A Legacy of Waiting

Fiction
Deborah Bazalgette


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Photo Credit: anonymouscollective

She’s almost ready to click ‘send’.

Her typing is laborious—three fingers from each hand. Someone once told her that people who could play the piano have no trouble learning to type. I must be the exception that proves the rule, she thinks.

She’s read and re-read it, changed some of the phrases and changed them back again. The first, unforced version was the best in many ways: friendly, but not too eager—she doesn’t want to be patronized. If he replies.

Now she’s held back for so long that the screensaver has come up: that generic photo of surfing waves—bright blue sky, towering water, white spray. She understands that savvy computer users can install their own photos, perhaps exchange glances with themselves before they start work, admire the proportions of their faces. Lust after the people they desire. But she is stuck with rolling waves, forever poised at their tallest reach. They remind her of that recurring, claustrophobic dream in which she is swimming in a calm sea, then finds that she is launching herself head first into an enormous wall of water, a giant wave. All her life she has dreamed this: struggled up through thick darkness to reach the creamy foam and finally, gloriously, the sunlight, where the water is again calm and blue and she floats, triumphant.

Yet then wakes without fail to a sense of panic, wondering if she’s about to drown, or is there another disaster around the corner?

She pushes the dream aside before the anxiety can transfer itself to the email she’s got to send.

Got to? I don’t have to send it, though.

And tries to quell the nervous fluttering in her stomach by revolving her chair to look at the stately grandfather clock ticking peacefully in its walnut case in the corner; the photo of her father which has sat, for the past three years, in a silver frame; her grandparents’ watercolour of a Romney Marsh church.

All is in its place here; I need only send that message if I really want to.

Or if you are ever going to answer a lifetime’s questions, nags the opposing voice in her mind. I’ll make some coffee, to give my brain a rest, and then I’ll send it.

Into the kitchen, to her old-fashioned Italian metal pot which sits on the stove and pressurizes water up through the coffee and into the top chamber. She bought it on that visit to Florence seventeen years ago; these two mugs, also—ivory-glazed terracotta decorated with green-leaved olive branches. She remembers the warmth rising from the pavements, the sense of freedom from dull routine.

Hope returns to the computer to drink her coffee but turns the chair back round, clicks the mouse to return the email to the screen, and reads.

Dear Bob,

I hope you won’t mind me sending you this message. I have been researching some family history and have discovered that you and I may be related.

She tries to imagine how his unknown face might look after reading the first sentence.

I believe that your father and my mother got to know each other in London during the war. I was born shortly afterwards, but he had returned to the USA by then and there wasn’t any further communication between them. I am anxious to establish whether I have any family in the United States, and wondered whether your father had ever mentioned my mother—Patricia, or Patsy, Rutherford.

Or me, of course. She almost laughs at the unlikelihood.

I would be most grateful if you could let me have any information about this part of what may be our—shared—family history.

With best wishes

Hope Rutherford

Her hand rests on the mouse while she re-reads the message. She likes the formality she has injected into the wording, the lack of sentimentality. But before she realizes what’s happening, the hand has sprung into action, index finger clicked the mouse button, and the email is gone. Her body is one step ahead of her mind—or is it expressing an urgency which she doesn’t allow herself to acknowledge?

Fear rushes through her stomach; her mouth is dry.

Oh God! What have I gone and done?

And now her other hand, which has kept hold of the coffee mug throughout, gives expression without warning to her emotions. There is a cracking sensation and the handle comes away. Tiny fragments of white ceramic fall like talcum powder onto the desk, mixed with darker specks of terracotta. She looks at her mug and its separate handle, still in her grip. Why is this the moment that has been chosen for its demise?

Tears flow without warning. Hope bends her head over her arms and rests her weight on the unyielding computer keyboard.

 

‘It wasn’t so much that he was good-looking,’ her mother tells her, twisting an auburn curl round her fingers. ‘It was more that he had such charm; he would make me laugh.’ Hope, who always enjoys this story, sits on the rug by her mother’s feet, arms hugging her knees while she rocks to and fro, imagining this man, her father. Her mother, Patricia, laughs as she remembers them running through Hyde Park, jumping off buses, always holding hands.

‘Holding hands,’ she repeats. ‘He always said, “I’m not gonna let you go, Patsy.” No-one else called me Patsy; I was always Patricia. But Patsy was how he thought of me.’

