Rachel Joyce is back with her latest novel The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. We all laughed, cried and got a little bit over emotional (in a very good way) about her first novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and now she has retold the story from the perspective of Queenie Hennessy, the terminally ill woman that Harold set out to visit. There were a lot of unanswered questions within the pages of her first novel: What was the truth behind their relationship, what did she do that left her so weighed down by guilt and what was her relationship with Harold's son, David? All these questions and more are answered in Rachel Joyce's unique heart-warming style that will leave you as in love with Queenie as we still are with Harold.
Read my complete review of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce at We Love This Book here.
If you'd like a sneaky peak at The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy or you've never read any of Rachel Joyce's work (what are you doing with your life?!) then check out this exclusive extract below:
YOUR LETTER arrived this morning. We were in the dayroom for morning activities. Everyone was asleep.
Sister Lucy, who is the youngest nun volunteering in the hospice, asked if anyone would like to help with her new jigsaw. Nobody answered. ‘Scrabble?’ she said.
‘How about Mousetrap?’ said Sister Lucy. ‘That’s a lovely game.’
I was in a chair by the window. Outside, the winter evergreens flapped and shivered. One lone seagull balanced in the sky.
‘Hangman?’ said Sister Lucy. ‘Anyone?’
A patient nodded, and Sister Lucy fetched paper. By the time she’d got sorted, pens and a glass of water and so on, he was dozing again.
Life is different for me at the hospice. The colours, the smells, the way a day passes. But I close my eyes and I pretend that the heat of the radiator is the sun on my hands and the smell of lunch is salt in the air. I hear the patients cough, and it is only the wind in my garden by the sea. I can imagine all sorts of things, Harold, if I put my mind to it.
Sister Catherine strode in with the morning delivery. ‘Post!’ she sang. Full volume. ‘Look what I have here!’
‘Oh, oh, oh,’ went everyone, sitting up.
Sister Catherine passed several brown envelopes, forwarded, to a Scotsman known as Mr Henderson. There was a card for the new young woman. (She arrived yesterday. I don’t know her name.) There is a big man they call the Pearly King, and he had another parcel though I have been here a week and I haven’t yet seen him open one. The blind lady, Barbara, received a note from her neighbour – Sister Catherine read it out – spring is coming, it said. The loud woman called Finty opened a letter informing her that if she scratched off the foil window, she would discover that she’d won an exciting prize.
‘And, Queenie, something for you.’ Sister Catherine crossed the room, holding out an envelope. ‘Don’t look so frightened.’
I knew your writing. One glance and my pulse was flapping. Great, I thought. I don’t hear from the man in twenty years, and then he sends a letter and gives me a heart attack.
I stared at the postmark. Kingsbridge. Straight away I could picture the muddy blue of the estuary, the little boats moored to the quay. I heard the slapping of water against the plastic buoys and the clack of rigging against the masts. I didn’t dare open the envelope. I just kept looking and looking and remembering.
Sister Lucy rushed to my aid. She tucked her childlike finger under the flap and wiggled it along the fold to tear the envelope open. ‘Shall I read it out for you, Queenie?’ I tried to say no, but the no came out as a funny noise she mistook for a yes. She unfolded the page, and her face seeped with pink. Then she began to read. ‘It’s from someone called Harold Fry.’
She went as slowly as she could, but there were a few words only. ‘I am very sorry. Best wishes. Oh, but there’s a PS too,’ said Sister Lucy. ‘He says, Wait for me.’ She gave an optimistic shrug. ‘Well, that’s nice. Wait for him? I suppose he’s going to make a visit.’
Sister Lucy folded the letter carefully and tucked it back inside the envelope. Then she placed my post in my lap, as if that were the end of it. A warm tear slipped down the side of my nose. I hadn’t heard your name spoken for twenty years. I had held the words only inside my head.
‘Aw,’ said Sister Lucy. ‘Don’t be upset, Queenie. It’s all right.’ She pulled a tissue from the family-size box on the coffee table and carefully wiped the corner of my closed-up eye, my stretched mouth, even the thing that is on the side of my face. She held my hand, and all I could think of was my hand in yours, long ago, in a stationery cupboard.
‘Maybe Harold Fry will come tomorrow,’ said Sister Lucy.
At the coffee table, Finty still scratched away at the foil window on her letter. ‘Come on, you little bugger,’ she grunted.
‘Did you say “Harold Fry”?’ Sister Catherine jumped to her feet and clapped her hands as if she was trapping an insect. It was the loudest thing that had happened all morning, and everyone murmured ‘Oh, oh, oh’ again. ‘How could I have forgotten? He rang yesterday. Yes. He rang from a phone box.’ She spoke in small broken sentences, the way you do when you’re trying to make sense of something that essentially doesn’t. ‘The line was bad and he kept laughing. I couldn’t understand a word. Now I think about it, he was saying the same thing. About waiting. He said to tell you he was walking.’ She slipped a yellow Post-it note from her pocket and quickly unfolded it.
