“Hold the ladder still!”
“It’s not going anywhere, Em.” Lewis shouted back. I think he was trying to reassure me but I hate going up in the loft. Lewis’ allergies mean it has to be me, otherwise he’d be sneezing and spluttering for hours on end. The things you do for love, eh?
“What colour box am I looking for?” Rummaging through the mountains of dust covered junk I wished we didn’t have quite so much stuff! I don’t even know what’s in all these random boxes.
“Erm..” pondered Lewis, taking just a little too long to answer, “a green one.” His voice went up in pitch at the end of the sentence. I don’t think he had any idea what colour the box was.
This happens every time we try to hunt down the elusive camping stove. And every time, I wonder why we don’t keep the camping supplies somewhere less dusty and full of scary dark shadows and spiders. But, alas, we don’t have enough storage space in the house and I want to keep the house as free from clutter as possible, so all the junk and anything not needed regularly is stored away in the loft.
“Ah! Think I’ve found it!”
A moment later, I gently lowered myself back through the loft hatch, clutching two boxes. Neither was green.
The bigger of the two boxes was manilla cardboard and had once been home to a DVD player but had STOVE written across it in black marker pen. The smaller looked pretty battered and quite old.
“What’s in the second box?” quizzed Lewis.
“It was under this one,” nodding my head towards the bigger box. “I thought it might be more camping stuff so I grabbed it just in case.”
“Don’t want to have to back up there again,” I shivered.
Back in the kitchen, I dusted off the two boxes, flapping the dust away from my face. Grabbing a pair of scissors from the drawer, I snipped the string securing the particularly musty looking box. Although I don’t remember tying any boxes up with string last year. Weird. Lifting off the lid, I peered inside the box, not sure what to expect.
“What on earth? I gasped, reaching inside to carefully pick up a thick bundle of old letters. The top letter in the bundle was address to Miss M Dawes, 11 Sidney Terrace, Folkestone, Kent, England.
“Lewis, come and take a look at this.”
Lewis traipsed into the kitchen, wondering what could possibly be so important as to drag him away from his Xbox. I waved the bundle of letters at him, “Look! These were inside that second box I brought down from the loft!”
“I don’t remember seeing this box before. It must have been here when we moved in.”
“Yay.” Lewis didn’t look impressed. “Old letters.” He sauntered back into the living room and I could hear his game resume.
My excited fingers struggled to unpick the knotted string keeping the bundle of correspondence together. After a few minutes of fumbling, I was finally able to loosen the knot, freeing the letters from their neat parcel. Each envelope was addressed in the same neat hand. All to Miss M Dawes at our address. With my heart beating hard in my chest I noticed the postmarks. These letters were sent during the First World War.
I knew at once what I’d found. Carefully peeling open the first envelope, I knew I was about to pry into someone’s private thoughts but I couldn’t help myself. I guiltily unfolded the aged paper and began to read, my eyes flicking swiftly across the page.
15th June 1915
It feels like an age since I last saw you but in truth only three days have passed. I am very glad that you came to wave me off. I could see your beautiful face smiling at me through the crowd.
Once we marched down the slope, we filed onto a paddle steamer destined for the French coast. The journey was long and the waves rough. I was lucky not to suffer from seasickness, although there were many green faced men aboard that vessel, dear Mabel.
We are now camped in Northern France. If it was not for the war it would be a lovely place to be. Soon it will all be over and I can see your pretty smile again. We can stroll along beside the sea, arm in arm.
All my love,
Daring myself to read on, one by one I opened the other letters. I sat at the kitchen table for hours, devouring the sentimental words.
Each week, Walter wrote home to Mabel telling her about life in the trenches and of the camaraderie. He must have loved her very much, he hides the horrors that he must have seen from her.
Reading the letters, I began to imagine what it would be like if it was Lewis at war not Walter. How must it have felt to have your loved one so far away and in danger? It’s unimaginable really. I would live in fear that the next letter wouldn’t come. That day came for Mabel in August 1917. Walter’s last letter was dated 30th July 1917.
Tomorrow we are going over the top. We are to fight the Germans once more in this town that has seen so many battles. The lads in my Brigade are all in good spirits, we are hopeful that this could be the last battle and soon we will all be home to our sweethearts.
I shall be glad to be home in Folkestone and to see you so we can get married.
With love, your Wally
There were no more letters from Walter to Mabel in the box. I sat in the kitchen, suddenly propelled back to 2014 with a jolt. All these questions ran through my head. What happened to Walter? Did he ever come back from France? What happened to Mabel?
“You still up?” Lewis leaned on the door frame with ruffled hair and pillow creases on his left cheek.
“Mmm?” I looked up at my Lewis. Suddenly all the emotion hit me like a freight train. Fat tears rolled uncontrollably down my cheeks and all Lewis could do was to hold me tight to his chest while sobs wracked through my body.
I looked up at him through glazed eyes, “I love you so much.”
“I love you too Emma.” Lewis gave me a big squeeze. “What’s brought all this on?”
I recounted the whole story and just as I was getting to the end, the sun came up over 11 Sidney Terrace, Folkestone. The very house where all those letter were sent. Once a week for over two years.
My laptop sprang into life and the familiar background picture appeared; one of our wedding photos. Just Lewis and I perched on a bench in the gardens of Tull Manor. We’re both wearing yellow Converse to match my sunflower bouquet.
An idea flashed into my mind. Marriage records. To find out what happened next in our Wally and Mabel story I needed to search through the marriage records. I knew that watching all those episodes of Who Do You Think You Are would come in handy one day!
I spent the day using the National Archives website to find the 1911 census and from there I managed to find Mabel Dawes’ marriage. But not to Walter. My suspicions were confirmed. Walter’s letters never contained his last name so I couldn’t check the military records to find out what happened to him but if he came home, surely they would have been married?
