I was telling the children about life after the war a few days ago and it turned into a whole story about you. Your story. It got me thinking. I never told you, did I? I never told you how I felt or what I thought. By all means I intended to, but the time sort of slips through my fingers when we're together. So, I have decided to write it all down. James, even when we are miles apart at least I may let you be in my mind. Even if it is the mind of a fourteen-year-old girl.
All my love,
Tuesday 14th May 1946
It was a Tuesday. I struggle to recall the month and even the year, but I remember it was a Tuesday. It's funny how you remember these little things. That's why I found little Rosie's words so touching the other day. Remember, we overheard her talking to the headmaster and she said that her aunty had died on a Saturday afternoon, at around five. Because, after so many years I forget the time, the day, the year; but I remember the day of the week. A Saturday afternoon. And I repeated it so much that she had said it as if she was there. It's funny how you remember the little things.
Under the clouds that covered our little country of England, I was sitting in our old classroom. There weren't many children at the time because all of the men had been off at war and, though there were many pregnant women and quite a few babies, none of them had grown up yet. So, we sat in that drab little room with about forty of us aged from around four to fifteen. At the age of sixteen a person was expected to go out and get a job, but you would know that, wouldn't you?
I was staring out of the window at the time. It was almost the first time in my life where there was a window that wasn't reinforced with tape in case of bombing and I just couldn't sit without looking out of one. The sandbags were still set around the building because Miss Bilberry was still scared that the Germans would come over with a surprise attack and bomb us all like we'd never been bombed before. Even so, I was allowed to look out of the window for the first time in so long that I just couldn't help it. Well, I say allowed.
It was an art lesson, part of the reason why you had to stay at school until you were sixteen. Miss Bilberry had given out apples for us all to draw at the beginning of the lesson and was currently going on about something or other but I wasn't really paying that much attention. I just thought and thought about how pretty outdoors looked from inside our drab little classroom. And it made the room so much brighter!
But then Miss Bilberry abruptly stopped talking. This pulled me out of my thoughts as, much like me, Miss Bilberry never stops talking. Not then, not as a child and certainly not now. So, I looked away from my beloved window and up at her, but her face showed nothing at all. She just looked up at the door behind us all as if waiting for something. I followed her gaze to see the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
It was an angel, maybe fifteen year old or so. Maybe even Gabriel himself! He was tall and had such a heart-warming expression even without smiling. He had blonde hair that fell into his eyes, pretty eyes too, I saw. They were big and almost emerald green that looked so soft that I wanted to sit for hour and hours just looking into them. And despite his flawless boyish appearance at first glance I saw that had quite an angular jawline and his lips seemed cracked and imperfect. But this was the best part of him. He was no angel; he was real.
But then I realised—he was deathly thin. Not gangly like most boys, but looked half-starved. I swore that if I looked closely enough I could see his bones. It was as if he hadn't had a full meal in weeks! Immediately I felt sorry for this stranger—he must have felt so hungry. Why did nobody give him any food? Even with the rationing he needed it far more than any other of us!
"What is your name, darling?" Miss Bilberry said, clearly trying not to sound intimidated but he recoiled from her immediately. Her voice had been soft, had it not? Why was he so hesitant? And thin, oh, why was he so thin?
He hesitated again before he answered. His lips stuck together slightly as he opened them. Maybe that's why he was hesitant to speak—he was a quite boy. His lips had been closed for so long that they'd stuck together, and now that they were open they were silently begging me to kiss them lightly. But only lightly, it was as if something too harsh could break him completely. He hesitated still, his lips slightly parted when he finally answered the teacher's simple question, "Aiden Kelly, miss."
Most of the children had been listening in on the conversation since it had started, looking at the new boy to see who he might have been, but now everybody was doing do. This just couldn't be. This just didn't happen. Not in Bearsted at least, not in our perfect little village. But it had. It definitely had.
Miss Bilberry stood there, eyes wide with shock for longer than usual before she said anything. She was as taken aback as any of us in the room. Had this happened before? I was sure it couldn't have happened before. Or could it? At least not in all of my fourteen years of life.
Miss Bilberry finally recovered and continued in the same voice she had had before, though I sensed a slight strain in her smile. "Why don't you sit down, child, there's a seat over there next to Lydia." I felt the blood drain from my face. I couldn't sit next to him! What would my mother say! Oh, God, what would my father say? This just wasn't happening! It couldn't be happening!
I didn't look at the boy as he looked over at the empty chair, but closed my eyes and tried to hang onto all of the good things about this situation. That would be what God would want me to do, surely? Let me think. At least, with a face as pale as mine, he wouldn't notice that I was so hesitant to sit next to him; I couldn't have gotten that much paler than before. Probably. I hoped. Okay, so maybe that wasn't so great, but at least… at least…
"Okay," he obeyed in his strong and crisp Irish accent. My father would be furious. The bones of a boy then walked over and sat next to me, resealing his dry lips and paying as little attention to me as I was trying to pay to him. That would be what my father would want me to do. Pay no attention to him, child, treat him as he deserves, that's what my father would say. But I was curious. The boy was so handsome, so beautiful and his voice, even with his accent was like… like… a car engine. Quiet, but low and smooth and reassuring. The kind of voice that you could fall asleep listening too. Not like the nails on a chalk board kind of voice that most of the boys in the school had.
I wanted to hear more of this wonderful voice. I wanted to see more of his glorious eyes, but father would not want me to. He would want me to stay well away from this boy. If I sat next to him in class he would want me to avoid talking to him as much as possible, not look at him, not be kind to him, not touch him, not smell him, not sense him, not even realise he's there. But I wanted to. And I had definitely realised that he was there. However rough those dry, cracked lips were and however Irish the voice that came out of them was, I wanted to kiss them like I had never wanted to kiss anything before. But those lips were not to be kissed. After all, he was Irish.
