January 1919 — Mary
Chewing on a shoulder length fawn curl, Mary took a breath as though she were about to dive into deep, icy waters. She shifted in her seat, the heavy black wool of her mourning dress itching against her winter stockings. Three large, dusty, green, leather bound books lay in front of her. Opened neatly as a clam before her dark blue eyes, the records of the financial comings and goings of her family business, Weston Dairy. Weston Dairy had thankfully survived the war and Mary found herself at the helm of a lucrative and well respected machine. The tomes were covered in fingerprints, stains and generations of other people’s handwriting, a spidery map of names, numbers, dates; all balanced as an expert tightrope walker during his well rehearsed nightly show. Father had often said that, “bookkeeping was the devil’s work, but better the devil you know.” She hadn’t previously understood what he had meant but now he’d passed on and it all fell on her, his only living child, it finally made sense. Her shoulders rounded now, in a posture more fitting of a woman decades older than her thirty years, over the well worn desk that up until a month ago she hadn’t been allowed to sit at. She was the third Newton to hunch over the heavy, lumbering mahogany unit, and the first ever woman to do so. It should have been her younger brother Sam but he never came home from the war joining her mother and, more recently, father in the Newton family plot in St John’s graveyard. Just as Mary, the last living Newton, was about to begin decoding what lay before her she heard the bell ring. Seemingly unanswered, it rang again and this time it was more insistent. “Lily, can you tend to that please!” Lily, the young maid who’d taken over from Dulcie after she’d been dismissed at short notice, was prone to giddiness and over familiarity with young Tom Murphy who worked in the dairy. Mary thought Tom and Lily a good match perhaps, she’d known Tom his whole life and had never seen his eyes twinkle in such a way. “Begging your pardon Miss Newton,” she said, her plump face scarlet from sprinting up from the kitchen and the timid shame of letting her employer down. “Mr Deering is here for an appointment about the painting and decorating job. He said you was scheduled for afternoon tea and he has ever such a lot of rolls of paper with him.”
Mary’s heart jolted, how could she have forgotten. “Of course Lily thank you for letting me know,” she said cooly, betraying any hint of the self deprecating panic and inward disappointment she felt having forgotten this important meeting. “If you’d be so kind as to let the gentleman in and ask Mrs Clarke to prepare tea. Unless I’m mistaken she made some of her famous scones yesterday that ought to be perfect with tea and sandwiches. Please send Mr Deering to the parlour.” Lily uttered a hasty, “yes Miss,” and hurried back down to the kitchen.
Tucking her moist fawn curl, still imbued with anxiety and saliva, into her pinned back hair and ensuring her dress sat flat, she stood up and took herself to the parlour, ready for the meeting she’d longed to have all week.
John Deering was a scythe of a man; tall, slender, gaunt, with narrow shoulders and a navel gazing posture. A recent addition to Cliftonville, not much was known about where he came from. Mary knew people spoke in hushed tones about the odd, solitary chap and that rumours pertaining to him being an invert were rife in the town. She knew him, however, to be the most stylish and able interior designer in Margate having seen his recent work in Mrs Davies Guesthouse up in Palm Bay. “Miss Newton, good afternoon,” he said, lazily drawing out his vowels as though he was a member of the aristocracy who had the time to do so. Mary found his pretension amusing.“As discussed, I have fetched the samples I ordered from Bobby’s.” Looking at the rolls of wallpaper, corners curling up like a cow’s tongue, her eyes rested warmly on a pale cream with ornately drawn bluebells.
January 2019 — Samira
After the movers left Samira stood on her brand new doorstep and took stock, her grey wooly hat sat on top of her freshly shaved head. She could hear the prickle of wool against stubble when she stretched her neck first left and then right. A new doorstep, a new town, a new life. She looked down at her paint splattered jeans, tighter than they used to be, and her enormous orange sleeping bag of a duffle coat, which felt safe.
She’d bought a three bed flat, the top floor of a large Victorian building, that had laid empty for ten years following the death of an elderly woman. A titles dispute over the property led to it being left all alone for such a long time. A lonely, near derelict home, scarred by anguish and pain it had never asked for.
Feeling waves of that unique melange of excitement and terror only those who’ve moved blindly to a new place can understand, she burst into ugly, choking tears. Allowing herself the requisite period of time to feel her emotions as her therapist, to whom she’d been paying thousands of pounds a year to, advised her. She grasped her keys, her own keys, and let herself in. She pulled her leaden legs up the stairs and into the kitchen where the builders had left her a bottle of wine and flowers to congratulate her on the move. The mere thought of fishing through boxes filled the detritus of her life in order to find a home for the flowers or a vessel to enjoy the wine from, she discarded the blooms and unscrewed the bottle top. Taking a large, hungry drag from the bottle of red, she winced at both the coldness of its neck and the depressing familiarity of the cornershop brand.
