Helen is my second name. My first name, Julia, was ditched soon after I was born. Julia was my great grandma’s name, Helen was my Grandma’s. I thought Grandma must have wanted a baby named after her and had held sway. I loved her passionately, so I liked sharing her name.
There were small clues in my grandparents’ house that there was a mystery in their lives. There was a brown plait wrapped carefully in fragile tissue paper in Grandma’s scarf drawer and a photo of a girl with a beach bucket on her dressing table. “Just some little girl you wouldn’t know ,” Grandma said briskly when I asked her. A crumpled baby photo lay in the drawer of my Grandpa’s shaving cabinet. These things things made me feel there was some mystery.
When I was ten I found an urn half buried in a neglected corner of the garden, inscribed “In memory of Helen Irwin.” I asked my Grandma if that Helen was related to me. She whisked the urn away and told me not to worry.
Then in my late teens an aunt told my sister Alison that my Grandma had lost two children, one called Alison, who had died aged 6 and Helen, at just 8 months. My grandmother’s grief had been devastating, but my sister and I, named after the dead children finally brought her and my Grandpa comfort and happiness. But they never spoke of the children who had died. At 89, as Grandma lay dying, she was dreamy and a little confused. She closed her eyes for a moment.
“I can hear them now, my two little girls, playing out in the garden."