Most daughters love their mother, but I hated mine.  When she died, aged only 67, killed by a lifetime puffing away on fags, it was a great relief.  My husband, Paul, was convinced I’d be stricken with remorse or guilt, but I was cock-a-hoop.  No more dutiful monthly visits.  No more sitting there wondering how an hour could pass so slowly.  No more pretending not to notice the faint pong of urine.  No more small talk and suppressing the urge to rise to her snide remarks.  No more listening to her grumbling about the callousness of the nursing home staff.  Bliss.

I behaved myself at her funeral, looking suitably sombre, but inside I was saying yippee!   Apart, that is, from feeling frustrated by some unfinished business.

My mother’s name was Mabel.  When she could no longer breathe without the aid of an oxygen cylinder on a purpose-built trolley, we insisted that she’d have to go into a nursing home.  We had to sell her house to raise money to pay the fees.  She was totally against the sale, harbouring the delusion that she’d recover sufficiently to be able to return to independent living.

Paul found the suitcase in the loft when we were clearing Mabel’s house. Looking in the loft had been an afterthought.  We’d been visiting the house for years but the loft had never been mentioned.  The garden shed, the garage, the tumbledown conservatory had all, from time to time, featured in conversations, but the loft − never.

It only occurred to me that we should check the loft after the man in a white van had cleared the house of all its furniture.  He gave us £350 for the lot and drove away with a grin on his face.  We’d already filled our Volvo to the roof with nick-knacks: Toby jugs and vases from various mantelpieces, silver candle sticks and a bone china tea set from the dresser in the dining room, cut glass decanters from the corner cupboard in the sitting room, some silver photo frames from occasional tables, Mabel’s dressing table set from her bedroom, family photo albums from the games cupboard, books, a walking stick with a carved bone handle, and the silver cigarette case given to my stepfather as a retirement present.

Paul and I wandered round the empty house, feeling like vandals, remembering how the rooms had looked before they were stripped bare.

‘Should we check the loft?’ I asked, looking at the hatch high up in the landing ceiling.

‘Nothing to stand on, I can’t reach it,’ said Paul. ‘We’d need a step ladder.’

‘The next door neighbours are sure to have one,’ I suggested. So, rather reluctantly, Paul went to ask if we might borrow a step ladder.

Mabel’s loft was unremarkable – dark and dusty, the only light provided by a single low watt bulb.  Paul could make out some cardboard boxes and bundles of unused insulation fibre in the gloom.  One box turned out to be full of abandoned curtains, another, pairs of old shoes.  Some faded piano music lay between the joists and, over by the cold water tank, Paul found a small brown suitcase covered in dust.

‘Hey, Jen, better check this out,’ said Paul handing the case down to me through the open hatch.  I sneezed and tried the rusty catches.  They wouldn’t budge.‘I can’t open it,’ I called up.  ‘We’ll take it home with the rest of the stuff.’

Only after I had married Paul and I had children of my own was I able to admit that I hated my mother.  She was a selfish, egotistical witch!  Her first husband, my father, had been killed in the last few weeks of WW2.  I was only a toddler and have no memory of him.  A couple of years later my mother remarried. I used to wonder what would happen if my father came back and found my mother with another man.  Whenever I asked about my real father my mother would burst into tears and tell me I was cruel to upset her.

After my mother married again, I was sent away to a boarding school.  I was only seven. The school was run by nuns who ran a strict regime.  I was very unhappy and begged my mother to take me away.  I once climbed a large tree in the grounds and sat up there all day refusing to come down.  On another occasion I ran away but had nowhere to go so the police found me wandering aimlessly around the country lanes and took me back.  Eventually I was expelled only to be sent to another boarding school where the music teacher used to abuse me during piano lessons.  I once made the mistake of telling my mother what was happening.  She was sitting at her dressing table putting on her makeup. She lit a cigarette and said, ‘Don’t be silly, dear.  Let’s talk about it later.’  The subject was never raised again.

My stepfather was besotted with my mother. He was a career diplomat with a succession of overseas postings.  Sometimes, during school holidays, I was flown out to join them but more often than not I stayed with my granny in Devon.  She was caring and cuddly but she worried about money and often grumbled that my parents hadn’t sent anything towards my keep.  Whenever I stayed with my parents I felt as if I was intruding. My stepfather generally treated me well but I was always conscious that he wasn’t my real father.  Once, when I was a teenager, he dropped me off at a friend’s birthday party.  I was feeling self conscious all dressed up in a pretty dress and wearing some lipstick.  As I got out of the car my step-father suddenly said, ‘You’ll never be as good looking as your mother you know.’  I was totally deflated but I knew he was right. Before she became ill, my mother had film star looks.

