Soft air, white sky, and the trees are closer
to the ground: thin branches stretching upwards
to the cloud. I’d forgotten how winter feels
when it’s almost done, forgotten how
clenched muscles relax without warning
easing the heart.
I stand in line and the bus comes
In line for a second bus, I hear crows screaming
above my head. Someone told me once, when
the crows come back, it’s the first sign of spring, so
now I know to welcome them, watch them circling,
crying, fussing over such a simple shift
as a few more degrees
in the temperature of the air.
They’re impatient birds, ill-bred, always wanting
to be heard. How many of them are there? Fifty?
A hundred? They move too fast; I couldn’t count them
if I tried. They’re in two groups, the leaders moving
out in front, then turning, returning, and the stragglers
frantic, delirious, splitting off behind the buildings
then coming back.
How many here will reach the south?
In an hour, thick flakes of snow blow sideways
across a steamed-up window pane.
Spring in a cold country starts with snow.
February 2, 2021
You are there somewhere in the darkness,
silent as the deep night. Silent as the grave,
we used to say although now the dead speak
or we speak through them. We know their names
and not much else.
I know the lawyers tried to stop them dying
and couldn’t save them – two black men, young
when they were free, and a woman savagely abused.
I know they died because a president was leaving office
in a day or two, and changed the law and didn’t want
to lose his legacy. It’s hard to call that downright injustice,
or even pointless cruelty. It’s more circumstance
and cruel chance.
I wanted them to have a second chance at living out
the years that they had left. It wasn’t much – a life
in maximum security – but it might have been enough
to make a difference. I know as well that circumstance
determines many lives, and most of us don’t have to die
to find that out.
Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson, Dustin Higgs.
Remember, too, another death from circumstance –
January 25, 2021
Lisa Montgomery, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs died by lethal injection in Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana, on January 13, 15 and 16, 2021. Raphaël André died of cold on the streets of Montréal on the night of January 16-17.
Ainsi, la première chose que la peste apporta à nos concitoyens fut l’exil. Et le narrateur est persuadé qu’il peut écrire ici, au nom de tous, ce que lui-même a éprouvé alors, puisqu’il l’a éprouvé en même temps que beaucoup de nos concitoyens.
Albert Camus, La Peste
March 20, Friday
We’ve been in lockdown now since last Monday. It started slowly. I tried to go to the Cinéma du Parc on Sunday evening and found it closed. Couldn’t go to church in the morning as services were cancelled and I was glad somehow because that was one less thing I had to do. On Monday I found all cinemas and shows were closed till further notice. Schools and universities have been closed for more than a week, libraries for almost two.
So we wait at home. I’m not dependent on a paycheck – I’m over sixty-five – and I’m not afraid. For reasons I can’t explain, I don’t think I’ll catch COVID-19. There is nothing else on the news and almost nothing in the papers.
I told myself when I first felt the world close in around me, I’m going to use this time to catch up on everything I want to do. And write. I wanted to write something longer and more personal – an affair in psychiatry from long ago – but to write well I have to have a time and a place. I can’t find either. Then I thought, write about our collective trauma, COVID-19. Because writing is always about pushing back the things you can’t control.
March 23, Monday
Late last night I started reading La Peste, Camus. I read it once before, almost thirty years ago, for a private French course with an out-of-work journalist. I picked up an old battered copy in a second-hand bookshop. I’ve kept it through several moves.
This time I read La Peste in French because it’s the only copy I have. Or maybe I like to feel important.
It’s set in Oran, then a department of France, in the 1940s. Oran, Camus tells us, was a city without beauty or shades of meaning, an ordinary city, ugly, it has to be said, with its back turned to the sea. It was a city without pigeons, or gardens or trees. Its inhabitants lived to make money and to gratify simple desires, for love, amusement or comfort. After the plague was over, all agreed that events were out of place there.
Montréal has parks and trees, not many pigeons but sparrows, robins, blue jays, starlings, woodpeckers and cardinals, and countless gardens. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own assortment of family homes. Once you’ve lived here a while, you can guess who lives where or who used to live where, just by looking at the houses from the outside. Front walks and separate garages mean (or once meant) English; balconies and porches mean French; white or yellow brick probably means Italian. Montréal is a city where people are proud of their differences. Probably they don’t think a lot about money, but they do think about what they share with people in the next house or the next suburb, and sometimes what they don’t. They think a lot about rights.
