Rick shoo-ed Julie towards the door, passing the coffee in her favourite cup and—with a moment’s hesitation—her pack of cigarettes. ‘You go take a break, Jools.’ A slight sheen glistened on her brow.
‘I will…when we’ve got this feast ready to go.’ Looking back at Rick, she smiled, paused and put the pack down.
Rick counted aloud, setting out the plates and cutlery, ‘How many are we, Jools?’ His hand brushed against her runic ring—engraved ‘Strength’ and ‘Journey’—a legacy from her grandmother, as was the hammered silver pendant she wore. Her eyes danced as she turned her face to look at him and he scanned her light, almond-shaped eyes and high, flat cheekbones, testimony to the survival of her Icelandic forbears. They were settlers who had endured near-starvation and dug out new lives on the Canadian prairies of Manitoba.
The traditional family fare consisted of mounds of steaming meats, roasted vegetables, cabbage rolls, pierogys. Julie’s specialty Yorkshire Puddings and jugs of pungent gravy complemented the spread, prepared with love. This meal banished her memories of childhood hardship and parental abandonment. The gathering—to celebrate her eldest son’s coming wedding—staked her claim to happiness and a loving family.
Julie looked up at the photo on the wall—taken at Rick’s brother’s wedding in England—they stood next to their son who sat laughing in his baby stroller. Was it thirty years ago? A shaft of pain, followed by a stream of anger, shot through her body. That was another family scene…a scene in the truest sense of the word.
‘Think I will have that cigarette,’ she said.
Julie recalled their arrival at Rick’s parents’ home, after they’d flown, overnight—bundling baby and his paraphernalia—and driven two hours in the congested traffic of the M-who gives a fuck! They’d come a week early to relax and offer their support. At the house, they were shown into a sunlit, hospital-crisp bedroom with a fold-a-cot for their baby.
‘Please…call me Martha,’ her mother-in-law blew a kiss at Julie’s cheek and gave her son a big hug. ‘So lovely to have you to ourselves, Richard.’ She told her daughter-in-law, ‘We’ve cleared out the cupboards and drawers. You’ll want to keep yourselves organised.’ She gave Rick a sharp look. ‘The ensuite too...given it a thorough clean. We wouldn’t want our little man to get any of those nasty germs, would we?’ she chucked him under the chin. Ugh those sloppy Canadians. When I think how we prized the disinfectant--all that handwashing to avoid pestilence during the Blitz. ‘Ooooh, I think he’s filled his pants. How long has he been wearing those?’ Martha whisked away child and soiled nappy, leaving the exhausted couple alone. ‘Help yourselves to tea, Richard,’ she called back.
Julie flinched, and craved a cigarette. Until now, she’d thought she could dodge another of Martha’s bullets, and have the odd smoke with her kindly father-in-law. Not to be. Martha declared, ‘He no longer smokes’. Funny that—Julie noticed his frequent walks and long breaks in the bathroom, after which he returned in a shroud of smoke and smelling of peppermint. As the days passed, Julie escaped outside and her ‘odd cigarette’ became chain-smoking.
Julie skipped her habitual coffee, unless specifically invited for a brewed cup. Martha, drank copious amounts of strong English tea—steeped then poured—from a teapot into a ‘proper porcelain cup’: ‘Tea just isn’t the same in one of those mugs or in that Styrofoam rubbish you get these days.’ Julie agreed, as she felt the same about coffee.
How am I going to keep up with the nappies, the baby linen, and Martha’s household regime? Julie felt diminished by the constant haranguing.
‘Heavens, Julie. Your room needs a freshen up. Those nappies stink to high heaven. Why do you use those throw-away things? You can use our washing machine, you know.’ Martha whisked past with a bag of soiled baby diapers. Frittering away good money on disposable nappies and cigarettes. How did my lovely boy marry this Canadian? I suppose they waste their money on junk food, too…and those silver baubles she wears…
Julie became reclusive, and on the day of the registry service—an elegant affair in a flower-bedecked mansion—she stayed in their room. ‘Maybe it’s for the best,’ said Martha, ‘… babies do fret…’
‘I’ll stay here with you, Jools…we can take the little fella for a run in the park.’ Rick hugged her trembling frame.
'No, no. You go.’ That’s all I need. I’ll be the dragon-lady next—keeping him away from his brother.
‘Cheer up. Things will look better when Big Sis arrives from Australia with her children…they all love you.’
The wedding party gathered on the high summer’s day in a quaint English village setting—as green and flower-filled as a Thomas Hardy novel. The children milling around with baskets of posies, were immaculate at first. But they soon became riotous and disheveled, their faces and hands smeared with wedding-cake, as were many of the adults—for different reasons. Julie and Rick felt cocooned within the festive crowd. For the remaining days, they joined Rick’s Australian sister and her children on daytrips and picnics in the lyrical West country.
On the last day, Julie walked in on her in-laws in their living room. Her father-in-law had a leather case with brass closures resting on his lap. ‘This belonged to my mother. In those days it was something precious…’
Martha looked up at Julie. ‘We thought…when your little fellow grows up he might like it.’
Julie was thrown off-kilter. Can I trust her? What’s going on? ‘Oh…that is so thoughtful of you both.’ What is it?
Rick gave first his father, then his mother a long hug. ‘How about this, Mum? You hold onto it for him. Keep it as a surprise.’
His father looked away for a moment, swallowing.
‘Well, then, we’d better get you both sorted.’ Martha busied herself flapping and bustling around the suitcases. ‘All packed? Gosh, you’ve got a helluva lot of stuff!’
Julie sat outside with her coffee and cigarette, awaiting the family party. A four-wheel drive vehicle, its lights beaming, pulled up in the driveway.
‘Hey, little brother…Welcome to Canada!’ Rick rushed out, wrapping his arms around each member of his family as they spilt out of their car.
His younger brother greeted Julie, showing her a leather case—the one she had seen in England thirty years prior. ‘… and just before Mum died, she specifically said I was to make sure Julie got it…that she passed it onto your eldest son on his marriage.’
Julie froze for a moment. She gasped for air, her emotions torn between guilt and sadness.
When the relatives had sated themselves, and regaled each other with family stories, Rick’s brother handed the leather case to Julie. She reached out, then recoiled. ‘Maybe you should do this, Rick?’
Her husband smiled, ‘Well, I think it’s for the groom…Steve, maybe you should decide. Now or later?’
‘Let’s open it now…while it’s just us?’ Steve was keen to see the contents—he took the key and turned it in the lock. The snaps sprung open. Within the case’s quilted interior lay a traditional English porcelain tea set. It was accompanied by envelope which contained a letter in Martha’s hand, and a grey World War II ration card. A stillness fell over the crowded room. The engaged couple read the letter in silence, ran their fingers over the ration card and blinked at the black and white photo of the young woman looking at the camera—her eyes haunted, her expression strained. They had never seen that face before…or heard her name.
The letter in the envelope spoke of a mother’s love for her children; of Martha’s anger in the beginning, then her sadness when they all moved so far away. She told of her memories of war, of hunger, and how the reviving cups of tea the family shared—in porcelain teacups such as these—became a symbol of hope for a normal life, a better life.
The tea set—like Julie’s Icelandic jewelry—was a legacy of Rick’s grandmother’s struggle. These were the priceless symbols of the mothers who had given them life.
When Julie’s turn came to read the letter, her hands trembled as she made the connection between the struggles of her grandmother—whom she’d never known—and Rick’s mother.
Martha signed off, wishing them well in their new life together.
COPYRIGHT: MAGZ MORGAN 2020
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