For a few moments Fliss looked out of the window at nothing at all, and held Dennis’s thick green cardigan tightly against her chest. She had found it between a chair and the back wall so it smelt a little damp, but mostly it smelled of him. She held it close and breathed in slowly, thinking of him, and wishing she was next to him again. As she swayed a little from side to side one of the arms of the cardigan fell down and she felt his hand within it move down onto her hip. Suddenly she could feel the warmth of his chest against her breast, the slight scratch of his stubble on her cheek, the arch of his back through the thick knotted pattern of the cardigan. “I wish you’d learn to put your clothes away” she said softly. She continued to stand there with eyes closed, breathing him in until the clang of a spanner falling from one of the trucks outside jolted her back to reality. Alone again she shook out the cardigan and put it in with the other clothes to be washed, ready for whenever he came home.
There was only a front room, two bedrooms and a sitting room with a kitchen area off to the side, but it took her most of a day just to give everything a dusting and a wipe over. The rooms were small on their own terms, but with no one and nothing to fill them, enormous. Suddenly it seemed such a big, old empty house, and a little sadness crept into the space around her as she moved from room to room. To push it away, she reminded herself how lucky she was. The house had only ever received minor damage, the worst being when a bomb had landed just across the road and smashed in the front door and windows. It could have been so much worse.
Putting a broom away under the stairs, the memory returned of how she had felt hiding in that same space nearly three years earlier, how relieved she had been to still be sitting there after that first explosion and to hear each successive bomb land further away, counting each one until the eighth and final bomb landed. That evening, as she had emerged into the dust and broken glass, and with her ears still ringing, she felt elated to be alive and shook not with fear, but joy. She hadn’t thought of Mum at all at that moment. At that precise moment, she’d forgotten she was out of the house.
When the bombs fell Fliss found it impossible to think of anything beyond the seconds and inches around her. She simply waited and hoped everything would be alright when it was over. It seemed that everyone had learned to accept this new normality, and the fact that your life or that of a loved one could end in an instant, that after each raid certain people you might have seen over the course of your whole life may never be seen again. Such things depended on the most insignificant of choices - to go out or stay in, to sit by the window or the door. Every insignificant choice was a game of Russian roulette. Mum had simply visited the wrong friend in the wrong house that night, and the whole of Mrs Hopkins’ house and everyone in it was destroyed by the seventh bomb in the stick.
When she had coughed up and swilled out the dust from her mouth she ran out through the streets to Mrs Hopkins’ house, through the scattered brickwork and plaster lit by the flames from each site that was hit, just to check that Mum was alright, and to share her relief at being alright herself. In orange light from the fires around it, she saw the hole in the long terrace where that house had been, as if the hand of a giant had come down and pinched it out of existence, the way her father used to snuff out candles. The shock hit her hard in the chest, a feeling of tightness that lasted until she saw them pull the body out, when it was confirmed, when she could cry. Coming so soon after the death of her father she felt suddenly so alone. But she swallowed hard, kept strong and got on with life, as everyone else had to do. She even came to feel that out of the tragedy of that winter night, was opportunity, was hope. As she grew closer to Dennis she saw the house as their wedding gift from her parents - a place for them to live, to have a family in, when he came back. They just had to get through this first.
“Don’t you worry Beanie, I’ve a charmed life” Dennis had said to her when he was last at home, “I’ve beaten TB, got out of Sicily, and I met you. Nothing will touch me”. He had that big daft cheeky grin of his that showed off his broken tooth to its best. She smiled, and the conversation moved on. But of course she was worried. Since then the streets of Gosport had filled with trucks and tanks parked up in long queues on every street, streaming down to Hardway or Stokes Bay, gradually loading onto the ships, getting ready to go.
Fliss had been clearing the front room to make it ready for some Canadian soldiers to sleep the night. She might have appreciated the company, but when they stayed over that Friday night they said little, as if deliberately not wanting to form a new relationship of any kind. In the morning they said their goodbyes and thank yous and gradually the line of trucks moved on and parked up further towards the coast, another handful of soldiers taking the same floor space the next night.
