Alys is looking back on her life, and trying to make sense of a chain of events
|I have lived many lives as Alys.
The change in me, one life to another, began on the morning of my engagement. 1911 and a Monday, I think, though you'll forgive me a few slips here and there, twenty-five years on. Rain lashed at the windows. My fiancand his father sat upon the Knole sofa, postures like rods, and so formal and proper. Jumping to their feet whenever mother or I shifted an inch, though it hid their buyer's smiles, at least.
A decision had been made, the conversation darting somewhere above my head. Mentions of letters between the various parties, although I had not seen or written a word.
'My son intends to marry your daughter,' said the red-faced father.
That's how they told me. One life to another.
'Oh, Alys,' said my mother, not bothering to mask her relief.
The father shot me a grave look.
'I've fallen into the habit of indulging him,' he said, adding in a low voice, 'Though he does sometimes surprise me.'
'Bellingham the younger smiled, teeth bared. 'Alys,' he said, as if moved, as if I might too be moved. 'Won't you say something?'
My lips would not budge, so my mother accepted on my behalf. Another dart of conversation. I smiled - there, life - though I didn't feel like smiling. The father to Bellingham, something about where we would live after the wedding. Well, I'd thought, I should like to live here, where I have always lived, but as no one asked I did not say.
'How is my daughter to be kept?' asked my mother.
A tidal wave of sensations descended into the pit of my stomach.
My new owner sized me up from across the room as he listed incomes, trusts, annuities and the like. My mother should have raised the price, given how long his gaze lingered. It was a shock, I'll admit, this blending of marriage and economics. I thought vaguely of love, and its absence.
'Well then, Bellingham,' I said, when all was done and he stepped forward to shake my hand.
'James,' he said. 'James,' with rising indignance, but he'd always be Bellingham to me.
My mother's fury survived the night. It rose in the morning, with the eggs and potted jams laid out for breakfast. She sat down at the breakfast table without a word, disappointment in the tightness of the little muscles around her mouth. Sad little shakes of her head every so often. I'd never minded her dislike of me before. My father's love was blinding.
Later, she found her voice, countering the arguments I'd failed to raise, and ticking them off on her fingers one by one. Her first point being of course the loss. My father, a locomotive in all he did, now dust over Rydal Water. The mills that gave us all we had gone to my uncle, who said he would always see us right and had not answered a letter, the telephone, nor a door to us since.
Point number two was Bellingham himself.
'He's a good man,' my mother said, adding a crescendo of superlatives to the matter. 'Honourable,' she said. 'Esteemed'
More importantly in terms of my situation, he was a living, breathing man with a profession and a house and who had, she told me, half the women in London clamouring to be his wife.
‘I’m too young to get married,’ I said. I was just nineteen.
‘There are girls younger than you raising families.’
‘We barely know each other.’
It was true – one encounter from afar, one awkward tea with my mother and a dance at the Moot Hall, in which poor Bellingham had spent so much time avoiding my feet there had been little left over for conversation.
‘That’s hardly an argument against marrying him.’
‘It’s not six months since the funeral. It’s not decent.’
‘Oh, now she cares what society thinks. I thought you’d no time for it - parties and frippery, wasn’t it? A waste of one’s time - isn’t that what you said?’
She sighed. A whole body sigh, rippled through muscle, sinew and bone. ‘You’re lucky,’ she said. ‘You’re just too blind to see it.’
My hands clasped together in my lap, in prayer or desperation, or both. ‘Mother, I can’t. Please don’t make me. You won’t, will you?’
That unleashed the full arsenal, eye rolls, pithy remarks and disbelief. Bellingham’s proposal, in her mind, being little more than an inexplicable act of charity by a man of whom I was most definitely not worthy. A barrister, she would say, as one might say ‘a DaVinci’, and then me, the daughter of a dead mill owner.
‘Any sensible girl would be flattered.’
But I was not sensible, not then. I wanted to claw back threads of time to the day he’d spied me swimming in Rydal Water, and connive a way stop him seeing me and wanting me.
My mother would not have understood. We’d never had a conversation as to the thoughts that occupied my mind in the waking hours, when I’d take to the hills or the water and lose myself in any way I wished. We hadn’t discussed the fact that I perhaps wasn’t destined for marriage at all, given my – hush, now - secret desire to forge a path of my own making. Which meant to me lots of walking and reading, with no one intruding on my time or thoughts. That is all. No grand plans for bettering myself with education or other such success. I wanted the freedom of the hills and the water. I wanted the space to be as quiet as I so chose. This did, however, neglect one crucial aspect of freedom of which my young uneducated brain remained unaware. Freedom of any kind required capital, of which I had none but my currency as a wife.
I took my despair out into the garden. It was raining but not for long, a jagged line of gold around the clouds. In a measurement of my own making, it took precisely two slices of toast to walk from my father’s house to the banks of the lake, then a quarter of a mile of water. Which meant to the human eye the lake had an endlessness to it, with the possibility that – there in the fallibility of human sight - there was nothing but water, carved through hill, forest and farmland. I stood at the lake’s edge that morning, me, mud, and the moulded peaks of rock, a skyline at waist height. There were gannets and ringed plover, but I cared more for them than they for me.
