It was extraordinarily easy for him to
recover the past; he had always been sensitive to impressions and his mind was
stored with records of exposure. From Henry James at Work by Theodora
She stands in a garden looking away from the
camera, a ghost from another world, almost present, but not quite. Even though
I met her countless times and was probably as close to her as I have been to
anybody, I have no idea who she really was, it is as if she were a character
from a book; unreal and a little removed.
Who is that? asked my daughter
Adele, on one of her infrequent visits to see me.
That is my grandmother, your great
grandmother. She died just before you were born.
She looks peaceful, I wonder where the
picture was taken.
London probably, that is where she lived
all her life, born there and died there.
Adele lost interest and picked up the next
photograph on my mantelpiece, one of her as a child, she looked at it
I was a pretty girl.
You still are.
She smiled, and for a moment looked just like
She met Henry James, your great
grandmother, when she was a little girl.
Oh. She sits back down, trapped
who was Henry James?
I must have been my daughters age when I
sat with my grandmother watching The Innocents at The Majestic Cinema in
Dagenham, not far from the ground floor flat where she had lived ever since I
could remember, and only a dozen or so tube stops away from my parents
house. After doing my music degree I had stayed in London, teaching at a
college and indulging in a brief and ill-fated lover affair, whilst still
living with my parents. Every Wednesday evening I would meet up with my
grandmother, and we would watch whatever was on at the cinema and then eat fish
and chips in her front room, a tradition that had started many years earlier
when I discovered that she shared my obsessive love for film, the movies that
drowned the noises in my head and gave me peace.
The Innocents is a great film; moody,
atmospheric and with the darkest of endings; I have watched it several times
since and always think of my grandmother sitting beside me smelling of the pear
drops that we were both sucking and of some kind of old ladies perfume.
I met him, you know?
I looked at her in the dark. I assumed she
meant one of the actors in the film.
Henry James, it is based on his novel
The Turn of the Screw, he lived in Rye, in Lamb House, and I saw him when I was
on holiday there, he asked me what my name was, I told him Katherine, but that
everybody called me Kate, and then we both looked at the sea and he gave me a
hapenny, and when he said goodbye he made a formal bow.
Later as we ate our greasy chips I asked her
more about the meeting with the great writer; unlike my daughter, I knew who
Henry James was, I had even read The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square
as a teenager, and had a rough idea of his place in the pantheon of English
He was friendly, you could tell that he
was an intelligent man as he seemed so interested in me, and then after he
walked away someone told me that he was Henry James and that he was a famous
writer, I have never forgotten him and I always buy his books if I see them.
Some of his stuff is difficult, but not if you know him.
After I had thrown away the newspaper that our
dinner had been wrapped up in, my grandmother gave us both a banana that she
had saved, and we ate them slowly and appreciatively. I wondered where she kept
her collection of Henry James novels; the only books I had ever seen in
the flat were some cookery books and, in pride of place, a poetry anthology
which contained one of my mothers poems, after she won a competition at
school, perhaps they were in her bedroom, in their own bookcase, like an
Did you know gran met Henry
Yes, she mentioned it once or twice. No
idea if it is true. Seems a bit unlikely, my mother distractedly answered
whilst ironing my fathers shirts.
I doubt she is old enough; didnt
he die in the Victorian age?
A bit later I think. I am sure he took
British nationality during the Great War, or maybe that was somebody
Next time you are in the library, you
can look it up.
Her husband, my grandfather died of flu.
He was only in his thirties, he was a
clerk in a bank but he didnt enjoy it, he wanted to move on and find
something better, and then one morning he collapsed at work; he was brought
home and I had to nurse him whilst also looking after your mother and your Aunt
Elspeth. At first he seemed just a little off; wheezing a bit, tired and
I thought that he would soon be back at work, but he just never got
This conversation was a couple of years later,
I was living with Adeles mother by then but still continued to go with my
grandmother to The Majestic once a week; we must have been to see something
sombre to get her talking about her late husband.
And then one morning, I went downstairs
it was a bright Spring morning and I had had a most beautiful dream, and I
thought he must be better, that it was a sign, but he was cold and dead on the
settee, and your mother was sat opposite him oblivious, just reading.