Now it’s as if that complicated patchwork of history and culture has been taken away. There’s only one message on radio and TV, and that’s COVID – how fast it’s spreading, how close it is to us. We’re not supposed to go anywhere anyway, and we have nothing to do but listen. I walk around the local park or down the street and it’s as if there’s only one neighbourhood, and one street, and that’s here. Here is an eerie silence without traffic noise or ringing footsteps or the sound of people talking louder than they should. Garbage trucks pass at their appointed times and then the silence falls again.
I look out on the garden and it’s almost spring. There’s a hint of life in everything that grows, but all I feel is stillness. It’s as if I’m the last woman alive. Reading La Peste, I throw myself into the void.
March 24, Tuesday
Still nothing is happening. The shops are half-empty and on the main road, the few cars and buses travel singly. I send a few emails. I receive emails from people I’d never dreamt of hearing from – the President of Loblaws, the CEO of Hydro Québec. This virus has the power to change the smallest details of my everyday life. Yet I am well. I eat, sleep, read, write, and the restrictions multiply. After cinemas, theatres and concert halls, they close shopping malls, parks, now small businesses and all stores except grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, pet stores, hardware stores.
We have a new language that justifies the closures and tells us how to act: social distancing, essential businesses, congregating in groups, respecting the guidelines, frontline workers, flattening the curve. When I first heard these phrases, I didn’t know exactly what they meant but I figured them out from what else I knew; and now when I go to the supermarket or the pharmacy or walk down the local shopping street, I have an explanation for the changes. I know why we are chivvied into lines, why I can’t put my points card or debit card into the hand of the cashier, why so few stores are open, why all the FOR RENT signs. I’ve become part of the new order. I shuffle my way through.
March 27, Friday
Because I hear so many statistics, I start looking them up on the Internet – La Presse, The New York Times and a website I found called worldometer. It gives daily figures, ranking countries according to the number of cases.
On March 18, there were 200,000 cases worldwide and 8,000 deaths. Canada had 100 new cases every day. By March 26, there were 492,085 cases worldwide and 22,176 deaths. In Canada there were 3,409 cases and 36 deaths. Globometer gave a tentative global mortality rate of 3%. The WHO estimate for March 3 (death rate) was 3.46%.
I began calculating my own death rates for different countries, but it didn’t take long for me to see that not everyone who will die has died, so that particular statistic means very little. Soon afterwards I asked myself, are reported cases tested cases? Probably. Reporting also has to play a part. On March 26, Russia had 840 reported cases and 3 deaths.
Saw a police car this morning on my way back from the laundromat, driving around looking for signs of trouble.
March 28, Saturday
They told us yesterday we’re entering a new phase: we’re at the beginning of the steep rise that will lead to the peak. A long speech on CBC radio after 4:00 p.m. yesterday from Mayor Valérie Plante, first in French and then in English. This is not a lockdown, not yesterday and not today. The bridges will stay open, but we should stay home. I don’t think it’s an order, but it’s a strong recommendation, and we are told not to go out of our area, especially not the western part of the city. A man, I believe the deputy director of public health for the city, tells us there is community transmission. The reason is the “snowbirds” – the people who didn’t go into isolation when they came back from the States or the South.
The forecast was for a sunny day, but it’s grey cloud cover and cold. I planned on going on the bus to Rosemount, to take a break from myself and look for local colour for the longer essay I want to write. The first scene would be on the corner of Boulevard Rosemont and Avenue des Érables. I tell myself I don’t want to feel more shut in than I do already, unable to write because I couldn’t leave the house. I tell myself I’ll go anyway, though I’m nervous. Can they try to stop me – the police – if they see me walking alone? On the other hand, if I go later, the risk will be greater because the virus is spreading. I decide to go, but I’ll stay apart.
