Across the field she came, holding Emily by the hand. I’d seen her as I came through the gate, looking down the gentle slope towards the river. She was swinging her younger sister round, their laughter mingling with the sun that glinted off the morning dew.
“Tom! You’re back,” she said, holding one hand over her eyes to shield them from the sun.
I looked across the fields, comforted that little had changed in my absence. But Lila had changed. She must have been around 14 when I’d left some 5 years ago.
She took my arm as we crossed the field. “You’re going to see my parents?”
“They’ll be so thrilled to see you,” she said. “And perhaps a little comforted.”
I wondered if either could be true, in the circumstances. It was a visit I was duty-bound to make. Little Emily skipped alongside, chatting away. Lila returned teasing comments to her, pointing out the spring flowers for Emily to pick for their mother.
I studied Lila as we walked. Her hair was loosely tied back, a few loose strands playing against her cheek. In the sunlight I observed her fine and youthful features, the playful edges of her smile as she talked nonsense with her sister. Suddenly she looked up at me and caught my gaze. She smiled a different smile, and became quiet.
As little Emily spotted more flowers and ran towards the woods, Lila slid her hand from the crook of my arm, and squeezed my hand firmly. “I know,” she said, looking me in the eye. She widened her eyes, raising her eyebrows a fraction for emphasis. And I believed she did.
Those two words eased, in however small a way, the darkness I felt inside. She never asked what I had seen and done. Yet somehow she understood the depth of my suffering.
Lila’s mother dropped a plate in surprise when she saw me, then tearfully embraced me. “Oh, I am so, so glad to see you, praise be to God.” She hugged me again, only tighter, and I could feel her emotion.
I could see how Lila’s father had aged as, stooped and conflicted, he stood to shake my hand. He said nothing, only nodded slowly, repeatedly. He glanced over at the dresser, towards a photograph of his son in uniform. Two years younger than me, Michael had died within a day of arriving at the front. And I knew at once, that the day would come when I would be as a son to them.
This was a spring morning we always remembered, more fondly even than our wedding anniversaries, for it was when our life together began.
* * * * *
We moved to France after our first child was born. I was in the diplomatic service, and my postings took me across Europe.
Rising through the ranks, Lila was always beside me. She lit up every room she entered, conversing easily with people at every level, while managing our growing household. Three daughters and two sons, not counting the child we lost.
On our visits back to England we always ensured we made time to walk in the fields where we met. In that field, whenever Lila took my arm, or squeezed my hand, I felt anew the same rush of emotion and silently sang out my thanks to the universe.
Throughout 1939 and 1940, as the next war began, I debated within myself whether I should enlist again. The army needed experienced officers. My sense of duty conflicted with fear of new horrors, and my remembrance of the despairing emptiness I’d felt at the end of my previous military duties.
Lila understood intuitively. “Whatever you do for the war effort, it must not separate us.”
I sought a transfer into military intelligence. With my knowledge of European languages and experience of fighting and then living in France, I was recruited into the Special Operations Executive, to advise on supporting resistance activities against the German occupiers.
In May 1945 we returned, a little delayed by my duties, to the fields where our lives had intertwined. The mood in the country was euphoric after victory in Europe. But I was more troubled than ever. As we walked through the gate at the top of that gentle slope, my mood of 1919, when I returned home, came rushing back. However, this time my inner horrors flowed not from my own experience, but from knowing how many of the young men and women I’d trained and sent into occupied Europe would never return. And what they would have suffered in captivity. For the first time, I broke down.
“I know,” said Lila, holding me close. And I reflected on how, through all the years, I had tried to shield Lila from anything that came close to the savagery of war. Her innocence was my refuge.
Yet even so, she understood.
* * * * *
It was only the second time I’d been back in 20 years. I parked the car by the village pub, and walked down the track to the fields. I leaned on the gate and looked down the slope towards the river, the woodland in the distance dappled in sunshine.
I swung the gate open, then turned as I heard a voice calling.
It was Carol, the second child of our third daughter. “Grandad, we were all waiting in the pub for you. Are you coming in?”
Carol is 20, now. She was born the day after we buried Lila. I’ve been alone ever since. But not alone, with a family of children, grandchildren and now even a couple of great-grand-children. And Carol, she looks so much like Lila did at that age. Only more child-like, yet more sophisticated at the same time, in the modern way.
“Yes, yes” I said softly. “I just wanted to, you know …”
She took my arm, then squeezed my hand as she’d done a thousand times. “I know,” she said. “Show me where – exactly where – you saw Grandma that time. The day you fell in love,” said added, looking up at me with a broad and comforting smile.
“I was up at the gate and your Grandma was pretty much just there.”
Then I looked round and could see other members of the family coming down the track.
“I know the rest!” cried Carol. Then she called excitedly to her niece, my great-granddaughter, “Millie, come down here!” Then she swung Millie around in the long grass, both of them laughing in the sunshine.
As I watched, I felt the protective arms of family on my shoulders. I guess they were concerned in case this re-enactment would upset me. But Carol had known, in her own way, as Lila had.
It may well be the last year I come here. In spring life renews, yet for me each year the potency of life diminishes. Today, though, I hear Lila’s laughter across the years, feel her touch of heart-felt understanding, as I watch our family make their way across the fields of innocence and knowing.