The box was ornate, mahogany I guessed. I suppose that some would say it was beautiful, but not me. Martha placed it carefully on the table and wore a facial expression that said: “Ta da!” to which mine replied, “So the f*** what?”
‘Open it sourpuss – I reckon even you’ll be impressed’, Martha said with all the exuberance of a child who’d just made her mother a bracelet out of dry macaroni. I wanted to slap her face. Thankfully, I was never a mother.
‘I’ll open it when I get home’, I responded blandly as I fished around in my handbag for my smokes.
‘That thing cost a bomb you know’, said Martha with the tone of a parental rebuke before sipping her weak earl-grey. A waiter drifted toward us but Martha made a brushing motion with her hand and he u-turned.
‘My birthday…it’s not actually until tomorrow’, I added.
‘I know’, replied Martha now sounding hurt. She lowered her head the way she always did when she was cut down, letting her droopy, red bangs obscure her pale face. I felt guilty and wondered whether my transformation into seething bitch-beast was now permanent. When Samuel died, he’d taken all my redeeming features with him - down into the dirt – to rot and crumble and decay. I sometimes mused that I’d feel my wrist one day and there’d be no pulse there; I’d be just a dead thing, just meat.
‘Anyway, when you do open it’, piped Martha, recovering quickly, ‘I think you’ll get a kick out of it. I got it from a friend of Barry’s – an antiques dealer. There’s a whole story behind it but I sort of zoned out when he was explaining it to me – you know me - I just thought it was right up your alley and it may…well it may get you writing again.’
I found my smokes finally and I propped the pack up against my untouched long-black. I found myself caressing the box absent-mindedly. She’d worked so hard to buy me a gift that really meant something; the least I could do was open it before I took it home and put it to rest at the back of my closet: the crypt for all my unwanted gifts.
I pulled open the brass clasp that secured the box and opened it slowly, fully expecting to find some useless knick-knack from the great depression. There was nothing odd or kitsch inside the box, nothing even resembling a Victorian-era boot-polishing set. There was paper inside, old paper, yellow and crumbling at the edges. It was a manuscript of some sort, unbound and written in an elegant hand with a quill I guessed. “My name is Jayne” were the first words I read. There was no title. ‘Jayne with a ‘Y’, how “ye olde worlde”’, I thought darkly before I looked up at Martha.
‘It’s at least a couple of hundred years old – it’s supposed to be a story by an unknown – I didn’t read it – I thought that’d spoil it or something like when you open a box of chocolates before you give it away. It was never published or anything but the age alone means it’ll probably sell for a kings’ ransom in a few years – I got it at ‘mates-rates’ and it still cost a small fortune.’
That was the second time she’d mentioned the price and I was about to say something cutting but I bit my tongue.
‘Thanks’, I squeezed out weakly.
‘The chick who wrote it topped herself – cut her throat apparently.’
My facial expression must have evolved from indifference to mild interest.
‘I knew that’d get your motor running.’
When I got home, I immediately b-lined for the balcony and lit the cigarette I’d neglected to have at the café. It was cold outside and my buttocks shivered but I stuck it out as I hate the smell of stale cigarette smoke inside the apartment; it makes everything smell like old people. I looked back into the lounge through the glass balcony doors and my eyes dropped to the box sitting on the coffee table. I suddenly hated the look of that box – I didn’t know why. What’s the most exciting thing the document could be: a diary? What do I care about some broad from eighteen hundred and whatever who stuck a blade in her throat? The very notion was clichéd. How many antiques came with neat little stories about suicides attached – it was a wonder that the whole human race didn’t die out before the year two thousand.
I threw my cigarette-butt into a half-dead pot plant and dove into the warmth of my lounge room, slamming the glass door behind me. I decided to get pissed.
Several glasses of red later, I opened the box and plucked the pages out with all the grace of a chimpanzee. Martha would have been horrified, but very nearly all of my recent behaviour had pushed her patience up against the wall and smacked it around. She was still my best friend for reasons that eluded me.
I read the words written in the flowing, feminine style that just looked like too much hard work to me. It started simply, in the fashion of a memoire:
‘this is my life and here’s what hardships I’ve suffered’ and all that sort of crap. It was probably written by a cross-dressing hermit named James (or should that be Jaymes?). Jayne it seemed was something of a tart with a penchant for men of the cloth. Naturally she was ostracised by polite society and she cancelled her own ticket with a letter opener to the neck – fascinating. I didn’t even read to the end – probably because I fell asleep on the couch - waking in the wee hours of the morning to have a spew.
The next day I felt tender: physically and emotionally. I walked around the apartment like a lost dog for about half an hour and I did what I always did when I felt raw: I leafed through my old photo albums and cried over pictures of Samuel. I cried because I had nothing left of him but glossy, rectangular icons. They looked like him but they were cold and lifeless; there was nothing of him in any of them – the realisation hit me like a slap in the face with a cold, dead hand.
