A heartbreaking and deeply compelling debut, Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase is a compulsive page-turner about thwarted love, dashed hopes, and family secrets—book-club fiction at its best.
Roberta, a lonely thirty-four-year-old bibliophile, works at The Old and New Bookshop in England. When she finds a letter inside her centenarian grandmother’s battered old suitcase that hints at a dark secret, her understanding of her family’s history is completely upturned. Running alongside Roberta’s narrative is that of her grandmother, Dorothy, as a forty-year-old childless woman desperate for motherhood during the early years of World War II. After a chance encounter with a Polish war pilot, Dorothy believes she’s finally found happiness, but must instead make an unthinkable decision whose consequences forever change the framework of her family.
The parallel stories of Roberta and Dorothy unravel over the course of eighty years as they both make their own ways through secrets, lies, sacrifices, and love. Utterly absorbing, Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase is a spellbinding tale of two worlds, one shattered by secrets and the other by the truth.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
8 February 1941
My dear Dorothea,
In wartime, people become desperate. We step outside
ourselves. The truth is, I love you and I am sorry that only now
do I own it. You love me. I will not forget the touch of your hand
on my head and on my neck when you thought I slept. The touch
of love, no longer imagined. Nobody will touch me like that
again. This I know. This is my loss.
Forgive me, Dorothea, for I cannot forgive you. What you do,
to this child, to this child’s mother, it is wrong. It is misplaced,
like me, forced out of my homeland, perhaps never to return.
You too will never return if you persist in this scheme. You will
persist. Yet even now it can be undone. But I know you will not
undo. Your soul will not return from this that you do. Please
believe me. In welcoming the one into your arms, you must lose
another. I cannot withstand. You know why.
I do not enjoy writing these words to you. Actually, I cry.
Once this war is finished—and it must finish—
we could have made a life together. To spend my life with you has become my
only great dream and desire. After our first meeting, as I rode
away on my bicycle, I knew you were as important to me as
water. I knew you were for all time, even as there is no time. I
thought of marriage within minutes of meeting you. But it
cannot be. You are an honorable woman, but this thing that
you do is beyond honor. You do so much to be good, yet you go
back on yourself, you invite dishonor. I cannot write clearly, but
you will understand. My truly beautiful Dorothea, despite
everything, our friendship must here end. I wish you all joy of
(I found this letter in a 1910 edition of The Infant’s Progress: From the Valley
of Destruction to Everlasting Glory. I placed the book on Philip’s desk for
pricing, and it went into the antiquarian books cabinet, priced at a modest £15.)
I clean books. I dust their spines, their pages, sometimes one at a time; painstaking, throat-catching work. I find things hidden in books: dried flowers, locks of hair, tickets, labels, receipts, invoices, photographs, postcards, all manner of cards. I find letters, unpublished works by the ordinary, the anguished, the illiterate. Clumsily written or eloquent, they are love letters, everyday letters, secret letters and mundane letters talking about fruit and babies and tennis matches, from people signing themselves as Marjorie or Jean. My boss, Philip, long used to such finds, is blasé and whatever he finds, he places aside for me to look at. You can’t keep everything, he reminds me. And, of course, he is right. But I can’t bring myself to dispose of these snippets and snapshots of lives that once meant (or still do mean) so much.
I walked into the Old and New Bookshop as a customer eleven years ago, and returned the following day as its first employee. Quietly impetuous, owner-manager Philip asked me to work with him. He appreciated my way of loving books and my ability to get on with others. He claimed he found people ‘difficult’.
‘They’re generally pretty rotten, aren’t they?’ he said, and
I half agreed.
He also once declared, ‘Books tell many stories besides those printed on the pages.’
Did I know that? I did. Books smell, they creak, they talk. You hold in your hand now a living, breathing, whispering thing, a book.
Philip told me, on the day I started work in his bookshop,
‘Study books, smell them, hear them. You will be rewarded.’
