Between the lines

By 9th March 2009No Comments

Overnight, the wind had risen again, colder this time, carrying the threat of even more rain. Most of the passengers were seeking warmth and shelter below decks, leaving the determined and the downright foolish to face what crew members called the South Atlantic breeze. Unsure which category she belonged to, and
deciding it was probably both, she took the wad of letters from her pocket, only to have the ‘breeze’ try to snatch them from her grasp and send them soaring over the guardrail.
“I told you, Millie” he said, sounding defensive even though she had not said a word. “The weather’s rough in this part of the world.”
Her pulse quickened and a shiver that had nothing to do with the drop in temperature ran the length of her spine. Over the years she had become many things to many people; Mrs Roberts; Emily to family and friends; Mum to Laura, and Nanna to Lucy and Tom. Recently, just when she thought there were no more changes to be made, Richard had entered her life and she had become Em. But never Millie. Only one person had ever called her Millie.
His voice seemed to be coming from behind her, but she kept her gaze fixed firmly on the waves and resisted the urge to look around, afraid there would be nobody there and even more afraid she might be wrong. She turned back to the letters, tightening her grip on the flimsy air-mail paper.
“Yes, you certainly told me,” she murmured, and selected one of the pages, reading from it, even though she knew every word by heart. “Biting winds, extremely cold. Snow flurries – and let me see…”
She took her time adjusting her glasses and turning the page over. “Ah, yes. I remember. Rain.” She sighed. “Some wives got love letters. I got the weather report.”
“Not all the time,” he said, sounding slightly shocked. “I wrote about lots of things.” There was a long pause. “Didn’t I?”
She pulled a creased and mud-stained favourite out of the pile. “Sheep. You went up in a chopper and saw lots of sheep. We have those in Dorset, Mike.”
“Penguins.” There was a hint of desperation in the word. “Did I mention the penguins?”
“Incessantly. Not to mention a detailed description of your boots.”
“I remember,” he said, sounding much closer now. “The soles came off. I had to wear plimsolls while the glue dried. My feet were like ice.”
For a moment, she sensed him by her side, whispering into her ear, but she shrugged the image away, telling herself the whispers were almost certainly caused by the wind, and his words could never be described as sweet nothings.
“I haven’t travelled eight thousand miles to talk about your feet. I knew you’d be here. I mean – I know your not really here – just a figment of my imagination, really – but I thought if I came here, to where it happened, this is where I’d find you and somehow I’d be able to – oh, I don’t know.”
He was silent while she floundered and struggled to make sense of her thoughts, but she knew he was still there, waiting, like her, for the moment to arrive when they could say what they really wanted to say. In the meantime, they would play their favourite game of ping-pong bickering, batting their feelings to and fro, letting their emotions bounce from one side to the other, but always keeping them under control. Heaven forbid they should allow them to fly freely, she thought. Someone might get hurt.
“What about yours!” he said at last. “There’s a war going on here and all you wrote about was a cake competition. I’m glad you won first prize, by the way. And then there was the Scrabble game with Laura.”
As if on cue, Laura and Richard came up on deck and made their way towards her, only to be stopped in their tracks by one of the many ex-servicemen onboard, eager to share his memories. She saw them doing their best to look interested as he explained some tactical manoeuvre, his arms swooping up and down as long-remembered planes flew again across the bay. Laura, she guessed, was wishing she was home in England, in the garden with Steve and the children. But Richard’s expression was difficult to fathom. There was no guessing what he was thinking behind the fixed smile and polite questions.
“I should imagine,” the voice behind her said, “he’s thinking this is a bloody awful way to spend your honeymoon, Millie. Or should I say Em?”
“We’ve been married twelve months. It’s hardly a honeymoon, Mike.”
“I leave you alone for five minutes…”
“Twenty-four years.”
“All right. Twenty-four years. Then you up and marry the first bloke who comes along. And if that wasn’t enough, you drag the poor devil half way across the world to visit my grave. What am I? A tourist attraction?