‘Walking?’ said Sister Lucy, suggesting this was not something she’d tried before.
‘I assumed he wanted directions from the bus station. I told him to turn left and keep going.’
A few of the volunteers laughed, and I nodded as if they were right, they were right to laugh, because it was too much, you see, to show the consternation inside me. My body felt both weak and hot.
Sister Catherine studied her yellow note. ‘He said to tell you that as long as he walks, you must wait. He also said he’s setting off from Kingsbridge.’ She turned to the other nuns and volunteers. ‘Kingsbridge? Does anyone know where that is?’
Sister Lucy said maybe she did but she was pretty sure she didn’t. Someone told us he’d had an old aunt who lived there once. And one of the volunteers said, ‘Oh, I know Kingsbridge. It’s in South Devon.’ ‘South Devon?’ Sister Catherine paled. ‘Do you think he meant he’s walking to Northumberland from all the way down there?’ She was not laughing any more, and neither was anyone else. They were only looking at me and looking at your letter and seeming rather anxious and lost. Sister Catherine folded her Post-it note and disappeared it into
the side pocket of her robe.
‘Bull’s-eye!’ shouted Finty. ‘I’ve won a luxury cruise! It’s a fourteen-night adventure, all expenses paid, on the Princess Emerald!’
‘You have not read the small print,’ grumbled Mr Henderson. And then, louder: ‘The woman has not read the small print.’
I closed my eyes. A little later I felt the sisters hook their arms beneath me and lift my body into the wheelchair. It was like the way my father carried me when I was a girl and I had fallen asleep in front of the range. ‘Stille, stille,’ my mother would say. I held tight on to your envelope, along with my notebook. I saw the dancing of crimson light beyond my eyelids as we passed from the dayroom to the corridor and then past the windows. I kept my eyes shut all the way, even as I was lowered on to the bed, even as the curtains were drawn with a whoosh against the pole, even as I heard the click of the door, afraid that if I opened my eyes the wash of tears would never stop.
Harold Fry is coming, I thought. I have waited twenty years, and now he is coming.
An unlikely plan
‘QUEENIE? QUEENIE HENNESSY?’ When I woke, a new volunteer was standing against my window. For a moment he seemed made of light.
‘You were crying,’ he said. ‘In your sleep.’ Only now that I looked properly, I found he was not a man after all. He was a tall and big-boned she, dressed in a nun’s habit, a wimple and a knitted navy-blue cardigan. I shot up my hand to hide. But the stranger didn’t stare and neither did she drop her gaze, as people usually do, to my fingers or my feet or any bit of me that was not my face. She just smiled.
‘Are you upset about this man called Harold Fry?’ she said.
I remembered your news. That you were walking to see me. But this time I couldn’t see the hope in it, I could see only the miles. After all, I’m at one end of England and you’re at the other. The wind has a soft-ness in the south, but up here it’s so wild it can chuck you off your feet. There’s a reason for this distance, Harold. I had to get as far from you as I could bear.
The nun shifted from the window, taking with her a small potted cactus plant from the sill. She said she’d heard about your very exciting message. She knew that you were walking from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed and that all I had to do was wait. She stooped to rescue the cactus from the floor. ‘I don’t know Mr Fry personally, of course, but it appears you called into the void and an echo came back. What a good man.’ She smiled at the cactus as if she had just blessed it. ‘By the way, I am Sister Mary Inconnue.’ She pronounced it An-con-noo, like in the French. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
The nun drew up the chair and sat beside my bed. Her hands lay in her lap, large and red. A washing-up set of hands. Her eyes were a sharp, clear green.
‘But look at me,’ I tried to say. It was no good. Instead, I reached for my notebook and HB pencil. I wrote her a message: How can I do this? How can I wait for him? I tossed the pencil aside.
I’d thought I would never see you again. Even though I’ve spent twenty years in exile, even though I’ve lived with a piece of my life missing, I thought you had forgotten me. When I sent you my first letter, it was to put my affairs in order. It was to draw a veil for myself over the past. I didn’t expect you to post a reply. I certainly didn’t expect you to walk with it. There is so much to confess, to atone for, so much to mend, and I can’t do it. Why do you think I left Kingsbridge and never came back? If you knew the truth, I’m afraid you’d hate me. And you must know the truth, you see. There cannot be a meeting between us without it.
I remembered the first time I spotted you in the yard of the brewery. Then I pictured your son in my red wool mittens and I saw Maureen too, her eyes blazing, beside a basket of washing in your garden at 13 Fossebridge Road. Don’t walk, I thought. The nun with a funny name was right: you’re a good man. I had the chance to speak twenty years ago and I failed. Over and over, I failed. I am words without a mouth. Don’t come now.
I wrote, It’s too late.
