Nicolette gently held the frail hand in hers as tears slowly slipped down her cheeks. Her fragile grandmother was slipping further away with each shaking, shallow breath the old woman took.
‘She can’t hold on much longer, Mum, can she?’ Nicolette asked Collette, her mother, sitting opposite her on the other side of the bed.
‘At least she’s not in pain now.’ Her mother was holding the other hand of the desperately ill woman in the bed. ‘The doctor gave her a sleeping draught. She won’t wake again, Nicolette. You know that, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I do, Mum. I said all I had to say to Meme yesterday while she was still conscious enough to understand me.’
‘She may still be able to hear us, Nicolette. The doctor said that hearing is usually the last of the senses to go. We can still talk to her, though she won’t be able to answer us.’
‘I would only tell her again, how much she will be missed, and how much I love her. How I have always loved her.’
‘As we all do, my child.’ Collette turned to her dying mother. ‘You are unique, my darling Mama. How will we live without your love and your support?’ Her faintly accented voice was shaking with emotion.
Nicolette reached for her mother across the bed, and the three generations of women formed a circle of love with their joined hands. The woman on the bed took another shallow breath, the pink, satin counterpane barely rising.
‘She would hate us to be sad, Mum. She’d call us maudlin, or she’d use the French word for being too sentimental. Larmoyant! She’d say we were larmoyant bebes.’
‘Whichever language she chose she’d be cross with us.’ Collette smiled briefly and lightly squeezed the fragile hand of her mother. ‘I’m sorry, Mama, but you mustn’t be angered by our sadness. You have been the backbone of this family for many years, and we will all find it hard to continue without you.’
‘We will follow your example, Meme.’ Nicolette glanced across at her mother and took a deep, settling breath before speaking to her grandmother again. ‘Your courage and your heart will live on with us. We will grow strong again after you have gone, and we will survive whatever is to come in this world. You can leave us now, my darling grandma. Go in peace ma cherie.’
‘Oh, Nicolette. Mother is really going to leave us, isn’t she?’
‘I think she has taken her last breath, Mum.’
Both women watched the counterpane for signs of movement, but it remained quite still.
Collette clasped her hands to her mouth to stifle her sobs and Nicolette quickly skirted the bed to gather her mother into her arms. ‘Courage, Mum. Be brave for her sake. She was ready to leave us.’
‘I know, Nicolette. My tears are for us, not for her. She’s gone to a better place while we have to find a way through this war without her. She lived through the last war and suffered, as we all did. She thought she’d given her family the chance of freedom by bringing us to England but now we are facing another war, and we are outsiders in this foreign land. We’d have been better off back in France, I’m sure.’
‘You can’t know that for sure, Mum.’
‘No, I can’t, but from what I hear, Elizabeth does not seem to be suffering in Verdun as much as we are here in London. It would have been so much easier if we’d stayed there.’
‘I know how difficult it was for you, Mum, when you first came to England. You were pregnant with me and had just lost my father, but Grandma Belle was convinced it was the right thing to do, and we’ve forged a good life here, haven’t we?’
‘It was right for Belle and right for you too, Nicolette, but I’m still not sure it was the right move for me. I left so much behind when I came here, and nothing could ever replace what I’d lost in France, Nicolette.’
‘I know, Mum, but I thought you were happy here.’ Nicolette was shocked by the revelation that her mother wasn’t as happy as she had always appeared to be. ‘I thought you loved living in England. What about Dad? You wouldn’t have met him if you hadn’t moved to England. He was the love of your life, or so you kept telling me.’
‘Maurice was a lovely man. I knew none better here in this country. He was a loving and devoted husband. He became a father to you and, with Maurice, I was happier than I’d been since leaving France.’
‘It saddens me that I have no memory of him, Mum.’
‘He died when you were very small. We only had a few years together. His love saved me from the torment of grieving for your real father, and when we had Joseph, I felt our lives were complete. He lived his life around you children. You meant the world to him, even though you weren’t of his blood. I wish you could have known him longer. You were seven when he died, so I would have expected you to remember something about him. Joseph was only three and, of course, remembers nothing of his father. Are you sure you have no memory of your stepfather?’
