Lancashire, May 1921
Edie doesn’t hear the postman. She only notices the envelope, there on the linoleum, as she passes through from the kitchen to the sitting room. She bends to pick it up, sure it is a thing of no great consequence, just another bill that will have to wait, until she sees the postage stamp. It is the same stamp that used to be on their letters from France.
She turns the Manila envelope in her hands. The address is typed, so that it has a vague look of being official. She has written a lot of letters to France and Belgium over the past four years and, in return, receives envelopes full of apologies and repetitions. Her mind flicks through the names of agencies and bureaus, charities and associations, official offices and cemeteries. At first it is merely a white sheet of paper inside the envelope, with nothing written or printed upon it, but when she turns it over, she sees it is a photograph. For a moment she doesn’t know the face. For that one moment it is the face of a stranger with no place or purpose being here, in her hallway, in her hand. It is an item of misdirected post, a mistake, a mystery – but only for a moment.
Edie leans against the wall and slides down the tiles. She hugs her arms around her knees. There’s a flutter in her chest like a caged bird beating its wings against the bars. The photograph has fallen from her hands and is there, at an angle to the chequerboard pattern of the floor, an arm’s stretch away. She rocks her head back against the wall and shuts her eyes.
Edie tells herself that she needs to look at it again. She must look. She ought to look, to bring it up close to her eyes, and to be certain, because while those are surely his eyes in the photograph, everything else makes no sense. How can it be? Certainly it is only a resemblance. It can’t possibly be him, after so long. Can it? But she doesn’t need to see the photograph a second time to know the truth. It is undoubtedly Francis.
She bites at her knee and makes herself look up. She can see her own footprints on the floor, the habitual patterns that she makes around this house. The linoleum needs mopping again. She should find time to paint the scuffed skirting boards and to beat the doormat. An oak leaf has blown under the hall table, and there next to it is that library card she’s been searching for. She notices all of these things, so that she doesn’t have to look at his face. ‘How?’ She asks the question out loud.
The envelope has crumpled in her hand, but she needs to check inside it. There must be more than that picture. There must be an explanation. A meaning. But there is nothing else there. No letter. Not a sentence. Not one word. She turns the envelope over and sees her address has been typed on a machine with worn keys. The curve of the u is broken, the dot on the i is missing, but the inky perforation of the full stop is emphatic. She can’t read the smudged postmark. There are hyphens in the chain of letters, she makes out, and it is perhaps a Saint- Something- or- Other, but the blur is a divine mystery. Her hands leave damp fingerprints on the brown paper. She has grown to accept that there must be a full stop after Francis’ name, but could she have got that wrong? Could there really be a chance? It is strange to see her own fingers tremble that way.
She rocks onto her side and feels the cold of the floor against her cheek. The photograph is there, inches from her hand. She hears footsteps going along the pavement outside, the buddleia tapping against the sitting- room window in the breeze, the beat of a waltz on Mrs Wilson’s wireless next door, but mostly there is the noise of her own breathing.
She shouldn’t be here, lying on the hall floor on a Tuesday morning, with her face pressed down against lino that needs mopping, but how hard it is to make herself move. Why is it so difficult to stretch her hand out towards the photograph? To believe that it really is him?
The sun is slanting through the fanlight now, and the harlequin colours of the glass are elongating across the tiles, jewelling his face in red and green and gold. The face of her husband, who has been missing for the past four years.