London, May 1946
There were many unexploded bombs in London that spring. They were found in gardens, on wasteland, even in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. For the most part they were dismantled or detonated safely. For Persephone Towyn the unexploded bomb lay inside her heart: the lie she had told the man she loved. The damage it would cause would be far more devastating to her than the mere destruction of a house.
She had done it with the best of intentions, thinking to protect her son, but now it had the power to ruin everything. As Henry's birthday approached she could almost hear the fuse burning away.
If it wasn't for that her life would have been almost perfect, she reflected, as she leant back in her smart office chair, smoking a cigarette. It was certainly more than she could have expected, and possibly more than she deserved.
The new garage on the Kings' Road was a great success. The new location helped, but even Harry had to admit that a big part of it was thanks to her efforts. She had ideas about advertising; she made suggestions for improving the service such as valeting the cars before returning them. They had bought a car to lend to people while their own was being repaired. It had 'Courtesy of Spargo Motors' painted on the side, giving them free advertising.
The new building had space for a separate office for her, and a small waiting room. Harry complained that she'd made it look more like a Harley Street consulting room, with fresh flowers and a selection of second-hand magazines. It attracted the customers though, especially some of the ladies who now had their own little cars.
That wasn't the only thing that attracted the ladies, she thought grimly. She would sometimes notice the the looks on their faces when Harry or Sylvester came out to explain the work that was needed. She could hardly confess to being shocked, and she wasn't really surprised. That didn't stop the tiny stab of pain every time she saw Harry smile at an attractive customer.
She was glad that Sylvester's wife and son were here now, as she would have felt responsible if he had been led astray. The three of them rented the flat above the garage, an arrangement which suited everyone. It had been quite a surprise to see his boy, Anthony, now a strapping lad of six and quite transformed from the cheeky little urchin in the old photograph.
She knew that Harry had given up any pretence that it was anything other than a joint enterprise now. He was a good mechanic, and she was a good businesswoman, together they made the perfect partnership. He had even offered to rename the business 'Spargo and Towyn' but she refused. Perhaps it was because deep down she couldn't help wishing that it was more than a business partnership but she kept that thought to herself.
Adeline, the French shop-girl, had come and gone. Harry had let slip that she had become jealous of Persie's place in Harry's life and had foolishly given him a 'her or me' ultimatum. What he didn't tell her was that his decision had barely taken a moment's thought. He had seen other women since then – Persie could always tell from the expression on his face and the spring in his step when he came in the day after he'd had a date. He never mentioned any names though, and none of them seemed to become permanent fixtures in his life.
She professed herself satisfied that she had her independence and a purpose in life. The income from the business came in handy. She was saving as much as she could to buy her own place, perhaps a nice little flat in one of the mansion blocks off the King's Road so she could be in easy reach of the garage. In the meantime it suited her to stay at Eaton Square. Henry liked to be with his cousin Hector; the boys could go to school together, and old Lady Maud supervised their homework every evening.
At weekends, Persie would be sure to make up for her weekday separation from her son with little treats and outings for him. To her surprise Harry took a keen interest in the boy's welfare. It was returned in kind, as Henry thought him an absolute hero. They would go to the Zoo, or window shopping in Regent Street. Sometimes, on Saturdays, Harry would take him to see the Association Football at Stamford Bridge. On Sundays they might go to the garage, where Henry loved to mess about with the engines.
"You're very good to him," Persie would say. It was a strange emotion for her, seeing the two of them together. They both had the same shock of dirty blond hair, and there were times when her boy's mannerisms would remind her forcefully of Harry.
"He's a good kid, I like him." The fact that he was another man's son didn't seem to matter.
"How are you getting on at Eaton Place?" he asked one Sunday, as they sat in the garden of his little terraced house, drinking lemonade.
"It's okay," the boy conceded, "Mrs Thackeray is very kind, she makes us extra desserts when she can get the ingredients." His English was improving all the time, and he had lost all trace of his German accent.
"I used to work there you know, I was your Uncle's chauffeur before the war."
Henry looked both surprised and puzzled at the statement. He sat silently, deep in thought for several minutes. When he spoke, his question came as a shock to them both: "Mama, what's an 'affair'?"
A faint blush coloured Persie's cheeks, as Harry raised a quizzical eyebrow waiting to see what her response would be.
"It's when a man and a lady who aren't married are friends," she explained, trying to sound matter of fact.
