Wednesday 12 April 2023

A Familiar Face by Jane Spirit, Darjeeling tea


Afterwards, Sarah was glad that she had conversed with such an illustrious man in an outdoor public place. It meant that no impression of impropriety could have been given, even though the few moments they had sat and talked together had carried an uncanny intensity for her. She was glad also that she had not sought him out because of his fame. She had not even recognised him when he had asked if he might share her bench seat on the quieter north side of Russell Square Gardens.

Sarah had been visiting the British Museum to research the little book on Celtic art that she had been determined to finish writing. Not that she had studied very much at all that morning. Instead, she had basked in the light refracted through the huge glass dome of the reading room, watching the sunbeams bombarding the bent heads of other industrious-seeming readers. The scholars sat in rows that radiated out from the centre of the room like the spokes of the many bicycles left at the porticoed entrance of the museum.

Sarah had been relieved when she could reasonably call it lunch time and relinquish her desk to another more in need of knowledge and a seat than she was. She knew that she could not countenance seeking a place in the refreshment room on that day. There would be the usual crush in there of mostly long-legged male intellectuals carrying on loud, but obscure discussions as well as the chitter chatter of the over-heated visitors who had come to educate and entertain themselves amongst the many exotic objects in the museum. The very thought of it had exhausted her. She had gone instead to her favourite bench in the nearby park to enjoy the coolness and relative tranquillity of its ordered paths and lawns. Here she could observe the passing strollers, both young and old, without being herself the subject of anyone’s attention.

She had certainly felt less agitated in the fresh air. She had sat quietly anticipating this evening’s visit to the large house near Lancaster Gate and allowing herself to feel the usual surge of excitement. Despite knowing that she would inevitably come away only partially satisfied, she accepted that she would be drawn back endlessly to that place, along with all the other regular visitors who gathered in the large entrance hall, waiting patiently to meet with their missing sons again. Like her, they lived for the moment when they would be admitted to the séance room and be in the presence of Mrs Mackenzie. She alone seemed to treasure their beloved boys. She held in her upturned hands their hopes of some more immediate reunion with them.

As usual in the park, Sarah had been fingering an opened book balanced on her lap when a gentleman of about her own age had seated himself at the end of the long bench. As they exchanged pleasantries, she had regarded his high forehead and sharp features with some vague sense of familiarity. She noticed that his skin had about it the slightly weathered look of fair skin exposed over many years to a tropical sun. She had also noticed that he was very thin, gaunt even, and that he sat huddled in a heavy overcoat despite the warmth of the day.

Later she could not exactly remember how they had fallen into that fuller conversation. She supposed that they had moved through a discussion of the unseasonably warm weather to arrive at more personal matters. He must have enquired what she was reading, and she must have mentioned the author because she remembered the way he had said quietly,

 ‘I saw Mrs Blavatsky perform as a medium once in India.’

Presumably her face had expressed her surprise and pleasure at this chance connection. It was then that he had looked directly at her and spoken with authority.

‘It was all tosh of course, clever, but complete tosh. And she knew it. A fascinating, but quite ruthless imposter, just like all the others.’

Sarah had not been able to speak immediately. There had been a subdued anger in his voice. Now she was angry too. How dare he call into question the very spiritualism that she had clung to amidst a tide of grief so overwhelming that she had honestly not been able to foresee a way to survive in its current? As she had paused, a young boy had sailed past their bench on the cinder path, pursued by the nurse who had charge of him, his sky-blue jacket unfurling behind him in his hurry to play. How weak she had suddenly felt, catching a glimpse, and thinking of her only boy. Her face must have told the man of her distress. He had hurried to apologise if he had spoken out of turn.

After that they had both talked somehow of their mutual grief; of their sons whose bodies lay in different parts of France in as-yet unmarked graves. They had parted on kindly terms. He had been at pains to assure her that he did not dismiss the idea of continued existence after death. What made him livid, he said, was the way that those who claimed to have contact with the dead so easily exploited those made desperate by grief. She had wanted to say to him so much more than she did, to tell him that she was not a stupid woman. She knew that she was likely being played for a fool by Mrs Mackenzie but knowing that had not prevented her from taking comfort in the medium’s invocation. In that house for an hour or so each week she could at least be with others who understood the extent of her unhappiness without her needing to explain or excuse it. There she was encouraged to speak her son’s name, even to call it over-and-over again. The ritual summoning of him had soothed her, even if it was only done for profit, because in that moment she could be sure he was not forgotten. The remembering of him was at least an act of memorial if not of resurrection.

As she travelled home, Sarah realised why the man’s face had been familiar. It was one that she had seen in the newspaper several times; the face of a writer whose work she had once read assiduously. So, after some tea, she settled herself to write to her dear friend, Mary. Mary would be so excited to know that Sarah had fallen into a conversation with the very poet whose words of stoicism and steadiness they had both so admired as young mothers. Sarah recalled how, twenty years ago, they had sought to instil in their fine boys the values that Kipling’s poems epitomised. Whether those boys would meet with triumph or disaster once they grew up, they had wanted them to believe that they should ‘treat those two imposters just the same’.

Then again what exactly could she say to her friend? Should she tell Mary how much the poet had angered her or about his obvious frailty and near collapse as he named his son John to her? Would Mary be comforted to know that the author whose words they had once cherished was now as consumed by bitter grief as they were, or would that only serve to kick away from under her friend the support the poet’s words continued to offer her?

In the end Sarah decided to say nothing at all to Mary about the encounter. She would leave the letter until tomorrow. For the present she laid down her pen and went to collect her few things together. She set off a little early for Lancaster Gate.      

About the author 

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk U.K. She has written academic articles and books from time to time and is now enjoying writing fiction. 


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