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These are the things I know.

The Red Letter

Right from my first encounter with her, from the moment she became present to me, a sense of ending has eclipsed all beginnings. She dies, naturally. Or rather she was always already dead, long before I ever heard myself speak her name. This is the only fact I have for certain. The only clear sighting of her. The closer I get to her self, her body, the further I fall into her story, the closer I get to losing this.

It was 1864 when I met her. That's how I know she's dead. People just don't live that long. Even so I ended up having to prove the fact to myself. I know she's dead because I have stood at her grave. Her death only real in the experience of the moment. I looked at her simple inscription and read the words of yet another voice trying to recreate her in my imagination. But as I stood, attempting to put her decayed flesh back on her muddied bones, I realised there was nothing of her there. Nothing beneath my treacherous black shoes save for trace elements and a few bones. The future's archaeological exhibit, my digging was to be done elsewhere. Standing on her well-fed grass I read an inscription so out of date it is now a lie.

* * *





* * *

We moved into this house, my wife and I, just over two years ago. I'd been working for a magazine in London but, for one reason and another, had decided to devote more time to my own writing. City life had its advantages, its convenience, but a hurried sense of completion had begun to overtake me. I felt as if life was geared towards destinations. I felt as if I was careering towards the end of the road. The question was always there, waiting to be asked: "Where are you going?"

"So where do you see yourself five years down the line?"

"Well, I suppose part of the answer depends upon the company's response to my recent success. I feel I've displayed the correct approach and my work has been of a high standard. I think that if I were not invited to join the senior management team within the next eighteen months, I would have to look at my options. In the longer term I'd like to be able to invest enough to ensure an early retirement, possibly at fifty-five."

Eventually, that kind of communication, always selling yourself or buying others, tired me out. I became uneasy about my own complicity in a system that encouraged such mapping. My life had become a commercial orienteering course, with a time limit and controls. My position, me, I supported all this.

I sold my shares in the company, a bonus following a good year, and then sold our three-bedroom terrace. The profits, and the relative price of rural housing, enabled us to but our dream family home in the country.

The house was, and still is, full of rustic charm and original features, but it needed some renovation to suit my purposes. The roof space had clearly been used in the past. It had a complete staircase to it, not just a loft ladder, and it was boarded and panelled. It had no windows however, and following a readjustment of the designs at the request of the local authority, work began installing a westward facing dormer window. The views across the fields, away from the village centre and the distractions of rural gossip, would be inspirational.

It was during the construction work, knocking a hole out of the roof to be precise, that my involvement in her affairs began. That room's first natural light since the original builders had incarcerated it poured in. In a whirl of fresh air, papers stirred. Discovered under the panelling a newspaper cutting from the Hampton and Westbury Post, dated Tuesday 6th December, 1864. The light had given up a secret, a story waiting to be told.

* * *

Standing proud at its very heart, St. Swithin's church dominates the village of Stourton and its surrounding parish. The church tower stands out from the countryside, commanding a position like the great cathedral at Chartres, only smaller. Reverend Thomas Hardy, the parish Rector, liked to remind his attentive flock on a Sunday that, "the Lord, our Shepherd" kept watch over all of them from that tower. He Himself had been to the top of it and had "seen into every household in the village." There could be no secrets from His gaze.

* * *

My wife rarely ventured upstairs to the attic. My writing had nothing to do with her. I suppose that's what she thought. She wouldn't have understood anyway, and a row would have broken out over those annoying questions: "Is that meant to be us then?"

She seemed to be content to keep house and visit friends, although many friends had too many children and too little time for people like us. She managed to busy herself though and was always in bed long before me. This allowed me the chance to take this project seriously, to become more intense. Pretty soon I didn't even notice her footsteps not mounting the stairs.

* * *

Living in the shadows of candlelight for most of her days, the kitchen was in a windowless basement, Ann usually resented her place. On Sunday evenings, following Hardy's sermons though, she was glad she had a room in the attic. Windowless, and only imaginatively looking out over the fields, she felt protected from this intrusive stare. She would climg the stairs, remove her Sunday hat, her dress, her corset, and lay aside that overtired, overworked and overlooked Ann. Away from the gaze of that ancient building she felt free to explore her own body. She would hold her swelling belly and feel her child moving against her flesh. Her secret gave her an identity, prevented her being consumed. She would sing to it, old field songs her grandmother had sung. And she would love it. Love it without knowing it. Love it without needing it.

