ANDY HOUSTOUN - MEETING BRONTË
Andy Houstoun is a philosophy teacher who lives in England with his wife and four children.
He has had short stories published in a range of magazines and is the author of the flash novella 'Waiting For Lulu At Wuthering Heights'.
"Morning, I'm calling about the room you've got advertised."
"Sorry, it's already taken."
"Okay, thank you." I drew a line through the phone number on my piece of paper. Another one gone. Surely, I wouldn't end up homeless on my first day at Exeter university.
I had spent the summer working as a waiter at a holiday resort in America and hadn't been able to view any properties during the weeks leading up to my first year. The Student Union had given me a list of potential places that morning, but they all proved unsuccessful.
All, that is, except one. It would take two bus journeys to get there but had a sea-view. Without any alternatives, I went to see it.
The three-story house stood alone at the end of a sandy dirt-track. The landlady, Mrs Johnston, looked to be in her forties, high cheek bones and dark, deep-set eyes, auburn hair gathered at the back and secured at the top of her head with a butterfly clip. She wore expensive looking clothes over her full figure. A widow who didn't hide the fact that she needed a lodger. She greeted me warmly and spoke of the house's many conveniences: the AGA oven, the washing machine I could use whenever required, cost of electricity and gas included. The only potential issue might be the size of the bedroom. Upon inspection, it became apparent I would have to look elsewhere. A single bed took up the majority of floor space and there wasn't even room for a desk.
Mrs Johnston told me of a room downstairs that a woman kept all year round for a discounted rate, and mainly used during the summer. "She might offer it up during the academic months. It's a very good size."
I thanked her for her enthusiasm in finding a solution but told her I would try elsewhere.
Sitting in the university canteen, concerned about where I was going to stay that night, I received a phone call from Mrs Johnston. The woman who rented the downstairs room had agreed to give it up during term time. "I knew it would be no bother. She's very kind. She's currently in London and won't need the room until June, should you want it."
I moved in that evening.
A wooden door opened up into a huge space with high-reaching ceilings and white painted walls. Wooden floorboards stretched the expanse of the area leading to tall patio doors, where the back garden was faintly visible through muslin curtains. Picture frames hung on the walls with prints by Edward Hopper and Magritte. Amongst various pieces of oak furniture, a king-sized brass bed took up one corner and in another stood a shelving unit holding dozens of books. Despite the owner's personality stamped everywhere, it matched my taste. I moved in without changing a thing. Even the pictures were to my liking.
A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts and Mrs Johnston peered in, her mouth touched with colour now. "She's a poet."
"You're studying literature aren't you?"
"Well, Brontë, the woman whose room you've got, is a published poet. Been renting here for five years. Lovely lady. She'd do anything for anybody."
"Her parents named her after Emily Brontë."
"Brontë, the poet?" I paused. "I'm familiar with her." I had had a poem published in a magazine the previous summer. It was printed at the bottom of a page in small writing, and above it was one of hers. Her name stood out. The editor had commented on how both poems expressed similar emotions, which lead him to place them together.
Mrs Johnston raised her eyebrows. "Well, there you go. She's a little dreamy." She smiled. "But that's poets for you."
"Like I said, artists are funny folk. I saw her wandering round the garden one night. Must have been about three in the morning, lost in thought. Anyway, I'll leave you be."
Intrigued by the enigmatic character who's room I inhabited, I browsed the books lining her shelves. Near the bottom I spied her name on a spine and lifted out a short collection of her poems. With special attentiveness, I read her verse:
"As winter howls with driving rain,
I roam the lonely hills again.
In secret pleasure, secret tears,
My vision of you disappears."
I read on through beautiful, lonely prose. Words that I would have loved to have written myself, and being here by the coastal hills, they felt particularly poignant.
Despite the long distance to the university, I enjoyed my time in the house. My landlady often cooked me meals: Homemade soups, beef casseroles, sometimes washed down with a glass or two of red wine. I also appreciated the chance to wander up on the heath or along the beach when the fancy took me.
