This story is by A. Marieve Monnen and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jenna set down the tray, threw open the heavy curtains, and raised Mary Elizabeth’s window just enough to admit the joyous— or was it belligerent?—bird song.
“It’s time, Ma’am. I’ve drawn your morning bath and set the temperature to your liking. I advise a spot of tea, and a few biscuits to keep up your strength as you bathe. By the time you finish, a proper breakfast will be ready: fresh fruit, French toast, and eggs any way you’d like them.”
“Have the lilies come?”
“Lilies?” Jenna paused, forehead wrinkled in thought.
“You know, the golden trumpets…”
“Ah! The daffodils. Not yet, Ma’am. But the florist is delivering them in person. Never fear; they’ll be perfect.”
“What are we doing with my hair?”
“Your full coronet, upswept at the back, with silver combs.”
“Makeup? Nothing too bold, but not dowdy, I hope.”
“Exactly as you wish, Ma’am. Natural color for your lips, a bit more for cheeks, and a demure blue sweep below each brow to accentuate your eyes.”
“Gloves to hide these—does anyone here even wear gloves these days?”
“Finest Venetian lace, Ma’am. Pale blue, and fingerless for the occasion.”
“Of course. Proper, elegant might I say?”
“Indeed, Ma’am. Elegant indeed.”
“And the dress? It came yesterday, didn’t it, or was I dreaming that?”
“The fitting went like a dream—so few alterations necessary. The seamstress had it ready before the day ended. It’s a vision of palest blue and ivory. In it, you took our breaths away.”
“And the cake—there will be cake won’t there? But how will we fit all the candles?”
“Not to worry, Ma’am, it’s five layers with buttercream frosting and royal icing in filigree. There will be plenty of room.”
Elsewhere on the grounds
“Marcus! Can you help me with this infernal cufflink?”
“Yes, Sir; very good, Sir,” said a low voice from the next room.
“And this cummerbund’s a two-handed contraption. When did these come back into style?”
Marcus approached, a freshly pressed cravat in one hand and a pair of highly polished, old-fashioned dancing slippers dangling from two fingers of the other.
“1924, patented by an American, though the accessory existed in Persian times. 19…50’s, I’d say, was its heyday; but it’s all the rage for formal occasions again, ” Marcus offered. He circled to buckle the silks from behind and adjust the fit. “Pleats up…”
“Pleats up to catch the crumbs, Sir; there WILL be cake.”
Their voices joined in hearty laughter.
“The light is fading, Marcus. How much time now?”
“I’d estimate two hours until sunset, Sir.”
“So, an hour and a half to get ready; ten minutes to make the trip.”
“More than reasonable, Sir.”
“I can’t be late again.”
“No, Sir, that would not do.”
Two hours later in the Walled Garden, Ellery Rheims Staunton, OM, DL and naval war hero under the Admiral of the Fleet, stood to welcome the radiant occupant of a wheeled chair decorated with daffodils as Mary Elizabeth Bowers—American nurse, British-trained midwife and beloved author of children’s books on two continents—made her way to his side.
More than seventy years earlier, an awkward, bookish lad and his best friend had signed on the line to comply, on their own terms, with the Military Service Act of 1916. Caught up in the fervor to serve King and Country, neither had his distinguished parents’ blessing, but they were having a last bit of nervous fun in a London dance hall.
An attractive, leggy American sat brooding over a cider and holding back tears. She folded and creased the small sheet of paper in front of her on the slick surface of the bar. Then she spread it out and read it again as if she expected a different message to appear. His buddy wasn’t interested, but Ellery couldn’t look away.
Through slightly tipsy conversation (drink flowed freely and indiscriminately at these places on such an evening), he learned that she and he shared a birthday.
“I was born one minute before midnight the day Mother went into labor, so I always wait until sunset to celebrate,” she told him.
He confessed to her his reluctance to enlist in the British Army infantry as his forebears were all Royal Navy men.
“We’ll be taking ship for Denmark at dawn and from there to the HMS Warspite. She’s a brand new dreadnought battleship…”
The American, Ellery learned, was engaged to be married but had learned that morning, from the telegram, that her childhood sweetheart was bringing home a war bride from Italy.
“Didn’t his promise mean anything?” she wailed, her intensely blue eyes near to overflowing. He reached for his handkerchief and felt an odd sense of power and fierce protectiveness when she accepted what he could provide.
There was no right or wrong that winter night together; only a longing to belong to someone on the eve of monstrous uncertainty.
Over a late supper, they promised to meet again when the war ended: on their birthday at sunset, under the clock that graced the entrance of the dance hall building.
He wrote to her and she answered at length; she had always taken pleasure in writing. A few months later, however, Mary Elizabeth wept when two, then three of her letters to Ellery were returned unopened. She decided to stay on in England to train as a midwife, traveling wherever she was most needed.
When the war ended, she stood under the clock on that fateful spring afternoon, in an anxious mixture of hope and despair. He did not meet her there.
Mary Elizabeth returned to the States, but her heart remained in England. On the advice of her brother, she made some wise investments and was soon independently wealthy. The years sped by, but she never married, finding more satisfaction in penning her fanciful tales for young readers.
On a working vacation in Scarborough, she’d put out the word discreetly that she was looking for a traveling companion, and Jenna Dutton had applied. She was warm but professional, and an answer to prayer. Having aged out of a fostering family and done whatever odd jobs she could to keep herself fed, Jenna was grateful for the steady income and the security of the position. She returned to the States with Mary Elizabeth as her personal secretary and assistant.
Time passed, as it insists on doing, and with it came the usual losses. Mary Elizabeth could no longer sit on the floor with the children for her book readings. Even standing at the lectern for more than a few minutes at a time was out of the question. Though she longed to return to England, travel had become a complicated chore.
On the final morning of what she thought of as her “last holiday”, Mary Elizabeth entered Coventry Station and purchased two bus tickets for London. From the lower level of a double-decker bus, she pointed out the clock on a building converted to apartment housing and revealed to Jenna the rest of the wartime story.
On a lark, they signed up for a tour of the nearby Old Soldier’s Home. The interior was unfamiliar but clean and somehow comforting. When Jenna asked at reception about an Ellery Staunton, the young clerk’s answer surprised them both.
“The barrister is with the manager touring the premises, but I expect them both back shortly.”
Ellery’s eyes brightened at the sight of Mary Elizabeth then softened as he took in their circumstances. Mary Elizabeth, not believing her eyes, adjusted her spectacles then smiled up at him and extended her hand. He grasped it gently, lifting it to his lips, then tearfully confessed he had watched the entrance and the clock, from dawn until dusk that day. He had seen her there.
Having lost his arm in the war, he’d felt unworthy of her. It broke his heart to see her walk away; but surely, he reasoned, she’d be better off without him.
He’d turned his energies to the study of law and become a much sought-after barrister for veteran’s rights. The manager hastened to add that Ellery’s influence on the local MP had led to the establishment of training programs, activity centers, and shared housing for war veterans.
The rest of that conversation, and the dinner for three afterward, had led them back into each other’s lives and to the events of this day.
He was 94 and she was, technically, still 93.
Gazing into each other’s eyes, it took some effort to place oversized rings on gnarled fingers, but they both knew when their long-awaited wedding kiss came to its end:
There was just enough time left to live happily ever after.