Home > Sea of Memories(18)

Sea of Memories(18)
Author: Fiona Valpy

Finn glances up to see what she’s talking about and then returns to his potato harvesting with renewed concentration.

‘Well, it’s not quite Marianne Martet’s garden on the Île de Ré,’ I say with a smile, ‘but at least the weather’s behaved itself for our picnic.’

I tuck a rug over her knees and then busy myself getting the stove going to warm the soup.

‘Quite an adventure.’ Ella surveys our plot with its neat rows of vegetables that are Dan and Finn’s pride and joy. ‘Now, tell me what you’ve planted here.’

Dan points out the onions, kale and Brussels sprouts – ‘for our Christmas dinner’ – and the potatoes.

‘Looks like a good crop,’ Ella comments. To my relief she seems to know, instinctively, not to push Finn by addressing him directly.

‘Fifty-seven,’ Finn says, not looking up. ‘And there’s a pumpkin too. Only one. We took the other flowers off to make one big one grow. I’m going to measure it later.’

Dan and I exchange a glance. He seems to have accepted Ella with none of the anxiety he usually displays when meeting new people. Working outside in the fresh air, with his hands in the earth, really does seem to help calm him.

I set out the lunch – steaming mugs of soup and a plate of sandwiches I’d made at home with an assortment of fillings, plumping for this as the simplest option to satisfy the varying dietary requirements of this gathering. Finn selects a Marmite one that I’ve cut into a perfect square with the crusts removed, which is one of the few configurations he will tolerate; Ella nibbles at a dainty egg mayonnaise triangle; and Dan devours a cheese and pickle doorstop as he tells Ella about the gardening project that he and Finn are now working on two afternoons a week after school. Finn, chewing his sandwich, hums tunelessly to himself and swings his feet in their wellington boots, watching the silver filaments of thistle-down that dance in the watercolour sunshine.

An hour later, I’m packing the picnic things away, preparing to take Ella back to the nursing home in time for her afternoon nap, and Dan is cleaning the tools and putting them back in the shed, when Finn suddenly comes to stand in front of his great-grandmother. He’s holding a green-leafed sprig of honeysuckle with a single, sweet-scented bloom at the end. He lays it on the tartan travelling rug that covers her lap.

‘Take this home with you,’ he says. ‘To do your old heart good there too.’

As Ella reaches to take it, my throat catches at the sight of the unexpected gesture as well as the juxtaposition of his smooth, if slightly grubby, fingers so close to her age-blotched skin. And as she smiles, his eyes meet hers for a fleeting moment, with that exact same green-and-gold gaze.

‘I think my old heart is very well indeed after spending time in such good company today,’ she says. ‘Thank you, Finn.’

1940, Edinburgh

‘Come away from the window, Ella, you’re spoiling the blackout,’ her mother chided her gently. ‘There’s nothing to see this hogmanay anyway, what with everyone staying indoors and no lights allowed. There’ll be no first footing this year.’

It was bitterly cold outside and a sharp frost had dusted the cobble-stones like icing sugar, glinting defiantly in the moonlight which, unlike the city’s street lamps, couldn’t be extinguished. Ella sighed, longing suddenly for a slice of thickly iced Christmas cake; but there’d be none next year now that people were saying that everything was to be rationed.

‘I doubt Mr Hitler is going to bomb Morningside just because I peeped out to see whether anyone anywhere was going to dare to celebrate the end of 1939 . . .’ But then the first air raid on Great Britain, back in October, had been on warships moored in the Firth of Forth, so she knew that nowhere was safe. She sighed, pulling the heavy velvet curtains closed and came away from the window to join her parents beside the fire.

Her mother was reading a pamphlet issued by the local Scottish Women’s Rural Institute on jam-making. ‘Well, my New Year’s resolution to help the war effort is going to be this.’ She brandished the paper at her husband and daughter. ‘We’re being given extra supplies of sugar and as many jars as we can fill. Though Lord knows what we’ll find to make it with in January. There’s a recipe here for carrot marmalade, if we can get a few oranges – apparently it’s good for night-blindness.’ She glanced at Ella over the top of her spectacles. Letters from France were few and far between now that they were at war, and Ella was worrying herself away to a mere shadow of the glowing girl who’d returned after her two summers there.

