I suppose, like most people, I have mixed feelings about library book sales, or the discards table, or whatever. A strict voice tells me that it absolutely isn’t right to sell off a perfectly good hardback copy of a book that originally cost over £10 for 50p just because there’s a bit torn off the corner of page 27, or a naughty child (or adult!) has scribbled a bit on page 153. By the way, don’t read any especial significance into these numbers. They’re not like 42 from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or 73 from The Big Bang Theory. They’re just random, though it has dawned on me that they’re both divisible by nine, so perhaps nothing is really random! Still, to get back to the matter of the books, even as I tut-tut, and think of the waste of money, and think of the disrespect to the book and its author, nothing can be more delightful than discovering a book by a favourite author, or a familiar one we don’t yet have a copy of, and to be able to get it, to parody those irritating life insurance adverts, for considerably less than the price of a cup of coffee.
But there are also the books, it has to be said, that have been discarded with good reason. Unlike a car boot sale, you genuinely won’t encounter manuals for a make of car that hasn’t been made since 1985, or your astrology predictions for 1987, but there are the stained ones, the ones with missing covers (and I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or lack thereof!), and the biographies of someone who had their five minutes of fame fifty years ago, and not much of it, even then.
Anyway, our library had a shelf of books for sale all year round, but periodically, often either in summer or just before Christmas (this was the former) went the whole hog, or should I say table. I was having a pretty lucky day. I had found a PD James I hadn’t read, and a Barbara Erskine that I had, but without yet having my own copy, that I definitely wanted to re-read. I was toying with a gardening book that had some lovely full page illustrations I could use for decoration, especially considering only the previous day I’d found some picture frames in the Hospice Shop that would fit them perfectly. But there’s something about me that still baulks at the idea of vandalising a book.
Perhaps it stood out precisely because it was so apparently dull and insignificant. A little brown book amidst all the colourful jackets with their photographs, or reproductions of works of art (whose relationship to the actual contents might at times be tendential) or illustrations that did not necessarily represent the characters as described! When I say little, don’t run away with any ideas about it being like one of those miniature books that the Bronte children produced. It was just a modest A-5 size, and the same brown as the kind of couch that they always have to reduce in price, and you wonder why they made one in that colour in the first place. I picked it up, and the title and author were on the spine, in faded gold lettering that had nothing to do with the metal of the same name. Forgotten Whispers by Caroline Morton. Well, there’s a good title for a Harlequin romance, I thought, wryly, though that estimable publishing house would never have turned out anything with a plain brown cover, even in days gone by. Anyway, the book was old enough to look down at heel (and I know it might sound silly describing a book as down at heel, but it’s hard to find another description!) but not old enough to be interesting. I may as well admit that what did, I suppose, pique my interest, was that Morton is my surname, too. And my first name, Charlotte, also begins with a C. But neither of those is especially uncommon. Had either the author or I been called Petronella or Primula Farquahar-Landowski, it might have been another matter. And before you ask, that IS totally random.
I suppose in an odd way I felt sorry for the book. I do tend to anthropomorphise books. Oh, I don’t take it to extremes. If I accidentally spill coffee on one, or the like, yes, I feel guilty and wish I hadn’t, but I don’t go into decline. I picked it up, spotted a Jodie Picoult someone else was eying and thought, uncharitably, in your dreams. I wouldn’t have taken it out of her hands, there are certain limits (especially in public) even when it comes to books, but possession is supposed to be nine points of the law, isn’t it? Anyway, I took my four books – because yes, Forgotten Whispers was one of them, to the counter, got out my purse, a pound coin, and a fifty pence piece, and was fishing for more change when Ellie, the librarian, smiled and said, “No worries, Lottie. You can have that one,” she indicated Forgotten Whispers “thrown in. I don’t suppose anyone else will want it.”
“Well, us Mortons have to stick together!”
She chuckled, “I hadn’t noticed that! Anyway, happy reading.”
I had a day off work as a local election was being held at the school where I taught, so I had a chance to plunge into my new reading matter. I found myself putting PD and Barbara and Jodie to one side, and opening Forgotten Whispers. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I had no kind of premonition. I suppose I was expecting either some rather ladylike romance (despite the unromantic cover) or (even though that very title didn’t quite fit) one of those biographies of the long forgotten. On the second count, I realised, I wasn’t entirely wrong. It appeared to be a biography, or at any rate, an autobiography, though theoretically it could have been first person fiction. Somehow I just knew it wasn’t.
My name is Caroline Julia Morton. This is the story of my life, or at least such parts of it as I wish to tell. It will not be of interest to most people, but I hope it will find a reader to whom it is of interest.
My own middle name is Judith. A bit weird, I thought, but again, not that weird.
I was born on the 12th of June, 1918.
My birthday is the 6th of December, 1981.
