updating ‘Friends Through All’ by Nellie Hellis in The British Workwoman, Issue 233, pp. 34-35.
Told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, the lives of Emmie and Rosie are quickly detailed in the original ‘Friends Through All’ by Nellie Hellis (The British Workwoman, Issue 233, pp. 34-35). The protagonist Emmie meets Rosie when visiting her ex-employer in a workhouse and begins a friendship with her. Emmie’s turbulent history is very quickly summarised. I felt that this desensitised the reader to the story of a downtrodden girl who has experienced grief and physical ill health yet is still open to receiving love from others while being kind and optimistic. The strength of this character came through strongly in the original story, and I wanted to build on that.
The second choice I made was to set the story in the modern-day and to add my own experience. There is nothing about the original story by “Nellie Hellis” (a name that suggests a reader-contributor) that couldn’t apply to the present. Grief, health issues and friendship will never fail to have importance in writing.
I chose to interrupt Emmie’s story with conversations with Rosie and also with Emmie’s own personal thoughts and reflections so that the reader is not given all of the information straight away, but still has a feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
Finally, I wanted to build the narrative through flashbacks, a typical technique in the literature of trauma. Victims of trauma do not remember stories in chronological order: they move in and out of their memories as they try to move on with their lives and accept their new reality. It was important to me as a writer that this was effectively communicated in the piece and I do this typographically, differentiating the past from the present by the using the facilities of WordPress.
“We’ve not got time, Emmie.”
You were right. We didn’t have time. I always assumed we did. But how was I to know?
“Okay, I’ll finish it later,” I said, putting my knitting down.
I grabbed my boots and coat. I could hear the branches knocking on the window in the wind like they wanted to be let in. I didn’t blame them. I’d want to be let into a house as happy as that.
My boots sank into the sand. I was at peace when I felt that. I was on my way home.
I didn’t need to answer. He pulled me onto the boat, and we left the land. That was how we started every day. It wasn’t just that we needed to. We wanted to. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t on the water.
I didn’t understand boredom until I moved to London. I’d gone my whole life not feeling it in Cornwall. I suppose it just doesn’t happen if you’re with the right people. And he was more than right.
“Will you teach me to fish today?”
“You don’t like the way I do it?” He said, chuckling.
“No! I do! I just want to be able to do it.”
“You think you’ve got what it takes?”
“I’m only as good as my teacher.” I grinned.
He couldn’t argue with that.
* * *
I could smell her famous fish pie as I walked back into the cottage. I left my boots in the porch and walked in. I was excited. I miss that feeling the most. It’s hard to smile when you don’t have anything to be excited about.
I laid out three baby blue plates and poured milk into the jug.
“How was it today?” she asked, smiling. Maybe I miss that the most.
“Dad taught me how to fish!”
“That’s smart. Two is better than one. Besides, it will serve you well when we’re gone.”
She was always looking forward. Now I’m always looking back.
Dad sat down in a heap, just as she brought out the pie.
“The next one you make will be from Emmie’s catch, Sarah.”
“You think she’ll get the hang of it that soon?” she asked, sitting down next to me and squeezing my shoulder.
“Well as our little one put it, she’s only as good as her teacher.” He said, winking at me.
“Something tells me you’ll even be a little better.” She teased.
“Ain’t no better!” he laughed.
I’ve decided. It’s his laugh that I miss most of all.
“What happened next, Emmie?”
Rosie was my roommate and possibly the last kind soul in all of London.
“We should just leave it there, Rosie. You don’t want to hear the rest.”
“Or you don’t want to relive it.” She always knew. “Or both.”
So did I.
“You wouldn’t put a book down before you read the ending.”
“This book will make you cry.”
“Just carry on, Emmie. You might feel better after you tell someone.”
I don’t think I’ll ever feel better. But I knew she wouldn’t let it go. Like me, I suppose.
* * *
It was sunny that day.
“If the sun’s out, the smile’s out.” Said Dad.
He told me that every time. And he’d been right every time. Every time but this time.
I’d learnt to fish by this point. Mum would never admit it, but he had been right: it was my fish in the pies now. That didn’t stop him from joining me every day. I knew I’d never be able to fish without him. For the most part, he let me do it and took the chance to lie in the sun. I didn’t mind. I knew he’d earned it. I liked providing for them.
