Between Times

Heat fell across the garden like a blanket.  Sighing with relief Helen turned her back on the now spotlessly tidy  chalet and carrying her cup of tea, a fat paperback novel and a rug she stepped out of the French  doors onto the grass.  Tim had taken the children to the beach.  Ahead of her lay two or three hours of perfect peace.

‘Come too, Hen.’ Tim had dropped a kiss on the top of her head.  He tried bribery.    ‘I’ll buy you an ice cream?’

No contest.  Two hours  alone -  completely alone -  versus thousands of  people, shouting children and,  the final turn-off,  runny ice creams dripping stickily down sun-sore skin.  No thanks!

She spread out the rug in the shade under the small cherry tree ,  kicked off her flip flops and sat down cross legged, the mug on one side of her, the book on the other.  The silence was total.

She adored the children. There were three of them.  Jack, Felix and  Polly and she adored her husband, but they were all so noisy, so demanding, so overwhelmingly there all the time, that moments like this were almost non existent now.  Thoughtfully she picked  up her mug and sipped at the tea.  It was delicious; cooling, even though it scalded her mouth.  Cupping  her hands around the mug she gave a wry grin.  Had she really forgotten how to savour tea; how to sit down in silence?

This was their first real holiday all together and Tim was being marvellous.  Putting thoughts of the office for once behind him and ordering her to do the same,  he had marshalled the children, they had tidied their toys, helped wash up, each found towel and bathing costumes, and then suddenly there was silence  and there was  nothing – blessed nothing – to do!

She took another sip of tea and gazed lazily around her, unwilling even to make the effort to pick up the book  Each of these chalets had their own garden and they had been there long enough to have established hedges and flower borders, ornate trees, neat handkerchief-sized lawns.  Nearby she heard the heard the sharp alarm call of a small bird and she screwed up her eyes, trying to see it.  The neighbouring gardens were totally silent too – no doubt the other families also on the beach.  And then she saw it, the  tiny brown bird with its ridiculous  pert tail and bright eyes watching her from its hiding place in some ivy clinging to the fence near by.  She smiled.  Finishing her tea she lay back on the rug with a sigh of blissful contentment.

Did she fall asleep then?  Afterwards she always wondered.  But of course she had.  How else was it all possible?

As she lay looking sleepily up through the lacework of the leaves, feeling the sun dappling her face she realised there was someone in the garden with her.

‘Tim? Have you forgotten something?’ Her initial reaction was extreme irritation.  Could they not allow her just this one small window of peace?

There was no answer and she turned her head, her arm shading her eyes against the glare of the sun.

From where she lay she realised suddenly that she could see through a gap in the hedge into the next door garden.  A man was standing there watching her.  She sat up hastily,  knocking over her mug as she did so

 ‘Sorry.  Did I startle you?’  He stepped forward between the laurels and she saw that he was a man of middle height, handsome, tanned, his hair bleached almost white by the sun.  ‘The children are on the beach and Mary is asleep.  How are you?.’ He sat down opposite her on the grass and leaned across to lay his hand for a moment over hers.  It was a curiously intimate gesture.  Not in any way threatening.  He smiled at her and she found herself smiling back.  Her initial indignation at his presence had disappeared.  He wasn’t a stranger. She knew him well.

‘It’s blessedly peaceful without them for a while, isn’t it,’ she said quietly.  Her eyes were, she realised, still staring into his; drowning in his gaze.  Drowning.  She had read that expression in one of her novels, and not quite understood what the cliché meant.  Now suddenly she knew.  She could see into the depths of his soul and she could see that he loved her.  He loved her with tormented, agonising, passion.

‘My dear.’ She turned her hands upwards to meet his and their palms touched, their fingers intertwined.  ‘How long will they be away?’ She couldn’t remember his name,  this man whom she had loved  forever and to whom she realised suddenly she was going to make love, here in  the back garden of a rented holiday chalet in a place she had never been to  before.

He smiled at her.  ‘Long enough.’ His hand strayed to her shoulders and he twisted a strand of her hair around his finger  ‘I go back tomorrow. This will be our last chance to be together. Perhaps for ever’

‘Don’t say that.’ Her eyes filled with tears.   ‘You’ll come back;  we’ll both come back.’

