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It was after the funeral, whilst clearing out the battle zone that was her house, that I chanced across it. Not that any specific object could readily be found, not here, not amidst all this . . . mayhem.

And the reason for this tumult?

My great-aunt Joseema was a hoarder.

Over the course of some forty–eight years she painstakingly collected, she catalogued, she accumulated and she meticulously sorted. And what was it that dear Joseema so laboriously amassed?

Words.

Words in each and every form imaginable: magazines, newspapers, leaflets, all manner of marketing detritus — the banal, the nugatory. The bulk of the edifice that had inveigled its way into her mind and house over the decades comprised of books; the bound and boarded, stitched and stamped — elevated tomes amongst modest manuals and annuals that my great-aunt cached and amassed with such devotion, such assiduousness. Or was it driven by a ferocity of intent, of fervour, alone? Here they were, books piled precariously, adjacent to books that leant against books, surrounded by books stacked upon books. There was purpose in all this, evidently enough. But to where was it directed, to what, whom or why? There was no clue.

No matter what the subject, a tome (even the most modest of periodicals or perishing parish newsletter), would be guaranteed a place on great-aunt Joseema’s mouldering book shelves, or within her ruinous paper mountains. The more voluminous appeared to have been purloined from the area’s local libraries, though she purchased them too — old, from the local charity shops, and new, from The London Review of Books, from the Guardian’s bookshop, from Hello magazine. Such an eclectic collector was she, from the infantile didactic of Janet and John (age 4yrs–7yrs old), to the sinister futurism of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, from the pearl-clutching romance of Barbara Cartland’s Stolen Halo to Noam Chomsky’s treatise on political propaganda, Necessary Illusions. And much in between: books on roofing, on snorkelling, on mathematics, on divination and on sky diving — you name it, there was some form of literature on the matter, amassed there gathering dust in some dark, cobwebbed, mouse-droppinged corner of great-aunt Joseema’s stuccoed Victorian villa.

Eventually, the lofty and lofted books, the papers and passé periodicals were languorously joined by all manner of redundant packaging; be it empty washing powder cartons, tinned tomato sauce labels, collapsed cereal and teabag and cornflour packets, or plastic dental floss cases and long-since dried-up toothpaste tubes. What appeared to matter was not the medium, nor even the message, but simply . . .

Words.

That was the key. They all had words on them. It was only the words which ensured their survival.

It got so that she couldn’t walk down Turnpike Lane without rummaging in her neighbours’ rubbish bins so she could, as she described it, “save them”. Save the words. “I mustn’t miss it, is all she would say whenever we asked, or pleaded with her to stop this neurotic obsession, this deeply irrational trait; for Joseema was such a perfectly attired, genteel lady. In my innocence I would often futilely state the obvious to my mother, “The only thing she’s going to find in them is other people’s waste.”

Still, regardless of our unwelcome curiosity, incomprehension, and others’ admonitions and revulsion, she would never be drawn further upon the subject.

* * * *

For as long as I can remember my great-aunt was a withdrawn, quiet lady, shunning social events and their idle chatter whenever possible. She chose her words carefully, ate little and preferred to blend into the wallpaper whenever possible. Eventually, she banned all visitors to her home; looking back I think that must have been a few years shy of her seventieth.

That was some fifteen years ago.

We saw her only very occasionally, perhaps on her rare visits to our house so as to see her sister, my aunt. She was consistently dressed neat as a pin, with not a hair out of place. Always immaculate was our graceful greataunt Joseema.

So when myself and Claire (her two great-nieces), entered her musty, rambling abode after the wake, so as to clear the house for its later sale, we found it hard to reconcile the elegant woman we’d known so long with the spectacle which lay before us: decades of decaying papers were haphazardly stacked, higher and higher still until the piles reached beyond the picture rails to the tall, ornately plastered ceilings. Every last copy, each bound and tattered volume, squeezed in tightly. Then another stack began right next to the first, and on and on it went — a vast collection of ink, paper, board . . . and memories, perhaps?

She seemed to have grasped the written word tightly in all of its possible guises, apparently fearful of losing . . . losing what?

We couldn’t fathom it. And as time passed, all but myself ceased attempting to.

