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For Mary by Elizabeth Ferretti

This story is to remember Laura Ainsworth who planted a tree on 30 April 1911. 

I’m trying not to look as though her arrival is the only thing I’ve been thinking about since I said, last week, “Yes, of course she can stay”. I got in some things Tandy said she might be able to keep down, but I worry I have it wrong.

I’ve never been pregnant. I don’t know what it is to have all those changes happen to your body, and for it to make you so ill. I am not sure it’s worth it.

After the service on Sunday, when we were pouring tea at the back of the chapel, I told Bertha about Laura coming to stay.

“Got herself pregnant did she?” Bertha said with disdain.

I wanted to say, she didn’t get herself pregnant, she had sex with a man. But I didn’t.

“She’s got this awful sickness, like the Duchess of Cambridge had,” but Bertha didn’t reply, she was busy with the old folk.

When we were washing up she said, “Not married?” I shook my head and she tutted. “Well, that’s the problem today. At least in the old days the men were duty-bound to marry, and it might not have been a perfect marriage but at least we didn’t have to fend for ourselves.”

I wondered what she was telling me.

Last week, my niece Tandy phoned from California asking if I would look after Laura until her father could return to England. She explained how ill her daughter was, said she had arranged everything with the local hospital. If things took a turn for the worse, they would take her in. Then she added, “Don’t be too hard on her about her illness.”

“Why would I do that?” I said. I sounded a little short. Did Tandy think her childless aunt would be so unsympathetic?

“Oh, Aunt, I’m sorry,” Tandy said, “I know you wouldn’t. It’s just that Laura has had some awful things said to her about being ill, and about having to give up work. She’s a bit sensitive.”

“Well, the Duchess of Cambridge had that terrible morning sickness,” I say again, “people take it more seriously now.”

“It’s not morning sickness Aunt, it’s hyperemesis gravidarum, and it happens at any time of the day. I’d like to believe you are right, but that’s not been Laura’s experience. People have been horrible. Anyway, I am grateful to you for stepping in like this. Jonathon will be over as soon as he can.”

My late sister’s daughter Tandy always was clever, too clever sometimes with that sideways look she inherited from her grandmother, my mother.

“Oh, you’re the aunt that never got married,” Tandy said once aged seven, when I’d gone to their place in Guildford in the early 70s.

“Tandy! Say sorry!” my brother-in-law said, with an apologetic glance at me.

“Why?” I answered, “She only spoke the truth.”

“Yes, but it’s the way she said it, Mary.”

I always was “the one that didn’t get married”. I mostly ignored it. I went to university in 1960, when few women did, though I wasn’t from a wealthy background. I qualified as a teacher and went to work in a grammar school, then a comprehensive, until I retired. During the holidays, I worked as a volunteer at a women’s teacher training college in south-west Uganda. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d had a husband and children, I think. Then I pull myself up short. Don’t be silly, Mary, you don’t need to justify any of that, least of all to yourself.

I look at my watch. Laura is late. I get up to make another cup of tea. When I return to the sitting room, I position myself on the settee so I can see the parking space in front of the house.

“Who’s bringing her?” I asked Tandy when she called to make final arrangements, “do you need me to pick her up?’

“Oh no, she’s getting a lift from a friend. Thanks all the same.”

Tandy had a good start, my sister Charlotte saw to that. They sent her to a private girls’ school. Well, my brother-in-law had a good job, they could afford it. It was, Charlotte told me, the kind of school that encouraged girls. After school, Tandy got a degree in engineering, and was offered a job at an American technology company in Reading. Then, 18 months ago, the company transferred her to California, to lead a research team in Palo Alto. She wrote that in her Christmas card. It’s all a bit of a whirlwind. Jonathon has handed his notice in. He’ll be joining me in a month. Laura isn’t coming with us. Her life is in Guildford now. I hope you’ll come and see us in Palo Alto!’

