A Short Story by Evelyn Conlon
And yes you’re right, it is the old letter in the bottle. I do apologize for the melodrama of it. We have all heard about such a thing but truly do not expect to be a recipient. And of course I know not if this will ever be read, still, I write as if it will. And if it is being perused may I welcome you to my story. Do leave it until you have got home if it is a cold stormy day or until you are sitting on a bench if it is warm, with invigorating air, oh how I remember straightening air like that on sea walks. In Dublin in particular, on a Sunday. I think perhaps a bottle has a better chance of washing up in the tossed aftermath of a storm, although, mind you, ﬂotsam and jetsam can arrive on calm days too. I think this missive is a bit of both of those things, a small part of the wreckage of my life and a small part of goods thrown overboard to lighten the mind in distress. But I should also say that not all of my life is shaded in gloom. I have days in which order and intent and garden walks lend me certain calmness, even cheerfulness.
And if you are reading this letter it means that George really did do as I asked, he promised he would, but I’ve been on the receiving end of those kind of promises before. I discovered last month that all the letters that I have given Matron to post have been piled up in a corner, not one of them sent. It was a terrible blow, one ﬁnal kick. Over all those years. Hard to believe. All the letters putting forward the reasons why I should now be released, all the letters asking to be moved to a convent so that I could serve my days there, all the letters explaining the process of my thoughts and my actions, every one of them piled on top of each other gathering dust. Strange that she kept them, you would think that she could at least have burned them – that might have accorded them their seriousness. But no, just piled up in a corner getting old and unread. So, you see, I have no other choice but to try this one way. And it will be my last attempt, I know when I’m beaten.
Yes, my last attempt, unless of course you ﬁnd this during my lifetime and come to visit me, a little unlikely I think. Yes of course this letter may seem an overly theatrical gesture on my part and it may not indeed have turned out to be necessary, because perhaps by the time you’ve got this my name, and those of the others, are already well known and my action and theirs truly appreciated for what they were. Oh I have just thought, perhaps there are more than one of you reading this, two or more of you taking an early morning stroll in England, or imagine perhaps in Ireland, ah Ireland, or France, where I was a free woman, or Italy even. Maybe even in Italy. Wouldn’t that be just perfect.
Because of the possible pointlessness of sending this I am leaving a lot to your imagination, an intimate sort of thing to do to a stranger, but I hope you will understand.
Let me get to the point. I am penning this to you, via the gardener, from the Asylum in Northampton, where I have been forcibly lodged now for the last thirty years. It’s the early 1950s, and I’ve been here since 1927. They call me the Irish woman who shot Mussolini, because that is what I am. They, still, say that I am insane to have done such a thing, even though they sent thousands upon thousands upon thousands to their deaths to do that very deed. It is a burden to carry, to have done the right thing early. But one that I accept with as good grace as I can, not all the time of course, I have my days of rage, but mostly I try to live my life with as much manners as I can muster and with my eye on the birds and the ﬂowers and the grass outside. So far, I have always had a window in my room and a bigger one nearby. And when I’m out walking in the garden I sometimes talk to George and when he said that he and his wife were going to Folkestone I thought to pen this letter. You see it seems right to put something of me in Folkestone, something to go with my last free steps. Even if the note had not made it to you it would still be something of me, thrown in the water there, because I was happy the last time I looked down at the moody waves gliding under our boat. And it seemed a good spot too because a bottle could go places from there.
I will begin near the beginning, although it is hard to know what bits of our beginning make us take action, or not, as is the case with most people, what bits make us be part of the wider world looking out, often the same things that make a sibling gather into themselves and step back into the comfort of their own pettiness.
