After growing up in a story-shaped and book-filled home, Mark Stibbe went on to be awarded a senior scholarship in English literature at Cambridge University and earned a doctorate in storytelling. This became his first book, published by Cambridge University Press in 1992 (and now required reading in universities worldwide).
In 2012, having written many nonfiction books, he migrated to fiction writing. He has published three novels - The Fate of Kings (historical fiction), King of Hearts (literary fiction), Khali and the Orb of Xona (science fiction for upper MG readers). His new novel is A Book in Time.
When Mark is not editing, assessing, and ghost writing manuscripts, he runs workshops and coaching sessions for aspiring writers. He lives in Kent with his wife Cherith and their Black Labrador Bella.
Mark's twin sister Claire Stibbe is the prolific and talented author of a series of crime fiction novels and psychological thrillers. His cousin Nina Stibbe is the author of Love Nina and other books.
MY MOTHER’S HOME (1805-1806)
I was conceived in a hot bath in Deal and born twelve months later on a mahogany table in Holt. My mother was called Emily Swanson and she was eighty-seven years old when she finally delivered me. She was so overcome that from that day forth she often held me to her chest as she shuffled in thick blue stockings about the cottage. When she looked at me it was impossible not to notice the adoration in her eyes. Sometimes she would bow, her skin wrinkled like the pages of an antique book, her face gnarled like a worn cover. Then she would kiss me.
Once, when a howling wind was buffeting the windows of the cottage, and the flames were trembling in the guttering candles, she held me so close I thought I was going to disappear into her heart. When at last she separated me from her heaving chest she stared and stared at me, her head shaking from side to side and her eyes filled with a melancholy beyond the reach of words. Then a tear formed in her left eye, filling the lens until it spilled from her cheek and fell upon my front. I thought my spine would break.
My mother lived for just six months after she had brought me into the world. In that time visitors came, longing to pay homage. Young lovers and old lovers and enough blue-stockinged women to fill a library. They journeyed through hail and snow and when they arrived and stood within our panelled parlour room, they strove to outdo one another with their praise.
“You are the most courageous of the fairer sex,” one said.
“A champion among women,” another added.
“A connoisseur of love,” a third exclaimed.
At every knock on the door, my mother would rise from her rocking chair and call for Miss Eliza Reed. Miss Reed and she had been like sisters for four score years. She had thinning white hair and smoked a dirty clay pipe that had once been owned by a long dead blacksmith. She had found it while digging up onions in our walled garden and had whooped with joy when she realised it was still in good working order. She often used to smoke it in her bed until one day she fell asleep and her sheets caught fire. Billowing with smoke, she ran from the top floor down to the scullery screeching like a demon. My mother doused the flames with water she kept in a bucket by the door, “in case poor Reedie ever had a conflagration.”
Whenever visitors came, my mother would shout upstairs, “Swiggies, Reedie! Swiggies!” Swiggies was her word for port wine served in crystal glasses, accompanied by a silver plate of bread and jam. Mother would serve her guests with homely sacraments from these makeshift chalices and patens. Many left our doors with faces glowing. Some were lost for words.
These were halcyon days.
* * *
On Christmas Eve, my mother’s oldest friend Mrs Elizabeth Carter visited. She was as advanced in years as my mother and arrived in a horse-drawn carriage. When she stepped into the parlour, she was wearing a white bonnet with pale blue ribbons tied above her cloudy hair, which was as white as her pale face. She wore a scarf and a thick brown coat, which she now took off with my mother’s clumsy assistance. Mrs Carter looked shy but, in the company of my mother, was now enlivened and emboldened beyond what I took to be her regular fragility.
“How are you, my dear?” my mother said. It was almost as if she knew what the answer would be before she even asked.
“The coach to London was overcrowded, and the thick smoke in the city made the air unbreathable. People are milling about in large numbers at night for unholy, torch-lit entertainment and some are wearing the ghastliest costumes, influenced by the most outrageous French fashions.”
Mrs Carter heaved a huge sigh as my mother hung up her coat.
