This week Chuck invited us to write the first line of a story, no more than fifteen words. Then next week we’ll write the story. I decided to give the first line of the last one I did, since it got some good comments. The other one I thought of was: Frances woke up on the morning of her 100th birthday. I decided to write it, since today would have been my mother’s 100th birthday.
The Alternative Birthday Party
Frances woke up on the morning of her 100th birthday. In an alternative universe her children and grandchildren were preparing to celebrate what would have been her birthday, had she lived to see it. In this universe, she stretched, threw back the covers, and jumped out of bed.
Her one-bedroom apartment had a balcony with a sea view. She was lucky. The mysterious twists and turns of her career had brought her into close proximity with some officials who recognised her extraordinary skill in nursing wives back to health. Their wives. She may not have a pension, only party officials had those, but she had somewhere to live. Mombasa was a playground of the Nazi hierarchy, but it was safe to walk the streets if she so wished, and health care was on a par with Germany. They looked after their own, they always had.
If she hadn’t taken the posting to Uganda with the Overseas Nursing Service in 1942, she would probably be dead by now. This thought had crossed her mind many times after 1946, but rarely since 1960, when she had accepted that her fiance had in all likelihood died, either interned in one of the desert camps, or a refugee to Singapore, and thence to the Japanese Death Camps. All she had known was that he was planning the evacuation of the Imperial Airways Cairo station to Aqaba, in hope of keeping communications between South Africa and Australia going through the flying boat service. Once Rommel had taken North Africa, she had heard no more. On a visit to England in 1952, she had found her family home in ruins, her fiance’s mother in an asylum, everyone else either missing or dead.
The Nazis rounded up everyone who was in the wrong place, whether refugee, colonial servant or humanitarian worker. If you weren’t in the country of your birth, you were a “Displaced Alien”. The Overseas Nursing Service claimed all their nursing staff, which spared them. They had to work for the Nazi re-alignment effort, but they lived and worked in line with their training. They still saved lives. The British Government had surrendered their colonial servants, from Governor to office clerk, all over the world. The Nazis executed them. The Japanese did the same, after they tortured them in the Camps. Their fate was the same as any German, Austrian or Italian refugee. Most other displaced aliens were shot as spies, unless they could prove collaboration or exceptional skills.
Frances gazed at the beach, lost in memories. What might have been, if only Geoffrey could have reached her, sixty, seventy years ago. The chime of her doorbell interrupted her thoughts. Embarrassed at being caught in her night attire, she used the intercom, rather than attend the door.
“Hello Frances, it’s Aileen,” said Aileen, although it was only ever her at this time. “Happy birthday!”
“Thank you! I hoped it was you. I’m not dressed yet. Come in.”
She pressed the security device and heard Aileen enter the outside door. “I’m just going to the shower unit, help yourself to fruit or coffee.” She called, leaving her own front door on the latch for her friend.
A quick turn in the dry-mist shower unit had her clean and refreshed, ready for her day. She chose a simple linen dress that reminded her of one she had hoped to wear for a wedding, many years ago.
“Good morning properly now. How are you, my dear,” she said, embracing Aileen on the balcony, where she had carried out the necessaries of breakfast.
“Oh, I’m tops. But it’s your big day, how are you?”
“I find I’m haunted by memories today.”
“Well, that’s hardly surprising. A whole century of them.”
“Yes, amazing isn’t it? Who would have thought that 100 years would be commonplace? It’s amazing, the developments in medical science. And others, of course.”
Aileen considered remarking on the price they had paid for those developments. Neither she nor Frances had condoned the approach the Nazis had taken to the indigenous populations, but they had had to live beside their experiments, and they had benefitted from the results. It was the price of being a defeated race living on a developing continent.
They sat at a small table and gazed out over the road to the beach. Vendors of parasols, towels and fruit were setting up their stalls, and the masseuses were already strolling the sands looking for customers.
“It never really changes here, does it?” Aileen commented.
“I sometimes think that. The beach, the sea, the shells, the palm trees, the light, all the same. Mind you, we didn’t see it till after the Nazis moved in. Maybe it was different before.”
“Maybe less commercial, but otherwise the same, I reckon.”
“I’ve invited a couple more people over for a mid-morning celebration. I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
“Why should I mind?” Aileen laughed. “It’s your birthday!”
The doorbell chimed again.
“Who’s that now,” Frances frowned. “It’s far too early. Eleven hundred, I said on the invitation.”
“I’ll go,” said Aileen.
Frances could hear her talking on the intercom, finishing with “I’ll come down.” A delivery, Frances thought, and finished her Blue Mountain coffee.
“There’s a man to see you,” Aileen said, returning to the balcony.
“I don’t want to see a man, I have things to do.”
“I think you’ll want to see this one.”
Frances smoothed her dress as she got up and went into the shade of the living room. A man stood there. He would have been nearly two metres tall but he was stooping with age. Grey, thin hair was slicked back, grey-blue eyes twinkled at her from slightly unruly eyebrows. Her heart lurched.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” he said, presenting her with a white camellia. “Are we too late to turn this into a wedding, or shall I just say happy birthday, darling?”
“Geoffrey! I looked for you everywhere! Where have you been all my life?”
“It’s a long story.”
(c) J M Pett 2013
The real story of Geoffrey, Imperial Airways flying boats and how he and Frances got married in Uganda is told in White Water Landings, by J M Pett, coming early next year.