|A delayed meeting|
The request on the last line of the letter appeared permanently engrained in the paper “I beg you, come to France and meet with me.”
The word France set her mind racing back twenty years when her world was engulfed with waiting for news. The days of waiting turned into months, and then finally a knock on her door. She opened it to behold a senior officer from Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force.
The emotion of thinking about that moment in time long ago made her get up from her desk and look out of the cottage window. Instead of seeing the well-kept garden her vision was blurred by hazy images and distressing scenes of war years. Her husband had been a fighter pilot. He was reported missing; ten months later he was reported dead. The happy years of a young bride had been imprisoned in the dark and terrifying months of not knowing what had happened to him.
The senior officer removed his cap. “Mrs. Charters”
“I am sorry, but I have some bad news. Your husband’s dead body was found two days ago on a beach in Normandy. It appears he was waiting for a boat to come in shore. The Red Cross doctor, after examining the body, told us he had traces of a very serious wound to his right side and leg. Somebody had taken great care of the leg as the wound had healed. This, no doubt, explains all these long months of waiting for news. My deepest regrets.”
She remembered the shock of those words, coupled with the acute feeling of loneliness, of despair and utter hopelessness. That was twenty years ago, now this letter appears like some uninvited guest. She returned to her desk and picked up the letter. It was written on fine paper with an engraved letter heading. The writing was bold with elegant well-formed letters. She read it for the hundredth time.
Manoir du Bois
Tel: Honfleur 3452
Date 14th May 1962
Madame Sally Charters
It was with great difficulty I found your address; persistence paid off. You will have no idea who is writing this letter. I will be brief.
One morning in early July of 1941 my gardener found a young wounded English pilot in the woods surrounding my property. We took him in. His wounds were profound and for several days he lived in the shadow of death. By the mercy of god and the good care of my granddaughter he survived. He lived with us nearly ten months, often in hiding, as we were constantly under suspicion.
Finally, and we understood, he told us he must find his way back to England. As you can image the day he left is forever marked on our memories: April 23rd 1942. We waited patiently for his news; total silence. It was several years after the war I learnt, through careful investigation, and with the help of high placed friends he died on a beach in Normandy within reach of his beloved country. You see, he never told us his name; we just called him Robert. My deepest regrets; he was an extraordinary young man that captured all our hearts.
Now you know who the author of this letter is let me give my reasons for writing. I am a widower, my dear wife died two years ago. Consequently, I have decided to sell my property in Honfleur. In the hiding place where we often kept your husband I have found a series of letters addressed to you, no date, and no address.
“I beg you, come to France and meet with me.”
Madame, my respects
She sat there in a reflective mood, the letter dangling at her side between two fingers. Robert was the name of his best friend who was also his best man at their wedding. He to had died. The war had taken so many fine young men and women; she shuddered at the thought. Did she really want to get involved with the past? It had taken her years to come to terms with the ever-present image of her husband: John. She had never remarried. Her love for John had been so intense and uncompromising that in her mind it was irreplaceable. She still lived in the cottage they had bought together just before the war. She had gone back to teaching. She felt after the stormy years of the war her life was finally in order, well balanced. Occasionally she visited John’s parents. The visits comprised mainly of hugs, holding hands and long stares in a past, or future of a different nature. She knew if she went to France the nightmares of the past would come to haunt her like the gathering thunderclouds on a fair day. Her decision was made. She picked up the telephone, dialed international and asked to be put through to Honfleur 3452. There was a long pause; then finally the telephone rang. She waited patiently.
“Allo.” It always amused her to hear the French throw away the h as though it was a vulgar little letter of no importance.
“May I speak with General Clairbois”
“A moment,” came the reply.
Again there was a long pause, she finally hear footsteps echoing down some passageway. The phone was energetically picked up making for a disagreeable noise in her ear.
“This is Sally Charters, I received your letter.”
“Good, when is it convenient for you to come? I suggest next week.” The tone was polite, but said in such a way that left very little room for refusing. Sally hesitated; she had made already decided not accept his invitation, but the unexpected tone of his voice completely thrown her of balance.
General Clairbois, I…… She never finished.
“Madame, I know what you are going to say. It is often better to leave the past to lie in peace. In this case we cannot; I need to talk with you, also to give you the letters. Can I expect you for lunch on Wednesday of next week, shall we say mid-day?”
