Read an Excerpt
5th August 2003
'He must have been the most handsome man who ever lived,' Pippa sighed, her eyes fixed on the framed photograph in her hands. 'Look at those film star features and the way he's half smiling, as though at a private joke.'
'That's what used to drive the other girls wild,' Lilian said. 'Mum said he could charm the birds off the trees, and always keep them wondering.'
She was fifty-eight, with grey hair and a vivid face. She smiled when she spoke of her parents.
The photograph had been taken sixty-three years earlier. It showed a fine-looking young man, splendid in airman's uniform, his head slightly cocked, his features alive with sardonic humour. It bore only a faint resemblance to the old man that he was now, but the glint in his eyes had survived.
He was crouching on the wing of an aeroplane, one arm resting on a raised knee, his face turned to the camera, yet with a mysterious air of gazing into the future, as though he could see what was coming and was eager to meet it. Everything in the picture was redolent of life and masculine attraction.
'He may have been a hero back then, but I'll bet he was a devil, too,' Pippa said gleefully.
She was just twenty-one and beautiful. Her mother was immensely proud of her but she didn't let that show too often.
'Too attractive for her own good,' was her favourite expression to conceal her pride.
'Yes, I've heard he was a devil, among many other things,' she agreed, looking back at the picture of Flight Lieutenant Mark Sellon. 'By the way, the local TV station has been in touch. They want to do a piecehero and wife celebrate sixty years of marriage. And the local paper. They're both sending someone to the party this afternoon to get some pictures and a few words about all the fantastic things he did in the war.'
'Grandpa won't like that,' Pippa observed. 'He hates going back over that time. Have you ever realised how little we actually know about it? He always avoids the subject. "Ask Gran", he says. But she doesn't tell much either.'
'I wish they'd let me throw the party in my house,' Lilian said. 'It's bigger and we could have got more people in.' She looked around disparagingly at the modest little property that stood at the far end of Crimea Street on the outskirts of London.
'It's where it all began,' Pippa reminded her. 'They met when he came to stay here with the family the last Christmas before the war, and all over the house there are places that remind her of him as he was then.'
'I suppose now you know them better than any of us,' Lilian said.
Pippa was her youngest child, several years younger than her siblings, arriving when the others were all at school and Lilian had resumed her career as a midwife. Lilian's mother had come to the rescue, announcing that, as they lived only three streets apart, she could take on most of the baby's care. The result was that Pippa had always been close to her grandparents, regarding them almost as extra parents.
She was spirited, even rebellious and in her teens this had led to difficulties with Lilian, resulting in her taking shelter in Crimea Street. The trouble had been smoothed out. Mother and daughter were friends again, but Pippa now lived with her grandparents, keeping a protective eye on them as they grew old and frail.
On the surface it was a perfect arrangement, yet Pippa was a worry to all who loved her. With her brains and beauty she should have been doing something more demanding than a dead-end job, and her social life should have consisted of more than staying at home almost every evening.
All the fault of Jack Sothern, Lilian thought bitterly. He'd seemed like a decent fellow, and everyone had been happy when he became engaged to Pippa. But he'd broken it off ruthlessly just a few weeks before the planned Christmas wedding, leaving Pippa devastated.
That had been nine months ago. Pippa had seemed to recover, but the life had gone out of her, as though she was emotionally flattened. She still smiled and laughed with a charm that won everyone over, but behind her eyes there was a blankness that never changed.
The doorbell rang and Lilian went to answer it. After that she was kept busy letting in guests until the house was overflowing. Pippa welcomed everyone with a finger over her lips.
'They're upstairs lying down,' she whispered. 'I want them to rest until the last minute. Tonight's going to be very tiring for them.'
Lilian's brother Terry appeared. He was in his fifties, heavily built with greying hair and bullish features that radiated good nature. With him was his wife Celia, two children and three grandchildren. Hard on his heels came Irene, his first wife, now remarried, also with a herd of youngsters.
'I can't even keep track of them,' Pippa confided to her Uncle Terry. 'Are we related to them all?'
'We're definitely related to that one,' Terry observed, indicating a boy of fourteen who seemed possessed by an imp of mischief. 'Mum says he's exactly like Dad was years ago: into everything, driving everyone mad, then winning them over with that smile. But he's bright; always top of the class, apparently.'