I pulled my hair over my shoulder, creating a wall between me and this Irish boy that had taken the attention of the whole class just by being in the room. Even with my hair in my way I still peeked at him. He seemed almost indifferent despite the stares and the whispering. I wished that I could feel the same. My face was all hot when I considered what the others might do or say once we were out of the classroom. It made part of me want to stay in the classroom with this boy forever, and never leave. He kept his head down at his paper, seeming to have picked up what we were supposed to be doing, but then he turned his head slightly to look at me and I quickly snapped my head back to my blank page on which there should have been a prettily drawn apple. I decided to start working on it so as to attempt to spend my attention on something other than the Irish boy sitting within a meter of me.
"Attention, please?" Miss Bilberry called out before I had had time to draw anything. "It is almost the end of school but before we go I have an exciting project to tell you about!" She was almost jumping with excitement and so, some of the smaller children were already joining on to her enthusiasm, but the older ones knew better. I lifted my head so that my hair was no longer creating a wall between me and the Irish boy.
Oddly, he was not paying attention as I had expected him to. This surprised me as, despite his origin, he had been very polite since he got into the classroom. I tried to peer a little closer without being noticed by the boy or anybody around us, but his attention was already taken by his work and the class were now completely involved in what Miss Bilberry was saying. Whatever that was.
The boy was drawing. Every few seconds he'd spare a glance at the apple and look back to his page with his hand speeding across it, drawing shapes that I sure knew I couldn't draw. I tried to glance just a little closer to see what he might be drawing. Okay, just a little more.
The Irish boy looked at me. In panic I pulled back immediately and accidentally knocked the apple with my elbow sending it flying out into the classroom whilst I pulled back so fast that I hit my head hard on the wall behind me. I was too busy rubbing my head to notice all of the class, including the Irish boy, staring at me in bitter shock, and Miss Bilberry holding a small apple in her hand and an impatient expression on her face, with a red mark right across her cheek in the shape of a rough circle.
I felt the blood drain from my face.
"See me after class, Lydia," she said uncharacteristically sternly. I shrunk in my seat and as the stares of the class started to go down a little (only a little though, they were still staring at Aiden) the boy turned his head to me and smiled, pushing his picture in my direction. It was beautiful. Like a photo of the thing but somehow it seemed so much more alive, even with the gloomy greys of his pencil it was so pretty to look at. I looked at the lousy apple on Miss Bilberry's desk and wondered how on earth he could draw something so similar, yet so different?
"So, as I was saying, you'll be paired up with the person next to you and I want at least ten pictures put together, ideally more. Okay, you may go." Everybody left but I sat there in shock horror. Work with the person next to us? I couldn't do that! My father would kill me! He'd kill the Irish boy first, of course, but even so.
The Irish boy looked at me with a similar expression, but it was for a completely different reason. He got up and left with the little things he had leaving the room and entering the pit arena that was filled with vultures in the disguise of children. Suddenly I felt even sorrier for him than I was for myself. I had been in that position once or twice.
"Lydia, may I speak to you?" Miss Bilberry requested, pulling me out of my train of thought. Grudgingly I pull my glance from the back of the boys head and looked up at Miss Bilberry without a word. We both knew that this question was not a question but a polite demand. I wasn't sure if I preferred it that way or would rather she just ordered me about as she wanted. "Are you okay with working with Aiden?"
This threw me off. Why would I be against working with him? He was an angel. A beautiful angel in the disguise of a boy sent down from God to show his beauty to all those on Earth. But, oh. He was Irish. That was why.
"I could always pair you up with somebody else? Put you in a three maybe or—you're a good artist, aren't you? You could work on your own. I could tell him that as he is new I need him to catch up on a few things to follow up the class. He'd never know—"
"Don't," I blurted out. Why did I say that? He's Irish! Miss Bilberry waited for me to say more but there was nothing to say. I wasn't sure that I did want to work with him, but he would realise what was going on. He's a young man; really, he'd have to be able to figure it out. Was it because he was so handsome? Was this the lust that my mother had been telling me about? Telling me to avoid. Did I pity him? I was sure that I hadn't wanted him to leave to be taken by the other children. Maybe. But did I pity him? Did he deserve it? After all he couldn't possibly have had any friends in the village so far? Wouldn't he get lonely without me? Of course, I couldn't be his friend as much, but I could be an acquaintance in contrary to an enemy. It was the closest I had to an answer. "I think," I started. No. I couldn't say that, could I? If I said that I pitied him and wanted to be his "friend" then I would go through hours of lecturing on why the Irish are the devil. What? What on earth could I say? "He is a brilliant artist. I saw his work. I think I could from him."
My heart stopped beating. Was it good enough?
She paused for a second as she processed this. Would she take it? Was it a good enough reason? I studied each change in her expression very carefully to try and see what sort of conclusion she was coming to, but it was no hope. "Okay," she smiled and I let out the breath I hadn't realised I'd been holding, filling the life back into me. "But if he tries anything," her voice turned cold as the winter breeze when she changed her topic slightly. "You come and tell me. Immediately. I shouldn't really be letting you do this at all." As she added the last bit she turned back to her smiling and light-hearted self.
I smiled at her but was careful not to say thank you in case of sounding too willing. Instead I ran out of the classroom and shouted a goodbye. I could not wait to talk to Rosie about what had happened.