Him

FEBRUARY 2009
The old woman turned and smiled. Her granddaughter was struck by the paleness of her eyes, which she had always thought of as a dazzling aqua-marine. Now they were that baby blue of a sky without cloud or sun in early spring. The weakness of the colour mixed with the weakness of her bones, and the young woman felt the need to rest her hand on her grandmother’s arm.
‘Now, Becky, I have some things to show you. Your uncle dug them out when I moved and I’ve been waiting for you to visit. I remembered how much you enjoyed your history lessons at school – you were always asking me questions on the telephone – so I thought these might interest you.’ She leant over the side of her armchair and pulled a pile of papers out of a half-open draw.
Rebecca did not mention that it was, in fact, her younger sister Holly who was now a history graduate, nor that she had actually never had much of a liking for the subject. It was nice to be perched on the low foot rest and to peer into her grandmother’s lap, as the old woman used both hands to put on her glasses. At the top of the pile was a black and white photograph of a large family. The youngest child, although her head barely reached her father’s knees, was clearly recognisable as Rebecca’s grandma, then known affectionately as Evie. As the two women leafed through the papers they watched the girl grow up until there she was, aged ten, wearing Sunday best for church. The old woman grimaced, but her eyes smiled. Rebecca had heard of the hours her grandmother had spent in church as a child and she too smiled to herself. They carried on through time, pausing now and then to read tickets to music halls and theatres. The grandmother explained some things and simply laughed at others. Soon they were staring into the eyes of a laughing sixteen year old, photographed on the arm of a handsome young man. Rebecca heard her grandmother’s sharp intake of breath. ‘Now, that’s a story.’ she muttered, almost to herself. Rebecca heard her, and begged to hear it.
***
June 1939.
Evelyn Johnson sat on the wall of the front garden of her family’s small terraced house, swinging her legs. Any minute now her mother would be calling for help with the dishes or the mopping, but Evelyn was too happy remembering her sixteenth birthday to move. It had been a very ordinary birthday in many respects. All her girlfriends at school had squealed with delight when she had arrived in the playground. School had been as dull as ever, apart from when old Mr Bracken had dropped a whole box of chalk, which had produced so much dust that he had turned completely white. That in itself had made the birthday a good one! After school the girls had stood in the playground and giggled together. Evelyn was relishing being the centre of attention when all went quiet. She turned, following the gazes of her friends, and watched as the most popular boy she knew made his way over. She caught his eye and he grinned his lopsided smile. And then, he actually asked her on a date. She had thought that she would die of happiness.
It was the beginning of an idyllic teenage romance, full of dancing and laughing and sunny afternoons on the green. Over the summer, the two of them became inseparable. They spent hours sitting together on the same front wall, while Evelyn’s mother watched secretly from behind the fraying net curtains. She enjoyed seeing her daughter’s face filled with such simple happiness, but was sad to think that it would not be long before her youngest child left home.
Evelyn had the summer of her life. For her, the sun seemed to always be shining, the air always full of silken warmth. She admired the vibrancy of the flowers that bloomed in her neighbours’ gardens and spent what felt like eternity gazing up at the stars in the navy sky, marvelling at her unforeseen luck. The summer felt like it would never end. Half way through August there was to be a dance. Evelyn waited and waited for her suitor to ask her to it, but he never even mentioned it. Two weeks before it, she decided that if he did not ask her within the week, she would arrange to go with her friends. The day approached, but still he said nothing.
***
FEBRUARY 2009
‘Did he ask you Grandma?’ Rebecca asked, as her grandmother paused her story to take a sip of water. She was enjoying this insight into a by-gone era that seemed so romantic to her modern eyes. She imagined the old woman as a young girl with a spring in her step, lips formed into a joyful smile, neat pastel-coloured dress swishing at her ankles. She had never considered that her grandmother could have been that young; she had always seemed so untouchably old to the girl.
‘That’s where the photo was taken.’ nodded the old woman. She shut her eyes and remembered the evening. She had worn that wonderful dress her mother had surprised her with as she was pinning up her hair. It was, and would remain, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.   When she had put it on, she had felt herself grow up and gain the kind of elegance she had always admired in her older sisters. It had given her a sense of empowerment, as if from this point onwards the world was to be her oyster.
Rebecca listed as her grandmother described the delight of the dance and recalled what everyone had worn or who they had danced with. She could hear the band playing and the laughter of the young couples. She saw the colours of the various dresses combine into a delicious kaleidoscope as the bodies twisted and turned.
‘It was a fantastic night,’ said the old woman, ‘I felt so glamorous!’ she chuckled.
***
AUGUST 1939
The heat solidified as August continued, leaving the inhabitants of Evelyn’s street lethargic and irritable. She still basked in her happiness, oblivious to the inexplicable sense of apprehension felt by many around her. She thrived under her partner’s love and admiration. After the dance she spent more time out with him, having satisfied her parents as to his character. They ate ice-creams and skimmed pebbles on the lake in the park, laughing at each other in giddy competition. They sang along to his wireless and danced when no one was watching. It was so exciting to be growing up. It was so exciting to be alive. Evelyn barely noticed the leaves begin to brown and saw the cooler air that arrived with September as a perfect excuse to have this handsome boy’s arm around her shoulder.
One day they had been playing scrabble with his younger siblings whilst listening to the wireless, when the program was interrupted by a news reporter’s voice. His serious tone was enough to make the children stop squabbling and sit very still. Then the clearly recognisable voice of the Prime Minister came on air. ‘This country is at war with Germany,’ he declared. Evelyn stared at the wireless, dimly aware that this announcement changed everything. The children started chatting again, but were unnerved by the silence that prevailed and soon slipped out into the garden.
