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Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Blake
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Blake, Sarah, date.
The postmistress / Sarah Blake.
eISBN : 978-1-101-18525-4
1. Postmasters—Fiction. 2. World War, 1939-1945—Massachusetts—Franklin—
Fiction. 3. World War, 1939-1945—Radio broadcasting and the war—Fiction.
4. London (England)—History—Bombardment, 1940-1941—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product
of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet
addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes
any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher
does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility
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For Josh, always
War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.
The Face of War
HERE WERE YEARS after it happened, after I’d returned from the town and come back here to the busy blank of the city, when some comment would be tossed off about the Second World War and how it had gone—some idiotic remark about clarity and purpose—and I’d resist the urge to stub out my cigarette and bring the dinner party to a satisfying halt. But these days so many wars are being carried on in full view of all of us, and there is so much talk of pattern and intent (as if a war can be conducted like music), well, last night I couldn’t help myself.
“What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?” I asked.
“Don’t tell me any more,” a woman from the far end of the table cried in delight, shining and laughing between the candles. “I’m hooked already.”
I watched the question take hold. Mail, actual letters written by hand, being pocketed undelivered. What a lark! Anything might happen. Marriages might founder. Or not take place! Candlelight glanced off the silverware into eyes widening with the thought of such a trick. Around the table the possibilities unfurled. A man might escape the bill collector’s note. The letter assuring a young man of his first job might never arrive, forcing him to look elsewhere.
“And be perfectly happy,” suggested one of the older men, smiling at the irony of it.
“And would she tell anyone about it?”
“Oh no,” the woman across from me decided quickly. “That would spoil the pleasure.”
“Oh, so she did it for pleasure?” Her companion gave her bare shoulder a little tap.
“No. Pleasure is too small a theme,” the host pronounced. “She must be a believer of some sort. A scientist of a kind. Someone who planned to watch the machinery grind down. A saboteur.” He smiled across the candles at his wife. “It ’s a great story.”
“In fact,” I put in drily, “she wasn’t any of those things.”
Then came the quiet.
“Hold on,” said one of the men. “This is true?”
“Then it ’s monstrous,” the first woman piped up. “If it’s real, then it’s horrible, and—”
“Illegal,” the host reached over and filled her glass. “When was this?”
?” Now the host was shocked. I nodded. Somehow this had deepened the question. These days, errancy cannot go long undetected. Someone can pick up the phone and call. There are e-mails and faxes. But
. When a letter was often the sole carrier of news. The thought of a postmaster tampering with one’s letters home, or out to the boys. It wasn’t at all in keeping with our idea of the times.
“It’s the war story I never filed.”
“Because it would have been too much for us?” The host tried to laugh it off.
“It was too much for me,” I answered.
The lark had ended. The host rose abruptly to uncork another bottle. The woman down at the other end of the table studied me, still unconvinced that I could be telling her the truth. Writers. They are not to be trusted with our hearts.
Never mind, I thought. I am old. And tired of the terrible clarity of the young. And all of you are young these days.
Long ago, I believed that, given a choice, people would turn to good as they would to the light. I believed that reporting—honest, unflinching pictures of the truth—could be a beacon to lead us to demand that wrongs be righted, injustices punished, and the weak and the innocent cared for. I must have believed, when I started out, that the shoulder of public opinion could be put up against the door of public indifference and would, when given the proper direction, shove it wide with the power of wanting to stand on the side of angels.
But I have covered far too many wars—reporting how they were seeded, nourished, and let sprout—to believe in angels anymore, or, for that matter, in a single beam of truth to shine into the dark. Every story—love or war—is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.
Or so it seems to me.
Here is the war story I never filed. I began it at the end of the forties, when I could see quite clearly, and charged myself with getting it right, getting it sharper, all this while. What I knew at the time is pieced together here with the parts I couldn’t have known, but imagine to be true.
And the girl I was—Frankie Bard, radio gal—lives on these pages as someone I knew, once.
—Frances Bard, Washington, D.C.
T BEGAN, as it often does, with a woman putting her ducks in a row.
It had occurred to Iris a few weeks back—at the height of summer when tourists jammed the post office with their oiled bodies and their scattered, childish vacation glee—that if what she thought were going to happen was going to, she ought to be prepared. She ought, really oughtn’t she, to be ready to show Harry that though she was forty, as old as the century, he would be the first. The very first. And she had always put more stock in words set down on a clean white piece of paper than any sort of talk. Talk was—
“Right,” said the doctor, turning away to wash his hands.
Iris supposed she was meant to get up and get dressed while his back was turned, but she had not had the foresight to wear a skirt, thinking instead that her blue dress was the thing for this appointment, and no matter how thorough a man Dr. Broad was, he’d have turned around from the sink long before she’d gotten it over her head, and then where would they be? The leather banquette on which she lay was comfortably firm and smelled like the chairs in the reading room at the public library. No, she would stay put. She slid her gaze from the ceiling over to the little sink at which the doctor stood, rubbing his hands beneath the gurgle. He was certainly thorough. Well, there must be all sorts of muck down there anyone would want to wash their hands of. And as the next step was the certificate, she ’d be the first to insist that nothing chancy landed on that page by accident.
He straightened, turned off the taps, and flicked his fingers against the back basin before taking up the towel beside him. “Are you decent, Miss James?” He directed the question to the wall in front of him.
“Not in the least.”
“Right,” he said again, “I’ll see you in my office.”
“For the certificate.”
Nearly to the door, he paused with his hand outstretched, glancing down at her. She gave him her post office smile, the one she used behind her window, meant to invite cooperation.
“Yes,” he said, and he grasped hold of the handle, pushing it smartly down and pulling open the door. She waited until she heard the latch click softly after him before she rose, holding one hand to the loosened pins in her hair and the other around her front. She felt a bit as she did in the mornings, unbound by bra or girdle, herself come loose. All fine in the security of her own bedroom, but here she was in the middle of Boston, in one of the discreet buildings fronting the Public Gardens, after lunch on a Thursday in September. On the other side of the door, the steady rhythm of a typewriter clattered through the quiet. The tiles were cool under her feet and she reached first for her underthings, leaning against the banquette as she drew one stocking on, then the next, snapping the garters firmly. Hanging from the back of the chair, the cups of her brassiere pointed straight out into the room—like headlights. She smiled, pulling the bra on, and for the third time that afternoon, she thought of Harry Vale.