I am still reading Stalin by Stephen Kotkin. By page 350: Lenin has been shot and is lying in Moscow with Sverdlov, Trotsky is in one part of Russia and Stalin is in another and both are sniping at each other across the supine body of their leader. In Tsaritsyn, Stalin has become self-appointed military commander and also the head of the Tsaritsyn Cheka. The Cheka was at this time a sort of counter-revolutionary military police force, licensed to to do anything to prevent the Bolshevik Revolution from failing, there were branches of the Cheka everywhere. In Tsaritsyn they were thugs (maybe they were thugs everywhere) and Stalin was beginning to show his true colours: torture, summary executions without trial and expropriations were the order of the day, trumped up charges or no charges at all could be laid against anyone by anyone – but especially if your background was tsarist, bourgeois, kulak or simply you were in the way. Shadows only of the terrors of the 50s and 60s, but all the brutality, self-service and ruthlessness were there, Stalin was not simply the Man of Steel, but the Iron Fist. The animosity between Trotsky and Stalin has grown to unmanageable levels and they are both summoned to Moscow. The First World War is at an end and the inglorious Treaty of Versailles signed with the participating nations departing partially, wholly or completely satisfied. Russia meanwhile, who was excluded because of the Brest-Litovsk Agreement, felt duly aggrieved. I said this was a book of painstaking and exhaustive research…
So now for my evening reading. I have returned to my ordinary pile. Queenie Hennessy was the woman who wrote the letter which led to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. If you took my advice before and read this wonderful debut novel by Rachel Joyce, then you will remember that Harold Fry lived with his wife Maureen in Kingsbridge, Devon and one day he received a letter from an old friend called Queenie, who had worked with him at the brewery years before. She writes to tell him she has cancer and she is writing to say farewell. Galvanised by this news Harold writes a letter, saying how sorry he is to hear this news. And he sets off in his ordinary clothes and his yachting shoes to post the letter, but somehow the first postbox didn’t seem right, and gradually he walks on and eventually walks all the way to Berwick-on-Tweed, sending encouraging postcards all the way, telling Queenie he is on the way and to wait for him.
I do not think Rachel Joyce intended ever to write any more, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a complete book. But characters do have a way of insisting on staying with their authors and Queenie evidently stuck around, so Rachel Joyce picked up the pen again (figuratively speaking) and wrote The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.
This is a very different book, Queenie is indeed very ill and has been moved to a hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed run by nuns. Hearing that Harold is on his way and to wait, she wonders whether she can bear to see him, she is not ready. There is something that she never told him, never had the opportunity or the courage, and then something absolutely terrible happened and she had to run away, that was all twenty or more years ago, but she has never stopped thinking about him and loving him, but there has been the awful barrier – her stricken conscience.
Doped heavily with morphine, her mind wanders and she hallucinates, but helped by a nun who appears to have nothing else to do, she begins a letter to Harold, she covers pages of a notebook in her writings and the nun, Sister Mary Ingenue sits by her bed and types up everything she writes, encouraging her to let her feelings go. Thus we learn what the imperative was that led Harold to walk the length of England, why she left in the first place and what her life was like once she made it to the North.
We see her and her co-inhabitants waiting for postcards reporting progress, and eventually the television reports that made Harold’s pilgrimage national news, and the flood of get well cards from complete strangers that arrive at the hospice as a result. It is all rather baffling and overwhelming, but in its own way brings the community together in the enterprise; but this is a hospice and her friends are reaching the ends of their journeys. The poignancy of the arrival of the undertaker’s hearse and the group hugs in the Garden of Well-Being is almost too terrible to bear, but it is at the same time almost certainly the reality for most of the people who are there, with Queenie, waiting for Harold or Death to arrive and it is the very nature and purpose of the hospice movement. Please God, that we all end up in such a well organised, caring place when the time comes.
There is another way in which these books are praiseworthy. They are beautiful to look at and handle. Rachel Joyce has stayed with the same publisher (Doubleday) and the same book jacket illustrator, Andrew Davidson, whose small ink drawings suffuse the text throughout, giving it an added and exquisite dimension.