The Equally Unlikely Pilgrimage of Maureen Fry

The first time I read Rachel Joyce’s marvelous The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I followed Harold’s adventures very carefully. Why is his trip on foot to Berwick-upon-Tweed called “a pilgrimage?” What’s “unlikely” about it. Those seem to me good questions and even in my first reading, I got good answers to them.

A year later, when I nominated the book to my much-loved book group, [1] the pitch I gave was that it was at least two really good stories. Harold is changed into a markedly different person by taking off on this trip. But his wife, Maureen, is also changed into a different person by being left behind. Try as she might, she is unable to hold in her heart the hate that has made their marriage a bitter wasteland for decades. Harold needs to be there, apparently, for Maureen to be able to keep a good grip on that hatred and she feels the disdain leaking out between her fingers as she tries to hold onto it in his absence.

Taking Harold’s story for granted, as I read it for the second time, I find I am more and maureen 2more intrigued by Maureen. In this essay, I’d like to give a brief account of where she is when Harold leaves to mail a letter at the nearest mailbox. [2] And then I’d like to follow her through one stage after another. But let me tell you right now where she winds up. She is sitting with Harold on a park bench in Northumberland,  right on the border of Scotland. She says, “I love you, Harold Fry. That is what you did.” [3]

The story starts in Kingsbridge in Devon where Harold and Maureen live. The mailman has just delivered a letter. Maureen collects it and slides it part way across the table to Harold. That struck me immediately and I didn’t even know these people at the time. She didn’t hand it to him. She didn’t slide it all the way across the table. Why?

Sitting at the table in the next few moments, she asks Harold to pass her the jam. Harold has been profoundly affected by the letter, which says that his old friend, Queenie Hennessy is dying. He picks up a jar and hands it to her.

“That’s the marmalade, Harold. Marmalade is orange. Jam is red. If you look at things before you pick them up, you’ll find it helps”

It’s a nasty, unnecessarily hurtful thing to say. She regrets it several chapters later when she has had a chance to think about it, but Harold is gone by then.[4] I have chosen that remark as one of two markers for how bad the marriage is. Here is the other.

“Harold? Maureen’s voice took him by surprise. He thought she was upstairs, polishing something, or speaking to David.”

maureen 1That’s what Harold thinks. As readers, we know that is exactly what Maureen has been doing. Their son, David, is dead, but Maureen cleans his room every day, waiting for him to come back. She goes into the room and speaks to him. David’s death was the original issue that pushed Harold and Maureen apart and it has gotten worse over the years. Now only the silence and the hostility are left.

Maureen was once a gardener. Then, in all the tragedy surrounding David’s suicide and in all the blame she heaped on Harold, she stopped. Why? Maybe because it was a pleasure, and she could find no place for pleasure in her disaster-stricken life. Maybe because it wasn’t a pleasure any longer. Maybe because Harold enjoyed her gardening so much. [5]

So things are bad. I think you’ll agree that we have established that. It this point that the development I see as a pilgrimage begins and, like many pilgrimages, its beginning is not auspicious.

Maureen didn’t know which was worse, the numbing shock that came with the first knowledge that Harold was walking to Queenie or the galvanizing fury that replaced it.

Harold is “leaving Maureen” and “walking to Queenie.” It feels like a gross infidelity to Maureen. A reader is not likely to say that her fury has no basis at all. On the other hand, a “galvanizing fury” does something to you. It stimulates you or rouses you or stirs you. In short, it “galvanizes” you. [6] None of those responses is compatible with the frozen disdain in which Maureen has held her husband. The fury is the enemy of the disdain; she cannot have them both. Maureen doesn’t know that and, at this stage, neither does the reader.

Here’s a quick glimpse of Maureen “galvanized.”

She fetched out the Hoover, searching out traces of Harold, a hair, a button, and sucking them into the nozzle. She shot his bedside table, his wardrobe, his bed, with disinfectant spray.

And later.

She would decide to strip the beds only to realize there was no point, since there was no one to witness her slamming down the wash basket, or complaining that she could manage perfectly well without help, thank you.

Maureen goes to see a doctor next. She doesn’t really have a plan. She wants to say that Harold is walking because he believes his walking to Queenie can cure her cancer. She is hoping to build that into a case that Harold is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and needs to be apprehended and brought home. Maureen sees this as a way of “protecting Harold” but we know she isn’t interested in protecting Harold. She is interested in finding a way of protecting her hatred of Harold.

That interview with the doctor didn’t work out very well for Maureen.

In explaining both Harold’s past and his walk, she had been forced to see things for the first time from his point of view. Harold’s project was insane and completely out of character, but it wasn’t Alzheimer’s. There was even a beauty in it, if only because Harold was doing something he believed in for once, and against all the odds.

Harold calls most nights from a pay phone. As a resource for hating Harold, these calls are not as good as his actually being there, but they do reignite her anger. The first call produces this: “Harold, you are sixty-five. You only ever walk to get to the car.”

The second call, this: “I suppose you’ve worked out how much this is all costing.”

The third call ends dramatically. Maureen’s last words are:

“This is your choice, Harold. It’s not mine and it certainly wouldn’t be David’s.” But now Maureen is trapped. Ending on such a blaze of righteousness, she has no alternative but to hang up. She instantly regretted it. She tried to ring him back, only the number wasn’t available. Sometimes she said these things but she didn’t mean them. They had become the fabric of the way she talked.

Maureen 6Maureen relies a great deal on “advice” from David. Author Rachel Joyce, seen here, has made a good choice, I think, to represent this “conversation” as if it were being held between living people.

