I sat down with my morning coffee and and began to scroll through the news on my phone. One story, published by The Guardian, caught my attention. As I read the story of the reburial of six British soldiers, over a century since they lost their lives in the quagmire of mud and blood in Flanders fields, I could barely stop the tears.
For me, the story had added poignancy. Friday April 29, 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of my own great-granddad’s death at Ypres. Private Frederick Cunliffe was killed when he stepped on a mine, having lied about his age to enlist in the army two years earlier. I have a copy of the telegram, delivered to my great-grandmother, informing her of her husband’s death; its breviloquence only adds to the heartbreak. The fact that I now live in the country which he died attempting to liberate was not lost on me when I visited his grave several years ago. As my mum, dad, sister and I stopped to sign the cemetery’s visitor book, I could think of only two words which summed up how I felt about the sacrifice he had made: Thank you.
Reading The Guardian story, I thought too about a short story I wrote some time ago, inspired both by my great-grandma and great-granddad, and by the house I had just moved into, whose garden was the most serene place I had ever seen. The story was entitled, “A Garden For Bella and Tommy”, and rather than waffle on any more, I thought you may like to read it for yourself.
A GARDEN FOR BELLA AND TOMMY
○Eleanor Parks 2016
The snow had fallen heavily overnight, and the residents of the garden – the tiny nightingale with its enchanting song, the speckled song thrush, the scarlet-breasted robin, the bushy-tailed red squirrel, fleet of foot and fur of flame, the little hedgehog and the great spotted woodpecker – all woke to find their home swathed in winter’s white veil. The grass, once green, was covered by a thick blanket of unspoiled snow that glistened in the sun as she spread her warm fingers of light over the frozen land. The ivy, dark green and bejewelled with frost, sparkled too; stunningly beautiful, like ivory on jade. A fir tree, wreathed and garlanded with winter’s stole, offered shelter amongst its emerald fronds, whilst the old-fashioned wishing well which stood beneath had frozen solid, entombing the hopes and dreams cast therein, until the Spring thaw would set them free.
At the far end of the garden, the oak and beech tree, their naked, rime encrusted limbs outstretched to greet the dawn, stood beside a small brook which once babbled merrily, but whose voice was now muted by a thick layer of ice.
Bella was 8-years-old when she first stumbled across the garden. She had accidentally lost her grip on her mother’s hand, and since her mother neither noticed nor cared that her little girl was no longer by her side she had wandered, lost and alone through the city where she lived until she happened across a large, heavy, wrought iron gate. The gate was securely fastened with a thick chain and a lock as big as Bella’s hand, but the bars were just wide enough to allow Bella to squeeze through. Beyond the gate was a gravel pathway. Bella delighted in the way the gravel crunched beneath her feet as she walked. At first the pathway ran straight ahead, but soon turned sharp right, where it gave onto a small courtyard with another locked gate. This second gate was too narrow for Bella to squeeze through, but, undaunted and possessed with the energetic zeal of youthful adventure, she saw that she could easily scale the bars and drop down onto the other side. This she did effortlessly, and after rounding a large privet hedge, Bella found herself in the garden.
“Nothing cures the senses but the senses” wrote Oscar Wilde. For Bella, now aged 80, this was certainly true. She still came to the garden, her “little piece of heaven” as she liked to call it, to escape the humdrum banality of her life, but primarily to fill the void of lonliness which, like a swirling black hole, sat at the centre of her being, threatening to pull her in entirely.
Today, a glorious day in the height of summer, as Bella stepped barefoot onto the crisp, cool grass, every last vestige of negative emotion was banished absolutely. The hedgerows were ablaze with violet blooms, their petals still wet with morning dew, shimmering brilliantly in the bright summer sun. The grass too had erupted in a riot of colour, as pink tulips, blood-red poppies and purple and yellow pansies strained their heads upwards towards the clear blue sky. The oak and beech tree, the boughs adorned with glossy, bright green leaves, played host to a veritable array of birds who sang and called as if in greeting to their faithful friend. The fir, too, was busy with energy and life. The fleet-footed red squirrel, no doubt a descendent of that which she had seen on her very first visit, and with a family of its own, shimmied down the trunk and scurried across the garden, stopping here and there to snaffle a few tasty acorns discarded by the oak. High up, amongst the boughs of the beech tree, the great-spotted woodpecker poked its head out of the home it had hammered out for itself earlier in the spring.
Gingerly, Bella eased herself down onto the cool grass. She wasn’t entirely sure how she would get up again, but she would think about that when it was time to go. As she sat there amongst the flowers, she thought about all that had happened in the years since she first found her idyll. The world had seen two wars, with millions lost. Friends and family had come and gone; some had simply lost touch; others had passed away. Meanwhile technology had moved apace, bringing gadgets and gizmos to the masses, making the world smarter, and yet somehow colder.
She thought too about Tommy, the love of her life, the only man she had ever loved. They had met at the cinema in January 1914. She was 18; he 21. Bella had arrived at the cinema with a different date, a local boy about whom her mother always said was “a wrong un” and that “his eyes are too close together.” As it happened, her mother was right, for as they entered the cinema, he suggestively suggested that they sit in the back row. Bella had smiled and said that this was only their first date, and besides, she wasn’t that kind of girl. He shrugged and said OK, but then half way through the film he said that he had to go to the toilet and that was the last time she saw him. When the film had finished she walked out to the foyer alone, dejected, rejected, but determined not to be upset. Her determination was never that strong though, and the tears began to fall. That’s when she met Tommy. He was there with friends, but seeing her distressed, had offered to walk her home.
Love blossomed during the walk, and from that moment, until the war came, they were inseparable. She brought Tommy to the garden, and was thrilled that he was as enraptured by its serenity, tranquility and beauty as she. They would sit together on the grass, just holding hands and talking like they had known each other all their lives, or simply listening to the sounds of nature all around them. It was here in the garden that he had told her he loved her, and, with a freshly picked poppy in hand, had got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.
With war looming on the horizon, Bella and Tommy married post haste. After the ceremony they took the train to Brighton for their honeymoon. That was the last time she had ever been truly happy; the last time she had ever felt complete.
Tommy, like the thousands of others who believed that they “would be home by Christmas” enlisted in the army and was immediately posted to Belgium. He died two months later, in the mud at Ypres, leaving a world at war, and Bella alone.
That day, when the postman arrived with the telegram, Bella had run to the garden. She remembered how the birds seemed to fall silent, as though they could sense her grief. Strangely, they were silent again now. Aware of someone standing close beside her, Bella looked up. Tommy’s handsome face gazed down at her. He was smiling, not a day older than when they parted all those years ago at the train station.
“Tommy?” she whispered.
“I’ve come to walk you home,” he smiled “Just like when we met”
He reached down and handed her a poppy, and then sat down beside her, like he had done on that wonderful day when she first shared the garden with him. As they sat on the cool grass face to face, she closed her eyes to blink away the tears of joy.
Two days later, on page five of the local newspaper, was the headline:
ELDERLY WOMAN FOUND DEAD IN SECLUDED GARDEN
CLUTCHING A POPPY: A TRAGIC, LONELY DEATH
If only they knew.
Note: You can find a couple more short stories in the short compilation Ouijabble