A world away

By Debbie Hewson

She had grown up free, and a little wild, out in the middle of nothing, people said.  She saw the abundance, the huge variety of wildlife, and the joy of being able to run barefoot around the farm.  The local school had been full of children like her, who rode before they could string a sentence together and knew how to deal with an occasional visiting snake on the property before they went to school.  The heat was normal, and the flies were a constant that visitors noticed.  Going to university was a shock to her system, she tried to fit in, and go to the parties, in the tight-fitting clothes and the shoes that pushed her toes into points, and lumps.  She met the men who asked her to meet them, and was surprised when they wanted to kiss her, and sometimes more than that.  It would only be a few years and she could go home, throw away the shoes and the dresses that squeezed her, and go back to being her.

When University was over, she heaved a small sigh of relief and drove herself home.  Something had changed, and it was a surprise.  Her Parents, it seemed, expected her to be a grown up, she should keep the shoes and the squeezed toes that went with them, and wear the dresses that restricted everything else. 

A job at a school, which offered accommodation along with teaching experience came up, and she snatched it with both hands.  She liked the girls she taught, and a few of the other teachers.  Her timetable meant that she had time to paint, and a local sculptor offered her the use of his studio.  Finding new ways to work with the clay, and learning to use the tools was a joy, and took up every moment that was not required by the school.

She met him through friends, and he was handsome, different from other men she had been out with.  He asked her to marry him and there seemed no reason not to.  Her family were less keen, but that was often the way with families.  He had come half way around the world to meet her.

The situation in the country changed, politically.  It was becoming an uncomfortable place to live if you were a liberal and believed in everyone having some freedom, and one day, pushing a pram through the crowds, she saw police officers behaving like thugs, bullies openly pushing and threatening.  By the time he came home from work, she was in a terrible state, and they both knew it was time to do something.  Their options were limited.  They could stay, and try to fight what was happening.  People were.  Not people with families.  Not people who had a baby in the house.  Or they could leave. 

That meant leaving her family, all of them.  It was terrifying.  The journey to where he had come from would take weeks, the boats set out full of people like them, who had seen what was coming and wanted no part of it.  As always, she went to her Father for advice.  Arriving clutching her ticket, and dissolving into tears.  They were due to sail in a week.  He made her a cup of tea, his cure for everything, and sat her down, resting his grandson on his knee while she calmed herself.

“I will be so far away.  I will miss you so much.”  She blew her nose and wiped her eyes.

“Darling girl, If you go into the kitchen, do I love you less?  Or into town?”  She shook her head.  “Then go to his country, where you and this little boy will be safe.  I will love you just the same, from here, from next door, or from the other side of the world.  If you hate it, then you can come back, and you will have lost nothing.”  His hand was twice the size of hers, when he wrapped her hand in his.  “I love you, darling girl, and I am proud of you.  This is brave, but you are strong enough.  I will come to the docks and wave until my arm falls off, and when I come to see you in your new home, you will meet me and wave the same way.”  He held her eyes until she nodded her agreement.  “Every week I will write you long boring letters about what we are doing, and you will do the same.  Nothing will change.”

The voyage was rough, and they arrived in England in the cold and the rain.  Her thin coat, stopped neither, and she owned no winter clothes.  She wrapped everything she could find around the baby to keep him warm, and watched out of the window for the sun to shine through the grey clouds.  The coal fire gave out very little heat, but she sat close to it and hoped that summer would come soon.  Snow came first, and she cried, at the beauty of it, and the biting cold on her toes.

Every week she wrote a letter, on thin blue airmail paper which was cheaper to post, and, true to his word, every week her Father did the same.  Those letters became a lifeline to her, a brief trip home to the sunshine, and the people that she understood, without explanation. 

Another baby arrived, after a short summer, and then the winter came again.  She started to build a life, to meet friends, other women who were isolated, perhaps not so far from home, but still alone, and in need of support.  They helped each other.  When the children went to school, she began to teach a little, picking up her skills again.  When Wednesday came, she sat down, and wrote her letter, all week, she saved little things to tell him, storing them away and pouring them onto the paper.  His letter arrived each week, usually on a Friday, but not always. 

Baby number three arrived in February, when the snow was thick on the ground, but the promise of spring lay ahead, and this time, it seemed that life was working a little better.  Her parents would make the trip to visit.  There would be more than a letter, there would be talking, and she would hold their hands, and they would be in her home.  For weeks before they arrived, she walked on clouds, knowing where they were each day of their journey, and remembering her travels, made the countdown to their arrival easier to endure.

