The unexamined life is between her covers. She slips into an Egyptian sheet and grows close to herself. An arm peeks out braving the cold of the room to reach for a clean ceramic cup.
It’s either coffee black or coffee white with two sugars. The Princess pours it as she sits under the covers waiting for her man. All is empty on the street outside and a shadow flickers along the pavement under the beam of light from a broken lamp post.
The Post Office gives no clues as to the address of the previous occupants yet they were here for twenty years, enough time for a family of four to out grow an ex pat community and wish for home.
The Postman is jovial at first.
“How are you?”
The ageing Princess is cold and distant.
“Welcome to Cricklewood. My mail bags overflow with parcels marked return to sender.”
There is evidence to suggest the family who had this house before her invited him in for tea. His eyes wander and he wonders why the wallpaper is starting to peel and the Belarussian Princess leaves the décor unchecked.
The coffee is now steaming. Condensation drips off her nose and the milk in the jug is turning to room temperature.
So immersed is she in tropical images that time passes and brings sunlight and birdsong that eludes her. There is a rap at the door, something that shakes her with a jolt. The book falls and she forgets to memorise the page number.
“Coming. It may take me a while. Do not go away!”
Her words echo as she trips down the stairs. Following the stench of old vegetables to a room that was a hub of the house.
She mumbles to herself and opens the door to a half deserted South East street.
“Many letters for you. From your lover!”
There are bundles of airmail letters all addressed in biro by a young child writing in English as a second language. They are not for her. They never are. The family has gone away many years ago. Their past comes back to haunt her.
“Return to sender?”
He opens a bag full of letters and packets. She inhales with difficulty into her laboured body after the shock of what she sees. A bright shining ring in a tiny box surpasses her wildest dreams. Blood pumps fast and beats on her fragile skin as he touches her hand. He pushes the ring over her finger and kneels on the wet doorstep only to look up into her eyes that are perpetually looking down.
She pinches her arm and wishes this is her imagination. She thinks of the books she reads and would never read again if she leaves this solitary existence behind.
She is firm and not fair as she closes the door with a push and holds onto the letters he thrusts into her hand. She is still wearing the ring and stares at it with intent now imagining what a new life could be. Dinner parties, theatre trips and rowing regattas flash through her mind with everything it is to be a family. She is now sitting with a cold cup of coffee and takes a reviving sip. In this emptying neighbourhood she lives as a recluse. People drip away from her like water falling out of a broken bottle. No one has worn down her exterior. It has taken much strength and fortitude to hold back her identity. Now, at 82, she needs to make a choice.
The yellow gold of the ring is now warm and the diamond tip is sharp. The ring is made for her but she feels more pleasure when she looks to the past than to the future. She writes with a finger on the kitchen surface where the coffee has been spilt as she made the hot drink last night in the dark.
“Don’t be fathered by a Fascist Dictator.”
She hasn’t slept properly for a year and still continues to live off caffeine and saccharin. She feels pain from the acid of the hot drink in her stomach. It cripples her briefly. This pain becomes agony and she accepts it as she accepts breathing is a part of life.
The banging on the door becomes louder and she feels her heart beat in rhythm with the thud thud thud on the letter box. There is the usual plop of the letters streaming their way in. She realises this is a new day. She has been on the floor all day and all night. The doctor needs to be called this time but she doesn’t raise the telephone she just walks past it all day.
She echoes a warning of common sense to herself. If the Doctor doesn’t know about it then he can’t help. She values privacy more than money or life.
Her breathing is shallow but when she eventually drags her torso past other people’s garden fences to the drop in clinic it is almost too late. They are closing for the day but they will stay to at least see her. When the time comes to tell them what is wrong she cannot get the words out and she no longer feels ill. She feels fine. She feels that all is well with the world but the posters on the walls of the clinic point to much more unpleasant illnesses than she could imagine such as bowel cancer, incontinence and rabies. The list of pamphlets hold her gaze as the nurse takes blood and a receptionist speaks.
“We haven’t seen you here before.”
There are even more pamphlets on diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases and glaucoma. She knows now she has spent too long inside the same room on the Avenue for there is a wild life outside to discover. The diseases on the clinic posters would be caught during joyous frenzies shared on Carnaby Street, Notting Hill and all along the Kings Road. She should have contracted these curable diseases in her youth just to stamp her card and show how she can have a good time. This is why she came to London. to escape the confines of her previous existence.
The nurse now has her blood and the doctor has a diagnosis and it all seems too cruel as she sits in the waiting room one week later with a coffee from the machine. She brings saccharin folded inside foil and pours it in by the shovel load to make life sweeter. The receptionist cuts the waiting room silence.
“I don’t know how you can drink it black!”
“It’s for shock”
“Saccharin solves it.”
Now even the receptionist knows about her saccharin habit.
Pancreatic cancer is written on the file the receptionist hands her to take in. The pancreas is a squiggle on a diagram that is drawn of a human being’s organs in a biology class. It can’t be serious. It can’t cause pain. There can be no problem now she has options.
She sits on a chair, in so much agony and gulps, as the big fat painkiller placed in her mouth she swallows without question. The chair she is sitting on is in fact a trolley in a corridor. The corridor is moving as the trolley takes her on a journey to be examined and a sheet covers her body.
“You’ve written the King of Belarussia. That’s not practical. You need to state a next of kin. Who can we put you in the care of?”
In the blurred thinking of the pre-med she decides on a name and a work address.
“You have written the Royal Mail sorting office. You are a package we will return to sender?! I guess that’s nearer than Belarussia.”
One prick to the skin and she passes out. The quiet and darkness of surrender are a welcome room to sit in.
She walks to the door to the white light of the glass panel shining in see a shadow a tall figure. It is the wheelie bin. It needs wheeling. It is not important and no one is there. It can wait.
Turning to the stairs, there is a knock at the door and she narrates her own dream.
“The long lost son I thought would never find me in London because of the upbringing I left him to.”
She says the words she has been hurting to say.
“You are precious. You need someone to take care of you. No more letters to me simply saying take care of me. Like you, I exist.”
An echo above her hovers in the darkness of a ward at midnight.
“She has made the best kind of recovery. A full one. The answer is food. She is not eating enough. A simple and obvious mistake.”
The doctor emphasises she must learn to enjoy food with rapture, clean the smelly kitchen and open the cook books that are found in the shelves of the house.
Her old gold wedding ring, now safely returned, feels suddenly cheap as she looks around her home. This house saved me, not my dream of finding my past, she thinks. The postman’s uniform is standing by itself but inside it is a new man, a happier face smiles back.
She smiles at the man who holds a sack full of letters. He holds another burden from the hungry employer on his back.
“How did you find me?”
“Everything I learnt I read in books. Besides, your name is on all these letters.”
“I’ve been waiting until you could see me. I am your son.”