Dear Babe, or rather … dear Bernard or …
Dear Mr Holloway,
I have known about you all my life.
Our deepest hopes were that you would survive. My grandmother Louise was waiting for you, and I believe your engagement was due to take place on your first leave from France. … Unfortunately, tragically, … you did not return, you were one of those who lost … you lost your life. And she, Louise, your dear heart, followed your path out to France to live under canvas, to work alongside those other young women who wore nurses’ uniforms and lived in tents and learned to wipe and sweep and wrap, to try to find you, to know what you had known, to work with others in your situation and to try to help them … to be close to you, although and since she had not been able to save your life.
I always heard about you. …
Each time I visited her, and sat beside her in her study, with a long window ahead of us, she would ask me to tell her about love … She often told me your name, and she described you seated on a bench beside her, your arm stretched out boldly along the back of the bench to lightly touch her shoulders, and how teasing you were. … She was amused by you, and entertained, uplifted … into some other realm of possibility in her life. … I heard that … you made her laugh.
Later, she was blown across the world by these events. She was on her way back to New Zealand to marry someone she’d known in childhood – no-one she loved and never anyone she loved so much. … (There was a man on horseback, there was a young man on the boat over. …) And then on the journey, at a resting place, my grandfather walked up to her door at night, with a tear in his eye, and asked her … and because he was a good man, and because she knew she had to make a decision (and find a way … to live), she said yes.
Though we come from those people, you were the one she loved. And we all knew that (and we missed you as she did). And despite our lives together, and her warmth and her light humour, we heard in her voice these words from Rupert Brooke:
“… there is a corner of a foreign field that is for ever England”. …
We knew your stiff Edwardian moustache and your smile; imagined your Cambridge Blue cap (with stripe), and for a moment imagined we saw you pictured in a group, the youngest batsman … We knew your name, Babe, as intimately as one knows one’s family. (We loved it, imagining the body that went with it, the feeling you gave to the group.)
Once we saw a photo of you … in a carriage with Louise, smiling – were you twenty perhaps?
Louise survived the two wars: my grandfather Cedric was in POW camp in Hong Kong, my father and uncle, her two sons, were born there and educated like men in England. … She worked in a munitions factory in Canada, trying to get to Hong Kong when war broke out. And she loved her friends, played bridge with them, … and she read Brooke on her journeys into the city centre every day for lunch.
She never forgot you.
Here is a photo of Louise as she was after you left her. …. with her sisters in uniform, on her way to France, looking for your heart.