“The Last Post”
23rd. November 1996
My dear Joanna,
It was lovely to meet you at last. Your father, my darling Andrew, once showed me your photograph and, beautiful though it was, it hardly does you justice.
I’d really like you to keep my letters to him, and should they be of interest, you must have Andrew’s letters to me too. By now I know them by heart (all 360 of them; one for each day of our unexpected reunion)! In fact I’ve already packaged them and shall post them to you forthwith.
I stop there for a moment and smile, happy with my choice of words. Actually, I haven’t wrapped all of his letters yet, knowing that some might cause her pain. Sad that father and daughter should have had such a troubled relationship. Anyway, I open the parcel and search through the letters one more time, just in case some casual comment might re-open old wounds. I smile tenderly – there is enough here to fill a book. I pause, savouring the memories of our all too short friendship and finally come to the point where these letters began …
Sunday lunch over and the dishes done, I’m sitting, hands folded in my lap, contemplating my choices. It’s a cold day, unfit for walking, and my leg is playing up. A book sits un-read on the table; a writing pad and pen to hand for letters to my few remaining friends. Most are a bit gaga now or have gone into homes.
Since Len died I’d begun to dread Sundays. Not that he was much of a companion if I’m honest but at least he was someone to cook for and I always took great pleasure in that, looking after people.
I’d never felt cut out for marriage – and just as well really, a rather ordinary school teacher like me didn’t exactly turn heads. Anyway secretly, I’d always felt that I was ‘spoken for.’ Only Grannie understood.
‘There’s nobody quite good enough for you, is there my girl?’ she would tease. ‘Whatever happened to that nice Mac before the war?’ Oh, how I miss her.
I never did discover what had happened to Mac. The last I heard was in ’43 when his regiment was posted to the Far East. After that, my letters were returned unopened. I’d always learned to fill my solitude easily so from then on I immersed myself in school and, in the absence of children of my own, those young ones became my life.
But then Len came on the scene. We’d met at church long ago and on rainy days he’d drop me off before Sunday lunch with his elderly mother. One day he offered me a lift even though the weather was fine and I asked him in for a coffee. When his mother died I felt a bit sorry for him and offered him lunch as he didn’t seem the sort of man who would bother much for himself. Lunch became a bit of a habit after that. And then tea; and supper. I suppose I quite liked that bit of company on a Sunday evening when I’d sit marking books and preparing lessons for the week ahead, with Len reading the paper, chewing on the end of his pencil while he worked out answers to the ‘Quick Crossword.’ Yet if anything life became lonely now. Once he moved in – oh, only after we married of course – friends no longer called, Leonard having made it clear that he liked a quiet house. Sometimes I’d imagine Mac there in his place and wonder how different life might have been. But Len did enjoy my baking, especially my apple sponge which I made each Sunday. Nowadays I make do with a pie from Tesco or a tin of rice pudding.
I unfold my hands and, feeling restless today, switch on the wireless.
“A box full of records and a bag full of post – it’s Radio Soapbox and Charlie your host!”
I tut to myself; I’m more of a Radio 4 person you see, yet somehow it had got switched over by Julie, who bandages my leg. I reach over to fiddle about with the tuner but then something stops me. Charlie Chester! Good Lord, he must be getting on, I muse. He’s telling some dreadful joke about Hopalong Cassidy but I’m not really paying attention. My leg is aching and the bandage is too tight. I close my eyes for a while and hope for the pain to pass. Charlie is reading a letter from Ernie Barraclough who listens in every Sunday. He has managed to make contact with an old flame called Ivy Watkins (nee Sharp): ‘And all thanks to your programme, Charlie,’ he writes. And then Charlie plays ‘their song,’ from the old days, ‘Harbour Lights’ by Vera Lynn. Oh yes, it all takes me back and I find myself singing along.
‘One evening long ago, I saw the harbour lights …’ I heave myself up onto my good leg and go to the sideboard, running my fingers over its surface. Its polished walnut always pleases me. ‘They only told me we were parting …’ I open a drawer and take out a photograph album which I carry carefully back to my chair. Some of the photos have come loose, their mounts having lost their gum. I turn the pages until I find what I’m looking for; a photo of a young woman, standing in bright sunlight, at the top of a flight of steps. Underneath I have written: Ellie Sweet (June 1939). (Funny, I think, how handwriting doesn’t change after sixty years or so). She is tall and has hair dressed in the style of the day and a smile that makes her no longer plain. Alongside it is another photograph, a portrait of a young man in uniform with enormous deep-set eyes. It is inscribed: Sweet Ellie. I will never forget, and underneath with a flourish, a signature: Mac x
Andrew Mc.Arthur! I sigh and my eyes go a bit blurry. Almost eighty and I suddenly feel like a love-struck young girl again! Whatever happened to you, Mac?
