‘Grandma, Grandma! Who is this man?’
Mary, a lady rich in life but poor in her abilities to move, approached her Grand-daughter and knelt down beside her at the wicker basket. She took a photo from her and stared deeply, sighed and handed it back to the box of memories.
‘That, my dear Katherine, is your Grandfather.’
‘Why have you never mentioned Grandfather to me? And why do you not have any pictures up of him? Was he a bad man?
So many questions, Mary took her time to digest them all. Her mild strokes had weakened her thought process.
‘Oh, far, far from it lovey. And I guess… well I guess… No, no it’s silly.’
She waved her hand over her face, dismissing thoughts of a lost loved one. Believing a girl of seventeen would have no interest in hearing an old ladies tales of a world that was.
‘Please go on, please. I want to know more about Grandfather.’
Mary was already on her way to pulling herself up, feeling her joints creak like the floorboards on an old manor house. Pausing for breath in what felt like a mountain climb she said;
‘I’m putting the kettle on my dear. All this packing is thirsty work.’
‘Wait! What’s this?’
Katherine was head down in the basket as Mary was about to leave the room. She pulled out a piece of paper that looked like it had helped itself to tea before the kettle had even had the chance to boil. Beige in colour and sticky to touch, Katherine pulled apart the note. It read;
Dearest Mrs Watts,
It is with great sadness that I inform you of your Husband’s passing.
Private Watts became cut off from his company after receiving wounds
to his legs. He sought shelter here in Hoofddorp, but we couldn’t do
much for his wounds. The resistance took private Watts in and hid him
from the feared Gestapo. Once the Nazi occupation left the north we
could finally send word to you of your husband’s whereabouts. But
it was too late for Private Watts to cross the sea, his wounds had become
infected and thus decided to live out the last of his days here. After a
couple of days Private Watts disappeared. His body was found three days
later five miles out of town. He attached a note to him;
Bury me here and inform my beloved Mary of my whereabouts.
Our home is your home Mrs Watts, we eagerly anticipate your arrival.
Pieter de Vries Adrianahoeve 9, 2131 MN Hoofddorp 29th June 1945
‘Grandma, this is so sad, what was it like over there?’
Mary, not bearing to look into her young Grand-daughter’s eyes, fixated her attention to the wicker box. She was wise for a seventeen year old, but naïve to think this note told the whole story.
‘I’ve never been, Katherine. That man made me promises he never kept.
‘Go on now and make the tea. The custard creams, I’ve moved them to the cupboard to the right. We will sit and I will tell you why that man makes my blood boil.’
Katherine rushed to her Grandmother’s side to hear more, almost spilling the tea as she sat down so quickly.
‘Good lord Katherine, you will scar yourself for life if you don’t slow down.
‘Let me see, I was seventeen at the time I met him, just like you. But back then it was war time so I was a working girl; We all had our jobs to do, I set off with my mother every morning to the near-by factory. We were always making something new, sometimes putting together medical kits, sometimes new uniforms for the soldiers. But we all pulled together in these times, I found it all very exciting, most of my life I assumed I would become a house wife, so to be putting together all my skills for actual money made me feel like I was serving the country as much as the soldiers on the front line.
‘Mother always stayed close to my side on our walks home. We passed the military hangers morning and evening and I was always beguiled with the attention I received.
‘The chaps at hanger seven were part of the Avro Lancaster bomber team, convinced they were going to win the war from up in the sky. They were nicknamed the Brylcreem boys, most RAF pilots were because of their conspicuous use of the hair cream.’
Katherine began to chuckle at the thought.
‘Men and their hair, she said. ‘they’re worse than us sometimes.’
Mary took a sip from her tea before reaching for the photo of James. She smiled to her self and stroked the gradient around his head.
‘He was a looker your Grandfather, but so were a lot of them, they all had their charm about them; that i lapped up like a bull dog. James needed to stand out from the rest if he wanted my affections, and he did just that. I don’t know how that boy knew how much i loved tulips; something i found quite creepy to begin with and annoying as he would always call me his flower. He would hang around waiting for me every evening just to hand me a tulip, and did this for months until i finally agreed to go out into town with him. Against Mother’s wishes of course.
‘We had the most wonderful evening of dancing and drinking, he was showing me off like a prized horse. And i loved it. Watts; his last name and his nickname, he said i was the only person in the world he would accept calling him James.
‘A fight broke out in one of the pubs and the police sirens could be heard on their way. Knowing full well i didn’t have permission, we both ran towards the farms holding hands all the way. We took shelter in one of the barns, panting and nursing our knees from the sprint, we collapsed in hysterics into a pile of hay. I will always remember his bright green eyes as we kissed and made..’
Katherine covered her ears in disbelief, mouth wide in horror.
‘You don’t think i wasn’t like you at your age do you, i know what you all get up to, i was young too.
‘Anyway, it was obvious to say i was not in my Mothers best books after that evening, i had a lot of extra chores to do and was never allowed out without Mother at my side.