"So are you and Mr Spargo having an affair?" Henry persisted with his line of questioning.
Persie went a little pinker, and Harry just laughed.
"No," she replied firmly.
"But you are friends?" Henry sounded worried now.
Harry jumped in to try to save further embarrassment. "What your mother means to say is that it's when the lady and gentleman are more than just friends, but you're a bit young to understand that."
Henry may not have known the right words, but he understood very well. "You mean when they…do things…like in the book in Great-Aunt Maud's library?"
By now Persie was distinctly pink. "What book?" she asked in a slightly strangled tone.
"Hector and I found it, it's an Indian book, and it has picture of men and ladies doing….things…together." Henry had picked up on his mother's reaction and was now looking embarrassed himself.
Harry just roared with laughter, earning himself a fierce glare from Persie.
"That doesn't sound at all suitable for boys of your age. You must promise me you won't look at it again," she ordered sternly, getting up to refill the lemonade jug.
It was lucky for Harry that she didn't hear his whispered aside to the boy, "You can lend it to me if you like," he suggested to a burst of shared conspiratorial laughter.
"Why on earth did he ask that?" Persie said later, when they were alone.
"He's been listening to gossip at Eaton Place I'll bet," Harry sighed.
"But we were so careful. I don't believe that anyone knew about us."
Harry shook his head. "You have no idea what goes on below stairs sweetheart, the staff know everything."
"You must be glad of the privacy here then," she responded, surveying the small room where they were sitting.
Harry's little house had been her new mission, once the new garage premises were complete. Harry hadn't bothered trying to resist. They had spent several weekends cleaning and painting, finally getting all the rooms into habitable shape. He'd had one of the bedrooms partitioned into two and an indoor bathroom plumbed in. It was expensive, but Persie convinced him that it was worthwhile, with his job being as dirty as it was. They made the little house quite cosy, furnishing it with some good quality rugs and second hand furniture that had been recovered from bomb-damaged houses and sold from the local rag and bone yard.
He had a proper kitchen as well, with a 'New World' cooker and a small refrigerator. Persie was delighted with it. She had decided that it was time she learned to cook.
She had persuaded a reluctant Mrs Thackeray to teach her, reasoning that one day she would need to be able to fend for herself. It took her a few weeks to pluck up the courage to try out her new-found skills on Harry, but eventually she took the plunge and offered to make him an Irish stew. He was initially dubious but, to both their surprise, it was really quite delicious.
Slowly, almost without either of them realising it, she had become a fixture in his life. The occasional supper became a regular event. Before long they had got into a little routine. She would cook their supper on most evenings, while Harry cleaned himself up and built up the living room fire. He would wash the dishes then afterwards they would sit and listen to the wireless, or read and talk.
"This must be a bit of a come-down for you," he had teased her, "after what you're used to."
She wanted to tell him that she had never felt more comfortable, but that would be tempting fate. Instead she settled on commenting that he had obviously never lived in a thousand year old Welsh Castle or he would know what discomfort really meant.
Neither of them would admit it to the other, but they both dreaded the approach of nine o'clock, when Persie would get her coat and Harry would walk her back to Eaton Square.
More than once, Harry considered asking her to stay, but something made him hesitate. Things were good between them, comfortable and settled. He didn't want to ruin their friendship because he couldn't control his physical desires. He could find other woman of course. Adeline had dropped him when he refused to get rid of Persie. "You think more of her than you do of me," the French woman had complained, which, Harry realised, was absolutely true. Now he contented himself with brief liaisons where he could avoid any risk of emotional entanglement.
Persie's greatest dread was that one day he would find himself a new lover. That would put an end to their comfortable evenings together, and to any chance of happiness for her. She told herself it was no more than she deserved, but many was the night she would lie in bed torturing herself. She imagined some pretty, blonde young thing cooking Harry's meals and darning his clothes for him.
"Are you sure you don't mind me being here every night?" she asked
"Mind?" he repeated, as if he were unsure of the meaning of the word.
"Yes. I just thought perhaps I might be in the way, if you wanted to have a lady friend or something…"
He opened his mouth to ask why on earth he would need a lady friend when he had her, when comprehension began to dawn.
"I'm fine," he said, "To tell you the truth, I'm very happy with our little set up. If you're bored though, we could always go out. We could go to the flicks, or perhaps for a drink."
"Just like the old days."