Some time after dawn, she spoke with David. [7] She confessed the truth about his father walking to a woman from the past, and he listened…So what should I do about Harold, love? What would you do?

He told her exactly what the problem was with his father… He voiced the things she was too afraid to say.

What does that mean? Maureen is not delusional, although she sounds like it in these early passages. Her intimacy with David and her intense loyalty to him are the other side of her distance from and rejection of Harold. Maybe she feels that easing away from David would be disloyal to him. She certainly recognizes that easing away from David moves her in the direction of absolving Harold from [what Maureen maintains is] his complicity in David’s suicide.

You would expect this reliance upon David to change as Maureen moves along on her own pilgrimage and it does. About her phone conversations with Harold, we learn this.

He was so bewildering to her, this man who walked alone and greeted strangers, that in turn she said mildly high-pitched things she regretted about bunions, or the weather. She never said “Harold, I have wronged you.”…She never said, “Is it really too late?” But she thought these things all the time as she listened.

Left alone, she sat in the cold light of the night sky and cried for what felt like hours, as if she and the solitary moon were the only ones who understood. It wasn’t even in her to talk to David.

Her need to use David as a weapon against Harold and her growing admiration for maureen 5Harold’s pilgrimage and her disinclination to seek comfort from “David” all happen at the same time, over the same weeks. Finally, she finds herself pausing in the middle of what was once a routine rehearsal of events with David.

He sends postcards, and occasionally a present. He seems to favor pens. She paused, afraid she had offended David because he wasn’t replying. “I love you,” she said. Her words trickled to nothing and still he did not speak. “I should let you go,” she said at last. [8]

As Maureen’s conversations with Harold change, her feelings about him change and she finds herself acting them out at home, almost against her will.

It was that trip to Slapton Sands [with Rex, the neighbor, to whom she had finally confided the truth about Harold] that had marked her turning point. …Fully dressed, she had toppled onto the bed and closed her eyes. In the middle of the night she had realized where she was with a prickle of panic, followed by relief. It was over. She couldn’t think what exactly it was, other than an unspecific weight of pain. She had pulled back the duvet and curled into Harold’s pillow. It smelled of Pears soap and him. Waking later, she felt the same lightness spreading through her like warm water.

Maureen’s pilgrimage continues and it ends where this essay began. She is sitting with the man who is really, not just legally, her husband when she says. “I love you Harold Fry. That is what you did.” It is tempting to call Maureen’s an “internal pilgrimage” because it contrasts so nicely with Harold’s “external pilgrimage,” but to do that would distort both journeys.

It is the order of changes that distinguishes them. Harold’s changes were all external first. Then they became internal. They became, eventually, who he is. Maureen’s changes were all internal first. Then they became external. They became, eventually, who she is as well as who she and Harold can be.

Of the two, I think I am more moved by Maureen’s courage than Harold’s. Harold had his old reality stripped away from him. Maureen had to let hers go. She saw things she didn’t want to see, as in her account to the doctor of Harold’s Alzheimers, but when she saw them, she refused to deny them. She found a place—it wasn’t Harold, it wasn’t David, it wasn’t Rex—where she could stand and look at who she was and what she had done and she did that.

In a supreme and thoughtful act of love, she refused to come and bring Harold home when, in his despair, he called and asked her to.

Maureen? She was his last chance. “I can’t do it. I was wrong.”

She didn’t hear, or if she heard she wouldn’t allow the gravity of what he was saying. …”Keep walking. It’s only sixteen more miles to Berwick. You can do it, Harold….”

She and Rex had talked it over and over; if he gave up when he was so close to arriving, he would regret it for the rest of his life.”

She turned down the desperate plea of the man she had only recently begun to love again. Being together with Harold again had become almost the most important thing in her life. An earlier Maureen would have jumped at the chance to “rescue him,” but this wise and courageous Maureen refused. She loved him too much for that. She had been on her own road for a long time and that is where she had arrived. I love Maureen.

[1] The Bookies. We embarked on our own pilgrimage in 1983 and have, by this time, developed an intricate process for nominating and choosing books for the next academic year. The relevant part of process for this account is that in August, each person with a nomination makes a little pitch about why it would be a good book for this particular group to read. That is more than saying it is “a good book” or that it is about “an important issue” or that it fills in our reading profile (What, no poetry this year?). The pitch is: this is a book I think we would discuss well; let me tell you why.”
[2] “Postbox.” Sorry. It’s a British story. That means that Harold will spend a lot of time walking on “verges” and being passed by “lorries.”
[3] The word “did” there requires some recognition of what it refers to. Here is the previous statement. “You dear man…You got up and did something…”
[4] When she finally admits to their neighbor, Rex, that Harold has walked away, she has to tell him this: “The Truth is, we don’t talk. Not any more. Not properly. The morning he left, I was nagging him about white bread and the jam, Rex. The jam. It’s no wonder he walked off.”
[5] Even the gardening is restored to her as she begins to open herself to the life she and Harold once had together. “Wearing an old shirt of Harold’s, Maureen planted twenty small shoots and tied them to bamboo stakes without damaging their soft green stems…It was good to feel the soil inside her nails, and to nurture something again.”
[6] I’m just playing. “Stimulate, rouse, and stir” are three of the synonyms my dictionary gives for “galvanize.”
[7] I would have said “spoke to David” because I know that is true. Rachel Joyce is representing Maureen’s sense of what she is doing, which is the right way to write a novel.
[8] Another of the delights of Rachel Joyce’s prose. “I should let you go” is a cliché, even a euphemism for “I want to go now.” But is the most powerful and clear-headed truth about Maureen and David. She should let him go. Yes! That is what she should do.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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