I clambered onto the boat and we were away. It was that annoying kind of weather. When it’s trying to rain, and trying to be sunny, but the clouds can’t make their mind up. It was a little windy, but nothing we couldn’t handle. I’d been out on choppy days, but I was never worried. How could I be when he was there sitting next to me, cracking jokes like nothing bad could ever happen.
We knew we had to leave. It’s strange how we still had everything, but now we had nothing. I couldn’t even bring myself to fish. I knew I would never be able to fish again. That boat was never meant to sail in a storm.
It was the most painful thing ever to happen to me, and, strangely, I couldn’t remember most of it. I still can’t.
It comes in fragments.
I remember it getting dark faster than we had anticipated.
I remember the waves crashing onto the boat and throwing us into chaos.
I remember swimming back and expecting to see him there on the shore.
I remember telling myself he would be back at any moment.
I remember waiting all night and all of the next day at home in the warm.
I remember my fishing rod ready in my hand.
And then I remember realising my father wasn’t going to be taking me fishing ever again.
Mum and I would take turns trying to encourage the other. To get out of bed. To get dressed. To smile. I don’t know which was more painful. Trying to do those things or trying to encourage the other to. We became good liars, or maybe not so good as habitual. We had to tell each other every day that it was going to be alright. That we would feel happy again. That God hadn’t left us.
The truth is, I felt like God sank into the sea with my father.
London called our name: Mum knew someone who would give her work there. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing she said. It broke our hearts to leave our cottage. To leave the sand and the blue beauty. But it would have been worse to stay.
Nowhere made me happy once I left the seaside. I left my soul on the shore, waiting for him to come back.
* * *
Instead of warm sand, my feet sank into the mud and the litter of London. The seagulls were replaced by dirty pigeons. I tried to find kindness in my heart for them, but I couldn’t. My kindness came from one man, and he had left this world.
Mum managed to find us a room, with the help of my father’s friends.
“Don’t worry about the rent, for now, Sarah. Just get back on your feet and we’ll take care of the rest,” they said.
They were some of the last people who were kind. It was as though everyone had lost their father in London. While I could find no kindness in my heart, neither could they. It seemed to be a symptom of living here.
My mother had a job on a market stall, selling fish. I helped her before I went to school, and often afterwards. I couldn’t bear to sit still. I couldn’t listen to my brain anymore. It only liked to listen for him.
I began to find it more and more difficult to help Mum. School was not a success: the teachers told me I was dim and difficult. I did try but reading was getting harder and harder: I could only see a little light at the end of a tunnel. Everything was dark.
Eventually, the doctors told me that it was cataracts. I kept telling Mum that it would clear up eventually. Don’t old people get cataracts? I was only 15! But it did the opposite. I went in for surgery and never saw anything again. They told me that the surgeon had failed. They said it wasn’t the first time and he had lost his job, “if that helps”. It didn’t. I was in bed for weeks and even when I recovered, I was still no help to my poor Mum.
She was struggling too. I could hear her moaning every time she went to pick something up. Or sit down. Or stand up. Or do anything at all. Eventually, she wasn’t fit for work anymore. Their help came too late. She didn’t make it through the winter.
I had felt alone after losing Dad, but not like this. We had always had each other. A child is not supposed to be in a world without parents. Or a world without sight. But it no longer mattered. I did not want to see a world without them.
“I should have listened when you told me I would cry,” sobbed Rosie.
I’m glad she cried. It meant that she cared about me.
After losing Mum, I had to move into a shared house full of broken toys. Rosie was one of them. She had lost family too. As if that hadn’t been enough, she began to suffer from frequent epileptic fits and was deemed unable to work. We were put together in a halfway house. This is where we are now.
“How do you live with any of that?” she cried.
I wanted to comfort her, but, how could I? I couldn’t even comfort myself. Those types of wounds never heal. You just have to find the right clothes to cover them up.
I felt for her hand and linked my fingers around hers.
“There is one good thing that came from all of this,” I said.
“What’s that, Rosie?” she said, sniffing deeply.
“You. I wish none of it had happened. But I don’t wish that I’d never met you.”
