Two Girls Reading in a Sunlit Garden, 1915
I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday. Hettie and me were sat on the bench in the garden. A damp and dingy August had broken into a warm September and the garden was flushed with green. I remember the weight of Hettie’s head resting on my shoulder, and the beech tree looming daffodil-like to dapple her white dress. I was reading to her – Jane Austen I think it was – but I knew she wasn’t listening. She broke in every few minutes with “why has he not written this week, Eliza?” or “Do you think his regiment has moved?” Questions that she knew neither of us could answer.
Michael had gone early to the war. He had been amongst the line of men winding out from the doors of the town hall, then a line of nonchalance and good humour that we all wish might have endured. It hasn’t though. That line dwindled, and the newspapers list of casualties grew.
In the months before that afternoon, I had grown increasingly impatient with Hettie mooning distractedly around the house, only animated by the arrival of Michael’s letters. And Michael had written with the same zeal as Hettie, with the lover’s infatuation that I have never experienced. That day though I humoured her questions, murmured reassurances and made futile attempts to distract her – all the while filled with guilt at what I knew.
The letter had come early, and when Hettie asked after the post at breakfast, father studied the newspaper intently, murmuring ‘nothing today’. I saw him exchange a look with mother. Hettie often had to rest in the morning, her health being so fragile, and father called mother and me back into the breakfast room where the letter lay unopened on the table. Standing at the window he looked suddenly old, with his shoulders stooped, head bowed to expose the thinning hair on his crown.
“Obviously she cannot know” he started.
“But surely – we can’t just….” I broke in, but the word ‘pretend’ was lost to father’s steady gaze. He turned back to the window: “she is too fragile still, Eliza, can’t you see, it would kill her –” I looked to mother but she avoided my gaze.
“You don’t even know – “I gestured towards the unbroken seal on the letter.
“It’s in the newspaper, Eliza, black and white, ‘Michael Samson, 23, battalion 4, lost in action, wife and family informed.’
He barked this out but his voice faltered at the end. He gulped in some air and straightened, “until Hettie is stronger. Agreed?”
Mother and me murmured assent and the matter was closed. I presume the servants were also told, I saw their eyes searching Hettie’s face when Michael was mentioned. That day on the bench and countless days to follow, I carried the awful betrayal in my chest.
Hettie was undoubtedly fragile. Long bouts of illness in the previous years had taken much of her youth, but at least some of that had been restored by Michael. They courted for a whole year before father consented to their marriage, and I have never seen Hettie look so radiant, so filled with energy as the day of her wedding. Now, that look was restored only by Michael’s letters that came twice, sometimes three times a week. I didn’t ask father about the letters, already the guilt felt too arduous a load to know of details. When the letter arrived the next day, I felt as relieved as Hettie – for a moment I thought father had been wrong, the newspapers had been wrong. I looked triumphantly at father, and then saw how his steady gaze watched Hettie’s reaction. The letter was not from Michael.
I never asked about the practicalities of this cover up, but I had a fair idea. Our brother, George, was also at the war, but his medical training meant he was stationed far from the frontline in one of the makeshift hospitals. His letters home though provided aptly postmarked envelopes. I always wondered if George himself had known. Really, he must have. And what was in the letters? Well, I never knew that either, Hettie locked them away in her bureau like sacred tracts. Often I would find her there, reading and re-reading them for comfort.
I recoil in embarrassment at the idea of Father reading Hettie’s letters, removing them discretely from the mail bag before it went. It seemed so invasive, as though their relationship had been broken into and folded out; this by a man who, throughout our childhood had been an aloof, taciturn figure. He had been and remained minimally involved in our upbringing; even when Hettie was bed bound with illness, he never ventured into her room. At the dinner table, he would enquire after her from mother or me, conscious of her empty seat and the distant sound of the coughs that racked her body.
It could hardly last forever of course, but as the war trailed on it came to feel that way. The initial verve and ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’ was worn down by hardship and loss. Our cover up grew as habitual as ration books, as routine as black blinds and filing into the bomb shelter of next door’s garden. Perhaps it seems ridiculous now, but Michael became a fictional character for us, seeming as real as all the others in that strange land called ‘over there’.
What we had not foreseen was that father might die before the war ended. In the spring of 1918, the far end of the High Street and Madison Road junction was reduced to rubble by a single shell. The post office, the bank, the shops we had known our whole lives were stripped to the naked bones of buildings, strewn with furniture. Most perverse of all was the debris left by Mr Margate’s sweet shop – the awful innocence of humbugs and bonbons winking from the ruins.
At his funeral I looked at mother’s pinched face, twisting a handkerchief back and forth in her hands, and knew she was mourning for two men.
The only shred of optimism perhaps was that Hettie would now have to know. We had no energy left for such deceit. Helping mother clear father’s study I had found Hettie’s letters locked in a drawer. I didn’t read them, feeling suddenly embarrassed by our attempts to ignore the finality of death.
We didn’t need to say a word though. At the wake, Hettie had turned to us, her fingers gripping the whisky glass as she said: “I know”
Mother looked up from her chair, pathetically small and pale, almost transparent. For a moment her face was utterly blank before her eyes followed Hettie’s to the photos on the hearth – father’s and just along from his, Michael’s.
“I know that Michael died.” She repeated more confidently.
“How could you possibly – ” mother trailed off, speechless at the revelation.
“I found the telegram at the back of the dresser.”
“When? How long have you known?” I asked.
“It was some months after Michael’s death, so nearly two years now,” Hettie replied with a rare note of defiance. “At first I was disbelieving, that Michael had gone, then that my father would try and deceive in such a way…that you, Eliza would -”
“So why did you continue?” I broke in, my face hot with shame. Scenes began to run through my mind of all the petty evasions and concealments, coming to rest on that first day, reading in the garden.
Hettie turned towards me, “Do you not see Eliza? Father spoke to me. Day to day things, he asked after you, mother, about our jobs, our lives. All those years of ‘stiff upper lip’,” here she mimicked father’s tendency to raise the newspaper at any suggestion of emotion, “It felt like he was a father”.
“Good for you Hettie,” I sneered, then dropped my eyes, alarmed by the sudden rush of jealousy. Immediately I blundered forward into her arms “I’m sorry – “. I half expected her to push me away, but she held me with a fierce and forgiving love. War and loss had aged us beyond our years, but it had also brought new wisdom; sometimes solace is found in strange ways, places and the unlikeliest of people.