Nija Dalal-Small, one of our talented performers who took to the stage for our VAULTS event at the John Rylands Library last week, blogs about her experience and shares her first ever short story…
I usually write non-fiction. I know how the story goes – I know how it ends, often because I’ve lived this particular story, or because it’s, you know, historical. There are facts. I can shape them. I can embellish and cut and compress. I can often pick between several different ends, from different points in time. But I know the end, before I start writing.
I spent years of my life thinking I couldn’t be a writer, because I didn’t write fiction. I didn’t have characters wandering in and out of my head – you know how novelists talk about characters doing this and that, as if the novelist is just watching the action? Occasionally, they even seem surprised by it – ‘and the next thing I knew, he’d murdered his wife!’
That never happens to me. Until it did.
After the First Draft encounter with the EL Burney Collection at the John Rylands Library (which is a bunch of stuff collected by the novelist Isabella Banks), I fully intended to write a non-fiction story. I wasn’t sure about what, exactly – maybe something about the Victorian love of the dead or weird collectors or hoarding. But there was one question about the collection I couldn’t stop asking.
Who the hell was EL Burney? I looked him up, I bought anything to do with him I could find. I read the biography of Isabella Banks he had written.
And as I sat down to write, he mysteriously came to life, in my head. I could see the room he was in, I could smell his breath, I could feel his despair. It was terrifying.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t know how this story would end. It felt like being blindfolded in a stranger’s car – where are you taking me? As I typed, I kept lifting my fingers from the keyboard, scared of what was going to happen next… worrying how it would end.
It’s given me a new respect for fiction writers. You people have nerves of steel. To sit there like that, waiting, watching, writing. I don’t know how you manage to do this for any length of time.
Here’s my story. It’s called “Isabella.”
“Every dead woman needs a stalker,” says historian Sally Wagner. “Every misbehaved woman needs somebody who falls in love with them, after their death.”
Isabella Banks had one, and there’s not even any evidence that she was misbehaved. But she had a stalker nonetheless. He was a man she never met. A man born in 1903, 6 years after she died. A man who would one day pick up a book about Manchester – a book Isabella once owned. A man who would read that book – who would read every word of her carefully written marginal notes… and perhaps, fall in love with her.
We don’t know much about Edward Lester Burney. Apart from what I’ve already mentioned, we know this:
One: He was born near Birmingham.
Two: He lived to his retirement.
In his career, he taught at Saltley College & was principal of the Evening Institute at Old Moat, Withington. He opened an experimental Youth Centre, and later, he was principal of the College of Adult Education.
Which is all to say, Three: He was a teacher.
The last thing we know about Edward Lester Burney is this – he wrote the only biography of Isabella Banks ever written. He donated her entire private collection to this very library.
The rest – we can only imagine.
Imagine him, in his study – this is what he calls the broom cupboard of his small bachelor’s flat. He’s fit a narrow desk in here, and a sturdy, if uncomfortable chair. There’s a wonderfully inefficient lamp, generating more heat than light. He warms his fingers against the green metal lampshade.
It’s late – but since he retired, he’s found sleeping well into the morning is the best way to keep the day from running too long.
He doesn’t want to start drinking before it’s dark again.
And anyway, the bed will be winter-cold, like it always is. He’d never married. Now, at 62, with his aching joints and his increasingly poor eyesight, Edward thinks a wife might have been a good idea. Another person would at least make lighting a fire worthwhile. He glooms over the thought of sitting with her, in front of a bright warm hearth, her wooden needles clicking out a scarf.
But as a young man, the women he’d met, they were self-conscious and needy. They gossiped, and they flirted, and looking at them through the faulty telescope of the last 40 years, he thinks now that they were fine. He probably could have married one of them, what was her name, Millie. But Millie didn’t interest him. He wouldn’t meet the love of his life until he was 56. But he knew, even then in his 20s, that Millie wasn’t her. She wasn’t even enough like her to fool him into thinking she might do.
He pulls his hands from the lamp and picks up her sacred book. It’s his book; he purchased it. But he likes to think of it as hers… it makes her feel alive. In these pages is where he met her. She’d already been dead for 60 years by then.
The book she’d once held and touched, and lovingly annotated, in her strong, strident hand. A woman who writes like this can’t be self-conscious. She’s not needy. He’s been reading this book, these notes, for almost 10 years now. His fingers have traced every last letter that she ever placed in these margins. He thinks even her husband couldn’t have known her this well.