The streets of Rosemount are desolate. I see one man, one woman, and it’s hard to know if they’re going somewhere or just using up time. Everything is shut: houses, stores, a cinema. It’s an area that’s become very chic with storefront windows displaying baby clothes and original home furnishings. On Boulevard Rosemont, a young man with a backpack and worn clothes asks me for change, and I don’t give it. Why not? Because I’m alone and he’s alone and if he did try to grab my purse, there wouldn’t be anyone around to help me. Aloneness breeds aloneness and an obstinate hardness of heart. I keep walking, pass someone who looks less in need.
I’ve begun Chapter 2 of La Peste. The plague has been declared and the gates of the city are closed. The residents of Oran are prisoners, and like most prisoners, time has become meaningless for them. They can’t live for their future release (and in the meantime focus all their strength and courage on surviving their imprisonment), because they’re sure that they’ll find out later on that their release date has been changed. They can’t live in the past, because thinking about the past brings only the taste of regret, and they know they can change nothing. They therefore live in a useless, floating present, wanting their old lives back.
We are more like people under relaxed house arrest. But like the people of Oran, we live without the structure of time. We cannot know how long present circumstances will last, and we don’t know how much of our past we’ll be able to keep once things return to normal. And each person or each family lives with a different loss – with separation from friends, wider family, or a lover, with the cessation of work responsibilities and an identity that goes with work, and without pay. Lives are overturned, but differently, and each person’s life, or each family’s life, is always about managing the disruption. Probably we are more closed in on ourselves and less likely to feel another person’s distress.
March 30, Monday
Towards the beginning of Chapter 2, there is a conversation between the principal character, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist from Paris, Raymond Rambert. Rieux is a doctor caring for plague victims, and Rambert wants a medical certificate stating that he is not infected so that he can leave the city and go in search of the woman he loves. Rieux refuses, first of all because the certificate would prove nothing – Rambert might already be infected but have no symptoms, or might become infected between leaving Rieux’s office and leaving the city – and second, because there are many men in Rambert’s position and he cannot make exceptions. Rambert tells Rieux that he denies their shared humanity and forgets that he is also responsible for individuals and their happiness. He accuses Rieux of speaking the language of abstraction.
Later Rieux sees that this is true. He is no longer moved by the cries of his patients or the pleas of their families. He enforces rules and follows procedures; he stands by while the police and paramedics forcibly remove patients from their homes. He feels no pity, and at the end of the day, his indifference is a consolation for the pain and suffering he has witnessed.
Rieux does not sign the certificate for Rambert. Soon afterwards he joins a team of volunteers organizing emergency services for the sick and dying. Later still, Rambert stops trying to escape the city and joins the volunteers.
March 31, Tuesday
What I miss most is news. I open up La Presse online and there are no new stories, only one short paragraph on COVID. Journalists have been laid off or put on reduced pay.
Now the US is the epicentre of the pandemic, especially New York. China has come out of it fairly well and its citizens are slowly getting back to work.
Later: I hear on the radio that the number of new cases is doubling every day in Canada. I don’t go on worldometer.
April 1, Wednesday
Over 2,000 cases in Québec. So I did check the figures. Went out yesterday, down to Avenue Mont-Royal on a clear, cold spring day. On the Plateau there are more people on the streets than here, some older than I am, and almost all smile as you go by. Then last night I thought I might have the virus – slight fever, slight nausea. But it lifted, then I coughed.
Total cases worldwide: 882,068; deaths 44,136
Canada: total cases, 8,672; deaths, 101
April 3, Friday
I turn on the radio just before 2:00 p.m. and already it’s the barrage of statistics. Legault is still speaking – or is it Arruda? It’s in translation. There are now 63 deaths in Québec attributed to the Coronavirus, but the increase compared to yesterday’s is less alarming than it seems, as yesterday there were cases under review. At 2:00 p.m. Doug Ford says that there could be between three and fifteen thousand deaths in Ontario, 600 deaths. Without public health measures, there could be as many as 100,000 deaths.
April 4, Saturday
This morning’s news: the next week and the next month will tell us if the increase in cases is beginning to slow. They’re talking about perhaps lifting restrictions in June.
