Two Women

Janet Elderkirk’s apartment was predictably in a state of disorder. The fridge contained only an open carton of soured milk and some wilted lettuce. One room was filled from floor to ceiling with old newspapers. The place was a firetrap. The two ladies disposed of Janet’s clothes, for which I was grateful. I forbore to read the documents that cluttered one desk drawer, but among a flurry of legal papers that appeared to chronicle an unsettled property dispute, was a yellowed unfinished university essay she had written sixty years before, entitled “Herman Melville: The Reluctant Atheist.” It ended, frustratingly, with a description of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, a curious tale of a catatonic and apparently homeless law clerk who does none of the work assigned him, and “prefers not” to do anything to help himself. He sits staring all day at a blank office wall. So disconcerted by his idle helplessness is his employer, the lawyer who is also the story’s narrator, that he moves his office rather than fire Bartleby, whom he likens to a “dead letter.” Janet had written, “The narrator knows in his heart that one has a moral duty to help those poor souls who either will not or cannot conform to society’s expectations. One must not run from this chance to engage with life’s complexities, as the narrator does. To do so is to lessen oneself, to duck the chance for immortality of a sort by an act of charity.” There the manuscript ended, with the last claim unexplained forever. There was more sense here than in Janet’s more recent pronouncements. I removed this last page. I keep it framed in front of me on the wall beside my own desk as I write this, for in the end, if not from the beginning, all must be charity, for what is charity, after all, but love in action?

There was little else for us to do in that shell of a former life, except call the janitor to prise open a cupboard secured with a padlock for which we could find no key. From the bottom shelf, a number of casserole dishes, including one familiar to me from church suppers, cascaded with a loud clatter on to the floor. The other volunteer gasped in delight, “Why, there they are!” On the shelves above was a jumble of piled little wrapped parcels, each in colourful wrapping paper. Most turned out to be little cakes or buns or tarts, all old and stale, some with mould on them, and each bearing a little hopeful message attached to the wrapper—‘Jesus loves you’ or ‘ Have a wonderful day!’ They were all in Martha Arkwright’s handwriting, and had come from her kitchen, as had the dishes, now belatedly but happily re-united with their owner.

The only comment Mrs. Arkwright herself made publicly on this episode occurred when she was peeling potatoes in the parish hall kitchen some days later. “We are all needy,” she said. “It is just that her needs were more obvious than most. Some hunger is spiritual, you know,” she said simply.

 

Two Women

author
Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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