Chapter Twenty-five

 

 

 

THE TOWERING COLUMNS and spired railings surrounding the British Museum spanned the length of the block, Gemma’s stride quickening as she neared Bloomsbury Square Gardens. Dashing across Montague Street, she observed the expansive white building on the corner, immediately noticing a blue placard. These historical markers, so common in this area of London, rarely caused her to take notice. But this one caught her eye—Thomas Henry Wyatt: architect. Even thousands of miles away, with lands and oceans separating them, Gemma couldn’t escape reminders of her ex. Not yet ten in the morning back home, Beth and Jan were probably at the firm poring over blueprints—the two of them in close proximity as they refined plans for the university.

Gemma darted across Great Russell Street and neared Bloomsbury Square, accelerating her pace so she’d reach the park before dusk. She wished she hadn’t agreed to dinner tonight but knew it was a nice enough gesture in support of Mr. and Mrs. Davis. However, she couldn’t erase that miserable thought of James cheating on his wife, of his wandering from such a lovely woman. Friends such as Lorna believed that if a marriage could survive infidelity, the bond would therefore be strong enough to last forever, but regardless of her friend’s philosophies, Gemma stopped believing in such whims. She’d only seen that in movies, and being in the film industry, she knew that forever ceased once the credits rolled on screen.

The embers of her own passionate affair had abated long ago, Beth’s recent cruel words to her being proof that the fire could never be rekindled. But Gemma knew she should respond by tonight to Beth’s latest e-mail since she wouldn’t have e-mail access once she returned to Moulton. Staying at Lorna’s tonight would therefore be the best plan, ensuring her use of the computer. She could then take the earliest train to Northampton tomorrow morning and still be at Nan’s with three full days to prepare the house and garden for Monday’s reception.

Gemma followed the wrought iron fencing and hunted for an opening to the park. She paused on the sidewalk with the green square in front of her and the whooshing traffic behind her. There on the other side of the park stood a phone booth—an empty, stark red callbox. Rather than a cold, direct e-mail, perhaps she should take a more personable approach and call Beth. She quickened her pace as she reached the callbox, the door shutting behind her and muffling the rumbling traffic. She swiped her calling card and punched in the country code, then the area code, her finger hovering over the buttons before entering the rest of the number. But what could she possibly say to Beth, knowing that Jan likely stood in near proximity, probably egging her on for additional hurtful words? Why cause more friction in the miles separating them?

Perhaps she’d instead take a classier approach and send Beth a note scripted on one of the postcards she’d recently purchased at Heathrow. The tenderness of those missives from the first days of their affair had been replaced now by empty words exchanged through e-mail. Leaning against the callbox, she rifled through her bag and retrieved the packet of Monet cards she’d purchased at one of the airport shops. Flipping through the collection, she considered the Water Lilies and the Garden at Giverny too pristine for a note such as this. But in her satchel she still had a small pack of Frank Lloyd Wright postcards from when she and Marcos recently toured the Gamble House. The stiff furniture and decor of the cosmopolitan houses fit so well with Beth’s hollow and angular demeanor.

Using the surface of a rubbish bin on which to write, she wrote “Dear Beth” on the left side of the card, pausing as she dug up words from an arid turf. “It may seem odd for me to be sending you a postcard which I bought in Pasadena while I’m here in London, but I—”

She hesitated, noticing the wordiness of her sentence. The small amount of space was not nearly enough for what she needed to write, and knowing that Beth would criticize her mode of correspondence, deeming it foolish or outdated, Gemma aborted the note and slipped it into her backpack, figuring an e-mail later tonight at Lorna’s to be the best way to communicate with Beth.

Bloomsbury Square dimmed as evening approached. Gemma entered through the rusted gate, lingering on the path under a canopy of trees. She’d frequented this park years ago, the square being where she and Nan had often sketched. Painting was never anything Nan taught Gemma, but her style of replication innately resembled that of Nan’s. Yet today, if Gemma sketched this park, the drawing would not reveal the meticulous recreation of tiny blades of grass or the intricate fibers of trees. The montage that Gemma would create would resemble something from Picasso’s last days—the fragmented image of the ex-lover, the disfigurement of the mother, the warped visage of the aunt, the diminishing shadow of Nan in the background. Somewhere in there the obscure figures of Philip and Mary would surely appear. With the confusion still fresh of learning that Philip was possibly a distant cousin of Granddad’s, Gemma tried to make sense of this new limb added to the family tree.

