Family

The power was cut off yesterday, finally. It’s funny how even when the TV has been switched off, there’s still so much background noise, so much electricity in the atmosphere. Motors running, fans whirring, clocks humming. Even the silent radio transmits a low level buzz. If you press your ear to the speaker, you can hear it.

Now, all of that is gone.

I stand completely still. I can hear the rasp of cotton against wool as my chest rises and falls, rises and falls. The house is settling into itself, relaxing, losing tension, revisiting its old rhythms. It is sighing with relief. Old houses weren’t built for the modern age, for technology, for energy – zap, zap, zap. Their walls weren’t built with care, only to be gouged out to accommodate cables, wires and pipes. Their kitchens weren’t planned to hold washing machines, fridges and freezers. These houses were homes for people, for laughter, for pain, for joy, for fear, for living. For shelter.

Thwock. Thwock. Thwock. I hear the steady percussion of water dripping on tile. As expected, the freezer is leaking its contents onto the pantry floor. I picture the pool encroaching, seeping, growing. No matter. I will mop it up. Peace will reign.

I step outside to tend to the pot bubbling on the fire in the yard. I sniff, inhaling the aroma of the stew, which is nearly ready to eat. Good enough for me and certainly fit for the family who lived here, all those years ago.

I found their headstones in the churchyard, abandoned and unloved in a dark corner. When you have nobody of your own, adopting someone else is easy. You just find them, think about them, talk to them, imagine their lives, construct a family tree in your head. I scraped away the moss, cleaned off the lichen, pulled up the weeds and cut back the wild grasses. Daylight illuminated their names for the first time in centuries, a mother and three daughters, all dead within weeks of each other. My heart broke. It’s one thing to never know a family, quite another to love and lose each other, one by one. I like to think that I’m bringing them back to life in a strange kind of way.

There’s a parish register filed away in the village church, but few people bother to investigate it these days. I had to make an appointment with the vicar, who opened a cupboard, pulled out a cracked and disintegrating ledger and left me to my own devices as he phoned parishioners in far-flung corners of the county. Look after the living, the dead are long gone, was what he said to me as he locked the church, eager for me to leave.

I had run my fingers over their names, tracing the fine copperplate, the ink now faded to a translucent brown. I thought of the rector of long ago who had taken the time to record the birth, marriage and death of each of his flock. I wondered how he had managed to carry on as the deaths mounted, how he had maintained his flagging spirit as he intoned the last rites of man, woman and child. Did he despair at his dwindling pot of ink, did he sigh as his nib scratched the same date of death over and over again? Did he himself shudder with the fever in his own last days as he struggled to maintain his scribe’s hand? Were those his tears blemishing the last entry on the fifteenth day of June 1665?

For once, it isn’t raining. It feels as if the skies have been overcast for months. Winter turned to spring and now it is early summer. The clouds are the same steel grey as ever, but at least it is warm and the birds are singing, enjoying the rich pickings that have burst forth from the ground. The conditions are perfect for worms, grubs, insects – and other things. I wonder what the weather was like all those hundreds of years ago. When did my family stop rejoicing in the rich harvest, cease thanking God for the sun, and turn inwards on themselves? When did the mother abandon her vegetables to the ever-present weeds? When did the children leave their toys silent in the hall? Where was the father in all of this?

They spoke to me, my family of long ago. I pat my pocket, feeling the little book nestled safely next to my hip. I picture it age-worn, threadbare, delicate, revealing its secrets to me, page by desiccated page. It had been such a stroke of luck, finding the crumbling beam in the bedroom. I had cursed the woodworm at the time, but without them, I would never have found the little book tucked tightly in the eaves of the attic. Spiders had bound cobwebs around its leather cover, locking it shut for hundreds of years.

‘The Journal of Emily Wainwright’– a daughter of the house, but I had not found her name in the register of deaths in St John’s Church. She must have survived and made a life elsewhere. She was my link to my imagined family tree. She was my ray of hope. I wonder why she hid her journal. Was it to keep her childhood hopes and fears a secret, or was it to put away her past and deal with a future alone, once all her family had gone?

