When I was a little girl, there was an old woman we’d often see round town. She had a shuffle of a walk and a whiskery chin, and she’d suck her top lip right into her mouth and mutter nonsense to herself. No one ever seemed to talk to this woman. She didn’t always have a coat on in the rain, or anything better than slippers on her feet. The rumour went that she’d lost her fiancé in World War II, and it had sent her quietly mad.
I was captivated by this story. I’d love to tell you that I took her flasks of tea and chocolate digestive biscuits, but I never did. I don’t think anyone did. She was a local character and as such she was better than tolerated, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people were fond of her. I don’t think she was cared for at all, but I can’t have been the only one who wondered about her, imagined the life she might have led, and who she’d been before.
I have another memory, of Thomas the terrible waiter. He only spoke a little English, and he really was a terrible waiter, until what we needed was a doctor, which as it turned out Thomas was and saved the life of a diner suffering a heart attack (it might have been a stroke or even indigestion. It is not what I remember). You see, we really didn’t know Thomas at all. Only what he let us see of him, which wasn’t very much. We hadn’t known anything of his former life, when he’d lived in the land of his language. I hope Thomas went on to live the life he was planning. The one whose foundations lay in him taking a job as a waiter, and English lessons, and saving to bring his family to join him in England.
Isn’t there more to everyone than meets the eye?
The woman who buried her daughter last week, the man who’s just found out his tumour is inoperable, they are beside us at the supermarket, perhaps driving too slowly ahead of us on the freeway.
We make so many assumptions. For starters: that everyone around us is living an ordinary day. We assume that people are good because they’re nice. We believe people we like, and we distrust those we don’t.
With An Afterlife for Rosemary Lamb, I set out to explore the befores and afters of three women whose younger selves would not have recognised the people they’d become. Who were stuck – or on their way to being stuck – in lives that had crept and climbed and tangled around them.
It is the story of their unlikely friendship, and the secrets each of them is keeping, though ‘Are all secrets secret-somethings or just things we do not tell?’
It is a story about expectations, loneliness, loyalty, and a missing child. What happened to little Jessie Else? Who did what to her, and why?
Louise Wolhuter’s An Afterlife for Rosemary Lamb was published by Ultimo Press on 8 June 2023