I don’t often read memoir, or biography, or autobiography. I have read those of, or about, Tennessee Williams, W Somerset Maugham, Jane Bowles, Maurice Ravel; heroes of mine at the time; but yesterday I was reading Nuala O’Faolain’s remarkable memoir Are You Somebody? and suddenly this popped into my head …
I put down the book and sat down at my desk.
For Mrs Paterson
My earliest proud attempt at writing, at completing something, has stuck in my mind. I have thought about it often.
We were asked to write an essay on any subject but I chose to write a short story: completely made up. It was 1969, that year at Immanuel College, my last hurdle before University, boarding school, the best year of my education, when the Americans stepped on the moon; the first thing I wrote for the wonderful and sensual Mrs Paterson.
It went something like this, not the story itself, but my recollection of it.
In an unnamed little country town, every Sunday morning, an old widower, leaves his low-verandered cottage, a cottage with a frown, and takes a little bunch of flowers, whatever he can find in his garden, to his wife’s grave at the far end of the town; at the other end of the single street. Along the way he passes his neighbours and fellow towns-people pottering in their gardens or sitting on their porches, people he hardly ever speaks to except on Sunday mornings. He chats absent-mindedly to old Mrs So-and-so; to Mr and Mrs This-an-that. These people speak fondly of his dead wife, which is something he expects them to do; they knew her and they know where he is going and so they talk about her. They mention the time when she…; or the day they saw her ….; or even the time she told them about …; that sort of thing. They never mention much about him because he was always there and would, of course, know exactly what they are talking about. Like most people they speak in unfinished sentences where new thoughts interrupt the flow, or old thoughts occur to them again. He nods his head in recognition and chuckles when they chuckle, shakes his head at the likeness of her, at an anecdote he doesn’t remember but makes out that he does. And he shuffles on past the next house, the next garden, admiring the zinnias (he hates zinnias), getting a response or sometimes not. These little stories remarked on by the people he meets are sometimes the same as the Sunday before, and sometimes they are not; but on this particular Sunday, on this particular walk with this particular combination of familiar stories and unfamiliar stories, some he believes and some he thinks are pure humbug; on this particular Sunday morning with the clouds and the wind making these particular shapes against the blue, he gets to the little rusty gate of the little church cemetery and it dawns on him. They all hate him. They all hate him, and they loved his wife. She was the good one, he is the fool; she was the one who put up with his cantankerousness, his petty complaints about them, his way of blaming her for things he thought she had done. They talked behind his back and still do, he realises. If he looks back down the street now; if he turns his old fading body around he would see them all standing on their porches, amongst their silly zinnias, looking at him, whispering to each other about him. And that’s what they do every Sunday. It was her they loved. But he doesn’t look back because he is not brave enough to do that, not now. He shuffles on to do what he came to do. He stands on the damp earth by his wife’s neat little grave; and as he takes out the flowers from the little jam jar in its little concrete hollow his heart gives a jump because he knows his realisation is true: these are not the flowers he put there last Sunday. Other people tend her grave; these are other flowers, better than his. His old legs give way and he sinks to his knees still clutching his pathetic little posy, a daisy, a thistle, a piece of fern. As he feels the cold tears running down his cheek and feels the damp oozing through his trousers, he begs his wife to forgive him, she who was the good one, she who was loved more; and how can he get up and walk back to his little cottage when he now knows the truth: she is loved, he is not. What is he going to do? How can he possibly go on?
I was very proud of my story; god knows where it came from. I sat in my seat as Mrs Paterson gave back the stories to her students. I sat wondering how I was going to deal with the praise that I was sure would follow. Someone is always mentioned as the best. What would I say? Mrs Paterson, speaking in generalities about the stories, about her student’s work, paced up and down the aisles between our wooden desks and then she put my story down in front of me. I hesitated to look at the top of the page where the mark was sure to be, savouring the moment. Then I looked. I saw the mark, in red ink, at the top of the page and my heart stopped. Sixteen out of twenty. Is that all? I was devastated. There must be some mistake. I read the first line, “On a Sunday morning, like every other Sunday morning…” Yes, it was my story. But my story was a work of genius from one so young. Didn’t she realise? But by then Peter Fitzner was standing up receiving the praise that I was sure would be mine. Peter bloody Fitzner. Didn’t she understand? That was it. I had decided. It was as simple as that: she just did not understand. Genius can be so overlooked, you know. It had happened before, I was sure.