My thanks to Joan for lending me her story, and to Stephanie for the invite to the Valentine Invitational.
I find, even in these last days of my life, that it is rather odd what one remembers. I am very sceptical of those expert in autobiography who would have us believe that they recall the exact pattern of the wallpaper in every room that they passed through thirty years before.
My memory is not quite that good.
My memory of the past skips and bounces through flashes of insight and impression without any kind of order. There are a few clear pictures, then gaps of hours, days, sometimes years. Always, there are the greys of England, the bright sharp colours of Gibraltar, and all the mixed emotions they envelop.
Always, there is Kate. Kate, the very best of friends in childhood and all the days that we were to have together. So many memories of Kate. The very small Kate insisting that she stay, holding my hand, as my parents decided my punishment for one of our excursions. The older Kate, smiling one last time, knowing me better than myself, waiting on the best in me.
I remember that young Kate and I, wrapped in blankets daring to have a chinwag about Kissing; real Kissing - not a peck or a smack or a smooch - and how we broke up into giggles when Kate whispered that she hoped that there would be tingles. We broke into embarrassed laughs and hid our heads under the blankets until the red faces went away.
Of course we planned our marriages together. We had checklists for desirable qualities in our husbands-to-be. Strong, courageous, with a certain smile. We had a serious yearlong argument before agreeing to disagree on our perfect man's hair colour. You had to be flexible. Otherwise we knew that a girl would end up . . . ALONE. With ONLY REGRETS.
As you must have known, there was a war. It was declared after months of anticipation, and it changed everything. Everything but the English weather and our girlish dreams. We had enlisted together and I was the maid of honour when Kate married the man who fulfilled most of the items on her wish list. When I arranged transfer soon afterwards to Gibraltar, it was to find 'my man', or at least that was what I told Kate and my parents. All of whom approved. As well, an unimportant naval base protected by Fascist Spain was certainly safer than London at that time. I became a driver for officers who appreciated a bright young thing in uniform, especially as there were all too few women about the Rock. The truth was that I wanted, needed, to get away from London, possibly from Kate and her worried love for Jon. I wanted colour and new people and anything that was not the dreary dark of a city at war.
"What was it like during the war?' is a question I have tried to answer on the occasions it has been posed of late. Usually by people simply beginning a conversation that they think will invigorate an old woman. I tell them, in London, the war was everything. It was everywhere. If you can imagine living with a building project for six years - no - more like all of your life, you begin to approach the din and absorption that was London at war. As if there was a jackhammer pounding away every second of every minute of every day and night. The war simply was.
Possibly that is a poor metaphor for London. A jackhammer seldom leaves 500,000 homeless. Or takes both your parent's lives along with 60,000 relatively innocent civilians. And that was simply in England. The headlines had far greater, if less personal tragedies to tell.
I was not at my parent's funeral. Junior Lieutenants could not move faster than the War Office in clearing up debris and bodies and I was advised, but not ordered, to remain in Gibraltar.
I never even saw the hole that was once our home; I was told that it was bulldozed within days of the raid. I imagined it sometimes, played with an imaginary memory as though it was a scab. I imagined that terrible hole and the moment their lives ended and prayed that it had been swift. But the jackhammer continued to pound and there were always new victims, more urgent condolences needing to be offered. By the time I was finally given leave to go home, Kate's soldier had been killed.
Of course, I stayed with Kate during my leave, but it was too terrible a time for condolences alone to be sufficient.
I remember only a part of my last night before returning. We had pooled our rations cards for a proper meal, with wine. I had become quite the drinker in the forces, but that night, I had no capacity for it. We were as maudlin as we had ever been as toddlers, and we indulged in it.
Inevitably, I suppose, there was a moment. Once again we were children, wrapped in blankets, tears drying, and she hugged me. And there were tingles. And. . . I Kissed her. With that oh, so important capital K. I remember her sudden immobility, the astonishment and perhaps fear, in her eyes. I remember her drawing away from me, and then how we both laughed. Terrible nervous laughter. There is no memory of what happened afterwards. Embarrassment seared those cells and I think saved me that pain of remembrance.