He was wearing an open-necked shirt, the sleeves rolled up above the elbows  and she found herself reaching for the buttons, unfastening them one by one.  Her hands, resting on the  hot skin of his chest,  encountered a rough, newly healed scar.  She touched it gently and leaning forward, kissed it.  ‘My poor  darling.  I had hoped it was bad enough to keep you here.  Safe.’

 He shook his head ruefully.  ‘Let’s not talk about it.  Let’s make the most of the time we’ve got.’

As he drew her to him she remembered thinking with some distant part of her brain, ‘how strange.  I still don’t know his name,’ before she surrendered to his urgent kisses, pushing his shirt back from his shoulders, helping him undo the leather belt and the  buttons of his trousers, slipping down the straps of her own brief sundress, until they were lying together naked on the grass.  Once or twice she seemed to glimpse a huge tree overshadowing them, sensed its shade, its privacy, then she was lost in the ecstasy  of their love making.  When at last they lay exhausted side by side she looked up into it s spreading branches with a long contented sigh and realised she was smiling.  Her body felt heavy and unutterably content.


The voice seemed to come from hundreds of miles away.

‘Helen, darling?’

She turned her head  lazily towards the man beside her.  Her hand touched the closed pages of her book, lying on the grass.

‘Helen! For goodness sake!’

It was Tim’s voice she could hear, and then the children’s, giggling.  ‘Mummy’s got no clothes on!’ It was Felix.  She heard the rush of feet.

‘Mummy, you’re getting burned.’ It was Polly, solicitous, a little embarrassed, gathering up Helen’s dress and pushing it at her  ‘The man in the next chalet could see you!’

Grabbing the dress, Helen pulled it over her head. She didn’t remember taking it off.  She must have been sunbathing,  taking the opportunity in the solitary little garden for an all over tan.  She glanced at Tim and shrugged.,  but Tim was staring at her strangely.  He looked angry.  She looked back towards the hedge,  and suddenly she  remembered.  The man in the next chalet, Polly had said.  The man to whom she had been making passionate love only minutes before.  Was he still there?  Had Tim seen him? Or had the whole thing been a dream?

The hedge looked solid from here.  There was no possibility of someone  seeing into the garden from the windows of the single storey building next door, nor of coming through the hedge without  doing both themselves and the hedge considerable damage.

‘You said there was a man?’ Helen pushed the hair back from her face.  She frowned at her daughter.  ‘What man?  No one can see me from here.’  She was agitated.  Uneasy.

‘The man next door.  I saw him walking away from the gate.’ She pointed at the hedge.

‘There’s no one there, Pol,’ Tim said sternly.  ‘Your mum was asleep.  No one could see her.  I was just worried she would be sunburnt, lying spread out like that.’ He held Helen’s gaze for a moment and she saw the puzzled hurt in his face.

Polly’s making it up.’ Felix could sense that something was wrong.  He pinched his sister’s arm.  ‘There’s no gate there.’

‘Well, I saw him!’ Polly stamped her foot, rubbing furiously at the spot her brother’s small fingers had so expertly tweaked. ‘He was  getting dressed; he put on a white shirt and brown trousers and he had blond hair like mine!’ She was by far the fairest of the three children and Helen found herself staring at her daughter.  No, the little girl was wrong.  He had been fairer than Polly.  Much fairer.

 ‘Who was he?’ It wasn’t until the children were in bed that evening and the dishes washed and put away that Tim broke his tight-lipped silence.

‘There wasn’t anyone, Tim.’ She had pulled a cotton shirt on over her dress as the sea breeze, coming in through the window, turned cooler.

‘Don’t give me that!’ Tim’s voice was hard.  ‘If you could have seen yourself lying there, your legs apart; it was disgusting.  You reeked of sex!’

She shook her head.  ‘Tim! It’s not true.  There was no one there.  I swear it.’

‘So, Polly was lying?’

‘She  has a good imagination, Tim. You know there’s no gate.  How could there have been anyone there?’

But Polly had described him.

‘It was  so hot and peaceful in the garden I thought I could sun bathe. What’s so wrong with that?’ Suddenly she was indignant.  ‘No one could see me!  If I hadn’t fallen asleep I would have made sure I was dressed before you all came back . Not that it matters.  The kids have seen  me with no clothes on before – ’  They both wandered round the house at home nude in front of the children from time to time.  They had discussed it and decided that probably it was the right thing to do – to demonstrate modesty, but no shame in the human body.

