Thank you for reading The Light Over London! Please enjoy this bonus look at the Louise’s life after the war.
Haybourne, Cornwall, April 1946
The wind lifted Louise’s hair as she wrapped the wool cardigan a little closer around her. It still felt strange being in civilian clothes. She’d relied on a uniform for nearly five years, and even with the restrictions of clothing rationing the choices seemed daunting.
When she’d arrived in Haybourne a month ago, she’d let Kate choose her clothes for her. Her cousin had dressed her up like a doll, just as she used to when the most complicated worry in both of their lives was whether it would rain on the way to a dance. Now Kate, a mother with another baby on the way, bustled around her, clucking and fretting that Louise wasn’t more excited to once again be able to wear skirts and shirts, dresses and shoes that weren't khaki.
Louise had stayed in the ATS as long as they would have her. Once her Ack Ack unit was disbanded after VE Day, she’d put in a transfer and been sent to Germany to the truck depots. A colonel for three years at that point, she’d coordinated the women who got behind the wheel to help the Allied forces deconstruct the war that had been a part of all of their lives for almost six years. It had been sobering seeing the destruction everywhere around her, and the rumors that had circulated for years about horrible camps where unspeakable, inhumane things were done to people became reality as the troops marched through.
It was a time of grueling, hard work, made even more challenging by the many servicewomen who wanted nothing more than to wait for their number to be called up so they might be demobbed and returned to the lives they’d put on hold all those years ago. Louise was the exception. She wanted to stay. The ATS had been her life for so long. It had been the place where she’d learned of love and lost, friendship and betrayal. To return to her life before the war was unthinkable.
She was lonely, separated from her Gunner Girls, but their regular letters kept her busy.
Vera’s mother had expected her to return to the family fold and continue the charitable work that Garson women did while waiting for a husband. Instead, Vera had taken the ATS wages she’d saved for nearly five years and moved out of the house. She had a job as the assistant to an architect and was studying to prepare for classes in the engineering program at Imperial College London.
Charlie hadn't chosen journalism after all, instead talking her way into a job at an advertising agency. She'd write Louise long letters with pithy stories about martini lunches and the men who took her out dancing in London, making her laugh more than she had since B Section had broken up.
Nigella’s letters came covered with stamps, having moved to Illinois to follow the American GI she’d married as soon as she’d been demobbed. She was expecting a baby.
Lizzie and Williams had had their wartime fling to the surprise of no one. It had ended when Captain Jones found out. It had surprised them all when Williams had been the one removed from the unit, Lizzie being deemed too valuable to sacrifice. Now she was back home, helping her mother run the boarding house in Newcastle where she’d grown up.
Mary had been the dark horse, shocking them all when, after a pint or two during the VE Day celebrations, she announced that she was going to marry her childhood sweetheart, a man none of them had ever heard about. The pair had been engaged the entire war, but Mary had never once let on, content to sit and watch as the constantly fluctuating drama of the other girls’ lives unfolded. Louise had requested and been granted leave to attend the ceremony.
“And now there’s only me,” asked Louise into the wind.
“Are you talking to yourself again?” Kate asked from behind her.
She looked over her shoulder, spotting her cousin perched onto of a rocky outcrop, her pregnant belly standing proud against the whipping wind. “Don’t fall. If you do, Howard will never forgive me.”
Kate snorted, but her eyes warmed at the sound of her husband’s name. “He’s being the worst kind of mother hen right now.”
“That’s because you’re due to have his child in two months.”
She moved the oversized bag she’d carried with her from the house to make room for Kate.
Her cousin, groaning with effort, eased down to the grass. “This is his second. We’ve been through this before.”
“Never while he’s been around,” she said with a smile.
Kate had married Howard Mathers on a sunny June day in 1944, immediately falling pregnant and having to go “para 11." Discharged, she’d come back to Cornwall, moving into her parents’ house until she and Howard had saved enough to buy this cottage on the end of Louise’s old road. Baby Margaret had been born in the winter of 1945, a wartime baby. This new child would be born into peace.
Margaret had been the unexpected delight of coming back to Cornwall and moving into Kate and Howard’s home. It had been the logical place for Louise to come when the ATS had finally told her they no longer had any need for her. Her relationship with her mother had gone from distant to positively glacial, and no matter what her father said her mother made it clear Louise not welcome home. Not that she wanted to return and put up with her mother’s little barbs every day about Paul and the opportunity she’d thrown away with Gary, newly married to a French girl he’d met while serving in Europe. It had been uncomfortable the few times Louise saw her mother in the village, but there was nothing to be done for it. So long as she saw her father for lunch once a week, she was content.
“Are you alright?” Kate asked.
Louise squinted out to the ocean. “Do you ever think about leaving again?”
Kate laughed. “I had my fill of traveling with the ATS. I’ve seen Greek countryside and Egyptian pyramids. I’ve been in sand storms, ridden on camels, drunk uzo, and danced in nightclubs. My time of adventure is done. But,” Kate cocked her head to one side, “I don’t think yours is.”
“No,” said Louise.
“What will you do next?”
Louise smiled. “Ready to be rid of me?”
Kate bumped her with her elbow. “You know that we’d like you to stay as long as you want, but you don’t want that. Haybourne’s never really been home for you. It was more a place where you were stuck.”
“I’ve been thinking about California. Los Angeles, specifically.”
“The postcard,” said Kate.