She shook her head, and I made her some tea.
My grandmother died not long after that
conversation, it may have been the last one we had; a neighbour saw her through
the window, lying motionless on the floor and telephoned for an ambulance; she
appeared to have slipped and banged her head on the fireplace, there was a dry
pool of blood on the carpet, still she was in her seventies, not a bad age, and
I hope it was quick, that she died straight away. She was buried at St.
Annes Roman Catholic Church; having become a Catholic after my
grandfather died although I suspect it was more for the company and for curates
to mother, rather than a strong spiritual belief, but they mustered a
creditably large congregation for her final Mass.
Grandma said it was you who found
granddad when he died.
No, he died in hospital. He fell ill at
work and they took him to Guys and he died there a few days later. She
was never the same afterwards, got religion and spent all her time working, had
But she said she went downstairs and you
were reading opposite him, and he was dead.
No, he died in hospital and I
wasnt allowed to see him. Your grandmother was getting old, she
didnt always remember things clearly.
She left me to talk to her sister, who was
drinking something alcoholic in a corner.
Since I was a teenager I was aware of voice
that was always at the fringes of my consciousness; a dry, American voice
slowly dictating in a precise, steady tone, a voice that had become more and
more frequent the older I got. Sometimes when it was quiet, in the early hours
of the morning with Adeles mother asleep in my arms, or when I was
walking the streets near where I lived, there it was, quiet but persistent, but
I could not tell what it was saying, it was just too faint, as if from another
room. I never mentioned it to anyone, it was just too strange, I dared not even
tell my grandmother, who I would tell most things to. And now, after her
funeral, there was the same voice, calm and unhurried and I searched for
someone to talk to, to distract my mind.
Oh you are the musical one said
the Priest, with a cup of tea in his hand, she was very proud of you, and
was very grateful that you used to visit.
I smiled, I loved her company.
She loved the fact that you played the
piano so well, felt that you were carrying on the family tradition.
I looked at him puzzled.
Didnt she tell you? She was a
performer, but then she met your grandfather and got pregnant with your Aunt,
and that was the end of it, and she became a housewife.
I didnt know that.
The Priest smelt of soap and brylcreem and
seemed an affable chap; experienced at negotiating the main ceremonies of life;
birth, marriage and death, without embarrassment.
She told me that she played the violin,
and was a member of various orchestras in London, and on the South coast. She
loved Beethoven most of all, he was her favourite; she loved the power and
passion of his music.
I shrugged and wondered if that were true,
certainly she had paid for my piano lessons when I was younger and had then
encouraged me to study music at University rather than mathematics as my father
wanted me to do the world needs mathematicians, useful in all sorts of
jobs. But my grandmother told me to stick to my guns, and eventually I
got my way, but I did not remember her mentioning that she had ever played in
an orchestra, and the few records that she owned were light music; Gilbert and
Sullivan highlights and Mantovani; nothing too serious and no Beethoven.
I walked round her flat; filled with a
surprisingly large number of friends and relations, most of whom I didnt
know, although Adeles mother was absent, she had cried off at the last
moment, something for which my mother never forgave her. As I sauntered about
trying not to look lonely, I saw, in a small silver frame the picture of my
grandmother, Kate, as a young girl, wearing white and standing in a garden.
That is a lovely photograph, why
dont you take it, suggested my father, who appeared to be as lost
as I was.
Did gran play in an orchestra, when she
I doubt it, my father said,
she never mentioned it if she did. But she was a strange woman; a
bit like your mother but more so and he wandered away to find something
to eat, whilst I took the photograph, and put it in my jacket pocket.
Now my daughter is married with three
children, and a husband I dont much care for, she lives in Brighton, near
where Henry James spent the latter part of his life in Lamb House which has
been turned into a museum and perhaps I will visit it one day, and think about
my grandmother. I suspect that I am lonelier than my grandmother was; at least
she had her church and her family nearby, whilst I teach music in a
comprehensive school in Nottingham, where I moved soon after Adeles
mother and I split up, I am far away from my family, and even within the school
I am isolated; language and science are regarded as the important subjects
whilst music is a bit of a ghetto; I am the first music teacher that the school
has ever employed and the other teachers regard my subject as trivial and as a
consequence ignore me as much as possible, and there is nobody else in my
department to have meetings with or bolster our fragile self-esteem.
