See Emily Play
The nurse changed the date. “Today is 1st May.”
“Good morning, Emily. How are you this morning?”
1st May? Oh no, it would be so boring. Standing outside for hours and then a dinner where there would be very long speeches. All those old men and all those toasts. “Daddy, do I have to go today?”
“Of course, we must go, Emily It is part of my job. You cannot be an ambassador and not do boring things.”
“But I’m not the ambassador.”
“No, but people always like to see you. If you were not there, people would ask where you were. President Stalin is always pleased to see you. There will be a wonderful dinner this evening.”
“I don’t like President Stalin. He frightens me. I have heard people telling stories about him, people at those dinners say that bad things happen to those who don’t agree with him.”
“Emily! You must not say such things. In an embassy, we hear things, but we do not say them. What do you think the government at home would think of an ambassador’s daughter who was rude about the president of our host country? Anyway, just think how many people will admire your new dress. There aren’t many dresses like that in Moscow.”
“Daddy, there’s not very much of anything in Moscow. Have you been to the shops? We are lucky we have dollars to go to the special shops. I wonder how bad it must be for the ordinary people going to the ordinary shops. I’m glad this is not our country.”
“Emily, enough! It is time we started getting ready.”
Through the window, Emily could see the vivid pinkness of the cherry trees. It always seemed sad to her that the blossom did not linger longer, the things she loved never seemed to last, she did not know how long it had been since she last saw her mother. Unpleasant things lasted longer, like winters in Moscow.
“Emily, would you like a cup of tea?” The nurse picked up a large teapot.
“Emily, we have some news. We are going home to the States. There have been a few problems about paperwork, and I need to go back home to sort things out. Won’t it be great to be back in America? Imagine going shopping in New York! Imagine all of the new friends you will make.”
“Daddy, that’s wonderful. Is Mummy going to move to America as well? When do we move? What is our house going to be like? Where shall I go to school?”
“So many questions! Do not worry, it is going to be a happy time. Once everything has been sorted out, we shall head off again. Not to Moscow this time, though, perhaps the president will appoint me somewhere altogether different.”
The times in Moscow replayed through Emily’s mind, grey, cold, frightening. It would be a relief to go away from President Stalin and his friends.
“What are you going to have to eat?” asked the nurse.
“Paris, Emily, just imagine being in Paris in the springtime. Being ambassador in Paris will be something else.”
“Shall we be able to visit Mummy’s grave when we go to France? I should like to go to see her grave. I should like to take her some flowers. Do you think she would like some flowers?”
“Well, perhaps. But why not think about happy things as well? Just think about all the other things you will be able to do in France. Think of the shops and the chateaux and the dances and all the beautiful places we might go. I’ll tell you what, next spring we shall have a spring ball in Paris like the one we had last year in Moscow.”
“What with animals and birds from the zoo and people saying that it was the best ball that they had ever attended?”
“Of course. We shall have a ball that people will talk about for years to come, and you will be the hostess and when they are old people will say, ‘do you remember Emily’s ball that spring night in Paris?’”
“And shall I be able to buy my dress from a Paris designer?”
“But, of course, what sort of a ball would it be if your gown were not the best there was? We shall have the finest banquet; you will choose all of the dishes on the menu.”
“And I shall take some flowers from the ball to Mummy’s grave.”
“Perhaps. We shall see what happens.”
“Emily, would you like some more of this?” asked the nurse.
“Daddy, what’s happening? They are saying that we must move, they are saying that I must go back to the States without you. I do not want to go back without you. Why aren’t you coming home? I don’t understand why you are staying here.”
“It’s the war, Emily. The war has changed everything.”
“But America is not in the war.”
“No, but France is, and Hitler’s army will soon be arriving in Paris. It is time for you to go. You are going back to where it is safe. Paris is not the place for a teenage American girl. It will all be changed. There will be nothing left of the Paris we loved.”
“But where are you going?”
“I am going to stay here. I am going to wait and see what happens. What matters is getting you home safe.”
“Emily, you should eat more,” said the nurse, “it is not good for you not to eat. Even when we don’t feel that we want any food, we still need to make sure that we eat.”