Ever since they had got together Dennis had sent regular letters; from Egypt, then Sicily, and then from the military hospital when he was wounded. The letters were a comfort, but provided little news - they were all stamped “opened by censor” and Dennis was sensible enough to know what to leave out. But it was obvious the invasion would be any day now, even though nothing had been announced. Alice had mentioned the hospitals were clearing out the wards in preparation for the injured. There was an unacknowledged tension everywhere - a ticking clock just on the edge of earshot - and beneath the outward stoicism an undercurrent of fear. Suppressing it was the only way to stop from going mad; the passing of time provided the only hope. Everyone ploughed on, talking of better days tomorrow, keeping a stiff upper lip, ashen-faced, mentally exhausted and utterly unconvincing.
Since his last visit three weeks before, Fliss had tried to get used to the idea of not seeing Dennis for a while and not knowing when they would ever see each other again. She tried to remember as many details as possible from the last days they’d spent together, to keep her going for however long it might be. As feared, a week later Dennis wrote that he wouldn’t be able to come home as planned and she heard from her factory supervisor that the troops were being sealed in their camps. She would sometimes drift off into little fantasies that he would be next to her, and she’d hold his hand as they talked about nothing very much. But she knew it wasn’t real. And then a minor miracle happened.
Rather than sleep straight after the last night shift at the munitions factory, Fliss would always try to do something during the day so she’d sleep at the right time for the next set of shifts. On the Tuesday the week before she had got the bus to Fareham to see her friend Mags for lunch.
If it wasn’t for Mags, Fliss and Dennis would never have met. Mags was beautiful, witty and clever, and Dennis was drawn to her like a moth to lightbulb; needing to be close, but having no idea what to do when he was. Like all her friends, Mags called her Fliss and even wrote it like that - her real name was Phyllis, which everyone at work called her. Dennis first approached Mags, Alice and Fliss in a dancehall and seemed able to find them wherever they were. Collectively, they decided to tolerate this awkward young conscript, even though his introduction to Fliss had been to point out how tall and thin like a beanpole she was - apparently out of desperation for something to say - and he then called her ‘Beanie’ as he obviously couldn’t remember her name.
Over time, as he became less nervous, Dennis revealed himself to be quite funny and charming. Although he was supposed to be pursuing Mags, it was soon clear he spent all his time with Fliss. He couldn’t stop calling her Beanie for fear of admitting it was ever meant as anything other than a term of endearment, but by the time it appeared in phrases like “you know Beanie, you really are quite beautiful”, she’d grown to rather like it. Mags gave them the final push - “are you two going to get together or what?” - and when Fliss and Dennis married no one had any camera film, so Mags drew the happy couple on a napkin, which Fliss framed and kept on the mantlepiece.
As usual, they went to one of the government-run British Restaurants where you could get a cheap meal outside of rations. Mags decided long ago that the bright green uniforms of the old women working in them meant they were Irish, although none of them actually seemed to be. She would always greet them with “top of the mornin’ to you” and the old women would either smirk awkwardly at this tired old joke or completely ignore it, which made it all the funnier. It felt so good to talk and laugh with Mags, and for a couple hours not to be trapped in the swirling thoughts of her own worries.
Crossing the road to get a bus back home, she heard “Beanie!” shouted from behind her, and turned round to see an army truck stopped at the junction a few feet beyond. Soldiers were a normal part of the background now, it was as usual to see trucks packed full of soldiers as it had once been to see trucks full of potatoes, tools or parcels, and in her tiredness she hadn't given it a glance. But there among them all, standing up in the back of the truck, was Dennis, crouched to keep balance, waving, and smiling, smiling so broadly, among this cargo of men.
“What ’you up here for?” he shouted. She called back, “I’ve just been to see Mags!” and as she swayed her body in coquettish excitement, her heel slipped off the wet pavement and she stumbled. She giggled a goofy little giggle and then gave a perfect curtsey to top her performance. Dennis smiled at her with an expression of pure love. Unable to touch each other over the distance of only a few feet, they reached out to each other with unbreaking, broad, beaming smiles; smiles they couldn’t swallow down, that soared out in light beams and entwined in the space between them. It was such a beautiful surprise.
In moments, the truck started to pull away. “Keep that umbrella with you darling - look at me, I’m soaked!” He said, and he pulled at his thick wet army jacket to demonstrate. “Chin up Beanie! See you soon darlin’!” he shouted. She shouted back, “take care of yourself sweetheart” and they waved and blew kisses and mouthed “I love you” at each other as he and his truck became smaller and quieter and further away along the long straight road into the distance, until she could just make out him sitting down again as the truck went out of view. Maybe he was charmed after all.
