This story is a continuation of Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen'. Lessing's powerful story is about a woman, Susan, who feels trapped in her family life. Susan's dissatisfaction prompts her to travel and to hire a nanny. When those things don't work, she rents a room in which she does, well, nothing but stare into space. When she discovers her husband is having an affair, she goes to room 19 and commits suicide by blowing out the pilot light to the fireplace and turning the gas on high. My story asks the question, 'What if Susan had been rescued instead?'
Winnie Mccloskey sat up in her bed with much protest from her aching bones and studied her roommate, Susan Rawlings. The poor woman had been saved from some sort of accident in her hotel room. She listened carefully to the conversations in the hallway between the nurses and doctors but couldn’t get the full story. All she knew was the accident involved gas and that the hotel was inspecting the meter to make sure it wasn’t malfunctioning. Susan had been very sick when they brought her in a week ago but the blue tint, be it real or imagined, faded and she had begun to recover.
Her darling children came to visit every day after school with their lively nanny, Sophie. Winnie took great joy in sneaking them some hard candies that she kept hidden away in her nightstand. One had to carefully watch hard candies. Everyone loved them, from hard-faced nurses to rosy-cheeked children, and if left in the open the little sugary delights were wont to disappear. Winnie dug one out and held it out to Susan. “Candy, dear?”
Susan didn’t even turn her head to look; just kept staring out the window or rather at the curtains. Winnie frowned and dropped her hand. Susan was much worse off than she first thought. Her old bones knew there was more to Susan’s story, insisted it was no accident. “Too right. We mustn’t spoil our lunch.”
Winnie painfully pushed herself out of bed and stood still until the snapping and popping subsided and her bones settled into place. She hobbled over to the window and drew open the curtains. “There now. Isn’t that better?”
Susan blinked in the sunlight but didn’t otherwise react.
“You know, you might as well talk to me because if you don’t, I’m liable to start answering myself. I’ll either drive you mad with all my jabbering or the peckerwood police will drag me off to the loony bin. Then what will you do? One of us will be in the nut house and the other will be in here all alone.”
Winnie smiled and waved to an aide walking past their door. The woman barely paused long enough to say “Good morning, Ms. Winnie.” The staff were always so busy, dashing here and there. How any person managed to heal in such a place was beyond her. She pressed a hand to her lower back. As soon as her daughter got back from her trip, Winnie would get out of here. She had places to be, things to do. Hard candy to buy.
Winnie sank into a chair near the window. Technically, the chair was meant for Susan’s guests but Winnie had been here long enough to appropriate it as her reading chair. Her daughter was on a very long trip. She picked up an old textbook full of poetry. She hated poetry but beggars couldn’t be choosy.
She read aloud a poem by a young man named Rupert Brooke. The Solider it was called. She smiled at his sweet words about laughter and the beauty of nature. “If that ain’t worth living for, then I don’t know what is. Isn’t that just great? ‘…laughter learnt of friends.’” She sighed into the long silence that followed. “You know, I’ve learned more these past weeks than I did in all of my schooling. Amazing what a little reading can do for a person. Did you know that this sweet boy died just a year later? Tis a shame.”
Susan shifted in her bed. Progress. Winnie’s goal for today was to get her to eat. The pitiful thing was wasting away.
“This book says that Brooke saw the start of World War One. Hard times those were.” She flipped through the pages of the book. “There’s a lot of poetry about it.”
A kindly nurse had leant her the old textbook from her English class. Winnie didn’t much care for the heavy reading, but there had been nothing better to do before Susan showed up. “I never got to go beyond high school. My folks couldn’t afford it. I ended up with a passel of kids instead.”
Susan looked at Winnie for the first time. “I went to school,” she whispered.
“Well! Blow me over with a feather! How about that.” Winnie hummed a tuneless song and flipped through the book some more. She didn’t want to push Susan too hard. She’d open up when she was ready.
Winnie came across a poem titled “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and read it to herself. Did she dare? ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ was all well and good but it was too much; maybe later. She hunted through the book for some spark and found an older poem called “The Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti and read it aloud instead.
“You know what I like about that one?” Winnie didn’t wait for the answer that was unlikely to come. “Laura was fixin’ to die but her sister saved her. Sometimes only another woman can help.”
Susan’s eyes flickered. “Saved her from what? Sickness?”
“Naw, from men, of course.” Winnie snickered. “Don’t you think her idea of men is just right? Goblins. Ha!”
A shadow crossed over Susan’s face. There it was. Man trouble. Maybe Susan’s goblin was more of a demon. And where was that demon anyway? Not coming in to visit with the children, that’s for sure. If he ever showed up, she wouldn’t offer him a piece of candy.
“You know, we are so lucky to live nowadays. Back when that goblin poem was written, according to this here book, women and children had no rights. They worked and died and weren’t too happy about it. Took a lot of people fightin’ hard to change things. We’re resting on their shoulders.” Winnie put the book aside. “It’s good to remember how good we have it.”
Susan seemed to shrink. Winnie had said the wrong thing. She smoothed her hair down and thought for a moment. Susan didn’t talk much--that was most likely half her problem. “But on second thought, just because we have all the freedoms and rights in the world doesn’t mean we don’t have to fight… doesn’t mean that life isn’t hard and that we don’t have pain.”
“You know, I heard someone say once that we’re all working to find where we truly belong.” Winnie stretched with a groan. “Heh. Looks like I’m right where I should be. Besides, you and I are quite the pair. I have all the physical pain and you have all the heartache.”
Susan clenched her fists. Tears glistened in her eyes before she turned her face away. Winnie wished she’d scream or do something. Anything.
Winnie stood shakily. “Mine can’t be fixed. I’m old and that’s my lot. But you? Well now, that’s a little different.” She walked toward her bed. Lunch would be coming soon and she wanted to have her little table ready.
“I am empty.” Susan didn’t face her. “I have everything and yet it means nothing. People think they want to have what I do, that I’m lucky. Beautiful children, successful husband, great house, housekeeper. But I’m not lucky.” Her voice was flat. “I was lost and when I found myself again it was too late. I had no choice. I’m trapped.” She finally met Winnie’s eyes. “A golden cage is still a cage.”
Winnie froze. She didn’t expect the dam to break so soon. “And who holds the key to your cage?”
Susan struggled to sit up a little. The nurse knocked on their door, brought in their lunch trays, and bustled back out with nary a word. Winnie shook her head but called out a ‘thank you’ at the nurse’s back nonetheless. She’d need to do the real nursing around here, but she already knew that.
“The real question we all face is ‘who am I? How can I make myself happy?’ Some of us never have the push we need to wake up enough to even ask that question.” Winnie rested a hand on her hip. “We don’t have to fight for our rights like the women back in the day did, but we still have to figure out what it means to be a woman and what it will take for us to be free enough to be happy.” Winnie studied Susan to see if her words were getting through. “I don’t know what trouble brought you here, but this is your chance to break that cage wide open.”
Susan eyed the tray and reached out her hand to push around the sandwich with her thin finger. Winnie hid a small smile. She got a candy out of her drawer and passed it to Susan. “For dessert.”
Susan took the hard candy and without protest popped it into her mouth.
So it starts.