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A short story By Kay Rayner
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It was early summer in the mid 1920s that Emma and Humphrey were married.
The wedding was a quiet affair, with only close family and friends. Humphrey’s parents were killed in a boating accident and he only had one sibling, a sister named Claire. Claire and Humphrey were not close but she and her husband Henry chose to accept the invitation to the wedding.
Emma’s parents Robert and Gwyneth were not overjoyed their eldest daughter was marrying someone who lacked ‘good lineage’ but she seemed so in love that they decided they must support her.
Tilly, Emma’s sixteen-year-old sister was her bridesmaid and her older brother Thomas was best man.
They married in a lovely little church on one of the big estates in the village.
Six months had gone by and Emma and Humphrey appeared happy. They lived in a little rented cottage on the edge of the town of Farnborough, which was two hours north of London.
Humphrey had a job in the local butcher shop; his father had been a butcher before his death and had taught Humphrey the trade.
Emma did a little mending and sewing to help supplement the couple’s income, which was very modest.
Over dinner one night, Emma broached the subject of having a family. To Emma’s surprise Humphrey quickly tried to change the subject.
“Why! Don’t you want us to have a family?” asked Emma, rather bewildered.
“Well not just yet. We haven’t been married all that long; besides we need to save more money”, replied Humphrey. With that, Emma just gave a little nod and let the subject drop.
The months went by and on the surface, their life together seemed fine but Emma noticed Humphrey was not as attentive as he used to be and was often sharp with his tone when he spoke to her.
Sometimes Humphrey would leave the house for hours and would come back without any explanation. Emma was becoming increasingly unhappy but she felt she could not broach the subject with Humphrey.
One summer evening a year after Emma and Humphrey were married, Emma accepted an invitation to go for afternoon tea with Mrs Gray.
Mrs Gray was a kindly woman and something of a mother figure to Emma. Emma did not see a lot of her parents and siblings and missed them greatly.
While taking tea with Mrs Gray, Emma’s gaze was diverted to the window where the figure of a man dashing towards the end of the street. He was carrying a small bunch of tired-looking flowers. To her amazement, she realised it was Humphrey. Emma gasped and put her hand to her mouth to try to suppress her shock.
“What is wrong Emma?” said Mrs Gray looking worried. “Oh no, it is nothing. Sorry I thought I saw something. Its fine, I am alright”, replied Emma.
“Oh well if you are sure my dear. You know I am your friend and you can always talk to me”.
“Thank you”, said Emma, still feeling shaken by what she had seen.
Upon returning home, Emma was not sure whether to confront Humphrey and face a scene. He might have a perfect explanation and she so she decided to put it out of her mind.
Weeks passed and still Humphrey was absent from time to time.
Late on a Sunday evening after a light supper, Emma decided to talk to Humphrey again about having a family. Humphrey looked taken aback; he seemed uncomfortable as he fidgeted in his chair.
“Really, I thought we had agreed to wait”, he replied gruffly.
“We have been married over a year, and I have been saving a little money so we could afford to have a baby,” said Emma sadly.
‘Well we can think about it, but let us wait another year or so”.
‘Why do we have to wait so long?” said Emma with tears in her eyes.
“We just do. Leave it at that Emma please,” responded Humphrey as he went back to reading his newspaper.
With that, Emma got up from her chair and made her way to the bedroom.
“It will be alright” called out Humphrey after her.
That night Emma cried herself to sleep. Humphrey stayed up late to avoid more confrontation with Emma.
Emma was becoming increasingly unhappy. For a long time she kept it to herself until one day while she was visiting her parents for a ‘weekend away’ she confided in her mother. As they sat in the drawing room taking tea, she confessed.
“I am sad Mother. Humphrey seems to want to avoid having a family; every time I bring it up he either changes the subject or says we have to wait”.
“I don’t know what to say child. Maybe Humphrey has his reasons, but if he did not want a family then it should have been discussed long before you married” the older woman replied, looking sympathetically at her daughter.
“I know. We never got around to discussing it. I assumed it was a natural thing that we would have a family,” said Emma, beginning to get upset.