‘You had love bites on your neck, Helen.’ His voice was so cold she felt herself shiver.  ‘I didn’t put them there.’

For a moment she stared at him in silence, then she walked over to  stand  in front of the mirror which hung over the sideboard. Pushing back the shirt she lifted her hair  off her neck and stared at herself in the glass.  The two flaring red marks were obvious and unmistakable.


 Charles Douglas.

The name came to her suddenly out of nowhere.

 ‘He was going back to the front,’ she said, frowning, puzzled by her own sudden unexpected remembrance. ‘It was our last meeting.  He was killed three weeks later.  On the Somme.’ She turned back to Tim.  ‘I remember now.  He was so young.  So handsome.’ She shook her head, dazed, aware of the anger and incomprehension on her husband’s face.  ‘It was a dream, Tim.  I was dreaming about him.  It wasn’t real.’

But the marks on her neck were real.  Silently she turned back to the mirror and raised her fingers to touch them.  They felt bruised.  Painful.

‘And you dreamt those into being I suppose.’ He was still angry.

‘I suppose I must have.’ She shrugged.  ‘Tim, please.  You know there’s no one else.  I love you!’

‘I thought so.’ The hurt in his voice was palpable.

But she had known she was cheating on him when she had turned to Charles and unbuttoned his shirt even as Charles had known he was cheating on his own wife and children.

She sat down, realising suddenly that she was shaking.  ‘It was so real.’ She shouldn’t talk about it.  She shouldn’t say any more, but suddenly she couldn’t stop herself.  ‘He was so frightened.  So lonely.  He knew he was going to die.  They must have all known they were going to die.  He was living on borrowed time and his wife didn’t understand him.  She was  a stupid, vain woman, who was only interested in herself and her own imagined ills.  She wasn’t there for him, Tim, when he needed her.  When she saw the terrible scars on his body she shuddered and turned away.’

How did she know all this?

Tim was staring at her.  His face was white.  He said nothing as she went on, ‘There was no one there for him.  That was why he came.  Just to talk. Just to describe a little of what it was like; to try and defuse some of his nightmares. It was so harmless at first.  He was little more than a boy and he loved his Mary so much, but she was lonely too.  They married just before he was posted overseas and when he left she was pregnant.  She didn’t see him for more than a year. He came back on leave to a stranger with a young baby.  When he came back again a year later on a stretcher she had another child.  That one wasn’t his.  She said it was his fault.  She stormed and raged at him and tried to justify herself.  What was he to do?’

‘That seems to have been some dream!’ Tim said dryly as she lapsed into silence. ‘So, exactly where do you fit in?’

Helen shrugged.  ‘I was the other side of the hedge.’

‘A neighbour?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘And you comforted him.’

She looked away.  ‘So it would appear.’

‘And he left you radiant.  Sated. Covered in love bites.’ He moved towards the door.

‘Tim, please.  You have to believe me – ’

But he had gone. She heard him open the door, pull it closed behind him and walk away down the quiet road towards the sea.

She sat still for a long time, staring out of the  window.  Slowly it grew dark.  She didn’t bother to turn on the lights, aware that the tears had long since dried on her face.  It was all so stupid. A dream.  How could they quarrel like this over a dream? Then she touched the bruises on her neck again and she sighed.  They were not part of a dream.

There was no sign of Tim. Where had he gone? She pictured him walking miserably on the beach, alone in the dark and she ached to follow him, comfort him, explain.  But how could she when she couldn’t explain it herself?

 It was nearly midnight when, still sleepless, she pushed open the door and stepped out into the garden.  The moon had risen , bathing everything in silvery light.  Faintly she thought she could hear the gentle shush of the sea on the sand in the distance. She could smell the sharp salt of it over the soft sweetness of the honeysuckle and roses in the flowerbeds near her. The grass was wet with dew as she stepped down off the step.  She could see the china gleam of her mug lying where she had left it .  No one had thought to pick it up. Or her book, which was lying open, the pages damp and wrinkled.

Quietly she walked towards the hedge.  The gate was there as she had known it would be.  She put her hand out to the cold wood and pushing it open she stepped through.  The house across the lawn was large, imposing in the moonlight.  A cedar tree stood in the centre of the lawn, throwing stark black shadows slanting over the grass.  The silence was intense.  She could no longer hear the sea.

