From the life of Rosie Joyce
By Nacima Khan
We met on a boat, Rosie and I.
Affectionately named the ‘River Princess’, the boat was charming yet weather-beaten and floated in the waters of Cody Dock, a less frequented and quiet part of East London. The boat smelled damp; the ghosts of past legendary women welcomed you in the form of fading posters, pinned to the walls, as you crawled through the entrance of the boat and spilled out further into a seating area. I sat across from Rosie and sipped my tea. Its fragrant note of peppermint filled my chest with a warm feeling, and I leaned back against the hard red seat. The River Princess stood strangely still in the waters and through the dusty windows; we watched the grey waters lay quiet. I listened to the steady tone of Rosie’s voice as she began to describe a particular memory of her mother. She took me back in time, to the dawn of the new millennium in the year 2000 and on Southwold beach, quietly nestled on the edge of Suffolk…
Rosie stood still and looked across the horizon as the orange sun began rising against the water and cast a warm glow on her face. It was a beautiful sight. The first sun of the millennium bowed before her in its full glory. One of the biggest moments in history, and this is how she was to remember it. Her right hand ached with the weight of the plastic bag brimming full of empty bottles and food packages, making a dull clanging noise and releasing a waft of stale alcohol, as she heaved it over to her other hand. She had spent the last three hours of her walk on the beach, trying to pick up the rubbish left behind. Sleep would not come to her after watching the fireworks on TV earlier that night.
The smell of fresh water was starting to rise against the heavy smell of gunpowder – a residue of the fireworks from the night. As Rosie breathed in the fresh air, she glanced up at the top knot of her mother’s bungalow just overlooking the beach. Her feet sunk deep into the sand as she clambered across the beach to reach down for another bottle partially covered by the sand. The beach was empty now and Rosie could see the tail of a stray dog wagging happily with his nose buried deep into the remains of a KFC box. Rosie shook her head as she cast her mind back to the noise on the beach earlier that night, when a young and rowdy group had decided to welcome the millennium with their own private celebration by shouting against the quietness of the neighbouring homes.
Earlier that evening, as Rosie rearranged the books on her mother’s shelf, she could hear the group on the beach celebrating as they started to settle on the cool smooth sand, blaring music from speakers and laughing uncontrollably in fits.
“What’s that, then?” her mother asked from her armchair.
Rosie turned her head slightly towards her.
“What’s that racket?”
Rosie sighed as she let her fingers run across the books, now neatly arranged in alphabetical order.
“It’s the millennium, mum. There are people on the beach celebrating the millennium.’
Silence followed and Rosie shook the hair away from her eyes as she braced herself for the questions to come.
“Millennium? Is that today? No one told me. No one tells me anything. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Rosie took a deep breath and turned around, walking towards the 89 years old hunched figure of her mother, sitting slightly forward on a stiff red armchair. This armchair was the only surviving member of a three-piece suite which her mother had cherished but Rosie had hated with a passion whilst growing up.
“I did tell you, but you must have forgotten… again.”
Rosie whispered the last word to herself and she stooped down to pick up a ceramic white soup bowl from the coffee table. She pulled a wooden chair from against the wall and placed it near the armchair.
“Come on, mum, the soup has cooled down now.”
Rosie’s eye flickered up at the old-fashioned clock and followed the creak of the longer hand as it stopped at the number 8.
It would be another twenty minutes before the countdown began. She thought of her partner Neil, waiting for the millennium on his own, sat in their London flat whilst guilt and duty had cast her away from him to keep her mother company. It would be another five days before she could hand her mother’s care over to professionals and return back to her life.
Rosie looked around the small front room of the bungalow. Furniture from the previous family house had been cramped into the rooms, all still laced with the same strong scent of polish which also seemed to be emanating from the overwhelming maroons and dark reds of the furnishing. Earlier in the morning, when Rosie frantically searched the bungalow for a mirror, she suddenly remembered how, because her mother had always thought herself to be ugly, she never looked at herself in one, and hence why there were none in any of the rooms. Rosie wondered, as she rifled through her hand bag for her tiny hand mirror, why, when growing up, she never stopped to think how tragic that was until now.
After the death of her father, her mother, Peggy, took the opportunity to sell the family home. It was a big, rambling old house which Rosie’s father had bought without notifying the family and which Peggy resented from the moment she set eyes on it. The cold and dark rooms imprisoned the otherwise brilliant and academic mind she had and after feeble attempts to fill the rooms with visiting relatives and friends, Peggy resorted to shutting herself away from the darkness by retreating into her books and escaping to attend matinees at the local theatre. After selling the house, she chose to move into this bungalow because of its coastal location, something which she hoped would help lure her three daughters to visit and stay with her often, which of course, never happened. Rosie thought of her two sisters: the eldest, who had harboured an eating disorder for many years, resulting in her tall and incredibly thin frame, and the youngest sister, who was not much different with her obsessive need to adorn herself with the latest heights of fashion. And here she was, the one who agreed to watch her mother as she withered away, over time, in mind and spirit, much like the cliffs which bordered the neighbouring coasts, crumbling bit by bit into the sea.
Peggy looked up at Rosie as the pale light from the bulb bounced off her glasses.
“Don’t you miss him?”
Rosie stirred the soup with a spoon.
“Richie. I’ve lost him again.”