There is only one photograph, a small, faded, black-and-white snapshot of his head and shoulders. He is in uniform, but bare-headed, so the double crown, forcing the dark hair upright at the back, is clearly visible. Just as her dark hair sticks upright, no matter how much water she uses to try to flatten it. He is smiling, showing even, white teeth; those Hope hasn’t inherited, possessing instead her mother’s yellowish, uneven English teeth. Post-war austerity in 1950s England doesn’t allow for teeth-straightening.

But when Patricia repeats his words about never letting her go, her mouth puckers and her voice reduces to a whisper.

‘Why did I fall for it? It wrecked everything. All the things I was going to do.’

‘But then I was born,’ Hope interrupts, aware of her significance in this whole story.

‘Yes, you were born,’ Patricia replies, looking at her not unkindly. ‘None of this is your fault, of course. And I’m the luckiest person alive to have you.’

Hope can’t help wondering, however, whether her mother secretly regrets her appearance on the scene.

‘I called you Hope,’ Patricia goes on, ‘because he said that was his mother’s name, and I thought that would please her, once we got to America and met her; and because I was full of hope, and trust, that he would send for me. Like those other girls were sent for by their American soldiers.’ And she falls silent, remembering.

Hope jumps up and tugs at her sleeve.

‘Don’t worry, mummy!’ she shouts. ‘He’ll come back! When I’m big enough I’ll go and find him and make him come back!’ Her eyes glow at the thought of being the person to restore Patricia to good spirits, of the gratitude her mother will feel towards her.

‘And how will you find him?’ comes Patricia’s sour reply as she walks into the kitchen.

Hope, waiting for her tea, sits in her mother’s armchair, still warm, and nestles back into its comfortable, cushioned depths, legs sticking out over the edge. Cradling her father’s photograph, gazing into the orange glow of the gas-fire, she makes up a story, shouting through the door so her mother can hear, about going on a ship across the sea and finding him waiting for her on the quayside, arms outstretched. Unlike the stories that she tells about princesses and fairy-tale castles, this elicits no response from the kitchen.

She can’t quite imagine what a father would be like if he lived with them from day to day. She is slightly nervous of the fathers in her street, who are tall and have deep, booming voices, and knows that the children of those fathers don’t get singled out at school for particular name-calling as she does.

 

The broken china is cleared up and wrapped in newspaper, out of sight in the bin. Hope has made more coffee. She didn’t want to risk the safety of her remaining Italian mug, so she reached up to the top shelf for her mother’s old Portmeirion Botanical Garden cup and saucer—purple crocuses rather than green olives; Portmeirion china doesn’t shatter easily. As her hands seem to be acting in isolation from the rest of her today, she can’t be sure what they will be capable of next. Writing a second, more honest, email?

Better to prevent that. Turn the machine off, leave it alone until there might be a reply. She goes through the shut-down process, watches the screen flash white, then go black, closes the lid. The reply could come almost instantaneously—or in a few days—or never. She could be driven mad by waiting.

More action needed, then. Time to clean out her mother’s room which has been left to gather dust during the time since Patricia died, since Hope, unable to absorb the reality of having no relatives at all, went through the motions of clearing out clothes, jewellery, possessions all and sundry. She has put off doing a proper clean ever since, but it has considerable appeal as a way of pushing the email out of her mind.

She takes a duster, some polish, a black rubbish bag and the vacuum cleaner and moves energetically upstairs, determined to dispel, with a flurry of physical work, the quiver in the pit of her stomach: mixed anticipation and terror.

 

Hope and her mother are on a bus, travelling the dingy streets of south London from Camberwell to Dulwich. The invitation for Hope to meet her grandparents, which she had given up expecting, arrived on her fifteenth birthday.

‘Is it a coincidence?’ she asked her mother pensively as they ate their toast and margarine with cheap jam. Food rationing may be over, but the beginning of 1960 hasn’t seen the arrival of luxury food in the shops—nor has their income risen. She is pleased with her new blue woollen jumper, though, which she has pretended not to notice her mother knitting over the past few weeks.

‘Who can tell?’ was Patricia’s weary reply. ‘I gave up speculating about my mother’s motives a long time ago.’

‘So how long is it since you’ve seen them, exactly?’

‘Twelve years. You were three. I was struggling to manage—as ever—and thought they might help. Didn’t want to take you with me; I thought that might irritate them, so I left you with Jenny next door.’