My family and I lived at Number 22 Merrion Square in Dublin. It was a grand house, still is I expect – it had an alcove for the white Carrara marble statue of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, which my father had bought at a Milan Art Exhibition two years before he was made Attorney General of Ireland which was two years before I was born, the seventh child with one more to come. Our ceilings were by Adam and we had Bartolozzi engravings, certainly enough beauty to make our lives easy. I don’t remember much about my childhood, it would appear that I stamped my feet a lot, but then families do tell tales like that when they want to get an answer to something they do not understand. They think that if they can bring the adult down to their early size they will be able to belittle the action, oh yes, I’ve seen it. I’ve heard it. Over and over again. And they think they win. Well let them. Sorry, I shouldn’t be involving you in this minutiae, indeed I shouldn’t be involving myself in it, it’s a counterproductive reductionism that does nothing for the intellectual facts of my actions. So I will leave it, for the moment anyway, and will try to stop myself if I stray into it again. This can be difﬁcult in this place when I remember where I am, dropped into Northampton, which means nothing to me at all, even though there have been poets here before me and you would think that could give it something to cling to.
When I was nine years old my father was made Lord Chancellor of Ireland. I remember all the talk about it. I remember the ﬂurrying of carriages, the endless sounds of horses pulling up outside, even at night. I think the boys in the house got more important then and the girls were expected to do even less than we had done before, but with a lot of dressing up. I didn’t attach undeserved seriousness to that but I went along with it, not knowing what else to do. We had school at home. I particularly liked languages, which were really being taught to my brothers so they could ﬁght wars, if necessary even where English was not spoken. My French is still good, all our time at Boulogne-sur-Mer polished it nicely, and my Italian is a particular love. The Italians still have the best poems. We read what we were told to read until I discovered that you could ﬁnd other books too, some of which I got from Willie. I should tell you that of the seven of my siblings, Willie, Harry, Elsie, Edward, Victor, Frances, Constance, only three really matter to me now, which is not too bad really. Two of the three who matter to me are now dead.
But to get back to my growing up, I did my best to mostly ﬁt in, despite my reading. I occasionally brought up a conversation about women voting – I read mention of it sometimes – and my father congratulated himself that he approved
– but I knew that he would want to tell us how to do if it ever did happen. He had a way of looking at me, rather startled, when I mentioned it. The same look he used when he said, Enough is Enough. I could hear the capitals on the words. And when that day did come, years after he died, I remember that I asked my sister not to put on a corset just for once. I said to her, ‘for heaven’s sake we’re going to vote’, and she looked at me like our father used to do.
Before the voting day, well before that, I had been presented as a debutante at the court of Queen Victoria. And that is one of the things I should remember but can’t quite recall, maybe a sound of rustling dresses comes to me, but perhaps I don’t recall it because I don’t want to do so. I see it as belonging to a time before I had learned of the hunger that had lapped at the corner of our elegant street, had realized some of the unjust workings of our world and had become interested in theosophy, which allowed for no ﬂippant discrimination. My father gave me money of my own when I was twenty one, and no, I didn’t earn it, but it allowed me to examine how to live a useful life.
When I was twenty-six I became a Catholic, it seemed the right, the most engaged thing to do. The announcement of my conversion in the newspaper put an end to notice of any of the more trivial aspects of my life. The family row was all enveloping, how much time it took. What a silly thing, for people to get into such a state about how others live their lives. Maybe it is a thing to be envied, to have such energy for interference in what is not one’s own existence.
It was then that I went to London, left the bickerings behind me. I knew the city well, had been to parties and knew too that there was a different life to be had there, that I could escape from the tornado of spite visited upon me by most members of my family and acquaintances.
Let me speak a little to you of my family. I do not believe that blood relation is important simply because of plasma and, if it is necessary to do so, escaping it can be the hardest but most important feat of one’s life. On the other hand we can have one or more relative who affects us to the good, or one or more whom we love as we might a friend. But often we have some whose every reaction we know intimately, while trying to forget them and hating what they are doing to the freedoms of our mind. There are siblings who would choke every thought you have – throttlers of imagination.They are the ones who resent the grammar of all foreign language.
