by Danielle Mullen
Postcards are dangerous things. Letters are much safer. They arrive secure in their little envelopes so they can be easily set aside. Only to be opened when the person they are addressed to is ready to read them. Postcards are read in their entirety the moment someone checks the address. Any and all surprises are revealed right away. Usually before the addressee is ready.
I wasn’t ready for the postcard in among the letters this afternoon. My mother’s handwriting. The words “Saturday afternoon will be fine.” I have to take a seat at the kitchen table. I flip it over. The picture on the back is of an old house. A historical site where an author once lived. I flip the card back to stare at the address. It’s our house, and at the top is my married name: Mrs. Peter Ainsworth.
I haven’t seen my mother’s handwriting in over seven years. Her face in six and a half. We don’t talk or write or see each other. We aren’t family in the way that we once were. I suppose it all started with the war.
The fighting began before the bombs started falling. My mother and I would yell and scream at each other. She wanted me to be evacuated with all the other children. I told her I was far too old to be sent away. We couldn’t agree.
When the bombs finally did start coming down on the city, we sat silently together in shelters. We didn’t fight out of courtesy to the others around us. The bombs and the crying were enough noise. Six weeks passed before we reached a compromise. One of our neighbors mentioned that they were looking for young women to work on farms so the young men could join the armed services. I told my mother that I liked the idea of doing something to serve my country. She admitted she liked the idea that I would be less likely to be hit by a bomb out in the countryside.
My mother could be funny when she wanted to be.
Of course there are many other dangers for a young woman in the world. A few of which my mother warned me about many times before the war began. That even nice boys can take things that nice girl’s aren’t ready to have taken from them. That there were consequences to letting passion overtake reason. Despite her best efforts, I left for the country still a naive city girl.
Mrs. Pringle, who ran the farm, was kind enough. We girls worked hard, but she was never mean to us. My knowledge of the world expanded beyond the life I once had in the city. I’d never seen a cow before and now it was my job to milk them every morning. I made friends with the other two girls, Adelaide and Molly. Adelaide was my age and Molly was older and married. She was forever writing letters to her husband and rereading the few she got in return.
As the war progressed, I felt more and more that the work I was doing just wasn’t enough. Yes, I understood the need to feed a nation, that armies march on their stomachs, but there were girls my age building bombs and airplanes. There were young women just like me in the armed forces flying planes and driving officers to important meetings. There were nurses helping wounded soldiers get well again. It all felt more important to me than what I was doing. I was young and I wanted to win the war all by myself. I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way in those days.
When the nearby manor house was taken over and turned into a hospital I saw it as an opportunity to do more. Farm work isn’t the sort of job where there’s time off, but the new hospital was close enough that I always found a few hours here and there to sneak off. The matron wanted to send me back to the farm but the doctor who ran the place told her to put me to work. He thought a pretty young girl visitor might cheer up the men. I blushed at the comment. No one had ever called me pretty before. At least not kindly. My mother forever told me that my looks would get me into trouble. She wasn’t entirely wrong.
I ended up reading to the soldiers who couldn’t. Books and letters, mostly. None of the patients were particularly interested in the newspapers. Sometimes I would help the men write letters back to their families and sweethearts. I took men out into the gardens to get some sunshine. Some of the soldiers got the wrong idea but since the matron had grown to like me she just reminded me to behave.
I did, for almost a year. But then I met Peter Ainsworth. The nurse told me he was a pilot whose plane was shot down and who had bailed too late, breaking both his legs in the fall. Peter wasn’t like the other patients. He didn’t make jokes or flirt with me. He barely spoke, and when he did it was about his dead friends. He often sat and stared off into nothing. I made him my personal project. I snuck him cookies I baked. I read him Agatha Christie mysteries and short stories from old copies of Home Chat. I helped the nurses by wheeling him around in a chair. We went to the conservatory to look at the plants and the garden to get some sun. The first time he smiled I felt like dancing. The first time he laughed I wanted to kiss him.
Eventually Peter was cured of his malaise, but we were both struck by a far worse disease to contract in a wartime hospital: love. There was nothing lasting in that kind of romance. He would get better and leave. He might die before the war was out.
I knew all that when he asked me to spend his last night before he went back to base with him. Still, I said yes. By some miracle Peter found us a warm little room in an inn. We lied and said we’d just been married. The girls lied for me back at the farm. They claimed I felt unwell and went up to bed early.
Peter didn’t make promises I knew he couldn’t keep. He admitted to me that he was certain he wouldn’t survive the war. All his friends were already dead, why should he be the only one to live to see peacetime? No matter what the songs on the radio said, we were certain we’d never meet again. He kissed me goodbye in the early hours of dawn. We were the only two people in the middle of a soggy wet early morning fog. It looked like the rest of the world had melted away. I walked back to the farmhouse alone and thought of Peter, on his way to the train station and his duty. To pray for his safe return felt like asking for too much.
I arrived at the farm damp with morning dew. I snuck into my bed just as everyone else was getting up. I changed out of my dress and went through breakfast and my chores wondering if my night with Peter had just been a dream.
Dreamlike or not, the results of that night were all too real. It didn’t take me long to figure out something was different. At first, I thought it was the ‘flu. Then Molly pulled me aside and told me. She knew all the signs. She had seen them in her mother and her older sisters.
