Painting: Oil on Canvas by Margaret Cooper
A Time To Love (Ecclesiastes 3.8)
by Lydia Penn
The wedding invitations had gone out, presents had begun to arrive; there were continued discussions with caterers and florists and final fittings with dressmakers, volunteers co-opted to decorate the church.
“Such a perfect match,” said friends and relatives. “They make an ideal couple.”
Both Isabel’s and Philip’s mothers were delighted. They had been close friends since they had worked together at Bletchley Park during the war. Philip was an agronomist working on his father’s Lincolnshire estate, which it was presumed he would ultimately take over.
Isabel’s family lived fairly nearby in Suffolk, and from childhood, the two families had frequently stayed at each other’s homes or gone on holiday together. Isabel had always been fond of Philip as a brother, whereas, he made no secret of his deep love for her.
It was indeed a perfect match.
Except for one problem.
Isabel was not in love with Philip!
Each time she looked at that large sparkling diamond ring which Philip had placed so proudly on her finger, she felt trapped just as surely as any diamond miner might be as he quarried underground. The day of their forthcoming nuptials drew nearer, with it’s frenzy of activity surrounding her; Isabel felt her panic increase.
Nearly five years earlier she had given her heart to another!
She sat now in the privacy of her bedroom and allowed her thoughts to wander back over those five years. She was twenty-three then, had completed her nursing training and worked for a short while at a small suburban hospital. She was now taking a month’s holiday before a lucrative private nursing position in London for three months. After that – well, the world was her oyster!
In this carefree frame of mind, she had decided to spend the month at home; her older sister and brother who worked locally were still living at home, and their parents would be away on her father’s extended business-cum-holiday trip. Isabel thought it would be an excellent time to just relax, catch up with some old friends and entertain without parental restrictions.
She remembered so vividly that first evening. Her newly engaged sister, Deirdre, and her fiancé, Bob, had organised a group to go out to dinner at The Swan, a local upmarket hotel. “I hear they’ve got a new assistant manager and that he’s quite a dish,” Deirdre told her sister.
He was indeed “quite a dish”. Tall, dark and very handsome, thought Isabel as she watched him move among the tables. As she looked, once or twice their eyes met and he smiled. She recalled both the pleasure and embarrassment she had felt, and how she had tried to concentrate on the conversation of the group.
He stopped at their table and Isabel saw that his eyes were grey and his hair not quite as dark as it had appeared in the distance. As he inquired about their meal, his accent was clearly Public School English, but there was also something Gallic in his manner. Isabel had been intrigued.
Outgoing Deirdre had explained that Isabel was home for a month’s holiday and they were having a get together with friends. “Any excuse for a party,” she had said.
As he moved on to the next table, it seemed to Isabel that he had deliberately brushed against her shoulder; she remembered too how he stood by the door as they left and handed her his card. “Enjoy your holiday,” he had said.
“Oh my!” said Deirdre as they walked to Bob’s car. “You’ve certainly made a conquest.”
Yes, that was how it had all begun, reflected Isabel, sitting on her bed and recalling how, all those years ago, she had sat on that same bed and pulled out of her bag the card she had so hastily dropped in it.
Guy Chalmers, Assistant Manager she read. Idly she had turned it over. On the back he had written, “Please ring me. Guy.”
Highly irregular, she had thought. But well, why not! She had a whole month’s holiday and she was definitely attracted to him. The next morning, a little nervously, she had dialled the hotel number.
Their first date had been in a small nearby coffee shop during Guy’s three hours off the next afternoon. “Rather a busman’s holiday,” he had joked, “but I didn’t know what else to suggest at this stage, and I did want to get to know you.”
She learned that he had an English father but a French mother – that explained the Gallic mannerisms. His mother, he told her, came from a wine producing family near Bordeaux. She had met his father during the war, and after they had married in Bordeaux, but came to live in England, where he and his two younger sisters were born and educated. He was now gaining hotel experience with a view to expanding his grandparents’ business in England.