I got regular emails from Tandy. Jonathon had found a job in a marketing department in Silicon Valley, it was not as high up as the job he’d left, but they hoped he would progress. Laura’s doing fine, Tandy wrote, she’s got a job as a waitress while she decides what to do after her degree. She loves it. It’s ok, Tandy, I thought. I’m not judging.

Then a breathless email, sent at 2am. What time was that in California? Aunt, Laura isn’t well. She’s pregnant, which her father and I are fine with, but she’s developed this awful vomiting condition and has had to give up work, so she can’t afford to live. Could she come and stay with you? It’s just until Jonathon can get time off, he’s only just started working here, and obviously I can’t move. Would you mind?

I said yes, of course, but I was nervous about looking after my great-niece. I hardly knew her, and with her being so ill, the local hospital was even on standby to take her in at a moment’s notice. Then, last Friday Laura herself called. Her voice was unexpected.

“It’s so kind of you, Aunt Mary, to look after me,” she said, then a pause, “I am happy, you know, in spite of everything.”

I look at the keepsakes on my window sill, most of them gifts from my students in Uganda, though every time I’ve checked female literacy rates in Uganda I wonder if we did any good.

How will Laura see my old-fashioned things, my quiet life? I’ve not done anything to make me stand out from the crowd, not like the women in our family my grandmother talked about, me sitting in a high-backed armchair, legs dangling, eating ginger snaps, watching conversations I didn’t understand flow back and forth between the grown-ups. These women had been fierce, had got themselves educated, or not. One, Martha, had been sent to a woman’s home in north London during the 1890s. All contact had been lost. I watched my mother shake her head. I might have cousins in London I don’t know about, I thought.

My grandmother has an occasional table covered with photos in silver frames that the cleaning lady keeps polished. “The Cemetery,” my father whispers to me, with a wink, when my grandmother is out of the room. It is 1956. I am 14.

I go over to the photos. They are all formal portraits, except one. In this photo a young woman wears a long skirt and a shirt with full sleeves. I pick it up. Her hair is long and thick, swept up in two waves either side of her head. She’s with another woman, dressed the same way. They’re planting a tree.

“Who’s this?” I ask.

“That’s your Great-Aunt Laura. Only she’s not dead,” my mother says with a sideways look at my father, “she’s in a nursing home.”

A few weeks later, my mother says to me at breakfast, “Mary, will you come to Northampton to see Great-Aunt Laura? The nursing home has asked me to make some decisions on her behalf. We’re the only family she has left now.”

“What about Charlotte?” I complain, not understanding then that Great-Aunt Laura is dying and my mother needs some company on this trip.

“Charlotte has exams, you know that. In any case, Great-Aunt Laura was famous as a young woman, you might like to meet her. And she’s not really your great-aunt, but an older cousin of your grandmother’s.”

Next day, we get up early. I help Mother pack sandwiches. She drives us in our dark green Morris Minor for what seems like forever from Guildford to Northampton. It’s a long trip so, we’ll be staying the night in a local bed and breakfast.

We arrive at the nursing home, an imposing red-brick house at the end of a gravel drive with big trees in the grounds. Mother parks in front of the steps that lead to the front door. I think our car looks wrong parked there and say so, but Mother replies,

“Why? We’re no less important than anyone else.”

When we go in, Mother explains who we are, we are treated like royalty. I’m surprised. We are shown into the Matron’s office. I sip tea from a cup and saucer. Mother and the Matron talk.

“She gets confused these days,” Matron says, “all those memories coming back.” She gives a small shake of the head and purses her lips. I don’t know what Matron is talking about. She rings a bell. A nurse comes. Mother and I follow her up a wide wooden staircase and along a corridor. The nurse stops, and knocks on a door. “Miss Randle, your visitors are here,” she says as she opens the door.

Inside, is a scent of Lily of the Valley but also other bad smells that I don’t understand. An old lady is lying in a high bed on the far side of the room. She’s propped almost upright on a pile of pillows. You can see she’s nearing death. I am glad her eyes are closed.