‘James still continued in his attempts to court me publically, mother always taking the tulips from him and shooing him away. I longed and longed for the day he would take me away from the shackles of my strict parents, however back in the 40s it was still mandatory to ask the Father’s permission for marriage.’
‘What happened to my great Grandfather?’ Katherine said, embracing her Grandma’s wrinkled hand.
‘He never made it back from Germany, he was one of the first to go. Father was a parachuter and was gunned down before he even touched surface, or so we were told. But we never found out until after the war was won, so James had to wait, meaning i had to keep my pregnancy a secret.’
Mary lifted herself from her armchair, using her grand-daughter’s support and shuffled herself over to the fireplace. Clutching a family portrait she turned to Katherine with a sparkle of tears forming in her eyes.
‘ I couldn’t hide it any longer, I couldn’t bare James not knowing, I couldn’t live another day without him with me.’
Katherine shot up from the sofa to grasp her tightly.
‘Oh Grandma, what did you do?’
‘I….I ran. I ran from my mothers devastated tears, I ran from the security of my home and i ran to the arms of the man i loved. He needed to know.
It was too late, I caught him half way. James was too running, he was running to catch me before he was called to D-Day, handing me the biggest bunch of tulips I had ever laid eyes on.
I struggled to tell him from beneath my sobbing. He took me by my chin, held his face tight with bravery and said to me… – My darling flower, please stop your tears. Save them for my return, i will bring back a new peaceful world and i will bring back a promise. I will bring you two tulips every day for my two beautiful rays of light. I love you, I love you both.
Katherine began to smear away her own tears in fear of upsetting her Grandmother further.
‘ That was the last time i ever saw James, unlike my father he did touch ground on D-Day. The bomber was lost from all the flack and had to make a crash landing somewhere south of Holland. As the letter said he never made it home, he never kept his promise.
Surging pools of the misguided element crashing around, the only way to tell where the dark grey skies ended and the dark grey sea began, through the cutting white shapes of waves at war with the world.
Mary, never the adventurer, had never set foot off English soil and had chosen now in her late eighties to take to the English channel away from her impending tomb. While the other travellers remained within the metallic confines of the ship during a stormy voyage, She found tranquillity in a field of raging water. Clinging to the cold steel barriers, face embracing the salt in the wind, she whispered;
‘I’m coming for you James, I will be damned if you get away without saying good bye. I’m coming to take you home.’
Upon hearing her Grandmother’s incredible story, Katherine explained what she had been told to loved ones. Together they rounded up enough money to send Mary on her way to Holland to find some closure before she began life in a nursing home. Reluctant at first, Mary insisted that she travelled alone, much to the worry of her family.
Docking at Calais, Mary struggled to find her land legs again. She decided to rest her feet and compose herself on a nearby bench. Looking out across the horizon, inhaling a deep breath of salty air, the sea had won her heart but the ferry had stolen her medication. Ever the stubborn mistress she dismissed her needs for the retched things anyway, onward Mary went. It was quite the sight to see, this frail old lady, determination in her stride as she pulled her belongings through the coach park. A rather run down Austin Montego pulled up and intercepted Mary’s destination, she seemed puzzled as a woman who had a thing for cars, that she was looking at a car she would expect to find in early nineties England. A poorly dressed man with a finely trimmed moustache poked his head out the window.
‘ Ms Watts, is that you? ‘
He said in a very clear Dutch interpretation.
‘ Well yes dear, yes it is me. ‘
Replied a very puzzled Mary.
‘ Ah ha, This is excellent to find you Ms Watts, I thought I missed you. I’m sorry my name is Robin, Robin De Vries, I am Pieter’s nephew. Your Granddaughter told me of your coming, I’ am here to give you ride to our houze. ‘
Along the journey Robin explained to Mary that Pieter had passed away some five years ago. He would often speak of James, and his family were always prepared for the inevitable arrival of his love back in England.
‘I am wondering why it is you take so long for visit to the Netherlands Ms Watts?’
Mary stared out over the flat fields that went on for miles and miles, for some the journey through Holland’s country plane can bring tired eyes to sleep, for her it was James’ graveyard, another vision he shared without her. She was taking in every square foot.
‘ As a dying woman, isn’t now as good a time as any? ‘
Robin couldn’t answer, for he knew. He knew through decades of love stories told through his family.
Mary was welcomed into the grand home of the De Vries family with open arms, she was growing tired and confused, the absence of her medication beginning to set in. There was a buzz of gossip around the town, so she was told. Stories of private Watts’ love story had circulated for so many years that some were beginning to wonder if Mary was a myth. She tried so hard to keep her anger towards these people obvious, these people that had taken her James, kept him from returning back to her, returning to the child he never met. As she rested up over the two days that she allowed herself to stay in their company, Mary couldn’t help but begin to understand what is was that made James stay for so long, she was dying, sure, but she could feel a magic of sorts feeding her soul.
‘ Here Mary, this is the map that will guide you to James’ gravestone. This will not be so hard to find, Keukenhof is now a park of attraction and is signed for you to follow. This letter is explaining of how is to find private Watts’ grave.’