Nicolette had hazy recollections of a laughing man, but couldn’t flesh the memories with details. ‘Sorry, Mum. I can see a smiling face, but that’s about all.’
‘That is a shame. I wish! I wish! Oh, it’s no good wishing for something that can never be.’ Collette sighed. ‘Life was cruel to me. I lost two good men who both loved me very much, and you lost two fathers before you got a chance to know them.’
‘I feel I know them both, Mum. You and Aunt Flissy talk about Antoine and Maurice often. I love to hear your stories about how things were for you in France, and when Joseph and I were small.’
‘Stories! That’s all my past is reduced to. Will my mother only be remembered through stories? It seems so much less than she deserves. We endured so much pain, Nicolette. There is no justice in a world where such a brave woman has her life end like this.’ Collette stroked her mother’s still face.
Nicolette’s tears slipped down her cheek. ‘We’ll never forget Belle, Mum. Her memory will live on in us long after today has passed into history. You still remember your first love, don’t you? My father has been dead for years, but Antoine’s memory lives on in your heart. He lives in me, too.’
Collette gazed at Nicolette. ‘I wish you looked more like him. Your hair is the same as your Grandmother Elizabeth’s blonde curls, but everything else about you is from my side of the family.’
‘I’m a mixture, Mum. I have Belle’s blood running through me, too. Her memory will never die while I live.’
‘So many good people die before their time in a war. It is expected, and we accept it, but to lose Belle this way seems wrong, somehow.’
‘Don’t dwell on her pain, or the way she died, Mum. She’s at peace. Come, now. We have to let the others know she’s gone.’ Nicolette gently lifted her mother from the chair and steered her to the door. As they descended the staircase, Nicolette kept her arm around her mother’s waist, guiding her steps.
Nicolette opened the door to the living room where her fiance and brother were waiting, together with her Aunt Felicity and Uncle Edwin.
‘Has she gone?’ Felicity was the first to speak. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t bear to see her like that. I’ve seen my share of suffering on the wards and in theatre, but it is very different when the one who has pain is someone you love so much.’
‘She didn’t suffer, Aunt Felicity. She drifted away while she slept. It was very peaceful, wasn’t it, Mum?’
‘Are you all right, Nicky?’ Robert asked.
Nicolette turned to her fiance. ‘Yes, darling, I’m glad I was able to be there for Meme. I’m sad, and I’ll miss her. She won’t see us get married or know our children, and that makes me even sadder. I can’t imagine a future without her there. She had a peaceful end, though.’
‘No person can live forever, Nicolette, though seventy years doesn’t seem long enough for a spirited woman like Belle.’ Her Uncle Edwin came to hug her. ‘I’m sure her spirit will be hanging around for as long as it can. She won’t want to miss being involved in your life, and I know she’ll be watching you from heaven.’
‘What a nice romantic notion, Edwin.’ Collette smiled through her tears at her brother-in-law. She turned to her son. ‘How are you, Joseph? You’re very quiet,’ she asked him.
‘I can’t believe she’ll never play chess with me again, or come to support the cricket team. She’s really gone, hasn’t she?’ The eighteen-year-old glanced from his mother to his sister, and then back to his mother. ‘How are you, Mum?’
‘Sad, you know. But we have to organise a funeral now and tell the doctor. There is so much to do, where do we start?’
‘I’ll let the doctor know, Mum.’ Nicolette went to get her coat from the hallway. ‘Will you come with me, Robert?’
‘We can call at Brooke’s on the way back.’ Robert suggested. ‘You did say you wanted them to do the arrangements, didn’t you, Collette?’ he asked.
‘That would be a big help, Robert, thank you.’ Collette smiled at her future son-in-law.
‘What about the venue for the wake?’ Edwin asked. ‘She always liked the Royal Oak, and they do a good spread there.’
‘We can ask them this evening when they open, Edwin.’ Felicity suggested. ‘If you’re sure that’s what you want, Collette.’
‘My word, it seems I will have nothing to do if you all continue to take over.’
‘I’m sure they don’t mean anything wrong, Mum.’ Joseph looked nervously at his Aunt.
