Stories

The candle that burns

By 27th April 2009No Comments

It’s been almost thirty years since I last bought a vigil candle. They have seen me through some of the darkest times of my life, but I had hoped never to buy one again. Today, my vigil candle is the most important item on my shopping list.

When my fashionable American mother moved to London, shortly before the Great War, to take possession of the house left to her by an aunt, she brought an innate sense of style, and a smattering of American traditions. With her beauty and substantial wealth, she rapidly ascended the ranks of the fashionable set, until the war dampened the gaiety of the roaring twenties. She always said the war was a mixed blessing, because although it ended the parties, it also brought her my father.

In the sobriety of war, my mother served as a nurse in a London hospital. My father was brought in with bullet and shrapnel wounds to his legs, along with many others, wounded, torn apart, suffering from shell shock, and gas inhalation. My mother’s care was too efficient, and once my father recovered, he was shipped off to continue fighting, but not before a hasty wedding ceremony. The day he left, my mother lit a candle for him, and placed it in the window, to light his way home.

It worked, and he returned to her at the end of the war. I was born a year later, and grew up in the country home my mother had bought in exchange for her London house. Although the war was over, its affects hung like a dark cloud in our household. My father spoke little of the horrors he’d seen, but occasionally I was terrified awake by the screams of his nightmares. My mother’s youthful frivolity had disappeared, and our home was a sombre place. My mother once told me how the candle that burned guided my father home. The image impressed itself deeply in my young mind. If I closed my eyes, I could see its glow in the darkness, and I fell in love with the image of candlelight leading my father home.

We believed and hoped the fragile peace would last, surely it had been the war to end all wars? As a teenager, I was barely aware of the growing political tension in Europe. Obliviously, at the end of my formal education, I planned a visit to my mother’s family in America, whom I had never met. I imagined it would be more interesting than a grand tour of Europe, and dreamed of the young men I might meet; certain they would be very different to the ones currently of my acquaintance. My father, with more political sense, stepped in and vetoed the plan. I was furious with him. Indignantly, I threw myself into a round of parties, making a point of staying out later than I was allowed, and went to the pictures with a parade of different boys.

Naively, I hoped that my actions would goad my father into sending me away; but he ignored my rebellion. Robbed it of its joy, I quickly tired of the parties. Trying to escape a particularly tedious dinner dance, I wondered onto the balcony for fresh air, and met Walter. For some people, love comes on slowly, but suddenly I understood why the French for falling in love, ‘coup de foudre’ quite literally, translates as a blow of lightning.

We became inseparable, and I was surprised, but pleased that my parents approved of Walter. In those days, parental approval was still important. Around us the country was changing, but in the first flurries of love, I barely noticed. Young men aged 20 and 21 we being called up for six months military training. Walter was disappointed that at the age of 22, he narrowly missed the call ups. He spoke of his desire to serve his country, and considered volunteering. I assured him it wasn’t necessary, and begged him to stay with me. He became a regular dinner guest, and it was while listening to the wireless after one of these meals, with sinking heart I heard Mr Chamberlain say ‘…this country is at war with Germany.’ Less than a month later, Walter was called up.

Walter was delighted to be able to serve his country. I was devastated, fearing he’d experience the unknown horrors which haunted my father, or worse, that he wouldn’t return at all. We were married quickly in an intimate church service, and within the week, Walter went to war. Walter and I planned to set up home on his return, so I remained with my parents. Remembering my mother’s story, I bought my first candle, and placed it in my bedroom window to light Walter’s way home. Every night as I lit the candle, I prayed for his safe return.

I missed him dreadfully. His absence was like a dark and empty chasm, which nothing could fill. I waited eagerly for his letters, each missive assuring me he was alive. He described his basic training, his acceptance in the RAF, and the details of his missions that the censors allowed, through his letters.

Back in England, the peace was shattered by the drone of engines, and the wail of air raid sirens. My father built an Anderson, an underground shelter in the garden, and we found ourselves sleeping there most nights. The blackout meant that I could no longer leave a candle in the window, but I kept one in my bedroom, and then in the shelter. I was afraid that if the candle went out, Walter wouldn’t return. I once peaked out during a raid, and was mesmerised as the doodlebugs exploded the sky into day. My father pulled me back, before I could be injured.

