Seeing Mother’s handwritten name on an unopened letter was a surprise; she was very fastidious about such things; she’d always opened her letters. Under the crisp white envelope was a pile of old picture postcards; under the cards, a musky bundle of opened letters bound tightly together with faded red ribbon. Although Joyce knew it certainly wasn’t the case, it all looked as if it had all just been put there.
It all began when the tranquil peace of the previous afternoon had been disturbed by a muffled explosion somewhere down the garden. Joyce, tea-cup at her lips, wasn’t particularly perturbed and momentarily debated whether she knew how a ‘real’ explosion should have sounded. She’d never heard one before, but imagined in that moment that had she, then this one would have sounded, well, slightly apologetic. Despite not actually seeing anything, she felt it; the blast of wind which followed the initial thump and which rustled the leaves in Peter’s magnolia tree, almost made her spill her tea. She tutted at the inconvenience of it all.
The explosion, which subsequently led to the discovery of the letter to her mother, took place on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year. Joyce had had been sat on the back terrace having her afternoon tea. Now seventy-three, but as sprightly as a woman twenty years younger, Joyce had got to enjoy the tea-time ritual in the sitting room or, when it was warm enough, on the terrace in the garden. Unlike her daughter, Marianne, and that husband of hers who were in the horrible habit of ‘dunking’ tea-bags into a mug of boiling water before adding their semi-skimmed milk straight from the carton, Joyce insisted on a teapot, a milk jug, and a proper cup and saucer. It was just how people of her age did things.
After the muffled blast, and after a few bits and pieces had dropped from the sky onto the lawn, Joyce put her tea back on the table, sighed, and stood up to see what had happened. The garden at this time of year was usually alive with farmland birdsong, but it was suddenly eerily quiet; Classic FM’s broadcast of Barber’s Adagio for Strings from the conservatory Bose suddenly seemed much louder than it should. A small puff of dark smoke rising into the windless blue sky from the south west corner of the garden caught Joyce’s eye. At that moment, it dawned on her that she’d somehow have to remember to tell Nick about the pieces of shrapnel on the lawn next time he came to mow it; her memory wasn’t as it had been. Dearest Peter had spent years cultivating his lawn and he wouldn’t have wanted to see it ruined.
Drawn by the rising spire at the bottom of the garden, Joyce took the short walk past the lupins, through the arch separating the top and bottom lawns, and then across to the iron fence marking the boundary of the garden with the big field. She paused. Looking to her right along the bed of red carnations, Joyce could see the iron-brick shed – hidden from the house by the laurel hedge – that sat beyond. Locked shut for decades and with ivy covering most of the walls, no one really knew what was inside; she’d always thought Grandma had skept her gardening tools there, but, as the key had been lost many years ago, she didn’t really have any idea what was inside. Now, with its door dangling comically from the top hinge and the slate roof sporting four new saucepan-sized holes, it looked quite sad. But at least she’d found where the explosion had come from.
Later that afternoon Joyce remembered the old family story of the No. 36 hand grenade that Grandpa had supposedly brought back from work one day for Grandma – he’d always been in munitions so they all knew what a no. 36 was. Something had been said about the grenade being useful in case they were ever invaded; useful for what? She couldn’t really see little Grandma throwing a grenade at a German Panzer advancing towards her across the North Hampshire downs. If she was honest, Joyce had always thought the story of the grenade gift was no more than that, a story. But perhaps it could have been true; perhaps that was what had caused all the mess.
Joyce finally ventured into the shed the following morning when she felt quite certain that it wasn’t going to go bang again. Harroway House, Joyce’s home, was built in the early 1920’s in the quiet of North Hampshire, just outside of Whitchurch, where most of the homes were now empty during the week; occupied by busy executive couples, each with their own car, they left early to work in the cities and towns. As a result, seemingly no one else heard the blast – or perhaps they just thought it was a shotgun being discharged; something frequently heard in the fields and which, although making Marianne jump every time, had never remotely concerned Joyce.
