This fragile, elderly lady, her white, carefully coiffured hair glinting with slivers of silver, carefully sprayed into submission. Her discreet diamond stud earrings replying with their own Morse code, a single strand of pearls playing peek-a-boo with her twinset. Everything about her, reserved and cautious, unspoken as the thin lips that now curled into a small smile.
“My usual please Stephen”, her soft and gentle voice like warm, dripping honey; she dabbed the corners of her mouth with a lace handkerchief, as if to prevent said sweet, viscid substance from trickling onto her pristine outfit.
Stephen, not so young himself, considered the woman before him as he took her order. He imagined that she would have been quite a looker, quite a head turner in her youth. If only he’d known her then….
“Thank you Miss Gray”, her name as anonymous as she’d needed it to be for so long, and despite the passage of the years, she’d never got used to it. Never got used to being called Miss Gray; it didn’t fit somehow, it wasn’t comfortable. A bit like the pink lipstick really, it wasn’t her. Red had always been much more her colour. Neither were the pearls really her, but she had a façade to keep up. But the diamond studs, now they were her, a part of her past that she’d hung onto, the only part in fact. The rest had been buried sixty years before out of necessity. But now and again……… she remembered.
Stephen observed her delicately eating her cassoulet with such refinement, and he wondered. He pondered, his Ranulph Fiennes mind negotiating the ice floes of what might or might not be her past. She was so elegant, so ladylike; he mused, could she have aristocratic connections? Or was she the product of a very strict upbringing? He loved to allow his thoughts the run of his head as he speculated as to who she was, who she could have been; what might have been, what could have been. If only things had been different…..
With her pristine manners and delicate features, any children they might have had together would have been attractive and well behaved. He imagined her scrubbing their little faces clean after sharing a nutritious yet frugal war time meal; him reading the bed time stories, she bedecked in her frilly apron, washing and drying the dishes. He fantasised about her being a loving yet firm mother, a willing and loving wife.
Domestic harmony, the woman of his dreams, the family, the home all cosy and comfortable, well-kept and orderly.
Miss Gray finished her cassoulet and politely placed her knife and fork together, neatly on the plate, as befitting a lady of her standing. She swallowed the last of her gin and tonic, again dabbing the corners of her mouth with her lace handkerchief before placing it in her capacious handbag and extracting her purse from its depths.
“My bill, please Stephen, if you will.” She smiled at him, her voice propelling him back into the present moment with a lightening jolt; a million miles away from his day dreams and speculations. He smiled warmly and responded with just a hint of a french accent.
And she left.
Stephen sighed, she’d be back again, and he knew that, tap tap tapping with her walking stick as he watched her walking with difficulty. Then he caught himself imagining where she might go after she left his establishment. Returning to her three storey Georgian town house perhaps, a paid companion opening the door, ready to attend to her needs? Or, perhaps with the well-connected friends he imagined that she had, calling upon them for afternoon tea. Polite conversation would follow, maybe a game of bridge or two?
Miss Gray turned left as she vacated the French bistro, her favourite eatery as it reminded her of pleasant past times; and quickly glanced over her shoulder, just to be sure. Even after all these years, she would never let her guard down, despite maintaining a routine that could have put her in danger; but then she’d always flirted danger, hadn’t she? Miss Gray and an adrenaline rush had always courted each other and danced hand in hand; unlike her female peers with their Victory rolls and utility clothing, working the land or in the munitions factories.
She purchased a single red rose from the florists on the corner of the High Street. It was duly wrapped in cellophane and paid for, Miss Gray continued on her pilgrimage, tap tap tapping; the percussion of her highly polished court shoes in unison with her walking stick.
Frail she might have appeared, but it had never stopped her, in fact all those years ago it had been a perfect foil, disguising her well, until……
She entered the cemetery and slowly followed the lines of unkempt graves, noting the plot numbers as she went until she found what she was looking for. An unmarked, communal grave, filled with the remains of the poor, the unknown and the unloved.
Miss Gray stood before the overgrown grave, a sense of accomplishment that her years of searching had finally brought her here for laying to rest of the ghosts of years passed. She’d needed to be completely sure and now she was. Deep in her stomach, a wild bird took flight.
The memories began to emerge, like a vast crevasse in an ice field. Emerge; no they flooded out as the crack widened to release more and more, the ethereal and time worn recollections no long willing to be contained within their glacial tomb. Frozen tears escaped from her eyes, which were by now dimmed with time and grief.
She remembered how she’d been recruited because of her fluency in European languages, the rigorous and exacting training, parachuting into France behind enemy lines after midnight on the night of the dark moon; hiding in hedgerows until retrieved by members of The Resistance. Her bright Betty Grable locks well hidden beneath her turban, but her equally bright red lipstick exploding defiantly as she smiled with relief. She thought about those fighters that had been executed for betrayal; she reminisced about the brief, passionate and very torrid affair she’d had with Etienne, the head of her Resistance section.
Illicit, forbidden love yet it was not uncommon during that tense period of uncertainty of whether any of them would live to see another day, another night or another lover. They’d seized the day, grasping every opportunity for their highly charged and deeply satisfying couplings. She’d relished the risks they’d taken, the secrecy of it all, despite the knowledge and fear that they were putting themselves in jeopardy; in more ways than one.
Her tears fell as she thought of what might have been; the different road that her life could have taken.
Once ‘it’ had been discovered, Etienne had her returned to England as soon as it had been safe for her to travel. Their parting was agony, not knowing whether either of them would survive the war, whether they’d ever see each other again; but they both knew and accepted that it wasn’t safe for a woman in her circumstances to remain behind enemy lines.
Glancing up towards what so many years ago, had been the old maternity home; she remembered.
“After all these years I’ve found you, little one” she whispered as she carefully bent down to lay the single red rose upon the earth. Pausing, she turned and walked away.