This was my very final piece for my A215 course with Open University. My final mark all rested on this piece, worth 50% of the overall total so it had to be good. I enjoyed the life writing so that's where I decided my strengths lay. The subject matter was complicated, I only had a small amount of information from Maisie and some from the big sister so its woven, with fact and fiction side by side. Some will recognise the fiction, some the fact, but ultimately I hope its an enjoyable read.
( and yes, I got the highest grade for the course , so overwhelmed and surprised but also rather proud. this one is for you Maisie, with love, always)
The bees are buzzing around the lavender in a glorious dance. The radio is playing softly and it’s Nat King Cole singing Let’s Face the Music, I hum along:
‘…while there’s music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance…’
The lyrics are so very Maisie. I blink. She loved this song. And I think back to another June when the lavender was in flower.Here is a box, no-nonsense brown, sensible and sturdy. It's a bit like me. But it should be fancy, beautiful, and sparkly because it contains the little gems that make up memories of my mother, Maisie Gladys Butterfield. Photos are jumbled in with a pressed stem of lavender, an empty scent bottle, her powder compact and letters. What I’m looking for are the notes I made from conversations with her about what happened in 1945, the year my half-sister Janice was born. This was a time she had never talked about. It wasn’t part of my time. Frank was her first husband, and not my dad. All I knew I’d heard from Janice, not from Maisie. It wasn’t discussed. I wanted to write the family tree and I had this big gap but back in 2002 I had eventually persuaded her to tell me the story.
‘I hated him and I hated my big brothers.’
This was a good start, I thought, scribbling away.
‘They were at boarding school together, my brothers, Laurie, John and Frank, the son of a family friend. His family were living in Wales so it made sense with us living nearer the school that he stayed with us during some of the shorter holidays and then the longer summer breaks as well. The boys always had longer holidays than my sister Joyce or me. We were at grammar school but the Freemasons paid for the boys’ education after Father died. Those boys were horrible to me and Joyce. Stupid, silly things, like there was a photo of me hanging in the hall. Every time they were in the house they would turn it round to face the wall, they knew it made me cross, making me feel like I was invisible. But as I got older I started to take a bit more notice of Frank. He was handsome, I liked the way his hair curled onto his collar, he always was wore it just a tad longer than most of the boys did at that time; it was thick and soft…’
‘Maisie? Maisie? Earth to Maisie.'
‘Sorry Mare, where was I? Oh yes, his hair, and his eyes, so blue they were almost black. By the time I was fifteen, I knew I was in love with him. Twenty years old, he was one of the first to join up, him and my brother John. They went into the RAF. I don’t know how they swung it but they both got stationed in the same base down in Kent, Hawkinge. Nearest base to the French coast. My poor mother! John would come home on leave and tell her tales of German helmets flashing on the other side, all lies you know. He was older but he could still tease. Pour some more tea out, there’s a good girl.’
Searching in the box and I’ve found the notes. Just as I am going to close it, I spot one of the larger photos. It’s creased over so I pull it out to straighten it. Photos are still difficult, even after all these years. And this one is especially so. It’s a copy of the one the boys turned to the wall. She’s about fifteen. The sepia print of the photo enhances the shadows under her cheek bones. Smiling straight at the camera, her face is perfectly symmetrical, a classic beauty. Gently arching eyebrows frame almond shaped eyes and there is just a hint of a dimple in her chin. Her dark hair is pulled up and away to one side, a small clip holding it in place. I look like my Nan, all square jawed and practical. Searching in the box there’s also a till receipt from the Imperial War Museum café dated June 2002.
