The wiry old lady with a fuzz of neat brown hair, and a surprisingly young-looking face was an avid reader. Ignoring the tumult all around her, the banging, whirring, and rattling of the ward’s daily life, her head was always bent over a book. Only when interrupted by the arrival of the lunch trolley or the blood pressure machine would she stop reading, turning down a page corner to mark her place.Whenever the nurses came round the ward to distribute the drugs, they made each patient tell them their name and date of birth to confirm their identity. That’s how I learned that the reading lady was born in 1923.
If she’d said she was 90, it wouldn’t have struck me in quite the same way. That would have focused my mind on her longevity, not her history. But 1923 was a really long time ago. It struck me that the little old lady sitting opposite me had been alive in a world before The Great Gatsby, before A Passage to India, To the Lighthouse, Gone with the Wind, or any of the Winnie-the-Pooh books. And Proust was still propped up in his bed in Paris writing the last two parts of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
1923 is also the year that I am trying to recreate in fictional form. It is the last year of the first volume of Albion’s Millennium when everything comes to a head for my two main characters – Celia and May. In the last chapter, they meet by accident in the Ladies’ Waiting Room at Victoria Station in Nottingham, each on the cusp of taking a huge step towards changing their lives in a drastic way. In the end, one of them goes forward and the other turns back, and their decisions will influence the paths they will take for the rest of their lives (which will, if I live long enough, unfold over four more novels).
All I can know about 1923 comes from contemporary memoirs and black & white photographs. The best I can do is feed this material into my imagination and try to conjure up the sounds, sights and smells of that era - the coal smell of a steam train, the rattle and spark of an electric tram, the smell of orange peel, sweat, beer, coconut, trampled grass, and horse dung at the fair. A vanished world that this little elderly lady across the ward once heard and saw and breathed.
The ladies in the ward all had names straight from the servants’ hall of Downtown Abbey – Violet, Olive, Sybil, Lillian, Phyllis – and this one was no exception. Her name was written in bold black marker on the panel above her hospital bed – “May.”
I like to think it was a sign.