Rationing meant food shortages and we learned to cook creatively, to trade with our neighbours, and to grow our own vegetables. The war raged on, and we showed our spirit by pulling together. When our men were stranded on Dunkirk’s beaches, every available vessel sailed to their rescue, and we cheered at the ‘Dunkirk spirit.’ We cheered as Mr Churchill rallied the nation on the wireless ‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’

I was among the women called to work in the factories, and I learned to operate machinery, and create munitions. I was pleased to be doing something to help Walter, and the long shifts on every day of the week ensured that I was distracted from the ache of his absence. War shatters social conventions; old social distinctions seem irrelevant. I made friends with people I would never have met in peace time, and we have kept in touch through the years, although few remain now.

The war raged in North Africa, America joined in, and Walter’s increasingly infrequent letters kept hope alive. No matter how tired I was, before I fell into bed at night, I lit his candle.

Walter’s letters stopped coming, and I feared the worst. When we finally heard the news of Victory on the wireless, parties began on every street corner, and pub, but my rejoicing was tainted by fear. It had been six months since I last heard from Walter. I left the street party early, and returned home to light my candle. Three long months later he returned. I blew out the candle, vowing I would never light another.

We settled into married life, and bought a small house. Walter found a job in the bank, and I was content looking after our home. Our son, Gerald, was born two years later, and after a difficult pregnancy and birth, it became clear that he would be our only child. We were a happy family, and Walter was proud to have fought in a war that allowed his family to live in peace. Walter doted on Gerald, and love spending time with him, teaching him to hunt and fish, or playing games. It’s a cliché, I know, but those precious years flew by.
It seems barely yesterday that Gerald finished college, but already my grandchildren’s graduation photos sit on the dresser.

Gerald expressed a desire to visit his American cousins, I was delighted to give him the opportunity I had missed, but it was hard to see my baby go. It was the first time our little family separated. Gerald loved America, and worked his way around the country, re-establishing family connections. His infrequent letters were the highlight of our weeks.

Walter and I took our first trip to America to see Gerald marry his American sweetheart, Irene, and I finally met our extended family. We made the most of the opportunity to visit, and to tour some of the country. Over the past seven years in England, we had heard very little about the war in America. It was strangely familiar, finding ourselves once again in a country at war. We knew the rhetoric too well.

We were glad to return to peace-time England, but our pleasure was tainted because Gerald and Irene planned on setting up home in America. Irene was a much better correspondent than Gerald, and we heard from them regularly over the next three years. We read with shock when her letter arrived to tell us that Gerald had signed up to fight in Vietnam, eager to emulate his father’s exploits. I wondered why men could only see the potential glory of war, and not the futility, or the horror? I went shopping for candles that day, and kept one burning until Gerald returned with his own war stories, and a limp that ensured he would never see active service again.

Our first granddaughter, Amy, was born while Gerald was in Vietnam. Another Granddaughter, Pauline, followed five years later, and a grandson, Tom, in 1981. Through the years, we regularly visited Gerald & Irene, alternating with their visits to England. It was hard seeing so little of our grandchildren, but we made the most of the times we had together. Irene sent regular letters, and we watched them grow through photos, and then through home videos.

We saw the end of the millennium in New York with Gerald & Irene, but watched the events in Time Square on TV, rather than braving the crowds; we were growing too old for so much fuss. Our grandchildren, with the energy of youth, partied well into the first day of the new millennium. We didn’t know it at the time, but it would be our last trip together. We reminisced over how much we had seen, and how the world had changed. A year later, a heart attack robbed me of Walter.

I lived on my own while, trying to build a new life for myself, but without Walter, it seemed so empty. I was tired of the burden of running a home, so I moved into a retirement home, and settled into a new routine. I watched on TV as the terrible events of 9/11 unfolded, and knew that once again the world stood on the precipice of war, and the nightmares flooded back. America and England sent troops to Iraq in search of Bin Laden, but this time, our lives were unchanged by a war fought so far away, and I felt relieved. I’m too old now to face another war.

Today I received a letter from Irene. Against the wishes of his parents, Tom is going to fight in Iraq. I went out to buy a candle again, and tonight its flickering casts a pall on my room. As I drift off to sleep, the light changes, and becomes brighter. I see that this time, Walter is holding a candle, and the candle that burns is for me.

Denice Penrose

Author Denice Penrose

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