Authors: Liz Trenow
Tags: #Historical, #General Fiction, #Twentieth Century, #1940's-1950's
Copyright Â© 2013 by Liz Trenow
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Last Telegram / Liz Trenow.
(pbk. : alk. paper) 1. World War, 1939-1945âFiction. 2. Silk weavingâFiction. 3. Historical fiction. I. Title.
In memory of my father, Peter Walters (1919-2011), under whose directorship the mill produced many thousands of yards of wartime parachute silk.
All of it perfect.
owes much to the fairer sex. The Chinese Empress Hsi Ling is credited with its first discovery, in 2640 BC. It is said that a cocoon fell from the mulberry tree, under which she was sitting, into her cup of tea. As she sought to remove the cocoon its sticky threads started to unravel and cling to her fingers. Upon examining the thread more closely she immediately saw its potential and dedicated her life thereafter to the cultivation of the silkworm and production of silk for weaving and embroidery.
by Harold Verner
Perhaps because death leaves so little to say, funeral guests seem to take refuge in platitudes. “He had a good inningsâ¦Splendid send-offâ¦Very moving serviceâ¦Such beautiful flowersâ¦You are so wonderfully brave, Lily.”
It's not bravery: my squared shoulders, head held high, that careful expression of modesty and gratitude. Not bravery, just determination to survive today and, as soon as possible, get on with what remains of my life. The body in the expensive coffin, lined with Verners' silk and decorated with lilies and now deep in the ground, is not the man I've loved and shared my life with for the past fifty-five years.
It is not the man who helped to put me back together after the shattering events of the war, who held my hand and steadied my heart with his wise counsel. The man who took me as his own and became a loving father and grandfather. The joy of our lives together helped us both to bury the terrors of the past. No, that person disappeared months ago, when the illness took its final hold. His death was a blessed release and I have already done my grieving. Or at least, that's what I keep telling myself.
After the service the house fills with people wanting to “pay their final respects.” But I long for them to go, and eventually they drift away, leaving behind the detritus of a remembered life along with the half-drunk glasses, the discarded morsels of food.
Around me, my son and his family are washing up, vacuuming, emptying the bins. In the harsh kitchen light I notice a shimmer of gray in Simon's hair (the rest of it is dark, like his father's) and realize with a jolt that he must be well into middle age. His wife Louise, once so slight, is rather rounder than before. No wonder, after two babies. They deserve to live in this house, I think, to have more room for their growing family. But today is not the right time to talk about moving.
I go to sit in the drawing room as they have bidden me, and watch for the first time the slide show that they have created for the guests at the wake. I am mesmerized as the TV screen flicks through familiar photographs, charting his life from sepia babyhood through monochrome middle years and into a Technicolor old age, each image occupying the screen for just a few brief seconds before blurring into the next.
At first I turn away, finding it annoying, even insulting. What a travesty, I think, a long, loving life bottled into a slide show. But as the carousel goes back to the beginning and the photographs start to repeat themselves, my relief that he is gone and will suffer no more is replaced, for the first time since his death, by a dawning realization of my own loss.
It's no wonder I loved him so; such a good-looking man, active and energetic. A man of unlimited selflessness, of many smiles and little guile. Who loved every part of me, infinitely. What a lucky woman. I find myself smiling back, with tears in my eyes.
My granddaughter brings a pot of tea. At seventeen, Emily is the oldest of her generation of Verners, a clever, sensitive girl growing up faster than I can bear. I see in her so much of myself at that age: not exactly pretty in the conventional wayâher nose is slightly too longâbut striking, with smooth cheeks and a creamy complexion that flushes at the slightest hint of discomfiture. Her hair, the color of black coffee, grows thick and straight, and her dark inquisitive eyes shimmer with mischief or chill with disapproval. She has that determined Verner jawline that says “don't mess with me.” She's tall and lanky, all arms and legs, rarely out of the patched jeans and charity-shop jumpers that seem to be all the rage with her generation these days. Unsophisticated but self-confident, exhaustingly energeticâand always fun. Had my own daughter lived, I sometimes think, she would have been like Emily.
At this afternoon's wake the streak of crimson she's emblazoned into the flick of her fringe was like an exotic bird darting among the dark suits and dresses. Soon she will fly, as they all do, these independent young women. But for now she indulges me with her company and conversation, and I cherish every moment.
She hands me a cup of weak tea with no milk, just how I like it, and then plonks herself down on the footstool next to me. We watch the slide show together for a few moments, and she says, “I miss Grandpa, you know. Such an amazing man. He was so full of ideas and enthusiasmâI loved the way he supported everything we did, even the crazy things.” She's right, I think to myself.
“He always used to ask me about stuff,” she goes on. “He was always interested in what I was doing with myself. Not many grown-ups do that. A great listener.”
As usual my smart girl goes straight to the heart of it. It's something I'm probably guilty of, not listening enough. “You can talk to me, now that he's gone,” I say, a bit too quickly. “Tell me what's new.”
“You really want to know?”
“Yes, I really do,” I say. Her legs, in heart-patterned black tights, seem to stretch for yards beyond her miniskirt, and my heart swells with love for her, the way she gives me her undivided attention for these moments of proper talking time.
“Have I told you I'm going to India?” she says.
“My goodness, how wonderful,” I say. “How long for?”
“Only a month,” she says airily.
I'm achingly envious of her youth, her energy, her freedom. I wanted to travel too at her age, but war got in the way. My thoughts start to wander until I remember my commitment to listening. “What are you going to do there?”
“We're going to an orphanage. In December, with a group from college. To dig the foundations for a cowshed,” she says triumphantly. I'm puzzled, and distracted by the idea of elegant Emily wielding a shovel in the heat, her slender hands calloused and dirty, hair dulled by dust.
