Letter To Sister Benedicta by Rose Tremain
A short passage to get a feel for the narrative:
When I heard his thin voice answer the telephone, I dreaded saying my name, imagining that he would be utterly dismayed at the sound of it, but at once he began to apologize, saying: “I should have written, just a note even, I should have written to thank you for the lunch.”
“Oh, no, Gerald!” I said relieved, “it was a terrible lunch and I think I should have written to you really. You see, I was brought up in India, Gerald, and I’m afraid I’ve never quite lost it, the habit of never saying anything that’s helpful. No one in India seemed to have a feeling for helpfulness, only a feeling for what is right, and it took me a long time to see that almost everything they thought was right was actually not all that right, but in fact rather wrong. And this deficiency in helpfulness, I mean, I’ve had it all my life and I blame India, but who can say if it was India or if it wasn’t born in me, because it’s a long time since India now and thank goodness all those feelings of rightness have been swept away . . .”
“If you were ringing to ask me to lunch again,” Gerald said quietly, “I’d love to come. You were right about no one helping. They don’t.”
So he came round the next week. Over a rather tasteless lamb casserole, which he didn’t seem to enjoy and I didn’t either, he began to knead away, gently at first, then more firmly, at his own misery until the pain of the kneading doubled him up and he began to cry. He kept apologizing, through his tears, for this crying, but it seemed to me that if you can cry over lunch with a fat woman that you hardly know, then your need to cry is probably very strong and your tears might feel like a balm. So I said: “Oh, no, Gerald, you’re quite wrong to apologize. Don’t even try to stop crying. Cry as much as you like.”
“You can’t imagine,” he said at last, “what it’s like to lose someone you knew was all you ever wanted. All, you see. I used to think, she’s one of the wonders of the world, my Sarah. You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose one of the wonders of the world, to lose her in a single day!”
“Well, I can’t Gerald, I know. But I can try. I mean, I know if anything happened to Leon – not that he’s a wonder of the world, far from it really with his co-respondents and everything – I’d feel dreadfully lost. I don’t know how I’d take root again. I might never.”
“I never will,” wept Gerald. “I shall never be strong or patient or anything at all for the children. I feel I can’t give them anything and of course it’s terrible for them too, to lose a mother.”
“I’d say they might be your salvation, Gerald. I mean, they love you, don’t they, and you love them.”
“I feel as if I love no one any more. Not even the children. I feel as if I was born just to love one person.”
Gerald blew his nose and dabbed at his eyes. Between his elbows, his helping of lamb casserole was congealing. I felt empty of words, but wanted to put my arms round Gerald, imagining that since Sarah had left, no one had touched him. But then I remembered that because I am fat I sweat quite a lot and I thought, my heavy sweating arm will disgust him and he will want to tear out of the flat and never come back, thinking, even longing to cry and not crying is better than that, if that’s the price. I stayed motionless and Gerald, getting no more help from me, no word or movement, faded back into silence and very soon left.
That night Leon went out to dinner with a client and I got into bed early, not bothering to make myself a meal and glad that I wasn’t in the restaurant with Leon and his client and their bottles of wine and glasses of brandy and cigars. I lay back in a clean nighty, having bathed and powdered my body so that there was no trace of sweat on it, and after a while thought up one of my poems about Gerald which went like this:
Today for the first time
I’ve never heard him weep before
But now I know
that while the world’s been weeping,
I have slept.
There is more to say, Sister, about my comforting of Gerald Tibbs, but I feel tired out by the thought of him at the moment . . .
In a Letter to Sister Benedict, Rose Tremain gives over the narrative to her protagonist, Ruby Constad. Ruby has been abandoned by her children, and her husband has suffered a stroke and lies in a nearby hospital on his death bed. Wealthy middle-class Ruby is overweight, her money and her lifestyle have combined to make her silent, and now loneliness is added to her burden.
But in writing letters to her childhood teacher and mentor, long dead Sister Benedicta, Ruby begins to find her voice together with a quite wicked wit, and, eventually, a will to live. She is a woman quite devoid of self-pity and as such, will steal your heart away.
Letter to Sister Benedicta was published in 1979, and Tremain has published several novels since then. She told The Times:
“Time is catching up with me now. I’m 60 in August and this looming birthday has made me think. My life seems to have gone by so fast I can’t believe it, but I don’t believe it’s over. I feel full of ideas and power.”
Here’s one reader who is very glad to hear it.