Authors: Lizzie Lane
When her true love is killed on the Western Front, Mary Anne Sweet finds herself alone, both pregnant and unwed. Her parents insist she gives up the baby for adoption and find a good husband.
By chance she meets Henry, a good looking young man who used to be a soldier. He never misses a Sunday sermon so Mary Anne knows her parents will approve. But Henry is haunted by demons. Is Mary Anne ready to risk her heart?
Lizzie Lane was born and brought up in South Bristol and has worked in law, the probation service, tourism and as a supporting artiste in such dramas as
, which are both set in Bristol.
She is married with one daughter and currently lives with her husband on a 46ft sailing yacht, dividing her time between Bath and the Med. Sometimes they mix with the jet set and sometimes they just chill out in a bay with a computer, a warm breeze and a gin and tonic!
A Christmas Wish
‘Mary Anne Sweet! You cannot mean it?’
Mary Anne continued unbuttoning her bodice. Her shoes and stockings were already lying in a heap on the grass. ‘Of course I mean it. Come on. It’s a hot day and there’s nobody around. You can swim, can’t you? The water’s not that deep, and if you feel that embarrassed you can keep your drawers on.’
This particular Sunday of 1917 was warm and sunny, a truly bright summer day reminiscent of those of 1914 when the world had plunged into war.
All was peace in around the weir down in Hanham Abbotts, a country area only six miles or so from Bristol city centre.
A peel of church bells sounded from up the hill in Hanham village and a cricket match was going on the green to the rear of Dundridge Lane, the sound of leather on willow sailing through the air.
The bus ride had been Edward’s idea, though they’d not been able to sneak off until after Sunday service and then only after promising to be back in time for tea.
Edward paused on the bank, watching her as she took slow careful steps to the edge of the rippling water. For an agonising moment his view was obstructed by the waterside vegetation. His desire for her leaped when he saw ripples preceding her emergence from the reeds, a lithe and beautiful creature, hair dappled with sunlight. The sight of her took his breath away.
People said they made a handsome pair, her with her golden hair, sparkling eyes and warm disposition; him with dark hair that exploded into kiss curls around the nape of his neck, his sense of humour, his easy-going manner that never failed to impress.
He was also intelligent and confident, attributes that had helped him rise to becoming a manager of the rope works in the centre of the city. Young he might be, but even older men respected him for his fair handedness and knowledge far beyond his years.
He’d fallen for Mary Anne when he’d been little more than ten years old and lately moved into the area. Sweet’s Grocery store was frequented by his mother because it was more upmarket and larger than any others in the neighbourhood. It had two big windows, one displaying general groceries, the other everything else – which included buckets, brooms and bundles of firewood.
Mary Anne had been helping the regular assistants, serving behind the counter. She’d been just seven years old, bright eyed, a mass of wavy hair topped with a large white ribbon.
‘Yes, young man. What can I get you?’ she’d asked with the confidence of someone three times her age. She towered above him; it wasn’t until later he discovered she’d been standing on an orange box.
Behind the high counter, the shop assistants had smiled at each other and exchanged knowing looks. Her mother had laughed. ‘Going on the way you are, young lady, you’ll have a business of your own one day.’
Edward believed that she might and certainly wouldn’t be one to get in the way of anything she wanted to do – as long as she married him.
She was standing in the water closest to the weir where it eddied and swirled before toppling over into the lower level.
The water lapped at the tops of her thighs, curling around her white flesh as she twirled round, laughing, teasing him to come in. Was he afraid? Was he shy? Why should he be shy? They were engaged. They were getting married, weren’t they?
She was facing him now; his gaze dropped to her breasts; perfect globes, a tiny waist, curving thighs. His whole body ached for her.
‘I’m not afraid. Or shy,’ he offered laughingly.
He took off his clothes, his drawers snagging on the hardness springing from his loins. ‘Thank goodness for cold water,’ he murmured to himself. Naked, he waded into the lake.
Afterwards, they lay naked on the bank, letting the sun dry their bodies.
Mary Anne gazed up at the patch of sky fringed by trees. Lying with Edward was absolute bliss.
‘I could go on doing this forever, even after we’re married.’
Usually Edward would agree with her. Today he lay silent and thoughtful.
Mary Anne raised herself on one elbow and looked worriedly into his face. ‘You’re thinking of joining up, aren’t you?’ This wasn’t the first time they had had this conversation.
He was sucking a blade of grass, his eyes closed. On hearing her question, he opened his eyes.
‘I think I should be doing my bit before it’s all over.’
‘You are,’ she cried, leaning over him, her breasts softly caressing his chest. ‘You’re in a reserved occupation.’
He made a grunting sound. ‘Making ropes! It doesn’t feel important,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders. ‘I feel I should be fighting, and anyway, people make comments …’
Mary Anne stroked his face as if that would soothe away such dreadful plans. Regardless of being in a reserved occupation, she knew some people flung accusations of cowardice at men not wearing a uniform.
