A third of the way through the challenge. I’ll leave it up to you to work out whether or not my narrator is reliable …
Memories of Vera Lynn
“I was a wartime spy, you know,” I remark to no one in particular.
Jenny, the girl who’s been assigned to look after me, smiles in a patronising way. “Really, Lily? That’s nice. Now, come on – let’s get your colostomy bag changed.
By now, I should be used to this. No-one in this God-forsaken place ever takes me seriously.
“Yes,” I continue, trying to make her listen. “There were four of us altogether, all working for the same branch of the government.”
I can see their faces clearly now: Julie – she was always cracking jokes; Mary – good at maths, except for when it came to the important things – she had to leave the Service when people found out. It wasn’t the thing to be an unmarried mother in those days; Hattie; and me. Hattie was the real heroine, of course – a beautiful girl with wide, innocent looking eyes and a knack for charming secrets out of enemy agents. Or was that Mata Hari? I get confused these days – sometimes muddle up the past with one of the films they’ve recently shown in the TV lounge.
“He said I reminded him of Vera Lynn,” I say dreamily, on another occasion.
Clare looks at me, bewildered. “Who?”
“Vera Lynn – the Forces’ sweetheart.”
“No, I mean, who said you looked like her?”
“Your grandfather,” I reply, in my mind’s eye still reliving the heady moment when he first kissed me.
She eyes me warily. “I think you mean my great-grandfather, Nana.”
I’m momentarily fogged by confusion.
“I’m Lucy, Nana – not Clare.”
No matter – I still remember it well. Harold and I met in the greengrocer’s – he worked there as a matter of fact – failed the army medical on account of his eyesight.
“He said I was a Greek goddess.” It’s still as clear today as it was then – Harold gazing at me with complete and utter devotion. Or was that Harriet? I’d forgotten she tried to steal him from me.
It’s all coming back to me now – Harold catching sight of Harriet across the Cox’s Pippins and spouting some ridiculous drivel he made up on the spot. (He always fancied himself a poet.) What was it now? “What gentle goddess doth o’ertake my sight, abounding in fair grace and beauteous ways, and oh! the joy to see that lissom form – those limpid eyes so full of passion’s power to swell my evermore effulgent heart …” Strange how I can remember his ridiculous scribblings word perfectly after seventy-five years but I can’t recall where I put my glasses after breakfast this morning.
“I think the woman in the green jumper may have taken my glasses,” I say loudly, but no one’s listening.
As we sit down to dinner later on (those young girls can call it ‘lunch’ if they like, but it was always ‘dinner’ in my day), I remark to my neighbour that the food is remarkably similar to wartime rationing.
She gives me a strange look. “They hadn’t invented oven chips in the 1940s,” she says grumpily.
(I could have sworn we were eating heart and sausage pie with mashed root vegetables.)
After we have eaten our fill, we are wheeled back into the TV lounge where I doze in front of some programme that involves a very orange man talking about antiques. At one point, he holds up a Dresden shepherdess, not unlike the one I keep in my room. I pay close attention: if my little statuette is worth something, it could be a valuable heirloom for one of the grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
I mention it to Clare the next time she visits. “You should have it valued,” I say, “but not a word to the others, Sally.”
“Lucy,” she corrects me gently. “Sally’s my aunt.”
Unfortunately, it turns out the trinket has been stolen. It’s the sort of thing Hattie would have done – she was like that: always taking things that didn’t belong to her – except she died – quite a long time ago by now.
“You’ll have to tell the police,” I say to Clare – or is it Lucy?
She shakes her head. “You gave it to Mum three years ago,” she says patiently. “Don’t you remember?”
She’s wrong, of course. I wouldn’t give away my shepherdess – not when it was the first gift my darling Harold gave me, the year we were married. It was so sad about poor Harriet – she was his first choice, but it all worked out in the end. They never did recover her body.
Harold wrote a charming eulogy. “My heart shall weep a thousand years,” it began – but we were married six months later. “My heart shall weep a thousand years, shall mourn for all eternity for that which has been lost, the sweetest of women, the most gentle of souls, the epitome of God’s creation, the most gentle spirit ever to wander this fair earth, an angel in human form …” I lost interest somewhere round about this point so can remember no more. Even at the time, I thought he was somewhat gilding the lily. Then again, he never saw Harriet’s sneaky side, the way I did.
Speaking of sneaky sides, it was fitting that they met by the apples because she certainly tempted my poor boy with her forbidden charms. He’d been quite happy with me until he saw her – a golden haired goddess beside the mousy, plain featured crone I’d suddenly become. His head was turned – like every other man she’d smiled at. I knew then, at that first meeting, that she wouldn’t want to let go of him.
It was fortunate for me that the doctor had given me sleeping pills. They dissolved quite well in Harriet’s cocoa, that last night. When the air raid siren sounded, she was probably already dead – but the bomb that landed on our building made quite sure.
Everyone said how tragic it was – killed by a bomb and on the eve of her wedding. Harold was quite devastated to begin with: it took a lot of persuading to convince him that he needed comforting.
Like I said before, there were four of us girls. Mary didn’t do her maths properly, but I did. Luckily the baby wasn’t showing by the time Harold and I got married – I must have made a mistake after all because it was another ten months before Andrea arrived; but by that time, Harold seemed to have forgotten about Harriet.
Poor Harriet: she was a true tragic heroine who died for love. She would have liked this place, though: they have dancing every Friday and a sing-song on Wednesday afternoons. Harold always said she reminded him of Vera Lynn.