Gradually Then Suddenly

 

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1: My Dearest Andrew

My dearest Andrew,

This is not a suicide note, although god knows it almost was. It is also not an apology and it is not supposed to put your mind at rest. It is not meant to absolve you of any guilt you ought to be feeling or any responsibility you should be taking for driving me to my chosen course of action. You should feel guilty. You are responsible. It is absolutely and completely your doing. It is, in every imaginable way, entirely your fault.

Ten years ago, we promised to love and to cherish until death do us part and I was so trusting, so naïve, I thought you meant it as much as I did. It began with words, only words, but exactly the right words to make me feel like I had done something to deserve your disdain. I never told you this, but back then I made a list of all the things that were wrong with me and all the ways I could fix them to make you love me enough. I tried. I tried so hard to be perfect for you.

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway refers to going bankrupt in “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly” and that is how I lost myself. I lost myself for you and then I lost myself in you. People might say, “Why didn’t she just leave?” as if it’s that easy, as if in that situation there’s still enough of the original person left to fully understand what’s happening. I might have said that too, before you. I came to know better. It is never that simple.

Looking back, I can see it all so clearly. At the time, during the gradual part of the process, I could see nothing beyond my own supposed shortcomings, all the flaws of which you so frequently and eloquently reminded me. It was like slowly bleeding to death from a thousand small cuts but all the while believing it was my fault for not being able to stem the flow of blood or cultivate skin that could somehow resist being sliced open. After a while, I began to feel that I should apologise to the blade for getting in its way.

The sudden part was perhaps the most painful, although not the darkest stretch of the path I walked alongside you. I had always told myself that at least you didn’t hit me. You didn’t physically hurt me so it couldn’t have been that bad. Once I could no longer placate myself with that false logic, I simply found new justifications for your treatment of me. I thought about other women I had heard gossip about who were in a similar situation and for a brief moment I recognised myself. Then I thought no, it’s different for me because I deserve it, and that was when the purest darkness found me.

I spent three more years making excuses for you when no excuses should have been made because, really, there are no excuses for what you did to me. Your secrets were my secrets and I held them close, always. As I faded away, becoming quieter, taking up less space, our secrets filled the void inside of me like voices echoing around a dark, empty house. I became a ghost, haunting myself, whispering not of a forgotten past but of a hopeless future.

A year ago, I started making plans to end my life. I thought it would be poetic, romantic even, for it to happen on our tenth wedding anniversary. I imagined you finding my body—pale in a bath full of blood and water gone cold, limp and lifeless after an overdose of pills and vodka, bent and broken on the ground beneath our fourth floor bedroom window—on that particular day. I imagined you feeling pain, regret, even a fraction of the hollow sickness I had felt since the first day you told me that I made you like this and no-one will ever love me the way you do.

Six months ago, it began to dawn on me that you had little, if any, capacity for remorse and perhaps there was a better way for me to find freedom from the prison of you. From that moment on, every strike of your fist, every vicious word from your poisonous lips strengthened my resolve. I was never as stupid as you told me I was and I found I had developed a particular skill for deception. I did my research, I set the wheels in motion and I began to find my way to a life beyond you.

One month ago, you arrived home with roses, as you often did. A meaningless gesture. I never liked cut flowers because all I saw in them was beauty slowly drying up, decaying and falling to pieces. This time though, I saw a countdown to freedom and finally I had my own secret, my own beautiful, untouchable truth.

My dearest Andrew, it is no accident that you found this letter next to what is left of those roses. I promise you will never find me, no matter how hard you might try. I promise I am happier now than I have ever been in my life. I promise you will never see me again although I do not promise that I will never see you. I sincerely hope that everything you deserve in life will find you and I have no doubt whatsoever that it will. I have died a hundred times during the years we spent together but I promise you will only die once. As was my experience of every death at your hands, you will always expect it but you will never see it coming. My darling, I believe you may recognise this sentiment—you made me like this and no-one will ever love you the way I do.

Sleep well.

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2: My Seeking Soul

“. . . and to my darling granddaughter Ella, who may remain the sole owner of our home for as long as she wishes, I leave this ring, a gift from my lifelong friend Pearl. Ella, you always know exactly where to look and how to get the bottom of things, so I hope this gift brings you the same combination of security and guidance that Pearl brought to me. My Ella, my seeking soul, when you find yourself in the darkest of places, stand firm by the light and know that your concerns are beneath you.”

“Mr Jacobs, that makes no sense! I mean, I know who Pearl was, although I never met her, and I’ve always adored that ring so I understand why Grandmother would have wanted me to have it but the rest of what you said, it doesn’t mean a thing to me. I don’t understand.”