Rosie froze and looked at her mother who was watching her, waiting for an answer. Peggy’s eyes looked ridiculously large from behind the lenses which had hidden them away for so many years, and for a moment, Rosie saw a flicker of her younger mother in the wrinkled and crushed face. Richie, Rosie’s brother, had died tragically many years ago and was followed shortly by the death of their father. Rosie placed the warm bowl on her lap.
“I miss him, mum, every day.”
Peggy leaned forward and placed one hand on top of hers; it was warm and soft and looked so small and fragile.
“My mother would tell me to always look for lost things. And take care of them better. Stupid girl, she would laugh, always losing things.”
Rosie opened her mouth to say something but was cut off when Peggy suddenly leaned back and jerked her head towards the window.
“What is that racket?”
Rosie wiped a tear from her eye and picked up the TV remote from the coffee table and clicked down on the worn out buttons to bring the small screen before them to life. The screen flashed blue first and then a pair of bright red lips loomed on the screen, as a hyper-feminine presenter shrilled at the camera at the top of her voice.
”It’s the millennium countdown!”
“Millennium? Today? No one told me.”
Rosie continued to stir the soup.
Her mother slept soundly after watching the fireworks on TV with a childish fascination, their colourful sparks reflecting on her glasses. Rosie spent the rest of the night pacing back and forth from wall to wall in the cramped living room, not being able to sleep and looking for things to pick up and put back in their place. She finally slipped into her shoes, grabbed her anorak and headed out of the door and walked to the beach, where she spent the next couple of hours, clearing up the rubbish.
Rosie leaned against the wall of her mother’s house and dug her feet into the sand. She placed the heavy bag against the other bag she had filled earlier.
Rosie clasped a hand to her heart as she took a sharp intake of breath and a dull sensation of pain surfaced to her chest. She let her eyes follow the movement of the water as it calmly rolled forward and then back against the beach. A fluid, beautiful disaster which had claimed so many loved ones including Richie, who had drowned in the Atlantic sea after a feeble attempt to reach America on a yacht. A quiet but adventurous soul was her brother, and with only a two year difference in their age, he was her companion throughout their childhood and adolescence. Rosie closed her eyes and smiled as she remembered the cycling marathons they would undertake between Aldenham and Whetstone just for the thrill of adventure and competition.
“Come on, Rosie!”
He would shout as he sped ahead teasing her to race.
She missed him. Rosie opened her eyes and continued to look out onto the water. So many lives and hopes had been buried beneath this very water. Earth’s biggest grave.
Rosie was startled out of her thoughts by the clang of a bottle rolling out of one of the bags on the floor. Rosie heaved herself up, put the bottle back in the bag and braced herself against the cold air which had started to pick up. She looked at her watch – 8.45am. Peggy would be scampering around in the room looking for her glasses, no doubt, and the expectation of breakfast would have her in panic looking for Rosie. She hurried onto the pathway leading up to the bungalow door and then into her mother’s front room.
“It tore my family apart when my brother died.”
Rosie looked at me when she spoke those words.
“We didn’t cope with it well, especially my mum. No one spoke, no one consoled each other. We all just retreated into our own corners. It was awful.”
Peggy spent the rest of her days being cared for in a sheltered accommodation until she passed away and the topic of Richie was never to come up again.
I could see the Rosie stood on the beach, looking out across the water and grieving for the brother taken from her and as we moved to the life she created for herself after her brother’s death, she revealed her biggest heartbreak of all.
“My son is missing. Joff, as we all call him, or Jonathon. He is my youngest.”
Rosie uttered those words to me and pushed back against her seat as she looked away and towards the waters outside the window. She recalled that day, eight years ago, when she had picked up the phone and heard the words which were to haunt her thereafter.
“Joff is gone.”
It was Heidi, Joff’s ex-wife, who had broken the news to her whilst hysterically crying and prompting Rosie to comfort and console her.
“I tried everything in my power to stop him.”
She looked back at me.
“But I failed. I lost him.”
I hesitated before asking my next question and watched Rosie’s face as she pondered on her answer.
“Will you try to find him?”
She shook the hair away from her eyes as her hands moved rapidly from one position to another.
“I’m not sure.”
I took myself back to the Rosie stood on the beach, and I could hear her thoughts echoing across the water as her voice bounced and laced itself through the waves to reach across many of its beds, the flesh of her flesh – her son Joff.
I tried everything in my power
to make you stay.
Three little souls
you left to fate.
Thank you mum,
The last words you said,
robotic words which chimed in my hands.
A flash of blond,
eyes which twinkled,
feathered with snow.
A gaping hole,
you left behind,
that I desperately fill,
with a memory
visits to school plays,
tissues for runny noses and wet eyes.
I have become an old armchair,
wrapping myself around them.
And they know where I am.
But so do you,
So do you.’
Rosie recalled the cheeky, bright boy he was contrasting with the withdrawn, unreachable man he had eventually become before he disappeared altogether.
“It was sink or swim with Joff.”
Joff, Richie, and Peggy, all connected to the Rosie stood on the beach, and somehow to the two strangers sat on the River Princess.
Rosie shifted forward.
“Perhaps I could contact Missing Persons again, I don’t know. Let’s see.”
We both looked out of the window.
“Oh, look, the tide has risen.”