For a figment, he was remarkably adept at seeing things from his own point of view.
“He wanted to come,” she said, conveniently dismissing Richard’s dislike of everything nautical. “He’s very supportive.”
“And Laura?”
“It was her war, too.”
Memories buried a long time ago, but obviously not deeply enough, surfaced surprisingly quickly.
“It wasn’t about Scrabble, Mike. It wasn’t about anything really. That night – the night of the landing-. Your letters -. They hadn’t come in any sort of order. I know there were things you weren’t allowed to tell us but -. We didn’t know where you were or even which ship you were on. The news was on every channel. Mrs Thatcher, experts on this, that and the other, admirals, brigadiers… They went on and on and on. But when it came down to it, nobody had a clue what was happening. And the bloody phone! It never stopped. People wanted to know if I’d heard anything – as if the war would be put on hold so you could call home and tell me you were OK. ‘No news is good news’ Like Hell it is!”
Her voice, at least the way she heard it in her mind, had risen to a tearful whine. A good reason, she believed, for keeping ones emotions under control. But it was too late now.
“It was all so exciting for them, I suppose – knowing somebody on the Task Force – but then there was Laura. She was only twelve, remember. And she didn’t say anything at all. Just went up to bed. I went in later and she looked at me and said, “I don’t want to be brave any more.”
Neither did I. We went downstairs, turned the TV off and took the phone off the hook. We were so frightened Mike. Frightened for you, I mean. We couldn’t stop thinking about it; about you, where you were, what you were doing. I thought the game of Scrabble might help but we couldn’t concentrate. Sometimes we struggled to make three-letter words. Have you any idea how many ways ‘war’ can be turned into something else? We found ‘warden’ and ‘warble” and ‘wary’ and ‘swarm’. It was a long night. Not many people can pinpoint the exact time they grew up. Your daughter can.”
“And you blame me for that?”
She shrugged. “You; the Government; Galtieri, the entire population of Argentina… I hated everybody! Little boys fighting in the playground! For what?”
“Believe it or not, it was a long night here,” he said, and, unlike hers, his voice seemed to have dropped an octave. His speech was slow; his words measured, with no fragmented thoughts behind them.
“You can’t make me feel any guiltier,” she said. “The next day -. I felt so ashamed. Behaving like some overwrought heroine in one of those awful war films. It was your job. We knew that. But we wanted you home. And what I felt then, Mike, it was nothing compared to what I felt later – when we heard you wouldn’t be coming home. Ever. If it hadn’t been for these letters – . Some didn’t arrive until – afterwards. I wouldn’t change a word. You know that. Don’t you?”
“Of course I know, Stupid.”
“In a way, they helped me through it, knowing how difficult things were for you, the crowding on the ships, no meals, rotten weather, not having the right clothes or equipment. It doesn’t matter what you wrote about. I always knew you were missing us. But you had a job to do and you got on with it. When I stopped blaming everyone – I tried to remember that. Soldier on. I’d never thought about it before. Not literally.”
“Once we were on the island, things were different,” he said quietly. “You asked what it was all for, Millie. Damned if I know. But when I met the people – the ones who actually live here – . It wasn’t about battles and winning and losing. All they wanted to do was what you and Laura were doing, the things you wrote about. Work, school, walking the dog, being with friends, letting the kids play outside. Even baking cakes for the village fete. I don’t know why anyone else was doing it but that’s what I was fighting for. Does it make sense?”
“It does now.”
“What sort?” he said suddenly, apropos of nothing at all.
It was a trick of his from the old days, way back when they were so close their thoughts seemed to meet midway and there was no need for explanation.
“Date and walnut.”
“My favourite,” he said. “You made my favourite. Even when I wasn’t there.”
“Still do.”
“What about Richard?”
“He prefers chocolate. But he puts up with date and walnut now and again.”
She turned to see her husband daughter drawing nearer and put the letters back in her pocket. “You have to go now, Mike.”
“I don’t want to, Millie. If I could change things…”
But already his voice was fading and the next time she shivered it was from the cold.

Pam Pattison

Author Pam Pattison

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