The Red Coat

There is a coat hanging in Granny’s wardrobe. It’s been there for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been staying in the little room at the top of her house for 15 years. It’s an old coat; woollen and warm and worn. The rich red fabric has worn in places, little moths having a meal over the decades. Granny refused to throw it away. “Too many memories,” she said.

“Mum!” I call from the little room at the top. “What shall I do with this old coat?”

“That old thing?” she replies as she enters the room. “That’s not any old coat, that’s the story coat. But you are too old for stories now.”

Mum smiles. I don’t think there’s much about Granny that I don’t know, but Mum’s looking mysterious. I want to know more.

“Go on then, what’s the story all about?” I reply.

But Mum just hands me an old, folded and creased photograph and says “Find out for yourself.”

I’ve seen this and other photographs before, in a box at the top of the wardrobe. I asked Granny about them once and she said it was all in the past, and that’s where the past should stay.

Mum leaves the room and my curiosity grows as I see the old battered shoebox still sitting on the top of the wardrobe. I lift it down with great care, remove the lid and take out what Granny has saved for so many years. More photographs, some black and white and some in colour, pressed flowers and, tied up with ancient ribbon, a bundle of letters. I tenderly undo the ribbon, but it feels intrusive, for even though I haven’t opened them yet, I know they are love letters sent to my Granny very long time ago.

When Mum calls that tea is ready I don’t even hear, so engrossed am I in the story untold for so many years, a story of love never able to blossom. She pops her head around the door again, smiles and returns with tea on the tray. I’m sitting on the floor now, all the letters spread out in front of me, tears rolling down my cheeks.

When I’ve finished it’s nearly dark outside and the cup of tea is cold. I carefully place all the items back into the shoebox as they were before and return it to the top of the wardrobe. Mum is waiting for me in the kitchen. She looks at me and smiles.

“What happened to him? “I asked.

“He never came back. Missing in action. Presumed dead,” she said.

I look again at the photograph Mum had given me upstairs, the photograph of a happy couple on their wedding day. A beautiful young woman wearing a red coat standing alongside a smart young man in uniform, a man with twinkling eyes and a rakish smile. On the back is written a date in pencil, 1940.

“When the war was over she met your Grandad, they got married and had me.  But I always knew it was he that she loved even after all these years.”

The next day we get ready for the service. Everyone was wearing black, except me. I’m wearing a red coat; old, woollen, warm and worn. When the service is over, and I’ve said my final goodbyes, we leave the church. As I walk towards the door someone catches my eye. An old man, wrinkled like a crushed tissue, is looking at me. There are tears on his cheeks, but his eyes are twinkling and he is smiling a rakish smile.

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