‘Bother it,’ I said to the air, because even when alone I couldn’t bring myself to say aloud what I was truly thinking. My Father’s secret words. The words of his mills.
Three weeks stood between the day of the decision and the wedding. My mourning clothes transformed their grief to me.
Bellingham and I walked the Lakeland paths, getting to know one another, which meant a lot of talking from him and a great deal of me idling alongside, listening. So, I suppose I must swallow some blame for what followed. He was never anything but clear as to who he was, and what he expected.
One day, when my ears had tired of London and the law, we spoke of my father’s house, which would always be my father’s house no matter the loss, no matter the slipping of time. It was a modern house, not quite twenty years old. Sharp angles and a pointed roof, chimney after chimney after chimney; quite unlike the coarse lines of other Lakeland houses.
Bellingham smiled to show he was listening but his eyes suggested something else; his line of sight being the giveaway, my neck, breasts, and the rest. His mind had taken him back to the day he caught me by the water, though I was quick and denied him the view for long. I swam in the lake spring through to autumn and never encountered another soul. Normally I’d wear a thin cotton suit but in warmer climes, if I felt brave and made the banks before the hikers, I’d wear nothing at all. That’s when he caught me, with a buzzard calling somewhere on high. I’d floated onto my back, arms outstretched, watching. For a moment my body was still, and the buzzard was still, only the wind moved him on. The hills were empty but for a few trees, their backs broken by the wind which flies unimpeded across the grazing land. They make me think of pain, those trees with their distorted bones. The water felt like ice. I took a moment to really experience the sensation. That is love, you see, me, the water and the ice. Sensations on bare skin. Love.
Did I hear him or just sense him? Women can do that you know. Intuition, my mother calls it. Two eyes on high, he was stood with his feet apart on the rough track, watching. In-tu-it-ion, but I didn’t know anything back then. That’s how it really began. Where did it begin for you, Ray?
Bellingham began to speak again. The memory of my nakedness did not, it seem, hold for long, (how quickly my value depreciated). His famous ancestor who put a bullet in a prime minister - it remains his party piece. I calculate I may have heard him tell the story some three hundred times and that’s a conservative estimate.
‘There was excitement in the house,’ he said, gesticulating with every word for maximum dramatic impact. ‘There always is when the Prime Minister is due, especially one as unpopular as Spencer Percival. Everything moves up a notch, the roar of debate, the passion, the intensity. Imagine the red faces of those serious men, Alys. There is widespread poverty across the country. Their constituents endure the most dreadful hardships and there, on the chamber floor, will stand the man responsible. The man who’s desire to crush the French has inflicted such terrible deprivations, so much so that his own ministers struggle to support him.’
‘Gosh,’ I said. The nodding heads of hairbells still lined the path, despite the chill in the air.
‘Percival has been summoned to the chamber. He decides to walk, which no doubt infuriates the other Members more, who believe the Prime Minister should have been there for the start of the session. Percival enters the lobby, a man steps forward. His name is John Bellingham, a distant relative of mine.’
‘Oh yes, you said.’
‘Bellingham raises his arm. BANG. He shoots the Prime Minister who falls to the floor, declaring ‘I am murdered.’ MP’s pour out of the chamber to make sense of the noise, there is chaos when the news spreads through the crowd. The prime minister is dead, brought down by a man of grievance, a victim of the government’s punitive policies, or so he believes.’
‘A killer in the family,’ I said, committing fully to the performance with wide, astonished eyes. ‘An assassin, imagine.’
But Bellingham hadn’t even made it to the interesting part, though in truth my eyes would go no wider. The interesting part, as so often with Bellingham, involved an obscure law, and it was ten down on a list of laws he’d spoken of that day.
He smiled, proud of the knowledge he was about to impart.
‘Parliament, being a palace, affords only those of royal stock the privilege of dying within its walls,’ he said. ‘So poor Spencer Percival, despite bleeding his commoner blood all over the lobby floor, had his place of death recorded as elsewhere, officially.’
That is it, Bellingham’s party piece, that is the sum of its parts. He delights not in the bloodshed but the archaic rule.
‘Can you imagine?’ said my soon-to-be husband.
I held my gaze steady. ‘I can imagine,’ said I.
He kissed me on one of these getting-to-know-each-other walks. I think we were both relieved when the moment passed – him, because he probably sensed my discomfort and found no excitement in my reticence, as some men might. Me, because his lips were cold and reminded me of raw fish.
‘Why me?’ I said, when it was over. ‘You don’t even know me.’
He took my hand, which I found rather grating. ‘Alys, darling, you enthral me. I knew this to be a very great love the moment I set eyes on you.’
A very great love.
‘Like Cathy and Heathcliff?’ A test.
‘Yes, yes, just like that,’ he said, resoundingly failing said test. I knew then that Emily Brontë spoke for me when she wrote, “If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day.” (Wuthering Heights being a dark and torrid account of obsession, and not in any sense of the word romantic.)