I tidy shelves. I make sure they are not too tightly packed. I take stock each year, in May, with the blossom trees discarding their petals, the sun shining through the French windows in the large room at the back of the shop, where we keep the second-hand non-fiction and hardback fiction, the sun’s vernal warmth thrown over my back like a huge comforting arm and the swallows swooping over the garden, shrieking and feasting on flies. I make coffee in the mornings, tea in the afternoons. I help interview new staff: eighteen-year-old gap year student Sophie, who is still with us, enjoying a gap of indeterminate length; and more recently Jenna, who became Philip’s lover within two weeks of starting her job. Jenna was never exactly interviewed. Like me, she walked into the Old and New as a customer; like me, she was engaged in conversation, and offered a job.
There is nobody more passionate about books, the printed word, than my boss, Philip Old. He is driven by his love of books, of the book for its own sake, its smell, feel, age, its provenance. His shop is large, with high ceilings, tip-tappy flagstone floors and a warren of rooms—six in total, plus storage on the first floor. All is spacious and light. We sell new books, old books, antiquarian books, children’s books, shelf upon shelf upon shelf of books, lining the numerous walls of this large, luminous cathedral. The building is set back from the busy Market Square, with a neat, pretty garden, lavender and rosemary bordering the stone path that leads to the large oak door at the front of the shop. In the summer we have strings of bunting along the wrought-iron fence, kindly made for us by a customer, and a small hand-painted sign that reads:
The Old and New Bookshop
Open today from 9 until 5
You are warmly invited to browse
As a business, the Old and New cannot be making a profit. We have a band of loyal customers, of course—such establishments always do—but a small band. So there must be money somewhere, keeping this business afloat, kitting out Philip’s flat on the second floor so tastefully. I have not enquired. Philip never talks about money, as he never talks about his private life.
I have had my share of romance, if I can call it that. At least, offers of romance. One young man, younger than me, part of the regular geeky Saturday afternoon crowd (and seemingly living in a world at least a decade behind everybody else—he always wears a black and purple shell suit) has proffered me his fax number on more than one occasion. Another, recently (red-faced, not entirely unattractive) told me I was the ‘best-looking’ woman he had seen ‘in months’. Patently untrue, and the genuinely beautiful Jenna nearby, pretending to tidy shelves, giggling. I threw her a look. She threw it back. And a year ago, a head teacher at a local primary school (our town has three), a regular customer with a habit of putting all and sundry on the school account. Hovering after I had served him, after I had handed him his stylish Old and New paper carrier bag, lingering. Clearing his throat, asking me out for dinner on Thursday night, if I could make it. If I was available. He had a charming smile, and thick black hair I suspected was dyed.
My father brought in some books this morning, old books belonging to my babunia; my grandmother. She has been in a care home for two years now, but it’s taken us a long time to sort through her belongings. There aren’t even that many things. Babunia, thank goodness, is not a great hoarder. But my father cannot work quickly these days. I have already been through her books, of course, keeping back a few for myself that I recall from my childhood. When she agreed to live in the home, she said I must keep whatever of hers I wanted. She had no use for reading now, she said, no use for sewing. It was an inexpressibly sad moment. Yet there was no option for any of us. Dad just could not take care of her any more. I offered to cut my hours at the Old and New, but neither of them would hear of it.
I saw my father wandering along the path and I waved, but he didn’t spot me. I ran to the heavy front door and pulled it open for him.
He explained he had around twenty books. He had packed them into a battered old suitcase.
‘This was hers too,’ said Dad. ‘Keep it if you like, Roberta.’ I would keep it. I love old suitcases. And already I could think of a use for it.
‘How are you feeling today?’ I asked, searching his face for clues.
He had been, for some time, habitually pale, a ghastly creamy-grey colour. But he never let on how he was feeling. So he shrugged, his catch-all gesture, meaning, ‘Well . . . you know.’ He had been in remission a few weeks ago. Now, he wasn’t. Quite a sudden change this time, and frightening for both of us.
Philip came through from his office and shook my father’s hand. They had met before—twice—and both had confided in me that they found the other to be a ‘gentleman’. Philip insisted on paying my father for the books; my father wanted to give them to him. In the end, Dad accepted twenty quid, a compromise sum. He stayed for a cup of tea, sitting out in the back garden in the pale spring sunshine. Then he shuffled away, his bold, rangy walk vanquished. I tried not to notice.
