The Posthumous Life of Eleanor Bell

by Gwynne Garfinkle
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The Girl Who Slept for a Decade

 

The languid, waxen princess
Swoons luscious on the feather bed.

Inert, she still inspires love
Or something like it.

How did she come to this?
She may have been beautiful

But beauty, she well knew
Wasn’t going to save her

From boredom or bone-tiredness.
Trade her indolent youth

For a mother-in-law
Exhorting her to cook

Such and such a dish
Get her nose out of a book

And study the inexorable dust?
She hadn’t had her fill of dreaming.

And so, after the spindle’s prick
After the drop of blood

She willingly lay down.
More than willingly, she slept.

It’s not a husband who wakes her.
Believe me, it isn’t a husband.

– Eleanor Bell
(written early 1962; published 1963)

 

The dead woman’s career was flourishing. While she, the identical woman, if a bit colder, and with different eating and sleeping habits, and an allergy to sunlight, couldn’t get a single poem accepted for publication.

It was the autumn of 1964, a few days after Harold Wilson was elected Prime Minister. Not that Eleanor cared much about that. She hadn’t been able to vote in the English elections when she was alive, though she’d followed politics at least as avidly as Henry. Nowadays, what with being dead, politics seemed rather beside the point. Alfred was still officially his own grandson, and could have voted if he’d cared to, but he’d told her the only human beings in the public eye who interested him were movie stars and pop singers. And writers, he’d added quickly, though most of the writers he preferred were dead anyway.

One afternoon when Eleanor was sitting on the bed with a cup of coffee and a paperback of The Collector, Alfred came in with the mail. There was a letter to him from his friend Bertrand in Paris, the new issue of New Musical Express with, unsurprisingly, the Beatles on the cover, and for her, a couple of literary journals and a fat envelope. “Here we go again,” she said as he handed her the heavy envelope on which she’d typed her pseudonym and address a month or two ago. The envelope felt like a lead weight sinking her to the depths of obscurity, while the dead woman’s book, in the year since its publication, had received accolades and critical commentary galore.

“Perhaps it’s an acceptance this time,” Alfred said, and gave her shoulder a squeeze.

“Unlikely.” For a moment she couldn’t bear to open it. She remembered the thin envelopes she used to receive–thin because they contained no poems, merely letters of acceptance. How her heart would lift and her blood would fizz when she ripped them open. But she could tell this one was crammed with her rejected poems, though they were surely as good as the ones in the dead woman’s book that was in every bookstore, reviewed in all the newspapers and quarterlies, and even in a number of magazines that rarely dealt with poetry.

Or perhaps she was kidding herself. It was hard to know whether her new poems were any good, in this literary vacuum in which she lived.

She tore open the envelope and pulled out her four poems, along with a letter.

“Dear Miss Glenn,

We read your poems with interest. They are certainly not without merit, but so derivative of the work of Eleanor Bell that they might be described as pastiche. Feel free to send us work of a more original nature.”

She sighed. “Apparently I now can only place poems if I change my style–so I don’t sound like myself.”

“Think of Emily Dickinson, dearest. Just write. Don’t worry about publishing.” Alfred’s voice was steady and resonant, his voice of burnt sugar that was the first thing that had struck her about him, back when she was still alive. His eyes were fixed on her with an anxious expression that said All my fault. Strictly speaking, that was true–it was his fault she was in this position. But she loved Alfred. And well she knew that if she were still a living, breathing woman, sending poems out herself, rather than her widower handling her literary remains, no one would know her work well enough to tell someone she was derivative of her. Or perhaps they would–but it seemed unlikely that she would be so very famous.

They loved her, the dead woman, because she was dead. Because she committed suicide. (So what if her body was never found? They were so in love with the idea of her suicide, they’d all convinced themselves of it.) Oh yes, she wrote well, but her death gave her work resonance. Her suicide proved that she wasn’t merely a poet, fiddling around with words–she was a woman of action, deadly action.

And so was Eleanor the vampire–even if she did choose to sit and read John Fowles in the red wool pinafore dress and cream pullover she’d stolen from Bazaar, instead of wreaking terror on unsuspecting Londoners. It made her laugh to imagine how the critics would have to do mental back flips if they knew. “It might be hypothesized that Eleanor Bell’s use of fairy tale imagery presaged her 1962 foray into vampirism…”

But to be out of the action, unable to publish new work–it damn near made her weep. She stared at the rejection letter for awhile, its typed words and the nearly illegible flourish of the editor’s signature. Then she flung it from her and watched it waft to the blue-green carpet. She pulled her feet up onto the bed and lay on her stomach, feet on the pillows. She let her head drop to the comforter, then felt Alfred climb onto the bed.

“I’ve an idea,” he said. “We could turn an editor or two. See how they like the literary climate as a vampire.” She turned her head to look at him, lying on his side, his head propped on his hand. He was joking, of course. “Perhaps I could just kill an editor,” she said. “It might make me feel better.” They smiled, and she cheered up. She turned on her side to face him. With Alfred she felt so relaxed, so happy. She wondered if that might be a problem. She might relax and two or three decades would pass in a twinkling, as the last two years had done. Alfred’s eyes did, in fact, twinkle–she’d never known anyone else’s eyes to do that. They were such an intricate shade of hazel, and she enjoyed staring into them–perhaps for weeks at a time, for all she knew. This, she supposed, was eternity. It was enjoyable, to be sure, but there were still things she wanted to do.

He saw it in her face. He knew her very well. His eyebrows raised–his inspiration look. “I have a better idea. We could smuggle some of your new work into…well, perhaps into Rhys-Jones’s home? Wherever he keeps your papers. And he’ll find them and think he’d overlooked them.”

