On this 75th anniversary of D-Day, I share the beginning of an unpublished short story I wrote over a decade ago. It opens with a conversation I had in 1993 with my host father in Bath, England late one night while his wife was out in the pub with friends. (Reg and I were both homebodies and often stayed in to watch The Bill and other crime shows when everyone else was out socializing.) Reg had served in the Royal Army during D-Day. May he rest in peace and power.
Long After the War
Samantha would remember years later the conversation she’d once had with her host father Reginald, who’d confessed to her that he was supposed to have married someone else before the invasion of Normandy. Sam hadn’t thought about it much over the past fifteen years, hadn’t registered it as an important conversation in her life, until her long-term boyfriend announced his engagement shortly after they broke up. I was the one he was supposed to marry, she thought.
The conversation happened late one winter evening, several months into her stay in their home, when Sam had come down to take a break from studying. They were sitting in the front room of the two-story townhouse, Reg on his wide recliner, she in grey sweats sitting cross-legged on thick, red carpet, taking in heat from the fireplace glowing bright orange with simulated flames.
Blossom, said Reg. He’d nicknamed Sam ‘Petite Lotus Blossom’ within weeks of her arrival in Bath. It didn’t bother her. Nor did it bother her when her host mother called her a ‘Palomino’ instead of a ‘Filipino.’ She didn’t have the heart to tell her that one was a horse, the other an ethnicity.
Blossom, he said. I was supposed to marry someone else. He looked straight ahead at the TV, tapped his fingers on the armrest of the chair.
What do you mean? Sam asked. She saw images of her host mother’s smile, bright white hair, and thought of her Welsh lullabies reverberating from the kitchen each morning. They were planning to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary that year.
They gave us a short leave from the Royal Army, Reg continued. They told us to go home, get married, kiss our mothers, for what might be the last time. I’d been writing to a woman for two years while stationed up in Nottinghamshire, sitting under the Big Oak, telling her all about the American soldiers from the South, how they liked to put Tabasco sauce on everything they ate. He laughed.
Her name was Claire, he continued. We’d met in school before I enlisted; we fell in love, and promised to spend our lives together when I got out. Shortly after the Blitz on Bath, her father had sent her up the country to Shropshire where her uncle had had a farm. We wrote to each other everyday. Everyday, he said.
Small drops of sweat gathered on Reg’s forehead; he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, lifted his thick-rimmed glasses, and rubbed his face.
He looked up at Sam briefly, shyly, as if he were reading her face to detect any signs of judgment.
Sam sat still and quiet. There were artificial flowers in a vase on the entry table, replicas of small Spanish plates on the stucco wall, and little brass figures on the mantel of a dog, a girl, and a boy, carefully placed next to one another to create a scene frozen in time.
Everything had happened so quickly, said Reg. I hadn’t time to let her know I’d be coming home for a few days. That’s all we got, you know. Just a few days. What can you do with a few days? he asked.
I imagine by the time she got my letter, he continued, I was already married.
He pulled a small, faded black and white photograph from his wallet and handed it to Sam.
Are you still in contact with Claire? she asked.
She looked over at Reg, and then beyond him, out the window, at the snow flurries coming down, covering all the flats in the circle with a hazy dust.
No, no, he said. It wouldn’t have been right.
Reg stared off into the television, picked up the remote, and started to flip through channels without stopping.
When Sam learned of David’s engagement, she was a first year doctoral student living in Cork, in the southwest of Ireland, where she was beginning her research on the translation of Irish poetry. The phone call from San Francisco came seven months into her stay, on a March afternoon, when she was finishing her work in the Boole library. She missed her family, her friends.
I wanted to tell you first before you heard it from anyone else, said David.
Is it the right thing to do? she asked. She watched a group of students in the distance, clouds moved overhead.
Yes, he said.
Sam hung up before he could say anything else. She took the train straight home to her flat and drew the heavy curtains. On her bookshelf, she found When Things Fall Apart, a book she had picked up in Waterstone’s months earlier in anticipation of things falling apart. Thoughts of David and another woman passed through her mind as she felt herself getting smaller and smaller.
For the first week, Sam prepared herself for the day as she normally did: yoga in the morning, a light breakfast before she settled down at her desk for the day, piles of books all around her, pictures of her nephews and nieces back home. She would set out on the train for the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a schedule she made in the beginning of the year to ensure she interacted with the world on a regular basis. It was easy to stay in the countryside, where, for the most part, the only noises she heard were the wind and slashing rain, and, at times, the cry of sheep nearby, or the idle whispers of the neighbors who gathered by the market, stopping to greet one another, talking about the same things they did the day before, and the day before that.
