“Lucy Marsh!” The handsome face in front of her broke into a grin. “I didn’t imagine I’d find you in here. What happened to your plans for university?”
For a moment, Lucy struggled to place the army officer holding the toothbrush. Was he the brother of one of the girls she’d been at school with until a year ago?
“You don’t remember me.” The stranger gave an exaggerated sigh. “And I always gave you top marks for composition too.”
She’d heard he’d been conscripted; hadn’t realised he’d look so dashing in his uniform. At school, he’d always worn a jacket with corduroy elbow patches.
“You do remember!” He sounded delighted.
“I can’t chat,” she said hurriedly, aware of Albert glancing at them both from where he stood checking stock.
“What time do you finish? It would be good to catch up with you properly.”
“Five,” she murmured, adding aloud, “That will be two-and-six, please.”
“Is the tea room on Church Street still open for business?” he asked, handing over half a crown. When she nodded, he smiled. “Five o’clock, then. I look forward to it, Lucy.”
“You were a long time serving that customer. He must have bought up half the shop.” Albert’s tone was mild, but Lucy sensed he was annoyed.
“Just a toothbrush,” she said, writing it down in the ledger.
“I haven’t seen him in here before,” Albert persisted.
“He’s my old English teacher from school. He’s been away fighting for king and country – like most men these days.”
She regretted the words the instant they left her lips. Albert had gone to sign up but had failed the medical due to his asthma.
“But lots of other people stay at home to do important war work,” she gabbled.
“Like working in a chemist’s? Don’t you think I’d rather be out on the frontline with everyone I was at school with, Lucy, instead of just listening to people talking about this bloody war that I can’t be a part of.”
“Excuse the language,” he said, looking a little embarrassed. He didn’t normally swear in front of her. “Forget I said anything.”
And for the rest of the afternoon, they remained silent with each other.
It was just after five when she reached the teashop. She pushed the door open and looked round nervously, aware of what her mother would say if she knew that Lucy was meeting a man.
It’s only a cup of tea, she told herself. Nevertheless, her heart fluttered when she caught sight of Mr Franklin sitting at a table set for two. All the girls had thought him good-looking; she had developed a bit of a crush on him herself.
“Sorry I’m a little late,” she said as she approached the table.
He sprang to his feet and pulled out her chair. Boys her own age never thought to do things like that.
“I’ve ordered tea for both of us,” he said, his eyes running appreciatively over her.
“Thank you.” She studied the table cloth, counting its checks in an attempt to calm herself. Then, as the waitress arrived with a pot of tea and a plate of bread and butter, Lucy glanced up. He was still looking at her in a most unteacherly fashion. Her heart thumped and she hoped he couldn’t hear it.
Eventually, though, she began to relax. In answer to his question about why she hadn’t stayed on at school to take her Higher Certificate, she told him quite honestly that she’d wanted to but money was tight at home and so she’d found herself a job instead.
“I was lucky, really,” she said now, in between mouthfuls of sponge cake. “I’d known Albert Higgins since we were both small. His dad and mine used to play darts together. Anyway, Albert left school at sixteen, like me, after taking his School Certificate. He went to the boys’ grammar. I think he might have stayed on if the war… Anyway, his dad owns the chemist’s – owned, I mean… he died about six months ago… and so Albert left school and went to work in the family business. He did book-keeping at night school, I think. When he lost his dad, he had to take over running the chemist’s and he needed someone to work there as an assistant.”
“It’s a waste of your brain,” he told her, making her blush.
It was a surprise to her to find they had been drinking tea and talking for a full hour. By now, they were the only two left in the tea room and the waitress was standing by their table, staring rather pointedly at them both.
“Will you write to me?” he asked as they stood up to leave. Her face must have registered her confusion because he added, “Your mother couldn’t disapprove of you writing to a pen-friend, surely? Besides,” and he flashed her a grin, “you’d be boosting the troop’s morale – I mean, this officer’s morale.”
And that was how it all began.
Her first letter was a little stilted. She’d enjoyed having tea with Mr Franklin, but she couldn’t rid her mind of the knowledge that he had been her teacher. That meant he must be… How old was he? She made a few rapid calculations. She had been fifteen when he joined the school, and he had told her that he had been to university to study for an English degree, so that would make him at least six years older than she was – perhaps even older if he’d spent another year training as a teacher.
In the end, she found herself writing to him as if he were a maiden aunt, not saying any of the things she longed to. His reply, by way of contrast, was warm and friendly: he wrote as if he had known her intimately for years – almost, she thought, as if they were the same age and their letters now were merely a continuation of the closeness they had always felt.
