by Barbara Latham
wo of my daughters would not have chosen to live together, but their husbands enlisted immediately and with children better out of London, they decided to share the family home in Hampshire.
Sally, the middle child, took herself far away before the war and is stuck in the antipodes. Odd that the one who was alert to wherever she might join, who most liked to be in the midst of events, is so out of it.
But her younger sister Colleen’s spilling-over excitement at falling in love, then her marriage, coming at a time Sally was nursing heart wounds, must have been galling so she made plans to escape and explore.
From the start Sally failed to see the necessity in another sister. Having attached herself to Norma, two years ahead, she found attention doubly diverted to the newcomer when my first born, at almost 7, insisted on pushing the pram.
My three girls, Norma, Sally and Colleen – each loved despite spells when, one after the other, they made my days difficult, though in that they were outdone by their father.
Little Colleen wasn’t quite two when he simply disappeared as far as she could make out.
Norma, at eight, seemed to accept that he’d gone with other fathers in the village to whatever sense she could make of war. Despite a few meltdowns, when she caught the smell of him in his clothes, she stepped up to be useful.
When he came back from a prison camp, physically broken and a difficult man, only Sally seemed to reconnect with any ease. By then Norma had just developed fine breasts she wasn’t used to and became even more self-conscious with her father repeating his shock at her transformation.
I watched the three cope with his having gone from their lives and then with the man coming back not being as expected. I could not alter their struggle any more than I could draw out his. All I could do was get the girls out of the house when the worst took hold. I called it his “Damn you women, what do you know!” mood, when he was liable to take his shotgun and splatter the garden birds Sally liked to feed.
The outburst passed, he might apologise but refused to discuss it and the pattern didn’t change.
The only thing he ever said, “it was hell.”
Did I love him still?
I didn’t even ask as there was no question of not doing your best for a war damaged man.
But I simply do not want to watch my daughters as the next generation of men go off. I feel too old for it.
High drama is replaying, not ordinary days where darkness can be glossed over or rouse indignation, and where there is slow learning of how complicated human relations can be. And what can I tell that might help? At their age I was incapable of taking in well meant advice, so why try to give any?
Besides, their lives as young mothers underline how much is finished for me and they don’t need my help to run the house.
Easier by far to remove myself to immersion in injuries – using nursing skills to attend to the traumatic pain of strangers because the un-dramatic anguish of those I love is not what I can bear.
My husband’s final decline was unexpected but once convinced another war was unavoidable he gave up, deteriorating fast. Sally was already in New Zealand by then and Colleen, absorbed by her swollen body and the father of this first child, gave birth early the night before the funeral. Only Norma was with me to bury him that bitter mid-January day.
Having been pregnant together, Norma with a third, those sisters drew closer again. Colleen wanted cousins for her baby and Norma was ready to spread her confidence over the novice, though there were licks of criticism at differences in mothering. I heard each favouring their own while not admitting to bias.
Norma seemed to find three a trial; her last baby was not a good sleeper. It disconcerted when the daughter who had liked being capable erupted in frequent frustrations with domestic demand and seemed readily irritated by her husband of ten years.
The contrast with Colleen’s new marriage emphasised it. She, giving all to her man, quoted him rather more than Norma could stomach. With the first flush definitely over for her, Norma had no inclination to watch her kid sister reduced to “dancing around the solid pole of a wonderman.” A man Norma did not over rate! She considered Colleen too good for him despite his handsome face and why did he simply take her adoration as if he deserved it?
When I pointed out that Colleen luxuriated in being in love and got her reward from that, Norma was sharp: “But is he as in love? Does he see how lucky he is and think to be careful of her? He’ll ride on, set on having things his way, until she toughens up and demands more from him.”
Her tone made me consider, but not ask, how far she regretted marrying her first love and having a baby within a year.
The softness of her has become squashed beneath a no-nonsense veneer yet she is still a romantic, just a disappointed one.
However, she rallied back to her generous competence and warmth as her husband prepared for the “cruellest of boys’ clubs.”
While Colleen turned almost mute with the looming departure.
By the end of ’39 I, like my sons-in-law, felt impelled to throw myself into action, joining a field hospital in France.
Then, with no build up, Sally announced her marriage.
He was younger, love at first sight and a whirlwind, nevertheless in the photos she looks bridal and he could be a school boy, his only suit already too short.
Friends gathered but none of his family. Were they not told beforehand either?