As the park’s lighting continued to fade, Gemma sat upon a bench and retrieved a letter from her pack, words scripted to Nan in 1938. A reading, at least once more in the dusk hours of evening, was of necessity before she headed to The Edge.

 

I received your letter moments ago and devoured each word. Your words went through me, touching the deepest core of me. You made mention of being in Paris in late October. As fate would have it, I will be in Paris for all of that month—eager for your presence. Darling, let’s go away together. I find it now a necessity. Mary simply needs Emily. From where I sit upon a rock at the ledge of this lake, the late afternoon’s shadows are casting a reflection onto the water. I can scarcely recreate this with words. Do make a visit here, for only you and your brush could replicate this image. You ought to paint the hyacinth fields, all laid out flat with acres and acres of flowers, with fields of sheep, the sun setting on the shimmering water, the moon rising. See, my words have taken all colour out of this image.

Gemma read more from the letter, intricate details about the flowers she’d planted in her garden. Mary went on about the significance of each type of flower, all being a representation of her love for Emily—the iris, lilac, the English daisy. Setting the letter down, Gemma studied the adjacent wall outside this square, the building illuminated from the setting sun. She pulled another letter from her bag, one from the eighties.

 

Philip weakens by the day. I sat with him tonight, bringing over an early Christmas gift, a fancy frame suitable for his dog. I mean, suitable to frame a photograph of his dog, that is. It wasn’t much, but what do you give someone who may not make it through the month? This illness has taken away my Philip. His medications are adjusted often. Perhaps something the doctors prescribe will eventually strengthen his frail body. I made a batch of tea using tincture of comfrey and bellis perennis. Last week it seemed to loosen the phlegm in his lungs. I’ve urged him to chew the leaves from this flower to ease the pain of those mouth ulcers. I’ll pluck a few more from my lawn and take them over to him later. Philip continues to waste away by the week. In his delirium, he again asked about Marguerite, murmuring on in French as I responded with ‘je suis ici, Phillipe, je suis ici, mon ami’ whispered repeatedly in his ear. Through the midst of such realities of life, there you are like a beacon of light through it all.

Mary’s beacon of light had now dimmed completely—the only evidence of those glowing embers the words upon these pages. Gemma planned to return to Putney sometime next week to tell Mary of Emily’s passing. She had a clear image of this woman based on the words expressed in these letters. She had more letters to read, additional clues to discover about this woman so enamored by her Nan. But Philip had surely conquered—or was continuing to fight—this virus, which had taken the lives of so many others. Still bewildered that she’d met Philip, that he was still alive for her to meet, Gemma also knew she’d soon meet Mary—probably in a mere few days.

With the park’s lighting so scarce, Gemma returned the letters to her pack then exited Bloomsbury Square, the gate clicking shut behind her. She returned to Great Russell Street, following it until she reached Oxford Street. She rounded the corner then strolled down Dean Street. She had a little over thirty minutes to make her way to The Edge for dinner. Why should Gemma be part of this marital celebration? If this was a reconciliation following James’s admission of infidelity and Hannah’s forgiveness, then the two of them surely would want to return to their flat along the river and partake in their own private celebration upon their bed of reconciliation—that same bed where Gemma had recently slept.

She continued along Dean Street, passing the cybercafé where she’d encountered Beth’s harsh words. Pausing on the sidewalk, she peered inside to see several unoccupied computers. Without hesitation, she flung open the door and stormed up to the counter to request a half hour of e-mail time. By responding to Beth now, she would not have to stress about the impending e-mail all through dinner and could therefore return to Moulton tonight.

Gemma first skimmed an e-mail from Charlotte, an offer to be her assistant in Italy for a few weeks. Then she read a few e-mails from her closest friends. Beth, they touted, had used poor judgment in conveying her thoughts as Gemma grieved Nan’s passing. Without responding to any of these e-mails, she moved on to Beth’s e-mail:

 

I logged on this morning and noticed you hadn’t even responded to my e-mail, so I’m sending it again in case for some reason it never reached you. Its not like you to not answer your e-mails so this is why I’m sending it again. But if you have read it and have chosen not to answer it, then I stand firm in what I said to you about being so passive.

With her allotted e-mail time diminishing, Gemma continued to read—the words burning into her like acid on skin.