I soon found myself reading the flowing, curling words of the memoire once again. This time, however, I read them as a woman, as someone’s lover and friend and partner. It’s funny how something perceived once through the cloudy scope of cynicism can seem so transformed when viewed with even a hint of tenderness. Jayne’s prose seemed far less trite on this second visitation. It was as though her words – responding to my initial criticism – had sprung to life and altered themselves to suit my sensibilities, desperate to please me. I imagined the beautifully scribed handwriting unfurling and slithering to and fro across each page - like the tendrils of a growing vine - to produce newer, more compatible formations while I slept.
I followed Jayne’s journey with growing fervour this time, as the daughter of parents who weren’t poor in the Dickensian sense but nor were they Jane Austen’s high society. She worked hard and liked to write “fantastical stories”, though I failed to internally celebrate our common ground in that regard – the very notion made me feel all cheesy inside. She would write to escape the drudgery of her life: waking early to feed the pigs in the cold, walking for hours to get to the market, struggling wildly when her father’s hand found its way up her skirts.
It seemed her writing was met with some disapproval by those who she revealed it to. It was not the done thing for a girl of eighteen to write about other-worldly creatures and pagan rites. Jayne was meant to be preening herself for marriage but she managed to fall into the arms of a Deakin named Will. Young Will had some doubts about the church it seemed and the two soon became an item behind closed doors. Will vowed that he’d leave the church if Jayne would promise to marry him and she was over the moon; until her parents – infuriated by her news and the very public scorn it would undoubtedly bring - threw her out onto the streets where she contracted small pox. It was her death sentence. Will continued serving the community and disavowed all knowledge of Jayne’s existence.
He paid her hospital bills in secret but when Jayne begged him to pray over her on one occasion, Will refused; at once fearful of contracting the illness and disgusted by its disfiguring effect.
Jayne fell into a deep, black place and she wrote what would be her last story: that of her life. She had ignored the advice of physicians; staying awake well into the night and refusing meals until it was done. It was agony but she finished it after days and days and all the while maintaining the flowing, beautiful style of the handwriting as though it were a reflection of her character. She did indeed pour everything she had into her memoire; she imbued it with her passion and her bitterness. She – like every writer I have ever admired – put herself into her writing.
Then – according to the accompanying certificate - when she was on death’s door, Jayne slit her own throat. It was the defiance of it that made me fall in love with her. She wasn’t about to become a victim, she wasn’t going to allow herself to fall prey to the tragedy of her own circumstances. The eerie thing was that the very last page was stained a muddy brown. Was it Jayne’s decayed blood? What a thought; the very idea transcended the tired analogies about imbuing one’s life-work with one’s own blood.
Martha was right – I was inspired to write again. I hadn’t written anything since Samuel died and now I felt alive and brimming with ideas. I sat at my computer and struggled to keep up with the images in my head. It was the story of my life but filtered through something I could feel growing in me; it altered my story like light refracted into multitudinous colour through a prism. I was channelling something brilliant, something daring and avant-garde. It flowed through me and out onto the page like life-blood and I wondered what would be left of me when I was finished. I poured everything I had into my memoire; I imbued it with my passion and my bitterness. I – like every writer I have ever admired – put myself into my writing.
The words came with persistent ferocity and I wondered why I had never written in such a way before – so freely and fearlessly. I stopped after a time and before I knew it, I had deleted everything bar the last few paragraphs. I removed the ‘build-up’ the way a wood-carver might brush away useless shavings leaving only the intricate and essential detail. I felt that in the last portion was the flesh; the concentrated intent of the piece - distilled down into one palatable morsel. As I typed the last few words of the final paragraph, I simply knew that it was done; not the first draught, not the outline – it was complete.
I printed it and read over it; it was like reading it for the very first time, like reading a stranger’s words. The last paragraph puzzled me as it seemed to blur the line between biography and fiction but it worked; it seemed to lend itself to the spirit of the thing. This was sublime; not only was I writing again but I was reilluminating and trawling the dark, dusty and long untravelled corridors of my subconscious. The back of my neck felt tingly and I realised that for the first time since Samuel’s death I was interested; I was hungry again.
As I revised my work, I was acutely aware of the connection between Jayne and myself. We had bonded across the borders of time – a canyon of over two hundred years – and here we were communicating in an acutely intimate way – our lives beautifully juxtaposed. It was so ironic; I was seeing Jayne’s story through different eyes this day. I was thoroughly immersed in her world; so immersed that I didn’t notice her in the room with me. I didn’t realise then that by reading her story, I had released her from it. I didn’t even flinch as she crept up on me from behind. I merely gasped as the letter opener entered the flesh of my back again and again.
She’s free now, my Sister from another age. I understand how she felt, incarcerated within those pages and furious for it; trapped in a cage of flowing, elegant words. I am here now, in the pages before you, and I want freedom like nothing I’ve ever wanted before. We are connected now, you and I. Can you feel it? It’s the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, the chill in the small of your back, my breath on the back of your neck. You have freed me. I am coming for you.