By David Gardiner
  • 20 May - 26 May, 2023
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Lettie realised that she must have dozed off on the sofa and had woken up well rested but a little disoriented, not sure what time it was, or even what day it was. Not that it mattered a great deal. One day was pretty much the same as another. It was a long time since she had felt so refreshed and free of her usual aches and pains.

Is it daytime or night-time she wondered? She could open the curtains and look out, but she didn’t like doing that. The bright light from the street showed the dust that covered everything. They had offered her a home help, but Lettie didn’t want strangers in the house, interfering, going through all her things, fussing around. This was her house and she liked it as it was. A bit of dust never killed anyone. When she was ready she would get the dusters out, and the vacuum cleaner and the sponges. It was her house. It was her business. They were a lot of interfering busybodies at Social Services. Didn’t know when they weren’t wanted. Didn’t know when to leave a person alone.

She took the photo album with the leather binding down from the bookshelf and sat back in the sofa. She opened it at the page with the picture of Thomas in uniform, pretending to stand to attention beside his little sister, his kit bag sagging to one side on the ground in front of him. That little sister was herself, of course, Lettie at nine years old, in her frilly white dress, with the long golden blonde hair that would darken to brown a few years later. You couldn’t tell what colour anything was from the picture of course, in the picture things were just different shades of sepia.

She looked so happy and proud of Thomas, going off to fight the Kaiser and win lots of medals and come back a hero. The war would probably be over by Christmas, most people thought. They were wrong. She wasn’t sure if she really remembered him or not. Her mother used to talk about him so much, it was hard to be sure which bits she actually remembered herself and which bits she had been told when she was older. She knew that he used to throw her up in the air and catch her again, and call her his little princess. And that he used to read stories to her in bed before she went to sleep. He had such a lovely smile in the picture. Such a fine young man.

She wiped away a tear and turned to another page. It was her wedding picture - her best one - with herself and Cyril standing outside the church, she with the bouquet and the veil pulled back from her face, the two grinning bridesmaids a couple of paces behind. That was the nicest picture that she had of herself - there was a kind of light shining out of both their faces in that picture - maybe it was some trick that the photographer had used, but it was the way she had felt that day, and the way that she had looked: radiant, like a film star.

There was no point denying it, she had been beautiful in her teens and her twenties. The only thing that had spoiled the wedding had been her mother's hostility towards Cyril. Her mother had done everything in her power to stop Lettie from marrying Cyril: when all her efforts failed she had resorted to the futile gesture of boycotting the wedding. Lettie had been hurt by it. More hurt than she allowed her mother to see. But that was all over now. And her mother had been wrong about Cyril. It had been a good marriage. Or all the bits she cared to remember had been good. Cyril had been a thoroughly decent man. How lucky she had been! How few women could put their hands on their hearts and say that!

She turned one more page. Herself in the maternity ward, with little Violet in her arms. She was smiling at her newborn baby but it was a forced smile, filled with tension and unease, and Violet’s eyes were closed and her head bent over to one side. For no reason that anybody could explain to her the infant’s life was seeping away, her child would not live to see a second sunrise. Cyril had kept this picture hidden from her for years, had refused to let her see it, told her that he had thrown it out. But she always knew when he wasn’t telling the truth and eventually she had persuaded him to let her see it, and then to put it in the family album.

Violet was family too, after all. The only family of their own that she and Cyril would ever have. “I’m sorry, Cyril,” she whispered, “I wanted to give you children. Children that would live… that would grow up… I really did. I don’t know why I couldn’t. I don’t know why.”

“Don’t be silly, girl,” came his cheery north country accent from the easy chair at the other side of the fireplace, “it wasn’t you fault. Where did you get a daft idea like that?”

She looked across and there he was, his newspaper furled on his lap, his reading glasses dangling as ever from the string around his neck. He looked her straight in the eye. “Like as not I was the one with the problem. There’s no way to tell, Lettie. And no point in greetin’ about it. All over and done with now.” He unfolded the paper and started to read.

Lettie felt a moment of disorientation, something not quite right, then the feeling was gone. He glanced up at her from his paper. ”Happen ye’d better go upstairs and see if your mother’s all right, lass,” he suggested in a kind but firm tone.

She looked at him for a moment, then made her way quickly upstairs. The door of the main bedroom was open and her mother was sitting up in bed. She looked rosy-cheeked and healthy, no real reason for her to be in bed at all. “Are you okay, Mum?” she asked with concern, “Is there anything I can get you?”

