Eyes closed, my nostrils wafted in long ago memories.
I lifted my head from the bouquet, and glared at Tom. “OK son. There’s no cause to shout, I’m not deaf.”
“Sorry Dad,” he hushed, “I forgot.” The pretence of my deafness has existed for so many years that he forgets from time to time.
He gestured towards the florist. “Do you want to choose a card to go with the flowers?”
The woman behind the counter fanned a bundle of cards for Tom’s attention. Clearly, based on his treatment of me, she’d decided I was an ancient imbecile, with him acting as my guardian.
I scowled at her and snatched the handful of cards. “I’m not stupid, young lady.”
My choice was immediate, one with an oil painting of a bluebell wood. Diane would appreciate my selection; it was appropriate, even though it was over forty years late.
I removed the Parker pen from my blazer pocket and wrote the message. There were so many more words I would have loved to write, but there was no point. Decades of regret had passed, never to be recovered.
While Tom scowled with characteristic impatience, I allowed far more time than was necessary for the ink to dry.
“And the address, Mr Grantley?”
“The Parkway Hospital. I presume you have the details.”
She ignored my sarcasm. “Yes, we deliver regularly. Who are they for?”
Her name smoothed over my tongue. “Clarissa Cavendish.”
Tom’s head jerked around; by contrast, the florist didn’t react. I assumed she was in the habit of delivering bouquets to celebrities at the region’s most prestigious private hospital.
During the time I wrote the cheque for the bouquet, I was conscious his attention was fixed on me.
When I finished, I turned to him. “Ready, son?”
He hadn’t shown so much interest in me since he was a youngster. “Yes, Dad. We’ll be off then.”
“Good Day, Madam,” I said, as I tipped my hat. “Thank you for your assistance.”
Her goodbye was uncertain as Tom held open the door for my exit.
I slid into the passenger seat of my Bentley. From the time I was diagnosed with a heart problem, my doctor will neither accept bribes nor coercion to allow me to drive. Blasted man! He’s in far worse condition than me, yet he still runs around in his Jaguar.
Tom started the engine. “Home?”
Fatuous question. He would never consider taking me anywhere else. He can’t be rid of my burden quick enough. I grunted my assent.
Tom pulled into the stream of High Street traffic and casually remarked, “Clarissa Cavendish?”
“Yes,” I stabbed at him, “what of her?”
“I wasn’t aware you knew her.” His voice was quiet, my pretend deafness ignored. For years, my supposed hearing problem allowed us to travel in silence, a situation we were both at ease with.
“I know that, Tom. I never told you.”
He gave me a sideways grimace. “Are you going to tell me now?”
“I doubt it would be of interest to you ... or anyone for that matter.”
Tom smoothed the Bentley into the car park of The Greswolde Hotel. “We are both referring to the actress, aren’t we?”
“You know perfectly well that we are. Her arrival at the hospital was on the evening news last night.”
He parked and swivelled sideways so he all but faced me. “I am interested. Very!”
“You want a drink, Dad?”
He smiled at me, which was a rarity. “Yes,” he offered.
He knew my weakness is cognac, more so since my idiot doctor banned it.
I followed Tom into the hotel. Like me, he’s a lanky beanpole except, since my retirement a year earlier, the inactivity caused me to add ten pounds.
In the lounge, we allowed our bodies to settle into the depths of the leather armchairs.
“We can’t drink on empty stomachs.” He handed me a menu. “Lunch?”
“Thank you, Tom. That will be good.”
While we perused the menus, an attractive waitress arrived. She appeared to be in her early twenties, all smiles and eager to please.
“What would you like, Dad?”
“A sandwich will suit me.” I attempted to gain the attention of the waitress who hadn’t seemed to notice my existence. It was obvious her interest was in Tom’s handsome features. I coughed loudly. “Miss!”
With a lack of enthusiasm, her gaze abandoned his Paul Newman blue eyes as she turned to me with a false smile.
“Tuna,” I growled and added a reluctant, “please.”
“I’ll have the same,” Tom added, as he sleeked a tanned hand through his premature grey hair. “And two Armagnacs ... make them large.”
“Certainly, Sir.” She gave him a final cherub smile and left.