Tuesday of the next week found Sally Charters on the ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre. She arrived late and exhausted at her hotel in Honfleur. Once installed in her room she instantly fell asleep on the bed. The next thing she saw was the early morning sun streaming into her room. Breakfast with steaming strong coffee and croissants brought back images of trips as a teenager to France with her parents. Since John’s death she had never wanted to step foot in the country, his body had been brought back to England and now lay in the village’s churchyard. She felt a certain excitement to be in a country that geographically was the closest to the British Isles but she felt was so different in conducting its way of living. A stroll through Honfleur that morning confirmed her suspicions. Unlike England the inhabitants live in the streets, busy going in and out of bakery shops, jostling in the local open air market alive with chatter and selling many products she had never seem before. The small port was busy handling the previous nights fish catch, watched over by anxious fishermen and their wives sitting in front of their doll like cottages. This kaleidoscope of images and impressions would warm many cold, foggy English nights.
She returned to the hotel enchanted, but as the time neared she was deeply disturbed about the forthcoming rendezvous. This whole endeavor was against her better judgment. She felt as if she was being drawn towards her future destiny by some irresistible powerful magnet. As the taxi entered a long wooded drive way her body tensed. There in front of her was a splendid Normandy Manor house of sizable proportions. The elegance of it bricks interwoven with wooden beams, the sweeping roof with its high chimneystacks, and large pane glass windows were both intimidating and at the same welcoming. She rang the doorbell. Several seconds passed before the door was opened by a black manservant.
Madame Charters. He paused, waiting the reply. His next words were, “please come in the General is expecting your visit. He is in his study.”
He led the way to a door on the right of the spacious hall. He opened it to let her pass into large room with two oversized French windows leading into a garden. As she advanced into the room to greet her host she felt she was stepping into the African continent. The furniture, the pictures, carpets and artifacts displayed a refined choice of the African culture and art. Even before he greeted her he said.
“I see astonishment on your face, no doubt, in a classical Normandy manor house it must seem a little odd to be swept into darkest Africa. You will understand better when I tell you I spent most of my adult life there, including getting married.”
Sally noted that was the second time he had read her thoughts.
“Please Madame Charters, welcome, come and sit down.”
Sally extended her hand to a small alert old man. She guessed he must be in his late eighties but to all appearance in good physical condition. His skin had that mellow color so prevalent on people that have spent years exposed to strong sun light. His dark eyes had a disturbing restless quality that made one very conscious of his presence. Probably his most striking feature was the mane of white hair, giving him the aura of some tribal chieftain. As their hands touched in acknowledgement of the welcome she felt the General was a man one could trust.
For several seconds he sat opposite Sally looking intently at ever aspect of her profile. Slowly he moved his hands in a prayer formation to his face and rested his chin on his thumbs. “ Forgive me for examining you so closely. Robert described his young bride in the minutest detail, he was very much in love with you.”
The remark, for a moment, put Sally in a state of confusion until she remembered Robert was her late husband. Again she was about to say something but he had already anticipated her thoughts.
“ The remark requires no reply; the passing of time has been very kind to you.” He paused. “ I thought before lunch we should have a little talk that is why we are in my study. He got up and walked over to his desk that was placed facing one of the French windows. From the top of the desk he picked up two bundles of letters each bound with a ribbon, but not of equal size. He returned to his seat and placed the letters on the low table that lay between.
“ The smaller bundle contains letters he wrote to you. The larger bundle is a mixture of letters, English and French lessons, drawings that accumulated between your husband and my granddaughter during his long stay with us. You see for many days when the Germans were on the prowl we hid him in an inter cellar and the only way we could communicate was through letters.” Over time this letter writing became a ritual between them. He paused sensing his guest was slightly disorientated.
“Pardon,” he said. I should explain the background. At the outbreak of the war our only daughter and her husband returned to Africa leaving their daughter with us. She must have been seventeen at the time and was just about to take the baccalaureate examination. The three of us lived in Paris until the time the Germans entered the city at which moment I moved my family to Honfleur. I was often absence as you can imagine I had certain responsibilities. We must have been in Honfleur about three months when we received news that our daughter and her husband had been savagely murdered in some local African uprising. My wife never got over this news and for the next fifteen years of her life suffered from acute headaches and long periods of depression.” He paused lost in thought. Suddenly without any prior warning he stood up and said. “ Before I continue, let’s have a drink. I believe the English are very partial to sherry. N’est-ce- pas?”