“You can’t see me, but I’m smiling, Emmie. Thank you. I wish to God none of that had happened to your sweet soul. But I’m grateful it brought you to the bed next to mine.”
We sat on the bed for hours, taking it in turns to cry. Sometimes, we couldn’t wait for our turn.
It was the first time I’d spoken to anyone about losing them. It felt more real, now it had come out of my mouth. Up until now, I could pretend that there had been no storm. No doctors. No funeral for Mum. Now I’d told someone, it was reality. I’d liked pretending it was a bad dream.
But now… it was like someone was with me in the bad dream. I wasn’t alone anymore. God had sent me someone worthy of taking their places. I know they would have adored her. She was the only gift I’d had in years. And she wasn’t the last.
“I’d like you to meet my new friend,” said Rosie, one day.
I didn’t like the thought of Rosie having another friend. I knew it was selfish, but I’d lost too many people. I couldn’t stand the thought of her getting sick of me.
“I don’t need any new friends. I have one right here.”
“I know you’ll get along with her, Emmie. She’s kind and loves to talk to people.”
I didn’t know how to argue with her. There was no reason why I shouldn’t meet this…
I’d probably never have to hear her again. We could talk for a while and then Rosie wouldn’t bother me about it again.
“Okay, we can see her on Sunday,” I said, reluctantly.
“You’ll love her,” beamed Rosie. I forced a smile.
* * *
“I’m almost finished, hold still!”
Rosie had always been amazed that I could still braid her hair without my sight. I’d done it countless times on myself, growing up. I could still feel every strand in my hands, though. Braiding took me back to the seaside; to my boots sinking into the sand.
“Those braids are lovely!”
I didn’t recognise the voice. I did recognise the kindness it carried. I’d heard it in Rosie’s mouth when she had been describing this woman. I knew it was Annie.
“Thank you. Annie, is it?”
“That’s me. You must be Rosie’s sweet Emmie. So nice to finally meet you. She speaks so fondly of you.”
“I’m sure as fondly as she speaks of you.”
Despite my anxiety about becoming second best to Annie, I found myself warming to her immediately. Perhaps it was because she spoke to me like I mattered at all. She didn’t speak to me like I was blind. It had been so long since anyone had done that.
That first visit, Annie ended up staying for hours. The staff weren’t happy at all, but we were. She told us all about the families she had been a nanny for. She told us how she had lost her husband last year to cancer. I found myself crying for a woman who I had only just met. It upset me that someone so kind could have been looked over by the heavens.
She visited every Sunday for the next year. She came prepared with sweets and a juicy story to tell us. She became our in-house entertainment. Our little light. Looking back, we healed each other. We each still carried our baggage, but our sweet group of three always helped to carry the load.
We were sad when she told us she would be visiting the country. She would be gone for two weeks. But she had a family she wished to see. We told her that we would be fine. We would find plenty of ways to distract ourselves. But I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t always listening out for our friend to come home.
Annie never returned to the house. I waited impatiently to hear her gentle voice swinging down the corridors. I sent Rosie to the post box every single day. Even in writing, she was silent. Rosie was heartbroken. It would have been so much easier if I hadn’t been too.
True, we still had each other. It would have been far harder if we hadn’t. But the days seemed to be a little heavier, without Annie’s weekly visits. There was no one to break up the long weeks indoors. We tried our best not to mention her name. Partly because we were angry, partly because we were scared, but mostly because neither of us could bear to admit we had lost another person.
She vanished from our conversation. We acted as though she had never happened to us. It was just me and Rosie. As it always had been. I told myself every morning that we didn’t need anyone else. Some days I had myself convinced.
* * *
“She’s just through here, sir.”
I could hear the stern care worker directing someone down our corridor. I had hoped for a second that it was Annie, but she was most definitely not a “sir”. Still, I heard our door open and I listened intently for who our mystery guest was. Maybe it was a long lost relative of Rosie’s. Maybe it was a neighbour of ours from Cornwall, come to pay their condolences. Maybe one of us had caught the attention of a young suitor. I didn’t care who it was, I was just excited to have some new company.
I heard two sets of footsteps stop.
