Once, for a few years, long ago in another life, I worked with some indomitable ladies. I was a callow newcomer. I hope I knew enough to avoid showing even the slightest hint of any of the arrogance of youth. I don’t think I would have been so crass: I knew full well I wasn’t their equal and I was happy with that.
Looking back, I realise I admired them unconditionally. I don’t know if that was merited. Nothing’s ever suggested otherwise. There was strength, power, grace and charisma in their experience, resilience, knowledge and intelligence.
I can’t say I knew any of them well. I can’t pretend we were great friends, however much I might have wished it could have been otherwise. I don’t think we ever could have been close simply because our lives were so different. I knew that then and I know it now, but in a way that wrong-foots me when I think about it, I still miss them. The world is poorer without them.
Even after I’d moved on I used to meet one or the other of them sometimes, by chance, in the street, coming in and out of nearby shops or a tea room. They did like a cup of tea and a chat.
The last meeting was in an alley by a charity shop in Henley-on-Thames. I was just mooching around there by chance – taking a break or committing that petty but still horrible crime of killing time, I can’t remember. It’s a small world. She was as impeccably turned out as ever – tall, purposeful and poised – but it turned out she was going blind. I recognised her, of course, and greeted her by name but it was awkward: she couldn’t see me clearly enough and didn’t know me well enough by voice alone to identify me. Even now, something like thirty years later, I wish that final meeting had been happier.
Simple logic says they’re all long dead now; I never see or hear anything of any of them – not even reminiscences. They were of a type that’s now passed on, of the past. They’d been first brought together where we worked by war, brought together in common spirit by war, brought together in loss by war. Their youthful loves had died in the 1940s, in European battlefields or skies; Burmese jungles; North, Pacific, Mediterranean or Atlantic seas and oceans. Perhaps all their romantic desires had died then too. They’d never married anyone else.
The fleeting wistful smiles or occasional watery eyes, or an unexpected sudden silence and quickly changed subject were all testaments to the lingering power of desire.
Indomitable is the right word for them. You can only be brave if you first know fear. Perhaps you can only be indomitable if you teeter, close to crumbling. They carried on. Passionate but thwarted; passions long doomed. Desirous still and never forgetting.
Every passing year was a negotiation between homely commonplaces and unbidden reminders, between the comfortable day-to-day and the unavoidable anniversaries.
There is nothing a callow newcomer can say to a quietly crying lady, sitting alone in an unlit government canteen late in the night, intruded upon by accident. Her grief shouldn’t have had any witnesses but a movement caught my eye. I could tell she’d seen me notice her. I couldn’t turn away.
I walked the length of that long, high-ceilinged room with its undraped glass wall looking out over the grounds, across the town and beyond. There was only the hum of a couple of drinks machines by the entrance. Once beyond the glow they gave out, there was only moonlight. I walked to where she sat and took the chair opposite her. Grey plastic chairs and a Formica table top in a nondescript pattern of browns. She watched me come towards her, watched me sit down and then looked at me deliberately, maybe quizzically but certainly steadily, despite the tears dripping down her cheeks. After a short time she tucked the tiny damp hanky she’d been holding up into her sleeve, reached across and held my hands in hers. We looked at each other as her tears slowly stopped rolling. I will never know what she saw through my eyes. Through her eyes I was looking into a well that held every tear she’d cried since the war.