Charlie Chester is telling another joke now about someone pushing farther into the jungle and father not liking it. I laugh politely as though Charlie is in the room, even though it’s such a daft joke. Now they’re playing That’s Amore by Dean Martin. We didn’t have a special song, Mac and I, although we both liked piano music. Rachmaninoff was his favourite. Then suddenly I have a crazy idea.
‘Well Grannie, shall I do it?’ I look up and whisper into the distance. ‘Is he still alive, do you think?’ I talk to Grannie often, as she does to me.
‘Oh, just get on with it girl!’ she chuckles and I sense her hand on my shoulder, lightly pushing me forward. ‘Don’t keep the man waiting!’
So that’s when I decide to take action -‘Yes, Ellie, what is there to lose?’ – and reach for my writing pad and pen.
Sunday 1st. October 1995
Dear Mr. Chester,
Would you kindly play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for my old friend, Andrew Mc.Arthur (Mac)? We met in 1938 whilst on holiday in Devon. Sadly we lost contact during the war. Perhaps on hearing this he might wish to make contact through your programme.
Eleanor Jenkins (nee Sweet)
I carry the letter in my handbag for two whole days before finally deciding to send it. On Wednesday Julie, the nurse, says she will post it on her way home. ‘Don’t worry Mrs. Jenkins,’ she promises, ‘I’ll catch the last post.’
I listen to Charlie’s programme every week after that and that’s when I picture Mac listening in too – if he ever did survive the war. And then I imagine a wife and children and grandchildren too and suddenly I flush with shame and wish I’d never sent that stupid letter in. I torment myself for weeks.
‘Oh Grannie,’ I murmur, ‘What have you got me into!’ But Grannie is silent today.
Then one Sunday Charlie says my name. I nearly spill my tea, the cup rattles in its saucer. Rachmaninoff’s Concerto begins and I blush deeply, just as I did when I met Mac all those years ago – not that there’s anyone there to notice now. But somehow, don’t ask me how, I know that he’s still alive.
Weeks later a letter arrives from the Pebble Mill Studios in Birmingham. In my impatience to read its contents I tear it in two. Enclosed is another letter; I piece it all together quickly but it’s a struggle to read it as the writing meanders about the page. I can just make out the gist:
Since my wife died I too dread Sundays.
Hurriedly, I turn the page to find: Yours ever,
‘I too dread Sundays.’ How odd, I think, since I’ve told him nothing about me at all. He writes at length about his beautiful Marnie, whom he met at the end of the war, and a little of his children, (only a daughter now, Joanna; his beloved son, Louis, having died when young).
Joanna is a mystery to me, he continues, full of mumbo jumbo and dubious politics; an odd girl really, not like her mother. Unforgettable, Marnie was.
Marnie had an eye for detail and kept the home spic and span. Nowadays, he grumbles, a home help comes in but is no help at all and leaves the place a mess. Takes him half a day to clear up after she’s gone.
He has Parkinson’s, which explains the writing, but says he’ll be getting an electric typewriter soon so he can write to me properly next time, without looking as though he’s had one too many.
Next time! I giggle to myself.
He writes of the war and his time on the run from the Nazis in Northern France – things he hasn’t told a soul before. Even Marnie, I wonder. He too has a bad leg.
Ellie, I remembered you back then with your radiant smile. It was only thinking I’d see you again that got me through. Was never one for God but somehow I was spared.
Well, must finish now, my dear, so I can catch the last post.
I imagine him, alone in a house that was beginning to look shabby now Marnie had gone. Unable to contain myself, I write back at once:
My dear Mac,
I’m so sorry to hear of your losses – your precious son, and now your wife. Whatever can I say?
And what can I say? That I too am bereft since Leonard went? No, why pretend? I say nothing and instead tell him things I never dared to share in those days before the war:
Of my earliest memory: sitting in the rain on Grannie’s steps after Mother left, never to return, my little brothers like book ends on either side. I still relive the cold stone through my knickers and tingling chilblains, hot and itchy inside wet shoes.
I tell him how I loved to read, straining my eyes in torchlight under blankets at night, so as not to disturb my brothers who shared my bed. Of my winning a scholarship to Grammar school – the first in our street to do so (oh how Grannie loved that!) and of having to wear a uniform two sizes too big, to make it ‘do’ till my last year when finally it fitted. I say nothing of the solitary life of a scholarship girl and the taunting I got from those whose parents paid. But I do hint of my love for children and allow myself a little pride when I tell him I finally became headmistress of the local school. My boys and girls still wave to me in town, grown men and women now with children – even grandchildren – of their own.
My children! I start to think ‘if only’ and quickly turn to other things.
I’m also rather fond of antique furniture, I continue briskly, and collect Spode China and Mason’s Ironstone.
