I’d walked a short distance from the bus carrying two suitcases (I’d long since learned that two small suitcases were less of a burden than one large one).
A friend, who wasn’t expecting me, lived around here — I just wasn’t sure exactly where. My confusion was of no matter, I have the ability to find my destination, and there is nothing mysterious about the process. I simply walk around, smiling at people and looking for familiar landmarks. On a larger scale, it worked for me when I drove a car. These days, there are insufficient funds for a wheeled vehicle, so I wear out shoe leather.
When the war ended, I stayed in Europe.
There was nothing for me back home.
My parents were passed, and my girl ran off with a Real Estate agent. My aunty misses me, but she has a family of her own to keep her company.
I teach English to businessmen and children of wealthy parents, and I get by.
Things don’t interest me much.
As long as there are books and wine and occasionally, women, I’m happy. My way of living, for that is what it is — living, confuses my friends back home. When the guns fell silent, they could not wait to go back to their old lives. Old lives! How could anyone go back after what we have seen?
It has to be said that I didn’t notice her at first, I was scanning at ground level, looking at faces to see if I recognised anyone.
I was here about a year ago, and my reason was the same as it is today — the library.
The staff here managed to move all of the ancient texts to safety during the conflict. The frontlines were hard to define, and at times it was only a few miles away, before being pushed back. Those were tense times for the people who had lived here all their lives. We, on the other hand, had come from far away. Even the local troops were from other regions. The townspeople treated us like heroes — we weren’t, but it felt good. We were just trying to stay alive in a country that was not at all like our own.
The lady in the white gown, in the high window, was a woman who had lived her life in luxury. One by one, she lost most of the people she loved. Every year, she stands in the window of her apartment wearing the dress she was to wear on her wedding day.
Her man did not come home. If he had, she may not have recognised him, loved him, wanted him, but we will never know.
A love lost in such a melancholy way is a love that endures.
When I wasn’t tutoring, I was reading in the ancient library. The staff knew me by sight, and I was allowed access to books that were usually only available to scholars sent out from the Vatican. “Don’t tell anyone,” said the head librarian who had lost his only son in the war.
When the library was closing, he would gently place his hand on my shoulder and say, “Antonio, we are closing up now.”
My name isn’t Antonio — I never corrected him. It isn’t polite to correct and old man. I never asked, but I had a good idea who Antonio might have been.
If there wasn’t a student to teach, I’d head for the cafe on the corner, the one with the parrot in the window.
I have several favourite spots, but the table by the window is my preferred dining place.
The owner makes incredible meals, and as long as the ingredients don’t involve seafood, I leave it to her to feed me. “What you got against seafood Michael?” she would say, at least once a week. “The same thing I had against it the last time you asked Etienne, I don’t eat anything that can look at me,” I’d say, and she’d laugh every time.
The cafe has an excellent cellar which mysteriously survived the larcenous behaviour of the soldiers stationed here during the war.
I rarely drink white wine, but the whites that Etienne has squirrelled away are to die for, so occasionally, during warm weather, I break my ‘only red wine’ rule.
Etienne will not say which bakery supplies her bread, and I don’t understand her reticence. The bread, with well-salted butter, could be a meal in itself and often is.
“Why you only eat bread today, Michael?”
“Because it is so good and it reminds me of you; warm and crusty,” and again she laughs at my words.
“If I were thirty years younger,” she would say.
“I wouldn’t have been born yet, so I wouldn’t make much of a lover.” This time there is only a smile.
Once in awhile the lady in the white dress, would come into the cafe and we’d dine together. She’d tell me about her fiancé, and I would talk to her about my books and my life on the other side of the world.
The first time I saw her standing in her window, resplendent in her wedding dress, I thought her behaviour was unusual, to say the least. The villagers seemed to understand where I only wondered.
In a world torn apart by war, there was understanding and compassion for a neighbour who had lost all the things that mattered.