Maisie had announced she wanted to see the replica 1940’s house on show at the Imperial War Museum, the one from the TV programme. Was she up to it? She hadn’t been that well. This was two weeks after she had begun the story. I couldn’t put my finger on it but my senses, always finely tuned to her health, were picking up that maybe all was not right. But she had made her mind up and we set off for the museum in my small KA, the folding wheelchair taking up most of the rear and Maisie in the front, back seat driving through the streets of London. We parked inside the museum grounds and Maisie entered like royalty, the doors held open by smiling young men. Flirting shamelessly she rewarded them with a flutter of eyelashes and a small wave of the hand. No one noticed my heels banging on the doors or the wrestling I was performing with the wayward wheelchair wheels but that was as it always was - Maisie the queen bee, centre of attention.
We arrived in the middle of a small noisy school group. The kitchen was duly scrutinised but it was when we reached the dining room she laughed and pointed. In the centre of the room was a low table with mesh around three sides.
‘A Morrison shelter! We had one exactly the same, played cards and all sorts underneath it during the raids. Frank proposed to me under ours.’
She turned to me, mischief sparkling in her eyes.
‘I wasn’t a virgin you know!'
I looked around us. The school party had left and we were alone. What do you say to your mother when she’s just made a comment like that?
‘Why so surprised, Mare? We lived each day as it came. He wangled me a train ticket and I met him in the village, near the base. He’d booked a room in the White Horse pub, Mr and Mrs White. Told Mum I was staying with a girlfriend. Hard to keep in touch in those days so I felt pretty safe. It was lovely. All oak beams and smoky parlour. Next time he was on forty eight hour leave, he proposed, I accepted. Didn’t have to tell your Nan, she was under the table with us!’
Leaving the house we found the wheelchair where we’d parked it. Helping her slowly onto the seat I could feel the ultra-thinness of her arms and felt the tremble as she sat back. She closed her eyes, just for a moment, then, quickly opening them, said:
‘Tea I think, Mare. Onwards!’That was the last pleasure trip we made together. By early July it was clear something was very wrong and I was getting really worried so we went to see the doctor who sent Maisie for tests.
An MRI scan, it’s like being in a coffin, cold and frightening. But, very Maisie, she went in, came out with no grumbles. The nurse sat her down with a cup of tea and the consultant called me in.
‘Your mother has terminal cancer; I’m afraid we’ve found a tumour on her liver.’The nurse brought her into the consulting room. The consultant steepled his fingers and looked at her very directly. But she preempted him.
‘It’s cancer isn’t it? I know, I guessed.’
So, that was that. We drove back home.
She said ‘I think I’ll get into bed now if you don’t mind.’
I brought the tea tray into the bedroom, putting it down on the side, my hands were shaking and the cups wobbled. I looked at her, her eyes closed, her hands resting on the quilt. I felt a band of fear tighten in my chest.
‘I don’t want to lose you, Maisie.’ My head resting on hers, feeling the softness of her hair.
She gently pushed me back down onto the bed and patting my hand, wiped away my tears as if all this were happening to me rather than her.
Stoical and serene, she patiently put up with my amateur administrations but as things progressed we called in the professionals. The nurses took over the personal care and this left us precious time to spend together.
I didn’t want to push her for any more of her story but one afternoon she said she’d like to sit in the garden and finish it. I settled her gently into a comfortable chair and wrapped a blanket around her thin knees.
‘Now, where did we get to?’
The sun kissed her cheeks and her favourite lavender bush wafted its fragrance over us as we settled down to chat.
‘We were married in September 1944. It was only a registry office do but then, most were. We both wore uniform. I was working as a Red Cross ambulance nurse by then. Oh, we had a wonderful honeymoon, spent the night in the Savoy in the Strand. The room wasn’t one of the grandest but we had a beautiful tiled bathroom, very art deco. We had champagne in the evening and breakfast in bed in the morning. Somehow he’d managed to arrange this for us. Always the charmer, he must have sweet talked the receptionist I’m sure. Hotel rooms were hard to come by; some of the wealthier families were living in them, couldn’t get the staff to run the big houses you see. Afterwards we were back on duty. Frank was stationed somewhere else by now, I don’t remember where. And I was working on the ambulances so we had very little time together. We were renting a flat in Sydenham. I had such fun making it a home for us , for him to come back to each time he was on leave. I don’t think I went without anything. Anything I wanted for the flat we managed to get and it was lovely. Really lovely…’
Her voice tailed off. I looked up.