I loved studying the Romantics and immersed myself in Blake and Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. Mrs Johnston shared my interest in literature and we often discussed them over dinner, but for both of us, none of them held quite the same fascination as the woman whose room I inhabited. Every now and then I would see one of her poems in a magazine, and Mrs Johnston would speak of her: "She used to walk in the kitchen, mid-morning, dressed in her nightie, and put the coffee on. She would often hand me one of her new poems, written on the back of an envelope or something similar. I'm sure you'd find her interesting. She's very shy though. Spends most of her time reading or writing and doesn't see many people. Such a lovely young lady too. You don't meet many like her."
"I've read her work but I've never seen her. What does she look like?"
"Some might call her attractive. Some might not. There's a photo of her in the wooden frame on the dresser in your bedroom."
I paused in thought. "That's a Man Ray picture."
"Yes, but she's behind it. When she agreed to let out her room, she told me to cover it up. 'I don't want anyone looking at me and I'm sure he wouldn't want me staring at him.' So, I put the Man Ray over the top. If you take it out you'll see her underneath."
When I got back to my room, I re-read one of her poems. One that captured her vulnerability and intensity:
"My heart longs for a touch divine,
And for another soul to find
Me here, beside the wild sea,
To cherish and to comfort me."
I picked up the picture-frame, removed the back, and set it on the dresser. It was a striking image. Rusty coloured hair hung down the sides of her face contrasting with a turquoise scarf around her neck. Dark blue eyes, looked up thoughtfully, like a character from an Edward Hopper painting. Here was the woman who expressed thoughts and feelings that I identified with, in ways nobody else seemed able to.
I read her whole volume of work and learned some of her poems by heart. I tried to emulate her style in my own writing, but no matter how hard I tried, couldn't get close. The more I read, the more my fascination grew, intensified by living in her environment, and topped off with information from our mutual landlady.
One evening, a tapping sound alerted me to Mrs Johnston by the door. "Sorry to bother you." She held an olive green, woollen coat in her hands. "It belongs to Brontë. Would you mind keeping it in the wardrobe for me?"
"No, not at all." She placed it into my arms, and left me to put it away.
I held it close and breathed in the scent of her perfume on the collar. When I put it in the wardrobe, something fell to the floor. A small notebook, patterned in black and pink roses. It contained scribblings and doodles, ideas and reflections. Sitting on the bed, I read through them. Half-finished verses spoke of solitude and loneliness and a need for deep connection. I wondered if I'd ever meet Brontë.
At the end of the first term of university, some friends on my course told me of a room going in their house. One of their mates had dropped out and left a vacant place. When I mentioned this to Mrs Johnston she let out a small gasp, and put her hand over her chest. She composed herself. "Do what feels right for you."
That evening, I noticed some faint writing on the wall by the side of my bed. When Mrs Johnston called at my room to ask if I wanted any food, I pointed it out to her. "Here. I'm surprised I didn't notice it before."
She stepped into the room and her skirt moved up her thighs as she climbed onto the bed to get a closer look. "It looks like the beginnings of a poem. She probably woke one night and wrote her ideas down before she forgot them."
"I think you're right."
Mrs Johnston started to read them out:
"My darling pain, both day and night,
You are my intimate delight."
That night I couldn't sleep. After glancing at the scribblings again, I got out of bed. A silvery light shone through the ghost-like curtains, and I walked over to the door. I pulled back the drapes and looked into the garden. The bright moon gave the world a strange grey hue. I turned the key slowly so as not to wake anyone, and stepped outside. The clear air was perfectly still. I stepped onto the lawn, and with the dewy grass clinging to my feet, made my way towards the shadowed woodland at the end of the garden.
Such a beautiful night.
A small creature scuttled over the grass in front of me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Leaves stirred on the bushes, and I turned to look back at the house. Part of me wanted to leave and be with my friends in the hive of student activity, but another part felt an immense connection with the poet and this building. I stood a while and was about to go back when I noticed a dark figure move through the trees and disappear into the blackness.
