Authors: Judy Nunn
Not one to dwell on regrets, Margaret obviously poured all of her energies into Geoffrey and his work. Geoffrey was now a senior partner and shareholder in the firm and Margaret created her own career working alongside him in the Central London offices of Brigstock, Gracy & Tomlinson, Solicitors. Theirs was evidently a very close and very cerebral relationship.
He says I am indispensable, not only to him, but to the firm. I am now on full salary, and I must admit that it makes me feel very modern and very liberated.
It is strange, is it not? At school you were always the career conscious, emancipated one and I was content to anticipate a life as a wife and mother somewhere along the track. How we would have laughed had someone told us those roles would be reversed. But we both lead happy, full, rich lives with husbands we love who hold us dear. We are to be envied, Emily.
I was halfway through the third and final bundle of Margaret’s letters and I found myself starting to worry. I was running out of correspondence and I was only up to 1934. Emily had died in 1975 – what had happened to them in the years between? They hadn’t had a falling out, surely. Not Emily and Margaret.
I read on, compulsively, praying that nothing untoward had happened. War was declared. Both women breathed sighs of relief that their men were now too old to be a part of it (Geoffrey had also served in the Great War) and they commiserated with those who were destined to lose their loved ones.
Yes, my darling, I know the cause is an ‘essential’ one and you are right when you correct me. ‘Worthwhile’ is too weak a word to apply – it is indeed the essence of good which must overcome the essence of evil but, oh Emily, what a price to pay! Like you, from the safety of my nest, my heart aches for those women, the daughters and sisters and mothers and wives who must go through what we went through all those years ago. And the men who must brave it! It is so cruel. There is certainly some comfort in being forty years of age, midway through the possible loss of our husbands and sons, but that does not help the others, does it?
It was seven o’clock in the evening and, once again, the air was chill and, once again, I put on Harry’s dressing gown. There was a sick feeling in my stomach. Only a half a dozen or so letters were left …
Please do not worry about me. There is no danger in London. The war rages across the Channel and, although the air raids sound regularly, they are false alarms and people do not take them too seriously. Rationing is taking its toll, of course, and many are suffering deprivation, but spirits are high and everyone believes it is only a matter of time
In the next several letters Margaret tried to make light of any personal hardship in order not to worry Emily. And then I came to the very last letter. My heart was in my mouth. I was loath to open the envelope. Despite the warmth of Harry’s gown, the night air had chilled my bones. I switched on the little two-bar radiator and walked around to release the cramp in my leg. I stepped out onto the balcony and looked down at the streets of Surry Hills. So many of these terraces were just the same as they would have been in Emily’s day.
I breathed the air and prepared myself, the night was not cold at all. Then I went inside and opened the envelope.
There was something enclosed in the final letter. It fell to the floor at my feet. A photograph, two teenage girls. Happy, healthy, smiling faces. I picked it up and stared and stared – I’d seen that face before. Those eyes, that smile, belonged to her. The old woman I’d met in my dream. The girl on the right of the photograph was Emily Roper-Tonkin.
I turned it over and read on the back ‘Halstead School for Girls’. And the date, also written in Margaret’s hand, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Twelve’.
Remember this? I’ve long since lost the copy of the school magazine in which it was published. But I found this photograph as I was doing one of my rare spring cleans. How proud we were, heading the debating teams with such vigour. And, of course, in summation, you annihilated me. Such innocence seems a lifetime ago. Little did we know then that the Great War was just around the corner, and now here we are in the midst of this new horror.
I can no longer lie to you. Of course you read it in your newspapers. They have started to bomb London. The air raid sirens are no longer false alarms. Whole areas are reduced to rubble and it is fearful to see.
But, oh Emily, the bravery which rises above the fear is inspirational and I am so proud of my countrymen. Not only do people rally to help one another in moments of crisis but everyday life goes on. Services continue. Workmen brave the blackout to perform menial tasks. A plumber arrived only the other day to tend to our kitchen sink and, when the siren sounded, he said, ‘Blast Hitler’, and continued his work. And several weeks ago we attended the West End theatre. (A performance of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade, which was most enjoyable.) When a siren sounded halfway through the second act, an interval was called for those who wished to go to the bomb shelters and then the actors simply went on with the play. The people of London are thumbing their noses at Hitler, and I know that such spirit will win out and that good will triumph. It is remarkable. Prime Minister Churchill is quite right. This is our ‘finest hour’.
