In 1943 I used to drink tea by Christopher Brunt
He proposed to me the day before he left England. He told me all his friends were doing it, and so he thought it would look strange if he failed to perform some sort of romantic gesture. George has always been a romantic. I said yes and left it at that. I knew quite rightly that he wasn’t the type who subscribed to needless sentimentality. I didn’t need him to fall to one knee and recite poetry. I know he loves me, and he knows that I am his.
He left England to join the army. Back then, they were all joining.
“Better to volunteer than get the call.” He’d explained, threading his fingers through mine, glancing towards the families picnicking, all of them smiling and laughing in the grass, on what was a wonderfully sunny August afternoon.
“I don’t want you to leave.” I mentioned, turning with him to stare out at our favourite spot in the Rowntree Park, the flush trees standing behind us, swaying rhythmically against a coaxing breeze.
We sat on our bench every Sunday afternoon, only for an hour or so. Sometimes just to get out of the house. We never bothered to bring a picnic with us, not that I minded, I would have done anything George wanted us to do. He told me he felt exposed sitting on the grass eating sandwiches in the open, and so we always ate in the privacy of our home.
“I hate the thought of people watching me.” He’d told me, forever self-conscious. He wouldn’t like me saying that but it was true. He always felt nervous around other people, so in defiance we would sit on our bench and watch them while they ate their sandwiches, making them feel uncomfortable.
He turned and looked at me. He was about to say something, but didn’t speak. Earlier that morning he’d proposed while we ate breakfast at the flat, we’d been renting for the past year. I could tell it had taken a lot out of him, he was never comfortable expressing his feelings like that. We used to joke that I expressed enough feeling for the two of us.
The people living in our building assumed we were already married. I knew better than to correct them and so went along with it, sometimes lying and being forced to weave elaborate stories about our imaginary lives together as husband and wife. George would have died if he knew people were talking about us. I didn’t mention it to him.
“You know I hate it when you cry.” He finally said, squeezing my hand, his eyes darting around at the picnickers.
“Do you have to join the army?” I asked him, pulling his hand towards me, anchoring myself to him.
He gave me one of those disapproving looks of his and turned back to the picnickers, reclaiming his hand and reaching inside his jacket for his tobacco tin.
“If I didn’t join now what would they think, what would they say about me?” He blinked. “It’d look like cowardice…”
He left the next day. A letter arrived months later saying he’d been killed.
I’ve cried once or twice since then, though not at the funeral, or at the reception. He wouldn’t have approved of me ‘wailing’ in public. I did cry that afternoon when I returned to the privacy of what was meant to be our home. Afterwards I felt ashamed and just sat there alone, my hands folded inside my black dress, staring distastefully at the teapot in front of me on the table, realising I’d never need to boil an entire pot again. I never really liked tea anyway, it was George who insisted upon it.
“Everyone drinks tea.” Is what he told me.
I still wear the engagement ring. I like the way it looks on my hand. I doubt I’ll ever take it off. It wouldn’t be right, not fair to George. I sometimes think if I learn to become the woman he wanted me to be, behave properly, then he’ll reward me and come back.
He had such high standards.
“This is our special bench.” He’d said, gracing me with one of those big smiles of his, the one that always made my hands shake and my knees quiver like a giddy schoolgirl, both excited and terrified…I shouldn’t have said that. Forget I mentioned it. It’s not lady-like.
“A lady shouldn’t tell tales about her emotions.”
Well, I can’t take it back now, it’s too late. No doubt you’ve formed an opinion of me already.
I can still hear his voice, domineering as ever, frightening at times, but forever musical.
“I want you to marry me.”
As we sat on the bench I let him take hold of my arm. The fingers of my free hand curled around the frame of the wooden bench, clenching and contracting, digging in, clawing and piercing the twine, splinters slowly sliding underneath my nails.
That was the last time we sat together on this bench. I still recall his expression as he saw my eyes watering. According to George, I – like most girls – was ready to cry at a moment’s notice. It was true. I couldn’t help it. I’ve since learnt to behave correctly, when in public. George would be proud of me. Back then I was always embarrassing him, sometimes without even knowing it. He would inform me when we came back to the quiet of our flat. He wouldn’t have dreamt of making a scene by saying something in the park.
“While I’m away,” he said, patting me, “I want you to come here every day. Sit right there.” He instructed. “That’s your place.” He pointed a finger at my position on the bench. “I promise I’ll come back to you. I won’t be gone long, so don’t get yourself into any mischief. I always keep my promises, don’t I?”
I nodded. It’s true he always did keep his promises.
“While I’m away you will come here and I’ll be right here with you.” He smiled at me in that wonderful way of his. “I want you to remember something, Edith.” My face was bright red as he stared at me, his expression formed in that peculiar way, as it usually did when he wanted me to listen carefully.
“You will visit this bench every day. You will sit right there in your spot and I’ll sit over here, besides you. I’ll always find my way back to you, back to this bench.”
His eyes scrutinised me, conveying more in one glance than most people could with a thousand words.
“Promise me you’ll keep it company.” He said. “Every day.”
I do come here every day, to our bench. I’m an old lady now but I still miss him. Each day I look out at the trees. They are old, older than I am, but to me they’re the same as they always were. I’ve changed and they have stayed the same. From my seat I still watch those picnicking and laughing faces, eating their sandwiches, kicking their balls, flying their kites.
I still feel like crying. I know I shouldn’t, yet I can’t help it. Pressure swells at my cheeks, they don’t turn bright red as they once did and now they’re covered with lines and wrinkles. I have to breathe in to hold it all back. Whenever I feel like crying I always manage to stop myself just in time, right before it becomes unbearable. I try to behave as George would have wanted me to.
I sit to one side of the bench while he remains on the other side, resting his elbow on the wooden frame, the weight of his head leant against his chin, staring across the park, looking at everyone. Occasionally he’ll glance at me and my knees will begin to shiver in excitement as they once did, though my hands no longer shake. I know he isn’t really there. You mustn’t misunderstand me; I realise he isn’t really there.
When I sit here I like to pretend George is with me. No one can tell when I do it, they might see me but they don’t know what I’m thinking; me on my side of the bench, him on the other.
A woman and her child passed by and saw me while I was giggling to myself – I couldn’t help it. Her face was so cross with me, so disapproving. They’re all so very disapproving. I’m sure she must have thought me mad, even though she hadn’t the slightest idea what I was thinking. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.
“You’re a silly woman.” She would have said to me, if she’d been alone. It’s not done to speak rudely of strangers in front of a child.
I’ve done more than enough to embarrass myself in George’s absence; it’s been a long time. It’s too late to redeem myself. No doubt talking like this hasn’t helped the situation. What must you think of me… Though I do enjoy speaking to such lovely people. I don’t mind by the way, you might think that I would, but really it’s fine, I understand, please do sit down, take a minute to relax. Enjoy the park. Why not have a seat?
It would be better if you sat on my side of the bench though. Not George’s. He wouldn’t approve of that.
Copyright the author and first published by Friends of Rowntree Park on Nov. 26th, 2013