“She’s asleep,” the nurse whispers loudly.

The room is clean in spite of the smell. There is a bay window with a window seat that I make a beeline for. On the lawn outside the house is a huge tree whose branches sweep out like an old-fashioned hair style. A cedar. It reminds me of the photo of Great-Aunt Laura at Grandma’s. I glance at the frail woman in bed. I can’t she how she is the same bold woman planting her tree in my grandmother’s photo.

“You’ve cut her hair,” Mother says, “her beautiful hair!”

The nurse is apologetic. “It was becoming so unmanageable.”

“Yes, of course,” my mother replies, “it’s a shame that’s all.”

The nurse says, “Would you like to do the paperwork now?”

Mother turns to me, “Are you alright here, Mary?”

I nod, but I don’t want to be left alone with this woman at the end of her life. I sit with my back turned, staring at the tree. After a while I feel her eyes open. I feel her look at me, then she speaks.

“Who are you?” in a wisp of a voice.

Remembering my manners I go to her bedside. “I’m Mary. My grandmother is your cousin, Frances,” I add as she hesitates.

“Ah yes. Mary. Nurse said you were coming. I have something for you,” she raises a paper-thin hand to point at a dresser next to her bed. “In that second drawer. There is a notebook, fetch it for me, will you, my girl?”

I pull open the drawer and lift up a pile of notepaper and envelopes. Under it is a blue notebook tied up with a faded ribbon to keep some papers in place at the back. Under the ribbon, on the front of the notebook, is a square of paper. I look up at Great-Aunt Laura in surprise because on it, in spidery letters, is written “For Mary”.

She smiles and nods. “I want you to have it,” she says, “it’s for you.”

I go to say thank you, but Great-Aunt Laura closes her eyes. The effort of speaking to me has been too much. Mother and the nurse are returning down the corridor. Suddenly, I know I don’t want them to intrude on this moment. I turn my back to Great-Aunt Laura, lift my cardigan, and tuck the notebook down inside the waistband of my pleated skirt. By the time they come back into the room, it is out of sight and I am sitting back on the window seat, looking out.

“Are you unwell, Mary?” my mother asks.

I shake my head. “I could do with some fresh air.”

“Well, go down to the car and wait for me there. I won’t be much longer.”

So I leave that room with its strange smells and the old lady who is dying. I leave without saying goodbye thought if I’d known who she was, I would of course have said goodbye. More than that. I would have taken her hand and thanked her. I would have cried at their treatment of this woman, my great-aunt, who went on hunger strike and was subjected to the brutality of force-feeding, who risked her life, was assaulted and attacked because she believed women should be given the right to vote. That I didn’t is something I have regretted my whole life.

I don’t do any of this, though, because, by the time I untie the ribbon on her journal and read her story, by the time I unfold the fragile poster carefully tucked into the back of the journal – an illustration of a woman being held down by two prison warders, a medic with a foot on her chest forcing a tube into her nose – the very poster I later discover she held up to Prime Minister Asquith, asking him: “Why did you do this to me?”, by the time I knew what she had done for me, for all other women, it was too late. She had died.

I keep the notebook hidden for the rest of the day, feel it press against my stomach, warm now. Mother and I spend the night at the bed and breakfast. I enjoy the cooked breakfast. On the way home, Mother is chatty. She tells me about her childhood, then repeats the story of how she and Father met, how I appeared nine months after he had come home on leave from the war. She smiles at that.

Outside my sitting room window a car is driving along the road slowly. It pauses at my front door, stops, then pulls into my parking space. Laura’s here. I get up and half-run to my mother’s bureau by the French window. I pull the top open and take out the dark blue notebook from its nook. I open one of the drawers in the bureau and take out the block of notes with the flowers on. I tear one off and write on it, For Laura.

The car door opens, a young woman is helped out of the passenger side. She looks thin and pale. I open the front door, stand ready to welcome her in. There will be so much to say, when she is well enough.

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