EVERY WORD IS true, and you’ll want to know how it all turned out. Part of the answer is right here in this room where I sit facing my aged face in the mirror. Assuming that the day of my birth is correct, I am 74 years-old. Olu is brushing my hair as she used to do, only it’s white now, the sliver threads coarse and thin. Age hasn’t whitened her crop, least none that you’d notice from afar. Only up close, or here in the mirror, can you spot the grey among the black. Neither of us likes the grey, in hair nor in any walk of life. Irrational yes, unrealistic, downright foolish, but there you have it – the world we have known through our long lives has worked in black and white. It won’t change now, not even with the coming of the railway that chutters and hoots in the valley below.
‘That’s right, sister,’ I say, ‘you know how it’s done. You always did.’ She’s as gentle with the brush as she was all those years ago when she first came to Belle Isle. We ceased to live there a long time ago, preferring the Grange which is easier to heat. That Vine lived here matters only in a positive sense; we feel the old walls close around us like the skin of our vanquished enemy. Soon it will be time for our walk; we always go this time of day, late, on the edge of dusk, whatever the weather or the season. It is August now, in the year 1834.
I’ve put off writing this epilogue, struggled to write it at all. I knew it would be the hardest task, bridging the gap between then and now, saying farewell to the old times – nearly 60 years ago, a lifetime for most, few of the old names left alive. So much water has flowed since I left off telling my tale. The canals of the landscape are matched by canals of life. Canals more like rivers with their many twists and turns, yet in hindsight one straight course leading to the present juncture. The only one I would settle for, and soon the end of the line.
First that long gap since 1778, or its tell-tale points. A double marriage just a month after Vine’s death. Yes, he was dead; and no, I never paid the reckoning. Not for murder, not for duelling, technically illegal even among men, and unheard of among women, though I was no ordinary woman. A crime for sure one way or another, not that it mattered in the end. There was no law in our village back then; in Father’s stead we were the law, and we disposed of the corpse as we thought fit. It’s there yet, buried shallow on account of the frost at the foot of Hautboy Hills, unmarked save by some amphibious weeds at the side of a small pond where the roach leap in summer. I never got round to burying him deeper, never got round to regretting his death for I look at it this way: if God exists He’ll forgive me; if not then He’s just like Vine – not worth a second thought.
But I was saying, about that double marriage. I married Robert Strong and Joe married – as he’d always wished – Caroline Stroud. Her father consented, and why shouldn’t he? He had plenty to atone for, as Joe told him with his new-found steel and pride. Joe’s been dead these eight years past but his son is master now, and if you ask me he’s turned out just the right mix of hard and soft, as his father had wished. He’s a man all right, but he doesn’t see fit to prove it twelve hours out of every day. And his name? Why George of course, after our father. There’s a daughter too, named Nell after me, and those old enough to remember can see the likeness. In looks only, I hope, and not in temperament. My character as it was then makes me blush with shame yet deep down, beneath the wizened skin of age, I wonder how different I really am; how different I wish to be.
I don’t wish to change my request, one my dear nephew was happy to grant, no matter those frowns in the village. By the time we’ve finished our walk tonight bonfires will be lit all over the estate to mark the official end of slavery in the British colonies. And, by the same token, right here on British soil, though in truth it withered away long ago. It will soon be the season of bonfires, that dying time of year. The serenity that comes with autumn is like no other; it’s a time of beauty tinged with sorrow. I think of Betty, who died old and blind in her last autumn; I think of Joe, whose favourite time it was. He was a good man, and Olu agrees. Robert was a good man too, she adds, and who am I to disagree? Yes, a good man though the children he gave me all died young, and the smallpox took him at 39. Ah, more sadness and regret, more mingled pleasure in both!
Yet still we live, Olu and I. Try to picture us arm-in-arm in our adopted manly guise. They call us the Ladies of the Grange but some are unkind, they ask behind our back if we are really women at all. And this in spite of Olu’s remedies, her tireless doctoring among the local poor. We have summer and winter garb, variations on a theme that has no grey. For half the year we wear black, with pinches of white at the collar and cuffs. Come summertime it’s white on the outside and black beneath, either way a familiar sight. We still do what we did back then, walk on the moors where the air is thin, wash our feet in the stream by lantern-light, leave offerings to the spirits of nature – more than ever as our end draws near. And Olu talks again of the powers of obeah, though nothing of the sort that killed the Reverend has either of us seen since. An English coincidence after all perhaps, or maybe his death was not as I remember; it was all so long ago.
On we walk this nearing twilight, the sun sinking behind the hills, the moon risen big in its stead. Aside from the colour and the small difference in height, we’ve the same stooping posture. For support I have my stick and Olu her spectacles. A little spaniel bounds along at our feet and one day I’m sure he will trip us up and bloody our noses. For now we are what we are – sisters where we might have been lovers. They say we have kindly faces but we rarely smile, and no one has heard us laugh. They say, and who’s to say they’re wrong? that we’ve each forged our self in the other’s image, that she’s my blacksmith and I her white. As for what it means to be black or white, man or woman, rich or poor, I say only this – say it as I walk with Olu through grounds where Father rests in the same vault as his wife and son, that family – blood – however it is made, is allimportant. Whether it is all that matters is another question.