Last Christmas in Paris

By: Hazel Gaynor

Prologue


Richmond, London

15th December, 1968


Life is forever changed without her; without the sense of her somewhere near. Empty hours wander by as I listen for the soft tread of her footfall on the stair and wait for her laughter to cheer these lifeless rooms. When I close my eyes I can conjure her; the scent of her perfume, the feather-touch of her fingertips against my cheek, those intense blue eyes looking back at me. But it is all illusion. Smoke and mirrors that conceal the truth of her absence.

I push myself up wearily from the chair, clutching my cane like an extra limb as I hobble to the window. Snow sprinkles from a soft grey sky, gathering in pockets along the river, quick to find shelter from the hungry waters of the Thames that flood the inlet behind the house. A skiff bobs to the gentle rhythm of the tide. It reminds me of how I rowed with such vigour as a young man, desperate to impress. I see her there still, sitting on the riverbank, skirt tucked behind her knees, laughing as she launches a stone and watches it sail higher and farther than the others, looping in a great arc and splashing me with its perfectly aimed descent into the water.

I see her everywhere. In everything. How can she not be here?

I feel for the necklace in my pocket, and remember how she loved to quote Miss Brontë’s words. I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.

What a fool I was.

“Mr. Harding?” Margaret perches in the doorway. Her pristine nurse’s uniform takes me back over the years to the noise and smell of field hospitals and clearing stations, and all that once was. “It’s time, Thomas. The car is here.”

Taking a laboured breath I rest my face against the window, savouring the icy chill of the glass against my skin. My gaze wanders over the neighbouring houses, the moody old Thames, and the view beyond the hill towards London. I, alone, know it is the last time I will look upon these places I hold most dear. The doctors tell me I don’t have long. It is a reality I have made my peace with, a reality I hide from those who would only fuss if they knew the full extent of my illness—my nurse included.

“Are my letters packed, Margaret?” I ask.

“They’re in your suitcase as you requested.”

“All of them? The sealed letter as well?” I can’t bring myself to say, “the last one.”

“Yes, Thomas. All of them.”

I nod. How many were there in the end? Dozens, and more. So much fear and hope captured in our words, so much longing and loss—and love. She always said her war was fought in words; her pen and prose the only weapons she, as a woman, could wield. She felt it was important to keep a record of all the correspondence, curating the memories of those years with as much determination and care as any exhibition at the British Museum. That a fragile bundle of paper sentiments survived the war when so many people were lost has always angered me, but now I am glad of them. Now, I am ready to relive those days, read through our letters one last time in Paris, as was her dying wish. I think about the sealed letter: To be opened in Paris on Christmas Eve. I wonder what more she might have to say.

Margaret waits patiently as I make my way across the room. She knows I am a stubborn old fool and that I will only grouse if she offers me her assistance. She glances at the window, and frowns.

“Are you sure Paris is a good idea, Mr. Harding? The snow is really coming down.”

I wave her concern away. “Paris is always a good idea,” I reply, my breathing heavy as I reach the door. “Especially at Christmas.” I falter at my words. Words which were once hers. “And because I promised.”

“I’ve never been.” Margaret smiles brightly. “I hope we’ll see the Eiffel Tower.”

I mutter under my breath that it is difficult to miss and turn to take one final look at the room, moments and memories hidden beneath the dust sheets that have always turned our London home into a temporary mausoleum at this time of year. “If ever a city was made for snow, Paris is it.”

She nods and holds out a tentative arm. “To Paris then, Mr. Harding? And don’t spare the horses!”

Her youthful enthusiasm reminds me of an old friend and I smile as I loop my arm through hers. “To Paris,” I say. “I hope she is as beautiful as I remember.”

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