Freda knew she had lived in exciting times. Her life would have been very different without war having been declared when she was eighteen years old. She lived near Cambridge with her mother and father and Sylvia, her sister. Sylvia was only eighteen months younger and some said they looked like twins.
Freda was promised in marriage to Laurence. Not quite engaged, but they’d had a sort of ‘understanding’ since she had turned sixteen that they would one day marry. They’d been friends forever. Laurence was three years older than Freda and studying to become an electrical engineer. But when the war came along, off he went into the air force. His letters were infrequent and had chunks cut out of them, chunks of information that might have identified where he was or anything of interest should the letters fall into enemy hands. It was called censorship. Freda didn’t really miss Laurence. Life carried on pretty much as usual, except they were rather short of young men to play tennis with. For most of the young men had been drafted into the war.
Being two girls close together their parents trusted Freda and Sylvia to look after each other, therefore they were allowed more freedom than many other girls their age. They were allowed to go to dances, for a start.
What with the war, there were quite a number of American servicemen in the Cambridge area. Over paid, over sexed and over here, was what a lot of people said. Freda and Sylvia had to agree. They were inundated with charming young Hanks and Juniors falling over themselves to take the two blonde sisters, together or separately, for a drive in the country, a slap up meal (which was no bad thing considering the deprivations of rationing), or to the cinema. They were plied with gifts of nylons and chocolates. They felt like proper princesses at a time when the Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were in uniform and doing their bit for the war effort.
Sophie considered herself a true child of the Sixties. A free spirit. She lived in a squat with an assortment of people who came and went. She made a living selling jewellery. Sophie also sang with a band. She loved being up on stage strutting her stuff, tossing her mane of auburn hair as she belted out emotive lyrics with men gazing open-mouthed up at her and girls casting envious glances.
Sophie was in charge of her life. She had no ties, there were no limits. She answered to no-one. She had no boss, she had no landlord, she had no husband. Well, at eighteen she was perhaps a bit young for marriage although some girls her age had taken the plunge. But mostly those who still lived safely at home with Mummy and Daddy in boring suburbia.
Sophie had left all that behind when she’d arrived in London. London was the place to be. Carnaby Street for the fashions. Soho for the clubs. Yet she wasn’t tied to London. Whenever she wanted to go off to a rock festival, no matter where, she just hopped into someone’s van with a few bits and pieces in a bag and off she went.
You would have been forgiven for thinking that Sophie had landed on the planet like an alien, already in adult form and with no history on Planet Earth. That’s probably what Sophie would like you to think. But once upon a time Sophie had been someone’s beloved daughter dressed in pink, playing with dollies, eating her crusts, and going to bed like a good little girl.
Eventually World War Two ended and Laurence came home, fortunately unscathed. There was a shortage of doctors so he changed his mind about his future ambitions and set off on a new tangent with the promise of years of study yawning ahead. He and Freda were married, a mean little ceremony in frugal, make-and-mend times. Freda borrowed a suit for her wedding day, grey serge it was, made marginally more cheerful by a nosegay of flowers on the lapel. Sylvia was her bridesmaid, and Laurence’s brother their best man. There was no honeymoon, and the newlyweds started their married life in her parents’ spare bedroom.
Freda took a job as a typist with the local council in the hope that they might one day save enough for a home of their own. But in the aftermath of the war housing was in short supply. The bombing raids had taken their toll, and post-war Britain was a grim place with all kinds of shortages.
During the long hours at home in the evenings while Laurence studied in the library, Freda would listen to the radio and the cheerful tunes brought back memories of wartime dance halls. She wondered what had happened to her American dance partners. She went to the cupboard and took out a length of magenta silk given to her by one of her admirers, and a silver bangle from another. In a way she wished the war had never ended.
Freda fell pregnant during Laurence’s final year of study, and their daughter was born just days after he graduated. But he was interned to one of the large hospitals and worked long hours. It was as though Freda hardly had a husband at all, and the child saw little of her father during her first five years.
Resentment ground Freda’s patience thin, and the beatific smile of her teens gave way to a hard glare. Anger settled like a stone in her innards and ate away at her. That’s the way Laurence rationalised things when his wife died of cancer aged just thirty-five.
Sophie died even younger, a victim of a car crash. Her free and easy lifestyle was curtailed when she was just twenty. The driver was high on some illegal substance and drove his van into a wall.
Sophie drifted through the afterlife, a wistful figure in faded, wispy clothes. One day she passed a woman and pulled up sharp with a jolt of recognition. The woman was likewise affected.
“Sophie! Is that you?”
“Yes, Mother. Why, you look just the same.”
“Shame I can’t say the same about you.” Freda had never been one for tact or diplomacy.
But it was water off a duck’s back to Sophie. “You never liked me, did you, Mother? Never had a kind or loving word for me.”
“My, you have become bitter!”
“Not bitter, Mother. I faced the facts after you died. You were jealous of the way Daddy loved me, weren’t you.”
Freda sighed, as though all the effort had gone out of her. “Oh, Sophie. It was much more complicated than that. The post-war years were difficult times. The war was such fun, it was a pity life had to become so … serious. But how can I expect you to understand?”
Sophie recoiled, shocked. “The war was fun? What about all the people who died?” Sophie glanced about anxiously. “Keep your voice down, some of them may be listening.”
Freda could see she had some explaining to do, so she suggested she and Sophie sit awhile.
“Oh, Sophie. Your father … My glamorous life during the war just didn’t prepare me for married life, for scrimping and scraping and making do. And your father turned out to be someone much less exciting than the dashing young pilot who‘d gone off to fight for his country. I soon became bored and resentful, and I didn’t really want the demands of motherhood. Did you have any children?”
Sophie looked shocked. “Of course not, I’m only twenty. But I see what you mean. If you didn’t feel ready to have a child then it wouldn’t be much fun.”
By the time Freda and Sophie were all talked out they had come to something of a mutual understanding. The mother Sophie had thought cruel and indifferent was not that much different from herself. And the daughter that Freda had seen as a nuisance was very much a kindred spirit. It was quite enlightening.
Sophie had always envied her friend Judy. Judy’s mother was a warm, loving woman and the two were so close. Sophie used to watch Judy and her mother walking around the shops arm in arm and her heart would shrink and wither with sorrow and regret that she and her mother weren’t like that. Strangely now, Sophie’s first thought was of Judy and her mother. She knew she could never expect such a closeness, but she felt that things were now so much easier between herself and her mother, reunited in the afterlife.
by Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015