I emptied the suitcase. There was a tatty old label on the inside that read ‘Mrs D. Sinclair’. Idly, as I sorted and cleaned the books, I wondered who she was. Dad said this was Babunia’s suitcase, but it must have belonged to this Mrs Sinclair first. My grandmother has always had a thrifty, make-do-and-mend mentality, happy to utilise the secondhand, the new-to-you. Dad says she learned the habit during and after the war, ‘because everyone did’. It wasn’t just a fashionable notion in those days.
I cleaned the dust from The Infant’s Progress: From the Valley of Destruction to Everlasting Glory (a book I didn’t recall ever seeing in my grandmother’s house) and two neatly folded sheets of paper fluttered out. A letter! There was no envelope, always a pity. I unfolded the sheets. The letter, addressed to Dorothea, my grandmother, was written in anaemic blue ink, the writing small and neat; the paper was an even paler blue, brittle and dry as a long-dead insect’s wing, yellowing around the edges, with little holes creeping along the fold. Of course, I wondered if I should read it. But my curiosity got the better of me. I couldn’t not.
I have since read this letter again and again, and I still can’t make sense of it. At first I experienced the strange sensation of needing to sit down. So I did, on the squeaky footstool, and my hand trembled as I read slowly, trying to take in every word.
Dorothea Pietrykowski is my grandmother. Jan Pietrykowski was my grandfather, never known to me, never even known to my father. These are incontrovertible facts.
But this letter makes no sense.
Firstly, my grandparents were happily, if briefly, married, but in this letter he seems to declare that he cannot marry her. Secondly, it is dated 1941. Polish Squadron Leader Jan Pietrykowski, my grandfather, died defending London in the Blitz, in November 1940.
Dorothy Sinclair sweated in her wash house, where the air was clammy with steam. Moisture clung to her face as she wiped her forehead repeatedly with the back of her hand. Her headscarf had long ago slipped off and she hadn’t bothered stopping her work to re-knot it, so her hair stuck to her face like the predatory tentacles of some lurking, living creature. It was important to keep busy on this day.
The copper in the dark, far corner hissed and bubbled like a cauldron, boiling Aggie and Nina’s clothes. Their uniforms, on a meagre ration, were muddied and stained almost daily. But Dorothy knew that presenting her girls with a pile of clean, starched and ironed laundry once a week was the least she could do. And despite the discomforts, she loved the work, in her own way. Washing frocks, stockings, undies, cardigans, the girls’ breeches and shirts and knickers, and all the laundry from up at the house, was more than just a household chore: it was now her living. Scrubbing, dipping, sweating, stirring, all of these had a rhythm of their own and gave meaning to her day. Turning the mangle over and over, as she did now, wringing the life out of clothes and sheets and tablecloths. And the ultimate pleasure, Dorothy’s favourite part of the day: pegging the clothes and linens out on the lines, and watching the sheets and cloths and pillowcases billowing and flapping like triumphant angel wings.
It was important to keep busy on this day. On . . . this . . . day.
She mustn’t think. About anything. Since that day, she had become adept at not thinking. Oftentimes now she thought in images. Language was partisan, ambiguous. She no longer trusted words. Yet she could not turn her back on them completely. She liked to write, so she tried to write. She wrote furtively, alone, in her notebook. She could not draw, so it had to be words. She hoped she was fashioning her ramblings into something like poetry. But it was hard to make sense, hard to sound pleasing.
She looked up from her laundry. She listened, and stared at the open door through which so little steam seemed to escape. Something was wrong. Since losing . . . since Sidney . . . she had developed a sixth sense, almost akin to smell. She ‘sniffed’ the air now. Letting Nina’s breeches hang loose and bedraggled either side of the mangle, she wiped her hands on her pinny and went to the door of her wash house. She looked up, but was dazzled by the sun, by the rows of white sheets and pillowcases and glittering tablecloths. She squinted up into the innocent blue sky. Small clouds sprinted across it, forgetful children racing home for tea.
Then she heard a drone, a low hum mixed with splutters and growls, like those of a threatened dog. Almost immediately she saw it, a Hurricane, weaving through the air. Surely descending too fast? She had never seen one coming in to land this quickly. Her heart began to thump, the blood thickened in her head, a tightness grabbed her around the throat. Was the pilot playing a game? Dorothy stared. No. This was not a game. The pilot was in trouble, and he was not the only one.