But it is scary. After I got home last week from Rosemount, I realized that the stickiness I’ve felt in my throat for the last couple of days could be a sore throat. Later that day I looked in the mirror and saw red cheeks, as if I’d just come in from cold air. I had a slight fever, less than one degree, 97.1 Fahrenheit. But I slept, lighter of heart, because I’d been out earlier. Fever comes and goes. I don’t remember other illnesses being like this. Usually there’s a certain point where you know you’re sick, and if you’re at home you go to bed and hope to sleep it off. Maybe you can’t, but that’s because you get worse, and then the sickness – nausea, giddiness, stomach pain – blocks out worry and the effort to fight it off. This time I just don’t know. One minute I’m sure I have the virus and the next minute I think I don’t. I sleep, only to wake in darkness, knowing I’m alone.
April 6, Monday afternoon
I have one more chapter of La Peste to read. At first it wasn’t easy to follow. I couldn’t always remember who was who, and I got lost in the long descriptions of the mood in Oran. But after the conversation between Dr. Rieux and Rambert, a story starts to emerge. Each character becomes involved in the life of the city, and you follow that person through the year of the plague. Which is not to say that everyone in the novel does good – one person probably does harm because he trades on the black market – but everyone lives a life and is changed by what he does.
Towards the end a new character appears: death, or the plague, or the scourge (le fléau) or later, evil. All tighten their grip on the city and all are one and the same.
April 8, Wednesday
Finished La Peste yesterday. Mr. Legault and Dr. Arruda released their projections for the month (published April 7):
pessimistic projection: cases, 59,845; deaths, 8,860
optimistic projection: cases, 29,212; deaths, 1,263
As the story draws to a close, the virus weakens; the sick begin to recover and the rats reappear. The authorities declare the plague as good as over, and after some delay, the gates are opened and the residents of Oran are reunited with lovers and family. But Bernard Rieux loses the two people he loved most, his wife, who dies of an unnamed illness, and his closest friend, who dies of the plague. He knows then that the plague will never be over for him; he knows as well that he will go on fighting, without hope and without inner peace. Rieux understands what other people do not: that the plague can always return, even in the midst of happiness and celebration, and even when victory seems assured.
April 13, Easter Monday
Main news over the weekend, deaths in seniors’ homes and long-term care. Thirty-one people died in one residence in a little over two weeks, five from COVID-19.
May 12, Tuesday
Today’s news on CBC, a report released on Friday by the Québec Public Health Institute (the INSPQ), and another prediction: if Legault continues with his plan to reopen schools and businesses in Greater Montréal later this month, there will be an additional 10,000 cases in Montréal by the end of June, an average of 150 deaths a day in July. This is excluding deaths in long-term care. The point: reopening should be deferred.
This isn’t the whole picture: over half the deaths in Canada are in Québec (5,169 in Canada, 3,013 in Québec; over half the deaths in Québec are in Montréal (1,919). Not just in Montréal, but predominantly in Montréal North, Rivière des Prairies, Villeray, Park Extension and Lachine – neighbourhoods where there is greater overcrowding, where people have no choice but to go to work, where they use public transport and travel on company buses, and where they cannot escape infection. We’re living in a city more sharply divided along economic lines than before the virus hit, and I wonder if this will be the final message we take from the pandemic – that the costs are not equally shared.
My grandmother died in 1969 at the age (I think) of 89. My brother and I weren’t expected to go to the funeral and neither of us now can remember exactly when it was. My grandmother had become a burden to my parents and they wanted to forget. After she died, my parents hired an estate clearance firm to empty out the house and all traces of her disappeared.
She left a diary for the year of her marriage and the year of my father’s birth, 1909. It’s a small, red pocket diary about four inches by two-and-three-quarter inches, a free gift with the purchase of Mazawattee tea. This my parents kept, and I took it from their house when they died, in 1987. It’s a careful document. The writing is small, neat, even, and for almost the first six months my grandmother did not miss a single day. In early June gaps start to appear, and in July a full week is missed. Then the entries are untidy, spilling over the space allotted for that day. In August the writing is once more firm and clear, and the entries are detailed. The diary ends eight days before my father’s birth, on August 15. My grandmother married in early May, and my father was born three-and-a-half months later, on August 23, 1909.
