An excerpt from

My Mr Keats

Eleanor Pilcher

It’s strange to think, now, that at the age of ten my only possession was a book on archaic medical conditions. It was gifted to me by a bespectacled nurse at my father’s practice, after the bombing.

It didn’t matter to me that the book seemed to be entirely written in gibberish. After having very little, even before the bombing, I was glad to have something to call my own.

For fun I used to try and pronounce the words whilst reading by the fire in the waiting room. Occasionally my father would pass me and mutter the correct word under his breath, but he never made the effort of actually trying to teach me how to pronounce them.

He was always distracted by his work, it was his first-love. This was apparent to me from a young age, although he was not a bad father, merely forgivably neglectful. He used to settle down to dinner with my mother and I and ask us each about our day, before settling into the armchair in front of the wireless to smoke a single cigarette before bed. Sometimes his books and research would take him to his study before the cigarette, and I’d see no more of him until the following dinner.

My mother and I were left alone quite frequently. I liked it best when we were outside; the sun and the rain were a lot kinder to me than she was. I understand why now, but at the time – as a child – I thought she was just a cruel woman.

It didn’t help that many a night I heard her shouting at my father’s office door – ‘You are not enough!’ – and many a day found myself seated in a pub, watching her guzzle our weekend day-trip allowance on ‘her secret love.’

Upon receiving the medical book I searched for a condition that would explain my mother’s behaviour, and ultimate decline. But there wasn’t one. I checked. Twice.

When we were at home together my mother left me be. It was lonesome and quiet, except for the bells of the nearby church which tolled on the hour. I came to loathe them.

I did not have much in the way of toys to divert me, as far as I can remember. I can see a teddy bear when I think long and hard, and the name James rings a bell. But besides that I do not remember ever owning a dolls house or a push-pram, and certainly never anything musical or something that made a noise.

My bedroom was cream; with cream curtains, slightly discoloured by the sun, cream furniture and cream clothing that my mother personally picked out. She liked cream, it was clean, she said.

The door of my bedroom was the most distinct and clashing part of the room. It was wooden and varnished in the wrong shade of brown, making it dark and muddy looking. Almost threatening with its bruised doorknob, which had left perpetual marked on my cream walls. Or, at least, I thought it was a perpetual mark until the bombing. Then it was destroyed, along with my creamy furniture, clashing door and perhaps a teddy bear called James.

It happened on the 12th of September 1940, on the fifth night of the Blitz in London. My family and I were sat in a bomb shelter, at the bottom of our long garden, with our neighbours when my mother stood up and walked out. I can remember the neighbours trying to stop her but she merely smiled at them, which was strange, and left the shelter calmly. Of course she never came back and the house was rubble by morning.

My father slept through it all.

I was whisked away to a re-housing centre the moment I left the bomb shelter, although I saw the dust of my previous home, a crumbling white façade, and realised that my mother was still missing.

My father remained behind whilst I was handed over like a parcel to my neighbours, who sobbed incessantly as we sat in a van that drove us to a village hall in Whitechapel. I joined in their tears during the journey.

I was seven years old and my mother was gone. If I hadn’t have cried they would have taken me to the sanatorium.

For weeks my father barely said a word. He went to work at his practice and left me in the care of the kindly wardens at the re-housing facility, who were often sympathetic enough to give me an extra digestive with my tea as I was the only child remaining by this point. Evacuation had begun some days beforehand, but my father was insistent that I stay with him. I was glad, as I felt I was wanted. I didn’t understand why children were being sent away, not properly at least. What child can understand that? It only seemed to me, at the time, that they were not wanted.

Yet I still remained scared every evening, fearing that my father would not come back. Leaving me abandoned with nothing but a book on medical conditions. It was no wonder that I clung to it…Are you getting all this dear?

The journalist, a mere baby in a room of relics, had not lifted her pen to paper in over five minutes. Her mouth hung open and was widening, much like the mouth of a river after the water runs dry.

She jumped. Tea spilled over into the saucer that she held loosely in her lap. Within a moment of the spillage Madison, my daughter, had stood from where she sat on the sofa, looking more frustrated by the minute.

“S-sorry,” the journalist muttered. I took it to mean that she was sorry for not writing a word although I had given her plenty to transcribe.

“There’s no rush dear. I am only eighty-three. I have all the time in the world.”

“Mum,” Madison said warningly.

“Mum?” The journalist replied in surprise as Madison took the tea and saucer from the journalist’s hands without so much as looking at her, her gaze was fixed upon myself. Eyes wide and boring down upon me like a teacher’s to a child, suitable as she was a well-practiced teacher herself.

