Chapter Seventeen

 

 

 

THE CLEAR SKIES above the Thames revealed a sublime view of Albert Bridge as Gemma and Lorna sat on one of the raised cast iron benches along Chelsea Embankment. This bench, its slats smooth from decades of wear, faced the waters below. The morning in Hannah’s flat had transposed into late afternoon after Lorna and Gemma had fallen asleep on the floor, the letters neatly stacked around them. After they left Tippy in Hannah’s flat to roam about as he pleased, they traipsed through the adjacent park to sit here along the river before heading to the bank and to the Davis Animal Clinic.

Gemma sat upon this worn bench, some sort of ornamental winged sphinx—so different from the simple benches in Malibu where she sat after hiking the trails—as she silently read another letter, this one from November 1988.

 

Andrew has been gone a few months now. Not having him two doors down from me is a continual void in my life. I rented the flat to a young couple, and it does comfort me to see they’ve maintained the same décor in the flat. I am grateful to now own that flat thanks to Andrew’s dying gift, as well as the other properties. He told me he was going to do such a thing, and he was too sick, too delirious, for me to talk him out of it.

“Wow, listen to this,” Gemma said, then read the last lines out loud.

 

“His lingering illness took its toll on me. Seeing him waste away like that left an imprint on my mind which I cannot erase. He was like a brother to me, but this dreadful virus, the one some call the gay cancer, took him from us.”

“Fucking hell,” Lorna said. “He had AIDS? That wasn’t even a decade ago.”

“There wasn’t much they could do in the eighties for people who had AIDS. Fortunately, a lot’s changed in regards to treatment now. Not so much an immediate death sentence anymore. But it’s sad Andrew succumbed to that dreadful virus. And Philip as well.”

They sat silent as Gemma read more from Mary’s letter. Silvery flecks of light glistened on the river, the ripples of light coursing past them. Hints of amber tinged the water as the sun descended in the horizon.

“We ought to get to the bank before they close,” Gemma said and slipped the letter back into the fragile envelope. “And we need to get Tippy to the clinic.”

“We’ll not make it to Lloyds before they close, not at this hour, not with those bloody bomb threats closing many of the main thoroughfares.”

“How late did Hannah say she’d be at the clinic? I feel bad leaving Tippy in her flat right now. Then there’s my mum. I still need to get to Richmond to deal with her.” Gemma gathered the letters and pushed herself up from the bench. She walked to the thick barrier above the river and squinted at the glaring light reflected on the Thames.

“Perhaps all that can wait till tomorrow? You’ll still get back to Moulton with plenty of time to prepare for Monday’s service.” Lorna retrieved the letter from Gemma and started to read.

 

“I’ve busied myself lately with the articles on these Tonkinese, so popular here in London now. More dog-like than cat, these critters provide some comfort to me as I fee l Andrew’s absence. But getting your letter today consoled me. After reading your letter, I felt the intense pang you described, of you missing Gemma.”

“Missing me?” Gemma took the letter from Lorna. The air by now had turned cold, the chill going right through Gemma’s thin nylon jacket.

 

“Getting a degree is something a young woman must do, but I’m glad you reminded her to throw a few coins into the river before she leaves for university.”

“Ah, so Nan shared that special ritual with Mary as well,” Lorna said and touched Gemma on the forearm.

The sun cast rays of glaring light onto the waters. It was a river like this where Gemma and Lorna often threw coins into the moving waters when one or both of them faced a major life decision or a dilemma of sorts. An occasion as a new job, new partner, new play or film endeavor was prefaced by them throwing a few pence into the water. It was something taught to Gemma in her youth by Nan, a ritual which she continued to do after she moved to L.A.—the Pacific substituting for that body of water and American pennies replacing the British coins.

“Right before I left for university, I stood on the banks of this river with an entire handful of coins.” Gemma shaded her eyes from the glare, recalling the mixture of fear and elation she’d felt before she left for art school. She set a hand on the cement barrier, the crusty lichen rough beneath her skin as she read more from the letter.

 

“I’ve thrown so many pennies into the Thames that one would have a small treasure should those coins wash up onto shore. Much of what you wrote touched me, especially in my darkened state of mind right now. Knowing your hands will soon be holding this letter consoles me beyond any words I can find. I can only say these things because I know you understand and won't think I am spiraling down again into a bottomless abyss of depression. I find myself one of the lucky ones to have actually met Mrs. Woolf years ago. Although too young at the time to understand, it occurred to me years later when I was doing research for Philip’s project that the gazed look in her eyes was not from reading too many manuscripts to review for Hogarth. It was, rather, something akin to the haze I describe to you in this letter.”
 

 

“Wait,” Lorna interrupted and pulled at the letter. “Mary knew Virginia Woolf? I thought she drowned herself in the Thames years ago.”

“I’m not sure if she actually knew her,” Gemma said, then tapped the page with her finger. “But it says right here that she met her. And actually, it was the Ouse where she drowned, not the Thames.” She leaned against the cement barrier as she read more of Mary’s words.

 

“To know you are there in my life continues to keep me afloat. I should seal this letter and get some sleep. But in answer to your questions about Gemma, let her come to you and tell you. She will tell you only when she’s ready.”
 

Gemma set the page down, grasping Lorna’s arm with her hand. “It’s so odd to see my name here. Do you suppose Nan knew about me being gay?”

“Yeah, I’d say she knew,” Lorna said, then leaned into Gemma.

“Here she was missing me because of my move to university, but on top of that she was also dealing with losing Mary, her soul mate.” Gemma’s voice broke as her eyes filled with tears. “November 1988 is when the letters stop. And no more. Not a word of this did she utter to me, not one mention of Mary. I wasn’t there to console Nan when she lost Mary.”

Lorna took the letter from her, leaving her other hand to rub Gemma’s back as they leaned their bodies into the cement wall as early evening traffic churned behind them. “Perhaps in your own quiet way you did ease Nan through Mary’s death. In a sense, right now Mary is easing you through Nan’s death. But, my sweet friend, Nan knew. You Oldfield women always have a way of knowing.”

“I never expected to come back to England to discover this. I miss her...so much.” Gemma and Lorna embraced on the tree-lined pathway, the brittle branches overhead revealing tiny buds of green starting to unfurl their leaves. The horizon, now tinged with hints of a falling sun, cast an orange glow on Albert Bridge.

“She was the best nan anyone could have ever had,” Lorna said, then pulled away from Gemma. “Let’s finish this letter while there’s a bit of daylight left. To hell with seeing your mum today. We’ll get Tippy to the clinic tomorrow.” With Gemma sniffling next to her, Lorna finished where Gemma had left off.

 

“You two have always had that special bond which no distance can ever take away. I must end here, melancholy and full of unshed tears. I trust that the morning will bring with it a clean slate.”