SHADOWS AND MEMORIES
by Jane Renton
Content Warnings: memories of World War II, mentions of loss.
She finally acknowledged it when she realised she had lost a whole weekend to it. This strange half-life. A life of shadows and memories. As if she were Persephone, half a year in the Underworld and half above ground.
It couldn’t continue.
This time, she had barely managed to last two days before she found herself tugging the battered suitcase out from its hiding place. She didn’t really know why she’d bothered to put it away in the first place, not when it was inevitable that she would pull it out again. Still, she supposed that two days was progress. In the beginning, she had barely managed to put it away at all, unable to go more than a few hours without her hands trailing over the items within.
She couldn’t avoid the real world completely. Food, water and sleep were necessities for survival, but the shadowy world of memories was where she was genuinely happy.
The problem was, it was a fine line to tread between the two worlds and her place on that line was precarious.
She didn’t want to forget the Special Operations Executive and the life she had lived whilst part of it. Equally, she acknowledged she couldn’t dwell so much on memories that she forgot to live in the real world. There had to be a balance. Other people seemed to have managed to make the transition, so why couldn’t she?
She gently traced her fingers over the lid of the suitcase before opening it and gazing almost reverentially over the items contained within. Memories of what could have been a bygone age, they felt so long ago. A myriad of small, sometimes inconsequential items, that proved that in another life she had been more than what society expected of her. Than what society now expected of her. Now, she was expected to leave behind everything she had done and stay at home and be a homemaker. To cook and clean, to be a wife, to be a mother.
She had been so much more.
She had been a tactician, a fighter, a spy, a lover.
She had been so much more than her sex. The men she’d worked with hadn’t cared that she was female, they simply cared that she had been able to get the job done. And she had. She had done things she had never thought she was capable of, things that people would never know she had done. Some things that she was proud of and some things she wished she could erase from her memory.
The contents of the case represented five years of lies, five years of obfuscating to her family and friends. Of enlisting colleagues into her web of deceit. Five years of secrets hidden from the world. Doing everything she could to prevent suspicion. Not just in her work but in her personal life. It had been exhausting but it had been necessary. It had been worth it for every second they had been able to spend together. Her family wouldn’t have understood. Her friends wouldn’t have understood. Society definitely wouldn’t have understood.
How could they when she hadn’t understood herself to begin with?
There was a silk cipher that had once been hidden in the lining of her clothes. Various papers that would have ensured her safe – or as safe as possible – passage across various European borders as well as passing German identification checks. There was the leather flying jacket she had worn when she had been parachuted into France, still smelling of engine oil and cigarettes. Below that was her Welrod pistol and the Fairbairn-Sykes knife issued to all operatives. The medal she had been given by King George VI in honour of her gallantry in the face of enemy action. Buried at the bottom was a silk scarf and a lipstick in a shade she would never dream of wearing but that she would keep always, simply because of who they had belonged to.
Moving aside those items, she let her fingers brush against what she considered to be the true treasures contained within the case: a bundle of letters and a simple portrait done in pen and ink. It had been a trade, done in the depth of night as they’d waited for information. She had bartered a pair of silk stockings in return for the portrait, copied from a photo by candlelight.
She allowed her fingers to skim over the surface of the drawing, tracing the features worshipfully as she could no longer do in person. Fingers tracing the ink of her handwriting, of the promises she had made. Promises she hadn’t been able to keep. Not a day passed where she didn’t miss her with every fibre of her being and, even though she knew she would never see her again, that they would never be together again – she was buried in a field somewhere in Europe – she knew that she would never love anyone else the way she had loved her.
They had met at Arisaig in Scotland. The only two women in their group of recruits, they had been thrown together and things had simply developed. They had been complete opposites: one from a small Cornish village, the other a society debutante who had attended finishing school. Their first kiss had been an exultant celebration at passing their commando training. They had become lovers shortly after, fumbling through their first experiences at Beaulieu as they finished their training. She had never thought of another woman in that way, but she had been so different to the boys back home. So much more. It had been revelatory. Between her lover and the work, she had felt free for the first time ever.
Had felt like herself.
Had felt truly happy.
Bletchley Park had been their cover story. An acceptable job for women where people simply understood that the employees couldn’t talk about what they did. They’d enlisted a friend there who had accepted letters for them and who was the only person who knew the truth. He had acted as a cover for them both on several occasions, playing the acceptable lover in the eyes of society.
They had been sent to opposite sides of Europe but, in the few letters that they were able to send, they had spoken of their future. Of the life they hoped to live together once the war was over. Of the work that they would do. They would never be able to live truthfully, but they would be together. It wasn’t much but it got them through the darkest days. It had given them courage and, more importantly, it had given them hope.
Until that hope had come crashing down in a mess of flames and twisted metal somewhere in Europe.
This suitcase might contain nothing but memories, but they were memories she would treasure for as long as she lived.
She simply had to learn to treasure them while living in the real world, without existing in a world of shadows and memories. She wouldn’t have wanted that for her. She would have wanted her to live.
The world of shadows and memories would never disappear. It would always be there, but she had to leave it behind. That night, she took one last look over the items in the case and removed the drawing, placing it on her mantelpiece. That done, she closed the suitcase and, climbing into the attic, hid it in the farthest corner.
She had to live.
It wouldn’t be the life they had envisioned, the life they had talked about together, that they had dreamed about. That had seen them through the darkest days. But it was life, and she had to live it.
For both of them.
Jane Renton has been writing, in some form or another, since she was a child. She lives in London where she teaches music.