Paul used a small hacksaw to cut through the catches on the case.  It was full of dog-eared envelopes stacked vertically in bundles.  Each bundle was tied with ribbon and each envelope was numbered in the bottom left hand corner.  I opened the first envelope and started to read.  It was dated 4 February 1942 and written by my father from an army base on the south coast.  More letters followed − lots of them.  I sat, entranced, reading letters written by the father I never knew.  Normally I’d feel sneaky reading someone else’s letters, but not this time: I felt utterly entitled.

The first bundle of letters had been sent from various army camps in the UK.  They were followed by two years worth of airmail envelopes from India and Burma.  The letters, written on flimsy paper, with many redacted passages, described the harsh conditions endured in the jungle fighting the Japanese in Burma.  At the end of March 1945, the letters stopped abruptly to be followed by a telegram, conspicuous in its yellow envelope, reporting that my father was missing in action.  The telegram was followed by letters from the War Office confirming that my father had almost certainly been killed.  Next in the sequence was a handwritten letter from my father’s commanding officer, expressing his condolences and giving an account of what had happened.  The colonel described how my father had been leading a patrol that had been ambushed by Japanese soldiers.  After a brief gun battle, my father was seen to fall to the ground.  The rest of the patrol made it back to camp.  The next day a search party was sent out but they found no trace of my father’s body.  There was also a letter from the army padre, a Major Maurice Garnett, saying what a popular fellow my father had been and that a makeshift memorial service, held one evening at the jungle HQ, had been well attended.

I read the letters compulsively with tears rolling down my cheeks.  Paul comforted me and read the letters too. ‘Well, at least you now know what happened to your father.’Yes, but the letters are inconclusive.  They never confirm that he was definitely killed, only that he was missing in action, presumed dead.’

There were more letters. The next bundle contained passionate letters written by my stepfather, begging Mabel to marry him.  After they were married, there were letters written from various foreign embassies saying how he longed to be reunited with Mabel, with racy descriptions of what he longed to do with her, sometimes, for the avoidance of any doubt, with explicit sketches.  His letters stopped abruptly when, after fifteen years of apparent marital bliss, he went into hospital and died from complications after contracting a rare tropical disease. Then, amazingly, after a suitable interval, the love letters resumed, this time written by two different admirers, apparently unaware of each other’s existence, both imploring Mabel to marry them.

I made two decisions. The first was that, now I knew my father’s army number, I would visit the Army Museum to see if I could find out more.  The second decision was that whilst I did some investigating, I wouldn’t mention the letters to my mother.   It was hard to believe she’d forgotten about them.  She could remember the exact location of various knick-knacks, often asking us to bring in a particular vase or silver photo frame, so surely she couldn’t have forgotten about the suitcase in the loft.

They were helpful at the Army Museum but puzzled that they could trace no record of my father’s death being officially confirmed.  It was a mystery.  I continued visiting my mother feeling smug that I’d read her letters and, in a perverse way, enjoying making no mention of them.  I’d look at her thinking: you cow!  I begged you to tell me about my father. You could easily have let me read his letters years ago.  Now you can damn well wait until I’m ready to tell you I’ve found them.

Then, a few months after I’d found the letters, Mabel suddenly said, ‘Have you got a small suitcase full of letters?’

I was tempted to say, I thought you’d never bloody well ask, but I replied calmly, ‘Yes, Paul found the suitcase in the loft.  Do you want me to bring the letters in?

‘Yes, dear, that would be nice. I’d like to read them again.’

Before my next visit I retrieved the suitcase from the top of the wardrobe where I’d left it.  The case, with no latches, would no longer close so I transferred the bundles of letters into a cardboard shoe box.  They fitted snuggly.  The lining on the bottom of the empty suitcase was frayed and, tucked away inside, I found another letter.  The postmark was dated 1949 and, even though my mother had remarried two years previously, it was addressed to her using my father’s surname:  Mrs Mabel Pickard.  I opened the envelope with trembling fingers.  Why had it had been hidden? The letter was from Maurice Garnett, my father’s army padre.