Your loving friend,
And that was it. The last letter. No more. Had Margaret been killed in the bombing of London? I could only suppose so. There was nothing else in the Arnott’s biscuit tin and I felt empty. Bereft. Margaret was gone. Geoffrey was gone. There was no more news of Harry and Emily and the children. What had happened since 1940?
I resolved to find out. But where to start? Geoffrey’s law firm! Of course! I sifted back through the letters. There it was. Brigstock, Gracy and Tomlinson. I dialled directory assistance and, in no time at all, the helpful woman on the end of the line found me the number.
I looked at my watch. Nearly half past eight – that would make it around ten-thirty am London time, I thought. Good.
‘I’m enquiring about a Mr. Geoffrey Brigstock,’ I said to the very cultivated voice on the end of the line. ‘I wondered whether –’
‘Mr. Brigstock is in Singapore and he shan’t be back for a week.’ There remained, beneath the woman’s carefully rounded vowels, the faintest tinge of her cockney origins. ‘Might he contact you?’
‘Oh. No. Thank you.’ I was so delighted to discover Geoffrey was alive that I wasn’t sure what my next step should be. ‘I’ll write to him,’ I said finally, and I took down the address the woman gave me.
Yes, a letter would certainly be easier, the words must be chosen with care. How exactly did one say, ‘I have just finished reading the letters your wife wrote to her best friend for twenty years and I want to know what happened to the two of them’?
It was surprising to discover that Geoffrey was still working. I’d presumed he was around the same age as Emily and Margaret – that would put him well into his seventies, but perhaps he’d been younger.
It took me a good two hours to compose the letter and, even then, when I awoke in the morning and re-read it I spent a further hour on rewrites.
After I’d been to the post office, I wandered about the streets of Surry Hills making enquiries. Emily had lived in Alexander Street for over fifty years; the locals must have known her.
It was disappointing. The locals certainly knew
old Mrs. Roper from 21A, but apparently nobody had known the woman herself.
She appeared to be a creature of habit. She went to the butcher’s and the greengrocer’s on Saturday mornings, and every Friday late afternoon she settled her weekly account with the newsagent.
I thought I might be getting somewhere when I chatted to the exuberant little Italian woman who ran the corner store. ‘Thirty years I been live here,’ Mrs. Panozzi boasted in her thick Neapolitan accent. ‘Me and my husband the first Italians live in Surry Hills. All the rest, Greek.’ Thirty years. Perfect, I thought, she would have known the younger Emily. But, again, it was a brick wall.
‘Oh, very nice, very nice lady,’ Mrs. Panozzi assured me, ‘but she keep to herself, you know?’
It saddened me to think that the latter half of Emily’s life might have been empty and miserable. Following Margaret’s death or disappearance in 1940, she had only eight short years until, on the 8th of November, 1948, her ‘beloved Harry’ died – had her’s been a sad existence for the ensuing twenty-seven years?
Then I recalled my dream. And the exhilaration in the old woman’ s eyes as she spoke about the poet Edward Thomas – ‘To think that Harry knew him – a man who wrote a verse like that.’ No, a spirit and a mind like Emily’s could never lead an empty, sad life. But what had happened? What had she done with the rest of her days?
At nine o’clock the following Friday night, the telephone rang.
‘I do so hope this isn’t too late to call.’ The voice was British. Male. ‘But I just received your letter and I simply couldn’t wait.’
‘Oh, I’m most terribly sorry, it might be a good idea to introduce myself, mightn’t it? I’m Geoffrey Brigstock …’
Geoffrey Brigstock? Impossible. This wasn’t the voice of a man in his seventies. This was a young man’s voice, and a rather goofy-sounding one at that.