‘And did they help you?’

Patricia grimaced.

‘A crisp new five-pound note. And a sermon about the evils of fornication.’ Unlike many girls of her age in 1960, Hope has been left in no doubt as to how children are created. The chances of her becoming a single mother are small.

‘So should we go?’ Hope was aware of a fluttering excitement within her; the faint possibility of something that might disturb, entrancingly, the drabness of their lives.

‘I think so, yes. They are getting old. You know how important it is to try and see things from other people’s point of view. Maybe they’ve realised they went too far. I’d like you to meet them, see where you came from, as it were.’

 

(My mother worked her way through to a form of forgiveness, thinks Hope, polishing Patricia’s mahogany dressing-table. I wonder how long that took her?)

 

As they pass terrace after terrace of run-down Victorian houses, Hope follows the track of raindrops meandering down the outside of the dirty bus window beside her, wondering how Patricia will know when to ring the bell to warn the driver they want to get off; a little later, she observes the easy assurance with which her mother jumps off the bus and walks up a side road. Suddenly she realises for the first time that this is where Mother grew up.

After some hesitation Patricia, face pale against her auburn hair, presses a gloved finger to the doorbell of the sash-windowed, double-fronted house. After a while they hear a shuffling sound, and the door opens. Inside, dwarfed by the high, corniced ceiling and elaborately decorated banisters leading upwards, a small, frail, white-haired woman is leaning heavily on a walking stick. She is dressed quite formally in tweed skirt, silk blouse, and pearl necklace. She peers up at them but doesn’t seem to realise who they are.

‘Yes?’

Her tone is grander than Hope is accustomed to.

‘Hello, Mother, we’ve come as you asked us to.’ Hope sees her mother’s hands twisting around each other.

‘And who is this?’

‘This is Hope. You remember I told you she was called Hope.’ The old lady looks up at Hope, apparently disbelieving what she hears.

‘But I was expecting a small child, Patricia. This is a young lady.’

‘Time has moved on, Mother. Hope is fifteen now.’ Patricia is still fidgeting, perhaps nervous as to whether they really are going to be invited in.

‘Goodness gracious! Well, you’d better come in. Father’s getting the tea: my eyesight’s too poor now, and it’s Sarah’s day off.’ Grandmother turns and shuffles away from the door, leading them into a palely elegant drawing-room furnished with piano, grandfather clock and watercolour landscapes. They sit stiffly on upholstered chairs while she goes into the kitchen.

 

Hope, wielding the vacuum cleaner, remembers that tea. Sandwiches, fruit cake, tea out of thin china cups. Tongs for the sugar. Her grandparents looking at her furtively, in between bursts of stilted conversation about school and friends; the scratchiness of her grandfather’s tweed jacket against her hand when he took her cup to refill it.

 

‘Where do you buy the girl’s clothes, Patricia?’ asks her grandmother. It seems that Hope isn’t dressed quite to the standard expected.

‘I make them, Mother—I can’t afford to go to clothes shops. She’s learning to make them herself, as well.’ Mass-market, cheap fashion is still somewhere in the future.

Hope sees astonishment in her grandmother’s eyes, and wonders at the gulf between their two lives.

‘She seems a well-behaved girl,’ remarks her grandfather, looking over the top of his spectacles at her. Hope, unused to being discussed like this, shrinks back into her uncomfortable chair, manages a faint smile even while feeling rebellious.

‘She’s a very good girl, hasn’t given me a moment’s trouble. And she’s top of her form in English and History,’ says her mother, defiantly. Another reason I have no friends, thinks Hope; if I had had grandparents, even without a father, would I still have been called those names, and ostracised?

Going home on the bus, Hope looks out at the rain again, through the steamed-up windows. She’s relieved to be out of the stuffy atmosphere of the Dulwich house, can still smell the hint of mothball, aged books, and pipe tobacco. Wonders what the point of the afternoon has been. She turns and looks at her mother, whose eyes are closed, notices the lines around those eyes. What an ordeal they have been through, she is starting to realise: a fifteen-year ordeal. Should she feel guilty? But how could anyone have thought that it was her fault?

When they get home to the small flat, Hope feels she can breathe again, inhales with relief the beef stew her mother is heating up for their supper.

‘What did you think, then?’ Patricia asks.

