“Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm.”
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
I understand – I hurt because of – the horrific potential of the written word. Knowing what I do, it is with hesitancy that I put pen to paper to record the events of my life. My inexperience as a writer does not preclude me from creating a Dark Book and, with every pen stroke, I fear that I will cause harm to others. It would not be purposeful, mind you, but neither could it be considered guiltless. For any reader of my account, I beg that you proceed with caution.
My name is Naomi Gladwyn and, to tell my story correctly, I must start with a mysterious event that happened two years prior to my birth – the ghost ship, Mary Celeste.
As you are likely aware, in November of 1872, the sailing vessel, Mary Celeste, left New York harbor on its way to Europe. However, about one month later, the vessel was found drifting, completely abandoned, several hundred miles off the coast of Portugal. One would naturally assume that to abandon a ship in the middle of the ocean, it must have been under heavy threat of sinking, but this is where the story becomes bizarre. The Mary Celeste was in very capable sailing shape. There was some water in the hold, but nowhere near enough to harm the ship. Adding to the strangeness, there were no overt signs of violence, such as you might find with a pirate attack. The cargo, personal items – even valuables – were still onboard. The only thing missing was the sole life boat. For some unknown reason, the crew felt compelled to leave the ship, and none of them were ever heard from again. Close to twenty years later now, it is still considered the greatest of maritime mysteries.
Why do I bring up this strange account? Because my uncle was on that ship and was never found. The ripple effect of this chilling event has haunted my life, starting with my poor father. For you see, when it became known that the Mary Celeste had been abandoned and that the crew – particularly his brother – was missing, it drove my father to the brink of insanity. It is a special kind of torment not knowing. Perhaps if my father could be sure that his younger brother was dead, he could have rested his mind and conscience. Perhaps he could have grieved to completion instead of lingering in pain. But he did not know, and his solution to the insidious and relentless torture was to drink.
This solution may have helped his pain, but it caused agony for my mother. They had only been married a little over a year when he turned to alcohol, and the man she loved was now hidden under the influence of mind altering drink. It must have been terrible to watch this once good man – her true love – turn into a wicked stranger. Never wealthy, the income became even scarcer, as my father had a difficult time working, and much of the money that was earned went to his habitual escape.
When I was born, about three years into their marriage, I may have been the most unwanted child in history. Not for lack of love, at least not on my mother’s part, but because she was terrified of the life she would be able to provide for me with her husband in the state that he was.
When I was a few months old, my father’s drinking finally stopped – along with his life. I have no memory of him, no recollection at all. In a drunken stupor, he had walked in front of a carriage and was trampled to death. Whatever little had remained of the man my mother loved, was now gone. Whatever income that survived his drinking was also gone and my mum and I were in a bad way. We moved to a shack, near the Thames, with two other women and one other child. I vaguely remember playing on the muddy water’s edge with that child, a young boy name Charlie.
My mother worked whatever jobs she could, cleaning, sewing, baking, anything. I fear the thoughts of what dark places she may have delved into to create our meager living. A poor widow has few options to earn money and very few of them are pleasant.
When I was six years old, my mother fell ill with pneumonia. We did not have the funds for doctors or medicine, and she died within a few months. Having no relatives, I was taken to Bromley Female Orphan Asylum in the south of London.
Now, you may wonder how I know of all these things if I was only six years old at that time. The answer is in a letter my mother wrote before her death. The letter contains my father’s history, my mother’s sorrow at the life she gave me, her proclamations of unwavering love, and the sincere hope that a better life would somehow find me. It is the only item I have of my family and, through the years, I often hold it to my chest and breathe in its comforting aroma – which minimally captured the smell of home.
I will spare you the minute and sorrowful details of my years in the orphanage, but it does not take much imagination to picture the situation. It should be easy to see that a six-year-old girl cried inconsolable tears for weeks upon weeks at being taken from her mother, her world being destroyed. There should be no problem in understanding the agony I felt at longing for my broken down, but familiar, home by the river. It should take no stretch of the mind to comprehend the spirit-crushing loneliness, despite being surrounded by other children, that threatened and shaped the very person I was. Most of all, it should be a simple matter to know that I missed my mother so much that the pain inside of me was worse than any physical ailment; that, although young and unable to comprehend such an enormous concept as life and death, I would wish to fall into a dreamless sleep and never wake to the reality of my hurtful and pathetic life.
Despite not delving into the dreadful details of those times, I will, however, comment on one aspect of an orphan’s life. It takes the form of the most common pastime that we children would partake in. It was somehow both wonderful and painful; simultaneously comforting and cruel. This pastime did not have any official name, but I called it the ‘if only’ game. Never a day went by when this game was not played among the lot of us – and likely even more so in private. It could be summed up with this phrase, ‘If only I was not an orphan.’ From that simple start, dreams would be built of the life we wanted.
For me, it was either, ‘If only my mother had not died’ or ’If only the Mary Celeste made it safely to port.” From those beginning statements, I would create false and impossible happiness.
Oh, the cruelty of those thoughts! Although building the fantasies felt amazing, it made the realities we faced seem harsher by comparison. And yet, the game would not, could not, stop. Perhaps this means that our human desire for happiness, for something better, is stronger than despair. Perhaps it means that we are creatures that find ways to amplify our misery.
Even now, I still do not know what to make of the game, but I still play. I still weave make-believe worlds of happiness with my mother and father; and I still get viciously slapped by reality.
There is, however, another type of make-believe that is far kinder and helped to make my wretched existence tolerable. I speak, of course, of the sublime brilliance of books.