After all, what husband takes the time to read his wife’s margins? Certainly not George Linnaeus Banks, the imbecile.
Edward is quick to anger these days, jealousy blooms over his eyes like algae, his breath constricted. It’s the gin, he thinks.
He soothes himself with a list of George Linnaeus Banks’s faults.
One: the man couldn’t even pick a career, flitting between editing newspapers and writing – occasionally plays, then poems, then half-baked guides to Shakespeare or absurd tours of London.
Two: their marriage must have been loveless. Having meticulously collected every surviving letter that her cool, majestic hand had written, having studied and carefully analysed every emotional moment of her life, Edward was sure she felt nearly nothing for George. Isabella must have found her husband ridiculous. Even a name like that. George Linnaeus Banks. Linnaeus.
Three: George Linnaeus Banks couldn’t even hold a job when he had one. He’d been editor of several second-rate, small town papers. The Harrogate Advertiser. The Sussex Mercury. The Brighton Excursionist, for god’s sake. Linnaeus held almost as many editorial posts as he had children.
And there were 7 children.
This is usually where Edward’s hopes of her loveless marriage break down.
She published under his name, too, signing her articles as “Mrs G Linnaeus Banks.” Why would she do that? It feels personal. He remembers to be gentle with her. He needs to remember that she didn’t know about him.
Edward leans back, the posts of the wooden chair digging into his raddled shoulder blades. He lets his mind drift to the sparsely-supplied cupboard above his washbasin. There might be some old bread in there. There is definitely gin.
He stands up, careful not to crash his head into the shelf just over his desk. He doesn’t need labels to know what is in each of the 10 boxes stacked up there. Or to know what’s in the 10 boxes under his bed, either. They are all filled with her things. Mostly books, scavenged from second-hand booksellers, the inside cover of each one neatly fitted with her bookplate. “From the library of Isabella Banks,” he whispers.
But this one has her letters. This is the box he can’t resist on nights like this, dark and wet and windy. He likes to rifle through her private life, to pass his eye along the lines that she meant for another reader – all her letters feel like they’re meant for him. He places the box on his desk and the lifts the lid, tender. He picks up a sheet he hasn’t yet scrutinized. To John Harland, in 1865, she wrote, “I have been a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles in the antiquarian line since babyhood and have a whole store of relics – tesselae, scraps from coffins and tombs from Thebes or St Helena, from the garments of Wyclif or Queen Victoria.”
Oh, clever Isabella. Did John Harland even notice her delightful little allusion to The Winter’s Tale? With his dull pencil, Edward adds another item to the list pinned on the wall above his desk. “Shell purse.” Whenever he manages to find and purchase – or pilfer – an item that belonged to her, he crosses it off the list. One day, he’ll have re-collected everything she worked so hard to gather throughout her life. He takes the list down whenever he welcomes his increasingly-rare visitors. They would think him morbid. “Hair of a Fijian.” “Plant plucked from Washington’s tomb.”
He shuffles to his washbasin, his cold bare feet sounding louder than they should in the still of night. His neighbours are asleep. His former students don’t visit anymore. He creaks open the warped plywood cupboard, dumps his toothbrush out of the glass next to the basin and pours himself three fingers of gin. Steadying himself against the basin, he looks at his small room. Every piece of furniture is threadbare and worn out. He has surrounded himself with the belongings of a dead woman.
He sips his gin, slow burn down his throat, and looks through what he imagines will be the rather more accurate telescope of his future life. Over-long days, rummaging through estate sales, looking for her adorable little artifacts. Pocketing them, if he can, or buying them with his meager pension. Scratching out the story of her extraordinary life – her inquisitive, brilliant character… Loving her. Missing her, if that can be said about a woman who died before he was born. He sees it all. Cold nights and old bread. Thin, rheumy fingers turning the pages of her novels, over and over and over…
One day, he’ll work out a way to link his name, inextricably with hers, he thinks, getting into bed, slipping his underfed, over-ginned body under his thin wintery sheets. And until then, he’ll have his thick, slurred, alcohol-blurred dreams of her, his clever, his strident, his gentle Isabella.
Read the guest blogs we published on the theme of ‘Collections‘ leading up to the event here
Join us or sign up to perform at our April event: Nothing Up Our Sleeves