Joyce Gates had lived at Harroway for most of her life, on and off, but she’d only been alone there since Peter had passed away; dearest, sweet Peter. Despite having her nice little old Citroen car in the garage, Joyce didn’t go out much because everything she ever needed came to her at the house and twice a week her daughter, Marianne, would visit. Joyce felt that it was because Marianne had never actually lived at Harroway that she kept on saying her mother should sell the ‘old’ house and move to the coast to be nearer to her and the children; but Joyce had decided she wasn’t leaving; besides, no one wanted to buy a big old house like theirs nowadays, even one with such a lovely garden. Mummy would never have sold Harroway.
Yes, Joyce decided, the explosion must have been caused by Grandma’s grenade. It must have just gone off with the heat of the day. She’d read once that this can sometimes happen with old wartime munitions.
Peering through the remains of the broken door, the inside of the shed was in a dreadful mess with broken garden tools and smashed earthenware flowerpots all strewn about. However, on the floor opposite the hole in the wall where a small window looking out onto the fields used to be, was a large wooden trunk. Joyce had not seen it before and, apparently unlike everything else in the shed, it looked untouched by the explosion. Stretching up – the entrance to the shed was up three stone steps – she could just make out three large letters printed on the top of the trunk, S.V.W. and she knew straight away that they stood for Sydney Victor Webber; Grandpa. He’d been killed two days before she was born in the summer of 1940. His ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. It happened to a lot of people then. Joyce’s only uncle, on her Father’s side, was only 23 when he was shot dead at Tobruk later that same year and her Grandpa’s sister, Audrey, died in her house in St Albans when it was flattened in a night-time bombing raid in the summer of 1941. Joyce didn’t know any of them on account of being only a baby at the time, so she didn’t really miss them. Lots of her school friends lost relatives in the war as well, so it wasn’t unusual. It just happened. People just got on with their lives.
It was when she opened the trunk – she couldn’t resist it – that she saw the letter to her mother; placed on the top and nestled amongst a few books and smaller boxes. Why did Mother not know it was there? Joyce didn’t recognise the neat cursive handwriting; the shortness of her mother’s name, Mary, highlighted by the smallness of the letters. As Mother had been dead for over 15 years and there was no one else left bar Joyce that might have any interest in the contents, she didn’t hesitate, and ripped open the letter. There were five pages of writing in the same small neat hand. She tutted again; how long? Thankfully she had her reading glasses with her.
’21st Octobre 1955
My Dearest Mary (only Grandma would have called her this – and only Grandma would have spelled October like that!)
In this trunk are a few things that I’d like you to have. You know that I’ve never spoken much about the past so hopefully they will help you understand a little more about me and what I’m about to tell you. I’m certain that there are many things about me that you don’t know. It feels to me like I have spent my whole life hiding, but now I’m gone, I am able to tell you; there are things so secret, so awful, so disloyal that I can’t take them with me. I killed your father. I know you will forgive me. I know you because you understand, don’t you.’
Joyce, eyebrow raised, stopped reading and remembered the last photograph of Grandma sitting in her chair next to the fireplace. How could tiny Grandma Clemence with her delicate French accent have possibly been responsible for killing Grandpa when he’d been on a ship sunk by an Italian U-Boat in the Mediteranean? Not really believing it or even wanting to find out there and then in the garden shed, Joyce hastily stuffed the letter back in the envelope, replaced it in the trunk and closed the lid. Joyce was only fifteen years old when her Grandma had died in a nursing home in Surrey and she couldn’t remember even seeing her smile let alone show any other emotion. She’d always assumed Grandma’s stoic demeanour was because she was still in mourning for the loss of her husband, Sydney. Somehow Joyce had to get the trunk indoors. Whilst it looked like it might be quite interesting, she decided that she’d read the letter later; there was no rush.