“Miss Riley, your grandmother lived to be almost one hundred years old and although I always found her to be sharp as a tack in our dealings, it is entirely possible that time got to her towards the end and influenced some of her later, more poetic, alterations to the will. She did specify, however, that the message must be given to you precisely as she had written it, word for word. Perhaps it will become clear to you in time. She certainly seemed to think you would have no trouble figuring it out.”

Ella turned the ring over in her hands and her grandmother’s words over in her head. There was an inscription on the inside of the ring—22 10 26—which she had at first assumed was the date her grandmother and Pearl had met, although after some consideration she remembered being told of their meeting taking place shortly before the beginning of the Second World War. Besides, her grandmother rarely spoke of her life before that time, and when Ella had asked about her early years she had replied only, “My dear, I was a different person. One may live and die many times in their life and some things are better left buried.”

Her grandmother had always been an intriguing woman, secretive about some things but so open about others. She had spoken often of her true love, an American soldier who had been stationed in Scotland during the war and who had left her with the gift of a child growing within her before his untimely death. She had told Ella of the scandal that had followed and then quickly died down when the next interesting thing had happened to capture the attention of the village.

She had explained her silent heartbreak, followed by a gentle understanding, when her daughter had moved away from their quiet world to chase the excitement of the city. She spoke of the tragedy of Ella’s parents’ death in a road accident and her subsequent delight when the child who had survived had come to live with her and thrived in the wide open landscape, wild weather and timeless simplicity of her home.

And of course, she had spoken of Pearl. Pearl had been an adventurer, a great beauty, a charismatic, unconventional and fiercely intelligent woman of independent means. Ella’s grandmother had said that in many ways, she owed Pearl her life. They had kept in touch across the miles and years until Pearl had passed away, shortly before Ella’s birth. In the end, Ella was the only family her grandmother had and the only family she had needed. The feeling was mutual.

A woman of the modern age, Ella sat down at the computer which always looked so out of place next to her grandmother’s collected household objects, and searched for 22 10 26. Finding nothing of note, she tried 22nd October 1926. As interesting as it was to discover that this was the original publication date of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, it didn’t bring her any closer to understanding the cryptic message her grandmother had left for her. Deciding to give up trying for the evening and get on with more practical tasks, she wandered to the outhouse to unload the washing machine. The outhouse had originally contained a toilet back when such things were not located inside the home, but when her grandmother had modernised the house with an indoor bathroom, she had also had electricity and modern plumbing run to the outhouse and installed a washing machine and an electric light there.

Entering the windowless room, Ella stood still and quiet, suddenly hit by a wave of sadness at the memory of her grandmother helping her work through the fear of the dark that she had developed after the death of her parents. She remembered being told, “It can’t hurt you. Just take a moment before you turn the light on. Stand right there with your hand on the switch and remember that at any time you want, you can bring brightness to the darkest of places.”

Was this the darkest of places? Positioning herself next to the light switch, Ella stamped her foot down firmly on the bare floorboards and noticed a slightly hollow sound that she hadn’t picked up on before, probably because she had never been looking for it. She stamped her foot slightly to the left, then to the right, then back to centre, confirming that the hollowness was not consistent throughout the room. Suddenly it made sense–her concerns were beneath her!

She ran back in to the house, grabbed her grandmother’s toolbox filled with tools older than Ella, returned to the outhouse and set about prying up the floorboards over the spot where she had been standing. In the hole in the ground, she found a small metal box with a combination lock and turned the dial—22 10 26—until the box opened. Inside was a pile of letters addressed to Lexie Mackenzie. In any other situation, she wouldn’t have opened a letter that wasn’t addressed to her but her grandmother had meant for her to find these, to read them. Realising the letters were stacked in date order, the most recent on the top, she took the envelope from the bottom of the pile. The name on the letter was Mrs A Coburg and the address was in London. Ella opened it and began to read.

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3: My Sweet Brave Friend

My sweet brave friend,

Please find enclosed the papers for your new house and land, and everything you need to confirm your new identity and begin your life afresh. Do not ask how I made these arrangements or who helped me to do so. This is information you shall never need and it is safer for all involved that you do not have it.

When you leave to travel north, please do so carefully and with a minimum of disruption to your daily life. It is vital that Andrew suspects nothing until you are gone, although we shall both enjoy our shared knowledge of what he will suspect every day after. I have paid plenty of money to some delightfully unsavoury characters who will let him know, in no uncertain terms, that he is not to look for you and that they shall easily find out if he does.

Please write to let me know when you have arrived safely at your destination and I shall immediately arrange to visit so we can plan your final gift to Andrew. Stay strong and remember that your future and your freedom await you. Alexandra Coburg is dead. Long live Lexie Mackenzie!

Gradually then suddenly,
Pearl

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