She thought about Claire, the woman who was left behind. She too had been up in the country, tucked away safely in her uncle’s farm, when she received the news that Reg married another woman. Sam saw an image of Claire opening the letter, worried and afraid for Reg, hoping he was still in England, and far away from the fighting in France, although she knew he wouldn’t be. Not only would she discover that Reg had gone off to war, but that, in a haste to leave for combat, from which he might never return, he had married another woman.
Sam looked out across the hills behind her flat — the rugged countryside and grey, jagged rocks. She imagined Claire running as fast as she could through the grass, dodging in between trees, with letter in hand, as her mother and uncle chased her. When they finally caught up with her, she would kick and scream and curse their names for bringing her to the farm, far away from Reg, out of his reach when he returned to Bath before heading off to war.
Sam tried to sleep, but she kept thinking about this woman, Claire, who she knew little about, who she had heard of on one snow-filled evening in Bath. If Sam closed her eyes long enough, she could still see the photograph Reg showed her: a small black and white picture of Claire and her sisters sitting on a lawn, wearing large hats, long summer dresses, holding fans. While her sisters were looking directly at the camera, Claire was looking away, as if in some sort of reverie. She remembered a curious image on the picture of what resembled large droplets of rain suspended in the tree above them. Thoughts of Claire and trees and rain filled Sam’s thoughts late into the evening.
Several weeks had passed. Since delivering the news, David hadn’t tried to reach Sam, hadn’t sent a card or letter, or left a murky message on her voice mail. Or shown up on her doorstep unannounced with a look of love and confusion and regret and desire. This time things are different. The longer she went without hearing from him, the more it seared into her mind, into every cell in her body, that maybe this was real. Maybe this wasn’t a hoax, or a temporary fling, but something more lasting and permanent.
Later and later each evening, Sam would finally pull the comforter off the couch to drag it across the wooden floors to her cold bedroom overlooking the weir, the sound of rushing water that used to relax her but now made her chest tighten. There she lay in her bed, unwilling to read or keep the light on, fearful she might lie there again all night, just to get up for another hazy and unbalanced day, only to repeat it for the next night and the next.
One morning, she took the train into town to visit the herbal shop on Patrick Street. The girl behind the counter suggested pure lavender essential oil for her temples and rosehip drops on the tongue.
Maybe you should read a book, take a hot bath, drink some warm milk, she added.
Sam looked her in the eyes. Maybe she was in a good relationship, a happy one. Maybe she’d never have to hear that someone she loved was in love with someone else. She was one of those girls.
Alright? the girl asked.
I need something strong, really strong, said Sam.
We don’t have anything stronger. These things take days to take effect, she said.
Days? asked Sam. Did you say days?
An image flashed in her mind: the girl lying on the shop floor. Broken bottles everywhere. Sam pulled out her wallet because she knew that at 4 a.m. it would be better to have something rather than nothing. She stepped back out onto Patrick Street clutching her bag filled with useless products.
Days later, Sam found herself in the student medical center near the south lawn of the university. It was an old building with high, cracked ceilings, a dim chandelier in the entryway, pale yellow walls, a worn Persian rug laid over thin carpet and heavy wooden doors marked private. Dr. O’Hara’s office had stacks of papers on her desk, piles of journals, and magazines, with more publications, worn and yellowed, lining the perimeter of her small office. She had thin red lips and grayish brown hair pulled up in a loose, messy bun. Everything around her seemed erratic, out of place.
Tell me what’s going on, Samantha, she said, as she typed into small boxes in her computer screen.
I’m unable to sleep, unable to walk around town without feeling like people are going to knock me over, said Sam.
How long have you felt this way? she asked.
It’s been a few weeks now. I just I learned that my ex-boyfriend in the States is engaged to be married.
I see, she said. Have you been eating?
You need to eat.
I need to sleep, said Sam.
The doctor stepped out for a few minutes. Sam looked out the window at the overly manicured, green lawn, the bare trees with their exposed branches that twisted and turned in painful patterns, and the muted circle of light in the grey sky, the dull sun, buried beneath layers of haze, fog and clouds. Then she looked over at the computer screen, pitch black with bright green letters. Her condition was described as ‘psychological.’ Before Sam could read more, the doctor came back to her desk without bothering to turn the monitor in the other direction.