The docks were busy, but she had been there for an hour, and, although the children were bored, they were intrigued to meet their Grandparents, and watched the huge boat pulled in by ropes thicker than their arms.  It took time for everyone to be allowed to get off, but when they did, and she was wrapped in their warmth, the wait and twenty times that long was worth it.  They were delighted with their grandchildren, and stayed for weeks.  It was a wonderful time in her life, when she could show them her new life, in the warm spring sunshine that felt like winter to them.  The weeks ran out too fast, and before she was ready to let them go, she was standing on the docks, waving until her arm fell off.

Just as her third baby went to school, baby number four arrived.  She was tied again, alone in the house with a squalling, sickly child.  The world, meanwhile, moved on, and air travel was becoming more accessible.  She dreamed of the day when she would be able to travel home in hours instead of weeks.  Each Wednesday she sat and wrote, as she always had, and each weekend, she sat to read her Father’s letter to her.  They had never wavered.  Each letter ended the same way. 

‘No matter how far, Darling girl.’

They visited again, coming to an airport not the docks, but no less joyfully, they spent the summer, with the children on holidays from school, they sat in the garden, and enjoyed the time together, watching the babies become children before their eyes.  The weather cooled as the children went back to school, and their grandparents went home to the warmer weather, leaving her alone again.

When her Mother was ill, she left her children behind to fly and visit, but had to come back, to the responsibilities of children and work.  Her mother died while she was the other side of the world.  The guilt she felt at not being there was sharp, taking her self-esteem and her coping skills to an all time low.

The cost of telephone calls abroad dropped, and it seemed a minor miracle to be able to speak to her Father, while he struggled with the loss of the woman he had loved for more than fifty years.  Now, along with her letter every Wednesday, they took turns to call each other, on a Saturday morning, and those became the highlight of her week. 

His letter arrived on a Tuesday, unusually early in the week. He wrote:

“Darling Girl, I have some things to tell you, remember when we talked about it making no difference whether you were in the next room or across the world?  I know you do.  I wanted to remind you, to make sure that you knew that it makes no difference if you are here, or gone to the next life.  I love your Mother as much as I ever have, and I feel her around me, enjoying the flowers in the garden, just as she did when she was here.  Love doesn’t change because we are not here.  Don’t forget it, my darling, wonderful girl.  Kiss the children from me, and save one for you.  Love, always.  Dad x”

It was his turn to phone on Saturday morning, but the call never came.  When the clock ticked around to lunchtime, she dialled his number, but there was no answer.  She tried again an hour later, but there was no reply, and there never would be again. 

Alone, and never having felt so lonely, she looked for signs that he had told her the truth, that, wherever he was, he loved her still.  That she was his darling girl.  She found nothing. 

A week passed, and she began to function a little better.  A letter arrived from the lady who had cleaned his house, saying that, as requested she had cleaned out the property ready to be sold.  She had shipped his personal things and they would arrive soon.  The box that arrived was full of him, the smell of him, his old pipe, and a box of his favourite tobacco, a cardigan, worn thin with use, that she wrapped herself in, and felt a little safer.  A bundle of her her letters, that he had kept, his wrist watch, and an envelope, addressed in his familiar scrawl. 

“Hello Darling girl.  I have had a chat with Doris.   You remember her, I think, the lady who has cleaned the house for me for years, anyway, I asked her to send you my things, once I am gone, and to put this letter in with them. 

We have been so lucky, you and I, because we knew that we were loved.  When you walked onto that boat, with your head held high, I was so proud of you.  I wanted to shout and yell that you should stay, so that you would be close to me, but I knew your life was somewhere else.  You’ll know what I mean, when your children start to go off on their own. 

If you are missing me, look at them.  They all have a look of your Mum and me, and that, along with the love that I am sending still from wherever I end up, will be enough. 

You’ll always be my darling girl.  Keep on being brave, and strong, and remember that you were, and always will be loved.  Dad x”

She sat and watched her children, and noticed the way they said some things the same way as her Dad, how they had some of his ways of looking at life, how they stood up for people who were afraid.  She nodded quietly to herself, and remembered all the years of letters, about what was happening in each other’s lives.  The things they would have talked about if she had stayed. 

They had still talked about them, but the chatting had happened on thin blue airmail paper, and later on the phone.  Her children had better chances, because she had given up her homeland, her life had been harder in some ways and easier in others because of the choices she had made.  The thing she was sure that she had not missed out on though, was the love and care of her Father, whether he was in the room with her, or half a world away, love is stronger than geography, and it turned out to be stronger than death too.  Love is, when you come right down to it, all there is.

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Focusing on Literature and Lifestyle of the Urban Youth of the Country, LitGleam is a monthly magazine, an intrinsic part of BlueRose Publishers.

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