The Lilac Tree
A short story by Marion Husband
Today a child asked me if I remembered Queen Victoria.
In a past life, I said, we knew each other well; we shared tea and cake on the lawns of Buckingham Palace. In this life she was dead before I could talk. She didn’t know me and I didn’t know her and remembering has nothing to do with it.
In this life I sit in my high-backed chair, my fingers curled into fists, my slippered feet firmly together on the lino. In a moment I shall soft-shoe shuffle across the room and place my hand over Mrs Ward’s mouth. She is singing Danny Boy again and the pipes, the pipes are calling. I shall put my hand over her mouth and speak gently. ‘Quiet, Mrs Ward, please, or I may kill you.’ I imagine the feel of her wet lips against my palm, how they will move like slugs against my lifeline. The song will stop, eventually. It’s remarkable how much of it she remembers.
And what do I remember of this life?
I remember the smell of him, clean and sweet as sandalwood. I remember the paleness of his skin, the coarse black hair that grew so sparsely over his body he looked like a man half in, half out of adolescence. I remember the way he laughed and how it irritated me. His laugh made me squirm with embarrassment, made me want to disown him. I was a coward in those days, I remember.
Memories are like holes in teeth.
I remember May 1917. He waited for me beneath a lilac tree, the cigarette between his fingers sending its frail grey wisps of smoke to the pale blue sky. He smoked cigarettes until there was nothing left of them except the stain on his fingers and when he kissed me the taste was pure tobacco. Kisses came later, though. That May afternoon beneath the white lilac I was quite the primmest virgin. I could hardly bring myself to look at him. I had forgotten how beautiful he was. And in his uniform, in his eye-shading officer’s cap, he was not only beautiful but cruel and sinister, too. Next to him I was gauche, a lump of awkward inexperience, all hands and feet and blushes. Except when he laughed, of course. When he laughed I was far superior. It makes me smile to think of it. How odd I was then, to be irritated by such a thing.
Today is my birthday so Midge cut the lilac and placed it in a vase by my chair. Sweet girl, my Midge, although her hips are too wide and she smells of burnt toast through her nylon over-all. She never asks me if I remember dead queens. And if she did I would say, ‘Only old queens,’ and she would laugh. She calls me her Grand Old Dame. I’m not offended.
Midge’s lilac is purple, not white, its perfume dense like mothballs. In the park in 1917 the perfume made him sneeze. ‘Bless you,’ I said, and blushed so that he pressed his hand to my cheek.
‘Hot,’ he said. ‘And the tips of your ears are burning.’ He frowned. ‘Go home, if you want to.’
‘I don’t want to.’ Although I did. I imagined myself running home like an escaped lunatic, arms and legs flailing. I imagined how he would turn away, fancying he would sigh a little. He wouldn’t care, only for the wasted time. He had stood under the lilac tree for ten minutes, only wondering why I was late. No one would stand him up, of course. The idea that someone might would never cross his mind.
I can unclench my fists now; Danny Boy is finished with. Mrs Ward’s son is here and so she has begun to cry instead. My son visits with boxes of Liquorice All Sorts. I never cry for him. I gobble the revolting sweeties and tell him they are starving me. He doesn’t believe me but stares out of the window, embarrassed. If Mrs Ward is singing he goes very red indeed. Poor boy; at least I grew out of my blushes.
I blushed then, but I didn’t run away. I stood my ground as he trailed his fingers over my cheek, as he frowned at me as though I was an interesting cause for concern. Then he said, ‘As a rule I don’t bed virgins.’
Remember there was a war on, that in khaki cap and shiny boots, with the glamour of death hanging around him, he was the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen. He turned all the girls’ heads. All the same, I laughed.
‘You make rules?’
‘To be broken.’ He smiled. He was so vain, my soldier. Quite the vainest man I've ever known.
Midge asked me if I wanted a party today. She said we should mark the occasion. As if the telegram wasn’t enough she wants candles and cards and presents and my photo in the free sheet. After all, she said, it’s what they do for the others. I had to remind her I’m not like the others.
In 1917, in lilac blossom time, he asked me if I was sure. He said I had to be truly certain, war or no. Sex, he said, should have nothing to do with pity.
‘You think I pity you?’
‘I pity me.’ He laughed, making my toes curl.
‘I don’t pity you.’
Pity came later. For myself, mainly.
I’ll ask Midge to take the lilac away, I think, although she might ask why. What shall I tell her, then? That I loved him, I suppose.
He looked like a boy, in bed, without his uniform. As he undressed me he asked again if I was sure, his hands cupping my face so that I was made to meet his eye.
Theatrically I said, ‘I might die soon.’
He smiled. ‘And you might not. And I might not. I might live to be one hundred and ten.’
‘Touch wood. Quickly.’ I grasped his wrist, frail as a china doll’s, and forced his hand against my mother’s bedside table. ‘We’ll die together in a century or so.’
He stared up at the ceiling, pinned beneath my weight, a prisoner of my superstition. At last he said, ‘I was never sure, you know. Never truly sure until I met you.’ He looked at me then. ‘Advice?’
‘No, I never take it – ’
He pulled his hand free and pressed it against my mouth. ‘Listen now…’ His eyes closed and he laughed an ordinary, bleak laugh. ‘Listen to me. Advice? Advice – don’t go with strangers, you’ll get the pox.’
Mrs Ward is weeping loudly, like a child. I want to cross the floor and lay into her with my fists – me, in my slippers and cake-crumbed cardigan. I suspect she is the kind of woman who gave out white feathers. Girls did that; it’s not a myth as some imagine.
We met on Kings Cross Station, later in the war.
He said, ‘I didn’t recognise you, dressed like that, so smart and grown-up.’
I held my arms out from my sides and turned around slowly. ‘My mother cried when she saw me.’
He nodded. ‘I’ve taken a room. It’s a seedy dump, do you mind?’
I didn’t mind. I lay down on the mildew-damp bed and held him, watching the shadows creep along the walls as his silence smothered my puny bravado. Time has never passed so slowly, or stolen away with so much. He slept. I remember he slept and that his breathing was as rhythmic as waves against a shore. I should have woken him, he said later. How could I? I wasn't brave enough.
Midge comes and crouches by my chair.
‘Still with us, Mr Mason?’ Taking my hand between her own she says, ‘You were miles away, sitting there, smiling.’
Was I smiling? Well, he was beautiful. It makes me smile to think of it.
I remember he saw me onto my train to France.
‘Remember what I said about strangers.’
‘Keep your head down.’ He blushed, amazing me. ‘Below the sandbags, I mean.’
‘I shall.’ I wanted to kiss him, but how would that look? I took his hand. ‘I’ll write.’
‘Everyday.’ He stepped back, trailing his hand away slowly so that the tips of our fingers still touched as the train began to move. It seemed an artful sweetness at the time. At the time excitement danced its fandango in my guts, protecting me.
Midge walks away. I watch her crouch at Mrs Ward’s side. ‘Now, now,’ she says. ‘What’s all the noise about? Where’s that lovely singing voice?’ The woman stares at her as though she is mad.
I was very brave. I have medals to prove it. I have a scar that runs from my nipple to my groin. No one ever sees it now.
He visited me in my hospital bed.
‘Stupid arse,’ he said.
‘At least I minded your advice about strangers.’
‘Then you’re even more stupid.’ He kissed my forehead. ‘That was the bit you were meant to ignore.’
He was a captain by then.
I told the nurses he was my brother.
His name is on the war memorial outside the Parish Church.
Today a child asked me if I remember Queen Victoria.
I remember the smell of him, clean and sweet as sandalwood. I remember that memories are like holes in teeth.