Love From Madeleine by Eirin Thomp­son

The People's Friend - - Contents -

LARRY tugged anx­iously at his col­lar. He shouldn’t have worn a shirt and tie – it was ex­ces­sively for­mal for the oc­ca­sion.

Was it al­ways this hot in the air­port?

Larry wasn’t usu­ally of a ner­vous dis­po­si­tion. Head teacher of a suc­cess­ful sec­ondary school for years, deal­ing with fam­i­lies, ad­dress­ing staff meet­ings and pro­fes­sional con­fer­ences, he nor­mally took so­cial sit­u­a­tions in his stride. He was well used to au­di­ences.

So why was his heart thump­ing now? Why was his mouth dry and his palms clammy? Was it be­cause to­day there would be an au­di­ence of only one?

“She’s a nor­mal per­son,” he told him­self.

In fact, Madeleine was one of the most down-toearth peo­ple Larry knew. But did he re­ally know her?

Here came the doubts again, be­cause even though Larry had been cor­re­spond­ing with Madeleine ev­ery fort­night for the past 50 years – first by air­mail, then by e-mail and more re­cently via Face­book – they had never ac­tu­ally met.

Un­til now, that is, when Madeleine had dar­ingly flown, un­ac­com­pa­nied, from the other side of the world, so they could fi­nally spend some time to­gether, face to face.

Pas­sen­gers from Madeleine’s flight from New Zealand were start­ing to trickle into the ar­rivals area.

Larry lifted his home­made plac­ard, bear­ing the greet­ing Wel­come, Madeleine.

What if he didn’t recog­nise her and she slipped past? Peo­ple could look so dif­fer­ent from their pho­to­graphs.

He raised the plac­ard higher.

“What if she doesn’t recog­nise me?” he said to him­self. “What if she’s dis­ap­pointed?”

A smil­ing fam­ily came through: mum wheel­ing a tod­dler in a buggy, dad car­ry­ing all the hand lug­gage, and gran with a baby in her arms.

A very at­trac­tive gran, Larry couldn’t help notic­ing; slen­der in faded blue jeans and a co­ral top.

“Larry?” she said, her smile widen­ing.

“Madeleine?” Larry was puz­zled. He’d been ex­pect­ing a solo trav­eller.

The dad set down his bags, took the baby and stepped back dis­creetly, but not so dis­creetly that he could dis­guise the fact he was watch­ing.

“I fell in with Joel and Han­nah and their kids on the flight,” Madeleine ex­plained.

Han­nah gave a lit­tle wave but kept her dis­tance.

“I think they’re afraid of crash­ing our big mo­ment,” Madeleine sug­gested.

Larry had an­tic­i­pated that big mo­ment dozens of times in the past few days. Should they shake hands? That seemed so for­mal.

Would it be pre­sump­tu­ous to em­brace?

“I’m not sure how to do this,” Madeleine ad­mit­ted, speak­ing for both of them. “It’s great to meet you, Larry – fi­nally. Let’s have a hug.”

Larry dropped his plac­ard awk­wardly and wrapped his arms around this strange yet fa­mil­iar woman.

As she gripped him, he felt his grip tighten, too. Even af­ter such a lengthy flight, Madeleine smelled of roses and clean hair, and Larry won­dered how long it had been since some­one who wasn’t fam­ily had put their arms around him.

They held each other for quite a while.

“I still have your let­ters, you know,” Madeleine said as they drank their tea un­der the per­gola.

“All of them?” Larry asked.

“Right from the very first one.” Madeleine nod­ded. “I tied up

each year’s in a dif­fer­ent kind of rib­bon. That first year was red satin. Do you re­mem­ber what you wrote about?”

“I re­mem­ber it was early sum­mer. Our English teacher had set up the pen­pal project through a con­tact in Welling­ton and we were sup­posed to get scrib­bling over the long hol­i­day.

“I’d bet I threw in some­thing about Wim­ble­don. I was al­ready a big ten­nis fan.”

“Cor­rect!” Madeleine said with a laugh. “I had a look at some of the old let­ters be­fore I came over. You told me who won the Gentle­men’s Sin­gles. Do you re­call who it was?”

“Oh,” Larry mused, tip­ping back his head and clos­ing his eyes. “Manuel San­tana was the de­fend­ing cham­pion, but he went out in the first round. Was it John New­combe?”

“It was!” Madeleine replied glee­fully. “There’s cer­tainly noth­ing wrong with your mem­ory!”

“An Aussie, of course,” Larry added.

“Well, we don’t need to dwell on the de­tails,” Madeleine joked.

“I’m afraid I didn’t save your let­ters,” Larry con­fessed. “They may have bit­ten the dust in one of the house moves. I wish I’d kept them now.”

“No wor­ries,” Madeleine as­sured him. “I’m not sure I want to be re­minded of what I wrote in my first one to you. I seem to re­call that, aged six­teen, I was fas­ci­nated with the po­ems of Emily Dick­in­son and the Amer­i­can hip­pie scene. I dread to think what I might have com­mit­ted to pa­per.”

“I re­mem­ber that you signed it ‘Love from Madeleine’, which made my heart swell,” Larry said. “I’d never had a let­ter from a girl be­fore, and the sug­ges­tion that you loved me was al­most un­bear­ably thrilling.” Madeleine laughed. “I re­mem­ber you had a big crush on Julie Christie,” she went on. “In­deed.” Larry smiled. “Yet you mar­ried a girl who couldn’t have looked more dif­fer­ent,” Madeleine pointed out. “Ju­dith was so dark and sul­try – at least that’s how she seemed in the pho­to­graphs.”

