‘I Couldn’t Love You More’ by Esther Freud: An Excerpt


I was engaged twice before and you weren’t going to let me forget that. Then what kept you from marrying Dennis or Clifford Bray? You didn’t miss the opportunity to remind me. But the truth is, I never really knew them. Maybe that would come later. Or maybe not. But either way, God Almighty had other plans.

The first month after the wedding, we lived with your family. We were happy to spend those two nights on the Strand because I slept with Isabelle – your mother – while you were in the box office. If I weren’t so afraid of Mavis, if I had settled in the great front room with her new husband, I’d sneak up on her. I was still working for Pontings, which was a great job, and you were working as an engineer. Trained for this, to replace your father. Cashel Kelly. You were chosen for it. He died before you were born. But until I found Rosaleen, I thought of Isabelle, a stranger in this country, four young children and no help at all.

If there was a bedroom for us, we would have stopped in Ilford throughout the war, and then didn’t my brother Joe tell me he rented the Bull and Gate in Islington? was there when we fell, Elsie stood up and leaned against the bar. Then you saw a future for us. How hard can running a bar be? Its beauty – we will never have to be apart. Men were being called in – boys at least – and you volunteered for the fire department within a week, and that’s it. You would stay at home.

It didn’t take long to find our bar. The couple running it wanted to escape. They went to Devon. His nerves had been struck from the first war and he would never live again. We signed papers many times and stayed and had a drink afterwards. I met the locals. Brixton The shopping capital of the south. Beautiful big houses along the main road and London’s first electric street below the station. We stayed until after it closed and even then we were so excited to go home, we couldn’t sit down long enough to catch a bus and so we walked with our arms folded, listening and waiting for what was to come.

[ Return to the column on “I Couldn’t Love You More.” ]

Even if I close my eyes now, Cash, I can feel it, your first kiss. We were outside the dance hall and you took my hand and pressed your lips to my hair as we said goodbye. A warmth passed through me, with a shiver, but its trace remained. Goodbye, I said, breezy, and as I drove away, I put a hand on my temple and felt it burning right there. It woke me up, I didn’t know I was sleeping, it went through my skin and into my hole. I blushed to say this, a fire was so fierce that I could hardly contain myself. What’s wrong with you, idiot? That’s what they told me at Pontings because I was away from you, wondering how you would feel, what would happen next. If you remember our night at the Strand Hotel, give me a sign, Cash. I was there, sitting on the bed. No wonder God declared it a sin before marriage, or we’d all be in it day and night.

It’s not always like that, that’s what you’re saying, it can be a messy business if it’s not true I thought of Clifford Bray and his kindness and squirmed against his chest. Then I thought: How do you know? But the men were not expected to resist, it was only the girls who had to wait. Cash? I’ll whisper to you – that night in the cellar where sirens were howling, Margaret’s visit to her sister was our own for once, then I stopped being careful. What good was it when none of us could make it to the morning? One in Hitler’s eyes. I did not participate in it. But when the silence fell, I immediately knew, and we went into the brimstone and smoke, and there was a star shining in the dark overhead. We hugged and thanked each other, and I knew we had a start for all that I had decided not to bring a child into this world, not until the war was over.

Rosaleen was quiet as they boarded the train. He sat by the window and looked out. No, he nodded at the sandwich offer, again no to a drink. It was a long and slow journey from Harrogate to London. For Leeds, the girl still hadn’t said a word. ‘I’m spying with my little eye’ – Cashel leans forward in his seat – something that starts with ‘. . .’


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