Dear Mrs Pickard

I appreciate that this letter may be distressing, but I thought it right to inform you that your husband, Captain Robert Pickard, may be alive.  Repots have been received that a man fitting your husband’s description is living in a remote village in Burma.  Apparently the villagers have adopted him as one of their own but he refuses to answer any questions or to confirm his identity. When approached, he runs away and hides in the jungle.

In the meantime, the authorities are doing their best to establish his identity and you may well receive official notification of this from the War Office.

I appreciate that, having been told your husband was almost certainly killed in March 1945, news that he may have survived will be unsettling, to say the least.  Please be assured that I will do all I can to help. 

As you see, I’m now based at Chelsea Barracks and my contact details are above.  Please feel free to telephone me.  It would be good to have a chat even though, for the time being, details of your husband’s whereabouts remain far from certain.

Most sincerely

Maurice Garnett,  Major, RAChD.

Utterly flabbergasted, I read the letter again and again.  Why had my mother hidden it?  Had she contacted Garnett as he suggested?   If so, what had he been able to tell her? Had my father been identified?  Had he been repatriated to the UK?  What had become of him?  I ripped the tattered lining out of the empty case, but there were no more letters.

Paul came home from work.  ‘Jen, this is outrageous!  You’ve a perfect right to know what happened to your father. You’ll have to confront your mother and demand an explanation.’

‘I wonder,’ I said, ‘If Garnett is still alive.’

We searched online and, in Crockford’s Clerical Directory, found a Canon Maurice Garnett, retired, living in Andover in Hampshire.

‘That’s almost certainly him,’ said Paul. ‘He must be well into his eighties by now.  Why not write to him, Jen?’   I needed no encouragement.

Dear Canon Garnett

I am hoping you can help me solve a mystery. I have found a letter you wrote in 1949 to my mother, Mrs Mabel Pickard, about my father, Captain Robert Pickard, who was presumed to have been killed in action in Burma in March 1945.  In your letter, which I have only recently found, you say there were reports that Captain Pickard might have survived and be living with villagers in the Burmese jungle. 

I will quite understand if you have no memory of writing to my mother, but I am naturally curious to know whether she ever contacted you, as you kindly suggested she might, and whether you ever received any more news of my father.

Please let me know if you can help and forgive me for disturbing your retirement.  My telephone number, should you wish to phone, is 020 7973 229050.

Yours sincerely

Jennifer Smeaton

Two days later my phone rang.

‘Maurice Garnett here, Mrs Smeaton.’  He cleared his throat, his voice sounded old. ‘I was pleased to get your letter and I do remember writing to your mother all those years ago.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a reply and I’ve often wondered if she ever received it.’

‘You never heard from my mother?’

‘No, nothing I’m afraid.  I believe the War Office wrote to her too, but got no response.’

‘How extraordinary!  Did you ever learn more about what happened to my father?’

‘Unfortunately not.  He was sighted a number of times in the years after the war but he clearly wished to conceal his identity and eventually vanished and was never seen again. The villagers were questioned by the authorities, but it was all very vague.  All they’d say was that one day he packed up and left to travel further north. They presumed he’d gone to live in another village.’

‘So no one knows what became of him?’

‘I’m afraid not, Mrs Smeaton.  It was most unsatisfactory. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful.’

After the call, I sat for a long time wondering what to do next:  give my mother the shoebox full of letters and say nothing, confront her with the letter from Maurice Garnett and demand an explanation, ask if she had ever replied and, if not, why not,  ask her why she had always refused to tell me anything about my father, ask if my stepfather knew about Garnett’s letter and the rumours that my father may have survived the war.  The questions were endless.

I resolved to confront my mother and to hell with upsetting her.  I put on my coat, picked up the shoebox and took the car keys off the hook in the kitchen.  The phone rang.  I thought perhaps it might be Canon Garnett ringing back having recalled something further.

‘Mrs Smeaton, it’s the nursing home here.  I don’t want to upset you, but please come as soon as you can.  Your mother has slipped into unconsciousness and, according to your wishes, there are no plans to resuscitate her.’

I sat by her bed wondering whether, if she opened her eyes, I’d have the nerve to ask any of my questions.  Her mouth hung open and her shallow breathing petered out in the early hours of the morning.

On my mother’s bedside table, almost within her reach, was the shoebox full of love letters.      






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