The bus back was too full to get on, so she walked the four miles or so back to Gosport and happily replayed what had just happened in her mind. There had been heavy thunderstorms that morning so Maggie had loaned her her umbrella, but as the rain clouds drifted away she alternately used it as a walking stick or spun it around like a baton. It was unusually hot now, hotter than it had been for some time, and as Fliss felt the sunshine and the moist warmth of the air around her as the puddles dried away it really did seem that better days were coming.
“My darling Beanie, Well, it’s much the same here, we’ve been marching through the woods for miles in the rain again. At least my leg’s not bothering me. The scar’s still a bit angry, but the doctor has passed me as A1 fit, and I’m not lagging. I’m more fit than half the buggers here who haven’t been shot and you won’t catch me squinnying about it”. She re-read his letters to hear his words again, to hear his voice in her head. She drifted asleep to his voice.
There were no more Canadians on that Sunday night and she went back to work at the factory in Priddy’s Hard. The repetitive strain and motion of the work failed to diminish the energy of her mind, no matter how much her body ached, and her thoughts swirled in the din of machinery and piped music that failed to soothe. When her shift ended at ten o’clock she needed to walk, to let her worries drift out in the breeze so she might possibly get some sleep.
One of her co-workers, Maureen, seemed similarly restless, so Fliss suggested they walked together towards Stokes Bay to look at the ships gathered on the Solent. It was windy and slightly overcast, but as the clocks were on double British Summertime the sun had not yet set. The ships were so closely packed together it seemed as if you could jump from vessel to vessel all the way to the Isle of Wight. The wind gently undulated this carpet of ships and they watched as select beams of low orange sunlight reflected from the water and shimmered and glimmered on their silvery steel sides.
Maureen noticed a line of ships were moving out to sea. “Oh my God Phyllis, look, they’re going! They’re going out!”. There in the middle of the pack broke a clear line of water, with ship after ship moving down it and out towards the Channel. They looked for any that might be coming back, any evidence that there was no direction to this movement, but of those ships that moved, they moved in the same direction. “Bob’s there somewhere Phyllis, in his tank. That’s it now isn’t it? He’s going. It’s bloody happening. Oh my Christ, I hope...I hope...oh Jesus, I hope...”. Fliss said “don’t worry, Maureen, he’ll be fine”, but just wanted her to be quiet. She was thinking the same inside, that Dennis was out there somewhere, that this was it. They stood, mostly in silence from then on.
They stayed there as the sunlight was replaced by a full moon, looking intently at the ships for any clues. After about an hour they could see there were no more ships moving out to sea and the ones that had gone appeared to have stopped just before the horizon. There was no more activity on the ships in front of them and as the wind picked up it began to rain hard. It had been a false alarm, the invention of their own anxiety. That night Fliss slept a dreamless sleep for the first time in weeks.
The wind continued the next day and Fliss worked more easily in the belief that the weather would delay an invasion for a few more days at least. But, stepping out of the factory that night everyone heard a loud low buzzing above them and one by one looked up to see a sky made of aeroplanes, nose to tail and tip to tip. There were gasps, and some cheers, and some people sobbed quietly in a mixture of pride and fear. Fliss and Maureen caught each other’s eye across the courtyard but said nothing. They had nothing to add to the fears they had shared the night before.
The morning news confirmed only that bombings were taking place. It wasn’t until the twelve o’clock news came on at the factory that D-Day was confirmed. Fliss listened intently as if John Snagge himself might announce to the empire that Dennis was safe and well and thinking of her, but all that came close to providing such comfort was a phrase later on the evening news “on the beaches, opposition was less than expected...”. She held this phrase in her mind. Less than expected, better than feared. She started to create a space in her thoughts for him to live in, to allow for the idea that he would come back, that they would have their future again. The weather was fine and dry by evening, more like a normal summer, but all that night she heard the sound of distant thunder.
On Thursday morning came a letter in his handwriting. She opened it breathlessly, tears welling in her eyes, feeling a wave of release over her whole body that he was still alive.