The whole house was jam-packed to the rafters with that which, to anyone else, would have for the most part been mere rubbish — the redundant detritus of bygone times, uses long since spent, sell-by dates lapsed into distant vestiges, remnants of the past.

How does this happen to a person?

* * * *

There was but one, curiously awkward way to access all the rooms in Joseema Cardis’ huge, four-storey abode named Ballarat House — a labyrinth of tunnels had been hewn through the precarious mess, just wide and tall enough for a small, determined and crazed woman to crawl through, perhaps whilst clutching and slopping the contents of a chipped Wedgwood teacup, all the while gripping another armful of Yellow Pages or maybe some tattered copies of Reader’s Digest.

I, being much the same build as my great-aunt (though not yet considered crazed by anyone, so far as I know), went on hands and knees from the front door through to the parlour, and felt as though I was taking my life into my hands as I did so. At one point I thought to myself: at any moment during all those years she’d lived here at Ballarat House, Joseema could suddenly have been crushed, smothered, rendered eternally silent by her beloved, archived towers of text.

They could all topple still for that matter, burying me alive, and at times I had felt quite nauseous and nervous in the knowledge of this potential doom. A solitary electrical spark or forgotten candle and the whole place could have been an inferno within minutes.

Perhaps she knew that? Perhaps somehow she yearned for that deep down? What caused her to abandon her otherwise cautious, fastidious nature?

Eventually, thanks to the family all coming together and hiring several skips in swift succession, we systematically dismantled that fortress of folly, and great-aunt Joseema’s bedroom was finally cleared sufficiently to see how once it had looked.

Before it all began: the hoarding.

* * * *

Joseema’s bedroom set was of the finest English book-matched walnut — a handsome, brass-latched wardrobe loomed above me, flanked by an enormous oval 1930s free-standing mirror. The third piece, a bowed, glass-topped affair with drawers on either side of a faded, plush velvet stool, called to me. At random I opened one of the side drawers of the beckoning dressing table. Lavender tissue paper expelled a keen scent towards me even after all those years; satin gloves, chiffon scarves, all immaculately kept. Elegantly shaped and richly coloured glass bottles of long-since evaporated perfumes.

Beautiful things, all buried before their time.

Surveying the musty room from my vantage point on the time-worn stool, I beheld a narrow shaft of sunlight which entered through the highest pane of the stained glass awning window, its beam lighting up the thick motes of dust that filled the air, they having been disturbed by my recent clumsy clambering. My gaze followed its trajectory, and I watched entranced as the sunlight’s rays bounced back at me, glinting softly off something protruding from beneath the tall, black, cast iron-framed bedstead, with its opulent brass finials.

Once on my knees, I began shouldering away some of my great-aunt’s wordy ‘treasure’, letting it spill carelessly to the floor and beyond. Whilst peering into the gloom under the huge metal springs, I spied there a box. It was divine, crafted from several types of wood veneer, gilt-edged (possibly gold leaf, now I think of it), with an intricately engraved frontispiece displaying a keyhole, in which nestled a delicate, latticework key.

I sat the box upon my knees; the mechanism turned and clicked quite effortlessly, as though it had been freshly oiled that very morning, then I lifted the lid to its fullest extent.

A small jump, and my heart leapt into my mouth for a second as gently-lilting sounds filled the room. A music box! I raised a neat shelf close to the hinge and saw the metal disc turning, pulling its tiny crenulations across a small golden comb and rendering a softly tinkling melody.

The song . . . I knew those opening two bars . . . Yes, that’s it alright — La Vie en Rose.

How beautiful!

That after all these years locked away in such a dusty atmosphere the mechanism would still work so well seemed unlikely, but work it did.

* * * *

Ballarat House perched proudly amongst a small collection of dwellings known as Bartongate on the sleepy northern outskirts of Steeple Barton in rural Oxfordshire, and so quiet was Turnpike Lane that I cannot recall ever seeing any vehicles pass by whilst visiting, only the late afternoon’s stately parade of fatted Fresians encouraged by a farmer’s indecipherable yelps and the solicitous attentions of his bedraggled Collie.

