An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse

ONE

Chelmsford, Essex

December 24th 2019

Aged 94

Her hand shook and her breathing was a little laboured. It was time for Molly to write the letter, just as she had said she would: a promise made in haste, but a promise nonetheless. A task she had avoided through fear, nerves and a worry that she might just get the wording wrong. But enough now – for the love of God, she was ninety-four! The time for putting this off had long passed. She reached for the weighty book entitled A Study of Flora from her bedside cabinet. Her slender wrist flexed under the weight of the hardback edition, sending a shooting pain up her forearm.

With the book propped on her raised knees, she selected a sheet of paper from the open sheaf beside her on the bed and carefully unscrewed the lid from her fountain pen.

Holding the pen up towards the halo of light from the bedside lamp, she gazed captivated as the mother-of-pearl inlay shimmered with faint flecks of iridescence that grew no less beautiful with each passing year. The pen had been a gift from her father, one of the few things she knew with certainty had felt the touch of his broad hand; it had no doubt been the instrument via which he let his thoughts tumble from mind to sheet, and all the more precious because of it. She hoped it might do the same for her, a fancy conduit to bring clarity and fluency to a jumble of unexpressed truths that sat knotted in her head like an old ball of yarn, woven of guilt, hesitation and a gut-churning uncertainty. She sighed, finding it far easier to voice the words in her head than to commit them to paper.

Dear . . .

‘No, no, no, not “Dear”, that’s far too formal, for goodness’ sake! Start with “Hello” or something more familiar!’ She tutted as she scrunched the sheet of paper, crumpling it between her palms before tossing it onto the floor by the side of her bed.

Taking a deep, slow breath, she closed her eyes briefly before opening them again with a welcome sense of clarity. Resting the heel of her palm on the paper, she took her time, forming each word with juddering loops and an abundance of dance on the line. Her heart raced as she wrote the words that had lined her gut and sat under her tongue for decades.

Darling Joe,

Well, they say better late than never and so here we are . . .

Where to begin?

Where to end?

I’m not going to overthink this letter – I paused there for a moment to chuckle to myself. Not going to overthink it? I’ve been overthinking this letter for decades. I was asked to write it a while ago and I do so now with mixed feelings. Here I sit with the moon peeking through the curtains and the still of the early hours engulfing me and I shall let my thoughts tumble; the circumstances, the explanations, the rationale, feelings and consequences that have been shut away, boxed, taped and shelved for much of my life. And trust me when I tell you that it is a box that has weighed heavily in my thoughts. Weighed heavily in my heart.

Molly let her words flow onto the page and, as they did so, felt the burden of secrecy ease from her shoulders. A quick glance at the clock that ticked on her bedside cabinet told her she had been writing for an hour. She was quite parched. Putting the lid on her pen, she rubbed her knuckles to relieve them of their arthritic ache.

Very carefully she opened the heavy book and placed the unfinished letter between the pages, next to the unopened envelope already hiding there, marked ‘Personal Correspondence’, and then closed it, placing it by her side on the mattress. She pulled her soft blue cardigan from the corner post of her brass bed. It was snug over her nightgown and provided just the right amount of cosy. Reaching for a tissue from the box on the nightstand, she wiped her eyes, another wonderful facet of ageing against which she had not been pre-warned: the fact that her baggy eyelids, no longer fitting so neatly against her eyeball, could not contain her tears. She wouldn’t have minded so much if this were the only baggy, once close-fitting area that leaked, but alas, it was not.

‘A quick cup of tea and then I’ll finish it off.’ She patted the book.

Living alone, she did this. Spoke aloud small words of encouragement or motivation that in another time and another life might have been offered up by a relative or a lover. Not that she keenly felt their absence, having learned over the years to be self-reliant in all aspects.

It might have been the season of goodwill, but she saw no reason to add sparkle and gaudiness to her home, already filled with clutter. The only exception was the rather fragile and misshapen lump of gold-painted, salt-baked dough that had started out in life as a star before age and clumsy storage saw it eroded to this rather ugly nub. Ugly, that was, to everyone apart from her. As was customary, it hung at this very moment from an old branch of pussy willow on her mantelpiece. It was all the decoration she needed.