He settled back into his seat and smirked. “Well Dad, you are the dark horse.”
I grunted. “You can dispense with the wise cracks. Do you want me to tell you?”
“Very well, except I must have your assurance you will not repeat a word of it.”
His dark eyebrows raised and, although he was clearly intrigued, he kept his silence, except to provide me with a hesitant agreement.
“It happened just before the end of the war, in the spring of ‘44.”
“Hmm, forty six years ago.”
“Yes, almost exactly. It was in April ... the sixth.”
“You recall the exact date of this ... event?” He studied my features. “Something momentous then?”
“It involved Diane. Clarissa is not her real name. You realise that?”
Tom smiled and nodded. “April 1944. That’s when you met her?”
“No, we knew one another before.” My memory recalled the initial excitement when I first saw her, but I pulled myself back to the present. “Well, that’s not strictly correct. I knew her, but I doubt she ever noticed me. To be frank, I had a serious crush on her, even before that day. Not that I would have dared to tell her, for one thing, she was eighteen months older.”
“My guess is, she still is.”
I ignored Tom’s infantile humour. “The war was great for youngsters. It was a week after my fifteenth birthday. We were too young to realise how bad things were for the adults; for us, it was a great adventure. In those days, it was safe for children to roam, there was freedom to explore bomb sites and...”
I tailed off as I looked up and saw his stone face.
“Yes, I know. I’m off on a tangent.”
Our lunch arrived and we sipped our brandies.
“You may not remember Bill’s Wood. You were still a baby when we left Shirley and moved to Dorridge. Wartime, the wood was far larger. My best friend was Steve, Steve Potts. You wouldn’t know him, we drifted apart many years ago.”
Steve, dear chum. Why didn’t we stay in touch?
My eyes misted over. “I went to his funeral last November ... up in Nottingham.”
Tom glared at me once more.
“Sorry, son. I’m rambling.”
“That day, Steve and I were in Bill’s Wood. We frequented a pond, it wasn’t very large, but big enough to swim five strokes from one end to the other. We used it because most of the kids preferred the larger one, half a mile away. Although early April, it was a warm day and we were swimming. Naked.
“We splashed about and laughed and, I presume it was our noise that meant we didn’t see her.”
“Yes.” Oh, that name. Such melody. Diane, Diane.
“She wore a pale blue dress, a denim coloured cotton, buttoned at the front from top to bottom. She had sandals and ankle socks ... white. The dress was old, not tattered, but faded.” She was so beautiful.
“She laughed at us, a teasing snigger. ‘Where are your clothes, lads?’
“It was instinctive to look to the spot on the grass where we’d left two bundles of clothing. They’d gone.
“Steve was the first to respond, he waded through the water, but skidded in the thick mud on the bank. Despite that, he was soon back on his feet and after her.
“I was out of the water in a search for our clothes. It took a minute before I located them, bundled behind a nearby oak. While I’d been in a rummage through the undergrowth, Steve had shouted for me. I pulled on my short trousers – no pants, and followed his voice.
“I found them fifty yards down the trail. He had her pinned against a tree, although it was obvious he was about to lose her. Steve and I were at the age just prior to sprouting, whereas she was sixteen and a good eight inches taller. We were all slim, there were few fat kids during wartime, but Diane was that bit stronger. However, against the two of us, she had no chance, and we soon frog marched her back to the pond.
‘What should we do with her, Will?’
‘How should I know?’
‘Whatever you do, you mustn’t mud bath me.’ Her pale blue eyes stared into mine. I swear she blushed a little.
‘Good idea, ‘ agreed Steve, as he struggled to wrestle her to the ground.
“I helped him, while wondering why she’d suggested her own reprisal. It didn’t make sense.
“Diane lay on the grass, her arms pinned down by Steve, while I part sat and part lay along her legs.
‘Now what?’ I queried. ‘How do we get mud and stop her from escaping?’
“Steve stared at the pond, ten feet away. ‘Will, can you hold her while I get the muck?’
‘I suppose.’ I shrugged. ‘I’m bigger than you, so best for me to give it a try.’ I leaned forward until my torso rested on hers. ‘Go on, quick before she tries to escape.’
.... There is more of this story ...