It’s a relic of empire. The first ten or so pages list the names of every Sunday in the Anglican calendar (with Sundays in bold print), the dates of Oxford and Cambridge university terms, the beginning and end of the law court sessions in London, the birthdays of several European monarchs, the anniversaries of battles, dates of the birth and death of famous men (Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Franz Joseph Haydn, Richard Wagner…). Pages towards the end show postal rates, tax rates and the average amount of time taken to deliver a letter from London to forty cities across the world; a final table lists the times of the tides in major English, Scottish and Irish towns, given as the difference between high tide in that town and at London Bridge.
When I knew my grandmother, she lived in a run-down terrace house on a forgotten street in West Croydon, the poorest part of town. (Croydon is about ten miles south of Central London, in my grandmother’s time a separate town, now part of Greater London.) Her house had no electricity and no fixed bath. It had an outside toilet and was heated and lit on the downstairs only by gas. Sometime in the early sixties, my father told me she had lived there since 1915 and paid a rent of fifteen shillings a week.
This is my rewriting of the diary she left, or part of it, the part that tells how her marriage came about, up to her wedding day. To her family and friends she was known as Nelly. This, then, is Nelly’s Diary. When my brother and I used to visit, we called her Grandma, which always felt to me ugly and cold, and as soon as I became independent I thought of her as my grandmother, which at least implied belonging – of her to me. As a child and young woman, I did not know her story although I knew her, and when the diary was found, I felt she had left it partly for me.
I was born in 1945, an early baby boomer and a child of the sixties. Before I left the family home, I also lived in Croydon but on the other side of town. My father had been the one successful member of his family.
The diary: January to April 1909
My grandmother wrote the diary for herself. She does not mention sharing her feelings with anyone or wanting to, or wishing, desperately, that she could. It was her private confessional space, the place where she wrote down at the end of each day what she had done, who she had seen, how she felt, and sometimes, what other people had done and how they had treated her. Yet she did not write the word “pregnancy” or even “late;” she wrote that she was “not at all well,” “felt very queer,” or “felt so ill don’t know what to do.” The meaning of the diary is clear only to people who have been similarly afraid or who have known people who were. My grandmother did try to include my grandfather, Arthur, in her worries, but he did everything he could to push her away.
2 January, Saturday. 2.25 down (2:25 train down from London) Called at 156. Warm Baths. Spent evening with Arthur, had hard, sharp walk.
5 January, Tuesday. In bed all day, up after dinner … sent a note to ‘A’ about 6.15, he went to bed (? on purpose not to see me?) … Went up to class … came back, he very very irritable + sarcastic.
9 January, Saturday. … 2.25 down, went straight to Baths, but found them closed for repairs, home about 4, had dinner, had a wash + sat over the fire reading till 9, when ‘A’ called for me but I too tired to go out at that time, supper + to bed by 10, very very miserable
My grandmother worked as secretary to a lawyer in a London law firm and travelled to and from London every day on the train, including Saturdays, when she generally worked a half-day (“2.25 down …”). She was a modern woman for her time, spending evenings with her boyfriend, my grandfather, and going in search of him when she wanted. She lived at home in South Norwood, South London, on a street of comfortable family homes (Clifton Road, close to Norwood Junction) and was the oldest of seven children – five girls and two boys. Her father was dead, and all the children lived with their mother (“Mum”). She attended church (not every Sunday), went to choir practice and Bible study (“class”) and took part in occasional church socials and outings.
My grandfather lived at 156 Woodville Road, South Norwood, a short walk away from my grandmother’s home. He, too, lived with his family, on a rather more modest street than my grandmother’s.
Neither of them wanted a child, especially my grandfather.
Towards the end of January, my grandmother and grandfather began using what contacts they had to try to end the pregnancy. First, my grandmother made an appointment with a doctor, and Arthur went with her.
21 January, Thursday. Called at 156 about 8. Knocked 7 times, but could not make anyone hear, went over again about 9. ‘A’ in alone, asked about the dr, only stayed 1/2 hr
23 January, Saturday. Called at 156, then home to tea went to Dr Johns with A, nothing gained, back home again about 9.30.
