Historical Fiction

It didn’t really feel as if they were at war, and yet they were, and they didn’t know when it would be over, and longed for it to be, before it had even properly started. Mrs Phoebe Miller had always given her children a proper birthday tea, though, and she wasn’t going to change that tradition now because of what had happened just over two months ago and everybody had seen coming. It was her elder child Melissa’s 18th birthday. She wouldn’t come of age until she was 21, but it was still a significant birthday. Phoebe knew it would be the last time her daughter would have a cake with candles. Melissa knew that, too. Last year, her 17th, though she was too polite and kind a girl to actually make derogatory remarks about it, Phoebe always said she could read her daughter like a book, and it was plain that she thought she was too old for such childish things and was humouring her.  They didn’t even really look right on the cake Phoebe had baked last year. This year was different, and her daughter had a tender, thoughtful look on her face.

     Melissa was going to university next year. She was going to read Modern Languages at Nottingham – at least that was the plan – and would be away from home on her birthday. She was already taller than her mother, and though her hair hung loosely round her shoulders at the moment, she had started putting it up. Not a proper bun, not yet, but her plaits pinned on top of her head. She’d said she was thinking of having it cut, and though Phoebe thought it would be a shame, she wouldn’t stop her. She could be a strict mother, if need be, but she didn’t believe in picking fights over little things. She never had, and now they were at war it seemed even more stupid. A war put things in perspective, even if it didn’t really feel as if they were at war.

     Melissa’s younger brother, Tim, had already sneaked a sausage roll and thought his mother hadn’t noticed. He was as skinny as a rake, but seemed like a non-stop eating machine. She’d have been worried he might have something wrong with him if he didn’t bring back a totally clean bill of health from every school medical. 

     It was as well he didn’t take after his father. Bert Miller had been afflicted by bronchitis all his life. Phoebe couldn’t help being relieved that that, and the fact he was too old (there was a ten year age gap between them) would mean he wouldn’t be called up. And Tim was too young, and it would surely all be over before he was old enough. Phoebe knew such thoughts would be termed unpatriotic, and knew that if things had been different, she would have had to be prepared to let her husband and her son go off to war with a smile. But she was only human.

     She took off her checked apron. You didn’t wear an apron at the table, and certainly not for a festive meal, even if only the family were there. She’d asked Melissa if she wanted a party, and her daughter had been insistent she didn’t. 

     The big radio sitting on a crocheted runner on the oak sideboard had been tuned to the news. They listened to the news so much now, even though there often didn’t really seem to be any. But now Phoebe retuned it, so there was some music playing softly in the background. 

     Bert had gone round to the off license on the corner that afternoon and come back with a bottle of wine. Phoebe got the little wine glasses out of the sideboard. They had crystal facets that sparkled. She got out four glasses, and poured them all a glass, even Tim. “Don’t get used to it, lad,” his father said, making light of it, but not without a worried note. His brother, the children’s Uncle Walter, was a lovely man, but couldn’t hold his drink. Or more to the point, he didn’t know when to stop holding it. He needn’t have worried. Tim wrinkled his nose and said, “Yuck, this stuff is disgusting! Now if you’d offered me a beer, Dad….”

     “Don’t get ideas!” his mother warned him. Conversations with Tim often started with the word “Don’t” but he was a good boy, not an ounce of malice in him, and even his big sister was more devoted to him than she’d ever admit to her friends. It wasn’t the first time she’d had a glass of wine. She’d had one last Christmas, and at Mum and Dad’s wedding anniversary in June. She’d never thought it was disgusting, but it had seemed sour. Now she didn’t mind it at all, though she was still looking forward far more to a glass of Phoebe’s home-made lemonade, or even to a cup of tea. Perhaps it was true that your tastes did change as you grew up, though she didn’t think she’d ever grow out of chocolate, and hoped the warnings about there being a shortage of it weren’t true.

     There was a ritual to birthdays in the Miller household. Phoebe lit the candles, and Tim switched off the light. Melissa blew her candles out – all in one breath. “What did you wish?” Tim asked.

     “Now you know I can’t tell you! Or the wish may not come true.” I doubt it will, anyway, thought Melissa, sadly. But she hurriedly smiled again. Everyone had made an effort for her and it wouldn’t do to spoil the birthday party – the supper party, she thought, thinking that sounded very grown up. She was the only one of her family to have an autumn or winter birthday, and used to think she would much prefer it to be in summer, but now she wasn’t so sure. She wondered if she could even term it a dinner party but that would be pretentious. Her headmistress, Miss Lloyd, whom she greatly admired, had no time for pretentiousness. 

     Presents came next. The Miller household took the phrase “it’s the thought that counts” very seriously, and Phoebe, generally a very good-hearted woman who gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, had once been unable to hold back her frustration at a friend who had given her a Christmas present of a make of scent she’d only said the previous week she disliked and that made her sneeze. It had nothing at all to do with the price. The scent probably cost a lot more than something simple and considerate. “I hope you’ll like this, my little bookworm,” said Bert. It had been his nickname for her for years, though now she wasn’t little. He kissed her forehead and handed over a neatly wrapped book. She opened it to find a collection of short stories she hadn’t read by Elizabeth Bowen, who was one of her favourite writers. “Oh, Dad, that’s lovely!” she said, kissing him back and appreciating the care he had taken. Bert wasn’t much of a reader himself, though he did sometimes like to read books about far-off places saying it was nearly as good as visiting them. Tim had saved up his pocket money to get her a box of chocolates – a proper, posh one, with a ribbon. “Thank you so much,” she said, “And of course we’ll share them!” He made a point of scrubbing his face after she’d kissed him, but as he did he muttered, “You’re not a bad sister, as sisters go. Better than Robert’s sister Veronica. She’s a silly goose!”