Mary thanked them all for their wonderful spirited hospitality and profusely dismissed their attempts to guide her there. She was determined to see her James alone, she had unfinished business with him.
The walk was tough on the ever tiring Mary, she had walls of physical and emotional barriers to break through to get there, knees were creaking with every movement, chest tightening with every breath and head spinning with every thought. She was too close to die now, only the pain of years and years of deep grieving was pulling her closer. Just another few feet now, the beginning of the end was in sight. Mary pushed open the gate to Keukenhof and she had reached heaven.
Pinching herself into existence, Mary couldn’t believe her eyes, she must have died from exhaustion, she thought. The beauty that surrounds her was almost too overwhelming to bear. Tulips, tulips everywhere, in all colours of the rainbow. A secret garden of endless amounts of Mary’s favourite flower, trees sprinkled out from between them here and there, but beautifully small tress with flowers of white sprouting from every branch. Mary had to focus again, catch her breath and follow the path. Follow she did, it led her straight to a tree very central to the entire garden right by the river that floated through so smoothly, like a blue chocolate made up from a Willy Wonker factory. There was nothing there, no gravestone, no mark, nothing, Mary’s heart began to break all over again.
‘ Excuse me miss, are you lost, I’ am grounds-keeper here.’
Said a man half buried in flowers.
‘ Oh, no. well perhaps. I was looking for something I might find at this point. ‘
‘ Maybe you are searching for the gravestone of Private Watts? It is the other side of this tree.’
The grounds-keeper ushered Mary to a small stone rising from the foot of the tree no taller than her knee.
‘ Here, the grave of Private Watts. He died here from his injuries. Although officially it was the mayor of Lisse who established this wonderful place into the flower garden it is today, it was here Private Watts that began planting years before it was made into a garden attraction. It was on his request that two tulips were planted every day and his request to be buried this side of the tree, it faces north you see. Something about his wait facing his lost loved one back home in England.’
Mary’s eyes began to sparkle with the beginnings of tears, she took the groundskeepers hands and thanked him for his story and insisted she was left to be alone for a little while. Reluctantly, seeing the frail state this old lady was in, he made his way down another path.
Mary crouched down to clear weeding from around the James’ resting place. There was a carving in the stone.
Private James Watts
This is as close to the promise I gave you
1923 – 1944
Mary collapsed in a heap at the foot of the tree.
Sobbing, uncontrollable emotion, all this time, such a wasted life of anger and regret. Mary cleared some more of the weeding around the tree, perhaps the house wife in her couldn’t bare to see anyone sleeping around such a mess. Mess that spoilt the beautiful view of all those tulips. Mary barely had an ounce of energy in her, she laid down on top of James, made another quick glance above her head at the gravestone, smiled and closed her eyes.
‘ Wake up flower, wake up. ‘
Mary rose in a startle, how long had she been asleep for she thought. She squinted her eyes at the brightness of the day, so bright she could barely see past the first few rows of tulips.
‘ I’ve been waiting so long for you Mary, I’m so happy you came. ‘
It was James, clear as day. Mary scampered backwards in fear across the flowers.
‘H… How. Is that… is that really you. James?’
James looked almost exactly the same as the day he left for the shores of Normandy. Mary covered her face with her hand, knowing he would see her as wrinkly and grey as the last time she had looked herself in the mirror.
‘ Yes it’s me Mary, Don’t be afraid, we are together now. Gosh, you look more beautiful than the very garden I’ve grown.’
He said gently removing her hand away and holding her tight.
‘ Oh James, I’ve dreamt of this moment for as long as I can remember. I had no idea you had done all this for me. I’m so so sorry I was ever angry at you. ‘
‘ Don’t be silly Mary, I wish I could have done more to be back with you by your side and to see our daughter grow. Is she as lovely and beautiful as you? ‘
‘ I named her Isabel. I found it difficult to look at her, she has your eyes James. She is a strong and beautiful lady and as stubborn as you were. ‘
‘ I think you mean you my love. It takes one stubborn lady to wait this long to see me. ‘
The two of them laughed and talked as if no time had never passed between them. James shot up with the youthful spring still in his step and reached out a hand to Mary.
‘ Come on Mary, there is so much more of this place I want to show you. ‘
Mary smiled, tears forming as she hurled herself up with the help of young James’ hand.
‘I Love you James’
She said. James ran off into the flowers to Mary’s horror. He came galloping back, hands behind his back. James offered her a freshly picked tulip.
‘ I love you too flower. ‘
They both burst into laughter and finding a sudden use in her legs she childishly chased James further into the gardens. Then they were gone.
The grounds-keeper came back to check on the old lady. It was beginning to fall dark and he didn’t want her getting cold so came back bearing a blanket. At first glance he saw nobody around, he almost decided she must have made her way out without him noticing. As he looked closer he could see the little old lady lying down beside the tree, he smiled to himself, grabbed a whole fistful of tulips and placed them on her chest. He wrapped the blanket over her. Stood back and smiled again.
‘ Sleep in peace, dearest Mary. ‘