My dear Agatha,
I know it has been some months since my last letter but so much has been happening that I have been prevented from writing…
Pausing from her letter Flora Forester glanced up from her writing slope and gazed out over the rolling Atlantic her thoughts still a jumble as she turned and watched her young son busy with his colouring crayons.
"William do you want to go out on deck?"
Glancing up her son smiled up at his mother leaving his drawing of what could only be an elephant and reaching for his spinning wheel whilst she struggled force him into his coat. Stepping out onto deck the winds picked up Flora's stray curls blowing them in front of her eyes so she had to shield them to keep her gaze locked on her energetic six-year-old son. However her thoughts soon returned to her letter, so much had happened.
Sighing as she gazed into the setting sun her mind returned to the last time she had been on a steamer, when Stephan had brought her across the world to India a young bride, well a bride at least neither of them had been in the first flush of youth. He had been a good man, a very good man and that was what she told her son whenever he asked about his father not that he did ask anymore. William had no memory to go with her words; his father had never been an influence in his life having left them when he was scarcely three months old to go north with his regiment in Afghanistan trying to repel the Persians aided by those interfering Russians. He had never returned.
Yet she had scarcely wept at the news, he was a good man and his pension had left her secure in India more than enough to live on and maintain a comfortable lifestyle and she had had no desire to return but then a few months ago things had taken a dramatic turn for the worst. Shuddering but not from the biting wind Flora called her son back intending to head back to their cabin and banish those morbid thoughts.
However all through dinner when she made polite conversation with the other travellers they sat in the back of her mind, then the inevitable happened and conversation turned to the recent violence.
"You lived in Delhi did you not Mrs Forester?"
Startled at being so suddenly singled out and the focus of everyone's attention Flora blushed slightly glancing down at her starched napkin. "Yes I did."
"Well what really happened, I mean you hear accounts from so many people on these junks but to hear it from someone who was really there?" One red faced old chap bellowed, one who Flora suspected had been at the port for most of the afternoon and would have a killer headache in the morning.
"I am sorry but I would rather not talk about it." Flora replied softly before rising to leave the remaining gentlemen standing up automatically as she swept gracefully from the room trying to shut out the hurtfully comments as they sniggered at her aloofness.
Storming down the corridor to her cabin Flora closed the door behind her and collapsed in the chair beside it, her head now in her hands as she tried to shut out the memories. The screaming of the people in the streets, first the soldiers and foolish civilians who got in the way of the Sepoys as they rebelled, blood in the streets and the fear that any moment her house would be the next targeted. The months of living under that occupation May to September afraid to show her head out of doors for fear of falling foul of the mob and then in September the British finally came, but instead of liberation they brought more death. So may soldiers died trying to flush out the rebels that the hospitals overflowed and many English families took in all they could.
Shivering alone in the dark Flora was once more reassured she had made the right decision. William had be truly heartbroken to leave India, the warmth and the colour, sights and sounds had been all he had known since childhood; playing with his friends in the stream at the bottom of their garden as his monkey scampered up and down the tree and his nurse snapped at him in Punjabi to get inside and eat his dinner. That had been left behind to return to the cold and colourless safety of England and dependency on a mother-in-law Flora had never met. However as she glanced across at her sleeping angel she smiled, as long as it assured her William grew up safe and healthy then any sacrifice would be worthwhile. And who knew perhaps one day she might be able to wake from a good night's sleep happy and content and without the ringing of screams in her ears.
- - -
It was hardly surprising that after the debacle at dinner that the illusive Flora Forester absented herself from any further ship board functions, in fact she was scarcely seen above deck again save when accompanying her son on his afternoon walk around the deck. It was few weeks later on a typically wet wintry English morning that Flora Forester and her young son disembarked at Southampton. William was fascinated by the new sights and sounds and wanted to rush off to investigate all the interesting new people and places so Flora had to keep a tight hold on her son's hand.
"Mrs Forester?" A nervous young man asked as he hung around the dockside a hackney carriage waiting beside him. "I am Philip Martins…Mrs Forester, the elder Mrs Forester sent me to accompany you to Eastbourne."
Smiling at the young boy who could not be more than seventeen Flora introduced her son before the lad began organising her many trunks on to the back and top of the Hackney. "We should make the nine o'clock train to London Ma'am and if we are not delayed we will then catch the Two O'clock train to Eastbourne arriving sometime this evening." Philip added politely trying not to stare at the mysterious but beautiful woman before him as she gazed out the window seeming far from this humble taxicab.
Nodding absently as they pulled into the train station Flora felt overwhelmed by the sight of so many people. India had never seemed crowded to her but England during her absence seemed to have changed so much, now everything was so much hustle and bustle the pace of life had changed.