I told Mrs. Pringle. She felt sorry for me, but there were rules and I had broken one of them. A sin that couldn’t be forgiven. She was going to have to send me home. Mrs. Pringle gave me a hug and said it would be better for me to be around my mother at this time. The bombings weren’t as bad in the city anymore, so I didn’t need to be scared of that. But I wasn’t scared of bombs at all.
Somehow, Mrs. Pringle managed to arrange travel back for me.
I remember that morning so well. I had on an old dress that barely contained my fast-growing belly. I knocked on the door, more nervous than I’d ever been in my life. All those lectures my mother had given me. And here I stood, pregnant and unmarried. Just as she was once.
My mother opened the door and looked at me. She stared for a moment at my belly. I expected yelling. I expected an argument. I expected anger. Instead she told me I would have to find some place else. She’d rented out my room. It was occupied. I wanted to ask if I could share her bed or sleep on the couch but instead I just nodded and she closed the door on my face.
I don’t know what I deserved. Kindness? Everyone at the farm was a complete stranger to me before I came to stay and yet they were never mean. But maybe that was why. It’s harder to be kind to the ones we love. The ones who can hurt us so deeply. Who can appear at the door one morning, a vivid reminder of our own personal failings.
I spent the next three nights in a public bomb shelter and days looking for work. I introduced myself to everyone as “Mrs. Peter Ainsworth.” I found work taking care of an old woman who refused to let her family move her to the country. The woman was bitter about life but had sympathy for the story I’d made up and allowed me to stay with her even after I gave birth.
When the time came, I had twins. A boy and a girl. I cut off my childish braids a week later. I remember rolling up each plait and placing them in the wastebasket. I was going to be everything I could to my children. I was going to be like my mother was before the war. Before I made the same mistakes she once did, and she couldn’t find it in herself to forgive me.
When the war was over, I looked for Peter. It wasn’t easy. Every private detective was overwhelmed with missing person cases. The one I hired told me not to keep my hopes up. Most of the missing turned out to be dead.
“He was a pilot, was he?” The detective asked.
I nodded. He didn’t need to tell me how few pilots made it through the war. There were three long years between when I last saw Peter and when peace was declared. The odds of him still being alive were not good. And even if he was alive, I didn’t expect him to go along with my lie or ask me to marry him. I just wanted him to know about the children and that we made it through the war.
The detective found him in a convalescent home in the country. He warned me that the Peter I found might not be the Peter I remembered.
“Nothing and no one ever is,” I said as I paid the man with a small pile of carefully saved bills.
The home was nice enough. I was escorted into a room with chairs, couches, and a radio. The weather report was on and I listened to it as I waited. I remember the forecast was for cloudy skies. Peter was led in by an orderly and seated in a chair across from me. The orderly nodded at me before leaving us alone.
There was a slash across the left side of the man’s face that ran from the middle of his forehead to the far corner of his jaw. He had a patch over one eye and the other was cloudy. The scar distorted his features so much that I began to think the detective had made a mistake. I’d never possessed a photograph to remember what Peter looked like and here I was confronted with a different face entirely.
“They said you’re my wife? I don’t remember. I didn’t think my memory went as well my sight.” He laughed at his own joke. It was same the laugh I heard the first time I wanted to kiss him.
I came over and kneeled in front of Peter. I took his hands in my own and put them on my cheeks, where tears were sliding down.
“You didn’t forget,” I said.
“Oh,” was all he said.
My tears continued to fall as he leaned down and kissed me. I pulled away and reached into my bag, fumbling for my handkerchief.
“I’m so ridiculous,” I said, wiping at the tears that wouldn’t stop coming. “I’m glad I didn’t bring the children with.”
“Children?” Peter asked. “When did that happen?”
“While you were off winning the war. I had twins. A boy and a girl.”
“Well then. I guess I have no choice but to ask, will you marry me?”
We pretended we needed to get married because the records were destroyed during the war. The twins, now four years old, accepted their father as if he had always been there. As if he had always been blind. And as far as they knew, he had.
I know life isn’t a fairy tale. Love and tears don’t bring back someone’s sight. Lovers reuniting doesn’t end the story happily ever after. But hair grows back and children grow up. Time passes and our memories soften into nostalgia. Postcards arrive from family long thought lost to us forever.
“What are you doing in here?” asks Peter. He is in the doorway to the kitchen, facing me.
“How did you know I was in here?” I ask.
Peter laughs and sits down in the chair next to mine.
“I could hear you thinking.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Would you happen to know why my mother sent me a postcard telling me ‘Saturday afternoon will be fine’? Fine for what?”
“A visit, I’d imagine.”
“You know something about this, don’t you?”
“Maggie asked me for help with a letter.”
“No doubt a letter you gave her the idea to write. Shame on you, recruiting a six-year-old to do your dirty business.”
“Well, from what I hear Petey has terrible handwriting.”
“He does. Why did you ask our daughter to write to my mother?”
“Because I know all about those letters you write and then tear up.”
“How? I do that when you are listening to the radio and the children are in bed.”
“I have my ways. I figured that maybe you were never going to send one so I thought a letter from Maggie might be just the thing. So, will Saturday afternoon be okay?”
“Yes,” I say as Peter puts his hand on my cheek.
“Your face is wet,” he comments.
“Because it’s raining.”
“In the kitchen?”
“How do you know you’re inside the house, you blind old man?” I ask as he pulls me into his arms.