Her mother patted her hand kindly, “Give him more time Emma. Maybe he just wants security for you both”.
Emma nodded but was not convinced.
When Emma arrived home from her weekend spent with her parents, she felt better. She decided things would sort themselves out, and one day she would have the child she longed for.
As Emma walked into the kitchen, she called for Humphrey but there was no sign of him apart from a scribbled note on the table.
I will be away for a week or so. Do not worry everything is fine. I hope you had a pleasant stay with your family. I will be home soon.
Emma looked at the note is disbelief. Where had Humphrey gone? There was no explanation and no reason for him to be going away. She again felt worried and uneasy.
Ten days went by; Emma did what she could to keep herself busy and her mind off her absent husband.
Late one night Emma heard the door open. Humphrey walked into the living room, looking very tired and unkempt. She opened her mouth to speak but he interrupted her.
“I am sorry Emma, I am so tired. I will sleep in the spare room tonight and I will talk to you in the morning”. With that, he walked out of the room. Emma began to cry. She felt this man was not the person she fell in love with over two years ago. He was increasingly becoming a stranger to her. Secrets seemed to be everywhere; she felt unloved and frightened.
The next morning Humphrey was up early. He had bathed, shaved, and was preparing breakfast when Emma got up.
This was unlike Humphrey. Emma could not help feeling apprehensive. He gave her a half-smile when he saw her.
“Please, sit down Emma, I have made us breakfast. Let’s talk”.
Emma felt her heart start to pound. Humphrey pulled out a chair for Emma to sit down on.
“I am sorry I have been unreasonable for such a long time Emma. I know it has been hard for you and I would not have blamed you if you had left me”.
“What is wrong?” said Emma, holding her hand to her mouth.
“It’s a very long story Emma and I should have told you before we were married. I chose not to in fear of losing you. I realise now what a mistake that was”.
Emma was not sure what to think. Her head was spinning with the possibilities of what could have caused his unusual behaviour.
“Emma, I was married before I met you but I was divorced. I had a wife and child. There was a dreadful accident; my wife Mary was seriously hurt. She suffered brain damage and my daughter Charlotte was killed. I was driving the motor car. I swerved to avoid a horse on the road”.
Emma was stunned, ‘Why did you not tell me any of this? This is dreadful. How could you not tell me? It is unforgivable”.
Humphrey moved his chair closer to hers, “I know it is and it has been tormenting me all this time”. He tried to touch her hand but Emma pulled away.
“I don’t know what to say. What has happened to Mary? Where is she?” she asked, avoiding his eyes.
“She is in a home, or she was…Mary died last week. That is where I was, sorting out her affairs. Even though we were divorced, I was still her guardian, as she had no one else. We divorced six months before I met you. Mary wanted this so I could be free. We knew she would not have any quality of life and she insisted she set me free”.
Emma stood up from the table, “This is just too much to take in Humphrey. I need time to think about all this, please leave me just now…”
“I understand” he replied, picked up his hat and left the house.
It was several days before Emma and Humphrey talked about what had happened. Both were not eager to discuss it. Emma was confused and felt betrayed. Humphrey stayed away to give his wife time to digest what had been said. After a few days, he returned to the house.
After dinner one night Emma looked over to her husband and said “where to from here?”
Humphrey looked up from his book and replied, “I hope you can forgive me and we can move on with our lives, properly this time. His eyes pleaded with her. “We can have the family you want when you are ready. I was not able to think of another child for so long after my little Charlotte had died…”
“We should give it some time”, said Emma, “I am not ready right now, having a child for me is a precious thing I need to be sure our relationship is going to be strong. I need to feel I can you trust again and I need to believe that you are not keeping secrets from me,”
There was an awkward silence in the room.
“We will see”. With that, Emma left the room and went to bed.
Many years went by and there were no children. Emma died in her late 40s of a broken heart. She had chosen to stay with Humphrey out of duty and not love. Humphrey had lost Emma’s trust and it was never regained. Every time he left the house, she wondered where he was going. He did not blame her and was sad until the day he died that he had not made her happy. He knew he had made huge mistakes and he paid the price with Emma’s happiness.