“Why does an orphanage need a cowshed?”
“So they can give the children fresh milk. It doesn't get delivered to the doorstep like yours does, Gran,” she says reprovingly. “We're raising money to buy the cows.”
“How much do you need?”
“About two thousand. Didn't I tell you? I'm doing a sponsored parachute jump.” The thought of my precious Emily hanging from a parachute harness makes me feel giddy, as if capsized by some great gust of wind. “Don't worry, it's perfectly safe,” she says. “It's with a professional jump company, all above board. I'll show you.”
She returns with her handbag, an impractical affair covered in sequins, extracts a brochure, and gives it to me. I pretend to read it, but the photographs of cheerful children preparing for their jumps seem to mock me and make me even more fearful. She takes the leaflet back. “You should know all about parachutes, Gran. You used to make them, Dad said.”
“Well,” I start tentatively, “weaving parachute silk was our contribution to the war effort. It kept us going when lots of other mills closed.” I can picture the weaving shed as if from above, each loom with its wide white spread, shuttles clacking back and forth, the rolls of woven silk growing almost imperceptibly thicker with each turn of the weighted cloth beam.
“But why did they use silk?”
“It's strong and light, packs into a small bag, and unwraps quickly because it's so slippery.” My voice is steadying now and I can hear that old edge of pride. Silk seems still to be threaded through my veins. Even now I can smell its musty, nutty aroma, see the lustrous intensity of its colorsâemerald, aquamarine, gold, crimson, purpleâand recite the exotic names like a mantra:
brigandine, bombazine, brocatelle, douppion, organzine, pongee, schappe
She studies the leaflet again, peering through the long fringe that flops into her eyes. “It says here the parachutes we're going to use are of high-quality one-point-nine-ounce ripstop nylon. Why didn't they use nylon in those days? Wouldn't it have been cheaper?”
“They hadn't really invented nylon by then, not good enough for parachutes. You have to get it just right for parachutes,” I say and then, with a shiver, those pitiless words slip into my head after all these years.
you've got dead pilots.
She rubs my arm gently with her fingertips to smooth down the little hairs, looking at me anxiously. “Are you cold, Gran?”
“No, my lovely, it's just the memories.” I send up a silent prayer that she will never know the dreary fear of war, when all normal life is suspended, when the impossible becomes ordinary, when every decision seems to be a matter of life or death, when good-byes are often for good.
It tends to take the shine off you.
A little later Emily's brother appears and loiters in his adolescent way, then comes and sits by me and holds my hand in silence. I am touched to the core. Then her father comes in, looking weary. His filial duties complete, he hovers solicitously. “Is there any more we can do, Mum?” I shake my head and mumble my gratitude for the nth time today.
“We'll probably be off in a few minutes. Sure you'll be all right?” he says. “We can stay a little longer if you like.”
Finally they are persuaded to go. Though I love their company, I long for peace, to stop being the brave widow, to release my rictus smile. I make a fresh pot of tea, and there on the kitchen table is the leaflet Emily has left, presumably to prompt my sponsorship. I hide it under the newspaper and pour the tea, but my trembling hands cause a minor storm in the teacup. I decant the tea into a mug and carry it with two hands to my favorite chair.
In the drawing room, I am relieved to find that the slide show has been turned off, the TV screen returned to its innocuous blackness. From the wide bay window looking westward across the water meadows is an expanse of greenery and sky that always helps me to think more clearly.
The Chestnuts is a fine, double-bayed Edwardian villa, built of mellow Suffolk bricks that look gray in the rain but in sunlight take on the color of golden honey. Not grand, just comfortable and well-proportioned, reflecting how my parents saw themselves, their place in the world. They built it on a piece of spare land next to the silk mill during a particularly prosperous period just after the Great War. “It's silk umbrellas, satin facings, and black mourning crepe we have to thank for this place,” my father, always the merchant, would cheerfully and unself-consciously inform visitors.
Stained-glass door panels throw kaleidoscope patterns of light into generous hallways, and the drawing room is sufficiently spacious to accommodate Mother's baby grand as well as three chintz sofas clustered companionably around a handsome marble fireplace.
To the mill side of the house, when I was a child, was a walled kitchen garden, lush with aromatic fruit bushes and deep green salads. On the other side, an ancient orchard provided an autumn abundance of apples and pears, so much treasured during the long years of rationing, and a grass tennis court in which worm casts ensured such an unpredictable bounce of the ball that our games could never be too competitive. The parade of horse chestnut trees along its lower edge still bloom each May with ostentatious candelabra of flowers.
At the back of the house is the conservatory, restored after the doodlebug disaster but now much in need of repair. From the terrace, brick steps lead to a lawn that rolls out toward the water meadows. Through these meadows, yellow with cowslips in spring and buttercups in summer, meanders the river, lined with gnarled willows that appeared to my childhood eyes like processions of crook-backed witches. It is Constable country.
“Will you look at this view?” my mother would exclaim, stopping on the landing with a basket of laundry, resting it on the generous windowsill and stretching her back. “People pay hundreds of guineas for paintings of this, but we see it from our windows every day. Never forget, little Lily, how lucky you are to live here.”
No, Mother, I have never forgotten.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
The room smells of old whiskey and wood smoke and reverberates with long-ago conversations. Family secrets lurk in the skirting boards. This is where I grew up. I've never lived anywhere else, and after nearly eighty years it will be a wrench to leave. The place is full of memories: of my childhood, of him, of loving and losing.
As I walk ever more falteringly through the hallways, echoes of my lifeâmundane and strange, joyful and dreadfulâare like shadows, always there, following my footsteps. Now that he is gone, I am determined to make a new start. No more guilt and heart-searching. No more “what-ifs.” I need to make the most of the few more years that may be granted to me.