‘I Couldn’t Love You More,’ by Esther Freud: An Excerpt | tnewst.com Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘I Couldn’t Love You More,’ by Esther Freud: An Excerpt

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I’d been engaged before, twice as it happens, and you weren’t going to let me forget it. What stopped you marrying that Dennis fellow, then, or Clifford Bray? You didn’t miss a chance to remind me. But the truth was that I’d never really known them. Maybe that would have come later. Or maybe not. But either way the Good Lord had other plans.

That first month after the wedding we lived with your family. We were glad then to have had those two nights at the Strand because I was put in to sleep with Isabelle – your mother – while you were in the box room. I would have crept in beside you if I’d not been so afraid of Mavis, all settled in with her new husband, in the big room at the front. I was still working for Pontings, that was a lovely job, and you had work as an engineer. Trained for it, to step into your father’s shoes. Cashel Kelly. You were named for him. Dead before you were born. But it wasn’t until we had Rosaleen that I thought of Isabelle, a stranger in this country, four little ones, and not a bit of help.

We’d have stopped in Ilford for the duration of the war if there’d been a bedroom for us, and then didn’t my brother Joe write to say he’d taken on the lease of the Bull and Gate in Islington, and there he was when we dropped round, Elsie all togged up and leaning on the bar. You saw a future for us then. How hard could it be to run a pub? The beauty of it – we’d never have to be apart. Men were being called up – boys, at least – and within a week you’d volunteered for the fire service, and that was it. You’d stay at home.

It didn’t take long to find our pub. The couple who ran it were keen to get away. Off to Devon, they were. Her nerves were shot from the first war, and she wasn’t going through it again. We signed the papers then and there, and afterwards we stayed and had a drink. Met the locals. Brixton. The shopping capital of the south. Lovely big houses out along the main road, and down by the station the first street in London to be lit by electric light. We stayed till after closing, and even then we were too excited to go home, couldn’t sit still long enough to board a bus, and so we walked, our arms linked, listening, waiting for what was to come.

[ Return to the column on “I Couldn’t Love You More.” ]

If I close my eyes even now, Cash, I can feel it, your first kiss. We were outside the dance hall and you had hold of my hand, and as we said our goodbyes you pressed your lips against my hair. A heat went through me, over in a flicker, but the imprint of it stayed. Bye then, I said, all breezy, and as I walked away I put a hand up to my temple and felt the burn of it right there. It woke me, I didn’t know I’d been asleep, travelled through my skin and down into the pit of me. I could blush to say it, a fire raged so fierce I was hardly able to keep still. What’s with you, you dope? That’s what they said to me at Pontings, because I was away with you, wondering how it might feel, whatever came next. Give me a sign, Cash, if you remember our night in the Strand Hotel. There was me, sitting up in bed. No wonder God declared this to be a sin before marriage, or we’d all have been at it, day and night.

It’s not always like this, that’s what you said, it can be a sordid business, if it’s not right. I thought of Clifford Bray, and his politeness, and I wriggled down and lay against your chest. It was only later did I think: How do you know? But it wasn’t expected that the men resist, it was only the girls who had to wait. Cash? I’ll whisper it to you – that night in the cellar with the sirens wailing, the place to ourselves for once with Margaret away visiting her sister, that’s when I gave up being careful. What was the use when none of us might get through to the morning? One in the eye for Hitler. I didn’t buy into that. But I knew straight away, when silence fell, and we wandered out into the sulphur and the smoke and there was one star glinting high above us in the dark. We clung together and gave our thanks, and for all that I’d determined I’d not bring a child into this world, not till the war was over, I knew we’d made a start.

Rosaleen was quiet as they boarded the train. She sat by the window and looked out. No, she shook her head at the offer of a sandwich, again no to a drink. It was a long slow journey from Harrogate to London. By Leeds the girl had still not said a word. ‘I spy with my little eye’ – Cashel leant forward in his seat – ‘something beginning with . . .’


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