The sky was a perfect, blackbird’s egg, blue. Evelyn tilted her head back to watch the kaleidoscope flashes of green and blue rushing above her. Evelyn felt she might fall into that sky. June really is the most blissful month. The rattle and roar of the combination motorcycle did nothing to detract from the pleasure of speed. This must be what it feels like to fly. Evelyn wished the feeling might last forever. She wriggled and adjusted her position. Her sister, Kathleen, was squeezed in front of her and squealed with delight at each bump. Evelyn turned her head and looked up to the profile of Stanley; he was in control of the vehicle and intent on the road ahead. Such a handsome profile. The three of them made a novel picture for anyone who might see them. Stanley had actually flown at the end of the Great War, as a member of the newest force, the RAF. He was all that was modern and fresh and free.
The three had met in a tea shop at the seaside. Stanley had spotted the young ladies at the window table. The Misses Lugg had escaped the workshop, which was their back parlour, for the day. The young women had been taught to tat and make lace from a young age. Between daughters and mother, the family managed to make ends meet with the money made from their frothy constructions.
Evelyn and Kathleen were headstrong and adventurous. The long hours spent bent over, fingers moving with tremendous speed, transforming thread into fine textile, left them longing for excitement. This was their time, after all.
Their mother had neither the strength or will to insist they conform to traditional expectations. She had lost her husband in the Great War, and had also lost her sense of what life was for and how it might be lived. Her girls were pretty and wild; but there again all of the young seemed to be like this. So when they had told her they were taking the early train from the dark city to the bright seaside to find some fun for the day, she couldn’t begrudge them.
Stanley was that rare thing, a handsome, sophisticated man in his early 30s. After the war the men of his generation had seemed to shrivel, but Stanley was a force of nature. He had leaned over the two young ladies and murmured, “Tea is nice but gin is nicer.” They were shocked and thrilled. This could be the adventure they had waited for all those drab years.
And that had been the start of it all. Such fun they’d had that day. He’d arranged to meet Evelyn again, in town. He took her out dancing and what dancing! She knew she looked the height of modernity with her hair cropped short and her slender body swathed in the short satin dress she’d made herself. He taught her the fancy foot work and they were away. She danced and drank and smoked all night, but didn’t feel in the slightest bit tired. If anything she had been invigorated.
Of course he was married. He spoke little of this other life, but Evelyn had picked up fragments. His wife had once been married to a German; yes, he had fought on the English side and had died in Mesopotamia, but still. And she was dark, very dark. Her forebears were possibly French maybe even Indian. It was all very foreign. There were children. Evelyn wiped this from her mind. She had been without a father through those long, hard years. It could be done. She didn’t need to think of it.
The women felt safe with Stanley; he was so capable and fearless. Each time they saw him he had a new adventure for them; and then there was the proposal of a camping holiday by the sea! Cromer. Evelyn thought that he’d chosen this destination as it was well away from anyone who might know him. Kathleen yearned for a new place and had heard of the famous delicacy of Cromer crab. Cromer sounded so much more sophisticated than Southend.
The day for the adventure had come. Stanley arrived at their meeting place on a motorcycle! They had never been on such a thing, but discarded their apprehension in the pursuit of a new experience. It was a combination motorcycle, a motorcycle with a sidecar attached to it which was large enough to carry two slender ladies and their meagre belongings; for what more could they possibly want on a camping holiday by the sea with Stanley?
The journey took them through unfamiliar landscapes, pretty beyond imagination. So this was the rural idyll. Could anything be more perfect than this perfect day?
Cromer was quite a distance, but Stanley had wanted to make camp there that night, so that they might awake to the scent and sounds of the sea, and begin the fun immediately. The speed at which they travelled was exhilarating, but the roads they travelled on were uneven and winding. This was unnerving and they’d had a few perilous moments. But it was on a straighter stretch that it had happened. They had crossed a dear little bridge over a babbling brook and were not even travelling particularly fast. Somehow the motorcycle would not turn, and had run off the road and into a tree with a muffled thud. The women had been tipped out of the sidecar onto the ground, and Stanley had been thrown into some long grass a short distance away.
The scene was one of dishevelment rather than disaster. However, that rare thing, a passing motorist, stopped and offered to take the trio to a nearby hospital for a once over.
The Misses Lugg squeezed onto the back seat and Stanley sat in the front passenger seat. They all got rather giggly, it was all so silly.
“Now then ladies, don’t say I don’t put a bit of excitement into your lives.” And, “Evelyn, hold my glasses for me, the frames are new and I don’t want to break them after they’ve survived a crash.”
As they got closer to the hospital Stanley became quieter, until he said, “I’m feeling a little unwell. Could you leave me alone for a while?”
When they finally arrived at the hospital it was clear that Stanley was dead. Such a quiet, gentle, slipping away of a death.
The aftermath had been terrible. The police had been involved, and the press. But after a few months the Misses Lugg had slipped away to a small town and set up business there. Evelyn claimed she was a widow and called herself Mrs Brown, but few were fooled and there was talk when the baby was born.
Years went by, and they were hard years. They struggled to keep the wolf from the door. But every summer the sea called them. This summer was no different. They would have a trip to the seaside. They wouldn’t go to Cromer, too painful, but Southend? The little girl would love it.
Evelyn watched her daughter’s rising excitement as she observed from the train window the landscape changing; until at last, “The sea! I can see the sea!” What a day they would have.
Evelyn knew that Stanley’s widow kept the kiosk at the seaside train station. She was known to be quite a character and many remembered her fondly as, the sweet lady who set the tone for their day trip, and who cheered them before the sad journey back to the grim city.
Kathleen had smoked all of her cigarettes on the train and needed more. It was the essential accessory. Evelyn steeled herself for the inevitable encounter. Hand in hand with her daughter, she stood next to Kathleen at the station kiosk as she made her purchase.
Just peeping over the top of the counter was a tiny dark woman with the bright eyes and quick movements of a bird. She quipped and laughed and was full of such energy that no one might have guessed the sadness she had endured. The loss of two husbands. Her first born sent away to Canada at only fifteen, and her twins, separated from her, and each other, had been put into orphanages, as she had no money to support them.
Stanley’s widow winked at Evelyn’s daughter. “What a little darling. Here, don’t tell anyone.” She pushed a sweet towards the little girl, who reached out for it, and in doing so grasped the warm hand of the woman. “Now you have a lovely day, my darling.”
Such a lovely day it was, and it would be one of the last. War was inevitable and soon all of the beaches would be put out of bounds. Cut off by barbed wire and mines. More widows would be scrimping and struggling to keep their children going, happy. But for now, a child with hair as black as a blackbird’s wing and eyes as blue as its egg, ran towards Evelyn with unadulterated joy on her face.
“Come here June, come and have a sandwich.”
A smiling passer-by commented, “Well, we know when her birthday is then.”
But they were wrong. June had been born on the first day of spring. She was all that was fresh and free. Evelyn could only call her June, that month of perfect happiness, so abruptly ended.
The day grew quieter and slipped into late afternoon. The three of them sat contemplatively on a promenade bench, lulled by the soothing rhythms of the sea. They breathed deeply and noted the salty tang in the air, the sun’s warming properties, and the oddly musical rise and fall of the cries of the gulls.
Kathleen grasped her sister’s arm and with shining eyes and spoke what Evelyn had been thinking.
“Wouldn’t Stanley have loved this?”