We’re in Southampton now for a bit. They gave us lovely mattresses on a hard warehouse floor to sleep on when we arrived, but after 24 hours we seem to have overstayed our welcome, so now we have to sleep on the LCI. I can’t though, because Arthur Hendrix keeps waking me up with his gas. He knows I’m telling you, and he’s not happy, but how do you think I feel!” He went on to explain that the LCI was their boat and it was very small. “Give my love to all in Turk Town, but most of all to you, Dennis”.
The letter was dated Sunday 4th June. Wait and hope.
She heard two of the supervisors, Graham and Mr Bennet, discussing events. "It's enormous, we're giving them hell. When you think we can hear the fighting from here, just think what a kicking we're giving them". Fliss had never considered the distant thunder was man-made, and that within its rumbling there was fire, and rubble and flesh. As she thought of Dennis among it all she felt parts of her wellbeing slip away inside her chest like mini landslides, down into her stomach.
No one heard any direct news until Friday, when Maureen came in with a letter from Bob and read it out excitedly. He had made it, and had even had a bacon sandwich on the way over, although he’d lost it again with sea-sickness. It had been awful, exhausting, but he was resting now and felt sure the hard part was over. Three or four of the women left the room as she read.
The next week Maureen asked "have you still heard nothing back from Dennis?". She hadn't. Most people still hadn't heard back. When she heard of people with news it was often because their men had been brought back home with injuries. Alice would have got news to her if Dennis was at the hospital. She saw Alice once that week, she looked exhausted. Fliss consoled herself that everyone was so busy working to free Europe, it was reasonable to think post might be late or go missing. And then, a letter.
"My dearest Beanie,
The crossing was rough and I've never been in such a storm, but we made it onto the beach at about 8 in the morning. You've never seen so many planes, ships and men in one place! It was hard walking up the sand, I tried to run but lost a boot in it, like I did on the beach at Lymington. I thought after that you'd probably tell me to tie my bootlaces properly again. I've been thinking back over the last year and I can't wait to get back to you. To go to the beach again, or go to the pictures, or stay at home. Thinking of you always, Dennis".
It was with great pride that Phyllis told her co-workers about the letter and she completely forgot - or didn't care - how uncomfortable it had made people when Maureen had read hers out. The relief of having news to share overcame any such sensitivities.
Over the following weeks more letters came, one a day, sometimes even two. Dennis talked of the times they had spent together and their plans for the future. Sometimes he told stories of his friends in the unit, particularly Arthur and Roy. She was pleased he was with friends, especially after he had lost a good friend fighting in Sicily. She placed every letter lovingly in her mother's old jewellery box which she kept in the sitting room dresser her father had bought. In that way, she kept her whole family together.
Week by week the news on the wireless told of further advances towards Germany and friends and colleagues received letters back from their loved ones on the front. There were no noises over the horizon now, it was sunny, and Fliss felt lighter and happier. Everyone still worked hard, and Alice had heartbreaking stories to tell from the hospital, but the end was getting nearer.
"My dearest Beanie,
I think, when the war's over, we should come to this beach together. It's glorious weather now, and a lot quieter. I've been playing football with Arthur and Roy and in the evening we play cards. It's not like a war at all really; it's almost like being home." The better days were round the corner.
Mags, Alice and Fliss went to the pictures together for the first time in months but talked all the way through the film. Fliss updated them on Dennis, and Mags had had letters from two ex-boyfriends, one in Italy and the other still in training. Fliss laughed when Mags said she thought she might get back together with the one in Italy, as at least he'd have a tan by now. Alice was strangely quiet. All evening she was strangely quiet. It was Mags who finally said something. "You alright mush? You're quiet tonight". Alice said she was fine, but she was just thinking about Dennis’s letters. “All the injured in the hospital are coming from inland now. It’s odd Dennis is still on the beach. I’m just saying it’s odd, that’s all. Does he say why?” Mags said maybe he was on a special mission, and they said no more about it.
Fliss said little else that night. She thought about what Alice had said, trying to make sense of it, and the next morning she wrote back to Dennis, at the usual unit forwarding address.
We’ve been getting news reports and hearing back from the injured, it seems progress is being made. I understand if you can’t say exactly where you are, but I imagine you’re fighting inland now”.
The reply came almost the next day and she opened the envelope eagerly as she walked through the corridor, stopping walking when it was in her hand and readable, just through the doorway of the sitting room.