Until today I never had ventured farther into her homestead than the gardens to the front and rear of the house, so as to play in their unkempt grounds or rickety cedar summerhouse should the weather be unsettled, and to which Joseema would bring lemonade for myself and freshly brewed Earl Grey for both herself and mother, always with home-baked biscuits. To this day, when the perfumed aroma of bergamot drifts my way in a tea shop, or whilst gathering flowers in my garden, I think of her.

As Ballarat House had both toilet and handbasin ensconced within the crumbling, red brick outhouse at the foot of the garden, my great-aunt’s visitors had no real need to ever enter the house, and as a child it all seemed perfectly reasonable to me that we would arrive through the side gate and immediately head for the summerhouse. Even when raining, or in midwinter, we’d cosy up within those whitewashed timber walls, and snuggle together on the embroidered shawl that covered the old sofa in there, warming ourselves in front of the small log stove, she reading me stories, or having me read to her as I began to learn the joy that can be gleaned from words — a pleasure which has deepened further with me into adulthood.

As I matured I began to sense that no one wished to intrude upon Joseema’s privacy. There were occasional murmurs and intimations of some tragedy attached to this insistence on seclusion, but once again, no one pushed her on the matter. All the family loved her very much, and we worried at what might be going on in that huge house at times. Nonetheless, she always seemed fine within herself whenever we met, barring a shadow of sadness in the back of her eyes that was always oddly prevalent.

So we let sleeping dogs lie, although I contacted her more regularly than anyone else in case there may have been some crisis about to unfold; I wanted to be there if she needed me.

The funeral itself was stranger than most; no viewings were possible, no careful choosing of a suitable outfit for her, for one simple reason — there was no body to inter or cremate.

* * * *

There were only two items within the wooden music box. No jewellery; nothing but a small, velvet-bound notebook, from which many pages had been torn out, seemingly with some care, leaving only a few sheets of the thick, cream-coloured, textured paper, plus a hefty bundle of letters, all addressed in neat handwriting to Miss Joseema M. Cardis, and tied together with knotted string which soon disintegrated in my hands as I carefully began to pull at the twine.

I read the first three letters then stopped; these words were not for me, I felt, and far too intimate to intrude upon.

The little I had read revealed a quite different character to that of my great-aunt as I had known her: a care-free girl, brimming with joy, one who herself wrote prose and poetry copiously, not a shred of which can be found anywhere within her mournful, vacated villa today. Those few fragments absorbed from the missives gave me more than an inkling as to how this affliction of hers may have come about.

It was now becoming quite apparent that it was all due to some ruinous loss she had suffered many years previously.

I cried a little for her just then, as I imagine she must have done herself.

Often.

* * * *

My earlier sense of having intruded now partially diminished, I tentatively peered within the notebook’s pages. Written in the most exquisite script (with a fountain pen or quill perhaps, I’m not sure), were the lyrics to the music that emanated from the precious box: Piaf’s La Vie En Rose.

It was Aunt Joseema’s own handwriting, unmistakeably. I knew the script so very well from the many times she had helped me with my spelling when I was but a child visiting this very place each Sunday, exercise book clutched in hand, anticipating lemonade.

At the foot of the lyrics, written in a different hand, were the following words:

Joseema, my dearest, I shall return to you one day if I possibly can. I pledge this with my soul, and should I fail — my soul captured without consent, held in stasis then you know what to do: FIND me. Search every text, scan diligently every book, pamphlet, editorial, advertisement and personal notice, for I shall be somewhere within, as promised. I belong to you alone. I am your muse, just as you are mine, and neither death nor dimension can or will change this, my dearest inamorata, my beloved, my all. Edward

The other pages held lines in both my great-aunt’s handwriting and those of her paramour, Edward (a name I had not once heard mentioned during her lifetime), and read as though the two had written the piece as one — a final loving communion before he departed, leaving Joseema to what future station in life?

Little of this made sense to me barring one thing: the intense amatory saga woven through the words was as clear as an open, cloudless sky on a sylvan Oxfordshire spring morning.

Together, Joseema and Edward had created a haunting, beautiful piece which I shall place upon my great-aunt’s grave with the many letters, so that the words she loved best, the ones that had made her heart smile with unfettered joy, will be with her once more.

Joseema and Edward both believed they would meet again, and it is my heart’s desire that they have done just that.