All that matters to me is on my back and in my two suitcases — and in my head, of course.
Every day, the things I have learned are slowly pushing out the memories I’d like to forget.
Maybe one day there will be room in there for romance and love, but not just yet.
“You don’t have much time left on your leave. Are you sure you want to spend time watching someone else get married?”
She was right. In three days I’ll be back at the controls of a bomber flying over somewhere, and a lot of ground defence installations will be doing their best to knock my crew and me out of the sky. But how could I say no to this bloke and his bride?
“He’s a long way from home, and he doesn’t know anyone here in Melbourne. He needs a best man, and I said yes before I met you. Before I found out how beautiful you are. It will only take an hour and a bit. We meet at the Town Hall at 10am and then jump on a tram for drinks at The Duke of Wellington on Flinders Street. The whole thing should be over by 11:30.”
“It could go on for hours. I’ve been to weddings,” said Molly.
“Trust me. This one will be over quickly. He has to be back in his Dakota and on his way to New Guinea the day after tomorrow. He won’t want to waste any time.”
“But what about her family? They might want to spend some time with her before she goes away.”
“She’ll be staying here with her mum — wondering how her pilot husband is doing while he ferries supplies to the jungle and tries not to get shot down.”
“How did he get leave?”
“It’s different for the yanks. They are well paid, and they get leave after a certain number of missions. It’s different for us, especially in Britain. There is a sense of fighting for our lives. Invasion is a constant threat, so leave is hard to come by.”
“So you were fortunate to get leave to come all the way back to Melbourne?”
“Very lucky, but accepting the mission to fly the young female spy into France had something to do with it. Either that or someone in a high place is looking out for me.”
I met Molly at the tram stop. There was a light wind blowing, and it caused her dress to ripple. She was wearing a light petticoat, and it caused her dress to splay out. Her dress was a light green, and her shoes were white. Discrete earrings peaked through her wavy hair. Her eyes sparkled when she saw me — always a good sign.
“Been waiting long?” she said as she ran her hand across the back of her hair, being careful not to dislodge her hat. I’m not an expert on hats, but it looked perfect for a civil wedding — it’s good to look pretty but never outshine the bride.
Molly took my hand as I explained that I had just arrived — the truth was I had been there for a while — nowhere else to be. Besides, people watching is a pleasant activity especially in a city where I don’t have to worry about where the nearest bomb shelter might be.
The streets were full of people, and the Town Hall was packed with nervous couples and their entourages — some large, some non-existent.
I went up and down the queue looking for my American friend and his bride to be. It took a while, but eventually, I found him halfway up the big staircase. I guessed that at the rate they were going through them, he and his new bride would be married in about twenty minutes.
“Stay right there,” I said to the Yank.
“Where else would I be?” he said.
I took a few steps away and remembered my manners, “Oh and you look beautiful …” I stammered.
“Mavis,” said Mavis.
“Mavis, yes of course. I’ll be back in a minute,” I said and went back to elbowing my way through the crowd.
A giant soldier with his tiny bride weighed up the possibility of being annoyed at my aggressive maneuvers, but a combination of him realising I outranked him and a punch would ruin his wedding day and the significant tug his tiny girlfriend gave his arm changed his mind. I wasn’t in the mood for annoying bully-boy sergeants, and he must have seen the look in my eyes.
The red mist cleared from my eyes, and I fought my way back to where I had left Molly standing.
She looked beautiful standing next to a giant stone pillar.
“I found them. Shall we?” I said as I put out my hand.
“They are towards the front of the queue so it shouldn’t be much longer.”
“All these people,” said Molly. “All wanting to get married.”
“Life is short my precious Melbourne girl. Stay close behind me — we’re going in.”
I felt her step behind me and grab hold of my belt. We needed to be in ‘lock-step’ to avoid her stepping on the back of my heels. I knew she could dance and now was the time for her to put her dance-floor experience into practice.