If I was going to amount to anything in the
teaching world it would have happened long before now; I am just serving my
time until retirement, hoping for a spark of musical ability in one of my
pupils and unsuccessfully bargaining for more funds for my department so I can
replace the broken and discordant guitars that the pupils have to play year
after year. Perhaps I should have studied mathematics like my father suggested,
who knows where I would have ended up if I had. Or perhaps once my grandmother
was dead I just wanted to escape from the past and my memories.
I spend my evenings watching videos and
listening to music; William Boyce and Henry Purcell at the moment, rather than
my grandmothers supposed favourite Beethoven, my parents are still alive
and just at the end of the telephone, and I would be welcome to visit them, but
when there I am forced to realise how little my life has amounted to, and I
swiftly leave again, although I should make the most of them for the short time
that they have left. And there is still the same, sharp American voice that
comes into my consciousness more and more frequently, the background noise to
all my activities great and small, but now I catch the odd word and shiver with
Last night I watched The Wings of a Dove, I
remembered the reviews had been good when the film came out, and I like Helena
Bonham Carter, who reminds me of Adeles mother; something in her look
which suggests boundless possibilities and freedom, but unfortunately these
possibilities did not include me. I had forgotten that The Wings of a
Dove, was an adaption of a Henry James novel, if I had ever known it, and after
the film had finished I stayed up until the early hours reading a biography of
James which previously I had only ever dipped into; I had bought it in the vain
hope that it would mention my grandmother, but it didnt of course, but it
confirmed that they could have met. It was interesting reading about his
time in Venice and his rather repressed life, and I fell asleep with it open
next to me on my bed.
On Saturday I bought a copy of The Wings of
the Dove in a local bookshop, and over the next couple of weeks read it;
enjoying Henry James long, sinewy sentences and forensic
characterisation, I had probably not read anything by him for at least thirty
years or more, and thought I could go through his entire works; surely a
project I could complete before I died, it was good to have a purpose to my
A colleague, Gillian, who taught Chemistry saw
me reading it in the staff room during morning break, she was an attractive
woman, always well-dressed, and friendlier than most of my colleagues.
Henry James, I could never get into
I smiled, oh this is a good book, maybe
a bit long, I have a copy of The Turn of the Screw, it is a ghost story, much
shorter, you are welcome to borrow it.
She looked down at me and smiled sweetly, and
I realised how young she was, and how old I am.
Thank you, but I am so busy with my
husband and daughter, I never get time to read, certainly nothing heavy.
She edged away, leaving behind only the faint
aroma of her expensive smelling perfume, and a sense of contempt, as if I had
made her an improper suggestion, and then the bell rang and with relief, I
returned to my pupils.
Kate was feeling tired, but had had to get
away from her parents who continually bothered her with their own discontent,
they were sitting on a bench somewhere below, and had waved her away in
frustration and she had refused to give them a backward look as she set off up
the hill behind them. The sun was hot on her head and she felt sweaty in her
thick dress and underwear, as she walked she was aware that the hill was
getting steeper and she wondered if she would make it to the castle, which was
far ahead of her, and then once there, what? She would only have further to
travel back down. She did not even like castles, and she wished that she had
chosen to walk along by the sea instead, where she could have sat and rested
and watched other families playing and talking.
There was a gentleman dawdling along in front
of her leaning on a stick; he reminded her of her grandfather who had recently
died, but when he said good day his voice sounded different, posher
and more polite.
Good day sir.
By mutual inclination, they both stopped and
stood together watching the sea, which, according to her father, went all the
way to France, and which was grey and fierce looking.
What is your name child?
She enjoyed his accent, a mellow voice, and
she smiled up at him, suddenly her mood was lighter, and she liked the man next
to her, who smelt of flowers.
Katherine Troy, but everyone calls me
Kate, apart from Mama when she is cross with me.