Here they are together, in words alone, for eternity:

Tout ce que nous avons sont des mots d’amour, et dans ces mots un monde

He: A cryptic triptych of a man, esoteric and tumbling in his love, wreathing her in magic. 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 her — his captivated audience of one, wreathed in smiles, bound closer to him by every letter.

She: A weaver of letters, bidding he chart the wilds of her rapids, the still muddied oil slicks of all she might have been, all she could be, in another future with him, he.

He and she.

Every careful unfolding of that between them only binds them closer together, revealed to each a thousand facets of each other’s psyche, consequently mirroring them back, interlacing their minds, refracting and reflecting the light within them; inseparable inspiration.

Then, in Joseema’s hand alone:

He is consummately missed. For all that could and can be.

He and she.
She and he.

He and me

July 11th 1932 —

* * * *

Joseema M. Cardis disappeared at some point between 2.00pm and 2.10pm on the crisp autumn afternoon of Monday, the Eighteenth Day of October, 1993.

At 1.57pm on that fateful day, Joseema received a package at Ballarat House, which she duly signed for. At the inquest, the postman recalled her looking, as he put it, ‘aglow’, with the most serene expression on her face, the like of which he had never before seen.

Only a few minutes later, Joseema’s sister, Sally, passed the postman only yards from the front gate of Ballarat House whilst pulling up in her car — the sisters had arranged to go into Chipping Norton together that afternoon for their weekly tea and cake at The Renaissance Hotel. Sally walked up to the front door and was immediately alarmed to find it ajar.

This was most unusual, the first such occasion, in fact, for Ballarat House was never left open at any time without Joseema positioned squarely in front of it, barring the way in to her secreted labyrinthine trove of print.

Sally tentatively pushed at the heavy oak door, calling out for Joseema as she did so. It opened slowly, a soft tinkling pealing from the crystal chimes that were suspended from the ceiling behind it, harking back to a time when her home once had had visitors.

There was no reply. Something was ominously awry; she could feel it keenly in her bones.

Sally then began to crawl through the perilous tunnels and narrow walkways, bordered as they were with hulking book-filled obstacles, looking for her absent sibling — though all to no avail. Joseema was nowhere to be found. Only the discarded packaging of the recent delivery, laying atop the first tread of the wide elm wood staircase, remained to indicate any kind of clue as to her possible demise.

All subsequent investigations proved fruitless, much to the distress of myself, to the rest of the family, and to the mounting frustration of the North Oxfordshire police.

The disappearance of Joseema M. Cardis remained a mystery to one and all.

Eight years later when she was officially declared dead by the coroner, his verdict accepted by her remaining family, a funeral-cum-memorial service was held to honour her life and give Joseema’s relatives and loved ones some element of closure for their deeply felt loss. But I never felt she was there, not even in a spiritual sense, and I never believed she was dead either.

* * * *

Footnote:

The return address on the packaging which had once held within it the curiously missing content delivered to Joseema that day was to one, Messrs Samuel Jones and Sons – Antiquarian book merchants since 1897 — 2nd Floor, Carfax House, Carfax, Oxford. There was no receipt attached to the packaging, nothing other than two labels noting the recipient and senders’ addresses, handwritten, on either side.

Several attempts were made by myself to contact the book sellers, but no such shop any longer existed either within the City of Oxford, or from my searching the internet. What I did discover, was that Carfax House, and along with it Messrs Samuel Jones and Sons, had burnt to the ground in 1945, and in its place, situated two floors above a Co-op mini market, now sits a quiet little cafe-bar that appears to attract little custom.

A faded, red and gold painted sign greeted me at the top of the stairs as I approached the entrance:‘Welcome to The Moulin Rouge!’ I entered, fatigued from my long coach journey, still going over and over again in my mind the contents of Joseema’s beautiful hidden music box. I ordered a large gin and tonic from the taciturn barmaid, and gratefully slumped onto one of the antique mahogany dining chairs that surrounded the tables.

As I sat there, melancholy pervaded my heart, then I raised my head and started to smile as a piece of music began filtering through the two tinny speakers mounted above the highest row of spirits behind the bar. It was, of course . . .

La Vie En Rose.

* * * *

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