“My darling Beanie, some things are hard to say and I didn't know how to tell you, I didn't want you to be upset. You're right, my unit has moved on and the beach is mostly empty now. I'm fine. It's peaceful here, and I'm with friends. But I can never leave the beach.”
She felt her heart beating out of her chest, her breaths short and gulping, she was sweaty and everything she touched felt fuzzy, or heavy; somehow wrong. In her peripheral vision the room appeared to twist and sway slightly, the floor no longer felt solid beneath her. She couldn’t hold this letter, shouldn’t touch it; it couldn’t be - she locked it away with the others in her little box and threw the key on top of the dresser. She leaned on the top of the couch a few moments, then as she walked onwards wiped dust up from all along the top of it with her sleeve. She shook the dust off into the kitchen bin and put a saucepan of water on the stove. As it boiled she looked out of the window at a little wren on the lawn of her garden, hopping along the grass, to and fro. She watched it, to and fro. When the water had boiled she made a pot of tea and listened to music on the Forces Programme. She couldn’t have read what she thought she had. She went to work that afternoon and said nothing about it, came home that evening and slept, with no dreams.
There was no work the next day, but she was to start a run of morning shifts the following day. She considered going for a walk but took a long time getting ready and was still home at 10.30 when there was a knock at the door. She opened the door to a boy, about 15 years old she thought.
"Mrs Gibbs?" He asked. "Yes" Fliss replied. "I've got a telegram for you". She thought it peculiar, how nervous he looked. She wondered what had happened to make him like this - perhaps he had been told off by his boss for being late. She stared into his face as he handed it to her, this strangely fearful face, this poor scared boy. He swallowed hard and looked down at the ground. He didn't step away from her. She opened it.
Fliss felt the full warmth of the high summer sun on her face when she woke. It was a strange sensation, when she was normally so diligent about closing the curtains. She heard birds singing and opened her eyes hoping to find them. She had one breath only - one breath in which to see the swirling dust in the beam of sunlight through her window, to realise the birds were outside among the common noises of the street, to feel the harsh impression of the worn front-room carpet on her tender sodden cheek and realise she was in the same room, in the same life, on the same day - she had only one breath before it hit her again, like a falling bomb, that he was dead, and it pulled all of the air out of her - so that she lay there on the floor convulsed, no longer a sound to her crying, just contorted gasp after contorted gasp, a desperate gulping for oxygen, a pause, and then continuing again.
After that morning it was no longer possible to recognise when day went into day; there were only numberless hours of crying followed by sleeping wherever she lay when she was finally exhausted. Alone, she would sometimes find her voice and her crying would come out in a wail like the very beginning of an air raid siren, an alarm that would immediately lose momentum, tapering off into voicelessness again, after which she might shudder, and clench her fists, and tears would pour silently out of her eyes, her nose, her mouth. She had wandered into the front room that first day in search of a recent memory. She wished she hadn't washed his cardigan.
Gradually she added other activities to this new existence - a little food, some moments of silence and stillness. She didn't keep going out of strength, out of willpower or hope, but simply as a result of doing nothing. Each beat of her heart came thoughtlessly one after the other. Each breath came, sometimes with difficulty, sometimes sharp stuttering gulps and sometimes deep inhalations, but on average she obtained enough air regardless of her wishes. When she was hungry enough she made food and ate; when she was thirsty enough she drank. And soon she found herself out of the house, purchasing more food and drink, and soon - having been visited by a supervisor - she found herself back at work. Because to do anything else would have taken strength and willpower she couldn't summon up.
She did not understand that her friends stayed away at first because they didn't know what to say, but were waiting for her to reach out to them when she was ready. When they did talk to her she found she had no ability to respond. She could not reach out from her grief, so they were no longer her friends.
Alone, she kept going. She started to tidy things in the house without thinking - she tidied up in the way she would have done to prepare for Dennis coming home from some imaginary job; she tidied and dusted and polished. Slowly, she put her house in order. She knew in her heart that Dennis’s death had been the end of all things, and took slight offence at the continuing activity in the outside world. When she heard laughter she no longer understood it, and would look quizzically at the people who laughed. She wondered if perhaps she was the one who was dead, or if she had ever existed at all, and found herself one evening checking her ID card for affirmation. It told her she was Mrs Phyllis Gibbs.