‘They’re so different to us,’ replies Hope, carefully. ‘They were a bit frightening. What was it like when you—told them about me?’

‘Frightening is a good description,’ Patricia says. ‘I was brought up very differently from you—much more strictly, and not encouraged to express myself. It never occurred to them that anything like that might happen to their daughter. I can understand that in a way,’—she is dishing out baked potatoes to go with the stew—‘they are of their generation. But I would never turn my own child out of the house.’

Hope cuts her baked potato in two and breathes in the steam that rises from it. School may be a trial, but home is a real home, however modest it may be.

 

Dusting, polishing and vacuuming are done, and she’s emptied the last few bits and pieces out of the chest of drawers—mahogany, like the dressing-table—and the bedside cupboard. Time for lunch. She picks up the black bag and, almost as an afterthought, opens the wardrobe door to look inside, though she knows she emptied it three years ago.

She remembers the clearing out. It was a dark, January day, and even with the dim overhead light switched on the room looked and felt as funereal as her mood.

Today is different—perhaps the bright sunlight helped to fuel her decision to do this cleaning. And as she opens the wardrobe, a shaft of that sunlight pierces the gloom at the back, illuminating a piece of brown paper in the corner. She puts the bag and duster down again, stretches forward to retrieve this last scrap of rubbish.

It’s an envelope, not a scrap of paper. How did she miss it before? It must have been camouflaged in the dingy light. She opens the flap and pulls out the contents, which consist of three handwritten letters addressed to her mother, bearing a New York postmark. Her heart thumps wildly.

The first one is dated 1946.

Dear Patricia

Sorry, dear, for taking so long to write, but it’s been a whirlwind since I arrived. Joe was waiting for me at Staten Island—you should have seen the view of the Statue of Liberty as the ship came in!—but there were so many delays with the paperwork, many of the husbands were sent home and told to wait there.

Hope has never seen the Statue of Liberty.

Eventually I was allowed in and directed to the bus station, where I telephoned him and he came, and we had a joyful reunion. I was lucky compared with some, who hadn’t prepared their papers or brought the correct money. I’m thankful to have had the support of my family when I was getting ready to travel.

I’m having such a happy time! They are all so kind, and helping me to settle. But I do miss Mother and you, and all the old chums.

Is this leading to anything, Hope wonders?

I’m sending you some nylons—you wouldn’t believe how much luxury there is here in the shops, both food and clothing—and wish I could give you a hug.

I’ve left it till last to ask—have you heard from Samuel yet? Joe’s been so busy working hard that he’s not seen any of his old comrades, but he says he knows of several who are working hard, saving money to get their girls out here. If you’ve not heard, I should think that’s what he’s doing.

Don’t forget to write back—I need to stay in touch with home!

My love

Louise

Hope refolds the yellowing paper. Her mother never mentioned Louise. Perhaps they lost touch once it became clear that Patricia would never be crossing the Atlantic.

Dear Patricia—or maybe now I’m an American I’d better call you Patsy!

That must have pleased Mother, is Hope’s grim thought.

You’ll never believe my news—I’m going to have a baby! We’re both so happy and excited. Joe’s mother, who I must call Angie rather than Mrs Newsome, keeps making me drink milk and eat steak to help the baby grow. You wouldn’t believe how much of everything there is here, and they are all so kind and generous.

Hope’s eyes skim across all this enthusiasm, searching desperately for a reason that these letters would have been preserved.

After I heard from you, I asked Joe if he thought there was any way he could find out where Samuel is, and he’s going to call a few people and see what he can discover. I will of course write again as soon as I hear anything.

My love

Louise

The third letter—it’s now 1947—is much shorter, as if its writer knew that the recipient would not want to hear about the plenteousness of love and provisions Stateside.

Dear Patricia

I kind of don’t know how to explain this to you—but I must. Joe has discovered that Samuel is married—and that he was already married before he went to fight in Europe.

Hope clutches the letter so hard that her fingers turn white.

I’m not yet sure of all the details but, dear, I’m afraid that the outlook isn’t good for you and your little girl. Let me know what I can do. We have so much of everything here, I’m sure I can send you some things if it would be of help.

My love to you

Louise

Hope stares bleakly through the window into the road. The sun has gone in; grey clouds hang over the silent, lunchtime street. Not yet time for school pick-up; babies are having their afternoon nap, adults are at work.