I had seven siblings, four brothers and three sisters. Of my brothers I have this to say, I loved Harry, the tobogganer. I loved the sport of him, the long look of him. And wouldn’t it be he who got tuberculosis and died. I can feel the fondness that I had for Victor – he died young too. Edward was alright I must suppose. But it was Willie I loved best. He gave me books, he took me around London, he accepted my mind, we talked of all things, Modernism among them and how that ﬁtted our lives. My two sisters Elsie and Frances married well, that’s all I have to say about them. Constance was all that her name meant. And although she is the person who allowed me to go through France a free woman for the last time and not tell me, she is also the one who visited me and perhaps did her best. Perhaps. Perhaps. Willie, who knew what new thoughts were to go with the old, who dreamed with me, who knew me, who made me laugh too, did not turn up in Paris when our train went through, did not turn up and take me off. I try to ﬁnd excuses for him, reasons that might have stopped him coming. Perhaps he was too removed by then. When my father died we saw that he had sat and written the words that cut Willie out of his will, a nasty unforgiving thing to do. The sentence had a vicious sheen all of its own. He did not cut me out to the same extent because he would have thought that my difference could not be so dangerous, me being female. Well there.
Once settled in London, I did indeed make myself useful with the poor, it was the least I could do. I also had a life that comes with the beginning of a century, when the darkness of the last can be put away. I kept track of what that light was doing in Dublin. Willie had been a Catholic now for a long time. He believed in the right of Ireland to run its own affairs, he spoke and dreamed in Irish. He always had news of Dublin. But he veered his life towards Compiegne, hardly the most engaged thing to be doing. I saw him as much as I could, between the comings and goings. Have I told you that he was my favourite? Constance was learning to behave like an unmarried daughter.
In Chelsea I learned about freedom and about love. That’s what it was. It is a time that I don’t like to think about, comparison will make me weak with longing. I will lose my voice. When you have learned those two things, freedom and love, you see things in a different way. The constraints that your family have tried to put on you become clear for what they are, frantic fears on their part that they will not be able to control what you think or read or how you see the world and what colours you decide to see it through. It was a lovely time there, keeping up with news of Suffrage things. And Art. And talk of those Pankhursts. They had nerve. I spent time admiring that and always remembered what it took. After all that living in Chelsea I learned to feel the distance appropriate to a grown up.
When my ﬁancé died I slept among his clothes, inhaling him up so he would be inside me. It helped, or so I thought, although it is hard to remember just how black my days became, one long tunnel of hours soaked with grief. It wrapped itself around me, made its way into my pores and ﬁnally struck me ill. People had to move back a few inches from the aura of my sadness, otherwise its strength would have hurt them. But I got well enough to go to my father’s funeral in Dublin – I had read of his death in the evening edition of the newspaper. It’s hard to know if it’s worth making these gestures, certainly, most of the rest of them didn’t think so. Perhaps they were right.
I believe that my response to this isolation, to remove to Paris and work for a paciﬁst organization, was the correct one. It seems such a little thing to have done now, after what happened. But it didn’t seem so then, it appeared that we might be able to stop the plunge into war. We believed that, before the future. And who is to say that it was wrong of us to hope. And when we couldn’t be heard above the din of battlecries I went back to London, knowing the crossing well by now.
We did our bests during that ﬁrst awful carnage. I heard about Ireland, the small nation, making its attempt. I heard about the executions and wondered what Dublin felt. I missed it then. Before I got ill again and well again and ill again, I’m not sure how many times before I ﬁnally set out for Rome in 1924, to watch a new tyrant growing. I had read about and followed carefully his insidious gathering of control. I went to stop him. It seemed a wise thing to do. And it was.
In Rome I lived a good life. I walked the streets, breathed the air around the endless history of its buildings, tended to the poor as was my wont, prayed in chapels that took the breath from the prayers with their beauty. My mind ﬂickered and shone with lit candles. I read and learned. I had my favourite places, Nero’s house was one. I loved looking across to the ruins, imagining the chariots racing before the crowds. I did have a brief illness, when the sadness overcame me, but these things can happen, and it is possible to step back into measured days again. There’s a ﬂow to life you know. My nurse, Mary McGrath, and I repaired to a quiet convent on Via delle Isole, one that took in travelers like us. I can still breath it, the solitude, the glorious singing of nuns, the birds ﬂitting from one lemon tree to the other.
