She’d often thought about her life in the way that we all think about our lives. She’d thought about the things she wanted, or thought she wanted. She’d thought about the things she would have liked to do. She’d thought about the difference that she’d make, perhaps even to one person, and she’d thought about her life in the context of being a part of something with someone else.
Sometimes, when she was being overly optimistic, which in her case was rare, she thought she might make someone else with the other person too, a someone to raise and love and teach, a someone to leave to the world.
She’d often thought that looking back at life was like opening a window somehow, and looking through the window into the past. You looked into the past through the window of the present, trying to peer through the bars of memory, and perhaps, just perhaps, things were as you remembered them.
But then again, perhaps they were not.
She had been a thin serious little child who was often seen and not heard, in the accepted manner of children everywhere during the time that she had grown up; anyone wanting to peek into her life only had to look at the photographs on the mantelpiece of her parents’ home. There she was, excelling in school, and winning medals, and there she was, with people fawning all over her, telling her she had it in her to be anything she wanted. She knew, deep in her heart, that what she wanted more than anything was to be a writer. She wanted it almost as much as she wanted to be a mum.
She had dreamed of travel, but had never travelled very far; she had dreamed of moving to a big busy city a long way away, but she had never really left home. She hadn’t left home in the way that true adventurers leave home, with their worlds on their backs. She had once been abroad as part of a youth group trip, and she had been equally amazed and terrified; the notion that the world as a whole existed outside of her tiny sleepy little town was one she had known and not realised, having never given it much thought beyond vague desires she knew she would never have the courage to chase.
She moved out in her early twenties and went to university like most of her friends; like most of her friends she had tasted the brief freedom that came with those years. She had been serious and intense and most decidedly not fun. She was not fun enough, although one young man had been enamoured and had chased her, spiritedly. She enjoyed it, but enjoyed allowing him to catch her, and her eyes opened wide that first afternoon they had spent in bed, as he showed her what she had never realised. He showed her what her body was capable of, and what their bodies were capable of together. She had felt powerful and beautiful and wanted, and the feeling was like a drug.
She’d attended parties and meetings, and smoked her first cigarette, which she had hated. She’d attended parties – real parties, with noise and music and sweaty gyrating bodies, with the smells of cheap perfume and talc and cigarette smoke in the air – but her mind was always far away, even when she was dancing with him, kissing him on the dance floor where everyone could see them. She knew her parents would never approve but she also knew that they had had their chance to live their lives and although they were responsible for the fact that she was in the world, this life, this life was hers.
The night they called her to tell her that he had died in a car accident on the freeway had been the worst night of her life; her hands were numb at the thought of him lying on the asphalt with the rain and the broken glass and the twisted metal around him, his body twisted like everything else around him, his body which would never touch her body again. He had been coming to see her and the thought of that crushed her like nothing else. Her parents had thought her unnatural for refusing to cry but they had never understood – and nor had anyone else – that she had been unable to cry. She had stood beside his grave, a widow before she had ever become a wife, her face pale but composed. She couldn’t cry, and it was a mystery to her. She thought she was as cold as everybody else thought she was.
The tears had come much later, in private, in bed, and soaked through her pillow. She thought she would never cry like that again, and she didn’t. She stayed in bed crying for a day, calling in sick at the secretarial job she had landed, and had to wear dark glasses for two days following, because her eyes were so red and weary. Life became coloured in shades of tired and she struggled to do the things she always did. She wrote to a friend complaining about the pain of living, of inhaling and exhaling.
She gave up her little apartment and moved back in with her parents, intending to only stay until she felt better again. She never felt better again.
She tried to ‘put herself out there’ and ‘meet more men’ as her friends urged her to do, but it was tiresome and she thought the men were uninteresting. She liked nothing better than to be left alone when she finished work, curling up with a book, or looking out of the window and remembering how it had all been.
She knew she would never find another him again, but she was horrible at saying no, and hated to disappoint her friends, and so she tried, over and over again, for them, although it left her feeling miserable and broken. As much as he had ever made her feel beautiful and powerful, she now only constantly felt powerless.
When her mother fell ill she was a devoted nurse, and cared for her for many years. But her mother’s death, which had been inevitable for some time, shook her. It is always hard to lose a parent.
Her father followed some years later, and life continued, as it always does. She was now the owner of the home in which she had grown up, an adult remembering the long-gone echoes of the child’s voice.
Her constant companions were a series of cats whom she doted on. She came to call them her children, her furry children who needed her even when nobody else did.
Her friends all had teenage children by now and she was listening to all of their complaints, assuring and reassuring, forever playing the part of their doting friend, and aunt to the children who knew her and did not. She only ever gave them books as presents and most of them did not appreciate the gift of a good read.
She tried over and over again to get her books published, and began to collect all the rejection letters she had ever received. She told herself over and over again that one day she would have a book accepted and she would know what it felt like, for once, to make something, something to leave to the world.
One day she had looked in the mirror and had been taken aback at the face that was looking back at her. She had never realised how much older she had become; time had slipped by while she was too busy inhaling and exhaling.
Forty years is a long time to be someone’s secretary, but she had also done many more things in the company she had worked in; she had become invaluable and people were genuinely sorry to see her go. She had been given a little gold watch that she wore sometimes with her good dresses when she had to go out, or to the church, where she went sometimes. She had never quite understood the significance of god; she just knew that she never believed that an entity could exist who would then revel in so much death and sorrow and suffering and there was too much pain in the world for a god. But she went to church because she had a vague sense of it being the right thing to do, and she usually did the right things.
When Mr Tibbins died of old age she didn’t get another cat, and she missed desperately the quiet companionship that they offered. But she was genuinely terrified that she would die one day and that nobody would care about any cat she owned. She was vaguely aware that it was the right thing to do by the cat.
She tried to send her books off to new publishers far and wide, and got her last rejection letter the day before she died.
She died in the house she had been born in and she died in her sleep, flitting away quietly in the night, unnoticed, much like the way she had lived.
She was buried, as per her instructions, in the plot beside her parents, and her house was sold, as per her instructions, and the money divided among the many children of her friends, who had never liked her gifts of books, but who appreciated the money. They thought good thoughts of her. Many of them had children of their own.
Her lawyer was surprised to receive a letter from a publisher not long after the sale of her house, offering to publish the book she had sent them. He thought about it for a while, before agreeing to the publisher’s terms. He set up an estate in her name, with the children of her friends as the beneficiaries. He was vaguely aware that it was what she would have wanted, perhaps.
A top newspaper added her book to its bestseller list, calling her the treasure the world allowed to slip through its fingers.
Nobody would have been more surprised.
She had once wanted to leave something to the world.