‘Of course, we only want to help, Collette.’ Felicity looked edgy. ‘If you think we should step back, we will.’
‘She was your mother too, Flissy.’ Edwin pointed out, defensively. ‘Your sister wants to be included, Collette. It’s a small thing to ask. We can organise the wake, and it would be our contribution to the expense of everything.’
‘That’s very kind of you Edwin, but mother left us well provided for, as well you know.’
‘Time enough to talk about finances after the funeral, Mum,’ Nicolette said, shrugging into her coat. ‘We won’t be too long. Is anyone hungry? We could call for some fish and chips on the way back.’
‘It seems wrong to think about food when Grandma is lying dead upstairs.’ Joseph looked at the ceiling.
‘Life goes on, son.’ Collette smiled wryly. ‘Fish and chips would be good, Nicolette, thank you. Will you stay to lunch, Flissy? You could help me plan the funeral service.’
Nicolette left with Robert, and they hurried down the leafy avenue of Thames Ditton. The wind blew clouds of leaves from the branches and spots of cold, November rain began to fall.
‘I never could understand your family, Nicky. What is it between your mum and Felicity? There always seems to be tension in the air between them.’
‘Sibling rivalry, I think. They are close in age, only fourteen months between them. There was always competition between them for Belle’s attention when they were children, I think. Not so much when they became adults and moved over here, though.’
‘I think there’s more to it than that.’
‘Oh, I can’t put my finger on it, exactly. There’s some resentment between them; I can feel it when they are together. I hear it in their voices.’
‘You’ve always struck me as being far too sensitive for a man, Robert. But I think you’re wrong on this one.’
‘Too sensitive, am I?’
‘Don’t worry! It’s not a bad thing to be, Robert. I love you for being caring and sensitive. Most men I know would be more afraid of showing emotion than of having a bare-knuckle brawl in the street.’
‘How many men do you know, Nicky?’ Robert chuckled and nudged her side as they hurried along, hunched together against the wind. ‘I thought I was your one and only true love.’
‘You are! Silly moo.’ Nicolette nudged him back. ‘But I know a lot of men from work, and there’s Uncle Edwin and Joseph.’
‘You can’t compare me with your brother or your uncle. Joseph is a boy, and Edwin is an old-school gentleman, though, he has a rough edge to his dialect.’
‘That’s because he comes from Yorkshire. I think Aunt Felicity must be a very strong woman to put up with his archaic views.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She has her career, which is surprising considering how Uncle Edwin sees the world. In his opinion, men should go out to earn the money and women should stay home to do the housework and look after the family.’
‘Perhaps his views had to change because they never had children?’
‘Maybe, but I have a feeling that Aunt Flissy would have followed her dream even if she’d given birth to a brood of youngsters.’
‘Do you think she is sad because she couldn’t have a child?’
‘She has Joseph and me. Aunt Flissy has been like a second mum to me. Uncle Edwin has always tried to play the father figure to us, but he has no idea about children, really. His ideas are so old fashioned. He’s a big believer in a woman knowing her place and, according to Uncle Edwin, that place is very firmly in front of the kitchen sink.’ Nicolette giggled.
‘Just the place for you, my darling.’ Robert ducked away from her playful slap. ‘Only joking!’
‘You’d better be, Robert Wainwright. I’ll have you know that I have no intention of becoming a slave to the kitchen. I’ve applied to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, to help the war effort.’
Robert stopped abruptly. ‘What!’ He took hold of her shoulders and spun her to face him. ‘You can’t!’ he protested, looking shocked.
‘We’re getting married next year!’
‘Well that won’t change things much, will it?’
‘You’ll have to move away! We won’t be together, and, and, oh, Nicky! Please tell me you haven’t done anything about joining up yet, have you?’
‘Robert! What’s wrong with you?’ She pulled him into a shop doorway to shelter from the rain and turned to face him. She took his hand in hers. ‘Listen to me, will you? Some said this war would be over before that first Christmas and they were wrong, weren’t they? Others have warned that it might last longer than the last one. Mum is worried that our family will be victimised because she’s foreign. You know how some people can’t tell one foreign accent from another? French, German, Italian, it’s all the same to them, which is why they are suspicious of Mum and Aunt Flissy. If I enlist, that will show our neighbours that we’re British now, and willing to fight for this country that we now call home.’
