When You Come Back
I hadn’t been back to Meldenhall in years, not until long after the war. The shop fronts were cluttered with names I didn’t recall, the elms cut back at the top of the high street and the sweet shop spilling with young usurpers in my old school uniform on their way to classes. It was late November, the last of the leaves crumbling from the trees. As ever, the place tasted of bonfires and chimney smoke.
I had grown up here, through the frosts, droughts and downpours of rural life, spending my summers with strange boys in the hayfields that met the edge of the small town, and the winters telling ghost stories in the woods of the estate. It was a childhood that would have changed very little from generation to generation, century to century. Time rarely passed here, save from the odd new motor car or telephone box. Being a morbid child, I’d often ride my bicycle to the old graveyard at the edge of my village, and read the names of the people had come here before me. Gibson. Henfield. Joster. No one had ever left this village, it seemed. The names rippled down the centuries, never changing, unflinchingly agricultural, anglican, cut off from the world.
They appeared to sleep there, forever caught in the gauze of farm labouring life, overlooking the lowlands that led down to the fens. I never felt like I was part of this new world, content with long days in the fields until my face was red with sun, large cookery bowls filled with flour and long afternoons swinging under the apple trees. I had forgotten this place for so long, moving away to university and then London, surrounded by the electric metropolis forever obsessed with a hedonistic tomorrow.
But now, I had returned, if only for a few days.
Henry had divorced his wife, not long before, perhaps late that September. I had seen her on the steps of the courtroom, less dowdy than I had imagined, neatly dressed in a subdued mauve, gloves folded in her lap. She looked at me, carefully, as if she recognised me. Then a nod. I was surprised by this strange politeness. Perhaps she no longer loved him. I had expected to be hated, scorned, even attacked. Her nobility had shamed me. Henry took my arm, and I lost her face in the crowd. On the train, rattling back, it was he that had suggested I returned here, back to Meldenhall, a name I had barely heard in fifteen years. Tell the family. Tell him.
I had a first husband too, although I hadn’t had to suffer through the courts to part from him. I left him here, when I was seventeen years old, by the edge of the graveyard over run with poppies. He hadn’t died in the war. We were children, still, almost, my wedding dress newly folded beneath our bed. It was so sudden, I wonder perhaps if I had time to love him. I hadn’t thought of him in so long, a round faced lad, tall, uneducated. But, as my father would have said, a good lad. Perhaps to spare me such a young widowhood, being a smart youngster, I had been sent away to study not long after that, before going to teach young ladies in Croydon. He seemed part of a forgotten world, some strange part of yesterday already blurred like an overexposed photograph. I was not that woman. Not anymore.
His mother had taken it particularly hard.
She grabbed my hand at the wake, a big rough hand, worn as smooth as an apple. ‘You won’t leave him, will you, girl?’ Her grief swung me, leaving me guilty at my numbness. ‘You won’t leave my poor boy on his own here, in the cold?’ I shook my head, unsure what to say. I had a life to live, a life beyond the graveyard. She wept into me, great hard tears. Eventually, some men pulled her from me, but she wouldn’t leave her boy, howling into the dirt and the grasses. She’d lost her whole family to the influenza, as had half the village. It had hit us up out of the way pretty hard, with so little in the way of doctors and scholars. And so, her boy lay in the graveyard, and I, his young bride, walked away with a brown paper lined suitcase, his pocket watch, and the bed linen, not to return for fifteen years.
My mother met me at the station. I had fearfully imagined a great many faces looking at me in disgust at my departure, but no one recognised me now. She had aged, of course, but it still surprised me: a little woman, bent, wearing a floral pattern a good decade out of date. She was polite, but greeted me as a stranger. We walked the good hour along the town wall and up through the fields, interrupted only by the seldom motor car choking over the soft stone. We got to our village, unchanged but for a new barn and a coat of whitewash across the row of cottages. ‘Are you sure you want to tell ‘er?’ My mother had said quietly, smoothing her apron. ‘It won’t matter nowt for the law, if you were not of mind to.’
‘I’ve come this far,’ I answered, truthfully. ‘I suppose she deserves to hear it from me, and not through some tattle in the town.’ She nodded, and we said nothing as we made our way up through the wind and spitting rain to the cottage that had once been mine. It had fallen in standard since he’d died, the house yellowing and the thatch coated in a dripping moss. He’d always been a caring lad, easy with a saw or brush if something needed fixing. I tried to remember what he had been like. I remembered so little, having shut him off from my life for so long. Perhaps a different woman had loved him, a good woman who wouldn’t ever leave or forget. I felt like an imposter, unable to feel what that woman had ever felt, or ever recall him to mind.