 

You continually avoid issues. You go off somewhere and take a walk. Remember that one time you and I had that incident involving my ex from ten years ago? She was in town and wanted to stay the night, you said that was fine but ended up taking a long walk on the beach, later telling me that if I had cared more about you then I would have joined you on the beach. This avoiding issues happens all the time. When I first met you, I loved some things about you. I remember you saying that you could solve life’s problems by sitting on the shore of the water. I thought that was so deep at the time. But then you started to use it to avoid issues and now its some catch phrase that’s gotten so old. Maybe if I just go sit in front of the ocean, then all my problems will go away. You asked me if what I wrote to you was some kind of a test. I’m not testing you, I’m merely scrutinizing you.

“Scrutinizing me?” Gemma blurted out, instigating a glare from the man seated across from her. “Testing? Scrutinizing? Same thing! Check your thesaurus!”

 

I’m merely scrutinizing you in order to make you a stronger person. I’m telling you these things to make us stronger. I haven’t entirely let go of the possibility of us working things out. Jan and I are so off again on again, and I’m guessing that’ll always be our pattern. But if I knew that you were 100% in, I think you and I could make it.

 

How was she to respond to this in only a mere few minutes? She’d pay for another half hour, but she needed to get to Soho Square for dinner. But after reading this e-mail, she only had an appetite for a couple pints of cider, something smooth and quick. Beth’s idea of a relationship was that it had to constantly be filled with challenges—and always include some sort of a test. Repeated scrutinizing wasn’t part of the criteria Gemma sought in a partner. The continual tests, the strengthening of character, the displays of brutal honesty—they were nothing which Nan and Mary ever experienced.

Trying for the longest time to rekindle the passion, Gemma used to leave notes on stickies strewn about the condo, only to have Beth respond with a quipped thanks, a collecting of those yellow stickies into a neat and insignificant pile—and the worst of it all: no gesture on her part in response.

Gemma decided to give Beth a dose of her own style, planning to cut and paste and deliver as harsh a reply as she could. But as she clicked back onto the inbox, she noticed an e-mail she hadn’t read yet, an e-mail sent yesterday from the Davis Animal Clinic. With a mere fifteen minutes remaining, she fixated her eyes on the monitor, her palms pressed onto the counter next to the keyboard as she read these words.

 

I trust I didn’t wake you in my scurrying around this morning. I hope I’m not being too forward in writing to you like this, but I know we might not have a chance to talk later. How nice it was to wake up next to you, and I do hope you were not shocked to see my body next to yours so early this morning. I awoke feeling as though I could have used a few extra hours’ sleep. The unexpected walk with you along the Thames in the dark of night and again this morning was so lovely. Perhaps fate led us together, so that I could have some moments with an artist and such a lovely person as you. I hope you’re well-rested at this point in your journey. You looked so sweetly serene this morning in my bed—
 

Gemma’s breath stopped for a moment as she read this admission from Hannah—about noticing how sweetly serene she looked in her bed. She’d had no recollection of Hannah crawling into bed with her, the image of this arousing something within her that hadn’t been piqued in nearly three years. She continued to drink in these words, reading this message as fast as she could before her allotted computer time expired.

 

You looked so sweetly serene this morning in my bed as I gathered my things for the day, and I trust I didn’t wake you. I know how exhausting such things as the death of a loved one can be and the subsequent arrangements for services and such. The mere day-to-day tasks seem more ominous, more shocking to the body. And what with the unfortunate business you and I had to tend to last night and early this morning, this no doubt must have come at such a poor time, when all along, you must have desired most to slumber the night away. But, dare I say this: I feel so fortunate to have met you—or to have met you again. Don’t you ever feel as though you’ve known someone longer than you really have? Lorna has told me much about you but not nearly enough. There’s something about you that I find to be so intriguing. I feel like I could have walked and talked with you all morning. I don’t mean to be so forward in writing to you like this, but while you’re in London, would you care to join me in going to an art exhibit at the Serpentine which my mother has organised?

 

She now had a mere eight minutes left. She reread the first part of the e-mail, her eyes frozen on the mention of the two of them waking up together. It was nearing seven o’clock, and although her time was now down to the ticking clock at the bottom of the screen, she typed a quick response first to her ex.