Well, I thought, eat your heart out, Sheldon Cooper! But I had this odd contradictory thought that it would have been a crying shame if I’d not picked up the book – but perhaps, in some way, I wished I hadn’t.
As was often the way then, I was born at home, in the bedroom of my parents’ house, a fine, if rather cold brick building called Rowley Park.
Well, that was an end to all of that. As was “often the way” when I was born, I was born in hospital. In the maternity ward at the County Infirmary, called after the pioneering midwife who instituted it.
In the Elspeth Rowley Ward.
This was getting to be a bit – well, odd. But plenty of things in life were odd. Isn’t there supposed to be that book that more or less foretold the sinking of the Titanic, and then there are all those similarities between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy. Still, for every person who thinks you can’t deny that something weird and programmed is going on in the universe you can find at least two others who think it proves nothing whatsoever, and even the apparent similarities aren’t really similar at all.
So go on, Caroline Julia Morton , I thought. You’re not going to spook me. You might give me something interesting to talk about, though, and that’s never a bad thing.
My father, Lewis Morton, was a much respected family doctor in the quiet town where we lived, and my mother, Jemima, as most women still were, despite having forayed into the world of work during the Great War, was content to be a housewife and mother to my brother Claude, two years younger than I, and myself.
I had heard the expression about “feeling hot and cold at the same time”, but had only previously experienced it in a bad bout of flu. Well, no virus was to blame for it coming now! My mother, Louise Morton, is a doctor, and I think it’s fair to say, a much respected family doctor – people will be worry when she retires, though she’s not showing much sign of doing it for a while yet! And when I was a child, my father James, who’s a writer, didn’t much like the term househusband, but effectively that’s what he was – to me and my brother Clyde, who’s two years older than I am. The wardrobe or the rabbit hole are great for children’s literature and make good metaphors. Or similes, I’m not quite sure. Well, there was no wardrobe, as I was in the kitchen, and no rabbit hole, though a bothersome mole had done some determined excavation on my front lawn.
I both wanted to read on and – I may as well admit it – feared it. I decided to compromise. Or to take the coward’s way out, if you prefer. There was no need to find out that she had studied English Literature at university, or gone on to teach, or had an unhappy relationship with a man called – well, that’s something I don’t care to go into. Anyway she probably hadn’t. And even if she had, it would prove nothing – would it? I closed the book without putting in anything to mark the page, not so much as dog-earing it, and opened it about half way through.
People had often either disbelieved my gift, or mocked it. Well, of course, not everyone. Those I brought comfort to would see it differently. I do not like words like medium, or séance, or even the Spirit World. I am, broadly speaking, a good Christian woman and always have been. I have no time for hokus-pokus and mumbo-jumbo. But nor am I a liar. And I will not lie to myself any more than I will lie to anyone who may perhaps read this books. I hear the whispers. I hear the forgotten whispers. Some part of my mind, or soul, or both, is attuned in some way to a world beyond our own. I am not saying it speaks to those who are with the Lord in Heaven. They are in His hands and His care, and neither they nor there loved ones have any need of such help and reassurance as I am able to offer. As for the “other place”, as Mama calls it, then I am not even sure if I believe in it, though Claude says that it existed in the trenches. And now we know of even greater horrors than that! But (I ought to stop starting sentences with “But”, my old English mistress would have had firm words to say on the subject) at times I seem able to break through some invisible barrier to those who are not quite ready to go further on their journey. I have heard them called Earthbound Souls, but don’t know if I care for this expression. I hear these whispers. I have heard fear in them, to be sure, but more often I hear care, and a kind of wistfulness, and the whisper is, “I beg you, Miss Caroline, let me escape this world where all is neither nor, so peace can come to me and to those I love, and tell them I love them.” They have also whispered things that nobody but they and their loved ones could know. They are often silly little things, but of course they are not silly to them. The name of a much-loved childhood pet. The memory of a day at the seaside that seemed to go horribly wrong at the time, but is looked back on with fondness and smiles. That kind of thing. I am always careful how I dress for these meetings. Sometimes I almost think of it as my “uniform”! A dark skirt, a pale blouse, sometimes one of those cardigans Mama loves to knit, if the weather is cold. I am careful not to be either too flamboyant or too austere. I often wear a little brooch, or a little brightly coloured scarf round my neck.
Well, I thought, that puts an end to THAT! Though I prided myself on being broad minded and admitting gladly that there were more things in heaven and earth and all that, I had most definitely not heard any forgotten whispers. I could read on with interest and without any trepidation. I went to get a bookmark to slip in, putting Caroline to one side for a while and having a bite to eat, then reading one of my other books.
And there standing in the doorway, smiling gently, was a woman of about my own age, wearing a dark green skirt and a cream blouse, a cheery pink chiffon scarf round her neck. “I knew we would find each other eventually, Charlotte. You have much still to learn!”