Suddenly a cloud covered the sun and Mary Anne shivered. ‘I don’t want you to go. What about our wedding?’
He grinned up at her. ‘Imagine how smart our wedding photos will look – you in white and me in a uniform. Very smart.’
She knew then that he’d already made his decision, that his humour was an attempt to set her mind at rest.
‘When did you do it?’
‘I joined up on Tuesday. They came round the rope works asking for volunteers. I signed up. They reckoned that I would probably be put forward as potential officer material. I reckon I’ll be a general in no time!’
She laughed at the prospect of him becoming a general in no time though inside she felt as though her heart had been speared through.
He laughed too before telling her all he cared about was doing his bit and coming home to her.
‘What’s done is done,’ he said to her on seeing the corners of her mouth suddenly turn downwards.
On returning to her house for tea, they told her parents. Edward had no parents of his own to tell, only an aged grandmother who had brought him up and was now very ill.
‘I don’t want her to know I’m going. She’ll worry too much and she is ill, too ill to cope with that.’
Two days later, Mary Anne went with him to Temple Meads station to stay goodbye. From there he would go to a training camp in Hampshire, and from there the boat train to France.
Although fearful of him going and though her eyes were filled with tears, Mary Anne kept smiling. He mustn’t worry about her, she told him. He must take care of himself and keep safe for her and for the future they’d planned.
‘Chin up, ducks! I’ll be back before you know it. This war’s being going on for three years. It can’t possibly go on for another two.’
They hugged each other until it was time for him to leave, Mary Anne burying her nose in his uniform, memorising the smell as well as the sight of him.
She held her tears back until he was gone and the train had disappeared from view.
‘Now you keep yourself for him,’ her mother said to her.
‘Of course I will,’ Mary Anne retorted. ‘I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.’
Days turned into weeks and weeks into the first two months. Edward wrote regularly, his letters as explanatory as they could be under the circumstances.
She wrote back to him, imploring him to get leave as soon as he could. ‘We need to get married.’
She was necessarily cryptic, keeping to bare facts that sounded pretty general because her mother insisted she read each letter to her before sending it.
‘I do worry about the poor boy.’
Her father agreed that he was a brave lad and they should give him all the support they could. It didn’t seem to occur to them that the young couple would prefer privacy; the one thing the army did not censor was words of love.
They’d been happy about the engagement between their daughter and a boy she’d known since childhood. ‘No chance of our girl being led around the mulberry bush like some that allow it and end up in trouble. Like that Ruby Price down the road.’
Her parents had snorted at the predicament of the daughter of a neighbour who was now pregnant and unmarried.
Mary Anne’s mother voiced her contempt vigorously. ‘Worse thing of all, is that her mother’s going to bring up the baby as her own. The shame of it.’
Mary Anne was in no doubt of their attitude towards loose morals. Besides owning the grocery business, her father was also a lay preacher, a believer in fire and brimstone if ever there was one.
That first bout of morning sickness, coupled with the absence of her monthly period, and Mary Anne knew she was in trouble. There was nobody she could tell – except Edward. She had to get a message to Edward. Her parents still read all her letters. They would have to know. Not relishing the thought, she bided her time until she was absolutely sure, until the waistband of her skirt began to feel uncomfortable.
Two weeks before Christmas she wrote Edward a letter telling him that she was pregnant. As usual her mother asked to read it.
Taking her courage in both hands, Mary Anne handed her the crisp piece of paper containing her outpourings of love plus the fact that she was pregnant.
Her mother’s expression changed from sublime contemplation to outright shock as she read it.
Finally, both her mother’s hands and the letter fell into her lap. Her face was ashen. ‘Are you sure?
There was no doubt, Mary Anne assured her.
Her parents were livid.
‘You’ve let us down, Mary Anne. You’ve let us down badly. Your father will write to Edward’s commanding officer insisting he is allowed compassionate leave to come home and do the honourable thing and marry you.’
At Christmas he sent her a card, one he’d painted himself on a piece of white cardboard. It showed a robin wearing a tin hat and carrying a Lee-Enfield rifle. ‘Merry Christmas,’ it said.
She understood the cryptic message he was sending her. It might look like an inoffensive card, but he’d meant there to be a contrast between the Christmas robin and the weapons of war.
Inside he’d painted a picture of a mother – a Madonna and child. The face of the mother was hers. She smiled at that.
Her parents sighed with relief when Edward wrote back saying that leave had been delayed and asking for arrangements to be made for them to marry as soon as he got back.
‘I should be with you sometime around the beginning of February. If it can be arranged, can we marry on Valentine’s Day? I would very much like that. My very own Valentine. You are mine and I am yours, forever.’
In January the weather on the Western Front dropped below freezing. For a time the soup of mud, effluent and dead flesh no longer gave beneath the tramp of thousands of army boots. Even the stench of decay they’d long become used to remained locked in the frozen ground.