113 had been buzzing with energy and activity for the last few months, a hive of development, of clearing out, of readying a clean slate for someone desperately in need of it. She’d spent the last of the divorce settlement ensuring gas heating, a kitchen, new windows, bathroom and floors awaited her in her new home. A blank canvas waiting for her touch. At thirty five she was to live alone for the first time in her life and to attempt to decorate a three bedroom home via Youtube tutorials all while dragging herself through the treacle of the dissolution of a marriage which was more sadness than not. For all the pain and ravages caused by her ten year relationship to Sandra, she missed her ex wife more in these moments than she had for months. Their relationship had been riddled with infidelity, of secrets and lies both shared and their own. What began as experimenting with opening their marriage led to jealousy, dishonesty and pain. In the end it was a prolonged affair with one of Sandra’s colleagues that pushed her to ask Samira for a divorce.
Walking aimlessly from room to room, opening and closing doors and cupboards, corner shop wine’s levels dropping at a rhythmic, slow, steady space, swilling less and less; she looked at the spoils of her own personal war.
Coming finally to the master bedroom, her own bedroom, Samira’s dark brown eyes were drawn to the heavy old wardrobe she’d asked the previous owners to leave. Opening the door she stirred with anger when she saw it was still filled with junk. Her feelings softened however when she noticed a yellowing roll of paper, painted in an ornate pattern of bluebells. She paused for a moment to wonder whose eyes had looked at that wallpaper before her, then she hastily made and gallumped onto her bed, lousy with wine, not taking the time to wash her face nor brush her teeth. Staring at the ceiling she noticed a rectangular indent in the ceiling, as though a loft opening had been plastered over, that she hadn’t seen before. That night Samira dreamt of a man with no face. He was incandescent with rage and he wanted to get out. She woke terrified, her pillow drenched in cold sweat.
Mr Woods and his builders were due to take on the project at 113. A vast project to change a home that had remained largely the same since it was built nearly a hundred years previously, Mr Deering said “they’re the only men for the job.” Mary was to go and stay with her cousin in Adrian Square for the duration of the refurbishments. Cousin Eve was often in receipt of guests, and adored having Mary to stay.
“I shall be home to you when the bluebells are in bloom,” signed off the last letter Mary had received from Dulcie, and in it the ticket stub from their last trip to the pictures at the Hippodrome in Cecil Square. They loved the pictures for not only the films, but for the darkness it provided. A place to steal a quiet kiss in public where nobody could see. She slept with the stub under her pillow, it made those kisses feel close.
They hadn’t seen each other since father found them behind the dairy late that fateful night over a year ago, tangled up in each other with their skirts pulled up. Despite protests there was no denying what father had seen, a lover’s embrace, a secret they’d kept iron clad since they were girls. Dulcie was dismissed the next day and went to live with her aunt, a kind matron in Folkestone who knew not the details of their dalliance but that the two had a friendship beyond compare. After father died, Dulcie was to come home to where she belonged, where she and Mary had lain together since they were in their teens. Mary was the only Newton left, the head of a thriving business, with nobody to answer to. Dulcie was to take up residence as her companion. People would of course talk, of the well to do spinster who’s taken up residence with a former member of staff; but when she thought of Dulcie’s arms strong and safe around her, of her rough hands, her soft lips ruby red like rose petals on a porcelain plate; thoughts of gossip slipped quickly away.
The move was to be earlier, but an outbreak of influenza that was tearing through the country meant that she had to stay to help her aunt a little longer.
Emboldened by her new role as head of the family business, a spinster of means and the master of her own life; she wanted a house as modern as she thought befit such a woman. As soon as was proper, she stopped wearing mourning dress and had asked the Mrs E Hawke of Ramsgate, the most renowned dressmaker in Thanet, to make her breeches, blouses, and smart jackets instead of dresses from now on.
It was bitterly cold and damp, a sea fog had come down the morning the telegram came. Mary’s monogrammed trunk was filled with her new clothes and a coach was to take her to Eve’s that afternoon. She read it and quietly walked upstairs, each footstep heavier than the next until she got to her bedroom. Closing the door behind her she fell to her knees sobbing deep hacking tears that were so overwhelming that they left no room for sound. “Deeply regret to inform you of the death of Miss Dulcie Solomon, who succumbed age 32 to Spanish influenza. She was buried at sunrise. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And there she was, clutching the last correspondence she’d ever receive from her true love; a widow in pain but not by name.
The nightmares had grown fewer after Samira chose to sleep on the sofa in her studio, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right about that recess. She had endless deadlines looming and, as a freelance graphic designer, she wasn’t in the position to be frozen by lack of sleep.
She contacted the builders who’d done the work on her house and asked if they had noticed the rectangular recess in the ceiling. They said they hadn’t but after looking at it, they gave her a truly breathtakingly enormous quote to take a closer look. One evening Samira was standing on a ladder under it, a hammer in hand. She knew it was a madness but she had to get inside.
All the work went as planned and Mary soldiered on, fighting the urge to take to her bed and weep all day. She decided against the bluebell wallpaper as it was too stark a reminder of what she had lost. She placed it in the bottom of her wardrobe, locking away their shared dreams, their future, their paths that had changed destination in a second. The depths of her loneliness were bearable only as her and Dulcie’s life was secret and so was her pain. It’s strange how pretending all was as it had ever been made daily life simpler, she thought to herself hazily, empty glass in hand. Gin chaperoned her through these weeks, the only companion that could slightly mimic the comfort of the happiness she was once due to have. Dressing how she wanted, however, no longer felt like a thrill nor revolution. Doing things one didn’t want to because they were proper or not now seemed utterly redundant.