Much like the church register, the ink in Emily’s journal was faded. The paper was tissue thin and the writing almost impossible to decipher in certain lights. Daylight was too strong, electric light too dazzling. Last month, I lit candles in the evening power cut, and it was in their soft flame that Emily’s secrets revealed themselves to me, page by delicate page. The less the modern day impinged on us, the more we connected and the more vibrant the ink became. That’s how it seemed. That’s how it is.

It won’t be long before the cottage returns to Emily. The electric appliances will be gone. There will be an open fire in the kitchen, a hook from which to hang a cooking pot, herbs drying from the mantel. The house will live again.

I remove the journal from my pocket and settle down for the next instalment. Emily will tell me her plans today. I know it.

“Sixteenth day of June 1665

Mother died two days ago and the rector buried her with seven others, despite his own failing health. Now, it is only Father in the house with me. He appears strong as an ox although he is burdened with grief. I must hide my sickness from him. I am so scared to die. Dear Lord, do not let me die.”

I turn the page – it is blank. All the others are empty too – there is nothing more. Where are you, Emily? Where are you?

Something falls from the back of the book and I catch it. A lock of brown hair, tied with a creased, black ribbon. I stroke the soft strands across my cheek, imagining the young girl holding me close, like a daughter. I ache to hold her in return, to feel a loved one in my arms.

On the final page, I find a last entry in an older, more deliberate hand.

“My dearest daughter Emily died of plague this twenty fifth day of June in the year of our Lord, 1665. Here, I press a lock of her precious hair. I will bury her body in our favourite place. No space remains in consecrated ground and no man of the Church is alive to lay her to rest. Dear Lord, I ask Your forgiveness for my transgressions in these desperate times. Keep her soul safe on her journey and may we all meet again in the next life.

Abraham Thomas Wainwright”

So it was Abraham who had survived, he who had hidden his daughter’s journal so securely. My heart opens to the man, picturing his final moments with Emily as he sent her on her final journey. What a cruel fate.

I imagine her body lying below me, somewhere nearby. Still, but not at rest, buried outside the boundary of St John’s Church. Such things mattered in those times. Her father would have been distraught at her un-Christian burial. I kiss the lock of hair, bring the book to my lips and do the same, inhaling the scent of both. I imagine the sickness, locked away until now. I sense how it invaded her home, her family and finally Emily herself. I fancy that she sneezed as she wrote her final words. I breathe it all in, willing my body to consume, to absorb, to mutate.

I shake the little book over my bowl, watch as motes of dust and skin flutter from its folds. I stir my stew and suck a spoonful into my mouth.

Her body will stay where it lies. But her soul needs to be in holy ground – it is what she and her father would have wanted. I look up, the spire of St John’s a great finger pointing to the heavens above. The clouds are pregnant with rain. The humidity will soon do its work.

Many organisms flourish in this type of damp, in this type of heat. Worms, grubs, insects – and other things.

9 thoughts on “Family

  1. Family is more than genetics, DNA, relatives. A family is what one makes it, no matter who is involved, past or present. This story speaks wonders of familial bonds, and of remembrance. It is beautifully written…filling all of my senses, and then some.

    1. Thank you, Lorri. Yes, I agree, there is more to family than genetic links. I also think that houses with history can speak to us, if we care to listen. All it takes is time, patience – and as the narrator tells us – some peace and quiet.

      1. I know I found Wannsee hard to reconcile – such a beautiful building and location – and yet what terrible decisions were made there… It’s as if the walls absorbed the hate.

  2. This is a powerfully evocative story filled with both facts (names, places, dates…) and lots of emotions. I like how you have blurred the limits between past and present.
    A cousin of mine has recently traced back a branch of my maternal family. The ‘oldest’ known ancestor was born in 1640 and married his wife in 1666.

    1. Thank you, Hannah. It’s a ghost story, but without a typical ghost that goes ‘whoo!’. Ghosts are what we make of the past, I think, and sometimes, of ourselves.
      How wonderful, to be able to trace your family back so far! I wonder what their lives were like…

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