While he was preparing the drinks she picked up the bundle of John’s letters. As she turned the bundle over she was very tempted to untie the ribbon, but something made her hesitate. Was it the fear of sailing into unchartered waters, or being engulfed in memories that she had tried so hard to forget? As she accepted the glass of sherry she replaced the letters on the table.
“Thank you for coming.” They both raised their glasses.
“I feel very unsure of myself and bewildered by what is happening to me, but please continue.”
Well in 1941 your husband was dragged half dead into our lives. My granddaughter took it upon herself to take care of him. The intensity of her devotion to his every need was quite remarkable. They became devoted friends, each depending on each other. He taught her English. She, with great difficulty and perseverance, taught him to speak French. It was due to her careful nursing he recovered enough to contemplate trying to reach the English coast. As the days of his planned departure drew closer the tenderness between them was touching, he had an enormous influence over her. Robert’s ( Sally nearly intervening to correct her husband’s name, but refrained thinking that it was of no importance) absence was sorely felt. Two days later my granddaughter Catherine, left to join the resistance. There was nothing we could do say. She just said Robert would have wished it. For months we heard no word from her, although through certain contacts I knew she was safe and greatly appreciated for her knowledge of English. Then late one night she came to the manor with four friends, they stayed just long enough to raid the kitchen. As they left she pressed a bundle of blankets into my arms and told me it was her little girl born one month ago. She said she would be back in two days to explain everything. We never heard from her again, apparently the next day she and her friends were caught in an ambush. Today the little bundle is nineteen years old; these letters disclose the mystery of who the father is.”
Sally at first did not quite realize the significance of his last remark. Her mind had wandered to the images of her husband being nursed by a young woman. She was very tempted to ask to see the hiding place, but as with the letters something made her hesitate. Then like a streak of lightening the word father pierced her brain.
“You mean my late husband is the father to your granddaughter’s child?”
At first the General did not reply. He bent forward and picked up the larger bundle of letters. He carefully untied the ribbon and extracted a letter. Sally felt as if she was suspended in time, anxious to know the truth, but desperate to close the book on the past.
He leaned forward and handed her the letter
“ I think you should read this letter, it is from Robert to my granddaughter, it admirably explains his feelings, emotions and concerns.”
Sally took the letter and was about to open it when she again hesitated. She looked up and carefully examined the General’s face. Softly, the voice was barely audible, she said. “ I am not sure I want to read the letter, I think I understand what happened. I would rather leave their intimacy a secret of the war years.
He rose and came to sit next to her. “ Madame it is now my turn to understand.”
She turned towards him and asked, “ where does their daughter live today?”
“Here with me.” He replied.
Sally was a little taken aback to think, no doubt, the girl was actually in the house. While she collected her thoughts she polity asked what age she would be.
“She, her name is Catherine like her mother’s, will be twenty in two months time.”
“I think I would like to met her, is that possible?”
“I don’t see why not, but how would I introduce you?”
“Have you told her who her father was?”
“Yes, I have told her.”
“Then introduce me as a old friend of her father’s.”
“Are you sure?”
Sally paused, this time she felt no hesitation. “Yes, I am sure.”
The General picked up a bell that lay on the table and gave it a shape ring. Seconds later his manservant entered. “ Sam, please ask Catherine to come my study. I want to introduce her to a friend of her father’s.”
As the door closed Sally asked the General why he had taken so long to contact her.
“Two months ago we found the letters, they are addressed to you. I always suspected Catherine’s father was Robert as there is a great likeness, but I had no proof until we found the letters. Also don’t forget it was several years after the war I found out your husband was dead. I imagined you had remarried with children of your own. I apologize I never asked.”
“No, I never got remarried.”
At that moment the door opened and in walked a radiantly graceful young woman; the resemblance to John was striking. She had his eyes; the little dimples on each side of her mouth, and even the body motion reminder her of John. But there was one prominent feature that her late husband did not possess; her skin was black.
Before Sally could show her astonishment she heard the General whisper in her ear, “ I forget to tell you I married an African woman, is that important?”
Sally in complete control of all her emotions rose to greet the young woman. The hesitations and memories of the past fell from her shoulders like a heavy cloak as she extended her arms and embraced Catherine, giving her a light kiss on each cheek. Somewhere in the background she heard the General telling Sam that they were all hungry and ready for lunch.