Die shall all Flesh? What then must needs be done,
This was written on the inside cover of a journal I found when helping a friend from church clear out her grandmother’s house; the handwriting looked rushed and was old-fashioned so that it took me awhile to be able to decipher it, but I had more time than I knew what to do with and I needed something to halt the madness that seemed to be overwhelming me.
John my husband had just left me and so when Janice suggested
I help her with her late grandmother’s possessions then I was
more than happy to help. The house was old and large in what, until
recently, had been a very wealthy part of Manchester. I helped my friend
collect books, newspapers and clothes from all over the house, which
she then sorted through, and put them in three piles: stuff to keep,
stuff for charity shops and the last pile, which was much the biggest,
items for the rubbish dump.
My friend Janice knew nothing about the journal, did not think it belonged to her family, and when I asked if I could keep it she smilingly agreed.
“Please do, it would have just ended up on the bonfire.”
Janice was much richer than me and more well-spoken, but being a fellow Latter-Day Saint (or Mormon to the uninitiated) we had a bond that I did not have with people who otherwise I would have a lot in common with. We could pray together and talk about things non-Mormons just would not understand.
It was Janice I spoke to when John up and left me one Sunday afternoon after an anguished meeting he had had with the Bishop.
“I cannot deal with your doubts, with your questions. I just don’t feel I know you anymore,” he had told me, looking rather silly and red in the face. I had centred my whole life around him and he had left me, despite my begging him to stay. Janice listened to my anguish and anger and then prayed with me, although I could not tell her that praying felt like throwing stones into an empty well.
I love diaries, though, not the ones clearly meant for publication; the politicians still trying to justify their mistakes and betrayals, but your Kilvert and your Molly Hughes, ordinary people describing their ordinary lives, so that the reader becomes part of somebody’s existence, and perhaps gets clues as to how to live.
I thought I understood how to live a normal Mormon life, that I could function as a wife, but my husband had left me after only a few months with me, so clearly I had no idea. When we got married I really tried to make it work, read all the books, watched documentaries, spoke to my mother and married women from the church, but there was something missing. I could pretend, particularly when people were around, but sometimes in the evenings, tired after a long day working in the bank, I just wanted to be myself, silly, sexual and cynical, and he could not deal with that. I wanted a husband I could tell anything to, and I thought I had found one, but this proved not to be true. So, with the marriage over I spent my time reading this diary in the hope that it would help me to understand what went wrong and how to start anew.
Monday, 8th September 1884
But I soon had more important things to describe because as soon as I got to the office I was sent out to the ghastly derailment outside St. Pancras, and I forgot all about the Prime Minister. It was an awful scene and I felt an interloper amongst all those trying to help the injured and ailing. I spoke to a nurse who was for a moment disengaged, she had been talking to a girl who had been crying but who had been taken away by a large woman in black.
“Awful,” she said and appeared on the verge of tears; she was a young woman, blonde and with such pale skin that I could see her veins, blue underneath.
“I distrust these trains; the noise and the deaths,” she told me, and then she smiled, and for a moment I felt a moment of intimacy before she appeared to remember an appointment and swiftly walked away. I watched her as she disappeared out of the station and then I returned to the newspaper office to write the report, but for some reason the nurse stayed in mind throughout my work and this evening. Even as I write this I can picture her eyes, cool and appraising, an independent woman with a mind and a heart.
Thursday, 11th September 1884
Sunday, 14th September 1884
Once back in my apartment I thought about my father in his cottage lonely and sad; each time I see him he seems more despairing. Even before my mother died he was prone to melancholy, but now that she is dead he just emanates misery. My brother Samuel visits less and less, and I don’t blame him, whilst Esther has her children and her husband. Will I have to take him or live back with him? But his sadness corrodes my soul and I feel his tentacles encircling me, dragging me back when I thought I had escaped, to a job I enjoy and am good at, and freedom.
Tuesday, 16th September 1884
Whilst divorce is not unknown amongst our religion it is frowned upon, and to my parents’ eyes John was such a good catch – a former missionary and someone already with a good role in the church, Bishop material for sure and probably more, so they were anxious to bring us back together. Secretly I suspect he does not have the strength to have much power; he goes running to the bishop when confronted with anything that is difficult or unusual, which unfortunately included me.