Two days later “a friend” appears in the diary. He supplied Arthur and my grandmother with “stuff” in exchange for money. An appointment was also arranged with “a man,” although my grandmother’s courage failed her at the last moment and she did not stay.
25 January, Monday. After tea went to 156. A had been to see his friend + wants me to go tomorrow night
26 January, Tuesday. Lost 8.23. caught 8.41 foggy train late Caught 5.30 down … got ready to see ‘A’ about 20 to 8 but found he cancelled the meeting with his friend, told me trouble about £ …
27 January, Wednesday. … caught 5.46 down N.J. (Norwood Junction) 8 o’clock. ‘A’ met me, gave me some more… Dense black fog all day not lift even lunch
1 February, Monday. Called at 156 to go with ‘A’ to his friend, but ‘A’ not well, been in bed all day. Stayed with him till about 9 …
4 February, Thursday. Called at 156. ‘A’ alone, but not well enough to go out. I went alone, but when I got there could not speak to the man, so came away without, called + told ‘A,’ he very cross about it. I (do) not stop but go off to choir practice, felt very ill all day. Not enjoy anything.
In late January a dense fog settled over London, and one night it took my grandmother more than two hours to travel from London Bridge Station to Norwood Junction, normally a journey of twenty to twenty-five minutes. In February, Arthur came down with bronchitis, and my grandmother’s younger sister also became sick and had to be hospitalized. Later in the month, her mother was laid up in bed. My grandmother was tired and often felt sick and faint, and in early February she and Arthur had a bitter quarrel.
7 February, Sunday. Arthur’s birthday
In bed till 1. Little walk afternoon. Tea with ‘A’ I took him a birthday cake, spent evening with him most fervently hope + pray that God will deliver me out of his hands, he most unjust + cruel to me.
9 February, Tuesday. Went to 156 + found ‘A’ alone, he seemed only very little better. His mood much kinder to me than on Sun last, but I w’d not forgive him.
Two more meetings were arranged with the friend. In late February there was snow and cold, and in early March, a hailstorm. In the first days of March, my grandmother fell ill (“cold in my limbs”) and soon developed a bad cold and cough. She stayed home from work (“not go to biz”). But almost at once the mood of the diary starts to change. My grandmother and Arthur meet; they talk; their disagreements seem less lasting. There is a new calm, or perhaps despair has replaced struggle and the frenzied need to fight. My grandmother by then was about three months pregnant.
11 March, Thursday. Called at 156. ‘A’ + I had talk to ourselves in front room then went for a walk for 1 hr. Not go to choir practice
18 March, Thursday. … stayed at 156 little while, but ‘A’ + I very worried to know what to do for the best … very rainy night.
31 March, Wednesday.‘A’ + I spent the evening in front room 156 making arrangements. I feel as if God really has left me to myself.
Confessed to mum, she so very good.
The secret being out, what remained were the practical details (the “arrangements”). Family and friends were “told,” and Arthur’s mother took it better than expected (“… his m. very nice about it”). A ring was bought (my grandmother put up the money) and the couple spent time at weekends with mutual friends, though Arthur’s temper did not improve. In the course of one afternoon or evening, his behaviour could change from bullying to kindness, or the other way around.
12 April, Easter Monday. Needlework sitting in garden until it rained, then called at 156. I went over after dinner, ‘A’ very horrid at first but he came round all right, we had tea together…
17 April, Saturday. 2.25 down … I promised ‘A’ to be over there 3.30, but was ½ hr late. He not ready, so came back home again … He was very, very horrid at first, but afterwards turned very nice.
I wish I knew what he really wanted, or how to manage him. It worries me so, I wish I could get right away.