Her father set aside the copy of The Scotsman he’d been reading and banked up the fire with another shovelful of coal to see them through to midnight. Thick, brown-grey smoke streamed up the chimney for a few moments until the coal dust caught and blazed with renewed vigour.

Ella picked up the newspaper and leafed through it distractedly.

‘You can come along and help us if you like.’ Her mother handed her the smudgy leaflet. ‘Mrs Macpherson says it’s all hands to the pump at a time like this. Maybe if you do something practical to help with the war effort it’ll help to take your mind off things a wee bit. Even if it is only making jam. We’ll be running sessions at the weekends too, when you’re not at work.’

She suspected that Ella’s job at her father’s insurance office, answering the phones and doing the typing, wasn’t helping matters. Mr Lennox had insisted that his daughter’s secretarial skills were urgently needed when his former secretary, the redoubtable Miss McIntyre, had handed in her notice the day after war was declared and gone off to work in a munitions factory.

Absent-mindedly, Ella put aside the sheet of paper her mother had handed her, absorbed by an article she was reading in the newspaper. Suddenly, her eyes had recovered a little of their old sparkle in the firelight.

‘You know what, Mother? I think you’re right. I do need to do something practical. Father, I’m sorry, and I know that insurance is a vital cog in the machinery of this country as you’re always saying, but I just can’t sit in that office any more. Look at this article: women are enlisting for the armed services. Not to fight, of course, but to work in support roles. They’re calling here for more recruits. I’m going to join the WAAF! Oh, Father, please, may I?’

He took the paper back from her and scanned it, although he’d already read it all from cover to cover and knew exactly the article to which she was referring: beneath it was an image of a recruitment poster, with the bold invitation to ‘Serve in the WAAF with the men who fly’.

He set the newspaper aside at last and turned to meet his daughter’s beseeching gaze. Her face was thin and pale, but her expression was more animated than he’d seen it in several months.

‘If you are serious about this, Ella, then we will consider it’ – he held up a hand to stop her excited interjection – ‘but on one condition. You may explore the possibility of working for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force which, I believe, is a useful and necessary institution from what I’ve read, but only if work can be found for you here in Scotland. I will not countenance you moving so far from home, at your young age, that we cannot see you from time to time to reassure ourselves of your well-being.’

She flung her arms around him and planted a resounding kiss on his cheek. ‘Thank you, Father, thank you!’

The carriage clock on the mantelpiece began to chime midnight.

‘Well.’ Her father rose to his feet seemingly about to pour three small glasses of sweet sherry from the decanter on the sideboard, but he pulled his handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped his eyes very thoroughly before he did so. He filled them just halfway and then picked up two of the crystal sherry glasses and handed them to Ella and her mother. ‘I propose a toast. To 1940. To us all, may we be kept safe and may there be a swift end to this wretched war.’ He paused and cleared his throat. ‘And to absent friends.’

‘Absent friends,’ echoed Ella, and she sipped down her sherry as quickly as she could, then kissed her parents goodnight and ran upstairs to write a letter to Caroline and Christophe telling them that she would be sending them all her love and protection shortly, courtesy of the Royal Air Force.

Ella knocked on the door of the austerely furnished office at RAF Gulford, her dark blonde hair pinned back in a tidy roll, clutching her handbag which contained her certificate and references from Buchanan’s Secretarial College. A voice barked, ‘Come in!’ and she found herself standing before Squadron Officer Macpherson, the equally redoubtable sister-in-law of the Mrs Macpherson who chaired the branch of the Scottish Rural Women’s Institute where Ella’s mother had been assisting with jam-making for the war effort.

‘So, Eleanor, you wish to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.’ Squadron Officer Macpherson squared up the papers on the desk in front of her and fixed Ella with a steely eyed glance. ‘We have a number of roles to fill at this juncture, and I should say that your secretarial skills would be a welcome addition to the office here at Gulford. Yes, thank you, Victoria, you may leave the tray here.’ She broke off to glare at the girl in the air-force blue uniform who’d just brought in two cups of tea, as ordered, and was dawdling to grin at Ella instead of returning smartly to her post at the filing cabinets in the outer office.

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