 

I did receive your e-mail the other day, but I have been completely inundated with preparing for Nan’s service. Her memorial is only a few days away, and yet, here I sit reading more harsh words from you. Even from afar, you continue to bring negativity into my life. If a strong character is what you’re wanting, then look no more. Being so far from you is what I’ve needed to get a clearer sense of things and to see clearly that walking away from you is the best thing right now. I must end this here. I’m to meet some friends for dinner, so I must send this off.

She stared at the screen before sending it, deleted the last line, and instead wrote: “I’m meeting a woman for dinner, so I must send this off.”

“Touché, Beth,” Gemma muttered. She then wrote a reply to Hannah’s seraphic words:

 

I must keep my words short at the moment, for in minutes from now, I will be sitting opposite you at a table. The occasion is still a surprise to you in honour of celebrating your reconciliation with James, but I do hope I will have a few moments to thank you in person for what you’ve done for me.
 

With barely enough time to send the e-mail before the computer timer would log her off, Gemma wrote a few more lines, her fingers moving as fast as the thoughts poured from her mind. She’d had sense enough to print each of these e-mails, knowing a mere few minutes would be inadequate to fully take in such words—both harsh and gentle. In a few moments, she’d be sitting at a table celebrating the renewed nuptials between husband and wife. But certainly there was no harm in enjoying a few moments of fantasy, of imagining Hannah waking up next to her.

After Gemma left the cybercafé, she followed the street to Soho Square, sprinting across the road and through alleyways. Down adjacent streets, passing squares of lush parks, she soon arrived at the restaurant. Surprised that James would choose a predominantly gay area of Soho, Gemma at once felt comforted by the displays of freedom flags, pink and black triangles, of men holding other men’s hands, women with arms about one another, and that familiarity of a part of the city which for years had sheltered people like her—and others such as Philip, Andrew, Mary, and Emily Oldfield.

Standing outside The Edge, Gemma reread the first part of Hannah’s e-mail, fixating her eyes on the line, “You looked so sweetly serene this morning in my bed.”

She then noticed James standing on the sidewalk next to her, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. Standing behind him, Michael greeted her, the three of them momentarily quiet as they walked to the entrance of the restaurant.

“I’m so grateful you were able to join us,” James said and opened the door for her.

“I think a bit of celebrating is certainly in order,” she said, slipping those e-mails into her backpack. “I adore this part of London. My nan and I used to frequent Soho often.”

“Ah, how lovely. Shall we head to the table? We’ve already ordered a bottle of wine. Gemma,” he whispered and stepped closer, “my wife looks so happy. I know I barely know you, but I think this discovery is, well, something almost magical.”

James was a lucky man, for it took a strong woman to forgive the philandering ways of a spouse like him and an even stronger woman to allow for a clear path of return back into her heart. It was obvious what James saw in Hannah, for Gemma saw it as well.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Gemma said to Michael. At this point, with the promise of wine and dinner, she thought it appropriate to at least be pleasant to her date. This surely was a moment when she could forget about her own worries and have a future anecdote to tell to her friends back in L.A. He appeared not even old enough to shave, and yet of course, the age difference should not have mattered since this was merely a faux date.

“Have you been here before?” Michael asked. “We discovered this place several months ago and always wanted to take Hannah here, but, you know, it was awkward with how things were with the two of them. But it’s lovely that we can finally share this restaurant with her.”

Gemma merely nodded her head, not remotely interested in any details from this boy—nor in any particulars about the reconciled married couple. But if she had to celebrate anything at this point, it must be someone else’s love, for she didn’t see that to be the case for her any time soon. Although Hannah had it in her to forgive her husband for his infidelities, Gemma couldn’t erase from her mind what Beth had done. The lands separating them were but a symbol of the thousands of miles their hearts had traveled away from one another. She would e-mail Charlotte soon, tell her that she’d accept the offer of traveling to Italy, and would therefore allow her heart the extra miles to heal. Rather than make the heart grow fonder, distance in rare cases allowed the heart to be free.

As she calculated the rest of her evening, Gemma figured on two hours for dinner, half an hour or so to retrieve Tippy, another half hour to get to the train station, and then an hour and a half journey to Nan’s. Once there, she would feel the comfort in that home, the familiarity of the walls of the house, the softness of the sheets, the smell of Nan still in the house—blackberry pie fresh from the oven, lavender in small vases scattered throughout the rooms, the musty smell of the closet. The house would soon be filled with strangers, her own family being a compilation of these unfamiliar people. But for now, she would enjoy this meal with the Davises, the proximity of Hannah providing some solace to her.