She imagined the headline: New Eleanor Bell Poems Discovered. Poet Speaks From Beyond Grave. It had a certain ring to it. Then she shook her head. “I don’t know where he keeps my papers. Or even if he does. They might be housed somewhere else. In any event, it’s too risky.”

“I wasn’t suggesting you should go. I could do it.”

“It’s still too much of a risk, Alfred. It isn’t worth something happening to you.”

He guffawed. “More likely I’d end up murdering your husband.”

“As pleasant an idea as that might be, he has the children. Nothing must happen to him.” When the words were out of her mouth, she felt exceedingly self-conscious, although Alfred didn’t look as if she’d said anything out of the ordinary. She hauled herself up into a sitting position, her legs to one side of her. “What an odd thing for me to say. As if I spend any time whatsoever considering the children’s well-being.”

He sat up too. “I don’t think it’s so strange that you should be concerned about their welfare.”

She gave a laugh. “Oh, yes, I’m a model mother. My only connection with them is the occasional newspaper photograph I happen to see.”

There had been a feature story on Henry a month or two ago, which included a rare photo of him with the children–rare because he was apparently quite protective of their privacy. Henry had a new book of criticism out, but all the press wanted to talk about was her. That, at any rate, gave her a grim satisfaction. Henry had looked a good deal older and wearier, visibly aging, decaying before her eyes in newsprint, and wearing the same old gray tweed jacket she’d despised.

She had wondered whether the girls looked so utterly alien to her because they were older. They looked thin and serious, two small blonde people with alert eyes, not the cuddly babes they’d been when she was their mother. But the papers had also printed photographs of her with Madeleine and Rhoda in articles about the dead woman and her book, and she’d felt the same lack of connection to the children, a tip-of-the-tongue sensation, something just barely forgotten.

“Why should I care what becomes of them?” she asked. “It’s not as if I’m going to lift a finger to help them in any way.”

It had been like vertigo, looking at those photos from the last year of her life. The dead woman posed with the children, showed them off with a proud, exhausted mother’s expression. Seeing Maddy’s impish look, Rhoda’s placid visage, she’d remembered watching them sleep, and reading to them. She’d remembered how her heart would lift when she leaned over Rhoda’s crib and the baby would burst into a smile at the sight of her. She’d remembered endless diapers, and how teething made Maddy shriek. She could remember, but it was as if she were watching those scenes through glass. It was so odd to have carried the girls inside her and to feel so disconnected from them. It never got less odd.

“Perhaps you’re helping them by keeping your distance,” Alfred said. “They’re little girls, after all. They oughtn’t to be exposed to our sort.”

He had told her awful stories about vampire mothers who’d killed their children, or turned them–and while she didn’t think herself capable of such horrors, how was she to know what she was capable of? After all, she’d stopped loving her daughters, and that was crime enough, and reason enough to stay away from them. Still, sometimes she wondered if he’d told her those stories just to make her feel less at fault for keeping her distance. “Oh, Alfred, you’re always letting me off the hook.”

He shook his head, smiled ruefully. “If anything, dearest, I’m letting myself off the hook, considering I’m the one who–”

She briefly pressed her fingers to his lips. “What’s done is done. I wouldn’t want it undone. I can’t even imagine it.”

“But it’s true. Your children, your writing career…all gone, because of me.” He looked positively haunted, his smile gone, eyes darkening. His guilt scalded her. If she could have rid him of it, she would have, for she’d never found it in herself to blame him.

“Please don’t worry about it, darling,” she said. “And as for my writing career–as you said, I’ll focus on writing, and I won’t worry about the rest of it. Not now, at any rate.”

She didn’t think he entirely believed her, but he let it drop. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “Can I get you something?”

No man, certainly not her husband, had ever taken as good care of her. She took his face in her hands–every inch of it, every plane and angle, known to her in a way she had long ceased to know her own face–and she kissed him. He tasted of his afternoon tea, sweet and pungent. “I’ll go,” she said, smiling. “I’ll heat us up some blood.”

At the kitchen stove, she idly stirred the red liquid in the saucepan with the wooden spoon, and remembered stirring hot cereal for the children, while Maddy chattered and Rhoda babbled. Surely Alfred was right that the children were better off not knowing her as she was now, stirring a pot of gore, careful not to let it clot, instead of cocoa. She remembered the intent look Madeleine would get when she held a mug of hot chocolate in both hands, as if nothing in the world could be more wonderful, and woe betide anyone who would dare pry that mug from her fingers–not that anyone would have. Eleanor wondered if the thin, serious girl in the photograph still liked hot chocolate, or jam on toast, or having the Oz books read to her.

She couldn’t remember what it had felt like to read to Madeleine, or to give her jam on toast. Had Eleanor been happy in her old life? Certainly she was happy now, in a drifting sort of way, in spite of what she lacked. Your children, your writing career…all gone.

Perhaps in time her literary reputation would wane, and she could begin to publish again. Or perhaps her style would change of its own accord. Or perhaps–yes, it occurred to her that she might come back, someday, somehow, into the world. But that was impossible, a dangerous notion. She wouldn’t tell Alfred about it–she didn’t want to worry him. As she poured the blood into the white teacups, she vowed to let her old dreams sleep awhile.

2 Responses to “The Posthumous Life of Eleanor Bell”

  1. Carol R says:

    An excellent tale for both writers and vampires ! I’d like to read more about these characters.

  2. Great story and beautifully written! I want to read more! I hope it gets published soon. Else, you might have to join the Indie crowd (like I did).
    Good luck and let’s meet for coffee or something soon.
    Christa

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