Sister Mary Inconnue read the message in my notebook and said nothing. For a long time she remained with her hands in her lap, so still that I began to wonder if she’d dropped asleep. Then she rolled up her sleeves like a nun who means business. Her arms were smooth and weather-tanned. ‘Too late? It’s never too late. It seems to me you have something else to say to Harold Fry. Isn’t that why you’re upset?’
Well, that did it. I was crying again.
She said, ‘I have a plan. We’re going to write him a second letter. Don’t forget, you opened this can of worms when you sent your first one. So now you need to finish. Only this time, don’t give him the sort of message he might expect from a gift card. Tell him the truth, the whole truth. Tell him how it really was.’
I looked to the window. Black gossamer scraps of cloud chased across a weak sky. The sun was a thimble of light, and the dark branches of the tree trembled. I pictured you at one end of England, walking down a country lane. I pictured myself at the other, sitting in a bed in a small room. I thought of the miles between us: the railway tracks, the bus routes, the roads, the rivers. I pictured the steeples and towers, the slate roofs and tin roofs, the stations, the cities, the towns, the villages, the fields. And so many people. People sitting on platforms and passing in cars and staring from buses and trudging down roads. Since I left Kingsbridge, I’ve remained single. I made my home in a derelict timber beach house, and I tended my heart in a garden by the sea. My life has been small, it has been nothing to speak of. But the past is still inside me, Harold. I have never let it go.
‘You don’t have to write this letter on your own,’ said Sister Mary Inconnue. ‘I will help. There’s an old portable typewriter in the office.’ I remembered how long it had taken me to spell out my first letter in order for Sister Lucy to copy it on her laptop. And I suppose you noticed the mess I made of both my signature and your address on the envelope. What with all the shenanigans getting that letter in the post, a carrier pigeon might have been quicker.
But Sister Mary Inconnue was still talking. ‘Every day we’ll do it. You can make notes and I’ll type them. I don’t suppose you know shorthand?’
‘Well, there you are. We will write, you and I, until Harold Fry gets here. I’ll do it in the first person, as if I am you. I’ll transcribe every-thing. I won’t miss out one word. Your letter will be waiting for Harold Fry when he arrives.’
And you promise he will read it before he sees me?
‘I give you my word.’
Already there was something appealing about her idea. Already I was composing the opening sentences. I think I closed my eyes, because when I opened them, Sister Mary Inconnue had moved again and this time she was seated beside the slight bump of my feet. She had put on a pair of blue plastic-framed reading glasses that gave her a goggle-eyed look, and she held up a battered leather carrying bag the size of a brief-case. Its key was tied to the handle with a loop of string.
She laughed. ‘You fell asleep. So I nipped to the office and took the liberty of borrowing the typewriter.’ She opened my notebook to a fresh page. She replaced it on my lap alongside the pencil.
‘You see how it is?’ said Sister Mary Inconnue, unlocking the leather bag and removing the typewriter. It was a cream Triumph Tippa. I had the same model once. ‘Harold Fry is walking. But in another way, even though you’re here, even though you’ve done your travelling, you’re starting a journey too. It’s the same and not the same. You see?’
I nodded. And if I’m not here at least my letter will be.
Sister Mary Inconnue settled herself and rested the typewriter on her knees. ‘Now then,’ she said, flexing her red fingers. ‘Where’s the tab set key?’
We worked for the rest of the morning and then after lunch and into the dusk. Once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. I pointed to my writing.
Does it make sense to you?
‘Perfect sense,’ she said.
I tore out sheets as I finished, numbering each one, and Sister Mary Inconnue picked them up and typed. I kept telling myself I’d go as far as the next page, and then the next page came and I filled that too. I wrote everything you have read so far, while Sister Mary Inconnue clacked and slapped at her keys. And this is what we are still doing. I am writing and she is typing.
‘Good,’ she says. ‘This is good.’
Tonight the duty nurse performed our evening rituals. She cleaned my mouth with mouthwash and a tiny sponge on a stick. She applied jelly where my lips have cracked, and she changed the dress-ings. Dr Shah, the palliative care consultant, asked if I had more pain, but I told him no, it was only the same. There was no need for me to be in discomfort, he
said. If anything troubled me, a change could be made to my medication. Once the nurse had applied my new pain patch, Sister Lucy massaged my hands. Her smooth, plump fingers travelled my stiff ones, easing the joints and stroking. She fetched her sparkly polish and painted my nails.
In my sleep I saw your son. ‘Yes, David,’ I said. ‘Yes.’ I took a blanket and tucked it round him in case he was cold.
Thanks to the lovely Naomi at Transworld I also have one signed copy of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce (not actually in my hands, it's a good thing they didn't send it to me because I totally would have kept it). So how do you enter to win? Just leave a comment on this blog below or retweet one of the tweets mentioning the competition on Twitter. The competition is open to UK residents only and closes at midnight on Sunday 19th of October.
Buy The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce from Amazon here.