The end of the war changed little, except Phyllis went back to office work and before long was made a supervisor. She organised, she arranged, she managed. She became more formal and controlled in her manner, and would not slip. Phyllis became known for how well ordered she kept things at work, and applied the same skills at home. Her only interactions were with people at work, and they stayed professional. They would not see her home, and they would not know of her life before.
Phyllis thought of Dennis often and kept his clothes and belongings as they were. But she could not read his letters, not any of them, because she could not find the key to the jewellery box they were kept in. She had looked on top of the dresser and pushed a brush all the way along the carpet behind it in case it had fallen down, but there was nothing there. All the letters, her mother’s wedding ring, her dad’s service medal and watch; all these artefacts of her past were locked away.
It was almost two years after the war when Alice knocked on Phyllis’s door. They had tea, and Alice told Phyllis of her marriage to Philip and that Mags had moved to York and married a carpet fitter named Vic Fisher. Although the conversation was a little awkward at first, Alice visited most weeks from then on.
When Alice raised the subject, Phyllis insisted she wasn’t interested in any other man and that Dennis had been the only one for her. The men who were left could have the pick of the bunch, and she doubted anyone would be interested in her, all hips and ribs. Dennis was the only man to ever love her, and she couldn’t imagine loving anyone else. Not even thirty, she was a war-widow, and one of many; that was just how life would be.
“Can you just grab the other end there love?”. While Phyllis was looking for which parts of the dresser she could get hold of the man took out all of the middle drawers, quick as a flash. “That’ll make it lighter. You got it?”. She hadn’t got it, her hands kept slipping off when she tried to lift and it seemed stuck in the carpet.
It was an annoyance, but in a good cause. Alice had just had a phone put in and apparently Mags had had one for a number of years, so Phyllis decided to get one as well. She had written a few letters to Mags, but she always took months to reply - with a phone they would be able to talk to each other for the first time in more than ten years. The only problem was, the wire had to brought through from next door and the hole had come out right behind the dresser, which needed to be moved. The Post Office engineer had come by himself, so they’d have to lift it together.
“Hang on, let me come in behind you darlin’”. The man sidled over and positioned himself behind her to look at the problem. “Get your hands flat like this on the sides, and push in as you push up”. It didn’t move. He moved in closer to her, presumably to attempt it himself. “We’d better watch out no one comes in, they might get ideas about us” he whispered.
She saw their reflection in the window. They were inches and different decisions’ away from an embrace. Momentarily she remembered what it had felt like to have another body next to hers. “Are you being suggestive?” she asked sharply.
“I’m a professional, just doing my job. But you’re an attractive woman, I’m good looking in a characterful way. Stranger things have happened”. He stepped back, “Mind out” he said, and she stepped out of his way as he yanked the dresser upwards. “It’s made a proper dent in your carpet. We’ll be able to drag it across now”. He returned to his end and they shuffled it away from the wall together.
“I imagine you’re married?” she said nonchalantly; “I prefer to imagine I’m not” he replied. The cheeky sod, she thought. He was not an unattractive man altogether, but not the type she’d want to get involved with in any way. She had not thought of herself as attractive, and yet...that was what he’d said. Was he joking? She was fairly certain he was joking about anything happening between them, at least in the middle of a telephone installation, but was he joking that it might be possible? That she was attractive, even now? She genuinely thought he meant it.
Something caught his eye and she saw him crouch down behind the dresser and come back up again with a small greyish object in his hand. He held it up for her to look at - “have you been missing this, love?”. He lunged his hand forward to her, and there in his palm was the key.
When he was gone, Phyllis immediately took out the jewellery box and placed the key in the lock, half expecting it might be for something else altogether. But it fitted and when she turned it, it turned, and the small sharp click of the lock echoed dully within the rosewood. She pulled up the lid and there, in the larger compartment, were Dennis’s letters carefully tied with a piece of string. She sat on the couch with the pile on her lap and began to flick through them. There were letters from Egypt and Sicily, from the military hospital and training, and then the letter when Dennis was in Southampton, but nothing else. There was nothing later, no letters from Normandy at all. Phyllis looked through the letters and reformed her memories of that time, filling in the details she had forgotten over the years, diminishing the thoughts for which there was no record.