“I was pleased to arrive at Holt,” she continued, now with a softer tone. “Your Georgian houses look even lovelier with a mantle of snow upon them and, of course, it is good to be near the sea again. I’m happy to be here and even happier to see you, Emily. I see that congratulations are in order.”
My mother was holding me with one hand while helping her friend with the other. Mrs Carter’s eyes widened as she stared at me, a broad smile extending from her bright red lips.
“Better late than never,” my mother said, and they both laughed. I felt her body shake with it.
My mother took Mrs Carter by the hand and adopted a voice of mock gravity. “Others are not allowed beyond the parlour,” she said as she led her friend towards the door that opened onto the staircase filled with books. “But you can come beyond the veil into the most holy place.”
“Look there!” my mother said as we climbed the steps. She pointed to a book entitled Philosophy Explained for the Use of Ladies. It was by Isaac Newton and translated from the Italian by the same Elizabeth Carter when she was just twenty-one. Both women read out the title simultaneously, emphasizing the word “ladies” in a mocking manner. Both laughed heartily.
Mrs Carter struggled up the last few steps and followed us into the drawing room, just as the grandfather clock chimed six times.
This was my favourite room in my mother’s house. The pastel walls were covered in ten drawings, mystical and ethereal in style, of two lovers dancing and embracing in the clouds. There was a desk in the corner with papers covered in her scrawl and a smaller table with an old King James and a well-thumbed Hebrew lexicon. A writer’s chair stood proudly in the centre of the room, its armrests long and wide enough for books and pamphlets to be read and written. This was our favourite place to sit, warmed by the red-hot coals in the cast iron grate. Here we would rest while mother drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes scratching vagrant thoughts upon the pages with her trusty quill before they shuffled off into the night.
“Sit in my writer’s chair,” my mother said.
“No, no,” our visitor protested.
Seeing that there was no point in contending the point, my mother yielded and sat down while Mrs Carter descended into an armchair.
“How are things in the town of Deal?” my mother asked.
“We are still on alert in case Bonaparte tries to invade our shores, but in truth, it is the smuggling that is the greatest threat.”
“Is it still bad?”
“Worse than ever. There are contraband goods passing hands everywhere. No one is immune. Even our legislators are at it. The revenue cutters are outnumbered at sea and the dragoons patrolling the shores are constantly outwitted. I don’t know what’s to be done about it.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” my mother said. “It is not such a problem this far up the east coast.”
“You are fortunate,” Mrs Carter said, shifting in her seat, wincing.
“It is good to spend this Christmas together,” my mother said with a sigh, placing me upon her lap and sheltering me beneath a tawny throe.
“Ah Emily, I have missed our conversations,” our visitor replied, grimacing with pain in her chair. “Do you remember our days conversing with the others at Elizabeth Montagu’s house in London?”
“I will never forget them,” my mother said. “The finest women I have ever net were there.”
“Fanny Burney,” Mrs Carter said.
“Hannah More,” my mother added, as if participating in some antiphonal liturgy in praise of literary women. “Catherine Talbot and Hester Chapone,” she continued.
“And you,” Mrs Carter said.
“No, you!” my mother said, and they both laughed again.
“Her Mayfair house was a Temple for rational conversation, virtue and female friendship,” Mrs Carter said.
“And a tribute to Chinoiserie,” my mother said, chuckling. “Do you remember those Chinese screens?”
“And the oriental desk with the carved elephants,” Mrs Carter said. “I do miss those days,” she continued. “I rarely go out now. From time to time, people visit me, but their visits are unreasonably long and after just ten minutes I am corky and restless. There are only a few souls left whose company I love and whose conversations I esteem. You are preeminent among those, my dear. I feel a very affecting pleasure to be here with you at long last.”
“The distance is, I must admit, distasteful,” my mother replied. “And we are not getting any younger. How is your health?”
“I have been suffering more and more from those beastly headaches. And my physician tells me I have St Anthony’s fire.”
“I am so sorry.”
