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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

Out-takes XIV

They studied the head and life lines today and Edith was promised lots of children. Great Grandmother Agnes counted them out as tiny branches off the life-line. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” she said. “You’ll have plenty to do.”

After the lesson Edith ran out to find Mary, but Great Grandmother Agnes called her back. “Sit down,” she said.

“I want to find Mary. She’ll be waiting for me.”

“You can read Mary’s hand,” said the old woman. “You can read all of it except the life-line.”

“But I want to count her children,” said Edith. “Can’t I count her children?”

“There are no children in Mary’s hand.” Great Grandmother Agnes put on a serious face. “When you look at Mary’s life-line you’ll see what I mean. You can read it yourself, but you shouldn’t tell Mary what you read.”

*

Late that night when everyone in the house was asleep, Edith blinked at the wall. The picture of Mary’s hand stood out clearly in her mind’s eye. It was a beautiful hand with long, smooth, patient fingers set in a gentle curve above a small white, conic palm.
The major lines stood out strongly, being deep and fine. Each of them was clear, untrammelled, unbroken, and well-etched. It had been possible in all honesty to tell Mary that she was bright and vigorous, that she would excel in creative and imaginative endeavours and that she would not suffer any serious illness. She would be happy and fulfilled in every aspect of her life.

But it was not possible to tell her she would be childless, and that she would die young. There was no doubt about it. Her life-line began after separating itself from the head-line and swept out in the direction of the centre palm; but it ceased immediately under the space between the index and middle finger. It was not simply broken to continue further down the hand. It stopped dead.

*

One night during the autumn of 1902 Capt’n Cornwall woke to find himself in bed alone. His first thought was that one of the children was ill and Isabella had been called to their bedroom, but there were no sounds in the house and eventually he roused himself to look for her. He woke Jack and Edith but neither of them had seen their mother and both Lucy and Great Grandmother Agnes were fast asleep. Jack got dressed and accompanied Capt’n Cornwall outside to look for her. Edith did not go with them but she dressed and boiled a pan of water on the stove, ready to make tea if, as she suspected, something dreadful had happened.

An hour later Capt’n Cornwall and Jack returned with Isabella. She was clad in her long white nightgown, the bottom of it sodden with the night dew and her bare feet black with mud from the track. Edith made the tea.

Isabella was as if sleep walking. She responded when Capt’n Cornwall spoke to her or when Jack or Edith moved in the room. But her responses were at a distance. Her long hair was damp and fell over her face but she made no effort to brush it aside.

“What were you doing, girl?” Capt’n Cornwall asked her.

She turned to face him calmly. “Why, taking a walk,” she said.

“In your night dress? In the middle of the night?”

“Nonsense,” she said sharply, pursing her lips. She looked down at her nightgown and fingered it around the waist. She seemed abstracted for a moment then flew from the situation and asked Edith: “Is that tea ready yet?”

Edith gave her mother a mug of tea, laced with milk and two spoons of sugar, the way she liked it. Capt’n Cornwall shook his head.

“Where was she?” Edith whispered to Jack.

“Down by the harbour,” he replied. “Near the tap. Just sitting there.”

Isabella yawned and Capt’n Cornwall took her by the hand and led her upstairs. Jack went back to bed and Edith would have followed but she was awake now and her mind was full of Mary and the thought that she would die young. She sat in the ghost’s chair and tried to see into the future, but there was nothing to see. If Mary died young and her mother went funny like Grandmother Lucy there would be no future, only Jack and little
Willy and Great Grandmother Agnes. She would be the only woman in the house. She’d have to do the cooking and look after everybody for ever and ever. There’d be no time for swimming or playing in the houses in the barn. There’d be no one to swim or play with.

Capt’n Cornwall came downstairs and took her on his knee. He did not speak, but held her tight, as if he feared she would disappear if he did not hold onto her. Every so often he sighed heavily and shook his head. He did not seem to notice when, suddenly, a gush of tears sprouted from his eyes and ran down his face. They splashed onto Edith’s hand and she looked up in fear. It was unthinkable, as if God had wept.

*

The next day Isabella was up at the usual time, seemingly none the worse for her nocturnal adventures. “How do you feel?” Edith asked her after breakfast.

“How should I feel?” she replied. “There are nets to mend, and I feel I have to mend them.”

“I mean after last night,” said Edith. “I thought you might be tired.”

Isabella shook her head and walked to the door. “I slept like always,” she answered.

Capt’n Cornwall smoothed Edith’s hair. “She doesn’t remember,” he explained. “It’s best not to mention it. When I talked to her she thought I was making it up.”

Later Jack took Edith aside. “We did get up last night, didn’t we?” he asked. “I didn’t dream it?”

“It’s best not to mention it,” she told him.

“But it’s true, isn’t it?” he asked. “I did go to the harbour with the Capt’n and bring her back in her nightgown?”

“Yes,” said Edith. “It’s true, but she doesn’t remember.”

Jack shook his head, and he wore that hurt look on his face that was the main reason Edith didn’t like him. “Mother called me a liar,” he said.

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