1 As events turned out, it was a stroke of good fortune for Martha that her husband had never shown the slightest interest in the morning’s post. Samuel wasn’t much of a letter-reading, letter-writing man anyway. Bills, adverts, and flyers, the odd inquiries from friends and former customers wondering where he’d got to — these were the only pieces ever addressed to him. Most of the Houghton family was gone by now, except for a mad half brother still brooding about the perimeter of Imber after the army’s forced evacuation of the village five years ago. As for writing, corresponding with the children and the grandchildren was Martha’s work, not so much because of any preference in her or disinclination in her husband, but because of their handwriting. Samuel’s was spidery and crabbed, even before the arthritis took hold, and helping with their two daughters’ schoolwork at the kitchen table had always embarrassed him. Only with their son’s Meccano Erector set in the shed out back had he felt at all secure. Martha, though, wrote like a medieval scribe, swirling her capitals into great gestures and trailing her sentences off into spirals that formed dark arabesques across the page. She took such lovely pains even over each week’s grocery list.
Not like the unfamiliar hand on the blue envelope that she now separated from the rest, the only one today made out specifically to her, yet with no return address. She sat alone in a fall of rare February sunlight through the kitchen windows and let her tea grow cold as she studied the writing. In a child’s block printing, as stiff as farmers in suits, the letters of her name and address jostled against one another, sometimes tripping over their neighbors’ feet. The envelope itself seemed cheap and well traveled. Its corners were blunted, and the fabric of its paper was thinned by abrasion. But what had caught her attention from the first were the stamps. There were three different types, pasted haphazardly across the top as if in a feverish attempt to make up enough postage for the long journey. One was of a four- motored aircraft, another was of a waving flag, and the third was of a pillar crowned by carved lions. What they all had in common, in addition to some incomprehensible characters that looked like the hooks and eyes down a lady’s dress, were the printed notices “15th Aug. 1947” and “India Postage.” It was these legends, along with all the shifting colors of blues and grays, that had startled Martha at the letterbox and brought her pattering breathlessly back into the house.
She didn’t open the envelope at once.
In fact, she planned to do so only tomorrow, when Samuel would surely be out of the house, idling around the public green at the end of the street or, if the weather had turned foul, in the Fountain Inn pub in St.
John’s Road. Dr. Little had lately lectured him on the benefits of exercise. “You’re not getting any younger, Samuel, and just because you don’t have your ironmonger’s any longer doesn’t mean you should sit at home like some old woman.” So Samuel had added to his usual mulling over newspapers and catalogs a regular constitutional that kept him out for half an hour or more. He never invited Martha, probably because the first time he asked her she’d told him she had better things to do than traipse about a village that she already knew better than she knew her own rugs. She hadn’t, truth to tell, anything better to do, but it pleased her to fancy that some small part of each day still belonged to her alone.
Now, Martha thought as she glanced at the clock over the sink, to hide the letter before he returned. She sensed that it wouldn’t do to tell Samuel about what she guessed must be a final communication from abroad. Not quite yet, at any rate, if ever.
Besides, how could she ever make him or anyone else in Hedge End understand the mixed feelings that she herself had been struggling with for the past sixty years? The trouble was their home was small, even with the two floors, they had lived in it forever, and he had the craftsman’s habit of reviewing his work whenever he passed it by. He would caress the grain of the bookshelves, lift the mattress to inspect the bedstead, and open and close the wardrobe doors to listen for crickets in the hinges. Always puttering, never satisfied with the tedium of retirement, he roamed the house from morning till night as though he had never left his old shop behind. She could never say where he might start rooting about next. Martha had even found him one morning deep in the ceddar storage chest at the foot of their bed, handling the few silks and linens that the war had spared her as if he were a coal miner, trying to dig up his buried mates.
“What in the world — ?” “I was only looking for the key to the lock on the back gate,” he’d tried to explain. “It’s gone missing.” “And you thought to find it in there?” Samuel unconsciously removed a splinter from the lid of the chest. “I don’t know. I’ve looked everywhere else.” The kitchen was perhaps the room he knew least well, so now Martha looked hurriedly around her. As she did, a surge of brighter sun illuminated the walls and cupboards, picking blinding glints out of every reflective surface. After considering and having second thoughts about the breadbox, tea cozy, and cutting boards, she hid the letter from India where she hoped Samuel would never look, under the covered bucket of rinds and crusts by the back door. Then, winded by her efforts, she stood for a while at the center of the room with her eyes half closed against the light.
Fifty-seven years earlier, the house back in Portsmouth had been Martha’s only refuge. When her father had died of farmer’s lung, her mother had turned to her unmarried sister for financial help. Aunt Feemy kept a boarding house for sailors in a street near Landport Terrace, a wry little structure of red brick walls and white window frames. As respectable as it could be so near a seaport, the house had welcomed Martha and her mother and put them to work at serving and washing and sewing.
The young girl hadn’t felt the move down from Droxford too sorely, though she did miss her blacksmith father and his comforting cindery smell. But in Portsmouth she had found compensations. The salty air blue, the burnished seamen’s faces, and the drumming of boots across the dining room floorboards had all surrounded her with a noisy liveliness that reminded her of her father’s workshop. If some of the other female lodgers were less honestly occupied than she and her mother were, and if some of the visiting men stayed for only an hour or so, Martha hardly noticed. She’d spent most of her time at an up- stairs window, watching faceless passersby flicker like lighthouse beacons through the sea fog.
After Martha’s mother died only a few months later, it seemed only natural for the girl to stay on at Aunt Feemy’s. Her brother being away in the navy and her sister having already settled with her own family up at Avebury, Martha had nowhere else to go.
Aunt Feemy was well read and curious, and she had insisted that the girl resume her schooling, at least informally, in the downstairs library.
This was only a small room off the kitchen with three deal boards for a bookcase and a stool, with neither back nor arms, for a reading chair. The library consisted of fewer than twenty volumes: a history, two grammars, a geography, some unbound sheets of inspirational poetry, and the better novels of the local celebrity D...