Mrs Carter looked at the floor. “I suffer from increasing burning sensations and my headaches leave me in a lifeless state.”
“We will both be in a lifeless state before too long,” my mother said, and I felt a shudder go through every fibre of my being.
Mrs Carter took out a box, applied some snuff and sneezed. “To keep me awake,” she said. “I fall asleep on a whim these days and I don’t want to do that tonight, of all nights.”
“Why do you say that?”
“My dear, you of all people must be feeling the same intimations of mortality. This may very well be the last Christmas we spend in each other’s company. We may not see each other again, at least this side of the veil.”
“Then it’s high time I said thank you,” my mother said.
“For many things, but especially that you taught me Hebrew,” my mother said. “It was an honour to be educated by you. No other woman surpasses you for knowledge of the ancient ones. Even Dr Johnson used to say so.”
“Not everything he said is true,” Mrs Carter said, and with that their laughter filled the room again.
“No. But being able to read the Song of Songs in the Hebrew tongue changed everything. Without your help, my love would have remained dormant, and this life would never have poured out of me.”
* * *
The next morning it was Christmas Day. My mother and her guest rose and went to church while Miss Reed stayed behind to adorn the downstairs rooms and prepare the Christmas lunch. Mother said that it was important to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, eating sweets by the fire and laughing with friends, which is why she had invited Mrs Carter to stay. It was even more important, she said, to commemorate the birth of the Christ Child, which is why she took me with her to the parish church, bundled in a woollen scarf. We sat in a pew adorned by rosemary and bay as the parson, standing in a pulpit covered with wreaths of holly and sprigs of ivy, extolled the virtues of Mary, the mother of the divine infant.
On the way home, my mother lamented the fact that there were so few people at divine service, and those that were present had not put on their Sunday clothes, but their work-a-day garments. Mrs Carter said that it was the same on the shores of Kent, and that Christmas Day was not celebrated as it ought to be. Her father, she said, had always tried to make it a sacred feast when he was the Vicar of St George’s Church in Deal, and that he’d sought to make the people glad at the remembrance of the birth of Christ, encouraging one and all joyfully to receive him as their Redeemer. It was a season illuminated by the true light, he used to say, and so it should be celebrated with shiny and not glum faces, and people should give generously to the poor, remembering that God loves a cheerful giver.
Returning to the cottage, we found the parlour filled with candles and garlands and the dining room table adorned with nuts and fruits. Miss Reed had made a visit the previous afternoon to the shops before the light faded, while Mother and Mrs Carter were conversing in the sitting room upstairs. Miss Reed said that the windows of the poultry shop in Holt had been decorated with holly and bright red berries and that the grocer’s shop had been filled with small, swollen baskets full of chestnuts or full-bearded hazelnuts. She told of clusters of grapes hanging from the ceilings and Norfolk biffins arranged in the shape of pyramids on the counter. She brought two of these apples out of a cotton pouch attached to the front of her apron. They seemed to glow with a dark red hue.
With the goose that she was now cooking, she told us that she had purchased some Spanish onions for the stuffing and the gravy. As Mother and Mrs Carter waited, they drank a glass of port-wine by the open fire. They sat on the two rocking chairs next to the hearth, a red and green throe over their knees. When lunch was ready, we moved to the dining room where Miss Reed served, disappearing as soon as she had left the food, allowing the two friends to talk privately.
After dinner, Mrs Carter and my mother returned to the sitting room upstairs while Miss Reed cleared the table and cleaned the dining room. When we ascended the stairs to my mother’s writing room, we found that Miss Reed had left bowls of candied fruits, figs and nuts on the desk. There was also a silver tray with two porcelain cups and saucers on a table by the captain’s chair and the room was filled with the scent of cinnamon and freshly brewed coffee.
As the dry logs crackled in the grate, the two friends sipped their coffee and munched some sweets.
It was Mrs Carter who spoke first. “The parson was right to venerate the Virgin this morning in his homily. I just wish that gentlemen in holy orders could do the same for Eve, the Mother of All living.”