‘My, you’ve got it all worked out, haven’t you?’
‘You’ll be joining up too, Robert, won’t you? It’s the only topic of conversation for the young men on the factory floor at work. Some of them have already left Mason’s to fight in the war. I thought you would want to enlist too and, if you do, I don’t want to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs waiting for you to come home to me. I want to do something too.’
‘You’re worrying for no good reason, Nicky.’ Robert looked a little sheepish. ‘I haven’t given much thought to enlisting. I’m above the age limit for compulsory registration by two years. I don’t have to go, Nicky. You don’t have to worry.’
‘I know you don’t have to, Robert.’ She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. ‘I thought you would want to!’
‘Why would I? I’m happy at Jackson and Tweed, and in a couple of years I’ll be finished with my training and they promised they’d consider me for a partnership after I gain some experience. In ten years or so, we’ll be set for life, my darling. You can’t want me to give it up now and go and fight in this awful war.’
Nicolette felt confused. She had thought that her fiance would feel as she did about defending Britain and was disturbed to hear that they were poles apart on the issue of patriotism. She looked into his eyes and, for the first time, felt uncertainty. Her heart did a somersault. His words had sown the first seeds of doubt about her view of him. How could she love a man who did not share her passion for this country? A myriad of thoughts flashed through her mind in a second, and she quickly turned away, to hide her disillusionment from him.
‘You do understand, don’t you, Nicky?’ Robert gently pulled her around to look into her eyes. ‘I’m thinking of us, my darling. Our future won’t be worth much if I don’t get my papers. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Being a solicitor, and perhaps progressing to be a barrister eventually. Becoming a partner in the firm is all I’ve dreamed of since I was in school. My uncle pulled strings to get me into the firm. Positions like this don’t come along every day. You know how much this career means to me. It’s our future, Nicky!’
‘Our future won’t be worth anything if the Germans overrun us. Your precious papers won’t amount to more than fish and chip wrappings if we lose this war.’ She could hear her voice rising and bit her lip to stop more hurtful words tumbling from her mouth.
‘I think we should focus on the here and now, Nicolette. Your grandmother has just passed away, so I can see how that would affect your thinking. Let’s just deal with our errand and talk about the future later when we’re a little calmer. What do you think?’
Nicolette nodded because she didn’t trust herself to speak, and they began to walk again, their steps leading them to the doctor’s surgery. She knew that her grandmother’s death had nothing to do with the conflicting emotions rolling around inside her. She thought she loved Robert. They’d been together since she was eighteen. She’d celebrated her twenty-first birthday in April. She had spent the last three years getting to know this man, but now she was beginning to understand that she didn’t know him very well at all.
‘Here we are, let’s get this over with, Nicky.’ Robert guided her through to the small reception and took charge of informing the receptionist why they were there.
When the doctor came out from his consulting room, he smiled sadly and shook their hands, offering condolences as he shrugged his coat on. ‘I’ll make my way to your house now and write out the certificate. Mr Brookes will take care of the rest of the arrangements. You will be instructing Brookes, won’t you? I’m sure Belle told me that was who she wanted.’
‘Yes, doctor. We’re going to call there next.’ Nicolette told the older man.
‘Good. Good. Tell him he can collect her in about half an hour.’
‘Collect her?’ Nicolette didn’t understand at first and then realised that the funeral director would need to take her grandmother’s body to the funeral home for preparation. ‘Oh, yes. Of course.’
‘Was she peaceful at the end, Nicolette?’ the doctor asked.
‘Yes, thank you. Your sleeping draft made all the difference to her. She didn’t seem to have any pain, and simply slipped away about an hour ago.’
‘Good. Cancer is a terrible curse, and we doctors don’t have much in our medical bags to combat the monstrous symptoms, but we do what we can to ease the suffering. It’s not always enough,
though. I’m glad I was able to help Belle. She was a feisty lady and didn’t deserve to die at such a young age.’
‘She was just over seventy, doctor.’ Robert pointed out.