All the things my mother didn’t say to me. The effort of that. She knew that he would never come.

The email that Hope sent only an hour ago hovers around the edges of her mind, but she can’t cope with that now; the implications are too awful to consider. She replaces the letters in the brown envelope, picks up the black bag and duster once more, walks slowly downstairs and sinks onto the sofa.

 

There is no mention of a follow-up visit to Dulwich, but an exchange of letters takes place between her mother and grandparents, until one day Patricia makes an announcement.

‘I think you may have brought us some luck with your good behaviour the other week. Your grandparents seemed to take to you. They seem to have realised a little of what life has been like for us. They’ve offered to buy us a small house, and to make you an allowance. I’m not quite sure that I’m forgiven, but they seem at least to have come to their senses about you.’

Hope remembers looking at her mother’s pinched, white face, and thinking that she didn’t seem particularly pleased by the news. Another six years go by, and her grandparents both die, before the lack of pleasure is explained.

‘We have an appointment with a solicitor next week, on your birthday,’ Patricia says one day. ‘You’ll have to arrange for a day off from work.’

Hope has trained as a secretary. Each day she walks down the road from their small, terraced house, still in Camberwell, and catches a bus to Dulwich, ironically enough, where she is secretary to the assistant manager of a bank: not her grandparents’ bank, she is thankful to learn. She never saw them again after that intimidating tea.

At the solicitor’s office she discovers with amazement that she is expected to sign a document giving her ownership of the house in which they live. Patricia’s mouth is set in a bitter line throughout the meeting, and there is little conversation between them on the way home.

 

Hope sits on the sofa, rubbing her thumb and finger absentmindedly on the duster which lies on her lap, dirt and all. That’s why she started her search, she knows. Who will she leave her possessions to, otherwise?

It’s taken her nearly three years to find them, using genealogy websites, US Army records, anything she came across, until she narrowed it down to what she is convinced is the right family. Chose Bob—her half-brother—to contact, thinking that he might be the most approachable. Bob is a relaxed name, she could almost picture his check shirt and beer belly.

Agonised, finally, for weeks about what to say and how to say it.

But now she’s almost sure it was a mistake to send the email. Samuel was already married—he wouldn’t want anyone to know what he got up to in Europe. He will never have mentioned them.

She closes her eyes, burdened with quiet horror at what she has unknowingly done.

She must see whether there’s a reply. But not yet. It’s after two, she needs to eat. Duster still in hand, she goes into the kitchen to make a scratch lunch out of what remains in the fridge. Apprehension has removed any interest in food, so she makes do with the end of a piece of cheddar, a couple of tomatoes, and a slice of the almost-stale end of the last loaf to make an unappetising sandwich—all she deserves really, considering the crassness of the email—which she chews carefully before finishing up with a slightly wrinkled apple. There’s the remaining influence of an unprosperous fifties upbringing for you, she thinks. Inability to throw away stale remains.

She clears away and sits herself nervously at the computer: turns it on. The screen flashes various messages, goes black, lights up again, finally comes to its conclusion. She has long ago bypassed the log-in process—there’s no-one from whom she needs to protect her privacy, or who might wish to take a secret look at her paltry correspondence and files.

At last the motor finishes its chuntering; the computer sits silently, internet icon inviting her to enter and learn what it may have in store. She delays once more. But her body’s ahead of her again—right hand jumping at the mouse, labouring as usual over a double-click to get the connection with the outside world. She types in the details that open up the email account, but can’t bring herself to look at what’s there: looks down to study the pattern of her skirt, lying smoothly over her lap, flecked with dirt from the duster.

She looks away towards the window, at anything rather than the screen, but hasn’t allowed for her treacherously all-embracing peripheral vision. There is an email there—the bold print leaps out from the screen.

I’ll have to read it now, she thinks, now that I know it’s there.

There’s no clue in the subject line. it simply regurgitates her own, preceded by the usual abbreviation:

Re: Trying to make contact.

Hope’s hand is on the mouse; the future hovers somewhere above her index finger.

pencilDeborah Bazalgette started writing when her children left home. Her short stories ‘The Tallest Flower’ and ‘Counting Chevrons’ were published in What the Dickens magazine. She is working on a novel set in north-east Scotland while developing a collection of short stories around the theme of loss. She lives near London, England. Email: deborahbazalgette[at]gmail.com