiled. ‘Ah, the redoubtable Miss Price.’ The same actions and words every day. ‘And how are you today?’
‘Fine, thank you, Mr Latham.’ Neither of us had ever suggested we ditch the formalities and address each other by our Christian names. While I was Miss and he was Mr, the proper boundary was maintained: our relationship friendly, but rarely confidential. Today I rather regretted this, thinking it might have been nice to discuss my letter with someone. But, after all, what was there to say? Another reminder of how my star had burned out; cause, at most, for a few wistful reminiscences.
In my sensible shoes and striped cotton tabard, I looked more like a school dinner lady than a feted novelist.
Mr Latham sat in a leather chair of the substantial type that put me in mind of headmasters and private doctors. The window next to him stood ajar. A breeze tickled the net curtain, the leaves of a Japanese bean tree gently bumping against the glass. His long, bony fingers replaced the lid on a fountain pen.
I’d laid the tray with a lace-edged cloth, just as he liked it, the cutlery wrapped in a linen napkin. There was always a dessert course, fresh fruit salad in summer and fruit pie the rest of the year. Absurd, perhaps, but I was pleased he wasn’t the type of man who was content with cheese and pickle sandwiches and paper towels. Standards must be maintained.
Occasionally he chatted to me on neutral topics, rarely evincing much interest in my life. I didn’t mind; I’d had enough of people expressing concern for my welfare. From time to time Mr Latham and I talked about books; he was aware of mine, but we rarely spoke of it. I didn’t even know if he’d read it. Ultimately, though, he was my employer, and friendship would have complicated a relationship that was satisfactory as it was. If he showed little concern for my general happiness and wellbeing, neither did he attempt to pry into a life that was, from choice, as buttoned-up as a winter coat.
‘Such splendid weather!’ he was moved to exclaim when I brought in his slice of apple and blackberry pie.
‘Yes, indeed. I’m always a little sad when all the flowers die off, so a bit of sun makes up for the lack of colour.’ This wasn’t me speaking, it was “Miss Price”: the part I played; an analgesic against the world outside, by which I mean the past and the uncertain future and all the knotted threads of my life. If I often found it hard to tear myself away from the vicarage, this was simply because it represented a calmer, more ordered world, where I briefly felt secure.
Back at home I made a desultory attempt on my own housework. I lived in a cottage, but not a roses round the door job; a more mundane ex-council affair. I daresay it was originally built as a family home, in days when families were large and toilets were outside. It had been modernised (fitted kitchen, indoor toilet and bathroom suite) and given the romantic name of Honeysuckle Cottage. Like my job, it suited me, its fey charm not quite eradicated by twentieth century builders.
Madeleine and I had often talked about sharing a house; our tastes were so alike, and we shared an appreciation of beautiful objects. Ah, Madeleine, how you would have wrinkled your nose at my avocado bathroom suite, my MDF bookcases, my easy-iron sheets! But you would have approved, I think, of my careless housekeeping, my mismatched crockery, the stray cat who’d become a permanent fixture on the sofa. Never fond of cats, I’d allowed Pushkin to wheedle her way into my home and my affections to the point where I’d become almost oblivious to the fans of black fur on the carpet, and provided her with expensive pouches of cat food. It seemed I was destined to become that modern cliché, the crazy cat lady.
Six author copies of my novel sat in a box under my bed and I kept a reading copy in the kitchen, next to the cookery books. Months passed without me giving it a second glance. It was considerably less dog-eared than the cookbooks.
I made a pot of tea, buttered a scone and sat at the kitchen table with the book open in front of me. Dedicated to Madeleine, it was, from a purely aesthetic point of view, a lovely object. The publishers gave the first thousand copies a cloth binding, gold lettering in an old-fashioned gothic script, and all editions featured pen-and-ink illustrations by a well-known artist. Even the paper was special – thick, creamy, with a raised rib. An object to be handled as well as read.
Reading random paragraphs, I stumbled across lines I’d forgotten, images that still struck me as fresh and surprising. A second book, surely, would have been an anti-climax after this fluke, this freak of literature! No matter. There would be no second book. I was the mayfly with gaudy wings who lived beautifully for a matter of days; the brief double rainbow; the fleeting moment of grace. But I hadn’t died or disappeared. To have melted into nothingness… As far as the world was concerned I’d done precisely that, or as good as. Still here, but living in shadows.
A second letter from Madeleine arrived two weeks after the first.
What a treat to receive your letter! she wrote. I never really expected a reply, to be honest. I felt a fool as soon as I’d posted it. Would have written back sooner, but am now in my new place, still getting everything straight, letters forwarded to me by my parents, when they remember!
It’s kind of weird in a way to think of writers – I mean great writers – having ordinary lives. I suppose many of them didn’t (Genet, Wilde, etc), but I just can’t imagine how you can tear yourself away from the lives you’ve created in beautiful prose to return to the mundane world. Same with reading, I suppose – being torn away from fictional worlds that often feel more realised than so-called real life.
Sorry, I’m rambling, and my prose is horrible! Writing this in a bit of a hurry! You probably won’t believe it, or won’t care, but I have literary ambitions myself – very modest ones, and I promise I’m not one of those rude, ungracious people who pesters authors to read their precious manuscript or anything like that!
It would just be good, if you could bear it, if I could talk to you now and then about literature. I’ll be honest and say that I’d like to learn from you, but obviously I totally understand if you think what I’m asking is a huge imposition. Anyway, return address at the top of the page, and it would be really lovely to hear from you again sometime.
All best wishes,
P.S. Okay, this is crazy, but I always felt like your book was meant for me, because it’s dedicated to a Madeleine. Your sister? One day, maybe you’ll tell me about her.