She walked slowly towards the house, staring up at the windows.  They all looked strangely blank, blinds shutting out the moonlight in every one.  Beyond the house  more hedges bordered a deserted country lane.  There was no sign of the row of little holiday homes which in her world lined the road to the sea.  She turned round in sudden fear, looking for the gate through which she had come.  It was there, standing open as she had left it.  Beyond it she could see the huge oak tree under which she and Charles had lain.  There was no chalet there now. No cherry tree.  No washing line with small swimming costumes and brightly coloured towels hanging where she had forgotten to take them in.

And suddenly she was crying.  Crying for her dead lover, buried so long ago somewhere in the mud of northern France and for her husband walking in lonely misery on the beach in the moonlight and for her children who had gone to bed puzzled and unhappy at the sudden atmosphere between their parents on what had up till then been a holiday of total happiness.

Almost as though the thought had conjured her out of the night Helen was aware suddenly of a small girl walking towards her across the grass.

‘Don’t be sad, Mummy.’ Polly slipped a small warm hand into her cold one.  ‘Is it that house that makes you sad?’ The little face looked up at hers earnestly.  ‘I don’t like it.  The windows can’t see.’

So, Polly was aware of it too, with its blinds and its aura of unhappiness.

‘Someone has drawn the blinds, darling.  That is why the windows can’t see. It is a sad  house because someone has died.’

‘The man I saw kissing you?’

Dear God!  What else has she seen.

‘He was an old friend, darling.  From long ago.’

‘Why did he die?’

Helen frowned. Her mind was wheeling between times and she didn’t know how to answer.  ‘He lived a long time ago, Polly, and he had to go to fight in the war.’

‘So he’s a ghost.’ The child was still staring up at her trustingly.

‘I supposed he is. Yes.  At first I thought he must be a dream, but if you saw him too then he can’t be.’ Helen glanced  back over Polly’s head towards the neighbouring garden and suddenly it was as it had been; the large house was gone.  The great trees had vanished. In their place the line of small holiday bungalows with defining hedges and fences once more stretched away in the moonlight.

‘That’s better.’ Polly sounded more confident suddenly.  ‘It’s all gone back to normal now.  Silly dream.’ She reached out for Helen’s hand again.  ‘I’ll tell Daddy and he won’t be cross any more.’

‘You think so?’ Helen smiled sadly.  ‘I hope you’re right, darling.’ She glanced back over her shoulder in spite of herself.  The garden was as it should be still.

When they walked back into the house Tim was standing just inside  the front door.  He appeared to be lost in thought.

‘Tim?’ Helen went over to him.  Hesitantly she put her hand on his arm.

He frowned.   ‘Where have you been?’

‘In the garden, Daddy.’ It was Polly who answered.  She threw her arms around her father’s waist.  ‘I saw the dream house where the ghost lived.  It looked all strange in the moonlight.  The man mummy saw is dead.  He’s gone now.  He was a ghost!’

‘A - .’   Tim stared at Helen.

‘I seem to have got mixed up in someone else’s tragedy, Tim; someone else’s life, long, long ago.  You have to believe me  at least about that one thing.  It wasn’t real.’

For a  long moment they stared at each other in silence, the little girl looking anxiously up first at one then the other.

‘We’re never going to understand what happened, Tim. It was a slip in time.’

Tim sighed.  ‘I suppose I’m going to have to believe you.’ He shrugged.  ‘Largely because I can’t bear the alternatives.’ He walked past her into the room and sat down.  Putting his elbows on his knees he ran his fingers through his hair.  ‘As I walked up and down that beach I realised I couldn’t live without you.  You mean everything to me.’

Helen smiled uncertainly.  Kneeling in front of him she reached up and put her arms around his neck.  As she kissed him  Polly jumped  onto the sofa next to him and burrowed between them into the shelter of their arms.

Outside in the moonlight Charles stood on the lawn staring towards the lighted windows of the bungalow unseeing.  In his own time he was standing under a spreading tree in the dark.  Behind him the house of his dreams lay shuttered and empty.  His wife and the children had gone.  Only one person had ever made him feel loved and happy and in his cold,  lost loneliness he drifted across the grass looking for her, the warm gentle kind woman he had found lying in the sunlight under the tree. He was  resolved, if necessary to search forever until he found her again.

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