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Excerpt from The Lie That Settles
1947: Near Maidstone, Kent, England
The seasons in the countryside could be measured by the hop vines as they crept up the wires. It was autumn now, and the vines were full. The air outside the cone-shaped oast houses shimmered with the heat from the furnaces, and there was an acrid smell of drying hops. Each year the hop-pickers arrived from bomb-scarred London for a brief working holiday. City coexisted uneasily with the country for the two or three weeks it took the visitors to strip the vines by hand and create chaos in the surrounding Kentish villages.
Wednesday was Mum’s half day off. That day was no different from others. We trudged up the hill, past the oast houses. We always caught the 10.30am Number 12A green and yellow bus to Maidstone. She stooped slightly to catch my chatter. My small warm hand snuggled into hers, and she must have been aware of me fingering her wedding band. She was then in her late forties and I was seven years old. Despite my age we talked about everything, from the previous night’s wireless programmes to the latest misdemeanours of the government. People had been moaning about the havoc being caused by the hop-pickers. Mum said it wasn’t fair, Londoners had put up with a lot during the Blitz. She should know, because she was born in the East End.
We arrived early at the bus stop. Waiting for the bus was part of the Wednesday ritual. I sat astride the milestone waiting, my short legs swinging. My fingers picked over the strange 18th-century lettering chiselled into the stone as I wondered about highwaymen and stagecoaches.
Then there was the distant sound of a diesel engine. I liked to stand in the middle of the road looking out for the green top of the bus above the hedgerows as it picked its way towards us. The bus driver nodded to us as he slowed down. I always went upstairs at the front of the bus, above the driver’s cab where I could a get a driver’s-eye view of the road ahead for the thirty minutes or so it took us to get to town. Mum liked it upstairs too because she could smoke. Her face was drawn and lined, grey hair pulled back in a bun. It was her day off so she wore her dark-blue coat, with its padded shoulders and large buttons up the front. Its cut was not quite the style that prevailed, but she still wore it with some panache. There was a presence about her slight body which age could not erode. She drew deeply on the cigarette and blew smoke out with a satisfied sigh.
When we got to the bus station in Maidstone I asked if we could stay and watch the buses for a bit. She nodded her agreement. We always had plenty of time and were easy in one another’s company. She got a cup of tea from the bus-station cafe and we watched the buses arriving and departing, some to exotic destinations like Canterbury, Hastings and even London.
The man in the stationers’ in the High Street saw us coming and reached below the counter for our regular order. He pushed over a comic for me, and the Kent Messenger for Mum, together with her usual packet of Players Weights cigarettes. We wandered down the High Street to the Cannon Restaurant. A cardboard notice flapped on the door – No hop-pickers or gypsies served here. Squeezing into a seat by the window, she lit up her Players as she checked the paper to see what was on at the Granada. The film that day was The Fallen Idol. It was ‘A’ rated, so the pictures were out of the question. We’d have to make do with fish and chips and a cup of tea. I liked going to the pictures but it was cosy in the Cannon. She looked over the paper, reading extracts to me although I wasn’t really listening. I lost myself in the world of comic book heroes.
‘It says in here that a lot of people who were thought to be dead have really been alive all the time.’ I traced the illustrations and text in the comic in front of me. Then I added, ‘There’s a story here about some Jap soldiers who’ve just been found in the jungle and the war’s been over for two years now. Perhaps my dad is out there somewhere. How did you say he was killed?’
If she hesitated, I did not notice it. She reached over and ruffled my thick, curly black hair.
‘Don’t you remember me telling you?’ She reached into her handbag, scrabbling around for another Players. ‘He was a teacher. He was getting his class into a shelter during an air raid and was outside when the bomb hit. He was looking for a boy who was lost. It was a very brave thing to do.’
I quite liked having a hero for a father, although I would have preferred him to have been a Spitfire pilot. I didn’t miss him at all. Lots of kids had lost a father in the war.
I returned my attention to my comic. We could have been an old married couple.
1994: Wellington, New Zealand
This letter is going to be as difficult for me to write as it will be for you to read…
You may or may not have wondered what happened to your son, Peter, who was born in 1940. My mother was Marion Farrell. I know you will have heard through Shaw of her death and my subsequent departure to New Zealand in 1965. I can fill in the gaps for you if that is what you want but I hesitate to give you the full autobiography in case it causes anxiety.
I have, for both our sakes, thought hard about making contact. I have decided to do so now because I think we have reached stages in our lives when we can establish some sort of basis for communication. For me, it would help me understand and come to terms with a part of my life I can only speculate about. I cannot anticipate what such contact will mean for you but I hope you will see it as an opportunity to know a little about this person with whom you are so intimately involved. I know that you married and had another son and a daughter. I have no wish to cause them unease and have had to come to terms with the fact that they may not know of my existence.
I hope you will respond soon to these stumbling words. Whatever you decide to do, I want you to know that this letter is about reconciliation and understanding. I am endlessly grateful to you for the life you gave me all those years ago.