Brontë? She wouldn't be here, surely. She was in London.
There again, further on, a woman wearing a thin white gown walked towards the beach. I could hear the gentle roll of waves, and watched her sit down on the sand, facing the sea. Her hands supported her body as she leaned back. Who was she? What was she doing out at this time? I stood for a while, watching.
The tide came in on a strong current and washed under her but she stayed where she sat. Taking a deep breathe, she tilted her head back into the night sky. A cloud covered the moon and she glanced around. My heart raced, I pulled back into the shadows, and headed back to my room.
I decided to stay at the house. My friends couldn't understand why, but I told them I enjoyed the beach and the home-cooked meals too much. Deep down, I always knew I wouldn't leave.
Blood Ink magazine published one of my poems, along with three other previously unpublished writers. To my surprise and delight, Brontë, being a regular contributor to the magazine, reviewed them. She wrote that mine was sensitive and moving and showed promise of more to come. The magazine printed another of her pieces alongside mine and my longing to meet her overpowered any other ambition.
I took advantage of the email address printed next to her name and wrote to her. I thanked her for her review, expressed my admiration for her work, and informed her that by strange coincidence, I temporarily resided in her room.
When I told Mrs Johnston this, she showed palpable excitement. "You've got a real soft spot for her haven't you?" She smiled. "Let me know if you hear back from her."
That night, I placed Brontë's picture on my bedside cabinet and scanned the scribblings on the wall. While I reclined on my bed, I spoke out my favourite lines from her poetry, warm and sweet as they brushed my lips.
"With a ready heart, I swore
To give my spirit to adore
You, ever present, phantom thing,
My slave, my poet, and my king."
Now I lay where she had, my face on the pillow where she had slept, immersed in her presence.
An email from her the following day elated me. Brontë expressed a genuine enthusiasm for my poem, delight that I had been the person who took on her room, and a promise to look out for more of my contributions in the future. Mrs Johnston advised me to continue with the correspondence and showed a real interest in my feelings for her. "You know, you'd make a lovely couple."
The emails continued between myself and Brontë daily, and one Friday, she informed me that she would be calling in at the house to collect some books. She wrote that she looked forward to catching up with Mrs Johnston and meeting me in person.
That morning, I chose my clothes carefully. A chequed red and black shirt that fit particularly well.
The curtains moved gently with the morning breeze, the waves audible in the distance. Mid-morning, a knock at the front-door informed me of a visitor. I waited a few minutes and then, unable to stay in my room any longer, stepped into the hallway.
Mrs Johnston closed the front-door and turned towards me. "Oh, you're going to be so disappointed. Brontë changed her mind. I'm sorry. I know how much you were looking forward to meeting her."
"She changed her mind?"
"She called, but decided against coming in. Headed into town instead at the last minute. She's not been doing great to be honest with you. Her last collection of poetry got slated in a review recently and she really took it to heart. Too raw and passionate is how the poems were criticized. It really got to her. The problem is she spends so long by herself that she has the time to dwell on that kind of thing."
"She was here?"
"She was. She's just not up to socializing at the moment."
I rushed forward and opened the door. I descended the steps and looked down the street but there was no sign of her. I had come so close. Would I get the opportunity again?
"She's gone." I told Mrs Johnston.
"I'm sorry." She held my arm, and our eyes connected. She would be ready to console me should I need her.
I returned to my room and immersed myself in Brontë's words. Surely our paths would cross eventually.
Racing thoughts prevented me from sleeping that night.
"And reason mocks my muddled thoughts,
That deaden me to real cares."
A solid yellow block of light shone under my bedroom door indicating that Mrs Johnston was up. She was the only person who understood my feelings for Brontë and I felt a need to speak with her.
I put on my dressing-gown and stepped into the hallway. A steaming cup of tea stood on the kitchen table next to a notepad and pencil. She would be back in a moment. I put the kettle back on so I could join her, and took a seat. The notepad caught my attention. Poetry. I looked closer to see a message with my name at the top, and at the bottom, the name Brontë.
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