     “Don’t speak ill of people who aren’t here to defend themselves, Tim,” Phoebe automatically reprimanded him, though having met the young lady in question she couldn’t entirely disagree. “I – hope you like this, Melissa. It’s time you had one, now you’re 18 years old.” Melissa opened the little package to find a beautiful powder compact. There was a pattern of flowers and birds picked out in coloured glass and enamel. For a couple of seconds, Melissa could hardly speak, and then she and her mother, neither of them usually that demonstrative, hugged each other and had to blink a great deal. “But use it properly, mind,” Phoebe said, regaining her composure. “Not at school, it goes without saying ….”

     “Not likely with Miss Lloyd on the prowl, even in the 6th form!”

     “And a very sensible woman she is, too. And you have a good, clear, fine skin, so don’t spoil it by caking it up.”

     Despite his purloined sausage roll, Tim proclaimed that he was about to pass out with hunger, and they all fell to, tucking in to the sausage rolls and the little salmon paste and ham sandwiches, with the crusts cut off as it was a special occasion, though Phoebe had saved them to make breadcrumbs for fish. But the cake was the best bit of all. Phoebe was a fair enough cook, but admitted herself she much preferred backing, and though she knew it was a relatively trivial matter, she hoped this war wouldn’t mean a shortage of eggs and flour and raisins and sugar, and all the things you needed to make a proper cake. This one was one of her own specialities – a rich, but light, Victoria sandwich cake, but with plump sultanas in it. As Melissa thought, if you described it, it didn’t sound that appetising, necessarily, but when you tasted it, it was wonderful. But delicious as it was, she still thought about the cake they’d had last year. She supposed it wouldn’t be thought appropriate now, though Mum and Dad didn’t have time for the kind of silly talk some people did, and anyway, it was really more of a Christmas cake, though that wasn’t too far off. The first Christmas of the war. Though she was born after the Great War ended, she knew people had been sure that would be over by Christmas. “Did you really believe it?” she’d once asked her Grandmother, who had replied that nobody was going to admit it if they didn’t. She hadn’t heard anyone say it about this war. After all, though it had been declared, it had hardly seemed to start, and nothing was different, and yet everything was different. 

     It was a lovely evening. When the supper party was over, the four of them played a few hands of whist. They never played for money, not even pennies, Phoebe didn’t hold with that, though she didn’t mind going to a whist drive with prizes and had won their Easter turkey at one. But though it was fun, they were all fiercely competitive, and all played well. It was a Friday, and as it was a birthday night, Tim and Melissa were spared having to study or make a start on their homework. They agreed it was the best day to have a birthday – better even than the weekend. 

     After they put the card table, with its folding legs and green baize cover, neatly away in the corner, Melissa curled up with her new book, and Tim and Bert talked about the football match they were looking forward to seeing the next day, and Phoebe picked up her knitting. She was making a thick Fair Isle sweater for Bert.

     For a couple of years now, Melissa had been allowed to go to bed when she chose, though she supposed Mum and Dad would have something to say about it if she sat up burning the midnight oil. But somehow, even though she was a great girl of 18 and off to university next year, there was something comforting and familiar about going to bed before her parents did. About three quarters of an hour after Tim had been dispatched bedwards, protesting but yawning, she said that she’d get to bed, too.

     As she sat by her little dressing table, brushing her hair, a hundred strokes a night as she’d been brought up to, there was a little knock at her door, and her mother, who always made a point of being polite, called, “May I come in?”

     “Of course!”

     Without saying a word, she took the hairbrush and took over the brushing, with firm, gentle movements. “It was a lovely birthday, Mum,” said Melissa.

     “But I saw how wistful you looked, just for a few seconds, before you decided it wouldn’t do to put a damper on things. “No, don’t tell me what you wished!” But she had a good idea. Melissa decided to come as near as she could to revealing her wish, without doing it in so many words. “I was thinking about the Stollen you made last year,” she said, “From the recipe that Maria’s mother sent over.” Maria Heinrich was from Cologne, and in spring of the previous year, had been an exchange pupil at Melissa’s school. The two of them had palled up at once, and Maria had revealed to her that her parents, who hated the Nazi regime and all it stood for, were hoping to come to England. “Or maybe America,” she said, dashing Melissa’s hopes a little. “Papa’s cousin Stefan emigrated ten years ago and lives in Delaware.” But in the end, it hadn’t happened. Her grandfather on her father’s side, who lived with them, was taken very ill, and the doctor warned them that he would not recover. He had a growth in his stomach. They all loved him dearly, and couldn’t leave him. He had passed away just two days before war was declared, and the news of his death was the last letter Melissa and her family had received from Maria. 

     “There are no easy words to say, love, and I won’t pretend there are,” Phoebe said, gently. “We can only hope and pray that evil man is defeated, and our countries are friends again. That’s one wish we all can make, wherever we are.”

     Without knowing why, for it was not only because of her mother’s words, though they were wise and kind, Melissa suddenly felt calmer and as if things that had seemed so far away, both in space and time, were nearer and more possible.

     In a little flat not far from Cologne’s beautiful Gothic cathedral, Maria Heinrich sat by a window, where she had lit a candle, just one. “God bless you, Melissa,” she whispered. “Happy birthday!”

November 29, 2019 07:50

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