Past and Present by Kathy Goddard

‘How can you sit on that, Lynn? Who knows where it has been? How many bums have been where yours is now?’ Gillian shook her head as she watched her friend sit carefully on the sagging wing-backed chair

‘That’s the charm of it - it has history. Anyway, I can’t afford to buy new, you know that.’

Lynn had learned the hard way that second-hand chairs were not always in a good state of repair and had the bruises to prove it. She had been searching the charity shops for the perfect chair to relax in at the end of the day, with a glass of red wine and a good book.

This new charity shop was perfectly located in the next street. Not too far to haul heavy purchases home, with an owner willing to lend a hand.

‘The colour’s perfect. Can’t you picture it in the bay window?’

Gillian’s shudder showed that she wasn’t convinced.

‘The flat isn’t new, nor is any of the furniture. New stuff would look wrong. I want to fill it with things that suit it. All this chair needs is a good brush down and a new cushion.’

‘New?’ Gillian raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. Lynn chuckled.

‘Actually, I’ve already got a cushion. I found it last week. This charity shop is fabulous - it’s my new favourite. Billy says they they’re going to restock later today. I’m coming back - do you want to come with me?’

‘No thank you,’ said Gillian primly. ‘One dirty junk shop is enough for one day. Let’s go for coffee and cream cakes – my treat.’

‘When I’ve paid for this.’

‘You mean you’re really going to buy it?’

‘Don’t worry - I’ll throw a blanket over it whenever you visit!’

* * *

Lynn’s Victorian flat had been unfurnished when she was handed the key, and with a limited budget she had trawled the second hand shops with an avaricious eye. She had bought an old oak dining table with six ladder-back chairs for a snip. She didn’t mind that others had lain on her bed before her; the frame was sturdy and matched the dressing table and wardrobe.

Lynn felt that she had been born at the wrong time. Her mother’s love of old black and white films had introduced her to an age of strong community and good manners; heroic men left for war and stoic wives and girlfriends awaited their return. Lynn was fully supportive of women’s rights, but surely it wasn’t wrong to wish for a little more tolerance and courtesy these days?

That afternoon she left her flat and walked back to the charity shop. She leaned forward to see the items in the window more clearly. Her breath misted the glass and she wiped it off as best she could with her gloved hand, eager to see what lay beyond.

The window contained china tea-sets and glassware which had not been there this morning. She became aware that a man’s eyes were following her; a handsome man with dark eyes, a sepia survivor of the war, smiled and stared from his photograph. Or had he survived?

He looked slightly uncomfortable, as if not yet used to the stiff fabric of his new uniform. He was young, with clear eyes and a confident grin. Her great-grandfather had fought in the same war as this young man, and had struggled to live with what had been asked of him. He had not spoken of it until the last years of his life when he had been seized with a need to inform the world of the horrors he had faced.

‘Young people need to know the truth,’ he had mumbled, his once bright eyes clouded with cataracts. ‘They need to know so that nothing so foolish ever happens again. We have to educate them!’ Lynn had never met him, but her grandfather and father had duly passed

on his words, along with the faded letters her great-grandparents had written during this traumatic time.

Was the man in the photograph the last of his line? He might have been killed in action before he was could become a father but he had once been someone’s son. He may have had aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings - a wife? A wife to wave him off with a brave smile. His uniform looked more army than RAF or navy.

Lynn could imagine Gillian’s reaction. ‘What on earth are you thinking of? It’s not as if he’s family, and that frame is probably riddled with woodworm. Let’s go and buy a nice picture for your mantelpiece – I know a lovely little art gallery where they sell bright modern paintings.’

Taking a resolute step towards the door, feeling those dark eyes follow every movement, she imagined that his smile was meant for her. She could not abandon him. She had a few photographs of her own on the windowsill; her parents and grandparents, and couldn’t bear to think of them being left in a shop window. Instead she would welcome this soldier as one of her own, and give him a new home.

At her request, Billy retrieved the photograph from the window. She handled it reverently, gently wiping away dust and turning it to the light so that she could read the faint writing, scrawled in pencil and preserved by glass.

‘To my Mavis, with love, your Captain Jack Robson.’

What battles had he witnessed? In the Great War many men of his generation would have faced the enemy and lost friends to the bombs and machine guns. She turned the frame over to look again at those dark eyes. Yes, there was a definite hint of sadness there.

Handing over her money, she took her purchase, wrapped in layers of protective tissue and placed it carefully in her bag. She would hate to break it. Her step quickened as she headed for home, eager to put Captain Jack Robson into the perfect space on her mantelpiece. A hand fell onto her shoulder.

‘Excuse me.’

She turned to see a half familiar face looking down at her. The dark eyes, the strong jaw reminded her of someone... No, she didn’t know anyone who wore his hair in that dishevelled style and was happy to been seen in ripped jeans and a knitted jersey with a hole in the sleeve.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,’ he said. ‘I wanted to talk to you about that photograph. I was hoping I was still in time...’

Lynn’s clutched her bag

‘What do you mean? I’ve just bought it. It’s mine.’

He ran his hand through his hair.

When he smiled she realised why he was familiar.

‘Let me introduce myself – my name’s Jack Robson. I was named after him, you see - my great-grandfather. Nan suffers from dementia and she gives things there any chance I could buy the photo back from you?’

The resemblance to the original Jack was undeniable, but she had fallen for the Jack in the photograph. It was clear that he had survived the war and he and Mavis had gone on to have a family. He had not been abandoned so much as mislaid, but still she was reluctant to give him up.

The Jack standing before her was anxiously awaiting her answer.

‘Can I at least buy you a coffee while we can talk about it? Can you meet me in an hour at that cafe?

‘I suppose so, but I’m telling you now I don’t want to part with him,’ she said. ‘He already feels like a relative.’

At home she placed the photograph on her mantelpiece. He looked as if he belonged there.

Getting ready to meet Jack, Lynn changed into slightly cleaner jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. A smart outfit would look odd partnered with modern Jack’s scruffiness. After touching up her makeup she grinned at the photograph.

‘Well, Captain Jack, let’s go and meet your great-grandson. See if he’s some who would have made you proud.’

* * *

First to arrive, she sat in the window. She didn’t recognise the man politely holding the door for a young woman who was struggling with a buggy and a recalcitrant toddler. His hair was neatly cut and he wore clean, pressed trousers and a charcoal grey shirt. He approached her table.

‘Hello again. Sorry I had to dash off - I wanted to get to the barber before he closed. I’d been walking the dog and lost track of time or I’d have changed sooner.’

With this new haircut his resemblance to the original Captain Jack was remarkable. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.

‘I’m not ready to part with the photo yet,’ she said, ‘but if you give me time to get to know you better, if we have a few coffee dates, then maybe you can visit Jack sometime.’

He gave a smile identical to that of his great-grandfather.

‘You’re on!’

Published in Issue #26

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