‘My turn to apologise,’ I said. ‘I think I might have picked the wrong Geoffrey Brigstock. You see –’
‘No, you picked the right one, you were just ten years too late. My father died in ’65 … Hello? … Hello, are you there?’
I finally found my tongue. ‘You’re Margaret and Geoffrey’s son?’
Margaret’s son? Impossible. I wondered fleetingly whether he’d been adopted but, even as my mind raised the question, the answer followed.
‘My mother was eight and a half months pregnant when she died, so you can understand how important the discovery of her letters is to me. She was killed in the bombing of London, you know.’
I remained speechless. So Margaret had finally conceived. Why didn’t she write and tell Emily?
I was sure I knew why. Margaret had given up the possibility of ever conceiving, and when the miracle occurred she was too terrified to announce it for fear of tempting fate – for fear that she might experience Emily’s own horror of a stillborn child.
‘I can’t tell you how excited I am at the prospect of reading her letters,’ Geoffrey Bngstock was saying, desperate for a reply.
‘Yes, of course,’ I answered at long last.
‘I’ve only known of her from my father, you see. So to read her own words would be a marvellous experience. I wondered whether –’
‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘I’ll post them to you immediately.’ I chastised myself for feeling loath to part with the letters.
‘I have an even better suggestion – so long as you don’t think it’s too intrusive,’ he added hurriedly. ‘I go to Singapore regularly on company business – we have an office there – and I wondered whether I might visit you. You described their friendship so beautifully, I would love to see Mrs. Roper’s house. Would you mind?’
Mind? I’d be delighted, I thought. To meet Margaret and Geoffrey’s son! And he didn’t sound that goofy, really, just very eager.
‘What a lovely idea,’ I said. ‘When will you be here?’
He told me that he’d arrive within the next month, that he’d let me know the date in a week or so, and he refused to allow me to meet him at the airport.
‘Wouldn’t think of it,’ he insisted. ‘I’ll ring you next week. Thank you so very, very much. Goodbye.’ And he rang off.
I cancelled an appointment the day Geoffrey Brigstock was to arrive. It was an appointment that would probably cost me a job, but I couldn’t be bothered. I was too excited.
‘Nancy,’ he said, his handshake firm and friendly. ‘Geoffrey Brigstock. How do you do?’
He was a nice-looking man. About thirty-five. And he looked rather like his voice. A cocker spaniel, I thought. A little bit goofy, keen, eager. Margaret would have liked him, I felt sure.
He loved the house. I showed him the Kookaburra stove and the wardrobe and the christening gown – all the things that Margaret talked of in her letters. Then, over a cup of tea, he told me of his father’s life following Margaret’s death.
‘He never married again. After the war, he opened the company branch in Singapore and that’s where I spent most of my childhood.’
We were in the front room by the fireplace. He put his teacup down on the coffee table and gazed into the empty grate.
‘You mentioned Halstead in your letter. There are two Christmases I recall quite vividly. When I was nine and ten. Two years in a row we returned to spend Christmas with my maternal grandmother. It snowed one time and I was so excited, I remember. She spoke of my mother a great deal, well, rambled really – she was old and her health was not good. She died the following year and we didn’t go back after that.’
I could see quite clearly ‘the log fire in mother’s front sitting room’ and ‘the blanket of snow’ and I wondered whether Geoffrey had climbed the old elm tree.
Now was the time, I thought, and I lifted out the biscuit tin.
‘I’ll make you another cup of tea and leave you to yourself,’ I said.
‘Well, if you don’t mind,’ he answered hesitantly, ‘I’d rather like to take them back to my hotel room.’ He looked at the three bundles of letters I’d placed on the table. ‘I have a feeling I’ll sit up through the night.’
He left a half an hour later and I found myself wondering again and again how he would react to hearing his mother’s words.
I wasn’t disappointed.
‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am,’ he said when he returned the following afternoon. ‘What a wonderful thing, I feel as if I know her.’
‘Yes, that’s the way I felt.’ I nodded.
‘And Emily. You’re quite right. We must find out what happened to Emily. What a pity my mother never kept her letters. Well, of course, she probably did and they were destroyed in the bombing – just about everything was lost, I believe.’