Love Letters by Kathy Goddard

I hadn’t expected a proposal. Rejection and divorce had shattered my self-esteem and confidence had all but disappeared. When the scarily named Tim Husband joined our reading group, our friendship began cautiously. 

Tim was a good man; a middle-aged accountant with a receding hairline and a fondness for beige cardigans, though he gamely wore the blue sweatshirt I bought him for his birthday. He had a gentle sense of humour and made me feel attractive, but my earlier experiences had soured my view of romance. The tingles I felt when we met could be attributed to fear rather than excitement. I could no longer tell the difference. 

‘Mum, he’s asked me to marry him. I don’t know what to do.’ 

‘You’re well over 50, Edie. Old enough to make your own decisions. Wait here.’ She rummaged in the under-stairs cupboard, emerging with a battered shoe-box, its corners scuffed and edges held together with tape. It was heavy, the lid barely containing its contents. ‘Here, read these, see if they help you find the answer.’ I took them to my room. 

I lifted the lid and took out a bundle of letters. I untied the narrow purple ribbon that held them together. They were love letters, sent from my grandfather to my gran, beginning after their first meeting, continuing throughout the war years and ending on the eve of their wedding. 

Grandad was my hero. Albert Atkins, born in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign, a survivor of both trenches and Hitler. I never heard him boast when he went to the pub for his regular pint. I never heard him talking about his war experiences. I had seen his medals, and knew that several of his companions in the trenches would not have survived to collect their pensions without him leading them away from enemy fire. He was a quiet hero. 

He and I were soul-mates. In my childhood I spent hours at his feet as he read Dickens and Hardy aloud, leaving me with a voracious appetite for books. He always gave me the first bite of his apple and saved the last segment of his orange for me. 

My grandmother, Edith, though two or three years younger, appeared to have been born old. For as long as I knew her, she was unwell. She was riddled with arthritis and struggled to walk. From her I inherited my worried expression and her name. Grandad waited on her hand and foot, always with a smile. She sat immobile in her armchair, wispy white hair escaping her hairnet, observing his movements over her glasses, her magazine spread on her knee. 

They were both long gone. She died first and Grandad survived her by ten years. He functioned, but was no longer really with us, as if she had stolen some part of him to take with her into the next world. In the hours we spent together, I knew he was weary of life. He wanted to be with her. 

I was reluctant to read letters intended only for my grandmother’s eyes, yet I could hear his voice calling to me through his recognisable handwriting. His early letters were formal in tone. They had met when one of Grandad’s friends invited him to a party and introduced him to his sister, Edith. 

‘I hope you have no objection to me writing to you. I have spoken to William and he is agreeable to us corresponding, if you wish to do so.’ 

She clearly hadn’t minded, and as I continued to read I learned that Gran had been in service when they met, rising at 5am to prepare the house so that ‘The Family’ would wake to a clean house with breakfast prepared, and no evidence of the work involved. The period may have been Edwardian but servants were expected to act with even more decorum than a Victorian child, being neither seen nor heard. She worked an exhausting day and I found a new respect for her. I could barely manage to work a full time job and keep my flat clean despite my modern appliances. She worked a 16 hour day with no breaks. Her reward was meals, a bed shared with another servant, and a very small wage. Her life was small and claustrophobic. Meeting Grandad must have been extremely exciting for her, providing an opportunity to escape her life of drudgery. My situation did not compare to hers, but was Tim offering me a chance to escape my sad, bitter life? Grandad wrote to his Edith, inviting her to tea on her rare days off and described how much he enjoyed their conversation and growing friendship. 

‘Hours spent with you are so precious to me,’ he wrote. ‘Especially with the threat of war looming. If it all kicks off, I must play my part, though I detest the thought of leaving you.’ 

War broke out when he was in his late teens. There was no such definite threat in our lives; war was still present yet it felt distant, seen as satellite images on social media. I had begun to realise that time spent together was precious. I had begun to feel lonely when Tim’s work limited our time together, or family commitments called him away. Between the lines of faded, sepia ink it became obvious that war was inevitable. True to his word, Grandad enlisted as soon as he was of an age when the army would take him. 

‘Don’t worry, Edith, my dear. I promise to survive to come back to you. The thought of coming home to you will comfort me through the trials ahead.’ 

I wished I could read Gran’s responses to these letters. I knew he found them a comfort. He thanked her for her stream of correspondence, though how they reached him in the midst of the battlefields I have no idea. He played down the seriousness of the conditions there, though reported the deaths of the men under his command with sadness. 

He downplayed all the facts that we later learned from our history books; the barbed wire, the constant gunfire, the trenches and the men lost to gunfire or drowned in mud. After a particularly brutal battle he would simply write, 

‘We had a busy night, but the majority of us are here to tell the tale and we hope now for a quieter time.’ 

I wondered how much his beloved Edith read between the lines. Propaganda of the day meant that the war was reported optimistically in the newspapers and on the radio, but returning shell-shocked soldiers and those missing limbs must have screamed the truth. 

‘Keep writing to me, Edith. Your letters bring me a welcome glimpse of home and a strengthened belief that one day I will return to you. When the guns fall silent at night I look up and wonder that you see the same stars and moon as me, yet in such different circumstances. I dream of us sitting together, my hand holding yours and your head resting on my shoulder. That is the thought that sustains me.’

Tim and I often sat like that, in the park or on the sofa. I would find my head falling onto his shoulder, my hand enclosed in his. It was an unconscious move, but suddenly I wished Tim was with me. I wanted him with me as I read of my grandparent’s courtship.

As I continued to read, it became clear that their love was not one sided, as I had thought. He may have supported her in her later years when her pain was at its worst, but she had supported him through his post-war depression and gently brought him back to life. It would have been easy for her to abandon him. She wasn’t short of suitors, but she wanted her Albert Atkins. I was ashamed that I ever thought of her selfish.

His last letter was short, written on the day before their wedding, destined to be placed in her hand after their vows had been exchanged.

‘My Darling Edith, I am glad that we found each other, for we are each half of a whole. I would not want to be in this world without you. Together we can face whatever this life chooses to throw at us. I simply can’t imagine what it would be like growing old without you. I cannot imagine life without you. Your ever-loving Albert.’

From all of the letters, those were the words that stuck with me. Could I imagine life without Tim by my side? Other people had drifted in and out of my life. Though I had cried when previous relationships ended, I quickly recovered and moved on. But life without Tim?

Unbearable. I wanted us to grow old together like Albert and Edith, sitting together and looking at the stars. I reached for the phone, impatient for his voice.

‘Tim? It’s Edie. Let’s get married.’

Published in Issue #20

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