‘Please no,’ she said aloud, as she ran along the red-brick path. Hens scattered before her, cross and fussing and stupidly unaware of the new catastrophe looming above them. Dorothy reached her back gate, opened it and stepped out into the Long Acre, a field she liked to imagine was as immense as an Arabian desert. She had feared something like this would happen. She had seen the pilots, such young men and so reckless, looping the loop, showing off. It was only a matter of time, she always thought, and now that time had surely arrived.Why didn’t he bail out?The stricken Hurricane lurched towards her, listing wildly, like a broken pendulum. Dorothy looked back at her cottage in horror. She turned once more to the Hurricane and, with relief, she saw it veer away from her and her home, heading instead for the emptiness of the huge field. She walked mesmerised through the swaying ears of barley, scratchy-soft and clinging to her bare legs. It was a sensation she loved, usually, and felt herself in tune with.
The aeroplane was close now, close to its inevitable, barely controlled landing, close to the earth and to her and the swaying barley. It swooped over her head like a giant bird, its shadow providing her with momentary relief from the sun.
It was Aggie calling, from a long way away, Dorothy thought. She saw two fawn shirts quivering far across the Long Acre. The girls were running. Dorothy ignored Aggie’s shrill calls.
It was good. It was fitting, one year to the day since Sidney. Her poor lost Sidney. She should join him, really she should, and she could, and for a moment she marvelled that she had not thought of this before. She waded through the barley, determined. She marched towards the Hurricane as it gave itself up to the earth. A noise like thunder, a billow of choking black smoke, a sickening thud and the sound of all things smashing.
‘Dorothy? Pass the teacup to Mrs Lane, please. Dorothy, pass this one to Mrs Hubbard. And Dorothy? Hand round the plate of Genoa cake. Dorothy, do stand up straight. Goodness gracious, child.’
Dorothy hated the feel of her new white frock, stiffly starched and rubbing at her neck. Her mother, Mrs Ruth Honour, looked at her with her usual mixture of pride and disgust while Dorothy dutifully did as she was told and handed round the cake. Mrs Lane and Mrs Hubbard smiled kindly at her but Dorothy refused to look at them, knowing she would meet pity in their eyes. Pity she did not want, ever. She wondered, why did they pity her? It must have something to do with Mummy. Or, most probably, the death of her father. Mourning was over now, and mother and daughter were no longer in black. But Mummy was supposed to be lonely, wasn’t she?
Dorothy stood still, watching her mother and her mother’s gossiping friends nibble at their cake and sip their tea. The day was hot and her frock so uncomfortable; she longed to be outside, at the far end of the garden, under the gnarled apple tree, barefoot in the grass, singing songs to herself or writing in her head her great poetry, and dreaming about the past, the present and the future. In her imagination she had six siblings named Alice, Sarah, Peter, Gilbert, Henry and Victoria. She knew her brothers and sisters would be waiting for her now, in the cool grass, sitting in the tree, idly talking, teasing each other.
Watching the cake disappear into the garrulous mouths of the three women, Dorothy began to sway. Her throat tightened, her heart raced. She became aware of falling, falling, letting go and landing with a thud on the tea tray, rosebud cups and saucers smashing, tea spilling all over her new, stiff, white frock and all over the rug.
‘Dorothy? Dorothy? Oh, you clumsy girl!’
She felt something hot and sharp hit her in her stomach. Something else, hot and soft and wet, slapped her face. All around was choking smoke, black and thunderous.
‘Dorothy! Get back!’ Aggie’s voice was closer now. Dorothy saw the girls floating on the other side of the burning wreckage, bright beacons in treacherous fog. ‘I want to join him,’ said Dorothy, but nobody heard her. She rubbed her neck. The new, white frock was too stiff, too rough.
Her mother stared at her.
Dorothy swayed. She fell, slowly, her white frock splattered with blood, her head spinning in a vortex of shame, and the sea of barley cushioning her fall.
It would always be said that Dorothy Sinclair was a heroine, trying to rescue the young Hurricane pilot who came down to meet his death in the Long Acre field on that hot afternoon in late May, 1940. A brave and courageous woman, never sparing a thought for her own safety. A woman to be held up as an example to others, the kind of woman Britain needed in those bleak and fearful times.
Dorothy knew better.
