Hanging on the wall in the hallway of my parents’ house is a portrait of my great grandparents on their engagement day. It’s one of those typical, non-smiling sepia photographs. He has a massive moustache and her hair is scraped back off her face so hard it must have been painful.
They’re both facing slightly off centre. One of his hands is blurred; it looks as if he moved it from resting on her shoulder to cupping her elbow. Or the other way round. I’ve walked past it a thousand times without ever really stopping to look.
My mother puts her hand on my shoulder and pushes me closer.
‘Recognise that brooch?’ she asks. I shake my head. ‘I wore it last time you visited. Last summer.’
I feel badly about not recognising the brooch. The gilt on the wooden frame is badly chipped. I tell my mother she looks like her grandfather.
‘All us Gordonstouns have that chin. You should look in the mirror more.’
‘I’m scared that this is going to cause problems between you, dad and me.’ I look at my feet. I don’t want to see the disappointment in her eyes.
‘My grandmother’s name was Lily. She was listening to details of the Armistice declaration on the radio and twisting the engagement ring on her finger when the postman knocked on the door. Lily answered the door and collected the day’s post and left it on the kitchen table while she made breakfast.
‘Then Lily sat down to eat her toast and look through the mail. She was wondering whether she should wear her sister’s wedding dress, new five years before, or alter her mother’s.
‘The letter from her fiancé’s commanding officer was short, but Lily let her breakfast grow cold by reading it over and over again. By the time someone found her, the cup of tea had a film on it, the eggs were congealed and the letter was transparent with tears.
‘For a good six months, Lily refused to leave the house. She wore only black and set her lips in a thin, pale line when people spoke to her. She sat and twisted the engagement ring round her finger while the spring happened to other people, outside. Left in the house alone, she drew the curtains and wept.
‘One morning, Lily was up early and scrubbing the kitchen step by the half-dawn light. The postman limped up the path and crouched down next to her.
‘Let’s talk,’ said the postman. Lily made him a cup of tea. They talked for an hour and he was late for work. The next day Lily had the kettle on the hob when he arrived. The day after she waited inside, in her good dress rather than her housework clothes.
‘By the end of a fortnight, Lily started talking to her family again. Just the odd remark, about the weather and such like. After a month, the postman was coming in for breakfast and Lily was wearing a green skirt.
‘The other soldiers came home from the war and the first time Lily saw a uniform on the street, she burst into tears and had to be taken into the back room of the bakery to sit down.
‘Later that same day, Lily tied up a bundle of letters and mementoes with some ribbon. She put the bundle in an empty biscuit tin and put the engagement ring on top, wrapped in a leftover scrap of velvet. Then she put the lid on the biscuit tin and put it away in the farthest corner of the top shelf of the linen cupboard.
‘Lily and the postman got engaged at the height of summer.’
‘What did they talk about?’ I ask. My mother turns away from the photograph to look at me.
‘He felt terribly guilty.’
‘About her fiancé?’
‘He was lame from birth. He didn’t see active service. Instead he brought bad news. That’s what my grandmother always said. He felt like a storm crow. Loving my grandmother was a sort of apology.’
‘What about her? Did she love him?’ My mother points at Lily’s brooch.
‘He gave it to her as a love token, when they started courting officially. She wore it until the day she died.’
‘Two days before the wedding, the postman knocked on the door and Lily answered it with a smile. She was wearing a green ribbon in her hair. He gave her a flower and a handful of letters. She gave him a kiss for each hour left before the church ceremony.
‘Mainly the letters were typewritten bills for the wedding preparations. One was handwritten. Lily didn’t recognise the handwriting, a fact she never admitted to anyone because it was the deepest cut of shame.
‘After Lily read the handwritten letter, she went upstairs to the linen closet and took out the biscuit tin and took the old engagement ring out of the scrap of velvet.’
We stand in silence, both looking at the photograph.
‘I found her diary when my parents moved across here, to the East coast. I don’t think anyone else has ever read it. Turned out the first fiancé hadn’t been killed at all; he was a P.O.W., held in an internment camp in Switzerland. His parents didn’t approve of the engagement. When they received a telegram informing them that he was still alive, Lily was already stepping out with the postman. They kept it a secret from everyone.’
‘What did she do?’
‘There was a massive scandal. Lily and her husband had to move from Aberdeen to Ayr to escape it.’
‘Who did she marry?’
‘Neither of them. She called off both engagements and married one of the baker’s sons. William Gordonstoun. Her parents stood by her.’
I digest this in silence while we walk back through to the kitchen, where my father is washing the breakfast dishes.
My father hands me a tea-towel and I dry while my mother waters the houseplants.
Outside, the sun streams down on the snow and everything is ringing with light.
*first published online in issue 1 of Spilling Ink Review in 2010, and in The Spilling Ink Review Anthology in 2011
*an illustrated version of this story adapted for immigrant adults with basic reading skills is available to buy from Simply Cracking Good Stories under the title The War Bride