Silver spoons, a stuffed stoat and The Other Mrs Walker
11 March 2016
By The Window Seat
Mary Paulson-Ellis introduces us to a few of the objects central to her mysterious and compelling debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker.
My debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker opens with an old lady dead in an empty Edinburgh flat, nothing left behind but a few odd objects – a photograph, an emerald dress, a Brazil nut with the Ten Commandments etched in its shell.
As the story progresses, these and other objects pop-up in the past as well as in the present, revealing not just their journey through time but also a story about their owners. What tales they could tell if only they could speak.
I’ve always been fascinated by the things we inherit, objects that pass through generations into our hands, then out of them again. Sometimes it’s the most insignificant things that hold the strongest memories. Granny’s scrubbing brush, anyone? At others, the most beautiful. My mother had a ring made of opals that was stolen. I mourn it still, along with those wonderful childhood days when I was allowed to delve into her jewellery box.
When I set out to write, The Other Mrs Walker objects appeared all over the place. Hairbrushes with bone handles. A fox fur with a mangy head. A blanket with a torn satin trim. Many were inspired by things I had grown up with, or been given. Also things I have acquired since, which I will one day pass on.
The Apostle Spoons
My mother’s Apostle Spoons are a set of twelve, cocooned in purple velvet, just as they appear in the book. Except in the book they are soon down to ten. She gave them to me to go with a coffee set from the 1960s that my partner inherited from her mother. I love the tiny figures each holding objects of their own – a cup, a saw, a set-square. My mother described them as her second best silver. But they’re my best silver now.
The Stuffed Stoat
The Stuffed Stoat is called Frederica and she came from a taxidermist friend. Judging by the catalogue number on her base she had a previous life in a museum, though she’s not a salubrious specimen. Now she’s out and proud and hanging on my living room wall. I stroke her occasionally and make sure to dust her feet. In mythology stoats are thieves and the owner of the stuffed stoat in my book has certainly made an art of that profession. I’m not sure what that says about me!
The Brazil Nut
The Brazil Nut in the book is not something I inherited, but a true story I was told by a fellow writer - about a nut inscribed with religious texts that her grandmother kept in a glass case. (Writers are all thieves of one sort of another: see Stoat above). Except, recently I discovered it wasn’t a Brazil nut, but a peanut. And not words scratched on the shell, but a Noah’s Ark of tiny ivory animals inside. I love the way no story, even one based on a real life object, ever quite stays the same.
The China Cherub
The China Cherub belongs to Brownsbank Cottage in Biggar, Scotland, the last home of poet Hugh MacDiarmid and his wife, Valda. It was here that I first began, The Other Mrs Walker when the cottage was used for artist residencies. The room I slept in was stuffed full of objects and artefacts collected by Valda – everything from photographs of her dogs to a Dynatone Facial Exerciser. The cherub struck me as quite odd. I always wondered what had happened to its lost limb. So I made up a story to explain.
You can find out more about the objects in my book and what inspired them at www.marypaulsonellis.co.uk.
And ask yourself this: what might you leave behind and what would it say?
© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2016
The Other Mrs Walker
In a freezing, desolate Edinburgh flat an old woman takes her last breath surrounded by the few objects she has accrued over a lifetime: an emerald dress, a brazil nut engraved with the ten commandments - and six orange pips sucked dry.
Meanwhile, guided by the flip of a coin, Margaret Penny arrives back at her old family home, escaping a life in London recently turned to ash. Faced with relying on a resentful mother she has never really known, Margaret soon finds herself employed by the Office for Lost People, tasked with finding the families of the dead: the neglected, the abandoned, the lost. Her instructions are to uncover paperwork, yet the only thing Mrs Walker, the old woman in her current case, left behind is a series of peculiar objects.
But in the end it is these objects that will unravel Mrs Walker's real story and, in uncovering the astonishing tale of an old woman who died alone, Margaret will discover her own story too . . .
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