It’s funny what you actually remember, the things that appear not to be important, but they have a smell about them that makes them different and thus they stay. They matter. I remember that the convent had dark corners which were good to hide in when the sun was too hot. And I remember the smell of the linoleum polish. I’ve smelled none as sweet since. I and Mary McGrath found refuge there. That comfort sometimes comes to me vividly, ﬂeetingly, when I waken in this Asylum. Or when I imagine I hear a nun softly running up and down the gamut before bursting into a hymn. But enough of that, you must be wondering how I got from there to here and I will do my best to explain.
Despite the beauty of Rome, despite its paintings, its pencil thin trees rising inexplicably towards the blue skies, its lavish avenues and its bright sunsets there was a rotting thing growing through that man Mussolini and his followers. He was destroying Italy, leading it into the fold of his own ego. We could see it, those of us who spread out the map to its full size. As the deeds of this emerging tyrant and his followers grew in darkness and violence I decided upon action. I was old enough by then to know that sometimes there is nothing else, that action is the only sane choice. I got myself ready and set forth to put my destiny and Mussolini’s within a breath of each others.
I remember clearly the morning of my deed. I got up at 6am and went to Mass, had breakfast and tidied my room, not expecting to be back in it. I thought the tidying was the least I could do. I told the nuns that I would return for lunch, it seemed only fair to pretend for a little while. But I knew that no matter what happened I would never see that bed again. I packed carefully. I wrapped my Level revolver in my black veil. I had twenty bullets hidden in my room, I would not require all of them. I put a good size stone in the pocket of my dress in case I needed it for breaking the car window. I closed the gate of the convent quietly so as not to disturb the prayers that had already started to create the day. I walked past the lovely doors of the convent street, past the gates opening on to secret gardens, dripping with ﬂowers and slippy green leaves. I could have turned back but I left behind those quiet places and came out on to the thoroughfare.
The streets were busy with lots of visitors for Easter. I watched people linked together as they walked and talked. I have never resented that; I had it once and although I will never have it again I do not unreasonably envy those who can slip their hands around the cloth of another’s arm without thinking of their privilege. It was an April day, the sky full of sun, anything could be possible on a day like that, and it almost was, I could have succeeded in shooting Mussolini, I was within inches of it. Clearly I aimed correctly, like my brother had taught me in the hallway in Merrion Square. I did indeed make a mark on him. But in the end my gun let me down and the force of the crowd stymied my next attempt.
On my way through the streets and piazzas I was not of course thinking of failure. I was thinking about how I had ﬁnally resolved the question of whether it is ever right to kill. I was satisﬁed that it was and that this tyrant, who still had the world fooled, or at least the one that was heard on a daily basis, needed to be stopped in his dark tracks. I passed through the Porta Pia, feeling the stone in my pocket. Although my intentions were to shoot him when he emerged outside, one could never be absolutely sure of his movements. After all a man who has butchered and tortured thousands already, a man who has had thirty million photographs of himself in varying athletic poses issued to the world, a man who thinks the people blessed to look into his eyes, that sort of man intends to prance about for as long as possible. Such a man will not be careless about himself and although he may pretend to be brave he will indeed change his arrangements continuously in order to stay alive. You know they say that many women wanted to have tea with him but there were many more who were on my side, of that I am sure, because I felt them that day, a surge of fear-banishing strength, such a wonderful thing.
I had left behind me the Convent of Santa Brigida – so apt that it was our Irish saint’s name – left Via delle Isole, gone down Via Nomentana, all the time feeling the stone but not drawing attention to myself. I was thinking of normal things, not too nervous, when I got caught in a moving crowd who were surging to catch a glimpse of something. Ah, so he was here among the splendor of Campidoglio. According to my research he was to speak at the Palazzo del Littorio that afternoon, that’s where I was heading, but here he was now. I should take the chance that was given to me. Perhaps I could get him this moment. I elbowed my way closer and closer, right beside one of the pillars. For once in that spot I was not noticing the beauty around me. I was focused only on getting as close as I could. A group of students were singing that stupid song that went with the photographs – you will always get some young who are, frighteningly, already clambering up the landscape of approval. Mussolini turned to them, to soak up more adoration and it was at that moment I felt the surge of strength. That’s what it was. Then it was easy.
