Against Dickens

What was different in me then, back when I wept freely through Dickens’ novels? Or when in school drama his characters were my first choice – Pip to start, then Miss Haversham.

I married Henry, a decent man with Dickens one of his heroes. For both those men, work was probably the priority.

A wedding appeared to settle the matter of love for Henry.

He came from a family where marriages were for life and there was visible relief for him to have his uncertainties over.

Possibly we weren’t together long enough for Henry to settle me in his mind as there at home, then seek more elsewhere, as Dickens did.

During our first year Henry smiled at his story of meeting me that day, through a friend, and of our mishaps on the way to marriage. Though not sufficiently convoluted or drawn out for a novel, it had flow from the beginning to a wedding end.

The arbitrary was played down as we held cohesion in our hands.

Fractures in either of our hearts had no place and we didn’t question marrying younger than most.

Before I bled into the sofa, loving had not looked complicated to Henry.

Henry was a good teacher, others said, and I kept any doubts half formed.

He taught Dickens and the frustrating puzzles of poetry, and could be pedantic.

Being polite, of course he listened when it was the turn for me to speak, though didn’t make a lot of room for my opinion.

But, back then, did either of us know how to begin leaving space for what might lie in wait to be spoken?

If his listening was perfunctory, my own was little better.

I knew frustration but not how to unpick it. Getting hold of where I was at odds with myself eluded me.

We had that story of being together and were obviously the lucky ones, never having been sent up chimneys or wickedly deprived of inheritance.

We joined a few good causes. Henry worked hard for Amnesty and I sorted clothes at the charity shop. We gave donations instead of excess spending on birthdays or Christmas and that Henry’s mother didn’t approve helped our unity.

When I was pregnant far sooner than planned, Henry was both disconcerted and flattered.

At least he had a contradiction.  For me, trying to clarify anything felt absurd with a head turned to mush.

My body carried on – it threw up each morning and altered any sense of being familiar to myself.

It allowed joined cells to settle in unseen flesh, absorbing what was necessary.

All this might eventually shape some tale of motherhood.

“Let’s not tell others ‘til I get my mind round this.”

“Don’t you want our child?”

He could ask that – for him there was already a baby coming from my body, which was feeling more strange than during its peculiar shifts in  puberty.

Yes, I would go with it, not resist.

I certainly wasn’t going to have extracted what was forming but to believe a human being would emerge was a bigger leap than I could manage.

At twelve weeks Henry told his parents and then everyone else on his list. He had a picture of potential fatherhood to accept and telling others helped make it real.

At sixteen weeks I bled and ruined our sofa, and then our marriage.

Henry said “You baulked at this.”

Is that what I did?

Well, he’s quick to find answers and had reason to be cross – as I bled into the sofa, it never occurred to me to wake the man who was already on his way to being a parent.

Dickens was no help as I was emptied out – with new life gone and a marriage shrivelling fast.

Dickens was nowhere when I left Henry, who was organising delivery of the new sofa he had chosen.

There was no story line. Neither of us noticed it was the due date, given before the GP said we had to assume it was not meant to be.

She answered my,  “was it me?” with a matter of fact  “unless you were very reckless, no.”

But I didn’t recognise the date until I was already out the door and on a train.

The sofa could have been re-covered, Henry’s parents said, but that proved more expensive than buying new in January sales.

I went to my often cross sister, who is six years younger.

Over breakfast, my second day with her, Alice spilt the coffee.

“For goodness sake, don’t say you have inherited the Red Queen streak!”

The two of us once vowed never to follow our dead mother and nearly dead grandmother – both of whom,  though usually  rather mild,  showed  a disconcerting  capacity at times to chop off a head.

Grandmother outlawed her son, refusing to attend his wedding or speak to the unacceptably pregnant bride.

And from our mother we got no explanation for the ex-communication of her best friend from school, who was Alice’s godmother and gave the best presents.  It was that sudden and puzzling rupture which prompted  our shared vow.

Yet there I was, with Alice, and having no sensible ground to offer for my own abrupt judgement that the marriage was over.

Henry stayed with the Dickens books, though he could not yet grasp a tale to make sense of events – he was left with a patched coherence, like an infuriating poem he had not cracked. Dickens no longer appealed to me, even if I could not yet say that he gave me tears for suffering others but no access to limits in my own heart or Henry’s.

Miss Haversham indulged but the rest of us, more sensibly, moved on, and Henry and his mother were in unison over that –but the half- formed lost life was driving me.

There was no narrative. Other losses, like my mother’s illness and death

 were revived; they came to swamp, then left again.

 There was, as well, a bloody sheet.

I must have been four, as the new baby was to come soon after my birthday.

It never showed up and no one said why.  My mother was silent.

Black mist thickened round her, round me and our house.

Probably it was my fault for getting up and creeping close – I knew I was supposed to stay in bed and sing ‘til I was back asleep –  but there was a cry.  Some low, big noise and a terrifying protest of, “No! No!”

I had to go, not be alone.

 I never spoke of a woman carrying reddened cloth and blood in a dish I was not meant to see.

What words could come out when no one wished to hear?

I should have been asleep to this, and then been able to cheer my mother as adults told me to do.

But my crayon drawings, which had brought a smile and a kiss, no longer did so.

Once all that blood came, any efforts of mine turned pointless.

I knew something of where she was when she stayed in darkness, with little time for me.

I could have kept trying harder, sang louder, danced longer but gave up.

What difference could I make?

The smile she tried on sometimes was not convincing.

I failed and my grandmother came and took me away.

Spilt blood defeated me not once but twice.