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H

arry, grimfaced, stared at himself in the mirror which hung on a nail in the centre pole of his tent on Truro Golf Club.  The GIs who shared with him had already left for the city to spend an hour or two celebrating in the pubs before going on to the public dance in the home of the local infantry regiment.  Moresk Drill Hall, like many of the houses and shops around it, was cradled in the shadow of the cathedral whose three lofty spires towered above them. He hadn’t been there since the February night he met and fell in love with Margaret, the lovely farmer’s daughter from Park Farm on the hill beside the Truro River as it wound its way to Malpas to join the Fal and continue its journey to the sea.

He had been watching her all evening and brushed one of his fellow GIs aside to reach her as the Paul Jones stopped for the first change of partners.  He smiled at his reflection in the mirror as recalled his opening words:  “Good to meet you Miss – I’m Henry but my friends call me “Hank…”

“My name is Margaret and I shall call you Harry” she smiled and her face lit up.

“I’d like that Margaret and I’ll never call you Maggy…”

“I’m glad…”

Not the best of his chat up lines but they danced the rest of the evening together and she clutched his hand when the evening closed with the band playing God Save the King.  He wasn’t able to walk her home that night because her father, Frank, had used some of his precious petrol ration to come and collect her.  Stuck with guard duty for two days he felt frustrated – he wanted to see her again and soon.  He just had time to arrange to meet her outside the Palace Cinema at seven on the Wednesday night when, with another squeeze of his hand she dashed to the old Morris Eight just outside the gates.

Now it was May time and their love had blossomed like the Cornish hedgerows – alight with the colours of the wild flowers.  They met when his duty allowed and as often as she could escape the domestic chores to which she’d been tied since her mother died when she was just fifteen.  She’d had to leave her scholarship place at the local County school to keep house for her father and two brothers, Tom and George, who ran the farm where they were Lord Falmouth’s tenants. 

Today he was not looking forward to their evening together – they had been so open with each other that he would find it hard to keep from her the awful truth that he had learned at the briefing earlier in the day.  The war was stretching out its ugly hand to separate them.  The orders his fellow soldiers had greeted with so much enthusiasm filled him with despair – the invasion of France that the whole free world was waiting for was close.  The fleet would be gathering in the next couple of weeks and his infantry regiment and the landing craft in which they’d rehearsed so often on the Truro River and Cornish beaches had orders to move the following day – he would only see her again if she stayed faithful to him until his part in the war was over – oh how he wished he had risked her father’s anger and rushed her into marriage.

He looked around the tent, checked that his gear was all packed for the early start in the morning, picked up the letters he had written earlier that day and made his way to the transport pick-up by the guard room.  He stopped to hand his mail in for the censor to check that it contained no military secrets and didn’t care that the Orderly Officer would also read the loving message he’d written to Margaret.

The truck dropped him in the town centre and he went straight to the Western National bus stop and boarded the single-decker to Malpas.  He dropped off as he always did at Boscawen Park by the tea-rooms. A brisk walk took him around the steep bend in the road which followed the river course to Sunny Corner. He was shocked to find that the landing craft had already gone – God how he hoped that Margaret wouldn’t spot that and ask awkward questions – hiding something was one thing but he could never lie to her – though he knew he had to be guilty of one later on.

He could hear the voices of members of the Truro Swimming club splashing in the cool waters of the favourite local bathing spot – they swam the year round.  He left the pavement and walked towards the ramshackle hut where she was waiting, watching the swimmers tossing a water polo ball to each other – she seemed unusually pensive.

He stopped and pulled himself together.  My god she was beautiful.  She was wearing a simple print dress, light green with a floral pattern, her bare legs were tanned a golden brown and she wore flat white shoes.  It was what she was wearing when they danced together for the first time. Her lips were bright red, the only make-up she used or needed and her golden hair was part hidden under a headscarf.

He was tormented by the thought of deserting and going into hiding when his comrades went off to war but he knew that Margaret, much as she would hate his leaving her, would not forgive such a craven act,.