'He didn't get that from Grandpa,' Pippa remarked. 'He was bottom of the class, according to him. He says there was always something more interesting to do than read dreary books, and there still is.'
Terry laughed appreciatively. 'That sounds like Dad. His idea of serious reading is a magazine with pretty girls. I hope he doesn't let Mum see them.'
Pippa chuckled. 'She's not bothered. She buys them for him.'
Terry nodded. 'That sounds just like her.'
'Have you got all the pictures out?' Terry asked.
'Yes, they're in here.' She led the way to a room at the back, decorated for the party, hung with paper chains and flowers and full of photographs. Some were family groups, but most were individual shots.
There was Lilian on her twenty-first birthday. There was Terry dressed for mountain climbing, which was his passion.
'What about Gran's parents?' Pippa asked, pointing to a picture of a middle-aged couple dressed in the clothes of the thirties. 'Should I have put them a bit further forward?'
'Yes, I think so. It would please her.' He reached for another picture, showing a beautiful young woman with a ripe, curvy figure. 'And this one, of her sister Sylvia.'
'Ah, Great Aunt Sylvia,' Pippa said. 'I often wish I'd known her, she sounds so interesting. Wasn't she the one who?'
'Yes, she was. It was an earth-shattering scandal at the time, but these days nobody would think anything of it. Times have changed. Put her where she can be seen. Mum was very fond of her.' He looked around for a moment before adding, 'There's one missing. Polly should be there, too.'
'Should she? I did wonder, and I've got some pictures of her, just in case. But she was only a year old when she died. She barely existed.'
'Don't let them hear you say that,' Terry said in alarm. 'Dad absolutely adored my baby sister. It's nearly fifty years since she died, but she's still part of the family, and if you leave her out he'll be upset.'
'Yes, of course. Here she is,' Pippa agreed.
She produced two photographs, one a portrait of a baby girl, beaming at the camera, the other showing the same child in her father's arms. Their eyes were locked, each totally entranced by the other.
'He was a terrific dad,' Terry said, studying the picture. 'But I don't think he ever looked at any of the rest of us quite like that. It was just something Polly had, maybe because she was the image of Mum I don't know '
'You think it had something to do with the way he felt about Gran?'
'I'm not sure, but when Polly died, I think he'd have gone crazy if it hadn't been for her.'
'When he walks into a room he always looks to see if she's there,' Pippa reflected. 'If she isn't, he keeps looking at the door, waiting for her to arrive. And when she does arrive, he seems to settle down.'
The bell rang and she went to let in the reporter from the local TV station, a young woman called Stacey, and the photographer, who prowled around looking for angles.
'I just can't get over anyone being married sixty years,' Stacey said, awed.
'It was different in their day,' Pippa said. 'People married for life. And I think Grandpa was courting her for a long time so he wasn't going to let her go easily.'
'Long courtship,' Stacey muttered, making notes. 'Good, that gives me something to go on.'
At last everyone was there: Mark and Dee's children and grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, a representative from the local hospital where Dee had once worked.
'Quiet everybody! They're coming'
The photographer got into position at the bottom of the stairs, ready to capture the stars of the evening as they appeared above: Mr and Mrs Sellon, Mark and Deirdre, known to everyone as Dee. They were in their eighties, white-haired, thin and frail-looking, but holding themselves erect, with smiling eyes.
They descended the stairs arm in arm, seeming to support each other equally, until the moment Dee stumbled and clung to her husband for safety.
'Careful, my love,' he said, guiding her to a chair. 'What happened?'
'Nothing; I tripped on the carpet.'
'Are you sure you're all right? You'd better have a cup of tea.'
'Tea?' she said in mock outrage. 'Today? I want a good strong sherry.'
He hurried to get her a glass and Lilian regarded them with delight.
'Look how he dances attendance on her,' she sighed. 'After all these years. So many husbands become indifferent.'
'I've never known Grandpa indifferent,' Pippa said. 'In fact, he sometimes smothers Gran with his concern. He's so scared that she'll go first.'
'You know the saying. There's always one who loves and one who lets themselves be loved,' Lilian reminded her. 'No prizes for guessing which is which with those two.'
