Thursday, June 6, 2013

ANNE EYRE (Aunt Tessa: chapter Eighteen) #Jane Eyre Retelling

Chapter Eighteen
Aunt Tessa
    The train journey was long, and I thought of his face, his body, his expressions, playing the images in my head like the schoolgirl I’d been. I put these thoughts of love out of my mind. I knew he was so far out of my reach that these images of unrequited love were both imaginary and laughable. A girl can dream.
     And let’s face it, Rochester made all other men seem pale in comparison. The boys I’d met casually, at school mixers arranged between the boys’ and girls’ schools and even at the train station on those afternoons where I travelled to wherever home was, could never compete, even in my schoolgirl memory.
    I pulled out the novel I’d begun from my reading list, one of the classics, Persuasion, and began to read. I checked my texts intermittently (there were none from him but one from Sophie wishing me Bon Chance!) Her pretty French words made me smile. I had tried to give Sophie the safe and secure upbringing in those few months I’d been with her that I’d never properly experienced myself. I hoped I’d succeeded but my influence was limited in many ways. Sophie, like most children, craved approval from her father. I suppose I had no measure of success except her smiles and the happiness I’d felt when we learnt new things together, like the map of the United States, which was new to me and I’d had to teach myself before I could teach her.  
    I knew when I was forced to leave Sophie and Nate (as I persistently thought of him), I’d miss them both. I should never have let either of them into my heart, I thought, as I snapped my mobile into its cover, folded Persuasion into the scarf in my bag (it was a wonderful story about love lost and found) and shut my eyes. The train chugged into the industrial heartland of central London as I slept.
     When I woke, there was an apprehensive feeling in my stomach that I’d carried with me all through the journey. The flutters were the opposite of the anticipation I’d felt the first time I went to Thornton and arrived near the estate cottage which overlooked the ocean. This feeling was one of dread.
    I took the tube to my aunt’s house in South London. You couldn’t see your surroundings on the tube as it fed like a snake through all of central London, but you felt covered up, literally unseen in the grey and the dark. I remembered the streets without having to check the A-Z directory. My Aunt Tessa’s house was particularly familiar. It was a cold and drab summer’s day. The temperature felt more like autumn. The summer sky began to spit down rain as I reached the steps of Tessa’s house in the expensive enclave of real estate that was Knightsbridge. I walked to the door and rang the bell. Her nurse opened the door and led me, gratefully almost, to my aunt’s sitting room.
     She was seated by the fire with a checked rug wrapped around her knees and the television on. Aunt Tessa looked up as I entered the room. Her hair was greying and she looked older than her years and thinner. Her face was soft in the firelight. There were dark shadows under her eyes.
     ‘Hello Anne,’ she said softly.
     ‘Hello,’ I replied, formally.
     ‘Thank you for coming.’
      We made small talk about the journey then she eyed me up and down and spoke of her real reason for wishing to see me after all these years.
    ‘I brought you here to let you know that when you went away, after you were in foster care, your schooling was paid for by me. It was my financial advisor’s signature on those cheques.’
     I looked at her incredulously.
     ‘It is not what you think, Anne.  I did not do it for your good, just out of my own guilt. I wouldn’t see the truth before my eyes. When you fought with my ex-boyfriend, I knew he was in the wrong, but I didn’t want to admit it. I am sorry for that alone. As you know, I didn’t warm to you, as a child. You were too inquisitive, too knowing and the truth is, I just didn’t like you.’ She paused before speaking again.  ‘Is it wrong to be envious of a child?’
   ‘Do you forgive me, Anne? It’s just that I feel I want your forgiveness before…’
   ‘Yes. I forgive you,’ I said, wanting her to stop speaking so I could leave.
   ‘Then you must hear the rest of this story…’
    I knew she would not have dragged me all the way to her house without spilling more bile.
    ‘I knew your father. The reason that I paid for your schooling was that he left me, gave me, the money that was supposed to be for your upbringing and your future.’
   I was shocked.