My ﬁrst shot drew a great amount of blood and caused a gasp of silence, like a deep breath being suddenly taken in. I saw the blood pouring down his face and thought I had done it but then realized that he hadn’t fallen, so I would need another attempt. I shot again but I’m afraid to say that my gun did not perform, the bullet got stuck. I did not succeed. I heard the crowd getting its voice back and then they launched themselves at my body, kicking me, pulling my hair, stamping on me, pulling my collar to bits. I could not get my gun to point again. I could feel the crowd as they pummeled me, their anger ferocious. I watched it as if it was far away. They were going to kill me but the police shouted that I was theirs and dragged me into the Museo dei Conservatori. I lay on the ground, hearing the melee outside, the shouting coming from the square as Mussolini was carried away. It was a tremendous thing, that noise that I had caused. I opened my eyes and saw the colossal foot of the statue of Constantin. A cat lay sleeping on it, sunning itself with no thought of me nor men. I thought what a lucky cat.
The police then dragged me into a sitting position and started asking me a lot of questions, which was only natural. They kept me there for a while. Time seemed odd to me then. I have no idea how long we stayed surrounded by those stone sculptures that breathed strength into me. Occasionally a policeman reported back on the state of the crowd outside. Eventually the people were cleared and it was deemed safe for us to remove to Mantellate Prison. I was bundled into a car. I tried to ﬁx my collar but I noticed that it was torn. We crossed over the river but I couldn’t see by which bridge. It could have been the Palatino or the Garibaldi. I would still like to know, even though it’s not the sort of thing that I would be talking about here. The heavy doors swung open, I remember hearing the ﬂapping of birds wings as they did, a huge soar of them went towards the sky. And I heard a bell ringing nearby, perhaps the Mantellate bell itself. The doors closed. For all I know the birds soared again.
Someone took my ﬁngerprints and then moved me towards the nun-jailers. I thought of other things as they strip searched me, it is possible to do that if you have learned to pray. I did not like them taking my hairclips. My holy medals had already been torn from my neck by the mob. They did clean my cuts up before they passed me back for more questioning, which was good of them really. I was alive and the blows of the crowd had been attended to. That poor boy, Matteo, that poor young boy, was not afforded the same gestures. He tried to do the same as me, six months later in Bologna. He took aim in another beautiful piazza but this time the crowd made no mistake. They left him dead. I go silent for a while, even now, when I think of him, that brave boy. He deserves a moment’s silence. But back to my questioning – they made a shocking fuss of the piece of paper with that morning’s directions written on it, Palazzo del Littorio. It’s where Mussolini was meant to go. ‘So you intended shooting him’. Of course I intended shooting him. I did not answer them, nor did I tell them where I got the gun. That is still my secret.
I was ﬁfty when I shot Mussolini, a good age I think to do it, don’t you. I would really have liked not to have upset my family but I couldn’t not have done it just to keep my family happy.
I’m not sure why but I seem to have fallen into trying to explain myself here, I do think you deserve that, but really you either think it was a good idea or not. And I do. But you may be having difﬁculty with the idea of a woman doing it. Mussolini certainly did, they say he exclaimed to himself, What, a Woman! He didn’t like that.
A move was then put in place to prove that I was mad. And how do you do that? What does mad mean? And if once mad for a hour or two does that mean forever? Yes I had already directed harm to myself but then I was not the ﬁrst thinking human to do that, look at Emily Davison, she too took the hopeless route, although certainly not on the day of the Derby, she had her return fare paid and a ticket to the Suffrage Dance that night. (I was so glad that Father was dead before all that, not that I would have had to listen to him by then, but Constance and Mother would.)
