Hattie left Rhys at Chichester station and drove out of town on the A27, but when she saw the turn-off to Bosham, she flung the wheel over and plunged down the narrow country lane. She was far too agitated just to go home, not back to her little semi-detached cottage in Eastney with its echoing stillness and orderliness screaming “old maid.” She needed to walk until her thoughts and emotions settled or to talk to someone who might understand what she was going through.
But what was she going through?
She was falling in love. It was as simple – and absurd – as that. At forty-five years of age, she was behaving and feeling like a silly, brainless schoolgirl. Oh, what wouldn’t Lydia say to her if she found out?
Although Lydia was her younger sister by two years, she had the vast advantage of being a widow – which, according to popular opinion, automatically endowed her with a degree of dignity and presumed wisdom. The fact that Lydia had plunged headlong into a wartime marriage at the tender age of seventeen and lost her husband at the Battle of Jutland 10 months later was politely forgotten by everyone – especially by Lydia herself.
Hattie knew exactly how Lydia would react if she were to breathe a hint of what she was feeling just now. She knew because it had happened once before, back in ’18. Even then, Lydia had reacted as if she were behaving ‘ludicrously’. To the widowed 20-year-old, her older sister’s ‘affair’ had been an embarrassment. She had been accused of ‘making a fool of herself’, of ‘being a laughing stock’ and of ‘an utter lack of common sense and decency’ – all because she’d had the nerve to walk out with an American officer a half-dozen times. He’d only kissed her once at the Harbour station before departing to rejoin his company in France.
So, what would Lydia say of her now, at forty-five and with a non-commissioned officer? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Hattie had reached the village. Ahead of her, the road plunged into the waters of the bay. It was high tide, and there was a cold, November wind whipping up a rough chop in the little bay. Smoke was blowing horizontally from the cottage chimneys, and it was rapidly getting dark. Hattie drove the car onto the verge and pulled on the hand brake. She donned woolen gloves and replaced her pretty hat with a practical knitted one. Finally, she wrapped a scarf around her neck and set off on the path that circled the bay.
The wind buffeted her, and the waves crashed against the concrete base of the harbour basin, sprinkling her with saltwater. Seagulls cawed loudly as they wheeled overhead. Hattie clutched her coat to her and walked vigorously to keep warm.
After Michael was killed, she thought she’d never fall in love again. Lydia — for all that she liked to play the grieving widow — had spent most of the 1920s cocking her hat at one eligible bachelor or another ,while Hattie had found a degree of solace in the Salvation Army instead. At least it had given a new focus to her life.
At some point, the grief for Michael had faded away. There was a scar still. If she took out the only picture she had of him or was foolish enough to reread the handful of letters she had, the pain returned. But it wasn’t a feature of her life any more; it was history.
By the time the grief was gone, so was her youth. Besides, she had never been pretty like Lydia, and after a generation of young men had been slaughtered in the Great War, there were too many women to go around anyway. Even pretty Lydia hadn’t been able to compete in that marriage market. It had been pointless for Hattie to hope and fantasise. She had just got on with things: The Salvation Army, the Seamen’s Mission, being an alternative ‘parent’ to Lydia’s little boy.
The wind was making something clatter terribly on the cottage to her left. Hattie looked over annoyed. It seemed one of the shutters was loose. She peered at the cottage in the near darkness, noting that it looked rather neglected. The garden had gone to weed, and there were no black-out blinds in the windows: It was just dark, empty. Was that a ‘For Sale’ sign? No, ‘To Let’.
Hattie stopped dead in her shoes. It would be perfect for Rhys, she thought. Bosham was a proper village with all the shops his daughter needed, and there was regular bus service to Chichester where the schools were. Best of all, it was close enough to Tangmere to get there by bicycle. Of course, it might be too dear, being right here on the water. She went up the overgrown path and jotted down the telephone number of the estate agent. Tucking the notepad back into her handbag, she hurried back to her car.
