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23rd March 1956 - Coventry Carol by A.J. Hall

“I say, are you all right?”

A long-fingered hand encased in a navy blue glove, the thumb of which had been painstakingly darned, held out a glass of water. Mechanically, Frobisher took it and drank. He looked up from his perch on a flat-topped tomb in the shade of the ruins and saw a tall girl outlined against the light. Her navy straw hat swung by its elastic from her other wrist and the low spring sun turned her blonde hair into a blazing aureole about her head.

“I’m sorry, but who are you?”

“Meredith Gentle.” Her upper body moved in a gesture of artless grace, somewhere between a nod and a bow. “I’m here by royal command, you know.”

“Ah, what?”

She turned her head and he could see her face properly. Large, generous mouth, wide-set grey eyes beneath high-arched, eloquent brows. A bonny face for a spring morning Nanny used to say; he could hear the warm, familiar Warwickshire burr now. Something cracked inside his chest; a high, piercing, tingling sound filled his ears, as if icicles dropped from the boughs of a winter woodland in a sudden, unlooked-for thaw.

He felt his tense features ease, saw it reflected in her sudden smile, which betrayed a gap between her two front teeth you could slide a half-crown into (another Nanny phrase, come to think of it). He found it curiously endearing.

“Well, royal command in a manner of speaking. Her Majesty mentioned to her equerry that perhaps someone should see if the poor gentleman who felt faint while the foundation stone was being laid needed anything. And the equerry enquired of the Lord Lieutenant and the Lord Lieutenant suggested to his aide-de-camp that he might drop a hint to the Mayor and the Mayor indicated to the Mayoress that something needed to be done and she ordered me to do it. I’m her secretary, you see. Can I get you an aspirin?”

There was a kind of singing in her voice, a lilt which echoed on the edge of memory but, frustratingly, refused to place itself.

He shook his head. “I’ll be fine. It was just when the singing began – the soloist –” He clamped his jaws tight shut as his voice began to falter.

“Oh, yes. ” A deep, warm, purring voice, comforting as cocoa after a long walk through driving rain; no hint of contempt audible. “Me too. Why must boy sopranos always sound so – so other-worldly? As if they were so much in tune with the music of the spheres they wouldn’t bat an eyelid if the spheres sang back. Yet they’re such mucky little devils all the rest of the time, when they aren’t singing. My nephew’s a chorister, so I see both sides.”

“I met my wife in the Cathedral.” The words came out abruptly, all in a rush. He hadn’t intended to go to church at all that day, just been taking a short cut through the Close on his way back from the bookshop when a pelting downpour began. Thinking only of the precious, expensive text-books in his arms he’d bolted for the nearest refuge, which turned out to be the Cathedral front door, arriving just at the same moment as a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl also carrying an armload of shopping. When they collided both sets of parcels went everywhere. And, by the time they’d picked everything up under the clicking, fussy scrutiny of the churchwarden, Evensong was beginning, so it had seemed inevitable that Jen and he would find themselves inside, in a side pew on the Decani side, sharing a prayer-book.

Meredith tipped her head on one side; he could see her assessing him, trying to think of a tactful way to make the delicate, probing enquiry that had to be coming.

“She died in the raid,” he said abruptly, to cut the whole business short. He had expected the usual awkward reaction to confession – God, why were people so bad about bereavement, as if everyone over the age of twenty hadn’t had more than enough practice at it – but she nodded, gravely, and waited for him to go on in profound, blessed, accepting silence.

He looked up, round at the ruins, the spring sunlight of the present overlaid with a vision of fire and darkness and endless, endless screaming.

“Such an awful night,” Meredith said, echoing his thoughts. “I’d been out that evening – dress rehearsal for the school play. Coming back, I lost my way in the blackout. When the sirens went I had no clue where the nearest shelter might be. Running, always running, with everything shaking around me – and every time somewhere took a hit the air would go solid for a moment with the shock, and then the sound would rush back. Horrible.”

Her voice shook, just a little, under the crushing weight of memory. Frobisher stretched out his hand and laid it across her blue-gloved one. She nodded gratitude; her other hand waved in the air, tracing a pattern impossible for him to decode. Her deep, warm voice continued on.

“Eventually I came round a corner into the Close. I saw the Cathedral was alight, but the only bit I can remember properly is a man leaping up and down in front of that roaring blaze, yelling that the RAF had let us down and the Government only cared about defending London. People can be idiotic when they’re upset, can’t they? Of course Churchill would have done something if he’d been able to. But who could have predicted that Coventry would be the target?”

Nothing could be said to that. Nothing must be said to that. The only option was to change the subject.

“What – er – did you have any plans for after the ceremony?” Frobisher enquired.

He had not, actually, intended it as a chat up line, but there never seemed a proper time to explain that. And, by the time he and Meredith were married six month later, explanations seemed contra-indicated, anyway. He tucked it away with all the other secrets.