“I’ll leave you to it, you have an hour,” said the care worker, before shutting the door behind her.
She was leaving us with this stranger! I couldn’t see and Rosie’s kind nature was hardly any defence against a grown man. How could the care worker be so irresponsible? They were supposed to look after us. This man could have been anyone. She must have trusted him at least, but that didn’t mean I had to.
“Would you mind telling us who you are?” I said, bluntly.
“An old friend.” The voice sounded old and withered. I couldn’t place it.
“And which old friend would that be?”
The footsteps came towards me and sat down on the chair beside my bed. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. Somehow, I knew this man had only good intentions.
“Hello, Emmie.” The voice cracked. It sounded like the old man was crying.
“Who are you?”
I was getting agitated now. Why couldn’t he just speak to me properly and explain who the hell he was?
“You don’t remember me, fisher?”
I lost my breath. It couldn’t be. After so long in the blackness. I might have thought it was a practical joke, but I knew the voice. I had to make sure. I grabbed the man’s left hand. There it was. I felt the scar from a blade in a school ground fight. The fight that my father was in.
“I don’t understand. We lost you,” I choked.
“You thought you did, bless you and your mother. I washed up in Devon and had to be nursed back to health. I lost my memory and the sea took my wallet. The sea wanted to take me too, Emmie, but God wasn’t finished with me yet. I was years in hospital. The doctors tried everything. And then one day I remembered who I was. I travelled back to Cornwall with the help of whatever means I could find. But by the time I arrived, you and your mother had left. It took me weeks to find someone in the village who knew you had headed to London. It took many months for me to get to London. I’ve been searching for you and your mother ever since. I found out about your mother, Emmie. It almost killed me. I couldn’t get out of bed for weeks. I had hoped never to live in a world without my Sarah. You don’t know how many times I thought about giving up. I didn’t know if you were dead or alive yourself. But I had to find out. I knew if there was a chance I could…” He trailed off as I heard him let out a broken sob. “If…there was any chance I could see my little girl’s face again, I had to try.”
“I wish I could see yours, Dad.”
“God bless you, Emmie. And damn the doctor who took away your sight. But with or without it, I’m here, fisher. And I’m not letting you out of my sight ever again.”
“Me neither.” Though I knew “sight” was not quite the right word… Hadn’t he realised?
It was the only time I had cried happy tears since he’d left us. I felt at home for the first time in years. I had heard my father’s voice and I knew nothing could hurt me again. I could see more than the darkness now.
I’m back by the sound of the surf now. Dad connected with Rosie as fast as I had. He took us away to the seaside as if we were in a children’s storybook. It pains me a little that I cannot see the sea anymore, but I can feel it, which is enough. I am away from the city that took my mother. Although it is hard without her, I could not ask for better company.
Dad taught Rosie how to fish, and she makes the pies now. I like to go out with her when the weather is right. Nothing feels better than floating on the water once again, after so many years. I had spent so long thinking that I could never return and every day I was grateful. All three of us were at peace.
* * *
“There’s someone at the door,” I shouted from my knitting. I couldn’t guess who it was. We didn’t have visitors. I hoped it wasn’t anything to worry about.
I heard screams and crying coming from the door. Oh God, please don’t take this away from me again! I wouldn’t be able to bear it.
“What’s the matter? Rosie, is that you? Are you alright? Please tell me you’re alright!” I shouted from my seat.
“I’m more than alright, Emmie! Guess who it is!”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” came a familiar voice.
“Annie!” I began to cry.
She told us how her son had fallen ill whilst on their travels. It had taken him many months to recover. By the time she was able to visit, Dad had taken us away. It had taken her a year to track us down to Cornwall. She cried when I told her who had brought us here and said she had never believed in God until today.
* * *
Annie never left the cottage. Dad insisted that she stay in the spare room until she was ready to leave. Thankfully, she was never ready. Both widowed, Annie and Dad got along so well, that he asked her to stay and take care of him in his old age. And no one could ever say no to my father. They both needed someone new to hold their hands.
We may be unrelated, but I have always known that God felt sorry for me and gave me a second family. Or perhaps we were connected through kindness to each other that was stronger than the isolating pain we faced.
Is this the reward of sharing of stories, the reward of a friend?