The Last Letter from Your Lover
When he spoke, it was as if he was trying to explain something to the unhinged. "Mrs. . . ."
"Mrs. Stirling, nobody is going into Congo. Don't you know there's-"
"Yes, I do know there's been some trouble there. But I have to find someone, a journalist, who came out perhaps two weeks ago. It's terrifically important. His name is-"
"Madam, there are no journalists left in Congo." He removed his glasses and steered her to the window. "Do you have any idea what has happened?"
"A little. Well, no, I've been traveling from England. I had to take a rather tortuous route."
"The war has now dragged in the U.S. as well as our and other governments. Until three days ago we were in crisis, with three hundred and fifty white hostages, including women and children, facing execution by the Simba rebels. We have Belgian troops fighting it out with them in the streets of Stanleyville. Up to a hundred civilians are already reported dead."
She barely heard him. "But I can pay-and I'll pay whatever it takes. I have to get there."
He took her arm. "Mrs. Stirling, I'm telling you that you will not make it to Congo. There are no trains, no flights, no roads in. The troops were airlifted. Even if there was transport, I could not sanction a British citizen-a British woman-entering a war zone." He scribbled in his notebook. "I'll find you somewhere to wait and help you book your return flight. Africa is no place for a white woman on her own." He sighed wearily, as she had just doubled his burden.
Jennifer was thinking. "How many are dead?"
"We don't know."
"Have you their names?"
"I only have the most rudimentary list at the moment. It's far from comprehensive."
"Please." Her heart had almost stopped. "Please let me see. I need to know if he's . . ."
He pulled a tattered piece of typed paper from his folder.
She scanned it, her eyes so tired that the names, in alphabetical order, blurred. Harper. Hambro. O'Keefe. Lewis. His was not there.
His was not there.
She glanced up at Frobisher. "Do you have the names of those taken hostage?"
"Mrs. Stirling, we have no idea how many British citizens were even in the city. Look." He produced another piece of paper and handed it to her, swatting with his free hand at a mosquito that had landed on the back of his neck. "This is the latest communiqué sent to Lord Walston."
She started to read, phrases leaping out at her:
Five thousand dead in Stanleyville alone . . . We believe that there remain in rebel-held territory twenty-seven United Kingdom citizens . . . We can give no indication as to when the areas where British subjects are, even if we knew them with any degree of exactness, will be reached.
"There are Belgian and U.S. troops in the city. They are taking back Stanleyville. And we have a Beverley aircraft standing by to rescue those who want to be rescued."
"How can I make sure that he's on it?"
He scratched his head.
"You can't. Some people don't seem to want to be rescued. Some prefer to stay in Congo. They may have their reasons."
She thought suddenly of the fat news editor. Who knows? Perhaps he wanted to get away.
"If your friend wants to get out, he will get out," he said. He wiped his face with a handkerchief. "If he wants to stay, it's perfectly possible that he'll disappear-easily done in Congo."
She was about to speak but was cut off by a low murmur that rippled through the airport as, through the arrival gates, a family emerged. First came two small children, mute, with bandaged arms, heads, their faces prematurely aged. A blond woman, clutching a baby, was wild-eyed, her hair unwashed and her face etched with strain. At the sight of them a much older woman broke free of her husband's restraining arm and burst through the barrier, wailing, and pulled them to her. The family barely stirred. Then the young mother, crumpling to her knees, began to cry, her mouth a great O of pain, her head sagging onto the older woman's plump shoulder.
Frobisher stuffed his papers back into his folder. "The Ramseys. Excuse me. I must look after them."
"Were they there?" she said, watching the grandfather hoist the little girl onto his shoulders. "At the massacre?" The children's faces, immobilized by some unknown shock, had turned her blood to ice water.
He gave her a firm look. "Mrs. Stirling, please, you must go now. There's an East African Airways flight out this evening. Unless you have well-connected friends in this city, I cannot urge you more strongly to be on it."
It took her two days to get home. And from that point her new life began. Yvonne was true to her word. She did not contact her again, and on the one occasion Jennifer bumped into Violet, the other woman was so plainly filled with discomfort that it seemed unfair to pursue her. She minded less than she might have expected: they belonged to an old life, which she hardly recognized as her own.
Most days Mrs. Cordoza came to the new flat, finding excuses to spend time with Esmé, or help with a few household tasks, and Jennifer found she relied more on her former housekeeper's company than she had on that of her old friends. One wet afternoon, while Esmé slept, she told Mrs. Cordoza about Anthony, and Mrs. Cordoza confided a little more about her husband. Then, with a blush, she talked about a nice man who had sent her flowers from the restaurant two streets along. "I wasn't going to encourage him," she said softly, into her ironing, "but since everything . . ."
Laurence communicated in notes, using Mrs. Cordoza as an emissary.
I would like to take Esmé to my cousin's wedding in Winchester this coming Saturday. I will make sure she is back by 7 p.m.