‘It will be ok,’ he told her when he saw the panic in her eyes, ‘It will all be over soon.’
***
FEBRUARY 2009
‘It was a very confusing time for us youngsters, Becky. We were reassured so often during the first month or so that everything was fine that we forgot that it wasn’t. By October though, things had changed. The air raids became more frequent and before we knew it the younger children were evacuated. I think that was the worst bit of the war for many people; seeing their frightened faces with forced smiles peering out of those train windows. I’ve never seen so many women cry. It was for the best, I suppose.
‘Then conscription started and men disappeared in dibs and drabs. By that time my father had a very bad back and was not allowed to join, but my eldest brother left for France in mid-November. We all worried about him, but we never really doubted his safety. Everyone would like to say that the beginning of the war was terrible, but it wasn’t, Becky. No, not at all. You see, everyone was convinced that it would be finished within months and all our men would return. It did not quite go like that in the end.’
***
JANUARY 1940
Evelyn felt as if someone had taken up the floor she was standing on. After his older brother had been killed, all he had been able to think about was joining the fighting. Nothing she had said had dissuaded him and now, here he was, back from the recruitment office. He had gone so far as to lie about his age so that he would be accepted. The officer had suspicions, but the forces were desperate and no questions had been asked.
At first, Evelyn hid her fear under anger, accusing him of not loving her enough to stay. He stood looking straight at her until her lips quivered and tears formed in her eyes. As the first one began to trickle down her face he silently stepped forwards and gently placed him arms around her. He rocked her gently back and forth as she cried; not letting go even after the sobs had halted. He repeated the words he had said so often during the last few months. ‘It will all be ok.’ he promised.
Within a week he was leaving. Evelyn went with his parents to see off the convoy of vans full of young men. Those departing and those left behind waved to each other and cheered raucously in an effort to cover up the gloom. Fathers slapped their boys on the back, making endless jokes about winning the war. Mothers and sisters presented the new recruits with extra socks and homemade biscuits.
As the vans drove off, one by one, Evelyn felt the vitality drain from her body. She waved and waved, but each movement involved an increased effort until she felt unreasonably tired. She gave up waving before any other member of the crowd and just stood still. Eventually she turned and wandered home. Somewhere along the way she must have taken a wrong turning in the streets she had known all her life, because she found herself walking along the edge of the park. For the first time in ages, it was empty. Evelyn wondered if anyone would ever enjoy the open space again. In the space of days, the park had acquired that haziness one sees when remembering a place known only in early childhood.
***
FEBRUARY 2009
‘After a while, I pulled myself together,’ the old woman said, rolling her eyes as if to mock herself, ‘I threw myself into the Dig for Victory campaign and ended up spending my days tending the carrots my father had planted in the garden. Now that I think about it, I don’t think anyone carried on going to school. Most of them were closed anyway, I suppose. I must admit that those months passed in a dream for me. I was completely unaware of what was happening around me. In a way, it was blissful. We all really believed that our carrots would win the war!’ she laughed at her granddaughter’s smile. ‘Yes, ludicrous isn’t it? But we did, we really believed it then. That was the best part of the war.’
‘What changed Grandma?’ asked Rebecca, sensing something ominous in her grandmother’s tone.
***
MAY 1940
Evelyn opened the telegram which was sealed with the army’s coat of arms, but she did not have to read it. Too many people had received identical envelopes for her to doubt its contents. It was obvious. He was gone. He would not be one of the boys returning home on leave in a few weeks time. No, he would never return. She would never again dance with him or laugh as he teased her. She would never again see his smile or hear his voice. She sunk down into a chair and her mother wrapped her arms around her. No one cried, no one spoke, but Evelyn felt the walls draw closer and the ceiling bear down upon her. Her clothes seemed to tighten, squashing the air from her lungs and making her dizzy. As black dots peppered her vision she was vaguely aware of her father’s voice, normally so strong, now sounding as if it was stuck in his throat. But she couldn’t work out what he was saying. It was as if he was floating further and further away from her.
***
FEBRUARY 2009
Becky frowned. ‘But Grandpa came back from the war. He must have.’ she said, her brain whirring as it tried to piece together the story. Nothing made sense and she wondered if her grandmother had become confused.
The old woman regarded her with surprise. ‘Who said anything about your Grandpa?’ she asked, ‘of course he came back from the war; I didn’t meet him until 1948.’
Becky opened her mouth and shut it again as she realised she had misunderstood the whole story. Her grandmother’s childhood sweetheart was not her grandfather, but one of those countless boys who had died on the battlefields of France. ‘Grandma, did you ever love Grandpa?’ she asked slowly, drawing out the words as if part of her brain did not want to be speaking them. She could not imagine the young girl in the story ever loving anyone else but nor could she erase all the wonderful memories of her grandparents together. The two thoughts conflicted in her mind.
‘Why of course dear, don’t be silly.’ The grandmother laughed, her eyes shining with some unnamed emotion.
The two women sat in silence. Rebecca held the photograph in both hands, while the old woman watched the world outside her window. After several minutes Rebecca spoke again, quietly and calmly. She had asked the wrong question. There was another, much more important one to ask. ‘But did you ever stop loving him?’ She pointed at the photograph.
After a short pause, still staring out of the window, the now old Evelyn replied. ‘It was a long time ago Becky. Who knows what could have happened. And in some ways, it doesn’t matter anymore. Life will always go on.’ she sighed and Becky sensed that it was time to talk of other things.

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