23 April, Friday. Not go near ‘A,’ felt too low-spirited + done up. 8.25 down …
My grandmother noted down changes in my grandfather’s mood with as much precision as she did train times to and from London. It was as if she didn’t expect to influence him, or to be able to reason with him – and perhaps she couldn’t. Perhaps he was incapable of considering anyone’s feelings but his own. Did she know what she wrote? The clarity of her writing makes her diary a faithful record of the flux and change of an abusive relationship – of repeated movements from deliberate hurt to reconciliation, from wretchedness to hope, from anger and alienation to relative security and peace. What my grandmother describes is the emotional rollercoaster of the abused partner or wife, although she had no name for Arthur’s conduct or for her own distress. I think that she didn’t know how aberrant Arthur’s behaviour was, or how much she suffered. She was too busy keeping going and forestalling her own collapse, and writing served to neutralize what she knew and what she felt.
25 April, Sunday. 11.4 (train) to Stone Hill (a nearby suburb) Fine day, told Violet all about it, she delighted + hopes all will come right. It seems too good to be true to be as she puts it. Back to N.J. 6.40. A waiting for me, had lovely evening together, felt much brighter.
27 April, Tuesday. 8.25 down. Called at 156 saw ‘A,’ he very hard to me + cool, will not go to Vi’s on Sun.
Wish I was dead, or had never known him
The Week of the Wedding: 2–7 May 1909
Right up to the end, my grandfather fought a fierce rearguard action to protect his freedom and his purse. On the Sunday before the wedding, he asked my grandmother to sign “a paper” that presumably would have absolved him of all legal and financial responsibility for her and the child. When at the end of the week she still refused to sign, he threatened not to appear at the wedding, and my grandmother’s elder brother had to be sent round to strong-arm him into showing up. It seems as well that my grandmother’s brother Tom had not yet been told of the reasons for the marriage.
2 May, Sunday.Too late for church. Went to see ‘A’ after dinner, he rather cool + rude in manner, went home to tea + back to 156 after, he much nicer after tea … want me to sign an agreement. I refused.
4 May, Tuesday. Called at 156. Mrs. came to door. ‘A’ says all right for Sat.Mum told Tom when I gone to bed, mum say he so very upset about it.
5 May, Wednesday. … mum told me what Tom said. I think he seems very hard, says I can’t stay home. I was very upset, cried a lot + exhausted myself.
7 May, Friday. … called at ‘A.’ He wanted me to sign a very silly paper + because I wouldn’t, he said wouldn’t come down tomorrow. I had hysterics when got home. Tom went over to see “A” + came back saying alright.
Reading between the lines, it seems that my grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother, whose name I never knew) would have allowed my grandmother to live at home after she was married. My father would then have been raised in my grandmother’s family and, just possibly, my grandmother might have returned to her job after my father’s birth. But my grandmother’s brother Tom disagreed (“says I can’t stay home”). My grandmother was the oldest child, but Tom was the elder of two brothers and male head of the household. His word was law. Three weeks after the wedding, my grandparents moved into a small flat in the neighbourhood (my grandmother paid the deposit) and my father was born there less than three months later. My grandmother gave notice at her job in the week following the wedding.
In the next seven years, my grandmother had two more children. In 1914 my grandfather enlisted in the British Army, and in 1919 he returned to England after spending a year in a POW camp with an untreated leg injury. He was unemployed from then on. At some point he became violent, and I don’t think anyone knows when. The marriage lasted forty-four years, until my grandfather’s death in 1953.
It was as a consequence of these events that my grandmother lived a life of poverty and her children were raised in an atmosphere of violence. By the time I knew her, she was also legally blind. She suffered from a hereditary blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and in one brief diary entry, she wrote that she had seen a specialist who told her there was no cure.
I’ve come to believe that understanding often skips a generation. My father had his own battles to fight and didn’t have much time or energy to spend regretting the hardships of his mother’s life. I was always inclined to take my grandmother’s part, and I felt that the world had treated her unjustly, even when I didn’t know the reasons for it, and even as a child.
When I first read the diary a few years after my grandmother’s death, when I was in my mid- to late twenties, the bond I felt with her was stronger than I’d imagined. Reading the diary, I knew exactly what she’d lived through, and at times it seemed that I was reading about myself – about a younger, more vulnerable version of myself. In my late teens and into my early twenties, I had been mostly ignorant of contraception and had no access to abortion. The fears my grandmother described were exactly those I had known: the terror of losing all my hard-won independence, the not knowing, the near panic at being found out.
