BIG NAME FICTION: HERBERT’S HOUSE BY SANTA MONTEFIORE
The happy family home was only a memory, but the door to his emotions was about to be unlocked…
On the same day of the same month Herbert Butterfield made his annual pilgrimage from Exeter to the East End of London to contemplate the building where once his home had stood, forty years before.
It was a video shop now, indeed it had had many incarnations, but Herbert remembered it as it had been then, before the Germans had blasted away everyone he loved. He remembered the smell of his father’s pipe, the sound of his little sister’s laughter and the feeling of being loved in his mother’s arms. And every time he remembered, which he only allowed himself to do on the anniversary of their deaths, his loneliness, usually a benign pool of sorrow in the bottom of his soul, rose in a great tide and overwhelmed him.
Today was no different. He stayed an hour, searching the gleaming shop front for something he knew he’d never find, and then he left. Usually he would take the Underground, but today, with the streets bathed in sunshine and the cherry blossom dancing playfully on the breeze, he decided to walk.
It was then, with the wound in his heart torn open and bleeding, that he wandered into a second-hand bookshop in the hope of finding some balm.
Herbert Butterfield loved books. He gardened by trade, working for the village squire who lived in a big house and had a big garden, but his passion was stories. A bright red novel on the shelf caught his eye. As he pulled it out, a rather tatty grey one fell to the floor.
When he picked it up, there was something about the title – Home – that made him buy it.
Having nothing to do on the train, he opened the book and began to read. What he found there among the yellowed pages was the warm glow of nostalgia.
As he read the poems, his eyes watered and his throat constricted and he had to make a very great effort not to cry. He didn’t think it seemly for a fifty-two-year-old man to weep in a public train. But every word resonated deep in the secret recesses of his being where his pain was still raw.
It was late when he arrived at his cottage. His dog greeted him affectionately. He sat down with a bowl of soup but the poems would not leave him, nor would the sudden assault of the past. At length, he did what he had never done before; he wrote to the author by way of his editor in London.
What followed came as a huge surprise. The author wrote back, and she was a woman.
S J Swallow was, in fact, Sarah-Jane, and she confessed that she hadn’t had a book published since that one, written in her thirties, over twenty years before.
She thanked him for his praise but didn’t feel she was deserving of it. The book hadn’t sold many copies, she explained; indeed she was surprised he had come across it in a bookshop, even
“You found the strings to my soul and played a long-forgotten tune”
a second-hand one. She had barely written anything since. She signed it “With gratitude, Sarah-Jane”.
Herbert Butterfield was a quiet, self-contained man. He had never married, and the women he had dated over the years had soon grown frustrated by his unwillingness to “open up” and left him. He was content with his dog, the gardens he tended and the books he read.
Yet there was something about Sarah-Jane’s poems that touched him. As he wrote in his second letter (after apologising for writing to her again), “it is as if you have found the strings to my soul and played a long-forgotten tune”. How his friends in the Wily Fox would laugh at that! He didn’t expect to get a letter back. Herbert read and re-read the poems and as he did so, the door so firmly shut on that dreadful night of April the tenth, 1941, opened a crack and the light of his attention flooded in, bringing his memories to life. He remembered the
ear-shattering sound of a bomb somewhere further down the street and he recalled clambering out of bed to hide beneath it, as he had been told to do if there was no time to run to the shelter.
He must have lost consciousness when the next bomb came because when he opened his eyes, he was buried alive beneath the debris of his home. A thin beam of light trickled through the splintered beams and fallen bricks and he coughed on the taste of fear and the dust that filled his throat.
He didn’t know then that his parents had died. He called for them until his chest hurt; until he could call no more. But he didn’t die as he thought he would.
As dawn unveiled the horrifying scene of destruction Herbert Butterfield remembered the relief at being found, but he remembered too the crippling sense of despair.
He could see clearly now the elderly man with arthritic fingers who gave him his coat to wear over his tattered pyjamas, the lavender-scented woman who held him when he was told his family hadn’t made it and the little girl with big green eyes who had given him a daffodil.
As he remembered those small acts of kindness, his grief rattled through his body like an old snake that had been hiding there for years and had at last found a way out. He let it pass through him and with every sob he felt a little lighter.
Herbert Butterfield was overcome by a strong desire to share his past. He sat at the kitchen table and wrote his story, from the very beginning. He wrote about the happy days before the war and he wrote about the bomb. He unburdened his heart of the sadness there.
When he had finished, he felt so much better. One could even say he felt happy. He folded the paper into an envelope and sent it to Sarah-Jane Swallow, thanking her for enabling this healing to take place.
She wrote back and this time at the top of the paper she had written her home address so he could write to her directly. She was touched by his story, she wrote, and honoured that her poetry should be cathartic for him. It had been cathartic for her too, because she had written it after her husband died.
Over the following months they wrote to each other often. Herbert opened up. He told her everything. How he loved the birds that visited the feeders in his garden, how he wept at the play of light on the sea, how he no longer felt lonely because he had found a friend in her.
Sarah-Jane shared her life with him enthusiastically. She told him about the abandoned dogs she took in, of the parish committee who drove her insane with their endless meetings and she told him she had started writing again, because of him.
Something had shifted. He knew that this would be his last visit
The following April Herbert Butterfield made his annual pilgrimage to London. The video shop was still there but his sorrow had gone. Something had shifted inside him and he knew that this would be his last visit. It was time to let go of the past.
As he gazed out of the train window, at the blossom trees, white-flowered hedgerows and phosphorescent green of the new spring leaves, he realised that he loved Sarah-Jane Swallow. He loved her with all his heart, even though he had never met her.
When he got home he wrote and asked whether she might agree to meet him. Her letter was hesitant. “What if the sight of me ruins our friendship?” she asked. “I treasure you, Herbert Butterfield, and I’m afraid of losing you.”
He wrote back immediately, reassuring her that there was nothing about her that could alter his feelings.
“I love you,” he confessed; “I love the person you are.”
She agreed to meet him at Exeter station with a flower in her lapel.
Herbert Butterfield put on his best suit and arrived at the platform an hour early. He wrung his hands, paced the ground and looked fretfully up and down the tracks. When at last the train appeared, his heart began to hop in his chest like an agitated cricket.
The train screeched to a halt. The doors opened. Passengers descended in a rush of impatience. But there was one passenger who descended slowly. She was short and slim with greying hair swept off a wide, generous face and tied into a scruffy chignon.
Her nervous smile when she saw him was full of warmth. He swallowed hard to contain his emotion for in her lapel she wore a daffodil.
As he approached, she pulled out the flower with a trembling hand. She held it out to him and he looked into her eyes, her big green eyes, and he knew at once who she was. Herbert Butterfield didn’t know what to say, but he knew what to do. He pulled her into his arms and there, in Sarah-Jane’s familiar embrace, he found home.