I know I immediately returned to Gibraltar. Bright, clear and beautiful Gibraltar. Where the houses were not coated in soot, seen through smoke under always cloudy skies. Gibraltar was blazing sun. Houses in every pastel beside waters of a daily changing variety of greens and blues. There were still officers that needed a smart young woman to ferry them about.
And I laughed and drank and met bright and oh, so young men and finally found one that met every point on my list. I met Jack. And the war made us dangerous and frivolous and we laughed and drank and became lovers.
But. . . I had kissed her.
Kate and I continued to write to each other. We wrote of the weather, our jobs, and occasionally touched, usually in a short postscript, about our losses. There was nothing to read in between the lines no matter how hard I looked. Many letters and months passed. Then came a letter that referred to That Night. One line only. She wrote simply that she wished I had not left so suddenly.
Now this was read and interpreted a dozen, a thousand dozen times. What did she mean? Of course, she was simply wishing that we had somehow ignored my action, a wish that it had never happened. Wasn't it? Did we both not regret it and wish it had never happened? Or perhaps. . .?
I must have replied to that letter. Something about how I regretted it as well. Other long letters followed, filled with details of our Island homes and questions about friends and family. There was always one, usually bland reference to That Night. (In later letters condensed to TN.) I hung onto the belief that like prisoners speaking in code, the body of those letters was merely a wrapping to camouflage the real message.
Because, I had kissed her.
As you may have heard as well, the war somehow ended. It seemed to happen in stages. By the fall of 1944, we knew it was coming. Jack was offered a promotion to remain. I was not. I was to be demobbed. There was enough in his pay packet now that I didn't need to work when we were married. We all assumed that we would be married.
There were celebrations, an endless series of parties, and then the news came. Information that had been classified or unknown to us. More deaths, more transformations. The world seemed to change with every newspaper.
The giants were gone. Roosevelt dead with a haberdasher in his place. Churchill replaced by Atlee who would bring us the modern nanny state. Hitler, Himmler, Goebals, all the great villains dead. We had lived, danced and drunk under a sentence of death, and we had all been reprieved.
And the jackhammer was suddenly gone.
It happened with much warning but its abrupt absence was still more of a shock than the war itself had been. The acceptance of the absence of that sword that had been hanging over our heads was not a relief, but a thunderclap of silence. I remember coming back from the stores one winter morning, and realising that there was no uniform to put on. The fact of the war being over, that the life I had built had been simply an adjunct to that conflict for so long, sunk in. I remember looking about as if seeing the world for the first time. Out the window was the harbour. Under the painful blue sky with the pinks and yellows of the houses beautifully gathered about it. All about me were the blooms of the Bougainvillea under that incessant blaze of unvarying sunshine.
And I knew I hated it. The colours and the sun were pressing upon my eyes, even my ears and my skin and they bored me and bored into me and I hated them.
My parents had been dead for almost two years and yet I was suddenly orphaned. I was without any home. I thought it through slowly, like a child learning to read again. I was a person. . . that hated Gibraltar! I hated the sun and the soft pinks and yellows of the brickwork. The blinding white of the light on the waves or the buildings or the ships. I always had. What was far worse, in this strange post-war stillness, I realised that I was preparing to marry a man I didn't love, because he fulfilled a list of attributes made by a teenager. I had been a certain person for the war, and now the war was gone. So who was I?
Strange that I remember that moment, but not the moment when I actually made my decision. I do not remember buying my tickets home.
It wasn't Jack. There certainly wasn't anything he did or didn't do. I do remember worrying that I was simply homesick, or bored, or selfish. Or too romantic. I remember all these arguments with myself. I do not remember that there were any with Jack. I think he'd been advised that I was simply restless or it was a phase, or perhaps he'd worked that out for himself. And I did cry when I left, partly out of fear as well as regret.
I know that I am being unfair to Jack when I think of our goodbyes. He was a good man who taken his risks, who had sown his oats in the war and now had a good life planned in the peacetime stretching ahead of him. We would exchange Christmas cards for years afterwards. I am sure that he felt some pity towards me, one who had missed her opportunity.