The marriage was doomed from the off. How could I ever be anything but a disappointment to this man who had a picture of me in his mind, naked by the water. Wild and audacious. Impetuous and free. And though we had walked that path some fifteen times since the arrangements were made, he hadn’t shifted from that first view. But I am not, nor was I ever, an enigma, with no wildness to be tamed and no riddles to be solved. I was, in actual fact, perfectly content – but no man could ever have understood that, given my standing in society, my circumstances imperilled in all the ways that mattered. Now I was to be ripped from it all just so he could puzzle and solve me.
I confessed my love to Bellingham as we hiked Heron Pike, the day before the wedding; dawdling on the hillside, trying to choose my moment wisely.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing,’ I said.
He looked at me.
I took a deep breath. ‘I don’t wish to be indelicate.’
‘Thing is, old girl. I have to be back in London by eight.’
‘Of course, of course, I see. It’s just there’s something I’ve been meaning to…’
An impatient sigh. ‘Yes?’
How quickly he grew irritated with me and this land of mine. I raised myself up. Looked him straight in the eye.
‘Mr Bellingham, we cannot go on with any of this … wedding business … until I make my confession.’ I’d stumbled beyond the truth and landing squarely in religiousness, but at least it got his attention.
His eyes narrowed. ‘Wedding business…’ he said, slowly. He kicked a pebble off the hillside. ‘Well, what is it?’
‘My dear,’ I tried out the words as I might a new hat. ‘Bellingham…’
‘James,’ he said.
‘Before we go any further, I think you ought to know that my heart belongs to another.’
A buzzard called above our heads.
‘I assume you’re being facetious?’ he said.
I shook my head. Kept my eyes on his.
Bellingham put his hand to his mouth. ‘Who the devil is he? I demand to know.’
I sensed cogs turning in his brain. Duelling pistol or sword.
‘There’s not just one.’ I added up my loves in my head. ‘Ten, no - twenty, at least.’
It all came from my lips in a breathless rush. E.M Forster, I declared my great love and surely – surely – he felt the same though we’d never met. But was I not Helen Schlegal with her fierce ideals and social conscience; was I not a little bit of Margaret, with her patient sensibilities? Was it not for me, that book, those words, which held me in their power? I am so many people to myself, and could be whoever I liked in those days.
Another love, Henry James. Another George Egerton and the women of her Keynotes, who are also me, but in ways it would take me many years to understand. Alcott, of course, my childhood love. Another I referred to just as Emily as if we were friends, as if her darkness and fury matched those within me, ‘half-savage, and hardy, and free’. You see, to me my love of words and beauty was entirely equal to that which Bellingham expected of me – devotion, admiration, and respect. And with ten, twenty, claims on my reserves already there seemed little leftover for this stranger of a man.
Bellingham watched my eyes dance with light and my mouth form words with no sign they meant a thing to him. He’d gone back to the water, I supposed, and the colours he saw that day – for it was glorious from first light. A morning when ones senses the glory ahead by the tone change of the bedroom drapes. The lake so clear, and wildflowers in the grasses, my nipples as pink as the balsam roaming dense on the hillside.
But no, I’d got it wrong. Bellingham sat down upon a patch of scraggy earth and said something so surprising I thought of it as soon as I awoke the next morning. On that day, with me thinking of my Balsam nipples, I did learn that Proust was not Prowst, having never before heard anyone speak aloud of this other lover of mine.
My panic folded a little at this. Thomas Hardy, he said, and my breath steadied. I am Bathsheba sometimes, when sheep with blackened, staring eyes crowded the lanes in scatty panic, though I did not, of course, mention this other twinning of mine to Bellingham.
He carried on though surely it was my turn to impart something of myself. Holidays as a boy spent at his father’s house in Cornwall, books a pause between rock-pooling and bathing in a blue green sea quite unlike any place else.
‘You’ll see for yourself,’ he said. ‘We’ll honeymoon there in the spring.’
Another piece for me to puzzle together into a picture of my life to be.
‘In the London house,’ he went on, ‘the walls are lined with shelves waiting to be filled with books - that’s all for you, Alys. There are fine bookshops nearby because of the universities. Soho is a mere walk away, the West End a short drive. Theatres and galleries – life, Alys. All for you.’
I understood him then. Bellingham, my betrothed, a master of words. And then, between Cathy, and Bathsheba, and Rosa, and Nana, and the Schlegal girls shaping in and out of each other appeared someone new. The face indistinct though undoubtedly mine, the silhouette to be decided once I’d seen the lay of the land. A wife, though what that meant remained to be seen. This person took form with orange blossom in her hair, before a stone laid for her father in a churchyard two miles from what could no longer be said to be her home. This person, who’s name by chance was also Alys and had a husband named Bellingham too, made a promise to herself. She, that is I, would never forget her father and the gift he gave her, which I think I recognised only that day.
One life to another, Alys Bellingham took shape. She swore her vows, I broke my heart, and promised I would never forget what it felt like to be free.