Love From Madeleine by Eirin Thompson
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. ■