Alice came round the following Saturday and they talked about various things, but there was something Phyllis wanted to say in particular. It took a sustained lull in the conversation before she felt able to say it. “Alice...” she was strangely nervous. “You can call me Fliss again if you want. I’d quite like to be Fliss again, at least to you”. Alice seemed pleased, “Of course!”. And they carried on the conversation as before, but when Alice left she said “bye Fliss”, and Fliss couldn’t help but smile.
Fliss happened to see Maureen in the street a few days later and said hello. She asked how Bob was and Maureen said he’d gone back to Normandy with some of his old regiment, for the anniversary. This little conversation planted a seed, this notion of pilgrimage. She had not been with Dennis at the end, she had not seen him buried. She asked Alice for help. Alice knew old servicemen through the hospital and helped make arrangements. The next year Fliss would go to Normandy, with Alice and her husband Philip, to say goodbye to Dennis.
Fliss had been on the ferry to Portsmouth so many times that she hadn’t given a thought to crossing the channel, but an hour into the journey she felt a little sick. She went up on deck with her headscarf tied tight around her head and her overcoat buttoned up to the top to protect her against the wind and rain. From her vantage point she saw the last of England disappear beneath the waves and when she turned, she braced herself as she saw the coast of France rise up in front of them in a long line. On first sight she found it quite intimidating, but this feeling eased as she began to make out the features of towns and villages and everyday life. When they arrived at Caen it took half an hour to get Philip’s Vauxhall Velox lifted from the cargo steamer, after which they had a kind of cheese on toast for lunch in the main town, before driving on to the war cemetery near Ryes, a few miles away.
Alice gave instructions as Philip drove and they passed through the many villages on the route, checking them off one by one from the written directions he’d prepared. As they did so, Fliss looked out of the car window at the landscape around them, trying to understand the country where her husband now lay. It struck her that the land was rather flat, or at least the hills seems shallower than England, as if the landscape had been stretched apart. Every now and then she saw strange little corrugated iron cars, like pig sties on wheels. She had expected to see people in striped jerseys and berets, but the clothing she saw was disappointingly normal.
They weren’t sure they were on the right road but as the the line of trees on their right gave way to an open field they could see a clump of saplings up on the corner ahead, with glimpses of white between them. As they drew nearer they saw that these were rows of white gravestones. It was so much smaller than they’d expected, but it was nice that Dennis had one almost to himself, she thought. It was peaceful. They walked along the rows and it was Alice who found the grave first - “here he is”.
Fliss walked over and then knelt down to look at it for the first time. “Private D.R. Gibbs, Hampshire Regiment, 6th June 1944 Age 23”. The epitaph said simply “in loving memory” because when asked she had not been able to think of anything else. It did not seem personal to her, reading it now. It only served as a reminder of her shock and her distance from the whole world at that time.
She looked out between the saplings to the fields beyond and listened to the wind buffeting the young leaves as she thought of Dennis. He had been cut down. It was a phrase people used, but it was true. He had been a sapling, cut down where there might have been a forest. She wondered what he would make of this place, in the corner of a strangely flat French field. But he had never even been here, never seen such things, he hadn’t made it this far. All he would have seen of France was sand.
“Are you alright Fliss?” asked Alice. “He’s not really here, is he?” Fliss replied. She stood up and smiled lightly at Alice who took her arm, and they walked towards the car. “Is that it?” asked Philip, only half way through his cigarette.
It only took ten minutes driving before they reached the coast at Arromanches-les-bains, where Dennis had been killed. Fliss had been preparing herself to feel emotional at first sight of the beach, but instead was left puzzled by her first glimpses of it as they approached. There appeared to be giant blocks in the water and one on the beach itself, not obviously ships or wreckage - which she could also see - but larger and more uniform in shape. Combined with the knowledge that this was where Dennis fell, from a distance and without her glasses on they looked like giant fallen gravestones.
They parked the car and stood together, the three of them, looking out along the bay. “That’ll be Mulberry” said Philip. The gravestones were the remains of the floating harbour that had been brought across during the landings. Fliss turned away for a moment, and saw that some thirty feet behind them a new house was being built. The road itself seemed newly resurfaced, and further along the beach they could see children making sandcastles and playing with a ball. There were some men and women outside a café in the middle distance, chatting while one of their dogs explored a nearby hedge. And out in the water were the remains of landing craft rusting in the surf, and shipwrecks further out. There would be bodies lying there still, trapped in their machines or buried under the sand, while new life carried on all around them.