Still, she let people believe it of her, as it did no harm. Mrs Compton came to visit her later that afternoon, after Dr Soames had been and dressed Dorothy’s wounds, which were sore but superficial: a cut across her stomach, and burns to her face. Fainting and falling down into the barley had doubtlessly saved her from worse injuries. She was a plucky lady, the doctor pronounced.
Mrs Compton had the unnerving ability to make Dorothy feel ashamed of herself. Did she somehow know? Dorothy thought that she might. Mrs Compton was a witch, Dorothy understood. She smiled weakly at the older woman and noticed a fine white hair protruding from a mole on her left cheek. Or thought she noticed. Perhaps there wasn’t even a mole? It was difficult for Dorothy to see people clearly, to see solidity, reality.
‘I don’t know,’ said Mrs Compton, ‘what a state to get in!’
‘I just thought . . .’
‘I know, love. I know. Such a shame.’
‘They’ve been cleaning up out there all afternoon.’ Dorothy indicated Long Acre and its swaying barley with a nod of her head.
‘They’re nearly finished now, though, I think. Don’t you worry about it. You did what you could. You did more than you should, perhaps.’
‘It was nothing.’
They sat in silence, sipping tea. The clock ticked on the range mantelpiece. Distant male voices drifted in through the open window, the voices of men clearing up the flesh and metal in Long Acre. Had Mrs Compton remembered the part she played in the drama of a year ago? Was she aware of this saddest of anniversaries? Dorothy suspected not. Even more reason to distrust the woman. Even more reason to imagine her supine, with her head on a bloodied block, her ugly face contorted in fear, pleading for her life as Dorothy raised a huge axe, told her to—
‘He was Polish,’ said Mrs Compton.
‘I heard they had arrived. A couple of weeks ago, wasn’t it?’
‘It was. They do say the Poles hate the Nazis more than we do.’ Mrs Compton finished her tea with a small slurp. She put the cup and saucer on the table carefully and, folding her hands in her lap, she gazed at Dorothy. Dorothy shifted her own gaze to the window, watching male heads bob up and down, the hawthorn hedge obscuring their bodies. Dorothy thought about the Polish pilot, dead, burned and disembodied. Part of him had hit her in the face. She touched her cheek, and felt the dressing. She must look frightful.
‘And how are you keeping, nowadays?’ asked Mrs Compton, leaning forward.
‘I’m well,’ said Dorothy, standing to look out of the kitchen window, watching a hen scratch at the earth and pluck a worm from it. Dorothy, rational, contemplated the worm’s futile struggle.
‘Good. That’s good.’
Mrs Compton sounded doubtful. She glanced at the clock. She must go, she said. A young woman down at the next village was expecting her first baby and had been labouring since half past four that morning. Mrs Compton’s services may be needed by now.
Dorothy stared at her.
Mrs Compton backed away to the door, turned and lifted the latch. She turned back to Dorothy, who remained motionless, her back to the window.
‘I’m sorry, Dorothy. I should have remembered. It takes time, you know. It was around this time last year, wasn’t it? If I remember rightly? Anytime you need to talk about it, I’ll be happy to listen. You don’t have to ignore it. I know we soldier on with life, but things can haunt us, Dorothy.’
Mrs Compton left then, closing the door, and Dorothy stared after her.
How dare that woman!
She picked up the teacup Mrs Compton had drained so unceremoniously and threw it at the door, hard and fast, before she even knew what she was doing, so that the noise of it shattering surprised her. In pain where the hot metal had ripped through her skin, she swept up the mess.
Alice, Sarah, Peter, Gilbert, Henry and Victoria lived and moved and breathed in Dorothy’s lonesome imaginings. The trouble was, she never really knew where she, Dorothy, belonged in this family of girls with flowing fair hair, strong sturdy boys playing with catapults and hoops, all six children with bright blue eyes and long lashes. They were blessed, she fantasised, with perfectly perfect childhoods. Was she the eldest sister? Austere, serious, strong, bossy? Or was she somewhere in the middle, forgotten, ignored and unimportant? Perhaps she was the baby, the odd one out among the girls with her long straggling brown hair, her green eyes. A cherub with thick little legs. Oh no, that would never do. Little Victoria was the youngest —she was the angel, with pink cheeks and fair curls and big blue eyes. Perhaps Dorothy was the second youngest? She was allowed to play with Victoria’s dolls, and the tiny black perambulator. Yes, that was where she fitted, with two big sisters to hug her when she fell, to pick her up and dust her down. Her brothers were of indeterminate age, but all were tall and raucous. They took no notice of Dorothy.
