26th April, 1927
My Dearest Petra,
I am writing this on a warm day in April. It’s the blossoming month, and I am looking forward to summer when you and I both can enjoy a glass of lemonade on the promenade…
I couldn’t write anymore, my fingers shook and itched uncomfortably, and the words spilled out of my pen in a scraggly, scrawling mess. It was jittery and wrong.
I dropped my pen on the pristine white tablecloth, and glanced around me. The hotel restaurant was slowly filling up with people, the murmur of their voices rising as shining cutlery clinked and domed dishes were brought through by meticulous waiters brandishing cloths.
Would I ever enjoy a glass of lemonade with Petra on the promenade again? Petra with her long curly hair, gleaming ringlets of honey dropping across her rosy face. Petra with her soft, caressing hands and large, innocent eyes. Petra with her almost too-wide mouth, her slightly plump, curved body.
The last thing she did before I left was tuck my collar over my cashmere jumper, so that it sat neatly. Her eyes were focused on her work, as though it were a tremendous task of great importance. Perhaps, to her, it was. Then she touched my face, looking into my eyes.
“Be good, Tom.”
I watched her forget-me-not dress ruffle wildly behind her as she huddled inside a large grey goat, her arms folded against the furious wind that flew in from the ocean behind her. My carriage trundled away, her figure becoming ever smaller and darker in the distance as the waves crashed madly against the sharp, black rocks so close to the looming towers of the fortress she called home.
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
I do like to be beside the sea
I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom
Where the brass bands play
So just let me be beside the seaside
I’ll be beside myself with glee
And there’s lots of girls besides
I should like to be beside
Beside the seaside, beside the sea.
I crumpled up the piece of paper, and pulled a postcard out of my pocket instead. It depicted a painting of King’s College chapel of Cambridge, the magnificent face of the building illuminated by bright sunlight. The paint strokes depicting the water and the vivid, grassy bank were flawless. I fingered the sharp edges of the card for a few moments, before taking up my pen.
It’s beautiful here. Exams are looming up ahead, and the boys are keeping their noses to the grindstone, believe it or not. As am I, in fact. Terribly sorry I haven’t written in a while, too much going on, last year of Medicine and all that. Looking forward to summer and lemonade on the promenade. Keep well.
I surveyed it. One of the lines was smudged where the side of my palm had accidentally rested on the wet black ink. I was acutely aware of how cold the note was. I was careful to omit any references to the both of us, together. She would hurt, I know, but it would harden her, this uncertainty, and when I returned she would be icy but hopeful. I slipped the postcard into my pocket, and left the restaurant.
“Be good, Tom.”
Her words echoed in my brain as the beautiful lady walked up to me. She was nothing like Petra. She was glamorous and tall. A simple country dress would not do for her, she wore expensive jewels and silk scarves. Her hair was glossy and glorious, piled at the back of her head. Her curls were neat and carefully arranged, and dotted with tiny, glittering diamonds. I took her hand and placed it in the crook of my arm, and we both walked into the ball together. I murmured a scathing comment about the event, and she bent her head over my arm in silent laughter. I knew how to charm girls like her.
“Be good, Tom.”
Had her voice been hopeful? Was there a tinge of fear to it, as though she knew, long before anything had happened? I lay in bed all night thinking about Petra, until the dim light of predawn filtered through my drawn curtains and threw being to the dark shapes around my dorm. Clothes strewn over the floor, books and papers scattered all over the desk. I didn’t want to get up, but I hauled my tired body out of bed anyway.
I threw all my clothes and books in a jumbled heap together into the open trunk by the door, and by the time I had finished, my curtains were struggling to hold back the bright morning sunlight filtering in. I pulled them to, and allowed my room to flood with the warm, golden rays of June.
I washed and dressed, and dragged my trunk down the stairs and out into the courtyard, where my lift to the train station awaited me.
On the train, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the postcard she had sent me. It was a grainy photograph of the seafront in summer, the beach dotted with folk too far away to see clearly. It was an image of happiness and hope.
On the back her charming, curly handwriting took up every inch of the card, written as neatly and small as possible. She did have quite a lot to say.
2nd June, 1928
Things at Cambridge must be extortionately different from home. I do hope you do well, darling, and I do look forward to your return in the summer. Three years since I last saw you, and you barely write me, you naughty thing. I did know you wouldn’t though, so don’t feel too terrible about it all. Just come home and we shall catch up like the old days. I think Katie and Morgan shall be home too, and we can all get together and it will be like nothing has changed. I do know it has, though, dearest. I am not going to delude myself it hasn’t, and I can tell you it hurt quite a bit at first. But I am a big girl, now. I have some good news to tell you when you get home, and shan’t hint at it at all except to say William has been around quite a lot recently. He’s helped Mama tremendously and she says she doesn’t know what we would have done without him.
Lots of love,
I leant my head against the window as the landscape sailed past. The clouds were scarce, and the morning sky was a deep blue. The window was warm where my forehead rested on it, in direct sunlight. Summer had truly arrived. My stomach growled a little and I realised I hadn’t eaten since, well, the day before yesterday, when the card had come through.
Lemonade on the promenade.
How could I have written that? What was I expecting, that she would await me at home, ready to welcome me with open arms after I had spent three years gadding about Cambridge? I was expecting that. That would be the sort of thing the Petra I knew, or thought I knew, might have done. Perhaps I hadn’t known her at all, and all those years of friendship blossoming into romance had been taken for granted in my mind. I knew she adored me, and that made me brazen.
I hadn’t really taken the time to really know her. Had I?
September 13th, 1925
Have arrived safe and sound, so don’t you worry. Went in for registration yesterday, and met one of my professors. Mighty eccentric old fellow, but mightily clever to boot. You would thrill over the library here, my dear. Crammed with books, and many gardens for you to read in, although probably not as winter arrives in full force. You’re a seaside gal, though, aren’t you. I’ve made a few friends and they have come round for games a few nights. Mustn’t make too much of a habit of it, though, and remember what I’ve really come for. I want to make an honest man of myself for you, darling, and can’t believe it’s only been eight days since I left you by the wild sea. It feels like half a century. I will write more when more happens, but for now sleep well my dear, and write me lots about everybody and everything you do, for I am dying to know.