She turned away from the water and waved to him as he climbed the bank towards her – her face lit up as it always did, two steps and she was holding him close.

They set off on the walk which meant so much – through the tall pine trees above the river on the path worn by the footsteps of many lovers.  The sun cast a sprinkling of shadows – a kaleidoscope of light and shade – below them the pines dipped towards the running tide.  The woods were very special for them, it was where they had first kissed – Margaret had stumbled over a tree root and Harry had caught her in his arms.  He’d felt the warmth of her body and of her love as he held her and that kiss was the most natural thing in their world.

It was also where they had first made love on a February night, Harry had carried his poncho in case of rain but their walk back from the pub in the village had been by the light of the full moon.  He had laid his cape on a mattress of soft pine needles and they’d sat for a while, their silence more powerful than any words.  The nights were dark then but now they had to be more careful – two hours daylight saving meant that the path was bathed in evening light as they strolled home.

Arm in arm they headed for the Malpas Inn where they’d spent many evenings.  The pub was quieter than those in Truro and although Harry had felt some resentment from the local boatmen at first they soon learned to like the American who cared so much for their farming neighbour’s daughter.  His generous distribution of his cigarette ration helped too – though Camels and Lucky Strike tasted strange to tongues burnt with Woodbines and Players.

Rain was falling as they passed the little mission church on the edge of the village so they ran the last few yards and arrived breathless in the saloon bar.  Neither seemed completely at ease and trivia filled the awkward silences.  Harry was racked with anxiety, desperate to tell his lover the truth but afraid of the security risks – even the poster on the wall carried the message: “Careless Talk Costs Lives.”

They chatted about the film they’d seen and the tension rose when one of the local boatmen asked what Harry thought of the Pathé newsreel of the war in Italy.  It came almost as a relief when Ted called last orders.  It was still raining outside and the last bus had gone but Donald came to their rescue – “I’m fire-watching at the City Hall tonight and they’re sending John Bull’s taxi down to pick me up – we’ll drop Margaret off at the farm and you in Truro boy…”

The lovers were reluctant to agree but knew that they could be wet through by the time they reached Park Farm.  Donald and the taxi driver kept their eyes to the front in the short ride to the farm gate and waited while Harry said “Goodbye”.

“When will I see you again?”  Margaret’s question forced a lie from Harry.

“Saturday night as usual,” he gave her the answer he’d been practising all day and knew that she’d have his letter long before their planned rendezvous.

Harry made their goodnight kiss last as long as he dared – the farm dog was barking to wake the dead when he got back in the cab – he craned his neck and watched Margaret disappear into the farmhouse.

On the 6th June 1944 Harry’s landing craft was one of the first to hit Omaha Beach and he charged with the rest of his platoon into the hailstorm of bullets from the machine gun nests that had survived the bombardment from planes and warships.  In minutes hundreds fell, Harry among them…

On the 6th July in a clapboard farmhouse near Rockport, Massachusetts, a farmer’s wife sat in her kitchen and unwrapped the packet that had just arrived from the US Army.  Her fingers were trembling and the tears trickled down her cheeks as she took out all that was left of her son – his dog tags, a watch and his wallet.  She took out a picture of a beautiful girl and a letter which, with a guilty heart, she opened and read:

Dearest Harry,

                   Oh how I wish you’d told me that you were going away – I would not have left your side until we had said goodnight properly.  My darling the light has gone out of my life, I miss you so much – do hurry back to me please.  You ask would I wait for you and will I write.  Every day my darling till I hold you again – I will wait for ever.  You are truly my one and only love.

                   How too I wish that I had summoned up courage to tell you my secret my darling – I am going to have your baby – isn’t that wonderful news.  So now you know you must be very careful wherever you go in this dreadful war and please write soon and tell my you are as happy as me. 

The wireless is playing ‘We’ll Meet Again’- please make it soon my love.

Yours for ever and a day

Margaret

The trickle of tears became a river in flood as she cried for the son she had lost and the grandchild she would never know…

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