“My orange grove, although a few of the American GIs I met told me not to expect orange groves everywhere any longer. It’s freeways and concrete and billboards.”
“But also beaches and palm trees and sunshine,” said Kate. “Well, if you had to choose its opposite, I suppose California is about as different from Haybourne as they come. What will you do there?”
A tiny smile touched Louise’s lips as she thought of the thin air mail envelope and letter that was tucked away in her kit bag in her bedroom. It was from a university welcoming her as a member of the class of 1951. She’d told no one of it yet, wanting to keep it to herself for just a little while longer.
“I’m sure I’ll figure something out,” she said.
“You always were the more adventurous of the two of us,” said Kate.
She laughed. “That’s ridiculous. I spent most of our childhood terrified and not knowing why.”
“But you were the one who ran away. I never would’ve joined up if you hadn’t.” Kate held up a hand. “Yes, I know we would’ve both had to serve anyway when conscription came into play, but you made the choice long before that.”
“I suppose I never thought of it that way. I just thought the ATS was a way to escape here,” she said.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the waves crash on the beach below.
“Do you ever think about him?” Kate asked.
Louise didn’t have to ask who he was. Not long after she’d found out about Paul’s betrayal, Louise had written her cousin a long letter with every detail. She’d left nothing out, embarrassed when she thought of what the censors would read but determined to tell everything. Kate, who had been up for four days of leave, had come to London as soon as she was able. Louise had broken in front of her in a way she couldn’t in front of the gunner girls, letting all of the vulnerability and self-pity and anger she’d bottled up out.
It had taken months before she’d gone a day without thinking of Paul. Even then, it ached low in her chest, a horrible mixture of grief and anger that she couldn’t seem to reconcile. But time diminished the ache. Time made her stronger. And with time she came to appreciate what her life was: independent and of her own making.
“I think about Paul all of the time,” said Louise, “but he’s a memory, not a presence if that makes sense.”
“It does,” said Kate.
She hesitated. “Sometime I think he really did love me. Maybe he loved all of us in his way.”
“Do you know what happened to his first wife?” Kate asked.
Louise forced herself not to look at the bag that contained a box with a biscuit tin crammed full of all of the artifacts of her relationship with Paul. She’d carried them around with her throughout the entire war. She’d never read the diary again, but from time to time, she would take out the locket he’d given her and look at his picture to test herself and see if there was any reaction. The last three time she’d done it, she’d felt nothing other than a deep, unmovable pity for herself, Lenora, and the other nameless women he’d duped. That was how she’d known it was time.
“I’ve written to Lenora a few times over the years,” she said. “I felt like I had to. The last time I heard from her, she’d married a naval officer. He’d been honorably discharged after being hit by a fighter’s bullet on the deck of his ship. They’re living in Barlow in Gloucestershire now.”
“Do you think she’s happy?” Kate asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t really know. Lenora doesn’t strike me as the kind of women who shows a great deal of emotion.”
“Well, I should get back to the house or Howard will send the search teams out for me. Are you coming with?” Kate asked.
Louise scrambled up and pulled her cousin up to standing. “There’s something I have to take care of first. I’ll be home in a little bit.”
Hitching her bag up on her shoulder, she picked her way back down to the road. It was a short walk to the post office, one she’d done countless times before. Only, with the box slapping gently against the side of her thigh, she knew that this time was different.
The bell jangled over the post office door, and Louise’s father, who was manning the counter to give Miss Graham a chance to have a cup of tea, looked up from a stack of papers he was working on.
“Lou Lou!” he said with delight.
A pang shot through her heart at the thought that she would soon be leaving him again, but she knew he would be happy for her when she told him why.
“Is this a social visit or a matter of business?” he asked.
“Business, but also a good chance to see you,” she said, leaning over the counter to kiss him on the cheek.
“Then let’s conduct our business first and when Miss Graham comes back in five minutes we can have a cup of tea together.” He pushed aside his papers and drew out his accounts book. “Now, what can I do for you?”
She worked the box she’d already packed out of her bag and placed it on the counter. It looks so innocuous wrapped in its brown paper, but she knew it was much more than that. She’d placed a note inside, addressed to Lenora. It had taken her a half dozen attempts to get the words right, and by the end she’d memorized it.
I am sorry to ask this of you, but you once told me that if I needed anything I should contact you. That time has come.
I have included in this box a tin filled with some artifacts of Paul and my time together. I can’t bring myself to throw them all away or burn them, but I can’t move on when I still have these things with me. The most painful of these is a diary I started before we met and kept until the day after you and I met. I warn you of this in case, in your curiosity, you find yourself wanting to read it.
I realize the burden I’m placing upon you in asking you to take on these things. Please know that I mean you no harm. It’s only from a desire to start over again as you have with your new life.
I wish you all the happiness in your new marriage, and I hope that one day we may both find peace.
Louise watched as her father took the parcel and weighed it on the scale.
“Mrs. Lenora Robinson, the Old Vicarage, Barlow,” he read out. “Is that right?”
“ATS friend?” he asked cheerfully, licking and sticking stamps to the paper.
“Something like that.”
“It’s nice that you keep in touch,” said her father.
Miss Graham came through the office door, smiling shyly at Louise.
“Now, shall we have that tea?” her father asked.
“Yes, I think we should,” she said.
He dropped the parcel in a canvas bin and opened the flap in the counter to let her through. Louise glanced at the package as she walked by and felt something she’d been carrying around for a long time lift from her shoulders.