She drove past the church to stop opposite the Anchor Bleu. She hurried up to the end cottage of a row of stone cottages nestled beside the millstream and knocked vigorously. A few minutes later, her nephew’s bride of six weeks opened the door.
“Hattie! What a delightful surprise. Come in out of the wind!”
Hattie moved gratefully into the low-ceilinged room with its ancient beams and open fireplace. It was amazing how Emily had transformed this cottage into a cosy home in so little time. When they had first looked at it together, Hattie had found it depressingly dingy and cold, but Emily had read history at Cambridge and was enchanted by its character. Hattie liked plaster walls with flowered wallpaper, bay windows, pastel furnishings and parquet floors. She would never have moved here. But Emily had used carpets and hangings to lend the room warmth despite its stone walls and floors. The furnishings were sparse, and the main pieces were wicker – garden things really – but in the dark room they worked surprisingly well, preventing it from becoming gloomy.
“I hope you don’t mind me dropping in unexpectedly,” Hattie started as she pulled off her hat and gloves.
“You know I don’t! We’ve seen far too little of one another since I married”.
Emily had worked at the Seaman’s Mission, and she had met Robin when he came looking for his aunt. Hattie liked to take credit for their meeting, but she would never have intentionally brought them together. Robin had been the kind of young man to go out with very glamorous women, and Emily was not glamorous. She was, Hattie noted now as the younger woman took her hat and coat, pretty in a subdued, subtle way, but her hair was a light brown, her eyes hazel, her mouth too wide and her teeth a little crooked. She had a natural grace and slender, shapely legs, but not the kind of hourglass figure to turn men’s heads. Emily was elegant, not flashy, lovely, not stunning.
“Shall I put the kettle on?” she asked cheerfully.
“Yes, if I’m not keeping you from anything important.”
“Important? Do you want to know a secret? I’m bored. You know I love Robin and I do want to be here for him, but I was used to having a job before and helping at the mission. At first, I had the cottage to do up, but there’s not that much more I can do now. I don’t think I’m cut out to just cook and clean. My mother worked full-time, you know.”
“I’m not the least surprised. You’re welcome back at the mission any time.”
“No way to get there. Robin needs the car. I’ve thought of joining the WAAFs, but apparently they won’t guarantee postings to the same stations as active service husbands.” As they talked, they had moved into the kitchen. Hattie sat down at the solid table while Emily filled the kettle and put it on the stove. She also produced biscuits from one of the cupboards and set them in front of Hattie. “Was there any particular reason you called?”
Hattie’s heart started to flutter, and she felt silly. She thought of denying it, but she also desperately wanted to talk to someone about it. She just didn’t dare meet Emily’s eyes, so she busied herself arranging the biscuits on the plate Emily had produced. “What would you think if I said I’d been asked out to the flicks?”
“That’s wonderful!” Emily exclaimed at once.
Hattie looked up at her sharply. “Don’t you think it’s a bit ridiculous at my age?”
“Why? I mean, if you like him, if you want to go. Who is it?”
Hattie ignored the last question and concentrated on the rest. “Yes, I do like him. Very much. He must be about my age since he has a seventeen-year-old daughter. He’s a widower of three years. He’s candid and open-hearted. Yes, I want to go to the cinema with him. But it seems very strange.” She looked up at Emily uncertainly.
Emily – bless her – turned the kettle off as it started to whimper and sat down opposite. She looked at Hattie very seriously and stated with conviction: “I think you are one of the warmest people in the world, and it’s a terrible pity that you haven’t had anyone to share that with – except Robin, of course. It’s because you have so much warmth to give that you’ve been so active in the Salvation Army. But you spend most of your time there organising and administering and paying bills and – well, taking care of all the business aspects. That’s no substitute for personal affection. Finally, there is nothing the least bit ridiculous about two people caring for one another and wanting to be together at any age. I hope to God that Robin and I will still feel affection for one another in our forties, fifties and sixties.”
Hattie got up and gave her a big, heartfelt hug. “Thank you.”
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