A Sol­dier’s Sweet­heart

Trac­ing the cou­ple’s story en­abled Luke to move on with his own

My Weekly - - Contents - By Gabe Ellis

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

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