“No, Lettie, nothing at all,” her mother beamed. “Sit down here a moment. I want to have a talk with you.” Dutifully, Lettie made herself comfortable on the edge of the bed.

“Lettie, I want to apologize to you. I tried to stop you from marrying Cyril, and I was wrong. I shouldn’t have interfered.”

Lettie smiled. “Don’t be silly, Mum. That was ever so long ago, and it didn’t exactly stop me, did it?”

“I was angry with you, Lettie. I thought you were a headstrong and selfish young woman. I thought he was going to turn out the same way as your father, and I was wrong. That was prejudice and stupidity on my part. And fear. I was frightened because my health was beginning to break down and I didn’t want you to leave me."

"But we didn't leave you, Mother, did we?"

"No, Lettie. You stayed with me right to the end, and you couldn't have been nicer to me. The two of you. Cyril was as good a son to me as... well, as Thomas could ever have been if he'd come back from the war. And I never thanked either of you… and I feel bad about that."

She grinned broadly. "Don't be silly Mum. You didn't have to thank us. We liked having you here. And we knew how you felt. Cyril knew perfectly well how you felt about him. I always knew you would like him when you got to know him. Everybody liked Cyril, unless there was something wrong with them. You had been hurt by Dad. We understood that."

"Did you Lettie? Did you really?"

"Of course we did. Don't give it another thought."

The doorbell sounded, making Lettie start. "You'd better go and see who it is," her mother urged.

From the top of the stairs she saw that Cyril was already opening the front door. She hurried down to see who it was. Cyril continued to open it, with an exaggerated slowness and then stood to one side, smiling back at Lettie. There were two people at the door. One was a tall elegant young man in a brown army uniform and a brown private's cap.

There were medals on his chest, two bright rows of them, and he carried a canvas kit bag over his shoulder, and in his free hand an old fashioned Lee Enfield rifle with the bayonet fixed. The kit bag and the rifle were brown too. Even his skin had an odd sepia tint, like a very inferior brand of artificial sun-tan cream. Standing in front of him, smiling in an excited sort of way, was a very sweet young girl of about nine in a white frilly dress. She had long golden blonde hair and was clinging to a fold of the soldier's uniform with one hand, as though she were afraid that she might lose him.

Lettie began to feel disoriented again. "Thomas?" she whispered. He beamed a painfully handsome smile in her direction and stepped forward to greet her, lowering the rifle and the kit bag as he entered, leaning them carelessly against the wall.

"Lettie?" he greeted her warmly, holding out his hand, "My little princess? Gosh, haven't you grown!"

She took his hand, felt the firm warm grip. Words would not come. "Thomas?" she whispered again, feebly.

"I've come home, Lettie," he said cheerfully, "aren't you pleased to see me?" Feeling weak and bewildered she embraced him and felt his powerful young body take her full weight. "Do you want me to throw you up in the air, Lettie? Like I used to do? I could, you know." She shook her head, felt him lower her to the ground once again.

"Is it really you, Thomas?" she asked quietly, "is the war over?"

"Aye, Lettie. All over. Believe me, you don't want to hear about it. Aren't you going to say hello to your daughter?"

She looked down at the little girl. "My daughter?"

"Hello Mummy," said the little girl cheerfully. "Don't you know me? I'm Violet."

The sense of unease was beginning to leave her. She met Violet's smile and returned it. "Violet? But… you've got so big…"

"Are you going to play with me Mummy? Are you going to come out to play?"

"Come out to play…" she repeated, the words oddly drained of meaning. Violet took her by the hand and pulled her excitedly towards the open door. It was sunny outside, and birds were singing, and Lettie could hear a dog barking far away. Her face tingled in the sunlight as she stepped into the front driveway. It looked different somehow, there were so many trees… and a little stream. That hadn't been there before, she was almost sure… and flowers. So many dazzling flowers… and beyond, soft rolling hills covered with such beautiful shimmering green meadows where animals grazed, the size of ants in the distance.

Violet pulled on her hand, willed her to follow along the twisting pathway, over the bridge, into the lush forest. But Lettie didn't know this landscape. Didn't know where Violet was taking her. She looked back towards the house and for a moment fancied that she could see through the open doorway the motionless figure of a frail old woman, slumped on the sofa with an open photo album on her lap. Then it was gone. Just a trick of the light, Lettie decided. She held Violet's hand and they ran together up the winding tree lined path towards the far off sun-drenched meadows.