by Mark Readman
Dawn brought in a new day in the half light; Susan’s reflection looked back at her in the tall window. The face mask hung below her chin, her blue overall faded away as the sunlight strengthened revealing the grass and the yellow of the daffodils in the borders.
She watched the flashes of white tails as the rabbits rushed off to their burrows.
It’s been a long time since January the first, when Edwards Hall goes into lockdown. A clause was applied from the sixties, after it converted into retirement apartments for wealthy gentlemen and ladies. The signage in the staff room clearly states:
" To lower the risk of passing on influenza as a resident you are requested not to receive guests or to leave the estate during the winter months."
For many generations this big house was the home of the Edwards a military family. Set in the Norfolk countryside, enclosed by farmland and security fencing it makes for a safe place to be.
The kettle comes to boil just as Emma entered the staff room, the fire door slamming behind her.
“Do you know how long it takes for the hot water to come through in my room? When it finally gets there, it could strip your skin off.”
“Well good morning to you too.”
“Sorry, I don’t know why but last night I couldn’t stop worrying about this virus. I mean being this close to the end of our own lockdown. Now all of a sudden we have to stay in, for God only knows how long.”
“This new virus has changed everything; we should think ourselves very lucky to be in this environment. We are used to isolation and we know how to follow rules our jobs depend on it. This will come very hard to a lot of people but that is the price we’ll all have to pay for the freedom we’re so used to.”
Susan buttered a couple of rounds of toast and made them a coffee. Emma moved over to the table resting one knee on a chair. Susan returned to the window placing her mug on the window sill.
“I’m so grateful we’re in here and not having to worry if there is enough food. I’m glad we had the delivery a couple of weeks ago, the cellars are fully stocked for at least the next six months. It must be hell in one of those nursing homes.”
“It’s good that the residents here just look after themselves while all we have to do is the cleaning and housekeeping, which means it must be your turn to clean Phyllis’s apartment.”
“Thanks! I don’t know why she always makes me feel like I’m here to be told what to do. It’s like she owns the place, the other day she told me to make arrangements for her trip to London in May. She wasn’t too happy when I said nobody would want to go to London at the moment."
“You don’t know, do you?”
“Phyllis was the owner up until the trustees took over about twenty years ago. Surely you must have realised that with her name being Edwards?”
“No I just thought it was coincidence, but that would explain a lot. Well you’ll have to tell me how she came to own this place.”
“Okay but it will be quick, we’ve work to do. Between the wars, Colonel Edwards’s wife was very ill. Frieda Holst a young nurse of German descent was employed to look after her. The Colonels son took a shine to Frieda and they became lovers resulting in marriage. Which was just as well because she could well have been imprisoned in the war years; you’re looking puzzled?”
“Where does Phyllis come into this and why would Frieda have gone to prison?”
“Sorry I should have said Phyllis is the daughter of Frieda and the Colonel’s son the heir to this place. Anyway when the war came all German nationals living here were confined, to lessen their chance of spying for the Nazis.”
“Of course Frieda would have been an Edwards by then and she was over looked.”
“Right history lesson over! Back to work, if you want to know any more ask Phyllis I’m sure she be delighted to tell you.”
On that note the air thickened, though Emma was respectful of all the residents; Phyllis was the only one she never felt comfortable with. It’s a long walk to the other side of the house. Phyllis was seated in the bay window taking in the sun, Emma’s voice being slightly muffled by her mask.
“Morning Phyllis how are we today, it’s lovely now the sun is out.”
“Have you washed your hands?”
“Mrs Edwards! Please I do know how important it is for us all to keep a good standard of hygiene even without this new virus.”
“Emma, leave the cleaning today. Come and sit down. It would be nice to talk with you. I’m getting a bit fed up with the T.V. and the radio, all the time it’s bad news”
“Only if you’re sure, but I’ll clean your bathroom first, then I’ll sit with you for a while.”
This was a first, in all the time she had worked here. Phyllis actually spoke to her like a fellow human and not as a servant. Emma did ensure she done a thorough job in the allotted time, not to be caught out by Phyllis saying it wasn’t done properly.
“There sit yourself down and take your mask off then I can see you properly.”
“Well I’ll have to sit back from you, if I remove the mask.”
“When was the last time you left the building?”
“January the forth I went to Norwich and bought some new underwear.”
“And have you been ill since then, no! So you haven’t got this virus and it's April now.”
She was right. No one had been anywhere since then, Emma was last one to have been out of the grounds. The virus had only been talked about on the T.V. feeling the need to change the subject.
“Is that your husband in the photograph, he was a good looking man.”
Oh, no dear I never married, that was Daddy. He died trying to save a pilot who crash landed at the airfield during the war.”
“Was he a pilot too?”
“No he was an officer at the airfield they all had a very dangerous jobs to as well, I think people tend to forget that war involves many more then the frontline fighters.”
“Were you very close to your father.”
“Yes, I was very young I had very little understanding of what was going on. Times were different then, children were shielded from the horrors of war. I was lucky to have lived here and able to stay with my family.”
“It must have been hard for you though.”
“Well yes I looked forward to Daddy coming home, because mummy was a nurse and part of the house became a hospital for awhile. He seemed to be the only one who had time for me when he was able to be here.Then he stopped coming home and Mummy and the Colonel were very sad, then Mummy took more notice of me and we took flowers to the church and put them on a heap of earth. You see I wasn’t told, I was probably deemed too young to understand.”
Emma was feeling emotional as Phyllis spoke of her past; she’d never given the children of the war years any thought. Like the children now, they have no control over their future with this virus taking their loved ones who would have guided them into adulthood. Phyllis was staring towards the main gates; a tear appeared as if she was reliving a memory waiting for Daddy.
“Would you like me to make you some tea or something?”
“There’s some brandy in the cabinet over there, treat yourself to one as well.”
Emma duly lifted her mask back over her nose, returning with the glasses of drink.
Phyllis held the photo frame in her arthritic hand, taking a sip without a flinch or gasp swallowed deeply. Emma on the other hand felt its smoothness then the violent kick resulting in a cough.
“One day mummy took me to the church with some flowers. Mummy said how beautiful it was, as we stood at the earth mound. I watched as she ran her hands over the top of the headstone and the words. Of course back then as a child we never used our parent’s names it was just Mummy and Daddy.”
“It must have been awful for you, reading the headstone when you hadn’t known why you had been going there with flowers.”
“It was a lot to take in, the capital letters V and E. of Victor Edwards that made such an impression on my mind, even when I closed my eyes. Worse still, a few days later there were flags and buntings on the trees and lots of people came to the house. There was food and drink and everyone was happy. They kept saying victory and I tried to tell them daddy’s name was Victor but they didn’t listen to me. It made me so unhappy I sat near the stables at the back of the house, after a while the Colonel came looking for me.”
“I can’t imagine how you must have felt at the time.”
“The Colonel told me about the Victory in Europe and we should keep my misunderstanding a secret. You see for me V. E. Day is Victor Edwards’s day that’s how the Colonel and I would always remember daddy.”
“That’s why you were asking to go to London. For the V.E. Day celebrations.”
“Yes. Dear I’ve never been and I should before I die.”
About the author
Mark Readman is Essex born and bred and enjoys writing short stories in his retirement. By joining a writing group he’s found this to be most helpful to polish his written work, having one story published on Cafelit site 2019 (The kings Shilling)