The first male who did take notice of her—many years after her imaginary brothers and sisters had slipped off the slope of her longing—married her. It was a short courtship; her disapproving mother had proclaimed, ‘If you marry that . . . man . . . I shall never speak to you again.’
Dorothy met him at a funeral in 1934. Her Aunt Jane, an impressive eighty-two, had died during the summer. Dorothy had rarely met Aunt Jane, and not at all since childhood, knowing her only as her mother’s rebellious elder sister who had married beneath her and moved away from home, in Oxford, to the distant north which was Lincolnshire. Dorothy’s mother, on receiving the news of her sister’s death, had puckered her lips and frowned.
‘We must visit that fearful county. Please be sure to pack my fur, Dorothy. I do not intend catching my death in a Lincolnshire churchyard, for the sake of my sister or anybody else.’
‘Mother, it is August, and it is quite warm. Even in Lincolnshire.’
Of course, Dorothy did pack the fur—along with many other items—and together they travelled by train, Dorothy gazing out of the window for much of the journey, trying to ignore her mother’s constant demands. The fields were golden, this glowing August, and she saw men working in them; she saw tractors and wagons and horses and harvesting. It looked like an enviable life, out in the open air, working on the land, in golden fields, in golden sun, with golden skin.
When she met Albert Sinclair, handsome and bucolic, and he told her all about his life on the farm, she was an attentive listener. Why was he at the funeral?
‘My sister was Miss Jane’s charlady, and I did odd jobs for her, cleaning the gutters or raking leaves. Very nice lady, was Miss Jane. A gentlewoman. Not liked by her family, they say. But goodness knows why, because you couldn’t hope to find a nicer person.’
‘“Her family” was my mother and I.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t—’
‘Don’t be sorry. My mother did disown her. She disowns everybody sooner or later.’
Two weeks later, back in Oxford, Ruth disowned her only daughter upon hearing that she was intending to marry this Albert—‘Bert?’—Sinclair. Dorothy was glad. And if it meant she would end up just like her Aunt Jane—that is to say, forsaken and forgotten— she was even gladder. She left Oxford by train, alone this time, with a carpet bag of ‘belongings’ and her mother’s final admonitions ringing in her ears: ‘You will regret this! It will come to nothing! He’s not good enough for you!’ In this way, Dorothy burst free of her extended and regretful childhood.
Dorothy remained a virgin until her wedding night, on 12th November 1934. It was her thirty-fourth birthday. Albert, still very much a stranger to her, tried to be gentle and kind, but he was so very eager, and so virile, that he did hurt her a little. Dorothy tried not to show it, but he knew, because he wasn’t entirely stupid. He apologised. She accepted his apology. It got better, of course. He was a big man, strong and muscular and leathery-skinned, and Dorothy grew to love the feel of his arms around her, his warmth and strength. Pregnancy followed within four months of their wedding, but it was doomed to early failure.
Then another, and yet another.
Eventually, after nearly four years of marriage and five miscarriages, Dorothy gave up, her longing for a child replaced by impossible, unbearable dreams and a sad resignation. She became a farmhand’s wife, adept at baking and washing and sewing and tending a small vegetable patch, looking after a small brood of hens. She heard nothing from her mother, and after a few stilted letters in which Dorothy talked of her husband, her new life, her pregnancies, she gave up on the relationship. It may as well have been her mother, and not Aunt Jane, lying dead in the ground in Lodderston churchyard.
In August 1938, Dorothy fell pregnant for the sixth time, and it was at this point that she began to write poetry ‘properly’. Falteringly, at first, unsure of how to put down any words that could mean something. But she tried, and she wrote, alone during the day, while eating her dinner or sipping her afternoon tea. She hid her notebook behind the pots and pans, at the back of the cabinet. She hid it in the table drawer, or under the bed. She hid it in places where Albert would not find it.
