NCW tutor and author Megan Bradbury writes a story about navigating personal and public histories and memory with a pen pal during her virtual Norwich-Québec residency exchange.
In this commission, exchanging names for letters of the alphabet, Megan Bradbury writes about characters living similar lives to her own. She tracks the thoughts and feelings of ‘B’ as her loft gets converted into a space to write, and she carries out some research into Julian of Norwich, the legendary mystic and first known woman to write in English. Megan relays her own experiences in Norwich, and how her approach to writing shifts with time, but situates these in an imagined story with fictionalised events. Follow ‘B’ and ‘C’ in this beautifully written piece as they learn about each other and the cities they live in during their connected residencies.
Megan’s virtual residency exchange was made possible with the support of the Québec Government Office in London and l’Entente de développement culturel entre le gouvernement du Québec et la Ville de Québec. Click here for the French webpage on the residency exchange.
B lives in Norwich, England. She has a pen pal in Québec called C. B and C write to one another often. B likes having a pen pal. She hasn’t had a pen pal since high school when she wrote letters to a girl who lived on the outskirts of Paris. She didn’t have much in common with that girl, whose name was Hélène. Hélène loved playing the piano and listening to The Doors.
B has been thinking about those days a lot lately. She has been trying to remember what she was like when she was young. She has been trying to remember what Norwich was like. This must be because she is approaching middle age. She hasn’t had a chance to get used to this. Her son is a distraction. B had her son late. The children of her friends are nearly grown up, but B is still very much in the trenches. This is what C says. C says that B just needs to take stock. C is an historian. She is writing a book about medieval mystics. Taking stock is just what Julian of Norwich did, C says. After coming very close to death, Julian experienced divine visions and then spent the rest of her life walled up in a cell in Norwich writing about them. She wrote Revelations of Divine Love, which B hasn’t read. B says she wouldn’t mind having a room to herself. If she had one, she would write in it. B hasn’t written anything since her son was born. This is not so much to do with lack of time as with a sudden feeling of disorientation. It is not so much about not knowing who she is but about when she is. She is a mix of both new and old life.
Her husband often says things like, You just need to get started, come on.
But it isn’t that straightforward.
One afternoon, B’s husband clears the dining table, sets up B’s computer, hands B a pair of earphones, and leaves her there with a thumbs-up. The dining table is stained with jam and felt tip pen. She steps over a box of Lego and sits down. She opens her computer. So, where is she? She opens the browser. She googles ‘Norwich’. Norwich Castle appears. B has known Norwich Castle all her life. She used to go there as a child. She went there with her mother. B used to take her son to Norwich Castle. He doesn’t want to go these days. The castle is undergoing a period of renovation. Since the renovation work began, the main entrance has been moved, so now you must enter the castle through the gallery where the stuffed birds are kept, and the birds frighten him. B has tried to put his mind at rest. They can’t hurt you. Look, they’re behind glass. Try not to look at them, she said. Telling him the birds were dead didn’t help. Telling him they died over a hundred years ago made things worse. She suspects it is their stillness that frightens him. The fact that they don’t ever change.
Norwich Castle has been many things in its lifetime, the webpage says: a home, a gaol, a museum. This next phase of its life will be the most exciting yet. The renovation work will reintroduce an original floor in the Castle Keep making it look like it did when it was first built. A new café and shop are going in. New lifts and staircases are being installed. The castle is returning to its origins but in a way that makes the castle viable for the twenty-first century. The castle is rediscovering itself.
B decides to convert the loft into an office. This really is the only way. It will be her oasis. No toys, no washing. The builder says a converted loft is just what this house needs.
Once you’ve done the loft, you can get to work on the rest of the house, he says, pointing to the crumbling plaster in the hallway.
The builders are working up there now. Their hammering makes the walls shake. C jokes that B is building a cell just like Julian’s. Somewhere she can lock herself away and commune with whoever she needs to commune with.
Julian of Norwich had God, B says. Who do I have?
B has agreed to help C with her research into Julian of Norwich. She says she will walk around Norwich for her, taking pictures, making notes. C wants B to visit St Julian’s Church today. C has arranged for her to meet an historian who is an expert on Julian of Norwich. B should be writing her own book, but she agrees to help. She has no time anyway, she tells C, so she might as well do some good. And she can’t write anything in the house as it is. She will have to wait until the loft conversion is finished. B wants to look in the loft before she goes out. She has not seen it since the builders started. She wants to know what the view will be like from up there. But when she opens the cupboard door where the loft hatch is, she sees the builders have taken the ladder with them and there is no way up.
B walks beside the ring road and descends into the underpass at the top of St Stephen’s Street. She walks quickly through it, holding her breath against the smell of urine and car fumes, and comes out on St Stephen’s next to Wilko. B used to work in a clothes shop on this road. B liked that job. Women talked to her. They told her all manner of things. Miss Selfridge is no longer there. The shop is now a Lakeland.
B passes Marks and Spencer, crosses Rampant Horse Street. There is the old Debenhams where her mother used to apply her lipstick in the toilets after lunch. The store is now closed, and the building is derelict. A ruin. B would stand on tiptoes at the window and look at the castle in the distance. She remembers the archaeological excavation that took place before the Castle Mall was built. She doesn’t know what they found. B walks down Gentleman’s Walk, past the market, past the old Orange store where she used to work, past the Royal Arcade where there used to be a Waterstone’s bookshop, which was where she met her husband. She turns right on London Street at the corner of Jarrold’s where her family would come together after shopping. That was before her father left. She walks down London Street, turns left onto Swan Lane, snakes down Bedford Street then Bridewell Alley. She is coming to the cathedral via a very deliberate route. She wants to see the flagstone outside Hungate Church on Princes Street. The flagstone has imbedded in it the relief of a computer keyboard. These days, the keyboard is cracked, but she remembers when it was pristine. In those days, she came here with her husband before he was her husband. B remembers him taking her hand and kissing it. Time stopped.
