It was whilst clearing out her battle zone of a house after the funeral that I came across it.
My great-aunt Joseema was a hoarder. For forty-eight years she painstakingly collected. She cataloged. She accumulated and she amassed. And what did she amass? Words. Words in all and every form. Magazines, newspapers, leaflets. Books. No matter what the subject, a tome could gain a place at Aunt Joseema’s place. Many appear to have been purloined from local libraries, though she bought them too. Old and new. From ‘Janet and John’ (age 2yrs – 5yrs old) to Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, from Barbra Cartland to Noam Chomsky’s ‘Necessary Illusions’. Books on roofing, snorkelling, mathematics, sky diving, you name it, there was some form of literature on the matter.
The books and papers soon were slowly joined by all manner of packaging, be it washing powder, or tomato sauce bottles, cereal packets or labels from clothes. Words. They all have words on them. It got so that she couldn’t walk down the street without rummaging in rubbish bins so she could, as she described it “save them.” Save the words. “I mustn’t lose them too” is all she would say when asked, pleaded with to stop this obsession. She would never be drawn further upon the subject.
For as long as I can remember my Aunt was a withdrawn quiet lady, shunning social events and idle chat whenever possible. Eventually she banned visitors. That was ten years ago. We saw her very occasionally, on rare visits to our house to see her sister, my mother. She was consistently dressed neat as a pin, not a hair out-of-place. Always immaculate was Aunt Joseema. So when we, myself and Claire, her two nieces, entered her abode to clear the house for selling, we found it hard to reconcile the elegant woman we knew with the spectacle before us; decades of mouldering papers were neatly stacked, high, high up until the pile reached the ceiling. The last copy squeezed in tight. Then another pile began right next to the first, on and on it went with every other element in her vast collection. She clung to words in all possible forms. The whole house was jam-packed to the rafters with what to anyone else would have been plain rubbish for the most part. How does this happen to a person?!
There was a curious way to access all the rooms in the huge house. A mini labyrinth of tunnels had been built through the mess, just wide and high enough for a small crazy woman to crawl through. I, being much the same build as my Aunt (though not termed crazy so far as I know by anyone – yet), went on hands and knees from the front door to the parlour and felt as though I was taking my life into my hands at that. At any moment in all these years she could have been suddenly crushed, smothered by her beloved text. Perhaps she knew that. Perhaps she yearned for that deep down.
Eventually, thanks to the family all coming together, finally hiring several skips and systematically dismantling the fortress of folly, Aunt Joseema’s bedroom was finally clear enough to see how it once looked. Before it all began. The bedroom set was of the finest walnut, wardrobe, dressing table and an enormous, stunning 1930’s free-standing mirror. I opened one of the dressing table side drawers randomly. Lavender tissue paper expelled a keen scent towards me even after all those years. Satin gloves, chiffon scarves, all immaculately kept. Carved glass bottles of long evaporated perfumes. Beautiful things, buried before their time.
On a whim I looked under the cast iron framed bedstead with its golden bed knobs and found a jewellery box. It was divine. Crafted from several types of wood veneer, gilt (possibly gold now I think of it) edged, with an intricately engraved frontispiece displaying a key. I sat the box on my knees and turned the key, lifted the lid to its fullest.
A small jump, my heart in my mouth for a second as the music started. A music box! I lifted a neat shelf close to the hinge and saw the metal disc turning, pulling its crenulations across a small golden comb,resulting in the tinkling melody. The song…..I knew the tune…yes, it was ‘La Vie en Rose‘. How beautiful. How after all these years locked away it would work I cannot fathom, but work it did.
There was only one item in the box. No jewellery, nothing but a small, velvet bound notebook, within which all the pages had been torn out with care, leaving only two sheets of the creamy old textured paper, and a thick packet of letters, addressed to her, tied together with knotted string that disintegrated in my hands as soon as I lifted them up. I read a few of them then stopped; these words were not for me, no. But that which I had read gave me more than a small inkling as to how this had all come about.
I cried a little for her then, as I imagine she must have done herself. Often.
Then I lifted up the two sheets of paper. Upon the first, written in the most exquisite script (with a fountain pen I’m sure), were lyrics to the music that emanated from the precious box; ‘La Vie En Rose‘. It was Aunt Joseema’s handwriting. I knew it well from the few times she helped me with my spelling when I was only a small child. The second page held the lines below, underneath which a date was printed, and a name. Details that I’ll keep to myself I have decided ,along with the content of the letters, letters which show a completely different person to that of my Aunt as I knew her, a care-free girl, brimming with joy. Some things should be left sacred. I’ll place them on her grave, so the words she loved the best, the ones that made her smile will be with her once more.
Il me dit des mots d’amour
‘He was a cryptic triptych of a man. A secret magician. An invisible diabolist of words, his impressive feats hidden from the melee, from the world at large in actuality. From all but herself. From she. A backstage pass for his captivated audience of one, wreathed in smiles, bound to him by every letter.
Three folded parchments sat within his pocket. Within his grasp. Maps. Charting the wilds of her rapids, the still muddied oil slicks of all she might have been.
All she could be with him, he.
He and she.
Every careful unfolding of that finely stitched triptych, (careworn at the edges, creasing and softening with time) revealed more facets of him, he, his pneuma, and consequently mirrored, refracting the light, reflecting others of her also. Of her, she.
She and he.
Suddenly, a cruel slight of fate’s hands came to pass, and the abstract magician of her soul vanished. Only words remain.
And he is consummately missed. For all that could be.
He and she.
She and he.
He and me.
— July 1932. ————