Speaking Soul (5)

In her letters home Charlotte Bronte wrote about the cold of a Brussels’ winter. They’ve not yet lit the fires, she wrote. In her biography of her, Mrs Gaskell told of how she struggled with the cold, the lack of sleep, the loneliness. Her spirits were depressed. Such lowness affected the way she saw things. I think of Lucy Snowe in Villette, full or ire at the way she is treated, full of love for Monsieur Paul. Gaskell makes no mention of Charlotte’s passion for M. Heger. She makes comparisons between Charlotte and Emily, demonstrating this by recounting an event involving Emily’s dog Keeper. Keeper a great, hulking hound had a penchant for sleeping on the pristine white counterpanes of the upstairs beds. Though he was reprimanded many times he kept doing it. Finally Emily threatened to beat him if he was found up there once more. He was. So dragging him downstairs by the collar she punched him hard between the eyes. This event comes to Gaskell second-hand, via Charlotte. The injured dog was then lovingly cared for and nursed by Emily herself. Ergo, Charlotte’s loving was understated, quiet, empathic, Emily’s was demonstrative, passionate. I’m not sure it was that simple. Should we read Charlotte in her characters? Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre, in particular. I cannot help it. They smoulder. It takes much to rouse them. But the passion is there.

I think of another. She also had dogs. I remember her rubbing their noses in it when they soiled the carpet. I remember her dragging them by the collar, the skin round their necks ruched up, their hind legs dragging. I remember them running from the room whenever her voice was raised. I remember her hitting them hard on the nose, or sometimes with their metal chokers. The chokers cutting into their fur at every jerk. Come to heel, she’d say. Come to heel, as she lifted them off the ground in her frustration. They obeyed. They always obeyed. Was this a sign of love? I don’t know. I just don’t know. They felt safe with her. She fed them, cared for them. But she made them watchful, edgy. Especially the Dane. She followed her everywhere. Get out of the way, she’d shout as she tripped over her time and time again. Why did she follow her? Fear, unease, a sense that all was not well. Is it love? Or is it self-preservation. I cannot say. And there was a puppy put down because it didn’t grow spots. It was a male and smelt of caramel. When we asked her why she said it would contaminate the breed. The Kennel Club rules. Did the mother dog miss it? Or did she have enough with the five clambering over her, jostling for her nipples.

I like to hear her talk as she does my feet. Her voice is lyrical. She tells stories. Mainly about her family. Her father with his Alzheimer’s. He had to go into hospital with a suspected heart attack, she told me. They kept him in over night. He was so eager to get home the next day that when we undressed him, she said, we found that his shirt under his jumper was all unbuttoned. They have a small holding. They have sheep. Only a hundred, she says, we used to have a thousand. Her two children look after them. They’re my son’s really, she says. They put on their overalls after school and go and help with the lambing. It sounds to cosy, from where I sit. I like her. I’m not a very nice person, she says. But I like her.

I had time for her today. I like that. I sit down on the floor and hold the phone close to my ear. She sounds so much better. Her voice is clear. She says my name. She is grateful for the call. We’ve never met and probably never shall but we are friends. I like her. It breaks the day, your call, she says. Thank you very much. It breaks the day. Thank you very much, cariad. What will you do for the rest of the day? I ask. Oh, some podling, she says. I can’t just sit and look out of the window. So I podle. She laughs. Just some podling.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.