B crosses the cobbled Cathedral courtyard and stands under the statue of Julian of Norwich where she has arranged to meet the historian. The mystic’s plain face is bathed in light. B stands there for a while. The historian rushes to greet her, apologising for being late. They both stand back to admire Julian.
You’re a writer as well? the historian says.
What do you write?
She thinks about saying I don’t know but instead gives a brief description of her first and only novel. The one she wrote and that was published just before her son was born.
I’ll have to look you up, the historian says.
Her tour of medieval Norwich begins in Tombland. They pass the Louis Marchesi pub – Take Five is the name B knew it by from the time when she used to go there with her colleagues for drinks after work. Past the Maid’s Head Hotel – B stayed here on her wedding night; throughout the night there were noises that sounded like ghosts. Past the Mischief pub – B used to drink here to excess as a teenager; she doesn’t see any of those friends anymore. They turn onto Elm Hill. They walk past The Bear Shop – B bought her son’s teddy bear here the day she found out she was pregnant. How many times over the years has she retrieved that bear from his cot fearful it will suffocate him?
Outside the Britons Arms, the historian takes out a copy of Revelations from her bag.
The book is very personal, the historian says. It fuses the personal with the spiritual, which was a rare way to write at the time. Many authors write this way now, of course. The French writer, Annie Ernaux, is one example. Have you heard of her?
B shakes her head.
Ernaux does a clever thing with time, the historian says. Plays with time like a concertina, sometimes pulling out, sometimes pushing in. Time isn’t stable; it fluctuates. Revelations is the same. It remains relevant to all kinds of people, despite their faith. Julian’s words give people grounding. Each revelation, each fragment, is like a stepping-stone forming a path across a river. Ultimately, she is writing about love.
As they walk along King Street, B remembers the boy from school who drowned after stumbling into the River Wensum after a night of drinking and dancing.
St Julian’s Church is compact and sturdy. Outside, B and the historian pass a woman unrolling a prayer mat under a tree. Two men are dealing drugs beside a bush. The reconstructed cell where Julian lived for thirty years is calm and quiet. B and the historian sit on a bench. B had expected a prison cell, but this room is nice. Light.
I could write in a room like this, B says.
It’s a common mistake to think she was isolated, the historian says. People came from all over the country to speak with her. I should imagine she rarely had a moment’s peace.
B walks back home on her own along the broken, jagged medieval wall. Its niches are filled with litter from McDonald’s, cigarette packets, plastic bags, and empty water bottles. She takes pictures of these and sends them to C. C responds with photographs of Québec. Cobbled, picturesque streets. Guards stand erect and formal outside the Citadel. There is a picture of the noon-day gun. The chateau is high on the hill. There is a sunset. No, a sunrise. The fortress walls are high and clean. The flags and hanging baskets are bright. The rounded turrets and bay windows, statues and fountains, the promenade, the intricate ironworks. The guns pointing out at the St. Lawrence River. There is sunshine and smiles. Churches and stained glass. People walking in period dress. Horse-drawn carriages. The lanterns are like those B saw in Paris on her honeymoon and which she once tried to write about after she found out she was pregnant. There are photographs of the fortifications in Québec. Higher than yours, no? C has written. The walls are preserved and neat as if time has not been allowed to interfere with them. Another message from C: A long time ago, men built these walls to keep people out, yet here we are, with our friendship, reaching across the divide.
That night, after her son wakes for the third time, B brings him into bed with her. She pulls the duvet over them. She picks up her phone. She loads the Norwich Castle website. The head archaeologist has uploaded a video. Standing in the Castle Keep under a maze of scaffolding, he explains that during the building work they have uncovered walls they did not expect to find. This has caused delays. Any history they uncover whilst digging in the ground must be examined carefully.
As contradictory as this sounds, the archaeologist says, I would prefer it if we discovered nothing. Discoveries slow the renovation process down.
B writes to C, I see my history everywhere. I don’t know what to do with it.
C replies, In French the word for history and story is the same: histoire.
The loft is completed in no time. In a flurry of excitement, B arranges the room. She constructs a desk and a sofa. She brings all her books up here. She positions plants. At her new desk she writes an account of her city walks for C. As she writes, she remembers things she had forgotten. She changes the circumstances and gives the characters different names. She changes her own name. She elaborates. Taking a break, she opens the skylight. There is a view of the rooftops of her beautiful neighbourhood. In the distance, on top of the mound, is the sun-lit castle. The crane is still there, reaching protectively over it. It will be there for some time. The castle bridge is too weak for lorries. Renovation supplies must come by other means. A strong cantilevered arm swinging over a ditch.
Megan Bradbury is a British writer, and author of the critically acclaimed novel, Everyone is Watching (Picador, 2016). Described as a ‘beating heart of a novel’ by Ali Smith and ‘kaleidoscopic’ by Eimear McBride, the novel was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, and was listed as one of the Guardian’s Best Books of 2016. Bradbury is a graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at the University of East Anglia, and has been awarded the Charles Pick Fellowship, an Author’s Foundation award, and numerous grants from Arts Council England. She reviews for the Irish Times and the Times Literary Supplement. She is also an experienced artistic collaborator and a previous recipient of the Escalator Literature Prize.
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