Part of the problem was that we did not really know each other. I had just arrived in Manchester from Welwyn and started to attend this chapel. John and I, as two single people in our twenties, were pushed together by well-meaning members of the congregation and we got on well, went out on a few dates, even a few unchaperoned, and had attended the temple in Preston together, so far so conventional. And I did like him, and in my mind I could picture us as man and wife with children living good Mormon lives.
One evening, however after going to a concert at the Bridgewater Hal, he had come to my flat. I was living alone. as I earned enough at the bank to rent somewhere to live. We sat together on the couch and cuddled. and then I kissed his neck and stroked his chest. I felt his breathing quicken and I brushed against his penis and felt it hardening beneath his trousers. I stroked him slowly and probably inexpertly until he made a gasping noise, called my name, and collapsed back onto the arm of the sofa.
“We shouldn’t have done that,” he told me rather crossly before he left, having wiped himself clean in the bathroom. I felt awful, having broken the Mormon law of chastity, but even worse I would probably never see John again now that he saw what kind of woman I was.
I was called to a meeting with Brother Hansen, the Bishop from our church. John was there, having told him all that had happened.
“You need to get married and as soon as possible,” Hansen told us, “it will happen again and worse. You are both young and obviously in love. I look forward to marrying you.”
John nodded his head, the earnest young Mormon ready to do what was right. Within two months we were married, both of us pitifully young and having known each other for less than half a year.
I could not tell all this to my parents of course, but they probably guessed, as it is not uncommon. But they went to see John and spoke to me endlessly. However, John was adamant that the marriage was a mistake, that he did not love me, and despite all my father’s persuasions he refused to change his mind. Eventually my parents gave up and returned home to Hertfordshire leaving me alone. I even stopped going to church for awhile, and got some time off work, and all I had was the diary to read, as I could not bear to look at anything religious.
I also read about William Gladstone, as he was mentioned in the diary several times and it was an excuse to get out and visit the library. I enjoyed researching this principled politician who was Prime Minister for much of the time when this diary was being written, but who would soon lose his position in part because of the death of General Gordon by the Mahdi at Khartoum, the blame for which was laid at his feet. I remembered reading a bit about this period when studying ‘A’ level History; I had preferred Disraeli at the time, the writer and witty intellectual, but now it was Gladstone who appealed to me; a man with a destiny who brushed off all criticism and mockery because he knew that he was doing God’s will.
Tuesday, 23rd September 1884
“I knew him,” Arthur, my editor told me, “he was a great poet. Write something about him, make our readers realise what a great writer lived amongst us. God help us, it could have been any of us.”
I walked into Harte’s rooms, they looked less poor than I had expected and cleaner, in fact, little different from mine. Inside there were seven people stood around as if not knowing what to do. A policeman was one, talking to the woman I have been dreaming about since we met at the railway station. She glanced over at me and I knew that it was her, and I returned her slight smile and waited for her to come over to me.
She soon disengaged herself from the policeman and I walked with her as she left the building.
“Did you know him, Mr Harte?” I asked tentatively, and shivered slightly as I did so.
“Oh yes, I was with him a great deal over the last few weeks, I tried to help him as much as I could. He was unhappy, it was a release for him.”
Her voice was pure, no accent of any sort. My dreams had been so real and sexual that I felt embarrassed to be with her, so close to this demure woman. She told me that her name was Edith and that indeed she was a nurse. As we walked along I had the strangest feeling that I should keep away from her, to say goodbye and be done; she seemed so odd, so alien. But something within me wanted to stay with her, and it was this better part that won.
We went to a coffee house and I asked her about Reginald Harte, and made notes as she talked. She looked at me with her steady grey eyes and soon we had stopped talking about the unfortunate poet and I was telling her about my father and my other worries, nothing that I have not already confided to this journal already, but it did me good to speak about them to someone of flesh and blood rather than just writing them down for nobody to read, and she seemed so sympathetic, drinking in every word.
Tonight I dreamt of her again; she was naked and as we lay together she bit into my shoulder and started to eat my flesh, but the pain was numbed and there was pleasure. When I awoke I was dirty and had to wash my nether regions and then I got up remembering my dream. I looked out over London, the sun was rising and I could see it high above the smoke. I imagined angels looking over us, wishing us well and protecting us with their outstretched wings.
Wednesday, 24th September 1884
“There was a woman. He could not stop talking about her. She drove him to it. Always there, never leaning him alone, even when he was sat shivering in a corner almost freezing to death.”
I was jotting down notes, but Mr Meaden was obviously a drunk and confused.
“Who was this woman?” I asked.