Sally gave little away – writing simply that the new husband wanted to wed before sailing away to the battle in Europe. He’d never been out of New Zealand.
Then in their short interlude Sally conceived.
Who did she know out there? She’d shown little interest in Norma’s babies, would she cope well, so alone with a newborn?
And this time I couldn’t even watch feeling powerless.
Typical that I am left to take up the slack.
Would Mother have gone if I hadn’t decided to move out of London, joining Colleen and baby, to run this place? She cooks, I garden and kill chickens.
Colleen, a deflated ball of high spirits, has lost some bounce. She doesn’t speak her fear but has let it get a grip.
She shares the children more than fairly, is responsive with them and takes it in turns to get up early, giving me tea in bed as I haven’t had in years.
Though amazingly patient with my older boys and the youngest, a girl, somehow her baby is the miracle, mine ordinary.
She makes up sweet rhymes for him most days, yet I sense misery. Her innocent openness, as if she was the only one to discover falling in love used to grate. Now it’s shut down I want it back in her.
A year since our father died. We don’t talk of how the last war wrecked him, how it shadowed our growing years as this one is doing for our children – we don’t say it out loud in case we draw the grim nearer.
Colleen and I don’t share his death, he was a different man for her, she barely had words for him or for anything before he left. Though when I slipped to his grave with berries and the variegated holly he liked, there was a similar offering already there.
No flowers from Sally of course, and Mother has left us to it.
I say that and hear myself repeat it, yet running this house and garden, changing two flower beds to grow more vegetables than six of us can eat, I feel in place. It suits me.
When my husband left me to put out the rubbish and manage everything, he left another gap.
He isn’t here to snore and in that empty space where he slept alongside something has slunk back in.
My womb is making sure it gets my attention. And there is craving to touch him – wanting substance to be sure it isn’t just imagining.
Until the weeks of his departure there had been little mutual attraction for ages. Yet I’m left alive to possibility – not shut in as I felt before. Irritations fall away and waiting for him – soaring with nothing to hold – feels like treasure.
It seems a return to our initial wanting and my hopes at 19 – with the added wish I’d made him wait – had him court me longer.
Why had I not realised how much had shrivelled to lie dormant between us in recent years?
As he packed, proud to strut in his uniform, sex was good again and within a week of his going I heard myself sing as I did as a girl in this house – happy to surrender to giving without him close by to exploit.
Through the last pregnancy it was my own past meekness which infuriated – not having stood up to him sooner for more consideration.
Somehow I’d assumed he’d tend what mattered to me, without my having to make him see my differing interests.
I threw myself into marriage, losing my own footing and small income, and he took whatever was offered, smiling at my “sweet generous spirit”. I failed to notice how quickly he behaved as if his finances were quite sufficient reciprocity.
When did disappointment seep in? At first good sex kept attention off the rest; my eyes weren’t looking to see where he met me, or how much of me he recognised.
When I jumped into his lusty, opened arms he caught only what he wanted, letting the rest drop.
I married at 20 and though he was barely five years older I pictured him as reliable – a tall, straight pine and slender, around which every heart hope might flutter and take wing.
If hazed eyes saw an ideal, how much of him did they truly notice? Little wonder his weaknesses and the limits to our loving took years to unearth.
Three children later, his belly was soft, flopping with presumption my body should be as available to him as it was to babes. A hard resistance to giving started to develop but neither of us recognised the new impediment, we simply knocked against it.
His being preoccupied and ,apart from a few games of cricket with growing sons, his lack of thoughtfulness over family concerns became annoying.
It’s only in his being away that my body retunes to the feel of him, wanting that lost gentle pleasure in stroking his head.
Now he has gone a suction deep within draws me towards him.
Days are busy, then at night I relish a tension out of which anything seems conceivable.
And how I value time for myself where no one can butt in. Once the children are into bed, with Colleen making no demand for company, there is space – a gathering of myself and better attention to my body.
Does he know I feel sexier, bringing scarlet toenails to bed?
Even so I paint them as if I might just go to him at any moment – living in readiness – on a roll – rolling towards renewal between us – curling in the big bed, curling round a hollow in myself.
And then, finally, there were proper letters.
Colleen’s came first.
I heard the sobbing and ran, sick with certainty, leaving my girl to yell as Colleen’s baby grabbed what little hair she has.
Colleen threw herself at me, her shaking going through us both.
I still don’t get it!
Though she has always felt free to make a fuss.. I was expected to cope and help, keeping things to myself, while Colleen had no reluctance about letting everyone know she was upset, even though recovery came quickly.
