My Name is Eva

Mama has written to me again, asking me to give up my job here and go home. She is worried about the raids, I know, but I worry I will die of boredom while you are away being heroic if I have to abandon my at least gossip-filled office life and my evenings with the girls for the tediously safe hills of Surrey. I adore being back at Kingsley, you know I do, but I don’t know how Mama thinks I would fill my days when she and Mrs Glazier are totally in charge of providing for the household and probably the entire village too, knowing them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am not going to be one to sit around knitting socks (though I’d knit pair after pair of dreary khaki socks for you, my darling, if I thought it would help) but I do so want to ‘do my bit’. I wish you would change your mind and agree that I should join the Wrens or something. I don’t see how that could be an unsuitable occupation for your wife, and it certainly couldn’t be any more dangerous than staying here in London in the flat. I must say, I really rather like the Wrens uniform – well, their darling little hats, at least.

If things in London get much worse I may make the effort to spend more nights at Kingsley (though if I do, Mama will never leave off asking me to stay), but don’t ask me to abandon my London life completely, as it helps me to feel more like a proper grown-up married woman while you are away in France.

In your last letter you asked me to look after McNeil when he arrives in London, so I have alerted Grace and Audrey as they are not sweethearts with any fellows as yet and will be eager to take him under their ‘wings’ as it were. I hope he will be man enough to withstand their enthusiastic attentions!

Well, darling, I must sign off now as Miss Harper has been giving me stern looks for at least five minutes. She clearly thinks I should have finished my lunch break and returned to my work. What she would think if she realised I was using company paper as well, I dread to think.



Your ever-loving wife, Evie xxxxxxx Ps I love you





3





Mrs T-C, 6 October 2016





Everything In Its Place





Evelyn’s room at Forest Lawns has a view of the garden. She was determined that if she had to live in a care home then she would not be completely separated from her lifelong love of gardening. She might no longer be able to kneel to weed herbaceous borders, hack at overgrown honeysuckle or double-dig a vegetable plot, but she can still offer advice on the pruning code for different varieties of clematis, suggest the removal of old hellebore leaves to reveal the budding flowers or recommend a supplement to improve a sickly yellow camellia. But now she wonders, should this knowledge also still be within her grasp?

She stands by the window gazing at the small improvements, which have been made at her suggestion since her arrival early in the year, after that final critical fall. The hot late-summer border filled with blood-red crocosmia, orange heleniums and burgundy sunflowers was a great success after just one season. Under the oldest oak tree a newly planted carpet of pale narcissi will emerge in spring, but for now a sprinkling of deep-pink miniature cyclamen brings a shot of colour to that corner of the garden.

But do I really have to pretend I can’t remember the Latin name for wormwood or the right time to plant tulip bulbs? And am I going to have to act as if all that preciously grown knowledge is now lost to me?

A gardener is blowing the fallen leaves into heaps, then scooping them up with two boards between his hands into a barrow. She can see a thin stream of smoke spiralling from the farthest corner of the grounds. He should be composting those leaves, she thinks. Leaf mould is so good for the garden. Helped me establish lily-of-the-valley in several awkward spots.

But Pat is coming soon for her afternoon visit and Evelyn must be ready. She tidies a hair that has strayed from her weekly shampoo and set, looking at her reflection in the mirror of the dressing table that stood in her mother’s bedroom for as long as she can remember, oh, ninety years probably. It must be well over a hundred and fifty years old. The mirror is framed in a mahogany stand, and has three sections, with a little drawer in the middle for Evelyn’s hairpins and odd buttons. She opens it every day, after the cleaner has whisked around the room with her duster, to check that a particularly special button is still there, untouched in its little box.

On either side, on the polished surface, on linen mats embroidered by a long-dead relative, are silver brushes and a sturdy hatpin, which Evelyn tells everyone is an old letter opener. They’d never guess why it was issued to her and she laughs inside at comments about such an indelicate hatpin. On the middle mat lies a silver-backed mirror, engraved with the initials M.M.H., matching those on the brushes. ‘Mama’s initials,’ Evelyn murmurs, ‘Marjanna Maria Hutchinson,’ tracing the curling letters with the tip of her finger. She holds the hairbrush to her nose, and it seems to her that deep within the bristles there is still the faint scent of lavender water.

She thinks of Mama often when she sits here to brush her hair, powder her nose, apply some cold cream. ‘A lady always has a fresh handkerchief,’ her elegant mother would say, admonishing the child before her, with grass seed in her hair and grazed knees, as she brought a clean square of lace-edged linen from her pocket to wipe her daughter’s smeared and grimy face.

Evelyn still has some delicate hankies, but they are more for show than practical use; a wisp to tuck into a cuff, a message to drop into a handbag. Everyone uses tissues now. Much more practical, but so much less significant, Evelyn thinks. No one’s going to convey anything other than germs with a dropped tissue; people will shy away from it or throw it in the bin.

A last check reassures her that she is presentable. Her hair is tidy, her lipstick is red and she blots it to avoid smudging. So common leaving marks on cups. But she lets her collar crumple and slip inside her cardigan, so Pat can fuss and straighten it for herself.

Evelyn steadies herself with her walking frame as she rises from the dressing table stool, then checks that all the drawers in her room are closed. Such a blessing that she was able to bring her own furniture here and didn’t have to accept the light oak and beech furnishings used in most of the home’s other rooms. Not the bed, of course; they like residents to have beds that can be adjusted when there are problems and Evelyn now has a rippling wobbling water mattress to soothe her aches and pains. Sometimes she tells herself it is talking to her as she turns in the night and it automatically bubbles and readjusts to her position. But the other furniture, the dark mahogany that gleams and tells her if any hands other than hers have pried, that bears traces of white talcum powder (so much more convenient than a slip of paper), the chest of drawers, bedside cupboard, dressing table and mirror, are all old friends from home and glow with remembered firelight.

A final look reassures Evelyn that all will be the same when she returns. She bids goodbye to the silver-framed photograph of the handsome man on her bedside table and checks that the photo she always keeps hidden is safely stowed in the drawer beneath, then she shuffles into the corridor with her walking frame to meet her niece.





4





16 December 1939



My darling,



Thank you so, so much for the gift of the L’Opera perfume and for the beautiful little manicure set. How you are able to find such treasures at the present time, when you and all the boys are so short of essential clothing, I cannot imagine. All the girls here are madly knitting and I have sworn to join their ranks although I fear their efforts will far outstrip mine. But I cannot bear to think of my darling husband down to his last pair of decent socks and facing the prospect of being barefoot by Christmas. And if, as you say, the Company cobbler is now out of leather, you may be truly barefoot, all of you, before very long.

Now I don’t want to bore you with my own petty grievances when yours are so much greater than mine (I had my shoes mended and bought new stockings), but I have to say I am terribly fed up with this job and keep wishing I was doing something more worthwhile. You know how tired I am of office life and would like a change if I can, despite your objections.

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