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Interludes: A True Love Match

At this year's end Sylvia West tells one of the best love stories you are likely to have heard in many a twelve-month.

My friend has sent me a gift, a journal made of beautiful handmade paper: rice paper, wheat and banana paper, wood dust and flower paper. It’s a book for keeping things in, for writing in, and among the thick, creamy, speckled pages so carefully pressed and sewn together, I found a thank you note from Nepal, welcoming me to that country and thanking me for buying the book.

I can’t imagine how I should use it. Shall I press a summer flower between its pages, or the red and yellow leaves that fall in my garden? A love letter perhaps, hidden for ever from jealous eyes, or a secret memento, a talisman, a token of love from a long time ago. Shall I do that? Shall I keep some treasure of mine where only I can find it?

Or shall I tell a story? A special one it would have to be, a love story of course, nothing else would do. Something rare and unbelievable, something true but full of magic. A destiny tale if ever there was one.

Yes, that’s the one. I can tell you a story like that, of two people who could not have known how their lives would change on the day that they met.

* * *

The story begins with an obituary. It appeared in ‘The Times’ in the summer of 2003. Thomas Field-Fisher QC died on June 8th of that year, just two months after his wife. He was 87 years old.

“… On his return to London he caught the Great Western train at Paddington station, intending to return to his home in Torquay. Into his carriage stepped Ebba Larsen, a beautiful American Red Cross nurse. Some two or so hours later, the couple got off the train at Newton Abbott and married. It was a true love match.”

There wasn’t a single person in the village who didn’t know that Thomas was coming home. The war was over, the soldiers were returning and prisoners of war were being released on both sides. As part of the British Expeditionary Force, Thomas had been captured at Calais in 1940, and he was held prisoner until the end of the war. Now he was coming home to see his family. He had joined the army as a boy of twenty-four, but a man of thirty would be returning. There would surely be apprehension as well as joy and excitement on both sides.

In the house, the table was laid, and the sandwiches covered with clean linen towels: egg and cress, cucumber and tomato, and jam tarts in their dozens. The good women of the village had wanted to make something for the homecoming party, so, in spite of the shortages of wartime, there was plenty for everyone.

The London train, everyone knew, would be in Torquay at 5.30, and the car would be there to bring home its long-awaited passenger. The village bush-telegraph had been working overtime, making sure that everyone knew what time Thomas would be coming up the road, and that was the time when everyone was going to be outside and waving a welcome.

At four o’clock there was a last-minute check: yes, the train had left Paddington on time. No, there had been no delay of any kind, and no, Thomas could not be contacted directly because there were, alas, no mobile phones in 1945. For just a little longer his mother, his father and his friends would have to be patient.

As the church clock struck five, Thomas’s father set off for the mainline station. It was a fifteen minute journey, no more, so there was time to spare. As they heard the car speed away, people shut their doors and made their way to the grass verges and the space round the bus-stop. Friends, the family, the vicar and the postman - it was the end of a summer afternoon and everyone had made time to be there. As five-thirty approached the chatter and laughter was bubbling away like a simmering pot: dogs barked at a strolling cat, and the cows at the farm made more noise than usual as they went in for milking. Someone had found a spare balloon in the cupboard, and that was blown up in a gale of laughter and flung on its way - no tag, no message, just a little blue token of joy riding on the wind. Within seconds it had disappeared, and was blown towards the sea.

In the house the covers were taken off the sandwiches and the kettle boiled so that teapots could be warmed. Over the field the church clock struck the half-hour, and in the distance a thin line of smoke could be seen as the London train continued on its way.

“Won’t be long now,” said someone, and all heads were turned to look for the returning car.

As the minutes passed and no-one came, the chattering died away and a silence crept in like an unwelcome guest. Inevitable, and somehow, ominous, the hour of six rang out, and the shadows of the yew trees round the lichgate grew longer. Just as an undercurrent of murmuring was rising to the surface, someone shouted “there’s the car, they’re here”, and there was silence again. Thomas’s father drove slowly round the bend, glancing neither right nor left, and continued into the drive of his house. He was alone, and for some unknown and perhaps terrible reason, he had not come home with his son.

By seven no-one was to be seen in the village. As a rule someone would be walking his dog or a few friends might be chatting in the cool of the evening, but on that particular day everyone had gone home. Curtains were already drawn and who knows what was being thought or said as people ate supper together. A few ‘welcome home’ cards had been tucked for safety behind the clock on the mantelpiece, because it seemed inconceivable that whatever had befallen Thomas, he would not at some point reappear.

In Thomas’s house there were no tears, no telephone calls, for who would have the answers? The distress, the incomprehension, were too great to be translated, and after the sandwiches and the jam tarts had been put under cover once again, the elderly couple sat together in the sitting room, each thinking about the son they had not seen for six years, and wondering what on earth could have happened to him.

****

In those far off days over fifty years ago, people rarely telephoned each other at night unless something catastrophic had happened. So when the phone rang at 10.30 that night everyone was in bed, though not asleep. It was Thomas’s father who answered the phone.

“Hello, Dad,” said a voice so joyous, so exultant, it was unbelievable, barely recognisable. And then -

“I’m sorry I couldn’t ring, Dad. I had to get off the train, we just got married. I’ll tell you and Mum all about it when we see you. It’ll be a few days, but we’ll see you soon. Bye now.”

****

And that was that.

By lunchtime the next day the bush telegraph had burnt itself out, and even though speculation was king and no-one knew anything at all, at least the village had been told that Thomas had come to no harm and had stopped on the way down from Paddington to get married. Yes, there were plenty of scoffers and disbelievers, but in time, of course, they would be forced to eat their words, for that, indeed, was the truth of the matter.

****

Thomas Field-Fisher lived a long and prestigious life and will be remembered for many reasons. Perhaps his marriage to Ebba Larsen, ‘a true love match’, should be placed at the top of the list.


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