Real French Lavender was the winning entry in our second short story competition* in 2017.
*Run under our former name of Bird’s Nest Books
Real French Lavender
by Jon Clynch
Madelaine Avery gazed through the attic room window at the sun-baked front garden.
A blackbird, wings fanned downwards, beak gaping, basked in the glare. The air was dry, the lawn parched and flowers wilted in their beds, yearning for rain. How many days had she spent like this?
Watching, waiting for his promised return. She never doubted him, ever. He said he would return, and return he would. One day. She imagined once again his cheeky, lopsided smile. Black ‘raven’s wing’ hair, uniform impossibly clean and sharp as he waved, jumping onto the truck that had cruelly driven off, leaving her heart fractured. She’d waited for his homecoming ever since.
His last letter said he would be home soon. In her mind she saw it; he’d be standing outside the low, wrought iron gate, waving madly, face beaming, cigarette jutting from the side of his mouth. He’d leap the gate impetuously, jog up the gravel path towards the house. She would wave, then sprint down the staircase to beat him to the front door, flinging it wide to embrace him in a flood of tears, laughter and overwhelming joy. Not today, but soon, she sighed.
Her mother and father hadn’t been too keen on the young man. “Not serious-minded enough, that fellow!” her father had admonished, emphasising his point by rapping his pipe on the table. “Mind you, couple of months on the front line’ll knock some sense into him!” Her mother just worried. It’s what she did best. It wasn’t that she had any real concerns about James; she would have fussed over whomever Madelaine had brought home. “Is his family respectable enough, Maddie?” she enquired, with an expression of concern. “Cynthia at number thirty said that his mother cleans down the dance hall and at some of the “big houses” on the other side of town. Do you really want a charwoman as a mother in law?”
“Oh, mother, you are such a snob at times!” Madelaine had protested.
Whatever his background, James was a gentleman. They would marry as soon as they could when he was back, once this stupid war was over. She had made him promise to bring her some real French lavender to put in her wedding bouquet. She loved lavender, but had a special liking for the French variety. Oddly, she couldn’t say why, but it meant a lot to her. Maybe it was something to do with her ancestry, as her grandmother had told her one day that the name Avery was French in origin, but Madelaine wasn’t sure if that was the reason. Anyway, she liked it and that was good enough for James – he would bring her some!
She had lost count of the days. Each one rolled into the next and still she was disappointed, yet hopeful. Each passing season brought fresh changes to the garden. The trees were so big now. Days had rolled on into weeks, then months and years. Her heart was heavy with missing her love, especially as no word came. But she would never give up hope! It could be today.
A movement at the gate made her heart leap, only to be crushed again. A smartly dressed man, but not James. Official looking, though, a box tucked under his arm. Her heart raced again, in fear this time. Please don’t be bringing bad news! Not like before…but they were wrong…he isn’t dead, he is coming home!
She heard droning voices below, in the depths of the house, but she did not dare investigate. She waited in dread.
Breathless, she stood by the window, tears streaking her cheek. Sniffing back tears, she was suddenly aware of an aroma. Lavender! Wheeling round in a blaze of hope and confusion she saw him, standing there, arms outstretched…clutching a spray of real French lavender.
“James! b…but, how? When did…?” She struggled for the words, overcome with emotion.
His smile broadened to a huge grin “Does it matter? I’m here, and, look, I got it, just as I promised!” waving the sweet smelling plant.
All questions forgotten, she threw herself into his arms and they hugged, tears soaking his uniform.
The world faded around them, nothing was as important as this moment. At last, they were together….
The man from the MoD made his goodbyes. David Rosetti glanced at his wife, Alice.
“Well, that’s a tragic tale!” He studied the box the man had left with them. It contained a bundle of faded letters and a cigarette case. The messages were between Madelaine Avery and James Hastings, written during World War II. They were clearly in love, James promising to come home and marry his sweetheart. The case had been a gift from ‘Maddie’ to her future husband and was worn smooth by a thumb that had obviously treasured the object.
The objects had been unearthed during an archaeological dig at Caen in France, sealed in a tin, alongside human remains. The latter were to be interred at a military cemetery, but it was thought best that the personal effects should be returned home. Sadly, no living relatives of James could be traced, so the MoD used the address on the letters in the hope that they would find a home for the items. David and Alice willingly took them, especially as Alice was distantly related to Madeleine. She had heard that the poor lady had lived here alone after her parents passed away. She had taken news of her fiancé’s death badly, refusing to accept it. Almost a recluse, she confined herself to the attic room until she herself passed away and was discovered gazing out of the attic window as if watching for someone.
David frowned, “There’s that noise again from the attic! I’ll go check. I’m sure there’s rats or something.”
He returned several minutes later, looking perplexed.
“Anything?” enquired Alice.
“No….no sign of rats. But, funny thing, there’s an overpowering scent of lavender…”