In Mantellate jail, with the bell ringing in time with all the other bells, and the river ﬂowing nicely outside, they said that my lack of desire to have children was a sign that I was mad. And how they rushed to do their gynecological examination. I looked at the ceiling and prayed to any God I could get to come into my head; I kept my eyes wide open so as not to give them the comfort of seeing me close them. One of the jailers got me Professor Giannelli’s report. She smuggled it in to me. I have always been able to get on well with staff, yes it was best to think of my jailers as that.Still is. The ﬁne Professor, a snake of a man, wrote to the Prosecutor that he had proceeded to undertake the examination, that the prisoner had submitted to it without protest. That means he noticed that I had kept my eyes open. He went on to say that the hymen was not intact, he said that it permitted with ease the introduction of two exploratory ﬁngers, that’s his two ﬁngers. He went on to talk about squeezing my urethra. He would. The hymen is not intact. Indeed. I could have told him that. And made it sound a good and joyful thing.
Perhaps I need to spend some more time on this notion of mad. Yes I have my moments, short bursts of terrible anger. It is unfortunate that I have not learned to control these now only annual events. But I ask you, I ask you, what is that small rare ﬁzz of mine in comparison to the legal rage of free men who walk the streets and run the armies? Of course it is not a good plan to lash out, and each time I do it I realize that I am giving them more fodder for their interpretation of me, more sustenance to the notion that I needed to be locked up forever. ( By the way I am not sorry that I hit Mrs … If you had to listen to the monotone of her so would you.) But I digress. It seems to me that rage can be a right thing. We would not have the Vote without it. I imagine you saying that that is not true, that it would have been granted in time, but I ask you to look at the places in the world, even in the 1950s, who do not have it. Maybe in the future, when you have found this, women not having the vote will be unthinkable anywhere. And maybe not. You understand by now that I was not a woman who spent my life frittering at sewing. I shouldn’t demean sewing, it is in fact a thing I would like to be able to do, the in and out of the needle, the strict mechanics of the thing. Perhaps it could remove the mind to higher things but the perceived docility of it always put me off. If you look around a door and see a room full of women sewing you do not think of action. And I believed in action. Still do.
You may be wondering how I got from Rome to here. After they had assaulted my inner self they continued the relentless questioning about an international conspiracy. Surely a woman could not have done this on her own. Surely a woman could not have seen what this festering tyrant was doing. Surely a woman could not have known that tyranny incubates and ﬂies across borders. Mussolini and his men used this constructed conspiracy to further imprison, burn and butcher swathes more of those who understood the danger of him. Meanwhile I stayed in jail while they wondered what to do with me. They allowed faithful Mary McGrath to see me once. They would no doubt have questioned her about our stay in the convent, about where I went, who I saw. I do hope she survived all that. I do hope she got back to Ireland alright. They told me that Willie came. And Constance. They told me that letters I had best not see were written about me. I can only imagine the spite that some would have spewed. They told me that my relatives were not best pleased. They told me that telegrams were sent hoping for the speedy recovery of Mussolini. They told me that in the end he did not want a woman standing trial for shooting him. News that a woman had taken aim and almost succeeded could take on a life of its own and lead to his ridicule. So he had to ﬁnd a solution. And he and my family and England did.
So, Constance came. And had in her pocket all manner of things to do with my life. And with her came nurses who pretended they were there for my welfare. And a man from Thomas Cook -that still puzzles me. The paperwork complete, our entourage, which also included a goodly number of men, presumably police ofﬁcers, my what a fuss, made its way to the railway station.
It was wonderful to smell the morning air at Termini. The pigeons scattered noisily when we went on to the platform. The place smelled of food and work and rush. People shouted at each other with every decibel. There was busy-ness and parting and meeting. There was colour and laughter. It was bliss for my eyes. We boarded the train about noon I think. Constance and I had a two berth sleeper. I could not believe the joy of it. I was almost afraid to accept where I was. The train cranked up its preparation noises and then we were off, whistled out of the station, on our way to my free life. It was a pleasure to watch the suburbs of Rome glide behind our train, on up past Florence. I waved at people now and then and they waved back. Who is to say if they knew me or not. And on through the yellow light ﬂashing into blues, glorious sunshine, ﬁelds mirrored in lakes, dazzling silver dancing on bits of the Ligurian sea, on through all that was beautiful. At the border in Modane, through my half sleep, I saw Constance exchange papers, the policemen, the nurses and the man from Thomas Cook looking over her shoulder. I closed my eyes. I trusted her. And after the fading of the Italian beauty, a new one, the French became its own. I had a lovely time on that journey, my heart and head full of harmony.