Isabel had been as fascinated by his family background as she was by Guy himself, and their time together soon passed, as she also told him a little about herself. They met almost daily after that whenever Guy was free, and Isabel knew she had fallen deeply in love. They explored the Suffolk countryside, lunched at quaint village pubs, and went for long walks, hand in hand in the crisp late September air. Even familiar places took on a new glow for Isabel, as she looked at them from the warmth of Guy’s embraces. He was romantic, attentive and passionate; all she wanted was to be with him.
Isabel stopped reminiscing – did she want to go on? After all, she was going to marry Philip. But somehow she couldn’t stop herself; the tears began to flow as they had so many times in the last few years.
The events of that last evening where etched firmly on her mind. She had to return to London the next morning to commence her new job, and Guy had been able to take the whole day off. The thought of the coming three month’s separation had made it an especially poignant time.
At least, thought Isabel, as she now made no attempt to stem the fast flowing tears, I have no memories of him in this room. I couldn’t bear it. The day had passed all too quickly. They had driven into Norwich where they had shopped, buying each other small parting gifts. After lingering over a delicious late lunch they had a leisurely drive back and arrived home in the early evening. There was a note from Deirdre saying she and Bob were dining with friends and she would not be home until late. Their younger brother had also left that morning for a weekend house party.
Cold and weary, Guy and Isabel had sat sipping hot chocolate and basking in the warmth of a glowing fire and each others company. They spoke little at first but as grey eyes met blue and he stroked her shoulder length brown hair, the tension between them grew. Looking back, Isabel realised it had been inevitable. They were alone in the house. Guy had begun to talk of marriage and the ardour of his embraces overwhelmed her. She knew she was passionately in love with this man! As his arms tightened around her and she read the unspoken message in his eyes, her response was unhesitating.
When the next day, she had arrived at the small suburban guest house where she had reserved a room for three months, she found a large bouquet of roses awaiting her. Over the next few weeks this was followed by a barrage of letters and phone calls – the latter a little inconvenient since the only phone was in the public lobby. But Isabel was much too wrapped in her dreams to care what anyone else thought, and when her employer unexpectedly terminated her employment a week early, as she was going on a cruise, Isabel was delighted. She would make a quick trip to Suffolk and give Guy a surprise. He had been out of touch for three days while he made a brief visit to Bordeaux, but she calculated that he would be back by the time she arrived. His last words were, “I’ve got a big surprise for you.”
And I have a big surprise for you too, she had thought; excited as a young bride, she entered the warmth of the familiar hotel lobby that bleak January afternoon. As she looked around in the subdued lighting, surprised, she saw him casually dressed standing by the lift at the far end. But as she began to walk towards him, the lift door opened and out stepped a slim smartly dressed blonde. They embraced warmly. Isabel stood rooted to the spot, unable to believe her eyes, as, hand in hand, they walked over to a nearby alcove containing seats and small tables. Her last doubts were swept away when she heard someone call, “Mr Chalmers,” and he turned round.
Isabel was too devastated to confront them; feeling both humiliated and betrayed, she stumbled towards the door and stood uncertainly on the pavement outside, blinded by tears and shivering in the bitter winter wind.
Finally, she turned and headed back to the station. No one was expecting her home for another week and now all she wanted was to be alone with her pain. Huddled in a corner of the compartment as the train sped back towards London, she tried to make sense of it all – but there was no sense! It couldn’t have been a twin. He didn’t have a brother, let alone a twin. Nor could the woman be his sister – that was no brotherly embrace. No, it was Guy, her Guy – or so she had thought – embracing another woman. She had been so sure of his love; the letters, the phone calls – did they mean nothing? Was he just amusing himself with her; had it all meant nothing to him? What a fool I was to trust him, she had thought; I only knew him a month, and maybe all his stories about his family were a pack of lies too.
Bitterness entered her soul!