On her twenty first birthday, the same day as their first wedding anniversary, James presented Emma with a pearl necklace. They were picnicking in Fosters Wood and all around them dappled sunlight played through spring leaves down onto a bright carpet of yellow Celandines.
‘Formed by angels for an angel,’ he said, fastening the pearl necklace’s silver clasp. Then he kissed the nape of her neck and let her long, brown hair fall around her shoulders.
Now more than six decades later, Emma touches those same pearls, remembering. ‘If I don’t return from the war, promise me you will find someone else to love.’ Horror filled her at that unthinkable thought. ‘Promise me, please, Emma,’ he’d insisted. She’d nodded, unable to utter aloud such a promise.
James departed the following day. After he left, Emma wore those pearls as a reminder of his love. Like a rosary, she touched each pearl when, every evening, she prayed for her young husband’s safe return. Then one day the necklace broke. Pearls fell and scattered like small frightened creatures. While far away, on a beach in Normandy, James lay mortally wounded.
Unaware of his life ebbing away, scrabbling about on hands and knees in search of her precious, milky gems, Emma’s heart began to fill with dark foreboding; a foreboding she tried to push aside. A week or so later, on receiving the news of his death, she threaded each pearl onto sturdier string, weeping over her husband’s death, and a loveless future that lay ahead of her.
Today she sits by the window, looking out at an April morning. Around her neck, the pearls lie warm against thin flesh. Beyond the garden Fosters Wood brushes a blue sky, and the sight makes her pulse beat faster with excited urgency.
‘How are you today?’ a voice interrupts her thoughts.
‘The same as yesterday,’ Emma tells her district nurse with a smile, and makes small talk as Esther binds her ulcerated legs and gives Emma her heart pills.
When the nurse leaves, Emma knows that very soon, her nurse will no longer call. Then her home and goods will go up for sale, the proceeds bequeathed to charity. She smiles, fingering the largest pearl, relieved that soon her final journey approaches, and on that journey, she’ll carry with her those memories to share with James when, once more, they are both reunited.
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