“Oh, a nurse of some sort. I only met her once but she was so cold and harsh. Destroyed him.”
Various other people dropped in and talked to my companion and eventually I left with enough material to write a sympathetic obituary, which was what my editor wanted.
Wednesday, 1st October September 1884
“You are the only journalist I know,” she told me, and then proceeded to describe a slum landlord in the East End, not far from where the tourists go. “A son of Israel,” she told me, with the slightest of sneers.
“I will look into it,” I told her, knowing that my editor would not countenance such political stuff, but, no, she wanted me to go now, and I thought I would take a chance, and so took my greatcoat and we set off. We walked through the city, her arm on mine, although it was so light I could barely feel it.
“This is such a cruel city, wickedness everywhere,” she told me, “but somehow I feel safe with you.” I could not help but feel gratified at such sentiments.
“Are you from London?” I asked as we walked through the clear, bright streets, “I cannot place your accent.”
“Oh, from the north,” she told me, and then she began talking about me, my father again and my ambitions, and the fact that I felt stifled in my job, just reporting trivial things rather than writing something more important and of lasting worth.
“Who will be reading my work in even five years time?” I asked her, not realising that I had such frustration. It is strange that I have always thought myself content, but then a sympathetic person makes me realise that actually I am not, far from it.
She showed me around some tightly packed flats owned by
this landlord; I could smell the filth and poverty of the inhabitants
before we stepped inside. Even in a city with so many strange odours
the smell emanating from this building left me nauseated and I had to
smoke a cigarette before going in. Edith introduced me to various families
living in abject need, with children too hungry and tired to cry, with
no bedding and with no hope.
I made notes, and whilst I am sure Arthur will not allow
the Gazette to publish such stuff, I spent the rest of today
writing the piece, using as much pathos and human interest as I could
in the hope that my editor would feel compelled to put it in. Before
Edith left me, I arranged to go with her to the British Museum on Saturday
It is funny that it was only a few hours ago, but I cannot remember what she looked like naked. She was pale and her skin was cool against mine. Everything seemed to take so long, and it was in the early hours when she left, like a breath of ice disappearing as the warmth of the day appeared.
Sunday, 9th November 1884
In fact, I know little about her. She rarely mentions her parents, and when I ask her about her family somehow we end up talking about mine instead. I do not think she has siblings, but I do not know, and she never mentions friendships or her youth. When I imagine her as a young girl I see her drifting through a snowy northern landscape on her way to a grim church school, looking radiant and intense.
She encourages me with my writing, telling me that I am better than being a journalist, that I should have more ambition. I think I was happy with my lot before I met her, but now I realise that I could be a writer, have my work serialised in one of these magazines such as Longman’s. I realise that I could be great, another Dickens or Thackeray. And my editor just sends me out on piffling stories like any other hack and ignores my ideas.
I went to see my father this evening. What with Edith and being busy I have not had time. I walked over to him, relishing the cold wind on my face; there had been a snowfall earlier and my boots crushed the hard snow beneath them with a pleasing crunch. I had hoped that Edith would come with me, but she had promised to see a friend.
“Go and see your father,” she told me, “but remember what I said.”
What she had said was that it was impossible for me to live with him, that I had a brother and sister and it was time that they did something, and that the old should not burden the young.
And he did look old as we sat opposite each other. I had not realised how cold his house was but in November the small fire that burned in the grate was nothing against the cold wind that howled around us. I felt moved with compassion and wanted to tell him that he could live with me, either in my apartment or we could find somewhere together. I am sure that my brother and sister would help with the additional cost, and for a moment it was as if a burden had been lifted from my soul.
I was about to suggest this when the image of Edith came into my head and I realised that she would not let this happen, that it was impossible. That cold face would look at me with something like contempt that I had been so weak, and I would never see her again, would never feel her body against mine. Therefore, I left my thoughts unspoken and after a short while departed, leaving my father to his cold house and sadness. Even Edith’s embraces later on could not assuage my guilt, well, not fully.
I made a friend at church. I started to go back again, after all I had nothing else and at least I knew people there, my childhood friends being back in Welwyn. Although I still struggled to believe it didn’t really matter, it is a community, and they were kind so long as you did not ask awkward questions and followed your callings. It gave me a purpose to life and company. And I did like the hymns, with their “pom pom” rhythms and catchy tunes.