Now when I read the diary, at almost seventy-four, I see my grandmother’s toughness. She took things step-by-step; she did not waste herself in emotional outbursts and fought back against Arthur only when he drove her almost to the ground. She recorded honestly, spoke truthfully when there was no one there to listen. Toughness was for her a practiced habit of mind.
Can I be old and hear the children playing –
a solid block of sound across the concrete yard?
High-pitched voices, ragged voices trailing,
shouts that drift up high above the rest? –
Those are the voices of the leaders, and I know
because I was once was part of it,
a docile follower in a single pack of kids.
Once I took turns, learned rhymes and copied steps,
was sometimes chosen, sometimes pushed aside,
sometimes a worthy player, sometimes last,
so now I stand outside the rusting wire fence;
feel with a child’s heart, see with a child’s eyes,
and remember how things were then,
how some were badly dressed and some were not
some were poorly fed, had colourless, pale skin
that looked as if they never saw the sun,
and beyond that child’s small world
nagging teachers, anxious parents,
unjust justice and the cruelty of place.
Can I be old and walk along the riverbank,
listen to the broken cries of geese,
screeching cries that sear the heavy autumn air,
like human voices? They seem to claim
all mortal suffering – distant killings,
mercenary wars, children dying crossing frontiers,
whole cities emptied so the fighting can go on;
five million fleeing from one country, half a million dead –
and more. By right, this is my pain, not theirs,
but I linger, caught inside the canopy of guilt they build.
They won’t die yet: here they nibble grass and grubs
on muddy ground and block the path of passers-by,
although one morning in the darkening dawn
before I am awake, they’ll arch up, lift their rounded bellies,
take off like clumsy missiles in the sky,
and some will lose their way and some will fall
buffeted by winds, worn down by hunger,
and I’ll be left hearing their incantations,
their noisy echoes of a hurt that never heals.
Can I be old and live among my books and photographs,
with paper, keyboard, radio, tv – all the things
that let me say my say and hear
what others say and do to little purpose?
Can I look down and see my ageing, knuckled hands
that one day won’t be strong enough to hold a pen?
White, bloodless fingers, reddened, blotchy backs –
These leper’s hands. Can I be old?
A useless, pointless question. – I am,
and what I have is what I’ve learned from living:
childhood, memory, connectedness.
Put together, they can make a space
big enough to save me from oblivion,
wide enough to hold me, and to be.
I came looking for you on the streets of Montparnasse
boulevard Arago, rue Saint-Jacques, rue Mouffetard, boulevard Raspail
place de l’Odéon
I came looking for a woman solitary not afraid
living on coffee and fine
on the money men gave though not freely
I came looking for a woman who lived in cheap hotels
fifth floor, dark corridors
a woman who looked down into alleyways
with no chances left
except in one week or two
maybe one last shot at love
your women were almost all the same
names not quite English but not outlandish either –
Marya, Julia, Sasha –
you didn’t want us to know them
what you named were the streets they walked on
so we could be there
rue Saint-Jacques you called
the street of homeless cats
in Paris all the streets and squares and monuments speak of the past –
Austerlitz, Tilsitt, Solférino, Sébastopol, Clémenceau, George-V,
Wilson, Roosevelt, Mittérand, Charles de Gaulle –
quays and metro stops, battles and statesmen, arches and obelisks,
victory and peace
on place Notre-Dame a giant statue of Charlemagne
further from the centre I note the defeats – place 16 juin 1940, Villejuif, Mémoriale de la Déportation Jean Biguet, sous-lieutenant, tombé ici pour la liberation de Paris
would you care you’re not remembered with the rest?
you came not for France but because you hated England
and especially the English
you hated the accents, like a uniform, like a weapon
used to beat people down
you hated the savagery of belonging
here you found street life
lives lived in the open
pale and pulsing and not afraid
Paris, you said, is life itself
it was your life
you peeled back the skin.
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was born in Dominica and died in Exeter, England. She lived on the Continent of Europe for ten years, beginning in 1919, and in Paris for several years in the 1920s. Three of her five novels are set in Paris.