"No, not like the old days," he said angrily, "I'll have no more skulking in corners. If we go out, we'll walk down the street arm in arm and I won't care who sees us."
"I'd like that. I just wish…"
Harry held up a finger to silence her. "There's no point in dwelling on the past, sweetheart. You've got a second chance now; you really don't need to rake things over."
Persie wouldn't let the issue rest; she wanted Harry to understand how she felt. "I was spoilt, and wilful.."
"and selfish," Harry added, unhelpfully. He felt guilty as her face fell. "Sorry, that was unkind. The thing is you're passionate and when you decide to do something, you do it, whatever the consequences. I don't think you're a bad person, but you made some bad choices.
"But other people suffered because of me…you, little Henry…"
"And now you're making it up to us." Harry had reached his limits when it came to profound conversation. He started fiddling with the wireless set. "Now sweetheart, ITMA is on, could we just listen please."
Typical man, Persie thought, but she was grateful to leave the painful subject of the past behind, at least for now. The secret was always there though, nagging away.
What she didn't realise was that Harry already suspected that she had lied to him about Henry's real age. There were too many clues. Neither could he ignore the number of people who assumed, on seeing them, that they were father and son. It happened on the street, at football, in the garage.
Eventually Henry had picked up on it. "I wish you were my Dad," he had said, bringing a lump into Harry's throat. As the boy's birthday came around he decided it was now or never. He had to know the truth and he might never have a better chance.
"Look at him," Harry laughed, waving at Henry, as he played with his cousin in the little garden, "It's hard to believe he's really nine already"
"Yes, I can hardly bel…..ah" Persie stammered to a halt, blushing a dark pink as she realised that she had been caught out.
"Tell me the truth, Persie. Don't you think you owe me that, at least?"
"I didn't lie about his birthday, Harry, it is today. But you're right, he was born in May 1937, soon after I arrived in Berlin. The thing is I don't know who the father is – I was sleeping with Von Ribbentrop as well as with you the previous autumn, either of you could be the father." She hung her head, pain etched across her face. There were no words which could justify what she had done.
"You should have told me," was Harry's simple response. "Besides you only have to look at him, to spend time with him to know that he cannot be the son of that Nazi, it's just not possible." He spat out the last few words in disgust.
"I hope he's not, Harry, really I do. Besides, I know that Henry would be proud to have you as his father. The thing is, I never want you to feel an obligation to either of us. Henry is my responsibility, and he always will be."
She was trying to look determined and defiant, but actually she just looked sad. Harry couldn't resist the urge to put an arm around her shoulder and kiss her hair.
"Don't worry sweetheart, I'll do what I think is right." He didn't explain what the right thing was; he needed time to think.
It took him a week to make up his mind. Friday night came around. Another successful week had come to a close, and he had splashed out on a bottle of French wine to accompany their supper. He finished the washing up and came back into the living room, where Persie was reading a magazine. Twice he opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again. Finally he took a deep breath and launched in.
"There's something I need to ask you, Persie. If you think I'm being presumptuous, you must promise to forget all about it, and we'll never speak of it again."
He twisted his hands in his lap, unsure how to go on. Persie watched him carefully, hardly daring to move or speak.
She laughed to hide her nervousness, "Harry, whatever the question is, the answer is yes."
It was Harry's turn to laugh nervously, "What if I want you to tear all your clothes off and make passionate love with me, right here on the floor?" he teased.
"If that's the question, the answer is most definitely yes," she said, raising her eyebrows flirtatiously.
"Well actually, all I wanted to know is if you fancied going to the flicks on Saturday night?" Harry regretted the words as soon as they were out of his mouth. He felt guilty at the look of pained disappointment on her face.
"Harry, please don't tease me. I know I was cruel to you, but I don't deserve this." Persie struggled to keep her voice even and hold back the tears that threatened.
Crossing the room to where she was sitting, he lifted her up into his arms and held her close, gently stroking her hair. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," he whispered. "Come here," he led her over to the sideboard and opened a drawer, fishing out a small box.
Flushing with embarrassment, he dropped awkwardly onto one knee. "Lady Persephone," he said, his tone formal, "would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?" He offered her the box which contained a simple ring with a single small diamond.
Persie bit her lip, but nothing could stop the tears from coursing down her cheeks.
"Oh, come on now, it's not that bad," Harry grouched as he struggled back up to his feet.