Erin had started going to the chapel whilst I was away for those few weeks. She was my age I think and rather beautiful, ever so pale and with blonde, almost white hair, and grey eyes which look at you so intently. We hit it off straight away and started to sit together, and she visited my flat a couple of times. So many of the people from the chapel seemed embarrassed about what had happened, even though John had the grace to go to another chapel out in Stockport. The fact that such a ‘golden’ marriage had ended and presumably John could not but help tell the Bishop and anyone else who was interested why we had split up probably cast me in the role as a back-sliding Mormon who did not know when she was well off. No doubt they all wished I had gone elsewhere rather than him.
But Erin sat and listened, did not judge, but rather encouraged me to talk. She was a nurse so I suppose she was used to listening to people’s woes, getting them to tell their deepest fears. A couple of times we had kissed, nothing sexual but just a gesture of love and concern. And I lay in her arms, shivering and crying but realising that there was somebody for me who cared at least a little.
Wednesday, 26th November, 1884
“I cannot publish this,” Arthur told me after barely glancing at it, “you are a fine journalist but this is scandalous and just not right for a newspaper such as ours. Save it for your radical journals.”
I knew he would react this way but I was still angry, and I remembered Edith telling me to be brave, to go it alone, and so I threw the article in his face and told him what a Philistine he was, what a fool and then I was gone.
And now as I write this journal I feel exhilarated. I have been brave, some would say foolish, but my future is now ahead of me. Tomorrow I will sit down and write. I have money for the time being and I have so many ideas teeming through my brain, and now at last I can put them on paper. She is coming tonight and I will be pleased to tell her what I have done. We will make love and perhaps she will become my wife. With her besides me I know that I can do anything.
Friday, 19th December, 1884
Too often I just go out and pace the streets of London, remembering when I used to walk with Edith, her hand on my arm. Now I often do not see her for days on end, or when I do it is only briefly. And we never share a bed; she always initiated it, and now when I try to take her in my arms she looks offended, and I am scared that she will leave, but then she does anyway.
Thursday, 5th February, 1885
“I won’t be coming to see you again,” she told me, “there are other people for me now,“ and then she was gone, perhaps back to the frozen wastes or to find someone else and cause them despair.
I dreamed of her, naked and astride me. She looked less collected, more passionate, and she was saying something, the words echoed in my head, “rest, it is over, this life is finished”.
I woke up naked and wretched. My room is cold and empty and I have not written for days or even weeks, only this journal, and even this is becoming less coherent. I know that this is the end, that whoever she was, Edith has taken everything from me, left me isolated and bereft.
There is a knife on my desk, it was not there yesterday, perhaps she left it before she went away. I feel the blade and run it along my thumb; it is sharp. I put it in my hand; it lies there cold and with a job to do….. I will put this aside and do what I need to do.
I put the diary down; it was ended. Even now I am curious as to what happened to the writer, but in my heart I know, another citizen in the great city dead, with only the diary discovered over one hundred years afterwards as a memorial. I wondered how long it was until his body was discovered, and who attended his funeral – his father shivering and in tears, his brother and sister feeling guilt but anxious to get home to their homes and family.
I had stayed up all night reading the diary and thinking, and I found that it was Erin who came into my head, the way she kissed me and the way she encouraged my sadness, taking my soul into her cold heart. I realised that I did not want to see her again, that she would destroy me just as she, or another of her kin, had done to the diarist in another city in another century, and to many others before and since.
Erin contacted me a couple more times, rang me and even came to my door looking kind and sympathetic, but I refused to see her, knew that once I did I would be sucked in, and eventually she left me alone, perhaps finding someone else to befriend. It was easier to avoid the people from my church, who were easily put off once I told them I was no longer interested. For the first time, perhaps ever, I felt happy and free.
The day after I finished the diary I talked about a transfer with my manager Marie and eventually she got a post for me in London. I have done well here in Manchester and she was happy to give me a good reference. and she understood my wanting to get away from the city where my marriage had ended and did everything she could to help me. I will be near my parents but not too close. and near the friends of my childhood, my non-Mormon friends. and I will make new ones as I become confident and strong. I do not need a crutch, whether it be a weak and pompous husband, a cultish church or a cold-hearted friend.
As I sit here, my last evening in Manchester, I see a
Victorian Prime Minister walking through the streets of London, mocked
by many but carrying on unbowed. I see a writer dying by his own hand,
alone and over-powered by guilt and foolishness. And I see me, powerful
and determined, storming through the snow and ice until I see sunlight
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