Thursday was cook’s day off and Lily was poorly so had gone to stay at her mother’s in Garlinge. The bare bones staff suited Mary and, apart from Tom who slept in the dairy’s lodgings, there was nobody on the property and not a soul in the Newton house. It was a cold. damp, late night when the doorbell rang. The rain fell so hard that the sound was barely audible.
Mary answered the door to Mr Deering, who she thought had left the town and returned to London, as many who tried to settle in Margate had before him. “I’ve come to collect the last of my fee,” he said. “Yes, yes of course Mr Deering. Apologies, I had believed everything was in order.
Mary could tell he’d had a drink but she thought nothing of it, she herself had imbibed quite a bit. She let him in and as she heard the latch click she felt an imperceptible change, as if the air had gone still. “You’re a queer one aren’t you? Dressed like a boy.” The overly lengthened aristocratic vowels of his accent no longer amused Mary, in fact they made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up and her arms prickle. Her very being tingled in an uncomfortable and fearful way. She turned just as he lunged at her, his strength quickly overcoming her. “I’ll scream for help!” she said panicking. “There’s nobody here, I know the ins and outs of your household’s routine Miss Newton. And I know you’re a freak, a lady in men’s clothes? And people say I’m an invert about town did you know? I’ve had to leave because of the idle chitchat and you? You can do what you want can’t you?” He was over her now, pinning her against the wall, she felt small and frightened. She reached for father’s walking stick that still stood by the door and she struck him with one heavy blow over the head. He fell, unmoving. The only sound was the rain, and the heavy breathing of a woman who’d had a near death experience, but at another man’s expense.
Not knowing what to do she took pause for what could have been seconds, minutes, or hours.
Then it came to her in an instant, her trunk. She raced up the stairs, panicked still, and took her large travel trunk emblazoned with her initials, filling it with the dresses she no longer wore. She dragged it from the second floor down to the hallway, this slender passage where her life had completely changed. She thought, as she lifted and bundled his thin, limp body into the trunk how many times she had felt her life change, crushed by pain in these four walls. The loss of her entire family, of her Dulcie, and now her loss of innocence. Keeping secrets makes you a very good liar and as she padded out the trunk with her sartorial past she decided on her plan of action.
When the sun rose she went out to the shed, knowing Tom would be awake readying the deliveries. “Tom, I need your help with something quite urgent,” she said. “But Miss Newton I haven’t yet sorted the orders.”
“Of course Tom, but you must come to the house as soon as you’ve finished your duties. I have been sorting father’s old books and I should like you to help me put them away.” “Of course Miss,” said Tom.
“It’s ever such a heavy trunk Miss! Your Pa was a clever man but I never knew of such a pile of books!”, he said, his mood cheerful. He was proud to be helpful to the mistress and to be in the big house. Finally reaching the top bedroom with the small loft above it, a clearly exhausted but determined Tom managed to drag the box and the secrets that lay inside up a ladder and into the loft.
That afternoon Mary went to Mr Woods who’d only recently finished at 113 and said she’d like him to seal the smaller loft as it was letting in a terrible draft. “I’d like it to be done in the next few days and considering the enormity of the last job you did for me I should think you’d be able to do this for me with haste,” she said firmly, her arms folded and her gaze unflinching. “Don’t worry Miss Newton,” he said, “it’ll be air tight and you’ll not even know it’s there.”
What is it that’s so fascinating about a locked door? A sealed box? An undiscovered room? A secret? All these thoughts swirled around Samira’s mind as she spoke to the police roaming around her flat. Why did she break into that loft? Whose long held secret had she betrayed?
The investigation into who M.N. was, when they lived, who they were and why this person ended up in their trunk was deep underway when Samira was allowed home. The house was in tatters from the forensic teams, the previously sparkling floors now well trodden and dusty.
As the case unfolded she learned about Mary Newton, a spinster who, in early 1920, sold off her family business and home and upped sticks to Los Angeles to make it in the movie business. Although it was a huge story at the time, the only photo of her they could find was a news clip about the changing of ownership. In the photo she’s standing, lean in a tailored suit, her hair pulled back into a chignon, save for one curl that dangled at her temple. There was nothing to indicate who the man in the trunk was, no paper trail nor missing person report, no tenable DNA link nor dental record.
The search for Newton stretched across the Atlantic Ocean and the last records of Ms Mary Newton show that she died peacefully at home in 1956, in her Palm Springs estate, a wealthy woman having invested her family money in the movie industry. All of her belongings were left to Ms Elira Tate of the same address.
Samira ruminated on what she and Mary shared and what made them different, of how secrets changed both of their lives and as she looked around her dusty flat, her own flat, she realised that although those secrets were made of shame and pain, they had irrevocably changed their lives for the better.
© 2020 Aoife Hanna
Aoife Hanna is a queer Irish writer and journalist.