   ‘He lived in America after you were born and when he and your mother separated he remarried. After a few months, he wanted to see you and I told him a terrible lie which he never bothered to fully check. I told him you had died in the time during which we’d had no contact. I told them something plausibly tragic and as I was your legal guardian their signatures were never required. Your mother was out to it by then anyway and your father - absent father that he was - he’d only been eighteen when you were born; his name wasn’t even on your birth certificate. He never bothered to check; that is how much he cared about you Anne. By then, I’d sent you away. You see, I was in love with him and I was jealous of your mother.
    Envious, even though she has spent her life going in and out of psychiatric clinics.   It is true she has never wished to see you. I was jealous that she had something of your father’s that I did not; you. So I made up the terrible lie to keep you away from them and him, away from us. The money was in my hands by then and your father did not ask for it to be returned. Out of guilt, I paid for your schooling but that was it. I invested the rest, wisely, I might add.’
     Did she expect me to congratulate her? I was shocked and stood up. I’d feared she’d use these last moments of her existence to hurt me.
    ‘I brought you here, Anne, because you also have an uncle. The letter is there, on the coffee table. He has asked after you; he lost touch with your father when they too, were infants; he only recently heard of your birth; but not the lie of your death. He has a small fortune, apparently, made it in the City last decade. He wants to leave it to you so that you can inherit his wealth. He has no children of his own, nor is he likely to.’
    She coughed, making her face look more pinched in and unappealing than ever.
    ‘He asks you to write to him; you must do so, Anne. I have gone through the money your father left, but you will surely be looked after by this uncle. He has made that promise in the letter. This goes some way to my atonement, to making up for all my lies.’
    I looked at her, speechless. I gathered she’d been jealous of my mother, me… the world… and had seemingly endless psychological issues of her own. Talk was pointless. I just wanted to leave her room and never see the woman again.
    I took the letter and gathered my coat as I left.  I let her have the final words.
     ‘Anne, you have cursed me. I always knew you’d be the death of me.’
     As I left the house, sometimes I thought my whole family must have been mad, that my only hope in life was forging a new path, finding new people, creating my own way. I was not reduced to tears as I walked along the footpath; I was calm, controlled.
     I felt some inner comfort and distant nourishment as I looked at the name of my uncle on the paper and read his welcoming letter. I resolved to contact him as I ordered tea at the Berkeley, one of the nicest hotels in town. I’d earnt it. It was almost a relief to know that my parents had not intentionally abandoned me to a system which had nearly destroyed me; that they’d been victims themselves, something I was determined not to be. And what of my aunt? She was the saddest victim of all. I had only pity for her.
    I shed a tear for my lost upbringing in the bathrooms of that posh hotel and afterwards resolved not to cry over it again, to save my tears for something good, some future happiness. I believed I’d finally earned some tears of joy.
    I stayed in a nice hotel that night. I had more than enough money to pay for the room with a sunken bath and cable television. The next day, before I was due to start my return journey to Devon and then on to Cornwall, I decided to go shopping in the street I’d read about in society magazines, Pont Street. Then I went to Harvey Nichols and realised how much Sophie would love the beautiful counters and lush shop windows. I dreamt of what was good as I wandered through the departments. I bought a gift for the maids and Mrs Fairfax and afterwards I caught a double decker bus and treated myself to an afternoon in Oxford Street. I walked along to Regent Street, to a famous toy store, where I selected a doll to add to Sophie’s collection, one that looked a little bit like her and one I thought she would love.

     After her father married and she was sent to boarding school, she would need all the strength, creativity and imaginary friends she could muster. I, of course, would have to start afresh.  I did not envisage returning to the place I grew up in; I wasn’t sure what I’d do after September but resolved to finalize my university scholarship applications. Then, if all went as planned, perhaps enrolling in a few subjects would be a start; I could study at night and work during the day… that was the plan of escape once all the preparations for Nicola Ingram’s wedding were underway.