A Soldier’s Sweetheart
Tracing the couple’s story enabled Luke to move on with his own
A Remembrance Day story
If he hadn’t decided to change the carpet on the stairs, Luke would never have found the cubby-hole, hidden for so many years under his feet.
Then again, if Lisa hadn’t stayed over at that sales conference, she’d never have met Brian and might still have been sharing Luke’s house. After all, he only started renovations because he thought he couldn’t afford the Victorian terrace on his own.
These thoughts ticked through Luke’s head as he watched the watery horizon swaying up and down outside his cabin window. His last trip to France had been a school exchange twenty years before; now here he was on an unexpected mission to Calais, all because of a tin box.
“What do you think I should do with it, Mum?” he’d asked.
“Well, you say it was hidden under the bottom stair? Then the box must have been very precious for this Lilian Marchant to hide it so carefully,” she murmured as they gazed at everything on the kitchen table. “It must be from the First World War, judging by his letters. So romantic – and so awful for them to have been parted like that.”
“This telegram says ‘missing in action’. Do you think she ever found her soldier again?”
“I doubt it, darling, or there’d be other mementoes, don’t you think?”
“And look at this locket. Such a small photograph. We take today’s photos and videos for granted, don’t we? Maybe Lilian only had this little picture when her young man went off to war. She probably kissed it every night.”
“I know… and here, these tiny pressed flowers, they’re so delicate.”
“It’s weird but I feel responsible, somehow, especially as number twelve must have been her home, too. I’m going to find out what I can about her story.”
So every weekend from then on, and every night after work, Luke was either stripping floorboards, decorating or eating a meal with one hand while researching online with the other.
He tracked through old census details to discover that Lilian had been a young bride. Records showed that spinster Lilian Mary Cartwright had married Hugh Anthony Marchant on May the eighth, 1911 before moving in with his parents in Lambeth at number twelve, Richborne.
As a carpenter, Luke’s thoughts could wander as he worked, often returning to the newlyweds and middle-aged parents within these same walls. He imagined the two women sharing the kitchen or scrubbing floors while their menfolk went off to work and war. Who answered the door to that dreaded telegram? How painful, being the one to read, Deeply regret to inform you…
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission proved an endless mine of information and between projects on the house, Luke would spend hours browsing their website. It was all inspiring and so fascinating that he barely thought of Lisa.
Over the months, Luke had grown to accept that they probably hadn’t been such a good match after all. Lisa was attractive, practical and honest, but thought him too sentimental. If she’d been there when he found the box, she might even have encouraged him to throw it out, he mused.
Of course, Luke’s sentiment was one of the reasons he’d always loved their Victorian home, with its solid walls and period features, those floorboards he’d lovingly restored. He couldn’t afford it long-term on his own, but he didn’t really want a lodger and something in him baulked at the prospect of selling it.
“I’ll worry about that when I’ve finished getting you up to scratch,” he told the walls.
So Luke allowed the tin box of treasures to be his happy distraction, following trails and eventually finding Hugh Marchant listed as having died in October 1918.
Despite the satisfaction of finishing the trail, he felt incredibly sad to discover this young man, only twenty-nine, had died so close to the end of the fighting.Before he knew it, he’d picked up the phone and was dialling.
“Hello, yes, I’d like details about your trips to the French cemeteries,” he said.
“Ah, you mean our centenary tour to Ypres? It’s a fantastic site to visit but I must warn you it can be highly emotional, particularly the trenches.”
“Maybe,” replied Luke, “but really I’d like to visit Boulogne Eastern Cemetery.”
“Yes, of course, Boulogne-sur-Mer. It should be quieter than the bigger sites if you’re here for centenary celebrations. Is that what’s bringing you over?”
Of course – he hadn’t even thought about it, but this year’s November the eleventh marked one hundred years since Armistice Day. He quickly looked it up on the calendar.
“Well actually, that could work out perfectly.” He’d told himself he’d finish the house and have one last Christmas before putting it on the market. “Do you have lots of trips organised in November?”
“Plenty of tours and packages, but not a lot of spaces left, Mr…?”
“Mr Farrer. I just need the one ticket, if you can tell me what’s available.”
And so Luke Farrer arrived in France. After the ferry and a heartwrenching three-day tour of seemingly infinite cemeteries, he quietly exited the organised itinerary before the biggest crowds descended upon the spotlight sites.
On the morning of Sunday, November the eleventh, he walked through the early mist from his guest house to lay flowers on the grave of Hugh Marchant, born 1889, who died in 1918. It was hushed and tranquil, with horizontal stones neatly arranged among strips of lawn.
“It seems a good place to be at peace, Mr Marchant,” whispered Luke.
As the eleventh hour approached, a crowd gathered. Luke drew closer to the respectful ceremony, intrigued that his story had led him to this spot, on this day.
A local television crew interviewed various attendees including Luke, helped by a young French woman who translated his story. After his moment of fame, she grinned at him and in her charming accent, told him she thought his story was marvellous.
She wasn’t the only one: when he joined his tour group again in Calais, Luke was interviewed by an English crew with a very enthusiastic producer putting together a documentary about centenary stories. He lost his shyness talking about Lilian and Hugh, realising how much he’d learned along the way.
“It seems Lilian stayed in the house after her in-laws died,” he explained, “as they had no other heirs. She married again much later, and had a daughter who moved away but I’m hoping to locate her descendants so these treasures can return to Lilian’s family.”
The interview concluded and the producer promised to arrange a more in-depth piece focusing on the treasures.
Luke turned, and his breath caught in his throat. The young woman from Boulogne cemetery was just boarding the same ferry.
Hélène asked for the whole story again, and he was delighted to tell her as she listened, captivated. They began over coffee and continued through lunch during a mercifully flat crossing.
Saying goodbye in Dover was difficult for Luke, until Hélène asked whether she could call him.
“I’m spending ten days with my mother in Hampshire – she’s English, my father’s French, they separated years ago – but I have to tell her that I’m leaving a steady job to teach university students here in London. She’ll be alarmed.”
“But that sounds great,” Luke spluttered, delighted to learn that Hélène would be living nearby. “How long, and what job?”
“I’ve been offered a fellowship from next September, but first I must complete my service. I might not look it,” she blushed, “but I’m actually a soldier in the French Army.”
Later that week, smiling at his own bedroom ceiling, Luke pondered how hidden treasures had pulled him from despair to hope and to this exciting, bubbling feeling at every thought of Hélène.
The TV producer had offered a fee that could top up his income for at least six months, giving him time to think about the house… and to see how things developed with Hélène.
In the meantime they would telephone and write…
Luke would now be the soldier’s sweetheart at number twelve, looking forward to a happy ending.
Somehow, he felt that Lilian and Hugh would have approved.
He WALKED through the EARLY MIST to lay FLOWERS on the GRAVE of Hugh