‘That’s not so old from my perspective, young man.’ The doctor smiled and wiggled his eyebrows. ‘Though, I suppose you’ll think it’s a good old age to achieve. Your thoughts on life expectancy might change when you get to my age.’ The doctor hesitated and aimed a sympathetic smile at the young couple. ‘Although with this war, I’m guessing not many young men will be so fortunate as to live out their natural life-spans.’
Robert’s face blanched, and Nicolette watched his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped for air. She clutched his arm to offer some support and felt him shaking. ‘We have to get on, Doctor Martin. Mum is expecting you.’
‘I’ll see you out.’ The doctor walked them to the door and said his goodbyes.
‘Are you all right, Robert?’ Nicolette asked, still clutching his arm as they walked away from the surgery.
‘I’m perfectly fine.’ Robert’s voice was shaky. ‘I just didn’t like to hear that my days might be numbered because of this damned war. I don’t want anything to do with it. I’m not a fighter. I’m a pacifist. Why can’t politicians sit down together and have an amicable discussion to settle their differences?’
‘I think they’ve already tried that a few times, Robert, but you can’t reason with men like Hitler.’
‘Then our politicians didn’t try hard enough, and now we’re going to have a repeat of the war that was meant to end all wars. Will they never learn?’
‘Going to war wasn’t a choice that was easy to make, Robert. Surely you can see that. Chamberlain didn’t make ultimatums to Hitler without a great deal of thought to the consequences.’
‘And still he made them, so he can’t have thought it through enough. A whole generation of men died in the last war, and it’s going to happen again, Nicolette. Do you want me to die?’
‘Of course, I don’t!’ She was beginning to feel anger building inside her. ‘But I don’t want men like Hitler to rule over us and impose their insane doctrines on our way of life. Do you?’
‘So you think I should follow in the footsteps of all those noble souls who gave their lives for our freedom? You want me to throw myself into the bosom of whichever armed service will have me so I can do my duty for King and country?’ Robert sounded tense and resentful, and his footsteps quickened.
‘I want you to do what you feel you should, Robert. If staying in the background and finishing your solicitor training makes you happier, then that’s what you should do, but I will be enlisting as soon as they’ll have me.’ She wanted him to understand the depth of her feeling but didn’t want to pressurise him into doing something he obviously was not happy to do. She didn’t want him to die, of course, she didn’t, but to think he might be a coward at heart made her feel very uncomfortable.
‘You’re impossibly stubborn sometimes, Nicky. If it makes you happy, I’ll look into what I can do to help in this war. Maybe they’ll need part-timers at home who can man the fort and defend the homeland while the war is fought on foreign soil. Would that be enough for you?’
‘Would that be enough for you, Robert?’ She couldn’t help turning the question back at him. ‘After all, it’s your conscience you must consider, not mine.’
‘Why do you have to be so mulish, Nicolette?’
‘I’m merely stating the obvious, Robert. This war is taking over our whole lives, for goodness knows how long, and we have to make up our minds how we are going to live through it. I’m going to help, in any way I can, to make sure Britain emerges triumphant, and Hitler and his gang are firmly put in their place. You will do whatever you think you ought to, and your decision should have no bearing on what I do, what I believe, or what you feel I might think of you.’
‘Are we falling out over this, Nicky?’
‘I hope not, Robert, but if I can be honest with you, I do think this war might change us as people. Bearing that in mind, maybe we should wait a little longer before we get married.’
‘Wait! No! We have the arrangements agreed, and some of those are partly paid for. We’re to marry on your twenty-second birthday! We can’t postpone.’
‘The wedding is still six months away, of course, we can postpone. It’s not as if we’re walking down the aisle next week!’ Nicolette felt her anger building again but didn’t want to argue about this in the street, especially as they were almost at the funeral director’s premises. ‘Can we talk about this later, please? I don’t think I can deal with this now, on top of everything else I have been through today.’
‘We’ll postpone this conversation, Nicolette, but I’ll not postpone the wedding until we have discussed this further.’
‘Very well.’ Nicolette unhooked her arm from his and led the way through the door to speak to the funeral director.