“Yes. She is my daughter,” I said, bringing my own tea to my lips. It was amusing to watch the confusion grow across the journalist’s otherwise vacant face. Such a shame when she was so young and had all the power to use her facial expressions, whilst others of my age struggled to move their lips. “She’s adopted,” I said plainly, watching as Madison frown lines grew.

She never appreciated my bluntness of this fact, but it wasn’t exactly a secret when my skin was as white as a dove’s feather and hers was as dark as melted chocolate.

“Her demeanour and glare she gets from me, but otherwise her biological features are as similar to mine as a kingfishers wings are to a butterflies,” I smirked, somewhat patronisingly to the journalist who smiled at my simile. Madison merely huffed as I leant against the rickety doorframe of the bungalow that she and I were currently occupying.

“Would you like some more tea Miss Gray?” she asked politely, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her spare hand whilst holding Miss Gray’s spilt tea in the other.

“Uh, no thank you.” Miss Gray pushed the glasses that were slipping down her heavily made-up face, back up to the crease of her forehead.

“I’ll have another digestive…please,” I said, passing up my lukewarm tea to Madison, who took it bitterly, muttering something about diabetes under her breath as she entered the kitchen adjacent to the living room.

“So, where were we?” I pressed as Miss Gray sighed and laughed, the laugh of a person who knows that they have made a mistake but cannot give a valid reason for it besides excitement.

“Mrs Pike…I am sorry, but I am simply enthralled to be here.” I wished her sudden enthusiasm had been infectious. “…and I k-know that it is fan-girly and silly but—”

Fan-girly?” I repeated, syllabically.

“Erm, l-like the Beatles…when women fainted over them, that’s ‘fan-girly,’” she explained hesitantly.

“Well don’t go fainting on me, dear, I am hardly as interesting as The Beatles.”

She shook her head. Her opinion of me was about the only thing of her character that seemed certain. I found it unnerving and sat up straight in my chair.

“Now…” I slapped my thighs in the bid to block out the rest of her bumbling explanations and ‘fan-girling’. “I feel like a stroll in the garden.” I said, pushing myself up, every vertebrae in my back cracking in resistance as Miss Gray smiled politely.

“Mum…” Madison returned to the living room, holding my saucer with three digestives sitting on the rim. “It rained this morning, it will be wet out there…”

“Living rooms are not places to stir the ‘coggles of your mind.’ Ooh digestives.” Madison rolled her eyes as I took the saucer from her hand and edged myself around her into the kitchen and towards the back door.

“The phrase is ‘warm the cockles of your heart’ not the ‘coggles of your mind.’”

I scoffed and slipped off my slippers, hastening to place my shaking feet into my horribly ugly, but incredibly comfortable, Crocs that had been out of fashion as long as I had been retired.

Miss Gray was faffing in the living room; her silhouette was eligible from behind Madison’s wider berth. She seemed to be collecting the notebooks, pens and many books that she had practically buried herself behind when she arrived. I had entered the living room thinking that a hermit had made themselves a home in my house.

‘Were these the kind of people who were going to read my memoirs?’ I thought for a moment, a little vainly, as I imagined glittering celebrities sitting down for cream tea at the Ritz reading the book, as engrossed as they were in Harry Potter, or that book about vampires who sparkled. It was a doubtful image but one that spurred me on, although the truth was somewhat closer to the journalist who gathered three notebooks in her hands and balanced two pens on her top lip.

“I get the impression that you’re new at this,” Madison said, in her best impression of me. Before the journalist could reply or even look offended Madison had moved past her, in the opposite direction of the kitchen.

I opened the back door and sighed. “Hurry Miss Gray, my mind shall only be yours for a short-time before I call it a day.”

“I c-can always come back another day Mrs Pike,” she called, as she ruined the backs of her dolly shoes by stepping into them hastily.

“No.” I marched out in the garden, which was not so much a garden but a meadow, complete with long dewy grass, fluttering butterflies and moths hidden in the shaded ground. A scent clung in the air of damp mud and hydrated wildflowers.

Miss Gray followed behind me a short-time after I stepped into the garden. I walked around, slowly dampening my heels in the dew. She came out with only a pen behind her ear, a single notebook under her arm and a voice recorder held in her hand.

I ignored her for a moment as I appreciated the meadow. It was the only reason why I accepted Madison’s request to move into the bungalow, rather than stay in my multi-storey, London flat.

The garden was the first place I had felt it all come back, everything I was planning to tell Miss Gray about. The garden was a place without a ceiling to hold down all the emotions, no artificial heat to warm my aging bones and no stale air to squash the story in my lungs. Just views that spread further than the horizon and flowers as sweet smelling as they were beautiful.