My mother roused herself from the edge of a nap. “Men have always regarded Eve as inferior to Adam,” she said. “I do not see that changing soon.”
The silence that followed was interrupted for a moment by the sound of Miss Reed singing at the sink downstairs.
Mrs Carter smiled, then frowned. “I was studying the Hebrew text of the opening chapters of Genesis again last month,” she said. “I saw something there that may one day change the hard hearts of stubborn men.”
I could tell from my mother’s breathing that she was intrigued.
“When the Holy Scriptures describe Eve as Adam’s helper, this is not a demeaning word, as if to say that Eve is to be his cook, his maid-of-all-works, his slave.” She paused to drink some more coffee before continuing. “Far from it. The word in Hebrew is used elsewhere of Jehovah Himself, where God’s help means instructing man in the truth of his inscrutable ways.”
“That is indeed extraordinary,” my mother cried.
“And you know what it means, of course, Emily? It means that Eve was never meant to be Adam’s lowly and submissive servant. She was meant to be his equal, his teacher, his source of wisdom.”
“How is it that we have not heard this?” my mother asked.
“I can think of two reasons. Firstly, the interpretation and preaching of the Scriptures has been the province of men alone since time immemorial. Men have always been the ones who have determined how we understand words like Helper. And secondly, they, being who and what they are, have decided that the word means what Milton understood it to mean, that it is the task of women to serve men with ‘dulcet creams’ and the like.”
“My dear Elizabeth! What a revelation! If this was to be preached from the pulpits throughout the land, then men like Dr Johnson would have to revise their opinions drastically. Wasn’t it he who said that a woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs, a thing not done well?”
Mrs Carter laughed. “I told you yesterday that Dr Johnson is sometimes wrong,” she said.
“Very wrong,” my mother agreed.
Thereafter, the conversation turned this way and that. Then, after some games of whist, Mrs Carter wrestled against her obvious infirmities and rose to her feet and headed up to her bedroom above to read before she slept.
Miss Reed returned to tidy the room. My mother helped her and, before turning in herself, said thank you, adding that it was the finest Christmas meal that Miss Reed had ever served, and that she was the truest of all friends.
* * *
The next day, after a late breakfast, my mother and Mrs Carter spoke at length in the sitting room. They conversed about many things until our visitor began to ask my mother about the one man who had seized her heart with a love so high, so deep, so long and so wide that it had left her wanting no other.
“I did not know you then, Emily,” she said. “You were but twenty years of age, I believe, when this happened. We met ten years later.”
“Twenty-one, to be precise,” my mother said.
“Who was he?”
“I cannot name him. It would cause too much harm.”
“Was it physical?”
My mother sighed. “My body was alive with love. Every sense, every sinew, throbbed with the force of it, as if I had been struck by a thousand lightning bolts and transfigured by the light within them.”
“When you speak like this, Emily, I sometimes think you sound like our beloved Julian, of nearby Norwich fame.”
As she mentioned the woman’s name, my mother seemed to vibrate, and holy words began to pour from her mouth. “We need to fall, and we need to be aware of it; for if we did not fall, we should not know how weak and wretched we are of ourselves, nor should we know our Maker's marvellous love so fully.”
“Are you saying that you somehow fell from grace when you fell in love.”
“I did not fall. I ascended.”
“My dear Emily, you speak in riddles.”
“In him alone, I had everything,” my mother replied.
Mrs Carter leaned back in her chair and smiled. “You are not going to give me a lucid answer to my questions, of this I am sure. And that is, of course, proper and no doubt prudent. Forgive me.”
“My dear friend, there is nothing to forgive. I am not being evasive. It is just that words fail us so atrociously when it comes to describing the bliss of true and lasting love.”
“But it didn’t last.”
“Its effects did. They have to this day. Even now, I feel the proximity of it. What were the words that Sarah Edwards once used? I feel his nearness to me, and my dearness to him. Always.”
My mother finished her tea and then stood. “I fear the time has come,” she said.
Mrs Carter nodded.