Samantha, I’ve checked in with Dr. Roberts, our resident therapist, who’s free tomorrow afternoon at two p.m. He looks forward to meeting you.
I don’t really want therapy, said Sam.
We can’t make you come back if you don’t want to, she said.
The doctor stood up to indicate the appointment was finished. When Sam stepped outside, she saw the rain had stopped temporarily, but she could feel the dense clouds rumbling in the distance, plotting their next target, moving in toward her as they prepared to open up with a solid downpour.
I feel pain when you’re not around, said David.
On one of their first road trips up to Mendocino, along the winding, curvy roads, he had said those words to Sam, and would repeat them often for the first few months they had dated. She sat in the passenger seat of his convertible, a scarf around her head, with big sunglasses, just like in the movies. The wind was cool against her skin, and although she had goose bumps up and down her arms, there was too much excitement to focus on the chill, too much energy to worry about small things. Even the harrowing coastal drive, the feeling of swerving off the cliff at any moment, with one slight turn of the steering wheel in the wrong direction, didn’t affect her, as it usually did. She even looked down the sheer drops, at the rugged cliffs and small curls of white waves below, and saw them at once beautiful and magical instead of deadly and frightening.
They checked in to a small motel in a tiny coastal town covered in fog. Instead of heading back out to go wine tasting or to explore an antique shop they had passed on the way in, they dropped their bags at the door and simultaneously jumped on to the bed, where they had a laugh about the floral sheets that matched the floral window coverings.
You didn’t correct the man at the desk when he referred to me as your wife, said Sam.
David reached over, undressed her, made love to her, and eventually fell asleep, clutching her so tight she couldn’t move.
When they woke up to venture into town in search of food, they found most of the restaurants had closed, with the exception of a narrow sushi bar with six stools. They were the only customers there. The sushi chef had a bandana with a rising sun tied around his forehead.
David greeted the chef in Japanese, bowing several times, eager to show he could speak the language well, having spent his first six years of school in Tokyo. Sam and David drank flask after flask of warm sake, the liquid heating them up, enabling them to take off their heavy sweaters, while intermingled at the bar, her hand on his knee, his arm around her shoulder, sharing bites of fresh sea urchin, herring roe, and warm succulent grilled fish.
Are you Japanese, too? asked the chef.
I’m Filipina, said Sam.
Ah, Philippine, he said. Very poor country. But people nice, right?
Yes, very poor but very nice, she said.
Sam wondered what it would be like instead to come from a place like Japan, with its rich customs and traditions – the tea ceremonies, the temples, hot baths, fashion, style. David had once mentioned that his parents and grandparents were only happy when he dated a Japanese girl, and that his parents would pay for his wedding one day if he married one; otherwise, he was on his own.
Back in the car, David and Sam sat in the front seat, the top of the convertible now up, sealed tightly, keeping them dry from the rain, which had started to come down hard while they ate. They listened to the heavy drops on the hood of the car, the windshield, the roof. Sam looked at the lights in the distance, the dim illumination coming from kitchen windows. David sat next to her, his profile visible under the street lamp, smooth nose, prominent forehead, small, even lips. He turned on the ignition so they could have heat, and then they continued to sit in the car together, watching the rain, looking out at the lights, reaching for each other’s hands.
Back in the university medical center, as Sam waited for her appointment with the resident therapist, she thought about her conversation with Reg many years ago, and wished she had asked him more questions about Claire, about her family, friends, interests, fears. Her last name, or some clue that might’ve helped Sam to locate her; perhaps she could’ve reached out to her one day, where she might’ve been living in a small, quaint cottage in Cornwall: retired, peaceful, pictures of grandchildren on the mantel.
Sam would’ve mentioned Reg’s name at her doorstep; an invitation for tea would’ve followed, where she would’ve let Claire know she wasn’t forgotten, was never erased. She wanted this woman to know that her suffering was not in vain; that while she was rebuilding her life after the war, after Reg had married another woman, there would be afternoons and evenings when he still thought about her. Sam wanted her to know that although Reg was a happily married man, she was never fully removed from his thoughts. His memories of the war and Claire were inextricably tied; it didn’t matter how many children or grandchildren he’d had, or how many wedding anniversaries he’d celebrated with his wife: Claire would always be a part of his life that he would never let go. If she could, Sam would tell her about the conversation she’d had with Reg on that snowy evening in Bath, and the image he kept close with him always: her dark hair, soft smile, eyelashes in the sunlight.