‘Ok Maisie? The flat? Lovely?’
‘In the sideboard, Mare, in the lounge, there’s an old photo album, bring it out.’
I quickly found it and handed it to her.
‘This is the only photo of me and Frank; it’s the only wedding photo as well.’
I’d never seen this photo before; it was small and a bit dog-eared - Maisie laughing gaily, her new husband Frank smiling; his thick hair covered by his air force cap, his shaded eyes looking at someone or something beyond. Arm in arm they walked towards the camera.
‘Well, I cleaned and polished the flat, everything like a new pin. Nesting, my mother called it. We hadn’t planned to start a family so soon, but it felt right. Everything felt right. I gave up work when we found out I was pregnant. Frank was working much longer duty shifts and by then I was only seeing him once a month.’
A sad smile on her face.
‘It was amazing I got pregnant at all the amount of time he was away. By May I was as big as a house.’
Maisie went on, her eyes closed and now there was a tremble in her voice.
‘VE Day. I’d been invited down stairs to the flat below. Mrs. Ayling, she was having a little do. I said I’d go as I hadn’t wanted to go to the street party. There was a huge mirror in the flat, an old dark framed thing. I hated it, hated the way I looked so - so fat, so worried Frank would go off me. I stood in front of it and buttoned my coat over my lump. Now, keys, handbag, silly little hat, gloves… Then the doorbell rang. I remember I – I… ’
She pulled at the blanket.
‘Are you cold, do you want to go in?’
She opened her eyes, the luminous blue shining with tears. My mother, who never cried, not even in the hospital, had tears slowly trickling down her cheek.
‘Oh Maisie… ’
She brushed them away briskly and wiped her cheeks.
‘A woman was standing in the hall. Young, blonde, pretty. And pregnant. Not as pregnant as me but still, it was fairly obvious. “Frank White, does he live here?” ’
She stopped talking and looked down, stretching her hands out in front of her.
‘That’s why Janice was born in Cornwall, isn’t it?’ I said softly, ‘You left.’
‘I couldn’t stay, had to leave. I packed all the baby things, a few bits and pieces. I took that photo.’
She looked at like it was something she hadn’t seen before.
‘Joyce was living in Fowey at the time, her husband was in Singapore. I don’t remember the train journey, I think I had to stand, it’s a blur. Janice was born in Cornwall and I never saw Frank again.’
We talked, the background buzzing of the bees around the lavender punctuating her story. The affair had been brief, Frank had told the woman he was married but separated and worse still he hadn’t mentioned that there was a baby on the way. Working in a pub near his base, the woman had managed to get Frank’s address from his CO. She was looking to confront him because after she’d given him the news of the pregnancy he had taken off. The two women facing each other knew that he had betrayed them both . Maisie was heartbroken. But she told me none of this with any bitterness, just a pervading sense of loss and terrible sadness. The rest of her pregnancy had passed in a haze but with the support of her sister and her resolution not to go under, she gathered herself and Janice up and got on with her life.
Eventually she tired and I helped her back into the house. I tucked her into bed.
‘I never meant to make you so upset.’
I sat on her bed holding her hand.
‘You know Mare… there is something rather special that came out of all this’
‘What’s that, Maisie?’
She looked at me, her eyes still shining but no longer weeping.
‘You, Mare - there would be no you if none of this had ever happened.’
And she gently smoothed my hair back behind my ears.
‘Now, go and put that kettle on, there’s a good girl’
After she died, I put the notepad in the box, to be taken out in another time. I brought the lavender bush back to my garden, to be surrounded by bees, to grow in a mad riot of beautiful tiny flowers and gorgeous perfume, so very Maisie.