This was not a room of her own, though. Ann shared it with Jane, Jane Preece the housemaid, but this didn't interfere with their liberties. Ann in particular felt very lucky to find someone to relate with. She had heard many stories from her sisters of overbearing generals and the loneliness of such company. Even without the complications of her confinement it was common for girls in small households to be isolated. Mrs. Sutton's was certainly a small household. She knew how lucky it was for her to have found a friend in Jane, and how they were both lucky that the only other servant, Tom the gardener, was amiably disinterested in everything bu gardening. The situation meant that Ann had been able to conceal her predicament, free from the rumours of a larger household or an older colleague.

On these Sundays Jane would often lie naked alongside her and they would wish the world to stop. The incessant growing of Ann's belly, the ever-stronger kicks and convulsions, her painful breasts and darkening nipples, reminded her of her position. She was aware of an impending doom, an ending that could not be prevented. She wanted to remain pregnant. She didn't want to have, couldn't have, a baby.

* * *

"Jane," Ann ventured one night. "Will you promise me something?"

"Well, you know, my dear, it all depends. But I will try. Of that you can be sure."

Ann fiddled with her belly button. It looked like the knotted end of a balloon. In recent weeks it had begun to protrude and itch. She looked intently at her companion.

"I hope I never ask you anything you are unable to do. I should hate myself if I ever gave you cause to compromise yourself. I ask only that you write to my mother for me, if anything should happen. I have such very bad feelings at times, such dark thoughts, and I should like for her to have another chance."

Jane smiled and placed a hand on the younger woman's thigh.

"Of course I shall, if you wish it. But please, consider writing yourself, now whilst you can. I should think you far more able than I. Please, write yourself. I shall fetch you some paper.

Jane began to rise, but Ann snatched her hand, preventing her withdrawal.

"No. I fear it would do more harm than good. Perhaps some dreadful news will work instead."

* * *

It didn't take a lot of research to find out that the house we had moved into was the same house that Ann Wilson had lived and worked in so many uears ago. A morning's work at the church records was all it took to trace Ann to Rose Cottage, our Cottage. There were times when I felt so close to her the room would fill with pain. Her screams muffled to avoid attention, invading my privacy.

As close as we were though, as much as I breathed life into her, I could do nothing for her daughter, who never lived long enough to be recorded. It is here in this place that in fear, next to me in space, if not in time, her delicate little spine was almost broken in two. An attempt to hide her from prying eyes.

Out of compassion for her mother, to alleviate Ann's suffering, I gave her Jane Preece. There are no records of her either, but what else could I do?

* * *

Midnight. Pitch dark. She sits, awoken by a sense of unease, an almost unnoticeable anxiety. She fumbles her hand in the direction of the dressing table, finds the candle and takes the edge of the room's blackness. It is as cold as the air outside. Her breath, clouding in great pillows, searches out and flees from the draught-cracks in the panelling. Her bulk is alien to her for the first time. And the the first realisation of the wetness, brought to light as it cools around her buttocks and thighs. The shiver is followed by a faint and yet distinct contraction. It is beginning.

* * *

When Jane finally awoke, woken not by the rising sun but by a sense of its rising, she rolled over to see Ann clutching at her knees, as if to bring them to her chest, but impeded by the enormity of her distended self. She was rocking slightly, and no words were needed. Jane's comprehension was instant and complete.

Dressing quickly, Jane mapped out a plan. She would begin the hidden chores. Lighting the fires, boiling the water, preparing the breakfast. She could leave Ann in bed until the household, until Mrs Sutton came downstairs. But Ann would have to make an appearance, to fit the plan. She must be seen around the house, behaving normally. If her absence were noticed then there would be questions, and as illness could be the only acceptable excuse from duty, the doctor would be called. Mrs Sutton was careful her staff should be treated correctly. If the birth could be kept secret then the baby could be hidden until nightfall, and then, under the cover of night, it could be taken away. Jane already knew where to take it.

Initially everything went well. Ann's contractions were only mild at first and well spaced. Just once did she have to positively lie, as she winced and instinctively grasped her stomach.

"No, ma'am. A little indigestion, nothing more."

She had quickly retreated, promising to take a little time to drink a glass of milk.

"Milk is by far the best thing for digestive complaints my dear. Be sure to take a glass. But mind you don't neglect your duties."

* * *

With me busy writing and my wife doing whatever it was she did, we had less and less time together. We hadn't been physical since we moved in to the cottage. Something had come between us and yet everything we had was part of the plan, mapped out from the day I had proposed to her. I asked her once if anything was wrong.

"Just a little run down." That was all I could make her say, but I knew there was more.

* * *

By mid-afternoon, following a difficult luncheon period, Ann found it hard to continue the performance. She desperately wanted to find a quiet corner, to roll up like a cat and wait to be discovered with a delightful litter by eager children. Twice she had to answer the doorbell. Jane had forced her to.