This pregnancy lasted beyond the first two months. She felt sick, and was sick, indiscriminately, at any time of day. Her breasts were sore and she burst into tears without warning. Mrs Compton, layer-out of corpses and local midwife, visited when Dorothy was four months pregnant, and looked quizzically at her burgeoning belly.
‘Is it a boy, do you think?’ she asked.
‘I have no idea,’ said Dorothy. Already, the woman was insufferable.
‘And how are you feeling?’
‘Better, thank you. Now that I’m not vomiting any more.’ Mrs Compton nodded in what she must have imagined to be a sage manner. Dorothy looked away from the older woman. She hated her. She could not stand the gaze that seemed to mock even while it cared. Mrs Compton, somewhere in her late fifties, perhaps sixty, had given birth to six children of her own, five of whom had made it to adulthood. Her eldest grown son had died in the Great War. Her three daughters, fat and fecund, and her younger son all lived in the village, had all married other villagers, and all of them contributed at regular intervals to Mrs Compton’s growing army of grandchildren.
Dorothy did, in fact, think her baby might be a boy. She had a name for him already: Sidney. But she did not share this with Mrs Compton. Albert—hard-working and, by now, hard-drinking, losing his looks—had already said she could call the child anything she liked so long as it wasn’t ‘daft’. Sidney he approved of. Sidney it was to be. Albert was relieved that his wife was to bear him a child at last. Men on the farm, in the village, in the pub, had made barbed remarks about his childless marriage. He couldn’t be doing it right. Did he know where to put it? The taunts had got under his skin, and made him turn against his wife; a hard face, a solid back, a shrug, a look of scorn. But at last Albert was proud of his wife’s round, hard belly, her wide smile. To him she became beautiful; she became the wife he wanted her to be.
When she was five months pregnant, Dorothy caught the bus into Lincoln to buy things for the baby, feeling like a prodigal daughter returning home. She bought a suitcase, for storing all the things she was planning to sew and knit. The suitcase was compact, eighteen inches wide, eight inches deep, a mere thirteen inches from front to back. It was a rusty brown colour, with a dark brown Bakelite handle, two small catches and a toy-like key. Inside, the suitcase was lined with paper in a pale tartan print, and there was a small gummed label upon which she could write her name, so she wrote
Mrs D. Sinclair
in her large, looping hand. She licked the label and stuck it to the inside of the suitcase.
While in town she also bought fabric and wool, and refreshed her stocks of threads and needles. Now was the time to make. The talk of impending war was, to her, as insubstantial as the first wash a watercolour artist applies to the naked canvas. War was obscure, it was obscured, and perhaps it was happening a long way off, and perhaps it was not even happening at all. She was pregnant, she no longer felt sick, and she had her energy back. This was all she knew. The baby would need cardigans, gowns, jackets, bootees, blankets, shawls. The baby would need a happy glowing mother, a capable and creative and provident mother.
The suitcase slid perfectly under the bed, and Dorothy set to work on filling it straight away. Within a few delirious weeks she had made two gowns in a soft cotton lawn, three knitted matinee jackets with hats and bootees to match, a knitted blanket in soft pale lamb’s wool, and a white christening robe. She showed nobody the fruits of her labours, not even Albert, who was aware of her industriously clicking knitting needles, her frowns and sighs and occasional exasperations, her satisfied smiles when the work was going well. She sewed and knitted in near silence each evening by the light of the oil lamp, while he read the newspaper and told her about the war that he said was certainly coming. She barely listened, so involved was she in the approaching birth, the motherhood that was within her grasp at last. Each stitch brought her closer to that moment, that new and mysterious state of being. Each stitch confirmed the reality of the baby in her womb. Each stitch brought her closer to the day when she would leave behind, at last and forever, irrevocably, her girlhood. Every hope she had ever had was invested in each click of the needles, in each pinprick to her fingers. The mother-to-be was satiated with life and vigour.
Upon completion, each garment was laundered and, if necessary, starched and pressed. One by one, she laid her handmade treasures in the suitcase, with great care, as though each item were the baby himself. She retrieved her notebook from the cabinet in the kitchen, and hit it under the baby clothes at the bottom of the suitcase. This was her new hiding place, her domain—secret, private, inviolable. She sprinkled in dried lavender she had saved from her garden, ostensibly to keep the moths from feasting on the wool, but really because she loved the no-nonsense, vinegary-sweet scent of lavender, the safest scent in the world. By the time she was ready to give birth, the layette was complete, and generosity had entered her marriage. Albert saved for and bought a perambulator, huge and black. He fashioned a crib, working in his shed after his long days on the farm. He insisted his wife put her feet up in the evenings and he brought her tea, which he prepared himself.
