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CLEARHARBOUR

Excerpt from CLEARHARBOUR:

When Emelye opened the door of the room she once shared with Elizabeth, her mother’s instructions as Guy outgrew baby clothes that had belonged to Andy, then Chris, before him, echoed in her ears: "Just put them up in the attic bedroom." Guy was ten months old when they went back to Texas, and owing to war-time scarcities, he had never had a stitch of his own. He was lucky that his grandmother could never bear to part with anything that belonged to her children. It seemed Emelye was always hauling something upstairs to the roomy cupboards that the articles Elizabeth left behind didn’t even begin to fill up.

Accordingly, even though she and Guy were living downstairs in the buttery by the time Guy was baptized, it seemed a good chance James’s baby ring wound up here. Eventually Elvira took over this room, and it remained hers whenever she was at Clearharbour. She had given Emelye permission to search for the ring, though she apologized, "I’m afraid I rather dashed Elizabeth’s things here and there when I moved in. Plus, I did a bit of redecorating, and you know how that goes! So it’s all rather a mess, but good luck!"

To Emelye’s dismay, the pink chintz spreads and cozy rugs she remembered had been replaced by a cold black and white linoleum floor and bedspreads with garish harlequin prints. The walls were painted stark white, covered with playbills, souvenir programmes and autographed photos of stage stars that Emelye didn’t recognize. Above the dressing table was a mirror encircled with naked light bulbs, the type you would find in a backstage dressing room. The writing desk was draped with a large multi-colored scarf, or shawl, with gold fringe around the edges. Arranged on top were a small record player and a stack of recordings: show tunes, no doubt. Well, Elvira was entitled to fix up the room as she liked, Emelye supposed. She just wished she hadn’t seen it looking like this. Through all her troubles and heartaches growing up in England, and in spite of the nights when the howling wind kept her awake, this room had been her safe haven...

...and Elizabeth was always here, ready to listen and understand.

When she began opening cupboards, she understood what Elvira meant when she said she "rather dashed" Elizabeth’s things around. Emelye knew from her mother’s letters that Elvira was deeply resentful of Elizabeth. Apparently she took out her resentment on the possessions her sister left behind. There were several boxes with books piled in haphazardly, their pages riffled. One box had classical sheet music and recordings tossed in with handbags and clothing and shoes, many of the records without their jackets to protect them from scratches. Jewelry, hair ribbons, small trinkets, were all tangled up in there. In another box, certificates of merit from Bodmin Primary and Harleigh School were mixed in with the notebooks full of assignments graded "100" and "Excellent" that had earned her the awards, plus greeting cards from family and friends, all sprinkled with sticky bath salts that had spilled out of the container tossed on top.

And there were a few loose photographs in there, too. Emelye found the snapshot taken on that winter’s day long ago when she and Elizabeth built a snowman on Norfolk Square. They were wrapped up like two little Eskimos, their young faces peeking out from fur caps. This was the first time either of them had been to London since Emelye moved to England, a trip for which Elizabeth had waited long and patiently. That was the Elizabeth Emelye remembered, the one who occupied this bedroom with her.

She dusted off the picture as best she could, wondering what had become of the frame it used to be in, and placed it in the pocket of her skirt. Then she looked around her at the mess. Somehow she knew that Elizabeth would have never shown such disrespect to someone else’s things. She would have given the cast-off clothing to someone in need; she would have given the books and recordings to someone who would appreciate them. Emelye found herself feeling a little sorry for Elizabeth, maybe because she suddenly seemed...well... defenseless...against the resentment of her whole family. Except, of course, for Mother. Emelye remembered her writing long ago that she had gotten some books on the Shakers, and they had made her feel better about Elizabeth. But when she tried to explain to the children about the basis of some of the Shaker ways, Andy and Elvira just made cruel jokes, and Daddy, who up to then had been convinced Elizabeth was brain-washed into joining their ranks, was all the more resentful to learn that Shakers didn’t coerce people after all.

Daddy, Elvira, Andy and Chris all had to be at their respective destinations early tomorrow morning—Daddy and Elvira in London, Andy at Oxford, and Chris at Eton. Except for the few minutes when Emelye went down to say goodbye to them as they left for the station, she spent the next two hours on the floor, her black suede high-heeled shoes and suit jacket discarded. She neatly organized Elizabeth’s belongings in their boxes, stacking them at one end of the cupboard they shared with children’s toys and discarded clothing, and game boards, and small household appliances. Her children’s clothing was not the only thing Mother hoarded. In all this sorting, Emelye hoped to run across the small pale blue velvet box holding the baby ring, but she did not.

After putting everything away, she had a feeling of satisfaction that she’d done something nice for her sister, though she doubted there was any point in telling her about it. She decided to look for the ring in the writing desk drawers. It seemed odd that Elvira didn’t use the desk for its intended purpose, but then Elvira was more the type who would spread out her books haphazardly on the bed, and prop her notebook on the pillows. She could just imagine her bending over the notebook, frowning, pushing her unruly mop of hair back from her face.

She put the record player and records on the bed, removed the scarf, and opened the lap drawer of the desk. The strong odor of ink, and cedar wood long sealed up, flooded her nostrils. She was surprised to find Elizabeth had left behind the note paper engraved with her name, and the silver blotter and letter opener that appeared in a package with her name on it under the Christmas tree one year. Surely she didn’t know even before she left that she was about to change her identity. An image of Elizabeth walking down a train platform all alone, carrying her small suitcase, gripped Emelye suddenly. Her eyes filled. Oh, Elizabeth, why’d you have to go away and become somebody else?

She closed the lap drawer and opened the top right-hand drawer. There she found a handsome leather address book with Elizabeth’s name in gold-leaf letters on the front. She didn’t remember having seen this before, but somehow, the fact that Elizabeth left it behind said a lot about her determination to isolate herself. I won’t be staying in touch.... Yet, when Emelye opened the volume, she found Elizabeth had put it to a different use. She had written poetry there.