When they descended the stairs to the parlour, Mrs Carter’s coach driver was sitting and warming himself by the open fire, drinking a glass of port wine poured for him by Reedie.
As Reedie shuffled off, Mrs Carter tied her bonnet, donned her shawl and coat, and made to go. “You know,” she said, “the country is divided. Some say that what you’ve done is miraculous, an immaculate conception, no less.”
My mother stood and looked into her friend’s eyes, holding me even closer. “And what do you say?”
Mrs Carter paused and then stepped forward, holding both my mother’s hands in hers. “I say that, thanks to you, women have found a voice.”
The two hugged and I was caught in the heart of their embrace.
“We have both fulfilled our destiny on behalf of other women,” my mother said, her voice confident.
Tears filled Mrs Carter’s eyes. Then she dismissed them. “Tish, tish,” she said. “I must be on my way. Coachman, on your feet now.”
“Yes, my lady,” he said.
“I hope the journey home goes without incident,” my mother said.
“There will be outrageous politicians and talkative lawyers to put up with on the coach to Deal, but I won’t ever do it again. I’m too old.”
“Thank you, then, for making the effort to see me, especially when the weather is so inclement. Please give my love to the coast of Kent and to … what was it you said in your recent letter?”
“The whistling wind, the beating rain and the dashing waves,” Mrs Carter answered.
“Yes, that was it. Oh, how I miss it all.”
Before Mrs Carter walked out into the cold street, she turned. “I took my last walk at twilight exactly a year ago,” she said. “I heard the owl sing his farewell note to the departing shadows of night, and I thought of you, and of our friendship. I’m glad I came this Christmastide.”
“I am too,” my mother said.
“All shall be well,” Mrs Carter said. “And all manner of thing shall be well.” She was the one using Mother Julian’s words now.
“Thetta reddast,” my mother whispered. “Thetta reddast.”
Then, our visitor was gone.
My mother wept at the closing of the door and the turning of the key.
* * *
Two evenings later, when the front door had closed for the last time that day, my mother sat with me on the uneven slates of the parlour, humming a tune by the fire. After a while, the chair began to slow its metronomic to and fro until it stilled, and the creaky legs fell silent. The coals in the grate throbbed red and gold as the light in the room began to die.
It was a sudden gust of wind blowing down the chimney that startled her. For a moment she seemed confused, like a sailor cast adrift, no compass or moon by which to navigate. Then she saw me in her lap and a smile began to make its way across the tired terrain of her face and her eyes glimmered in the half light.
“My child,” she whispered, “my only child.”
Gathering her woollen scarf about her shoulders she pulled me even closer then stared into the fireplace. “I was dreaming of him again,” she whispered.
She looked down upon the slabs before the grate.
“We lay upon a rug and kissed beside a blazing hearth.”
The embers blushed.
“We were one, completely one, as you and I are one. And we kissed like there was no tomorrow.”
A teardrop formed in her eye then seemed to freeze.
“That is why you were born. So late I know, but not too late.”
She lifted me and pressed me to her face.
“I want you to tell the world.”
She took a deep breath.
“I want you to sing our song of love. Sing to those who have not loved and yet who long to love. Sing to those who need awakening from the winter of indifference. Sing it in the morning, sing it in the evening. Sing it to the prince and sing it to the orphan. Let generations hear my song.”
And then she giggled. “You truly are my poetry,” she said as she increased her rocking. “You speak in love-inspired pentameters!”
With that she laughed and laughed until she coughed so coarsely that I thought I would be unhinged.
My mother stood and then began to make her way across the freezing floor to the winding stairs. She gathered me under her left arm while with her right she held a candle. She trod so carefully that the spiral staircase seemed to last forever. No matter, though, for either side the walls were lined with wooden shelves and ancient, well-thumbed books. Every inch of space was occupied by volumes, busts and pamphlets lying upright and on their sides.
It always was my favourite journey.
Up, up, up the stairs with books for walls.
That night my mother slept exhausted by my side, a bony finger resting on my golden headband.