Instead, Mabel married an Albert Eastgate on 29th August 1919. According to the records, Albert was a greengrocer also from Folkestone. I traced the family tree and learnt that Mabel and Albert had four children, the youngest, Cecil, was born in 1930. With barely a glimmer of hope, I dug out an old phone directory that had been propping up a wonky bookcase for the last three years. The joys of old buildings, uneven floors! I began flicking through the pages.
C, D, E, East, no, surely not, Eastgate, C. Could this be my Cecil Eastgate? Mabel’s youngest son living in the same town as he was born 84 years ago? With a satisfying rip, I tore the page from the directory.
Now was for the scary part. Three cups of tea, one load of washing and a pile of ironing later (Me? Procrastinate? Never!) my hand trembled as I picked up the phone and started to dial the number.
“278456.” My heart sank, it was a woman.
“Oh, oh, I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I might have the wrong number. I was hoping to speak to Mr Eastgate?”
“Yes, love. I’m his daughter. Who’s calling?” replied the friendly voice, lifting my spirits slightly.
“My name’s Emma Wallis. I don’t suppose your father’s first name is Cecil is it?” My heart was pounding.
“Yes that’s right. What is this about?” The friendly voice was starting to sound a bit suspicious now.
“Well, I live at 11 Sidney Terrace and I’ve found something in the loft that I think belonged to Mr Eastgate’s mother, Mabel.”
“Oh! How strange. Yes my grandmother’s name was Mabel and she did live locally. I’m Helen by the way.”
“Hi Helen,” I said relieved that she didn’t seem to think I was a total nutjob! “Would it be okay if I brought it round? I think your father might like to have it.”
I arranged with Helen to pop round later that afternoon to deliver ‘the box’. I hadn’t actually explained what was in the box. Now I was worried that either they’d be disappointed because they couldn’t sell what I’d found down at Cash Converters, or Cecil would be upset that she’d almost married another man before she met his father. Oh God, what had I got myself into?
Come 5 o’clock I was a mess. There were about ten million butterflies in my stomach and I kept having to rub my palms dry on my jeans. Clutching my precious cargo, I jumped into our beaten up old VW Golf and drove to the other side of town.
Swinging the car into a space along the road I wondered if I was doing the right thing. Would Mabel want her son to know about Walter? Did she hide the letters away for a reason? The doubts were still nagging me as I opened the gate and walked up the garden path.
My heart was in my mouth as Helen opened the door. “Emma?”, she smiled.
“Yes, hi.” It was too late to turn back now.
“Come on in.” She swung open the door to reveal a home that looked like the seventies never ended. Looking at this middle aged woman with neatly coiffed hair and manicured nails I think this was her father’s home not hers.
I stepped over the threshold.
“Would you like a cup of tea, Emma?” Asked Helen, walking into the kitchen.
I followed her down the narrow hallway passing rows of photographs. Black and white snaps from the 1960s, family picnics in the garden, grandchildren on knees. This was obviously the family home for many years.
“Ooh, yes please.” I never could turn down a cup of tea and my mouth felt like I’d eaten a pack of cream crackers it was that dry.
“Dad’s in the living room.”
I smiled. My stomach was still doing somersaults.
“Can I just ask,” said Helen in hushed tones. “What’s in the box?”
“Letters?” Helen’s eyebrows were now raised in expectation of a decent response. So I took a deep breath and explained that I found a box full of letters addressed to Mabel Dawes, as she was then, and that I’d had to do a bit of digging to find Cecil.
“I thought he should have them as they would obviously have meant a great deal to his mother. They’re from her wartime sweetheart.”
“Blimey!” Helen drew in a long breath. “Well, I think you’re right. Dad would want to have them.” She picked up the tray carrying three cups of tea. “Come on through.”
Cecil was sat in a high-backed, wing chair with stacks of books and newspapers either side of him.
“Dad, this is Emma. She has something for you.”
Cecil turned to look at me with a smile. “Hello Emma. Nice to meet you. What have you got for me?”
I handed him the old box. Inside was the bundle of letters I’d carefully tied back up with the century old string.
“I found this box in my loft. It turns out we live in the house where your mother grew up. The box contains letters written to your Mum during the First World War.”
Now it was Cecil’s turn to raise his eyebrows. I could certainly see the family resemblance. I wonder if Mabel would have looked a little like Helen.
As I told the story of the letters and the tragic tale that unfolds within, both father and daughter sat stock still. The only movement either made was the odd blink.
Cecil drew a hanky to his eyes.
“Dad?” Helen looked concerned.
I found my hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. Perhaps I shouldn’t have come.” I started to get up but Cecil placed his hand firmly over mine and looked at me with wise eyes.
“Towards the end, Mum was not well. She had Alzheimers. Very nasty business, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. She would get confused and ask for Wally. ‘Where’s my Wally?’ ‘When is Wally coming home’? But nobody knew who this Wally was.”
“Oh gosh” I sat back down open mouthed, “What did your father make of it?”
“He was long gone. Died when I was a nipper. Mum brought us up alone for the most part.”
Helen blew her nose. “So Gran never mentioned Walter once, until she was ill?”
“No, never.” sighed the old man running his hand through his slicked back, white hair.
“Emma, thank you for taking the trouble to find me. It means a lot to have something of my mother’s, especially something like this. We’re very fortunate that you found us.”
I tried to cough the lump out of my throat but it wasn’t working. “I think I’d better leave you to it.”
This is my first attempt at a short story. I entered the H G Wells Short Story Competition but wasn’t shortlisted, so thought I may as well post it on here!