She sat over the small stove, warming her hands in the morning cold, her mouth void of teeth and open. She was elderly now, perhaps seventy or more, her eyesight failing, her visage that of someone far older. She looked like some great witch in the dark, licking her lips over the embers in clothing from so long ago. She had always gone for longer skirts, but such clothing now hadn’t been worn for half a century or more. “It’s Mary here for you, Mrs Joster,’ my mother said, gently, patting the old woman on the arm.
‘Mary Joster, as I live,’ the old woman said, looking up at me in astonishment. ‘Why, have you come back for my boy?’ I looked down at her, reaching to take her hand. She grinned at me, patting my hand. ‘I knew you’d come for him. He’s so lonesome for you.’
‘Mrs Joster-’ I said, as kindly as I could. ‘Your son- my husband- he’s passed away. He’s not coming back. He’s been dead for a very long time.’
The old woman looked pained, gripping my hands sadly. ‘But he’s so lonesome, my boy,’ she cried. ‘Fifteen years in the dark and cold waiting for ye!’ Her grip was strong, as strong as I remembered, pulling me down, hard to her eyeline. ‘You’ll not leave my boy again?’
‘I have to, Mrs Joster,’ I replied, stiffly. ‘I’m getting married again. Next April, in fact.’
She spat in my face, gripping my hands until I pulled them away sharply. ‘You’ll never do no such thing,’ she said, hysterically. ‘You’re married to my boy. My boy. And you’ll not be leaving him.’
I had heard enough of her babbling at this point. ‘I was married your son for a few months when I was a child. Enough of this foolishness. I came to tell you as a courtesy, not to ask permission. I’m sorry, Mrs Joster, but I can’t live my whole life as a widow.’ I rose to leave, fastening my hat.
‘Oh, I know all about your life, Mary Joster,’ she called out after me, rising up on her stick. ‘I know that you take who isn’t yours, when you have your own husband to care for-’
‘Enough!’ I said harshly, turning to the door. ‘Enough. There is nothing more to say. ‘Goodbye, Mrs Joster.’
‘But my boy!’ she called, out into the sleet. ‘He’s so cold!’
I made my way back down the hill, my stride causing me to slide on the long grass that edged the road. I saw the graveyard ahead of me, the rain crackling as it hit the tombs and church below. I didn’t love him, I thought in frustration, turning my gaze. I owed him nothing. This was all foolishness and superstition. I would soon be rid of all memory of this place, of him, and of old Mrs Joster.
It wasn’t until I pulled into Paddington Station that my heart stopped racing. My shoes were still sodden from the rain, a good eight hours or so later, as I came down from the train and onto the platform to meet my Henry. The train had arrived four minutes early, leaving me restless at the wait of him. I had never loved until then, until I had lain with him, until he had taking my lips in the bitter cold on Primrose Hill, and thrilled me with his gentle kindness and patience. We were impatient for children, for marriage, for eachother, each day and hour seeming longer than the last.
Fifteen minutes passed, but still he did not come, so I went to the waiting rooms for a cup of coffee to regain some warmth in my bones. It was unnaturally cold, even by the fireplace in the old tea rooms. I felt numb, staring up at the clock as it moved impossibly slowly. An hour passed, but still he did not come. No doubt he had forgotten, I decided, fastening my coat and walking out to the road. It was not a long walk, perhaps twenty minutes or so if you were quick about it, and the rain had stopped, the sky filled with a low smog. I set about my way, imagining him asleep in his chair, mortified at having forgotten, his pipe still in his unkissed mouth.
When I arrived at 14 Barlby Road, the house stood completely silent, the lights all down, the front door locked. The key we kept under the stone was gone, as if he had already left. Perhaps he had gone to meet me at the station, but had not found me there, so was heading home. I shivered, waiting for him in the dark. Eventually, a policeman made his way up the hill, staring at me in bemusement.
‘Miss Joster?’ He called, uncertainly.
‘Yes, officer?’ I answered. ‘I’m waiting for Henry. He’s got the key.’
He stared at me, unsure of what to say.
‘Oh, Miss Joster, I’m so sorry. I thought someone would have sent word. Or you’d have seen in the papers.’
I stared at him, unable to speak.
‘Mr Willard was murdered this morning, by Mrs Willard. It appears she shot him and then herself. Strange, through, seemed to come from nowhere.’ He pulled off his cloak, apologetically. ‘Take this, please, Ms Joster. You look so cold.’