I was setting a pretty good pace and getting a few grumbles along the way. Occasionally I would have to change direction to avoid a stubborn group of sailors, and Molly matched my moves, step for step — never a word of complaint. I think she enjoyed the game.
I knew I would have a few bruises the next day, but it was fun and no worse than being bounced around in a bomber at twenty thousand feet.
“Chuck and Mavis, meet Molly,” I said, and everyone nodded and shook hands.
Mavis’ bridesmaid got lost in the crowd, so Molly stood in as her bridesmaid and second witness. It has to be said that both Mavis and Chuck were very nervous.
“Relax mate. It’s only for the rest of your lives,” I said, but I don’t think it helped.
The wedding service was over in a flash, and I know that the happy couple were shocked by how short the service was.
We all stopped on the Town Hall steps while the bride’s uncle took photos. A commercial photographer took a couple of shots and thrust a card into the groom’s hand.
“Photos will be ready tomorrow. The address is on the card. We can hand colour them too if you want, but that will take an extra couple of days,” said the bloke in the coat. I noticed the slight limp and the groom and I wondered where he had been wounded — we secretly wondered if we too would wind up in some makeshift job after being discharged — unfit for combat.
“Can I pick them up the day after tomorrow. I’m going to be busy for the next day or so,” said the young American pilot. All the men smiled, and the bride lowered her eyes before smiling.
“What do you think their chances are?” I said with a beer in my hand, leaning on the bar at the Duke Of Wellington.
“Chances of what?” said Molly.
“I don’t know, chances of being happy? Chances of making it through the War?”
“They’re happy now. Maybe that’s all we get — now.”
The Hotel bar was populated by a mix of men and women in uniform, the same as any pub in the western world during wartime, with a few random shift workers going to or coming from work. Chuck and Mavis’ party had grown considerably from the tiny group at the Town Hall — free drinks tend to swell the crowd.
Mavis’ bridesmaid arrived, flustered and embarrassed.
“I took the wrong tram, and a fresh bloke tried to pick me up. In the end, I headed here. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry. You’re here now. Have a drink and settle your nerves. Molly stepped in for you. Remember to say thank you.”
“Which one is Molly?”
“With the tall flyer.”
The two women looked in our direction.
“I’m May. Thank you for being Mavis’ bridesmaid. I got lost,” said May clutching her Gin and Tonic, the lemon slice was threatening to escape, but she caught it just in time and dropped in into her glass, for safe keeping.
“Mavis said you were very good,” said May.
“There wasn’t a lot for me to do. I took her flowers when it was time to exchange rings, and I signed the book. It was fun.”
May sailed off to join the bride and tell her about her adventure on the tram to hell.
“You did handle yourself very well,” I said.
“I did, didn’t I? I was a bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding, but I could barely breathe, I was so nervous. I’ve been nervous most of my life, but I’m not nervous when I’m with you. Why do you think that is?” said Molly.
“I have this fatal charm. It works on women, horses and flight sergeants, but not on Military Police. Sometimes on Railway ticket office personnel, but that’s it — the extent of my charm.”
Molly grabbed my arm and squeezed it. She smelled of violets, and I could feel the warmth of her body through my uniform.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here. I’m going to say our goodbyes, and we can go.”
Molly smiled, and it occurred to me that I was taking the husbandly role and I had only met her a few days ago. Time goes quickly during wartime.
I’m not Molly’s husband, and I’m not sure what she would say if I proposed. We haven’t shared a bed — not yet. For my part, I knew she was the one, but in that moment I didn’t know how she felt about me.
The pub was full of happy people, some of whom knew the happy couple — an American flyer and a Melbourne girl who sold shoes, loved gardening and cats. If he survived the War, her American flyer would probably take her back to the US, and she would be a fish out of water, but for now, she can lie in his arms and let the world take care of itself — for at least forty-eight hours. I wonder what the wedding photo will look like and I wonder who will see it in the future and wonder about this deliriously happy couple.