Even as she spoke, Dee's voice rose, full of affectionate laughter. 'Darling, I'm all right. Will you stop fussing?'
Everyone heard that, but only she heard his murmured response. 'No, I won't, and you know that I won't. You've been telling me for years to stop fussing over you and I've never listened yet, so why don't you just give up?'
'I never give up where you're concerned,' she whispered back. 'You should know that by now.'
'I do know it. I rely on it.'
He touched her face gently. It had never been a beautiful face, but it had always been rich in warmth and generosity, qualities that the years had left untouched. Watching them, the family knew that what he'd first seen in her years ago, he saw there still.
The elderly couple were shown into the main party room and went around the collection of family photographs, pausing occasionally to murmur to each other, words that nobody else could hear. When it came to baby Polly, Gran lifted the picture and they looked at it together before they met each other's gaze and nodded.
'I swear there were tears in Grandpa's eyes,' Pippa murmured afterwards.
At last they were seated together on the sofa while family members approached them, hugging and murmuring words of congratulation. Champagne was poured and glasses were raised in toasts. Speeches were made. Everyone wanted to have their say.
Then Stacey got to work, talking to the camera.
'.one of the last of a dying breed.heroes of World War Two, who gave their all for their country.night after night, climbing into their Spitfires, taking off into the darkness, not knowing if they would return to their loved ones how proud we are that one of them is still among us.'
'Is she going to witter on like that for ever?' Mark growled under his breath.
'Hush,' Dee murmured. 'Let your family take pride in you.'
'My family know nothing about it,' he insisted. 'How can they? They weren't born then. Don't blame them for that.'
Out of sight, they squeezed each other's hands.
Now Stacey turned her attention on them. To her questions about the war Mark gave polite but uninformative replies, claiming to have forgotten the details. Finally she said, 'But I understand that yours is also a great romance. Mr Sellon, is it true that you courted your wife for years before you persuaded her to marry you?'
'Oh, yes,' Mark said. 'She wasn't won easily. I really had to work hard to impress her.'
Everyone smiled at this. Only the most perceptive noticed the look of surprise on Dee's face.
'But how romantic!' Stacey exclaimed. 'The lover who yearns hopelessly from afar. Mrs Sellon, why did you make him wait so long?'
'I'm not sure now. We weren't the same people back then.'
'Would you do it any differently now?' Dee's lips twitched. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'I'd make him wait much longer.'
The newspaper journalist followed, with similar questions, but he had his eye on the photograph of Flight Lieutenant Sellon that the family had studied earlier.
'This is a fantastic picture,' he said. 'I'd like to use it in the paper. I'll need to borrow it'
'No,' Dee said at once. 'I'm sorry; you can't take it away.'
'Just for a few hours. I'll take care'
'I'm sure you will, but I can't take the risk. I'm sorry.' Her manner was polite but very firm as she removed the picture from his hand. 'This is mine.'
The young man looked round for help, but none of the family would yield. They knew Gran when she spoke like that.
The evening moved gently on to its conclusion, everyone feeling that it had been a triumphant success. In the spotlight, Mark and Dee seemed to be enjoying themselves but, as he slipped his arm about her waist, he murmured, 'When will they go?'
'Soon,' she promised.
They smiled at one another and the camera clicked. The picture appeared in the local paper the next day. Neither of them noticed it being taken.
At last it was all over. The guests departed, and Lilian accompanied her parents up to their room.
'How is Pippa coping?' Dee wanted to know. 'I worried about her this evening. A wedding anniversary. How that must have hurt her! If her wedding had gone ahead, it would have been her own first anniversary soon.'
'I know, but you'd never guess it, she seems so bright,' Lilian sighed. 'Oh, I could kill that man for what he did to her.'
Pippa's entry silenced the topic. Together, they helped the old people to bed, kissed them goodnight and retreated to the door.
'You're not too tired after all the goings-on?' Pippa asked.
'Tired?' Mark echoed. 'We're only just starting. We're going to get revved up, then swing from the chandeliers and indulge in some mad lust. You youngsters! You don't know how to enjoy life. Ow! No need to beat me up.'
Dee, who'd delivered the lightest tap on his shoulder, chuckled. 'Behave yourself!' she commanded.