Two for Friday
Someone gave me two books for my birthday with instructions, “Read ‘Harold Fry’ first in order to understand ‘Queenie’”. So that is how I found myself reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) by veteran radio play writer Rachel Joyce. These are companion books: they describe the same time period and mostly the same events, but told from two different perspectives.
Harold Fry lives with his wife Maureen in Kingsbridge on the English Channel in Devon. He is recently retired from his lifetime job as a sales rep for a local brewery. On a spring morning he receives a letter postmarked “Berwick-upon-Tweed” which is on the North Sea coast as far north in England as you can go without crossing the Scottish border. The letter is from Queenie Hennessy, a woman who worked at the brewery until she disappeared twenty years ago and was not heard from again. The letter states that she is in Saint Bernadine’s Hospice where she is dying of cancer. She wants to thank Harold for the friendship he had shown her when they worked together.
Harold writes a note to Queenie and goes out to mail it. He decides that she might get it quicker if he mails it from the post office. By the time he reaches the post office, he decides he really ought to deliver the message in person. So he starts walking to the hospice. He stops for lunch at a service station and the girl at the counter tells him her aunt had stayed alive when she had cancer because she believed she would. This is the final push he needs to start off on his pilgrimage wearing his yachting shoes and the clothes on his back.
Harold phones Maureen to tell her what he is doing. He is looking for her approval, but she is pretty skeptical at first. She thinks Harold has left her for good. Their marriage has been largely a sham for many years. Not only do they not sleep in the same bed, they have not even shared the same room for a long time. She seeks the advice of their son David. At first David comes across as a Sheridan Bucket clone from Keeping up Appearances – a selfish mooch who has his doting mother wrapped around his finger, who never visits and only calls to scrounge money for booze and drugs from his long suffering parents. But Joyce keeps nudging the reader to do the math and one comes to realize that there is something more serious that has driven the wedge between David and his family.
Maureen has been trying to hide the fact that Harold is gone from Rex, their neighbor, who has recently been widowed and is clearly lonely. She tells him Harold is sick, but that just leads to more questions and eventually she breaks down and tells him the truth. He becomes an important ally and advisor because of his own experience with losing a loved one for good.
Harold has also phoned the hospice and told the nun who answered that he is coming; he told her to tell Queenie to wait for him. He starts sending post cards to Queenie to show the progress he is making. This gets the patients at the hospice excited when they realize that someone is marching the length of England to see one of their own. They put up a display board in the lounge with the post cards. And they are delighted to see Harold on television as his quest becomes better known.
Harold does not know that Queenie’s tumor is in her jaw. Not only is it disfiguring her, but it is reducing her capacity to eat and to talk intelligibly. The nuns persuade her that she must make her own journey to meet Harold. Since she has reached out to him, she must have something to tell him. She won’t be able to speak to him by the time he arrives, so she needs to write it down. Sister Mary Inconnu has found a portable typewriter and is transcribing what Queenie writes in her notebook so that Harold will be able to read it when he arrives.
Canadian content alert! The original Sister Mary Inconnu was an early 19th century nun from the Miramichi region of New Brunswick. She had been decapitated and her head had been taken away. In the days before finger print analysis and DNA testing, facial recognition was the only way to identify a corpse. (If the phrase “dental records” even flickered across your mind, you haven’t been paying attention.) Without a face, she became referred to as Unknown Mary. Legend had it that she haunted the area looking for her missing head so that she could be properly identified on her gravestone.
The Harold book documents the trials and tribulations, as well as the triumphs, of Harold’s journey. He gives up more than once and it is Maureen who persuades him to keep going. It also contains his reminiscences of Queenie and the times they spent traveling in his car when she was doing audits of the pubs that bought their employer’s beer. At the same time, the Queenie book is documenting her memories of what she did before arriving in Kingsbridge and what she did after she left, as well as the time that she and Harold worked together.
I found both of these books to be gripping. They are very funny in parts. But sensitive readers are cautioned to keep tissues handy. Joyce’s descriptions of the deaths of Queenie’s hospice mates are sometimes very poignant.