He kissed me goodbye on my cheek as I boarded the ship after brushing away my tears with no little embarrassment. He laughed and assured me that I'd be back. As we left the harbour, I saw him on the dock, walking away after a perfunctory wave. No longer the rash soldier, but a self-contained man. Probably already thinking of what meeting he had missed and how to make up for the lost time.
Obviously, I had written Kate. I had told her that I was leaving Jack because I didn't love him. That I needed more and I was willing to take a risk. But of course, never mentioned exactly what that risk was. I had this crazy idea that she would know, and if not, then It Wasn't To Be. It seems amusing now, that I was that young, But truly that was how I thought of it. Large capitals. It Was Not To Be, if she didn't know.
Days before I left, a telegram arrived from her. It simply read, 'Come Home.'
I wrote back, like Scarlet O'Hara; "Where will I go, what will I do?"
I remember the reply. A date, a time and a place. "VALENTINES DAY STOP NOON STOP BOADICEA"
I still have those old telegrams in a scrapbook. When I am gone they will be tossed away and no one will know what they meant. What they meant to me. But that is the way of things, isn't it?
I remember London that day in 1946. Still a great city, just not the greatest anymore. The city was wan, like so many survivors. Young people don't realise that Berlin and Tokyo would receive millions from the Allies in the forthcoming years. London and England would instead spend decades paying the American war reparations. The Germans and the Japanese would soon have new factories to build the new machines of the future. The US was in the midst of a building boom never before seen. Britain was sorting through bricks to find what was salvageable and pouring concrete over the rest. Rationing would also go on for decades.
But that day, I remember everything. I remember agonising, "What will I do if she isn't there? More frightening, "what will I do if she is there?" I hadn't allowed for delays on the Underground, and I found myself at Waterloo Station far later than I had planned. I remember lugging that huge case with all my possessions up and down stairwells.
I remember wondering as I walked towards the Thames if I was more afraid of her not being there, than being there. I had just arrived at the path overlooking that muddy rain-speckled river and the Clock Tower came into view. Despite my resolve to be calm, I began to increase my speed along the front of City Hall until I reached the short steps that led to Westminster Bridge.
I remember how strange it was to see the Palace of Westminster without the barbed wire along the bridge, or the barrage balloons above it.
I remember that the steps were slick and that my bag caught a corner as I ran up them. I remember that the Westminster chimes had already begun and I continued to run, with my bag banging against my legs.
The smart woollen suit that I thought would be perfect for a cold February day was soaked from within and without by perspiration and the Scotch Mist. My eyes searched the length of the bridge as I struggled along it. Until my eyes could finally see the two figures beneath Boadicea's great statue beneath the Clock Tower as Big Ben began to thunder the hour above me. A man and a woman, smiling, enjoying London for what was probably the first time.
She hadn't come.
I am not a crier and it wasn't until I tasted the tears that I realised that it wasn't only the rain streaking down my face. I remember taking a handkerchief and wiping my eyes. I could believe that even my lipstick had begun to run. I remember picking up my bag and continuing to drag my heart towards the Parliament side of the Thames as Big Ben completed his chimes as though a final judgement on my foolishness.
I watched, jealously, as the laughing tourist couple posed for another photo beneath Boadicea and her chariot. Had that great Queen appeared at that moment to wreak her terrible vengeance again, to burn the city and throw those two happy souls off the bridge, I believe I would have cheered her on. But as they smiled for the photo, my eyes caught the view of the photographer crouched over in the unmistakable pose of someone using a Brownie camera.
It was Kate, of course. I remember how she handed the camera to the tourists and then slowly turned to me. I remember her outstretched hand taking mine and the feel of its warmth. Above all else, till the day I die, I will remember. . .
She Kissed me.
The tourists' shocked faces may have judged us, and others turned their backs on this awful sight. But I remember them as peripheral.
Above all, I remember that I was standing on a dingy Westminster Bridge. Far from the beauties of the Mediterranean. That the Thames was shabby and grey. And the buildings were begrimed and grey. And the sky, the sky was overcast, dreary and so very grey.
But I - I was full of colours.