The lack of solemnity, lack of reverence, did not upset Fliss, although she took a few moments to consider whether it should. The clouds floating by, the motion of the waves, and even the laughter of children, all seemed right. It had not been for nothing. And Dennis was here somewhere, a much nicer place than the corner of a foreign field, to be in a cemetery of sand and sea. Dennis always liked the beach.
Alice and Philip went to the café to try and get a cup of tea, giving Fliss the time to herself she had asked for. She walked slowly down to the sand, stopping frequently to get a sense of place, and of time, to comprehend it as best she could. When she had walked a few feet along the beach she turned back and rummaged around a fence in a small dune. It was the type of fence that consisted of posts connected by twisted wire and although it was mostly intact, it had been flattened by wind some time ago and forgotten about. Some of the posts had begun to rot and were easy to break apart. By pushing a long shard through the rotten middle of one post she fashioned a type of cross and took it with her towards the shore.
The tide was rolling out, so as she got near the water her shoes began to sink slightly into the wet sand. She would leave her tribute here, and write the epitaph Dennis should always have had. Then it struck her that she still didn’t know what to say - why hadn’t she thought of this long ago? She knelt down in the sand, not worrying about the moisture seeping through to her stockinged knees, and began to draw out words with her fingers. She would write whatever came to her, and if it was wrong, she’d smooth it out and do it again.
“Dennis, love you always”. She looked at it, expecting to have to make another effort, but there was nothing better to say. She was pleased it was so simple, so true. She went to sign her name as “Beanie”, but paused. She wanted to say this to him now, as the person she was, so she signed “Fliss”.
For a few moments Fliss sat there, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the place. She glanced at her words every so often, to reaffirm the message and also as if she were glancing across to Dennis himself, sharing this moment with him. As she looked out onto the horizon she came to feel that he was next to her. She closed her hand shut and felt it was enclosed in Dennis’s hand, as at so many times when they had been together in moments between speaking, between looking, just knowing the other was there. When it felt like nearly time to go, she pushed her hands down, hard down deep into the wet sand as if trying to reach him in its grains. She pushed down, and at the same time as the salt water of the sea welled up between her fingers, the salt water of tears began to slide down her cheeks. She cried soundlessly, without effort, as natural as breathing. But she was happy, because she had been with him again. She didn’t say goodbye, but with her eyes closed gave a little kiss to the air where he might have been.
Fliss decided to redecorate the hall and sitting room, and eventually the rest of the house. The simple act of going to where Dennis had died, and perhaps even just of going away, had given her a new perspective. When she had stepped back in through her front door she noticed immediately that the wallpaper in the hall was still frayed and blackened from the bomb blast in ‘41, the carpet still with singed holes from the burning debris. The sitting room had not suffered bomb damage, but the walls were darkened by the smoke from decades of the coal fire and cooking on the stove, and apart from anything else it was all very, very old-fashioned. She may be a widow but she didn’t have to be a Victorian one. She would make her house anew.
She was pasting up wallpaper in the hall with band music playing loudly from the sitting room wireless when the postman knocked. He seemed almost not to recognise her when she answered, and she realised that must be the case, as here she was in overalls and her hair tied back roughly - not at all in the dark formal clothes she would normally be seen in. She had to admit, having caught sight of herself a few times in the mirror, she looked younger.
“Mrs Gibbs” he said finally. He handed her a letter which she saw immediately was in a NAAFI envelope, like letters she had received from Dennis in the war. There was no postmark. Puzzled, she looked at him for answers. “Sometimes we find the old letters. In moves and that. I hope it’s a comfort.” And he left her there.
Fliss closed the door, walked into the sitting room and turned off the wireless. She stood there looking at nothing in particular for a few moments, waiting for some realisation of what she should do, or perhaps to snap out of her daydream and realise there was no envelope in her hand, or that it was just a bill. But she looked down and there it was still; she could feel the delicate fluffiness of the slightly worn blue envelope on her fingers, she could see Dennis’s familiar handwriting for the address, but to Mrs F. Gibbs, not Mrs B. Gibbs as he had always written. Her breath tightened as she carefully opened the envelope and unfolded the note from within. She started to feel dizzy and sat down on the couch, motionless. It simply said “it was lovely to see you”.