They were distant, formal, measured. Occasionally Jennifer would read them and wonder that she could have been married to this man.
Every week she walked to the post office on Langley Street to find out whether there was anything in the PO box.
Every week she returned home trying not to feel flattened by the postmistress's "No."
She moved into the rented flat, and when Esmé started school, she took an unpaid job at the local Citizens' Advice Bureau, the only organization that seemed unworried by her lack of experience. She would learn on the job, the supervisor said. "And, believe me, you'll learn rather quickly." Less than a year later, she was offered a paid position in the same office. She advised people on practical matters, such as how to manage money, how to handle rent disputes-there were too many bad landlords-how to cope with family breakdown.
At first she had been exhausted by the never-ending litany of problems, the sheer wall of human misery that traipsed through the office, but gradually, as she grew more confident, she saw that she was not alone in making a mess of her life. She reassessed herself and found that she was grateful for where she was, where she had ended up, and felt a certain pride when someone returned to tell her that she had helped.
Two years later she and Esmé moved again, to the two-bedroom flat in St. John's Wood, bought with money provided by Laurence and Jennifer's inheritance from an aunt. As the weeks became months, and then years, she came to accept that Anthony O'Hare would not return. He would not answer her messages. She was overcome only once, when the newspapers reported some details of the massacre at Stanleyville's Victoria Hotel. Then she had stopped reading newspapers altogether.
She had rung the Nation just once more. A secretary had answered, and when she gave her name, briefly hopeful that Anthony might, this time, happen to be there, she heard, "Is it that Stirling woman?"
And the answer: "Isn't she the one he didn't want to speak to?"
She had replaced the receiver.
It was seven years before she saw her husband again.
Esmé was to start at boarding school, a sprawling, red-brick place in Hampshire, with the shambolic air of a well-loved country house. Jennifer had taken the afternoon off work to drive her, and they had traveled in her new Mini. She was wearing a wine-colored suit and had half expected Laurence to make an unpleasant comment about it-he never had liked her in that color. Please don't do it in front of Esmé, she willed him. Please let's keep this civil.
But the man sitting in the lobby was nothing like the Laurence she remembered. In fact, at first she didn't recognize him. His skin was gray, his cheeks hollow; he seemed to have aged twenty years.
"Hello, Daddy." Esmé hugged him.
He nodded to Jennifer, but did not stretch out a hand. "Jennifer," he said.
"Laurence." She was trying to cover her shock.
The meeting was brief. The headmistress, a young woman possessed of a quietly assessing gaze, made no reference to the fact that they lived at separate addresses. Perhaps more people did now, Jennifer thought. That week she had seen four women in the bureau who were seeking to leave their husbands.
"Well, we'll do everything in our power to make sure Esmé's time here is happy," Mrs. Browning said. She had kind eyes, Jennifer thought. "It does help if the girls have chosen to come to boarding school, and I understand she already has friends here, so I'm sure she'll settle in quickly."
"She reads rather a lot of Enid Blyton," Jennifer said. "I suspect she thinks it's all midnight feasts."
"Oh, we have a few of those. The tuck shop is open on Friday afternoons pretty much for that sole purpose. We tend to turn a blind eye, provided it doesn't get too lively. We like the girls to feel there are some advantages to boarding."
Jennifer relaxed. Laurence had chosen the school, and her fears seemed unfounded. The next few weeks would be hard, but she had grown used to Esmé's periodic absences when she was staying with Laurence, and she had her work to occupy her.
The headmistress got to her feet and held out a hand. "Thank you. We'll telephone, of course, if there are any problems."
As the door closed behind them, Laurence began to cough, a harsh, hacking sound that made Jennifer's jaw clench. She made to say something, but he lifted a hand as if to tell her not to. They made their way slowly down the stairs side by side, as if they were not estranged. She could have walked at twice the speed, but it seemed cruel to do so, given his labored breathing and evident discomfort. Finally, unable to bear it, she stopped a passing girl and asked if she would mind fetching a glass of water. Within minutes the girl returned, and Laurence sat down heavily on a mahogany chair in the paneled corridor to sip it.
Jennifer was now brave enough to let her eyes rest on him. "Is it . . . ?" she said.
"No." He took a long, painful breath. "It's the cigars, apparently. I'm well aware of the irony."
She took the seat beside him.
"You should know I've ensured that you will both be taken care of."
She glanced sideways at him, but he appeared to be thinking.
"We raised a good child," he said eventually.
Out of the window, they could see Esmé chatting to two other girls on the lawn. As if at some unheard signal, the three ran across the grass, their skirts flying.
"I'm sorry," she said, turning back to him. "For everything."
He placed the glass at his side, and hauled himself out of the chair. He stood for a minute, with his back to her, focusing on the girls outside the window, then turned toward her and, without meeting her eye, gave a small nod.
She watched him walk stiffly out of the main door across the lawns to where his lady friend was waiting in the car, his daughter skipping beside him. She waved enthusiastically as the chauffeur-driven Daimler made its way back down the drive.