The Victory Garden Page 1

Author: Rhys Bowen

Genres: Historical , Fiction


The Larches, Near Shiphay, Torquay


May 14, 1918

To Miss Clarissa Hamilton, Field Hospital 17, British Forces, France

My dear Clarissa,

Thank you very much for your long letter. I am in awe of the matter-of-fact way you recount such dangers and horrors. Who would have thought that you, who shrieked at seeing a mouse in our dormitory, would have turned out to be so fearless?

And you have every right to scold me. I know I promised to write to you regularly, and I have failed miserably in that task. It is not that I am lazy—nor have I forgotten you, you can be sure of that. You are never out of my thoughts and prayers. It’s just that I find my own life here in the countryside so sadly lacking compared to the excitement and danger that you face daily. In truth, I have nothing to write about, and I am ashamed to admit it. While you are there amongst the trenches in France, tending to the wounded, being shelled by the enemy, here I am, safe and secure in my English country village, doing nothing more for the war effort than taking some of Mummy’s scones and rock cakes to the wounded soldiers in the convalescent home and trying to convince myself that the presence of a young lady will cheer them up.

The rhythmic clickety-clack of a lawnmower made Emily Bryce cease her writing and glance out of her window. Old Josh was pushing the mower over a lawn that already appeared to be immaculate. Her gaze swept the full length of the garden to the rhododendrons and azalea bushes, now in full springtime bloom, surrounding the bottom of the lawn with brilliant pinks and oranges. The apple trees in the kitchen garden were also white with blossom. Her parents seemed to take it for granted that their grounds would look perfect, not appreciating how lucky they were to have a gardener who was well beyond the age to be called up to fight. Their smooth and comfortable life had not changed one bit, apart from . . . She sighed and turned her attention back to the letter.

How I wish that I were with you, in spite of the awful conditions and danger that you write about. I even think I could face a few rats and bad rations to escape from the tedium of my daily life. My parents still keep a tight rein on me, and in spite of my constant entreaties will not let me do anything more useful than those convalescent home visits (well chaperoned by my mother!). Remember that song about ‘only a bird in a gilded cage’? That is me. As you well remember, Mummy had made it her sole purpose in life to make a good match for me (preferably with a title!). If there had been no horrid war, she would have moved mountains to have had me presented at court. Now there are no balls, no hunts—in truth, no eligible young men to be found any longer—she has become bitter and resigned. She wants me out of her sight and yet will not let me escape.

I realize that this desire to keep me cocooned has something to do with Freddie’s death. They have taken it awfully hard. He was Father’s pride and joy, you know. A first at Oxford and destined to become a barrister and then a judge, like Father. Yet he survived for less than a week at the front in Ypres.

She paused again, staring out across the garden, breathing in the scent of newly mown grass mingled with the bonfire Josh had started behind the sweet peas. Safe, familiar scents. Scents of home. How stupid it is that we are raised to keep our feelings to ourselves, she thought. How ridiculous that I can’t even tell my best friend the truth, that Freddie’s death has shattered our family. She remembered her father as quite jovial before the war, and her mother, while a born snob, had occasionally shown a softer side. Now it was as if they had both locked themselves away, her father silent and remote, prone to outbursts of anger, and her mother critical of everything. Sometimes she could sense them looking at her, and she was sure they were wishing it was she who had died and not Freddie. Oh Freddie, she thought. How could she write that she had taken it awfully hard, too? That after three years his death was still a raw wound. He was her big brother. Her protector. She still remembered it as if it were yesterday: her last term at school, right before the house tennis matches. Being summoned to the headmistress’s office, standing there in her tennis skirt, clutching her racquet and wondering what she had done wrong. The headmistress instead taking her hand and sitting her down before she gave the bad news. To have her headmistress, normally so terrifying, being kind and gentle with her was too much. It was the only time she had allowed herself to cry.

Emily glanced down at the paper. The pen had dripped a blob of ink, and she blotted it hastily before dipping into the inkwell again.

So I can understand why they were so adamant about my not joining you in the volunteer nurse brigade, but not why they won’t let me seek any kind of useful employment. Bad things are hardly likely to happen to me in a volunteer centre, sorting old clothes or rolling bandages in Torquay, are they? I wouldn’t even mind working as a volunteer nurse at the convalescent home. At least I’d be doing something useful. I am dying of frustration and loneliness here, Clarissa. I want to be useful. I want to do my bit, so that Freddie’s death was somehow not in vain. I know I shouldn’t be complaining when I have such an easy life, but

“Emily?” Her mother’s strident voice echoed up the staircase. “Where are you, child? I told you we would be leaving at ten thirty on the dot. Come along. We can’t keep the young men waiting. Best foot forward.”

Emily put down the pen. The dreaded visit to the convalescent home. The letter would have to wait. It was not that she disliked visiting the wounded officers. Actually, she would have quite enjoyed it if she had been alone. It was following her mother through the wards, watching her playing at Lady Bountiful and not being allowed to interact with the young men herself that she found so frustrating. She stood in front of the mirror, twisting her ash-brown hair up into a hasty bun, jabbing in hairpins in the hopes of holding it in place before cramming her blue straw hat over it. Critical grey eyes stared back at her. Too thin. Too tall. Too angular. Then she grimaced at her reflection, grabbed her gloves and hurried down the stairs. Her mother was standing by the front door, looking resplendent in lavender silk with a matching dyed ostrich feather in her hat. Far more suitable for a garden party than a convalescent home visit, Emily thought. Florrie, the maid, stood beside her, her arms piled high with cake tins.