When she wrote back, she found herself abandoning her inhibitions and pouring out her heart to him. She told him about her frustration over not having been allowed to go to university; about the tedium of working in the chemist’s; about her suspicions that Albert was perhaps a little too fond of her.
“If you mean he’s in love with you, I can fully understand that,” came the reply. “You are an attractive, intelligent young woman, and I’m surprised you don’t have a string of suitors clamouring to take you dancing every Friday.”
She couldn’t stop smiling when she read that last comment. If Albert had said such a thing, she would have felt embarrassed, possibly annoyed, but when Martin said it… He was always Martin now; never Mr Franklin.
Their correspondence continued on a weekly basis. He talked a little of army life but the largest part of his letters would always be given over to discussing literature. He was wooing her with his words: quoting poetry; comparing her to various heroines in novels. “When I think of you in that humdrum chemist’s shop,” he wrote, “I can’t help seeing you as Emma Bovary – young and beautiful but shackled to a life of tedium.”
When she confessed she was ignorant of the character, he wrote her a synopsis of the story. “It’s the French writer Flaubert’s most famous novel. Emma is married to a doctor – an older man who doesn’t appreciate her, but she has a passionate affair with a local landowner named Rodolphe.” Her cheeks burned when she read that last bit. Her mother had always told her that ‘nice girls’ didn’t think about those sort of things. “Men have urges,” she’d said once in an attempt to explain what she called ‘the facts of life’. “Even your father – although he’s realised we’re both too old for that sort of nonsense now, thank goodness! But women know how to control themselves.” Lucy had found the whole conversation highly embarrassing, yet now when Martin alluded to physical passion, she found something stirring inside her.
“If I am Emma, does that make you Rodolphe?” she wrote, then scribbled it out, feeling foolish.
But when his next letter addressed her as “Emma”, she wrote back to “Rodolphe”, feeling a thrill of anticipation as she did so. It was the closest she had ever come to declaring her feelings for him.
“My darling Emma,” his next letter began, “I wish you were here with me right now so I could put my arms around you and hold you until this war is over. Your letters give me hope when all else seems hopeless. The thought of you gives me the strength to carry on fighting even when I feel like giving up.” Her heart stood still. He loved her. “You don’t know how much I wish that you and I were truly Emma and Rodolphe for then I would be able to tell you how much I adore you and there would be no English awkwardness getting in the way. French is such a passionate language, don’t you think? And Flaubert paints such a wonderful portrait of a woman who is consumed with passion for her lover. But I am afraid we are both slaves to good manners and decorum, and it is only within a letter that I can express my true feelings for you. If I have been too bold, forgive me. You may burn this letter if it offends you, only do not end our friendship which means so much to me. Know that in my heart I will be forever your Rodolphe.”
She read the letter again, her hands trembling. Martin had said he adored her. He wanted her, and she wanted him too – despite her mother’s warnings.
Of course, nothing would ever happen between them. It couldn’t. He was far away in… She scanned the letter. Well, she wasn’t exactly sure where he was or what he was doing – soldiers weren’t supposed to tell people in case Hitler found out; but he was somewhere else and she had no idea how long it would be before he came home again on leave.
Feeling reckless, she wrote back, “If I were Emma Bovary, I would leave my husband and run away with Rodolphe.”
The following day, Albert asked her to marry him.
“You can’t be serious!” Lucy stared at Albert in shock. “I don’t… I mean, we’ve never… I just don’t think of you in that way,” she finished in a rush.
Colour rose in Albert’s cheeks, turning his ears pink as well. “I like you, Lucy, and I think you’d make a good wife.”
“But we don’t know each other,” she argued.
“We’ve been friends since we were small,” he reminded her. “I remember you trailing after me with jam all over your face when you wanted a turn on my scooter.”
“I was four and you were six!” she said, exasperated.
“That’s what I mean. We’ve known each other a long time.”
But they didn’t know each other – not really. She didn’t know Albert’s mind the way she knew Martin’s; didn’t know what his favourite novel was – or if he even read novels. She suspected he didn’t. She didn’t know his favourite colour (Martin’s was blue; he’d said it was because it was the colour of her eyes) or his favourite food (Martin’s was Dover sole) or his favourite song (Martin preferred classical music to swing or jazz).
“We’re too young,” she said now. “I’ve only just turned eighteen and you’re twenty.”
“That’s why I thought we should get married now.” He was blinking at her through his spectacles. “There’s talk of a National Service Act later this year. It would mean all unmarried women between twenty and thirty will be called up. If you married me, you wouldn’t have to go to war.”
“You want to marry me to stop me going to war?” she repeated.