"Mother look!" Young William exclaimed leaning out the carriage window so far she was afraid he would fall as he pointed to the gleaming steam engines so different from the rickety carriages that serviced the vast reaches of India.
"William!" Flora snapped grasping her son by the coat tails as she literally dragged him back inside; he had been on the go since dawn and showed little sign of stopping now. Fortunately before William could escape out the window their carriage pulled up outside the station and a porter dashed forward to open the door.
"I have booked our tickets already Mrs Forester...If you and your son would care to go ahead and find a carriage I will see about having your luggage loaded."
"Thank you Mr Martins." Flora replied grasping the tickets he offered and accepting the porter's assisting arm. Then keeping a tight grip on her bouncing son's arm she tried to manoeuvre them through the busy station. There were just so many platforms and so many people, she had thought the dock was busy but there were even more people here and they seemed to be in such a hurry they barely stepped out of her way and none nodded a greeting. Back in India no matter how busy people were they always stopped and greeted the little English mother and her son, and asked after their health. Here she was just another mother trying to keep track of her unruly son, who like most boys his age had an unhealthy obsession with all things loud, mechanical and potentially life threatening.
"Excuse me... Excuse me..." Flora asked passers by trying to find someone who would know where the train to Eastbourne was berthed. However William took advantage of her momentary distraction and shook her hand loose, darting away from his mother and disappearing into the crowd. "William!" Flora gasped turning on her heel and running blindly in the direction her son had been headed. "William?" She called out pushing past people, ignoring their cries of outrage and then she heard her son's voice and he was crying.
"Stupid child you should look where you are going!"
"William!" Flora gasped finally spotting her son, he was sprawled on the floor and standing over him was a brooding gentleman in a top hat, who in the right light could have been called handsome but whose red faced fury twisted and distorted his features. Immediately on the defensive Flora was at her son's side, unsure just what her little boy could have done to earn such ire.
"He's yours then I take it?"
Glaring up from under her bonnet Flora locked eyes with her son's aggressor. "Yes he is. May I ask what injury my six year old son has done you sir?" Her question clearly caught him by surprise as his cobalt blue eyes widened for a moment and she caught a flicker of something else before he regained his focus.
"He was running around like a little hoodlum...Bashing into people with no regard for their well-being. If I were his father I would put the little rascal over my knee instead of allowing him to be pandered to by vapid females who clearly cannot keep him under control!"
Biting her lip to keep back a retort that would do neither her nor her son any favours Flora instead assisted her son to his feet. Then leaning in so that the rude stranger would only hear her words Flora spat bitterly. "When I have the fortune to see my late husband again sir I will make sure to pass on your advice." For a moment she lingered savouring the impact of her words, watching as the gentleman's eyes widened in realisation. "Good day sir...Come William." She added grasping her son's hand and with as much dignity as she could muster she stormed off in the other direction.
"Madam...Madam..." He called after them and Flora heard the quick tread of his footstep as he followed them through the crowd. "Madam please wait..."
Ignoring him Flora quickened her pace trying to pretend she hadn't heard him and tightening her grip on young William's hand.
This time he had caught them up and was stepping in front cutting off her escape. Girding herself for another fight Flora glared up at the gentleman who at least this time had the sense to look slightly abashed and remove his hat to reveal dark blonde hair that curled slightly over his collar. "Yes?" Flora asked her voice laced liberally with ice.
"You dropped these."
Flushing with embarrassment as she gazed down at train tickets he held out, Flora inwardly cursed her own foolish pride. "Thank you..." She muttered softly reaching out with her own-gloved hand to retrieve them surprised at the sudden heat as their fingers brushed. Feeling the heat in her cheeks increase Flora tried to look anywhere but at the gentleman in front of her but somehow their eyes still met and she was surprised to find a similar flicker of desire reflected back in his. However the mood was quickly broken as the nearby train whistled loudly.
"You had better hurry...That's the train you want, I just came in on it."
Nodding her thanks Flora gathered her skirts and her son and made a dash for the train he had pointed out, managing to find an empty carriage and bundle them on before it began to move. Glancing back over the crowd Flora couldn't help but scan for the enigma of a gentleman they had just met, surprised at the very real flicker of disappointment when instead she just found the blank faces of strangers. Pushing it aside she settled down in her seat and once more returned to tending to her son, he had been the only man in her life for years and she had never felt the loss of a husband before. It was probably just nerves, returning to a country she had left years before and had changed so much in her absence and now travelling to live with a woman she had never met in person; it was only natural that she should be craving the safety and security that a husband would provide. With that now firmly resolved in her my mind she tried to dismiss the very real reaction he had provoked in her and prepare both herself and her son for meeting her mother-in-law.
- - -