I resented her ease of emotional outburst, and on this occasion felt fury when she pulled out of crying with a smile. She fell to the bed, the letter against her, claiming she could feel his heartbeat.
My letter was a different jolt.
It was no response to my love token but crisp, practical advice about the London flat, wanting me to sort the guttering.
He keeps us fixed and already known – no curiosity for how the boys deal with his absence – no sense of missing all the new things his daughter can do and no recognition that with everything so changed I might feel differently towards him.
Does he have no idea that being apart might shift where we stand with one another? My efficiency managing alone might have eroded feeling any need for a man as some friends claim.
Couldn’t he, at least, have a tiny anxiety over the state of my heart?
He can sign on, pack and go, shaping up to another existence I barely understand.
Having taken him into myself and drifted into feeling skinless and opened, I can be left while he closes about himself, considering it manly to stride away.
He can leave even after nights of whispering all we could offer each other, finding more I’d never known there was to tell, and kissing with all the tenderness there is for our newborn.
My bulging belly thrilled him, as every cell of me altered with a growing fruit, formed of us. That child, not yet separate from our loving, has been left in my sole care.
Watching the trusting, opened armed sleep, reaching out for him, seems all there is to be done to wish his father safe.
Norma makes a virtue of my having a son to keep me busy, but he roots me in what is gone. The shared bed is left behind, I sleep again where I grew up.
Alone I, too, could have dashed into action as Mother has done.
The baby fills my arms but doesn’t fill in what is missing. My man is gone and his ability to walk away revives any insecurity ever known and hatches new ones. With him nearby, demons went into hiding but they have moved back in through the passageways he cleared, then left unguarded.
Perhaps I showed him too much and that is why he left?
Telling myself he is not deliberately inflicting retaliation doesn’t work, doubt at being loveable has slipped into the vacancy where his firm flesh and touching hands once were.
It was easy to risk myself, more than had been imaginable before, when his eyes looked at me, but those dark eyes have vanished along with his smell, though I keep some of his clothes by the bed.
Tears come at night over nothing specific, just that he leaves me too exposed. He pulled separate and compact, I stay semi-dissolved.
Of course I tell myself again and again that he was right to go to this war.
And I’d long seen his need for freedom, so why shout unreasonable demand that he come sometimes to hold me? But reason did not generate our love – it did not grow because it was sensible.
How then to survive this till his next return? My hands can’t find his and the wait for an embrace is uncertain and far too long.
If he turns elsewhere, or becomes unavailable to me for any reason, would I know? The Navy won’t send news of that but only tell if he is lost to them, dead or badly wounded.
Flesh which came alive with his touch now feels awkward – it has become stony behind eyes that no longer see his smile.
Watery surroundings turn dark – with light and air expelled there is only glutinous thickness – for he is my light and air. And after nights when he is not here to kiss, not here to catch my fall into the emptiness, I’m grateful to have to get up early.
I have no clue as to what is happening with him, no hint as to whether he still wants me as he did.
Nothing comes from him to undo the bad spell into which I’ve stumbled, with disenchantment lurking in shadowy, entangling grey, where hurts mushroom and I can hardly confess how I’m losing nerve for the intimacy we shared.
I sit before blank notepaper knowing only that I cannot ask whether I’ve been a fool to love. And cannot write that the connection which felt absolute is growing porous to let misgiving in.
He remains a perpetual undercurrent to child filled days while he presumably turns on and off his tie to me.
He must be less preoccupied by love, not that I comprehend what new demands, what stresses and strains he faces, for his meagre postcards don’t let me in.
As Norma eases into our shared days and emptier nights, she relaxes while I tense up, ready to fight. If he doesn’t still want me as I do him, then to hell with it!
When my sister finds me jumpy I don’t admit to worry that my fight might not melt even if his lovely face appeared.
I can’t tell her that every evening I wish to curl out of it, a pearl sealed in oyster, until I know that he has not turned elsewhere, or been fully taken up in this new life with men, that having gone he has not also withdrawn. A brief note to tell me it was all right letting him mean so much.
If he can compartmentalise, gathering his love to pack as if it’s a jack-in-the-box, whose button is pressed at his convenience, how can I stay subject to a force over which there is no control?
Can I simply wait as I was to find whether he or his desire will ever return?
How recently was it amazing to have found him?
Now under this war shadow it’s possible it may be over.