"I don't deserve you, darling," she said, kissing his hands, first one then the other.
"I'm not sure I deserve you," he said wryly, twisting the meaning. "But we're good together, aren't we. Besides it means Henry will have a real father, at last."
"He'll be so happy, I know he will." Her pleasure in anticipating the boy's reaction almost outweighed her own.
"We should tell him the truth you know, I don't want any more lies." Harry insisted firmly.
A look of pain crossed Persie's face. He'd made her uncomfortable again.
"Listen to me," he said, sounding deadly serious. "Henry is my son. I know it, you know it, and he should know it. That's the end of the matter and we'll hear no more about it."
"I can pop into the Registry Office tomorrow and make the arrangements," Harry offered, "unless of course you'd like to wait."
"I'd marry you right now, if I could, Harry Spargo," she laughed, slipping her arms around his waist and reaching up to kiss him. It was so wonderful to feel his arms around her, at that moment she never wanted to let him go.
Disappointment clouded her face when, at nine, he got up to walk her home as usual. "I thought…" she tailed off.
"No sweetheart, this time we're going to do things right. We shall have a proper wedding night together, and it will be just like the first time."
They both blushed at that, remembering their first time, all those years ago in the garage bedroom at Eaton Square.
"Beside, shouldn't I ask Sir Hallam's permission, or at least tell him?"
Persie scowled at the thought that they should be beholden to anyone, but her brother in law had been very good to her, and to her son. He at least deserved the courtesy of being the first to know.
It felt very strange to walk, arm in arm, up the steps to the front door of 165 Eaton Square. Harry gave her a little squeeze as they rang the bell, although in truth he was probably more nervous than she was. Pritchard's face was a picture. He raised an eyebrow as he looked down at Lady Persie's left hand and saw the small ring there.
"I would like to see Sir Hallam, if he is available," Harry asked with the utmost formality.
"Of course," Pritchard replied, remembering his manners, "won't you come in and wait."
Having ascertained that the master was indeed receiving visitors, Pritchard hurried downstairs as quickly as was decently possible to share the news with Mrs Thackeray and Miss Buck.
"See, I told you they had an affair, didn't I," the old cook snorted in disgust. "And what's more, I'd be willing to bet that the little boy is his – anyone can see it as has eyes in their head."
"That's enough, Clarice," Mr Pritchard interrupted her in mid-flow. "I'm sure we all hope that Lady Persephone and Mr Spargo will be very happy together," he added in his most pompous tone, although he couldn't quite keep the look of disapproval off his face.
It was a quiet wedding at Chelsea Town Hall. Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes were witnesses, and the two boys had new suits made for them. Harry had saved up enough coupons for a new suit of his own, made by Sir Hallam's own tailor. Their party was completed by Mr Pritchard, Mrs Thackeray and Miss Buck, and by Sylvester Lascelles with his wife and son.
There were gasps of surprise as Persie entered the room. Harry's eyes widened at the sight of her. She was wearing a red satin dress, long and flowing, hugging every curve. He recognised it immediately.
"I had to have it let out a little," she confessed afterwards. "But I know they all think of me as a scarlet woman, so why not live up to my reputation."
Lady Agnes had offered Eaton Square for the wedding breakfast, but Harry refused. They would have it at their own house – just to prove to the world that they had nothing to be ashamed of. He wasn't too proud to accept Mrs Thackeray's cooking though, or two bottles of Sir Hallam's finest champagne.
When the guests finally left, Persie went to lock up, but Harry stopped her.
"I've got something to show you, my wedding gift to you sweetheart. It won't take long." Handing her a jacket, he took her hand and they set off down towards the Kings' Road.
He'd had a new sign painted for the garage. "Spargo and Sons" it read, then in smaller letters below: 'Proprietors Mr and Mrs H Spargo'.
Persie cried when she saw it. "They've spelled it wrong, it has an extra 's'," she stammered, through the tears.
Harry bent down to kiss her cheek, brushing his hand lightly over her stomach. "Not at all, sweetheart, I have hopes, after all."
Hurrah, a happy ending at last for Harry and Persie. That's the end of my little story, so thanks for reading and commenting – if you've followed it through to the end, please let me know what you think – it's never too late to give feedback!
Enormous thanks to LiveSimple, jaxg, GajinVamp, Seamstress, MissMattSmith, Mirill and Drumbjo who have been so supportive and encouraging with this story – love to you all.