No sooner has Julie posted my letter than another one arrives. This time it is type-written. I live north of the Thames and he in the south so we decide to meet up in town and agree on somewhere special for a spot of lunch. Quaglino’s. I have chosen my best dress and, remembering the unforgettable Marnie, I even risk a little lipstick. But seeing myself in the mirror, with my own rather forgettable outfit and bottle glass spectacles, I wipe it off, sensing that it will only draw attention. I was no beauty even in those days and have hardly improved with age. Oh, whatever will he think?
The taxi is there at the door; I pat my hair and pick up my best gloves. All the way to Quaglino’s I practise my smile and wonder if I could manage without my spectacles. And suddenly there he is. Smaller than I recall and walking with a limp. His daughter has dropped him off outside the restaurant, on her way to a Peace Rally. They have had a row. Distracted, he hugs me briefly.
‘My girl – a bloody pacifist,’ he grumbles, as we are led to our table. He never swore. The war has taken its toll.
‘Can you believe it, Ellie – after all we went through to create a better world. What a bitter disappointment she is.’
‘My brother was a conscientious objector,’ I say quietly. ‘He trained as a nurse but was killed, helping patients to safety during the Blitz.’ Mac says nothing, but grunts awkwardly.
I start to feel a little strange, I get these funny spells from time to time, and begin to say words that are not my own. ‘Mac,’ I venture bravely, ‘Joanna is a warrior like her father. She too is fighting for freedom and peace, but in her own way.’
Mac frowns and I wish I hadn’t said anything. Then suddenly he looks up, takes off his spectacles to wipe his big deep-set eyes. ‘What she doesn’t know is that I hate war too.’
He tells me what a day he’s had and …an you believe, after all we went through then, ime to time.rnie I sit, my hand on his briefly, and can sense the past terrors that he still relives from time to time. No-one knew how it was back then, I realise; only he knew that. But soon he laughs and says how wonderful it is to be meeting up after all these years and we discuss the menu and choose some wine.
Thank you for finding me once more, Ellie, he writes later. You are good for me. Forgive my outbursts will you?
We begin to meet often as we did before, exchanging little verses that please us. I send him my copy of A Shropshire Lad and in the next post receive a volume of sonnets.
Joanna, he tells me one day, is a strange girl. ‘She talks to her dead brother all the time – even says Louis is alive and well. It was a comfort to Marnie but it worries me. I want to get her seen by someone.’
‘But Mac darling, I talk to my dead Grannie too – and she’s very much alive! It was even Grannie who persuaded me to contact you.’
‘I’m afraid once you’re dead that’s it, sweet Ellie.’ He smiles a little and softens and pulls out a photo of his daughter. ‘You’ll like her, I think.’
A young girl with unruly blond curls and enormous deep-set eyes stares back at me. ‘But she’s exactly like you!’ I laugh. ‘A prettier you, of course.’
A whole year passes. It is now late October 1996 and the post arrives as usual. I’m about to stoop to gather it up when the telephone rings. As I reach for the phone, I notice Mac’s letter waiting on the mat.
‘Mrs. Jenkins – Ellie?’ It’s an unfamiliar voice, kindly and warm. ‘It’s Joanna. About Dad …’
I grip the phone and my fingers grow numb. I imagine Joanna, young for her age, running her fingers through her untidy hair and searching me with those big, deep-set eyes, just like Mac’s. I sit down, a child again, stone cold and abandoned, and stare wildly at his unopened letter on the floor.
Her words float about me, making little sense and my hearts drains.
So what did I think about playing The Last Post at his funeral, she asks finally. Make a bit of a thing of it – and did I know that he’d won the Military Cross?
‘We never saw eye to eye, I’m afraid. So I’d like to get it right for once, Ellie –give him a send-off he’d love. I’m so proud of the old bastard.’
Suddenly I want to wrap my arms around her and tell her: Were you my daughter I’d be so proud too. But some things are better unsaid.
‘Oh Andrew Mc.Arthur,’ I shout, ‘I’d shake you if only you weren’t dead!
I needn’t have worried about his letters. I have read the very last of them now and all is well. But just as I’m about to seal the package once more I begin to feel light-headed, not quite myself. I must have stood up too quickly or spent too long on my feet. I sink back into my chair and pick up a pen to finish my note to Joanna. But I know at once that something isn’t quite right.
My dear, I continue in handwriting that is not my own.
This one never did catch the last post. Please tell Joanna I love her – and how proud of her I am. Yes, what a special girl she is!
You were right, old friend. I am still alive! Yet here there are no Sundays to dread – there’s just now; only now. I’m so happy you know I am close.
Sweet Ellie. I will never forget.
And finally, the familiar flourish: Mac x
If only, I think. Then I catch myself and smile. No, it was all meant to be. For how else would life’s gifts have come? For Andrew: a friendship that would carry him through the dark days of war, and beyond. And for me? A chance for love at last. Not a romantic love that quickly fades but something much deeper; more enduring. And suddenly elated, I sing to myself as I slip this one last letter into Joanna’s package and hurry to catch the last post.