I have no notion what he is really thinking – those brief cards wouldn’t admit to being relieved to have got away from a new baby, domesticity and me. Such “honest exchanges” go round circuits in the night when I’d rather sleep – nights where there is none of that peace after making love, of lying satisfied and spent, falling heavily into the darkness against each other.
Then his long letter came.
He was thinking of me, holding me in mind, grateful my arms were still around our shared boy.
Fight jolted out – every last filament of it left me – to bring stillness – eventually.
And there was a strand of shame at not having the strength needed for this war to keep faith with the surety of my love.
It must be got used to.
This is the way it’s going to be.
Here, where Sally now lives, there is warmth in the plans they made for me, hopes that this land will impress, which of course it does. Though it’s beauty skims the surface of my wrinkled skin, failing to penetrate.
What gets right in is that, despite good cheer in frequent letters, my second daughter seems less than well loved.
The rest of us met her husband before Sally saw him again. He turned up in Hampshire after the war, still injured but on the mend, an open, likeable young New Zealander and decidedly volatile.
I wished Sally might come back but as his family were impatient for him, he asked her to wait out there with a son he’d never seen.
But I came as she asked, six weeks by sea, to a verandah they glassed in for me with an outside toilet nearby, to be here a month before her second child’s birth.
How did I once embrace such expectations of happiness for my three girls?
Why did I want it so badly when my own had hardly been a constant, when I knew enough of the state of the world?
As small girls, each found joy in their daily round, with few falls into woe. Only tiny Colleen seemed to need to find tragedy for a brief spell most days. She might trip in the garden or hear the fox had bitten heads off hens and sink, totally abject for ten minutes, sprinkling me with tears.
Colleen, now widowed, is still the most beautiful of women to my eyes. She is sought by men but adamant she won’t give a “phony father” to her only son. The son of a hero.
For despite a passionate home leave, she was not pregnant when he was killed weeks later. At the news my Colleen apparently did not speak for four days.
While Norma looked better off without a husband around and is back to being curt and readily cross, even if settled into accepting the situation.
She said only once “don’t think I won’t grab love it if walks near. His idea of our joining the ‘keys in the hat’ crowd has no appeal. Just more of the same.” She says “everyone thinks we are the lucky ones – he survived – he isn’t a brute – so our ordinary trials can’t be seen.”
It was the distant daughter I imagined would have come through least scathed – the one who appeared to cope best with her father’s absence and return.
Her long letters told the pleasures of New Zealand and pride in her increasingly sporty boy. Birds delighted still, including ones which can’t fly, though as a child it was their flight she liked.
I did not come prepared to find her subdued and cautious around an explosive man.
His mother and sisters claim his time but offer no help to Sally, during a complicated pregnancy at 38, nor did they attempt to hide from me a tight certainty that she had “trapped their precious boy.”
He had lied about his age and was not quite 21 at the wedding which they were sure “she plotted and planned.” Sally’s explanation, of everything she wore being borrowed, does not alter their conviction it was no spur of the moment for her.
“After all” the thin lipped mother said bluntly, “your daughter was still unmarried at almost 30,” as if this proved her case!
Some bitterness made sense. The husbands of two of the sisters were killed, the “best blood of the colonies” sucked by the likes of us, but their cure for sorrow seemed to be blaming Sally for “encouraging him to face the horrendous far too early” when all would have been better had their adored youngest stayed to marry the childhood sweetheart the family had already taken in as “his intended.”
So this was the “safe and distant place” where Sally found herself stuck and in doubt whether she truly expected a lifetime with the intense young man who, in defiance of his family, whirled her into marriage. And weren’t the reckless more likely to get killed?
But he didn’t die and came back driven to take control.
While he couldn’t quite stand up to his mother, he took things out on Sally and the son who seemed too much hers and hardly his – and perhaps he wasn’t, the father began to mutter, over the long, long months when Sally didn’t conceive as hoped.
Muttering which stopped once “his boy” grew desperate to prove himself with sport.
Finally, eight years after the son, a tiny girl was born.
There was no doubt her arrival impacted powerfully – he held her first and something shifted in him.
Determined to protect his daughter from his temper he began taking his rage outside the home and letting Sally soothe him when the horrors which disturbed both their sleep continued – shame over nightmares being less than the wish not to let his cries frighten the newborn.
His insistence the baby not be near their bedroom, despite Sally’s anxiety over hearing the waking for night feeds, means that it falls to me to watch over my grandchild in the glassed in verandah- but must go to their door each time the little one needs milk only my tired girl can give.