As the villages of France winked past our train I felt a great relaxation upon me. I had made a small mistake at the border. I had murmured, as they stood above the papers, that I hoped to be back in Italy soon and when they asked me why, I said to shoot Mussolini of course. Constance had jumped a strange frightened jolt and I had said, oh come Constance, no need to be ansty, it was a word we had used when children and I thought it might have helped her, but it was the beginning of her getting more and more nervous while I got calmer and calmer, happy to watch the towns come and shine and fade sedately. If only I had known. If I had known that my life had been signed away but that I was a free woman while whizzing through France I could have escaped. You may say that that would not have been possible but let me tell you that a woman who came within a quarter of an inch of killing Mussolini could surely have got away from three nurses, a sister and a travel agent. And if I had known I surely could have got Willie to come in from Compiégne when we were passing through Paris, and I could surely have jumped at Boulogne, I knew its streets well enough. But, as I said, I was full of harmony. I bade farewell to the French coast with no fear and I welcomed the coast at Folkestone, saw it as a friend.
Even in Harley Street, as they signed papers, I could not have believed what they had in mind for me. I rather enjoyed the names coming up, Hemel Hamstead, Berkenhamsted, all ringing of homestead, Keighton Buzzard, Bletchely, ﬁne names I thought. Even in this Asylum, when they put me to bed on my ﬁrst evening, and brought Constance to the ofﬁce to explain my life, even then I did not know, could not have guessed, surely could not believe, that my own explanations were never to be heard again. I would never again speak for myself.
Over the years I have found ways of coping, there is not much else I can do. The grounds here give me great solace, the trees are large and I can imagine myself all sorts of places under them. I talk to the birds when needs be. George, the gardener and the postman of this keeps me up to date with things he thinks might interest me. He told me about Mussolini asking for the gold and of the women who gave up their wedding rings and of the few who did not and what happened their children. I did think that when England ﬁnally went to war with Mussolini, ﬁnally saw him for the enemy he was, I did think then that I would be freed. So did George. I was sorry that the bomb dropped on us didn’t give me a chance to run. I certainly thought that when they applauded the end of Mussolini’s life that some of that applause would bring good things to me. George thought so too. But it was not to be.
George and I talk plants a lot. It is what he has in common with me. But he tries to get other things to bring me, I can see him do it. It was him who said that an Irish woman had come, he thought I might know of her or at least of her father, a writer, called James Joyce. I said that I did and I await to see if we will have much to say to each other, I do hope so. They tell me that she knows France too and Italy, although not the one I know. Before I speak to her I should ﬁnish this letter.
And so, Dear You, perhaps you are cold by now but I would ask one thing of you. I have made my will stipulating that my funeral should be held in Northampton Cathedral and that I should be buried in the Catholic corner of St. Andrew’s Cemetery. I have left money for a substantial headstone. Presuming that I am dead by now could you check for the record if those ﬁnal wishes have been granted. In conclusion I am now going to make this into a roll to be put into the bottle that George has promised to throw. He says that he will ﬁnd the right size, and a good cork so that the words don’t get drowned. I could have said more, perhaps explained more, it may appear to you that I have just given tufts of details, but I hope that it sufﬁces to bring your attention to me and to the others, to let you know that my thoughts and feelings have remained mostly intact, despite the door having been slammed, despite all that was dear to me having been stolen from me, despite the fact that the only way I can speak to you is through this perhaps unreliable bottle.
Signed, Violet Gibson.
Evelyn Conlon. Photograph by Nick Lethert.