"You simply must. It will help later, you'll see. It will stop them asking questions of you. Carry on as normal. I shall follow and wait in the scullery. I shall wait and help you back upstairs. Now quickly, there's the bell again! Mrs. Sutton will soon want to know why you have taken so long."

After the second of such trips, Jane realised that the time was close. They would have to hop that she was not required again.

* * *

There was no fear in the room that afternoon. Each had experienced childbirth at home. It was all a natural part of life in an industrial town. But just as there was no fear, there was also no excitement, no expectation. Ann squatted on all fours on the bed, her face buried in her pillow. Jane assisted, rubbing her back, cooling her head with water. She would run her fingers inside her feel for a head, to prevent a tear.

Ann, her buttocks spread apart, bearing down, her vagina stretched white, expelled a girl in a ruch of wet and blood and excrement.

* * *

Dressing as soon as she could stand, a towel beneath her underwear, hidden by her uniform, she answered the door again, only half an hour later.

Reverend Hardy didn't make the connection between the desperately pale and tired servant who opened the door for him and the story he heard as a magistrate much later.

When she returned to her room she wanted to lie down and dream of a full belly that moved of its own accord. When she finally made it to the top of the stairs and enteredf her room she barely noticed the clean sheets, the fresh smell of incense and the absent child. She caught a glimpse of Jane sliding a box beneath the bed and she knew enough.

* * *

She struggled through the following days, taking time off only to replace her bloodied towel. She continued to leak constantly from a wound that could not heal. By Tuesday she was drained and Jane was forced to ask Mrs. Sutton to call a doctor. Ann had been unable to rise that morning, she had a fever, and at times she had failed to recognise her. Still Jane felt she was letting her down, somehow betraying her trust.

* * *

Doctor Scott lifted back the bed covers and felt Ann's baggy stomach. He knew. Touching her was his proof. Ann followed his commands. She lifted her nightdress and unpeeled another soaked towel. She lifted her nightdress and exposed herself to him. The doctor pushed her knees further apart and entered her, his fingers inspecting, cleaning and stripping. He had to satisy himself that nature had taken its course.

The doctor stood back and wiped his hands clean while she looked on. She had seen a man do that before, or so she thought.

"You have recently been delivered, Ann, have you not?" The doctor's tone was soothing, mesmerising.

"No, sir. I am just a little drained." Ann avoided his eyes. She looked all around, blinking hard.

"Now, my dear, you can't hide the truth from a man of science. I know everything. Now, tell me what has become of the child?"

When she gave him the key she felt as if she were betraying Jane. She wondered what would happen to them, but the doctor's words gave her the idea.

"Was she dead when you put her in here, Ann?"

When you put her in here.

"Yes. Yes, of course," she answered and added rather distractedly, "when I put her in here."

Doctor Scott prised the baby from the chamber pot and Ann saw her for the first time. She wondered how something so tiny could have made her so large, left such a hole. She hugged her stomach and imagined the movements she had once felt. She looked at this doubled baby, clutching itself.

* * *

"I'm leaving you," she said.

"But where can you go without me? It doesn't make sense." Her voice was decided. I knew then that I had been waiting, from the beginning, for this. We had reached the end of the road.

"Anywhere. I have another life out there. There can be me without you."

"No, you belong here, your place is here. I've given everything that could be given. What more could I do?"

"But it's a gift that takes. You only gave me what you wanted me to have. You pictured me here. You created this life for me here."

"I don't understand. What happens next? What happens to you now?"

"I'll go to my mother's for a while, then I'll disappear. I'll go far away, out of sight."

"But you were nothing before I found you."

"No. I was something, something you didn't know. Something you have never known."

"I won't let you leave."

"You can't stop me now."

* * *

She answered concisely in court, although her words had huge import for Ann. This was her was of reconciliation. She had not replied to Ann's letter and had therefore allowed Ann to maintain a picture of their relationship based upon her sending away, upon her disgrace. Now her testimony erased that divide. Her mother's presence and her plain answers, answers that conealed much but did not exactly lie, warmed Ann briefly, hopefully.

"I reside in Grantchester, and am the mother of the prisoner. I don't know exactly how long my duaghter has been in service with Mrs Sutton. I last heard from her about three weeks ago, when she told me she was well, and comfortable, and had a good situation. She also said she hoped to be with me at Christmas."

Mother and daughter surveyed each other, warmly. Somewhere she remembered Jane's letter.

* * *

Reunited with her mother, she disappeared from my world. A chapter in her life, in our lives, was over and I imagined I wouldn't see her again. Often I find myself, alone now, looking over the fields at a scene identical to the one she could have seen had she been here now. I try to picture her not as she really was, but as I like to remember her.

The End

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