“I don’t want you to get killed,” he said. “Or hurt.”
There was a pause while she wondered how to respond.
“Your parents thought it was a good idea,” he said.
“My parents? You’ve talked to my parents?”
“I asked your father’s permission to marry you.”
“But we’re not even… Albert, I don’t like you in that way. I mean, I like you, but I don’t have romantic feelings for you.” (And I’m in love with someone else, her mind added.)
“Lots of people marry for practical reasons,” Albert argued stoutly. “Besides, romantic feelings can develop over time.”
“I don’t think they will – not for you and me. I’m sorry, Albert, but the answer’s no.”
“The worst part of it is,” she wrote to Martin later that evening, “that I still have to work with him. He spent the rest of the day giving me sad, sorrowful looks as if I’d broken his heart.”
“You probably did,” came the reply. “You are a very desirable woman, Emma Bovary, and I am obviously not the only man who longs to have his wicked way with you.”
Privately, Lucy thought that the main urges on Albert’s mind were far more likely to be wanting someone to rub Vicks VapoRub on his chest when he was feeling wheezy. Martin might be an archetypal romantic hero, but Albert was cut from different cloth.
“Perhaps I should tell him about you and me,” she suggested in her next letter. “It might stop him mooning over me if he knows I love someone else.”
How easy it was now to use words like ‘love’ when she wrote to him!
“It’s much more romantic to keep it a secret affair,” he wrote back to her. “Perhaps when this ghastly war is over, Rodolphe will finally be able to marry his Emma; but my CO doesn’t like any of us forming romantic attachments. He thinks it will distract us from the war. That, my darling, is why you and I must keep a low profile.”
She supposed he was right, but her heart longed to be able to spend time with him properly. Much as she enjoyed their letters, it was no substitute for being with each other in real life.
Not that they’d actually spent much time together – their hour in the tea room three months ago was the sum total to date. But he was sure to come home on leave sometime soon, and then… Her pulse quickened as she imagined how different things would be between them after everything they had shared in their letters. Perhaps he would take her to the cinema in the nearest town. In the dim light of the theatre, he would hold her hand and there would be no one to see her blushes. He might even kiss her in the darkness. His lips would be warm and soft, and she would feel safe in his arms.
“How long before your next leave?” she asked in her next letter. Even if they had to meet in secret, she was still longing to see him.
“Good news. I have weekend leave on the 17th October. Rodolphe can finally consummate his love for Emma.”
She had to look up ‘consummate’ in the dictionary. When she read the meaning, her cheeks burned even more than they had done when her mother talked to her about men’s ‘urges’. Surely Martin couldn’t mean… They weren’t married or even engaged. Maybe there was a different meaning to the word.
She felt too flustered to write back the following day, for the first time fully aware of the age gap between them. Although she’d left school a year ago, she still felt like a child. She wasn’t sure how she felt about… well, about that sort of thing. It seemed incongruous with all the romantic letters that had passed between them.
“I haven’t heard from you this week.” The words stared at her reproachfully as she scanned the page. “The 17th is only three weeks away. If we want to spend the weekend together, we need to start making plans.”
She skimmed the rest of the letter quickly, glancing over her shoulder every now and then to check that Albert hadn’t returned from his lunch. She always read Martin’s letters at work; it was too risky at home in case Mum or Dad saw her and wanted to know who was writing to her. That would have been bad enough, but they both had a habit of reading other people’s letters too, and she would have died if either of them had seen some of the things ‘Rodolphe’ had written to ‘Emma’.
Wait a minute… What was that last bit? “I’ve booked us a room under the name ‘Mr and Mrs Franklin’. I thought it might be rather romantic to go out for dinner first – what do you think?”
This wasn’t a game anymore: it was real. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She liked Martin, had found his attention flattering, even thought herself in love with him; but to go with him to a hotel without being married…
She was still staring at the letter when Albert returned from the back room. “You can take your lunch now, Lucy.”
She couldn’t do it. Love shouldn’t be something so,,, so hole-and-corner. Martin wanted her to lie to her parents (“You can tell them you’re going to see an old schoolfriend who moved away.”) and he hadn’t said anything about marriage apart from a few vague references to “after the war”.
Albert’s hand on her shoulder, tentatively.
“Are you all right?”
For some reason, she found herself bursting into tears, overwhelmed with the enormity of it all, and then Albert’s arms were around her as he pulled her into him and let her sob into his shirt front.
Albert. Strong, steady, reliable Albert. He didn’t have Martin’s charisma, but he loved her. “Romantic feelings can develop over time,” he’d said.
And suddenly, she felt certain that they would.