“Mrs Pike?” The journalist had asked me a question. I had heard but simply ignored it.

“I’ll have to start my story another way, the exposition of how I came to be where the true story begins is clearly not exciting enough.”

“I f-found it interesting.”

I shook my head as I took one of the digestives out of the saucer I still held.

“No, always write the story when the kettle is boiled, not when you are filling it from the tap.” She enjoyed that metaphor. I was getting a very clear picture of this journalist and it was so far very basic, almost childish. But then again at eighty-three everything was childish to me.

“The-the readers, already know that you were bombed as a child,” she said. “And that you sadly lost your mother…” She stopped for a moment, the pen had dropped from behind her ear and she was scavenging for it in the tall grass.

“I’m not.”

“Sorry?” she said, placing the recovered pen into her breast pocket.

“Exactly.”

We continued to walk, me eating my digestives and her fiddling with her voice recorder.

“Where have the readers reached a gap in my timeline? Where do they not know the story, Miss Gray?”

“It’s not so much a gap as a miniscule hole. We know that you were bombed and that you moved from place to place until you were eighteen, but you stated…” She twisted awkwardly to open her notebook to find a particularly quote. “…you stated that ‘the readers will get to read about a hitherto unheard story, a story that I have never forgotten but cherished so much I hid it.’ She beamed at the prospect. “It sounds quite intriguing Mrs Pike.” I nodded, my mouth was welded shut with the last digestive biscuit.

We were reaching the centre of the meadow, any further and we would technically be on the farmer’s land, not that he ever came up past his barns. His farm was entirely animal based, which occasionally ruined the scent of my meadow when the scent of his farm blew downwind. Thankfully there was no wind that morning as I was able to breathe in the fragrance of the wildflowers, still in late bloom, without any infraction of animal excrement.

“It would be poetic to say that the scent in the air reminds me of the time when the story begins…but it does not.”

“What would remind you, Mrs Pike?” I could sense a little frustration under Miss Gray’s bright anticipation. This was good, this meant that her journalism skills were finally kicking it.

“Lake air,” I said. “Fragrant as a meadow and not as polluted as sea air. There’s a difference.” Miss Gray’s forehead creased in confusion. “I mean if you were to go down to Brighton or to Blackpool and breathe in the scent it would be completely different to lake air. Like sand and salt. Definitely not as clean. Definitely not.” Miss Gray nodded her head as though she understood me, but I doubt she truly did.

I sighed and broke off, into my story. “It was 1943 and I was ten years old, as I’ve already said. That was when the story, the basis of my memoirs, happened. It started in the spring, not the autumn, but the scent of the flowers was similar. My father, who by this point in the war had begun to focus more on his research rather than practice, had been offered a position in the Lake District to serve the Castleton family as a live-in doctor to their son...Johnny.”

“’The Castleton’s’,” Miss Gray spoke purposely, like an echo, into her voice recorder soaking in every detail of my story. I rolled my eyes and took the recorder from her feeble grip.

“I don’t like electronics.” She went to protest but my gravity over her was vast and she stopped before she uttered a syllable. “Let’s sit over there,” I said, pocketing the recorder into my gardening trousers, in pockets which usually contained nothing more than a packet of polos or a pen to scribble things down if I had an idea.

I had pointed to little clearing at the edge of the meadow where Madison had erected a sheltered seating area for me. The chairs were uncomfortable and plastic, when I would have preferred wood, but it would do well enough for an interview.

“Sit.” I gestured to one of the chairs. She crouched timidly like a dog before sitting down, her eyes never leaving my face although she was flushed and embarrassed. “Right…” I made a move to sit on the floor.

“Oh, have my—”

“No thank you.” I fell to the ground with a light thump and smiled up at Miss Gray who looked around her nervously, as though afraid someone might see us – her a young lady sat in a garden chair in a field and me, an old lady sat on the damp grass without so much as a blanket. It did not bother me in the slightest, since the only person able to see us would be Madison who would whinge no matter where I sat.

“I like lying on the ground, staring at the clouds,” I laid back to demonstrate. “It reminds me of when I was child…which comes in useful when I am recounting stories of my childhood. I’m not exactly a spring-chicken, I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast yesterday let alone what I did when I was ten.” That was a lie. As soon as I said it the memories of when I was ten came flooding back, just like the scent of meadowsweet in the breeze.

“Shall we begin on the 9th of April 1943?”

I waited to hear the scratching of Miss Gray’s pen on paper.