“My par­ents asked her to coach me for my French A-level. I stud­ied like mad to im­press her, but I was too shy to do the ac­cent prop­erly when we were prac­tis­ing con­ver­sa­tion.”

“But you got over it,” Madeleine said.

“In no small part thanks to you,” Larry replied. “Ju­dith tu­tored me in French, but you coached me in self-con­fi­dence and de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

“Pity I wasn’t so good at ad­vis­ing my­self,” Madeleine said. “I might not have ended up mar­ry­ing Johnny Proc­tor and wast­ing twenty years on him.”

“Was it bet­ter to do what I did? To marry the love of my life and then lose her just when we were look­ing for­ward to re­tire­ment?”

Madeleine looked at Larry.

“Much bet­ter to do that, Larry,” she mur­mured.

“She was as beau­ti­ful in­side as out,” Larry said. “To­wards the end, she said she hoped I would find love again. She didn’t want me to be lonely.”

The tele­phone rang loudly in the kitchen.

“I al­ways an­swer, in case it’s the kids or the grand­kids,” Larry said, stand­ing up.

“Of course.” Madeleine smiled. “I’ll sit here. I’m hop­ing to spot my first squir­rel.”

“You’ll be lucky,” Larry called over his shoul­der. “It’s hi­ber­na­tion sea­son.”

When Larry re­turned, he ex­plained the phone call.

“Ray, my son-in-law, put his hand in the sink, not re­al­is­ing there was a blender blade un­der the suds. It was ex­tremely care­less of Kirsty to leave it there, hid­den.

“She needs to drive him to A and E for stitches, so they’ve asked us to pop over and mind the grand­kids. Sorry.”

Kirsty met them at the front door, and im­me­di­ately grabbed Madeleine in a hug.

“Huge apolo­gies for this,” she said. “Come on, Ray, let’s get you in the car.

“Dad, you know where ev­ery­thing is,” she con­tin­ued. “Madeleine, our seven-year-old, Bea, has her back up be­cause I said that you’re Dad’s girl­friend, so if she’s a bit of a madam, just ig­nore it. She’s tak­ing a long time to get over los­ing Mum.”

“No wor­ries,” Madeleine replied.

Larry was fu­ri­ous. That was the sec­ond care­less thing his daugh­ter had done to­day.

Larry was re­lieved that his grand­sons, Lo­gan and Ewan, seemed to take to Madeleine, bring­ing her Lego mod­els to ad­mire and ask­ing her to look at books of di­nosaurs and sharks with them.

But Bea wouldn’t budge. She marched up to Madeleine and an­nounced, “My grandad only loves Granny”, and hadn’t spo­ken two words to her since.

“It’s fine,” Madeleine re­as­sured an em­bar­rassed Larry. “She’s a child. She loved Ju­dith and she doesn’t want to feel she’s be­ing dis­loyal.”

The two boys wanted to hear all about New Zealand.

Larry basked as Madeleine filled them in on what she could see when she went “tramp­ing”, which she ex­plained was the same as hik­ing. She told them about spot­ting ki­wis and pen­guins, and swim­ming with dol­phins and seals.

Bea sat on a chair apart from the rest, though Larry no­ticed her dark eyes dart­ing re­peat­edly to­wards Madeleine when she thought no-one was watch­ing.

“What do you eat in New Zealand?” Lo­gan asked. “Do you have chips?”

“We cer­tainly do,” Madeleine replied.

“I sup­pose you call them fries, like in Amer­ica,” Ewan said.

“We cer­tainly don’t,” Madeleine cor­rected him. “We call them chips, like you do.

“We also have an­other del­i­cacy in New Zealand,” Madeleine con­tin­ued, “but it’s just for kids. It’s called Fairy Bread.”

“Fairy Bread?” a lit­tle voice asked from the other end of the room.

“Do you want to make some?”

“Yes!” the boys shrieked. “All right,” Bea whis­pered.

Larry watched as Madeleine led the way to the kitchen, found three slices of bread in the cup­board, but­tered them and silently pro­duced a jar of multi-coloured sprin­kles from her hand­bag.

“Here, shake these on top,” she said, hand­ing the jar to Bea.

Bea gave a ten­ta­tive shake, then a bolder one, and the slice of bread was cov­ered in a rain­bow of colour.

Larry glowed as Bea turned a smil­ing face to Madeleine.

“Do you al­ways carry that in your hand­bag?” he asked her later.

“Nope,” she replied. “But I read your let­ters very care­fully, and I read be­tween the lines. I was ex­pect­ing Bea. Fairy Bread re­ally is a thing in New Zealand, though.”

“I’m not ready to say good­bye,” Larry said at the air­port.

“Then don’t,” Madeleine replied.

Their month was up, and Madeleine was go­ing back home.

It seemed ridicu­lous to call it a whirl­wind ro­mance af­ter 50 years, but how else could he de­scribe it?

“Come back soon,” he said in­stead.

“Just as soon as I can,” Madeleine promised. “I don’t have that much to sort out. There aren’t heaps of clothes or fur­ni­ture or or­na­ments to deal with.

“It’s just me and a bunch of old let­ters!”

Wav­ing her off, Larry felt his heart swell as it had done 50 years ago when he saw the let­ter signed Love

from Madeleine. ■

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