And the suitcase sat under the bed, waiting to be emptied of its treasures, waiting for its lid to be thrown open and its contents grasped by eager, trembling hands. If she reached out, she could touch it, this dream which was no longer a dream. This time, it was solid and large and inexhaustible. If any apprehension entered her heart, Dorothy could not recall it afterwards. She could only remember the anticipation, the exasperating, cloying, heavy desire for the mystery of motherhood to begin.
For surely now it would begin.
What People are Saying About This
A riveting debut with an impeccably researched past and charismatic present-day voices. Mrs. Sinclair's Suitcase is like opening a literary treasure chest, full of sharp-edged gems glittering with all the beauty and heartache of humanity. You're sure to carry this story with you wherever you go. I know I will. --Sarah McCoy, author of the New York Times and international bestseller The Baker's Daughter and The Mapmaker's Children
A moving reminder that history is not just a pageant of world-shaking events, but a weave of individual lives that are often as inspiring as they are tragic. --David R. Gillham, author of the New York Timesbestseller City of Women
“A riveting debut with an impeccably researched past and charismatic present-day voices. Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase is like opening a literary treasure chest, full of sharp-edged gems glittering with all the beauty and heartache of humanity. You’re sure to carry this story with you wherever you go. I know I will.” —Sarah McCoy, author of the New York Times and international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter and The Mapmaker’s Children
“A moving reminder that history is not just a pageant of world-shaking events, but a weave of individual lives that are often as inspiring as they are tragic.” —David R. Gillham, author of the New York Times–bestseller City of Women
“Vivid and seductive, the tale begins in a blazing crash in World War II and twists through a tangle of mysterious circumstances, misunderstandings, and repressed desires. Irresistible . . .” —Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, authors of the national bestseller Freud’s Mistress
“Walters creates a totally absorbing world, and takes you right into the heart of her story. Beautifully done, and heartbreaking, too.” —Esther Freud, author of The Sea House and Hideous Kinky
“A heartbreaking tale of loss, missed chances, and enduring love.” —Good Housekeeping (UK)
“A first novel of great charm and assurance, beautifully told and utterly gripping.” —The Times (UK)
Vivid and seductive, the tale begins in a blazing crash in World War II and twists through a tangle of mysterious circumstances, misunderstandings, and repressed desires. Irresistible... --Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, authors of the national bestseller Freud's Mistress
Reading Group Guide
Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters
1. Motherhood is an important theme in the book. Do you identify with any of the attitudes toward mothering? Which counter your beliefs?
2. Consider Dorothy’s decision to become the mother of Nina’s baby. Do you think she does the right thing? Why or why not? Does she “adopt” or does she “steal” the baby? Why is Jan so opposed to what Dorothy does with baby John?
3. Did Anna’s desertion of Roberta have a big impact on Roberta’s life? How might have it affected Roberta’s choices and attitudes?
4. Dorothy has a difficult time with Mrs. Compton over the years. Ultimately, do you think Mrs. Compton is a good person? Why or why not?
5. Dorothy is rightfully devastated by her miscarriages. In what ways, years later, is she still affected by losing her pregnancies?
6. Roberta is described as spiky, cold, distant, and lonely. Do you agree with this characterization? Do you find her likable? Why does she choose to live such a solitary life? Will she find long-term happiness with Philip?
7. Consider Dorothy’s relationship with Nina and Aggie. How important are they to her? In what ways does Dorothy “mother them,” as Jan claims?
8. Should Roberta have been more honest with her grandmother about her son’s death and with her family about their heritage?
9. Does Dorothy love Jan as much as she thinks she does? Is she fair to him? Is she fair to Albert?
10. Does John’s adoption have a positive outcome for Dorothy? What about for John and Roberta?
11. Dorothy tells Roberta that she thought she once saw Jan many years after the war. Do you think she did see him?
12. How do the setting and time period play important roles in Dorothy’s story? Could this have been the same narrative if set in a different era?