Is she cross with you a great
deal? he asked mockingly.
Occasionally. She answered
Are you on holiday?
She looked up at him and smiled
I think so and she thought of the
boarding house, and the horrid smells and noise, I do not like it much, I
I miss London too he told her,
I am a violinist, and I have to go where I can find an orchestra to play
She smiled at him, not knowing either what a
violin or an orchestra was.
I am playing here now, for old ladies
and their dogs, she noticed his yellow teeth and a rather musty smell
that seemed to come from his jacket, and that he spat as he talked.
He seemed less friendly now that he had got
her attention, and Kate all of a sudden wanted to leave and go back to mama and
papa, but she did not want to appear rude and the man was blocking her way.
Uhm he muttered, and then coughed,
do you like music?
She shook her head, there was a piano in the
house, which her mother occasionally played when her father was out, but she
had not felt inclined to try it out for herself, and did not like the harsh,
clanging noise that it made.
Beethoven is my favourite he told
her, you should listen to Beethoven Kate; he is stately and has
grandeur, she felt crowded by him and rather bored by his
pomposity, and she did not like his calling her Kate; she looked
behind him at the path which lead to safety, and wondered if she could barge
past him, furtively she wiped some of his spittle from her cheek and tried to
edge further away from him.
And then, much to her relief, a young couple
came up behind them, talking intensely, and her interlocutor was forced to move
to the side to the let them past, and Kate took her chance, and with a swift
goodbye hurried past him, and back down the hill; it was only when she had gone
quite some distance that she looked behind her, and to her relief saw that the
man had gone.
Did you reach the castle? her
father asked Kate, but she shook her head.
I saw a man she started to tell
him, but it was clear that he was not interested, and after her mother had
adjusted her daughters hat, the three of them headed back towards their
lodgings, her parents clearly not speaking to each other, and both using her as
a shield from each other.
Later that night she told the landlady about
the strange man.
That sounds like Mr James, he is a
writer, he lives over in Rye. An American gentleman, I have met him several
times, a lovely man.
No, this man was not a writer, he plays
in an orchestra she told her, saying the last word slowly so as to get it
quite right, but the landlady was determined that it had been the famous
writer, and so Kate went to bed puzzled, and that night between damp sheets she
wondered what a violin was and if a writer used it for something; perhaps it
was a pen, but then what was an orchestra? With these thoughts she went to
sleep, perturbed and curious; her parents loud argument, on the other
side of the fragile bedroom wall, barely disturbing her.
The great writer finished the sentence and his
secretary, Miss King, looked over at him expectantly, her fingers hovered over
the keys of the Remington typewriter, poised to start typing once again when he
had shaped his thoughts, but he was tired and it was time to dine; he pondered
over what he had just written with that pursed expression that she had become
so used to since becoming his amanuensis a few days before Christmas. She
enjoyed the work and liked Mr James, a polite and thoughtful man, who paid her
well, she hoped that he was satisfied with her and would keep her on at least
until the summer when she was due to get married.
She had found the story diverting and a break
from the longer Wings of a Dove, which they had been working on since she
started at Lamb House, and which she found unsettling and grim, but she was
consoled and cheered by the thought that, in however small a way, she was
contributing to great works of art. She stretched her arms luxuriously and
then, one by one, her fingers, which were aching from this mornings
As she mused, her employer sat staring into
the fire, and then he coughed quietly and Miss King, prepared for another of
those long, winding sentences, that Mr James so loved, but he was finished for
the morning and was evidently dissatisfied with his story about the young woman
called Kate and her unnamed grandson.
Please tear it up, it is nothing
he said ponderously, it is just a squib of a story, too fantastical and I
am not sure of its purpose.
Are you sure sir? she asked.
Quite sure, now I wonder what Mrs Smythe
has prepared for luncheon.
And as Miss King tore the sheets up and one by
one and threw them into the fire, her employer headed into the dining room, his
mind on the lunch that had been carefully prepared for his enjoyment.
And yet as the great writer ate and as Miss
King went outside to smoke in the wintery garden, above the house was the faint
but persistent of someone typing, tapping hard and determinedly, but then it
stopped and there was absolute silence.