Emily was confused at what had happened. Her father had stayed in Paris, he had been there when the Nazi forces had arrived, but President Roosevelt had become angry at him. Why was the President angry about someone staying where he had sent them? Emily could not understand the world of presidents and politicians.
Emily was proud of a photograph of her father. He had not returned to the United States in 1940, instead he had joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces. Instead of the safe life of a diplomat, he had chosen life as an officer in an army exiled from its own country, a country occupied by brutal invaders. Emily had known little of what had happened. Why had her father chosen to be a soldier? Perhaps President Roosevelt had not wanted him to come home to America.
Emily tried to remember what had happened. Where had she lived while her father was fighting for General de Gaulle? What had Paris been like? Who had moved into their house at Chantilly? Did someone look after her father’s wine cellar? It was all so muddled. No-one could explain. Had everyone forgotten?
After the war, after the horror, Emily had returned to Paris. The fashion houses were re-opening. There were words of complaint, who could afford such luxury? Emily had bought dresses; she had been told of her beauty. France was not a place to linger, though. Paris was poor and grey compared with the city she remembered.
“I don’t think you are going to eat any more, do you?” The nurse looked at a plate on which most of the food remained. “You must take your medicine, now, Emily, otherwise you won’t be well. We don’t want to have to call the doctor.” The nurse picked up a bottle.
“Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?”
Emily closed her eyes. Faces appeared and reappeared. Men, four? Had there been four?
Why had her mother not come to the wedding? Four times she had not come to the wedding. Was her mother upset at being left in that grave in France? Perhaps her father had said that she should not come, he had always tried to keep her mother away.
In Ireland, a house in the country and the sound of horses’ hooves, again and again, the sound of many horses, galloping. Emily felt an excitement in her heart. The horses had been her joy, the horses and the foals, and the sales and the races. The colours of jockeys’ silks mingled with the chestnut and the bay and the grey. The cries of bookmakers reached her above the drone of conversations. The sound of voices grew louder and louder, pleas and shouts and cheers and groans. There was laughter and words of congratulation, bottles were uncorked, champagne was poured.
Where were her horses? Had someone fed them? How much did she owe? Where was the next meeting? Emily looked around. She would have spoken if she had been able to do so, asked if anyone had been to the stables. Did they know how to handle horses?
On the whiteboard on the clinic wall, the nurse had written, “Today is 1st May. The weather today is warm and dry.” A picture of a smiling sun had been drawn beside the words.
“Shall we brush your hair, Emily?” asked the nurse.
Searching for a hairbrush in the locker beside Emily’s bed, the nurse found old black and white photographs in cardboard mounts. The nurse looked quizzical as she stared at the photographs one by one.
“What are these, Emily? You have lots of pictures here of people in expensive clothes, where did you get these? Look at this one, there is a girl here who looks a bit like you. Was she someone you knew? Look at all the men in their bow ties and the women in their ball dresses. Look at all the jewellery! It would have been some occasion to attend, wouldn’t it Emily? Imagine being the sort of person who could hold a dance like that one. You would have to be very rich or famous to be invited, wouldn’t you? Not for the likes of us, is it Emily?”
“Shall we push you down to the dayroom, Emily? It must get gloomy sitting here all day with only your memories for company. Perhaps there will be some music this afternoon. Did you like to dance when you were young?”
Emily stared past the nurse, through the window beyond.
The May sunshine shone through the cherry trees. In the patches of shadow and light, she thought she saw a person moving, someone walking toward her. Perhaps her mother had come to take her home. Perhaps her mother would take her back to America. Perhaps her mother had not died and been buried in France, perhaps that was just a story she had been told. Perhaps her mother knew that Emily still needed her. Perhaps her father would be waiting for her. Perhaps he would be happy that Emily’s mother had come home. Emily smiled. Perhaps there would be a new dress, a dress even finer than the one she had worn at the spring ball in Moscow. Perhaps there would be dancing.
A bit of amateur historical fiction based on the life of a woman I used to visit in a nursing home.