London, December 1945…
Charlie’s new boss said he was bitter and twisted.
Perhaps he was. After six years of absolute hell, he had lost the ability to view the world through the rose-tinted spectacles he had worn at twenty-three when he had enlisted. All that time he had yearned for hearth and home, only to return to discover his home, his hearth, his family, his future—in fact his entire life in the East End—no longer existed
He huffed out a resigned sigh as he stared at the pile of rubble on the corner of Love Lane. Those broken stones had once been the church of St Mary Aldermanbury, designed by Wren himself after the first Great Fire of London and, ironically, was raised to the ground after the second in December 1940. Now all that remained were some walls and the burnt-out bell tower which all felt too symbolic to his jaded, battle-weary eyes.
Charlie hadn’t been home to witness the Blitz first-hand, but he had heard all about that fateful night thanks to one of Rita’s early letters. He been in France back then and by the time that precious missive had found him it was already two months out of date. They would have to find a new wedding venue, she had said, because the one they had chosen before he had left for the front was gone and she had no intention of delaying their nuptials again because of bloody Hitler.
Marriage was going to be their next adventure, but then every day was an adventure as far as Rita was concerned. After all, they only had one life and she was hellbent that they live it to the fullest together. Even the dreadful ravages of the Blitz couldn’t dampen her indomitable spirit. But he wasn’t to worry about any of the wedding plans because she was on the case. Rita was as impatient as she was wonderful and an eternal, unstoppable optimist to her core.
Knowing Rita, it would likely be the wedding of the century and for five long years he had smiled every time he pictured it.
She had always been tenacious like that.
From the first moment they had met at Wolverley Street school when they were kids and the boys’ playground had been on the ground and the girls’ high up on the roof. Three floors and two sets of sturdy iron railings and one very real threat of expulsion hadn’t stopped Rita from dragging him into mischief with her. He only had to look into her lovely blue eyes, take her hand and hear the intoxicating words Follow me, Charlie and he would have followed her to the ends of the earth. By twelve he was hopelessly in love with her.
He still was.
It didn’t matter that she’d been dead by the time he had received that letter in France, her house in Bethnal Green flattened by the Luftwaffe on the exact same night as his mother’s. Not that he had known that unfortunate fact then either.
From the moment he had been captured in the dark days before Dunkirk, he had tried to channel Rita’s determination and had been furiously trying to escape his German captors to get back to her.
He had even come close to doing it too on more than one occasion before success had been cruelly snatched from his fist at the last moment. Which meant the Nazis had moved him from stalag to stalag all over the Third Reich for the next five years. The Red Cross finally got word to him that his mother had died. They never managed to trace Rita in the death records though, and he clung to the forlorn hope that his plucky sweetheart had survived like a drowning man to a life raft.
After he was liberated, he had gone searching for any word of her amongst the bombsite that had once been her street. He knew in his heart that even in the midst of complete chaos, his intrepid Rita would have left him a trail to follow. For years he had felt that. Believed it unconditionally with every fibre of his being. Still did, truth be told, which was why his boss had been so angry at him today.
And all because his workmates had invited him out tonight. It was time to move on they had said, find a new girl, and just like that his temper had snapped. Even though he knew they meant well, and despite discovering on that fateful day all those months ago on that bombsite that Rita was dead and had been already by the time he had received that final letter from her in France telling him about this church, he didn’t want a new girl. He wanted the old one.
The only one.
And no matter how much common sense told him it was futile, his foolish heart wasn’t anywhere near ready to let her go.
That was why he had diligently avoided this church on Love Lane since his return, even though it had ruthlessly called to him and willed him to visit. Several times a week his feet brought him close before he swerved to avoid it. Coming here felt too much like admitting she was gone forever.
Instead, he had denied the awful truth by not thinking about it. From somewhere he found enough strength to drag himself out of bed every morning. To go through the motions of the drab, interminable existence which now played out in monotonous black and white while his heart yearned for the wonderful woman who had always filled it with Technicolor.
But his boss was right. The war had been over for six months and she had been dead for years. It was time to grieve.
Charlie wandered into the empty shell of the church and laid the bunch of flowers he had brought on what was left of the altar. He closed his eyes and tried, for the first time in six months, to conjure her rather than deny the pain. In typical Rita fashion she came all in a rush, overwhelming his senses and filling his aching heart with joy. So real, he could smell her perfume—always violets—and feel her essence in the empty void.
But what to say except goodbye? She knew he loved her. Likely knew too that he was incapable of loving anybody else. He had never been any good at making speeches…
“You took your own sweet time coming here, Charlie Jones.” And now, apparently, he could hear her in his head too. Always impatient. Even in death. “I’ve been hanging around for five years waiting for you to turn up like a bad penny.”
“I know, love. I’m sorry. I would have come sooner but…” A hand touched his shoulder and he spun around then blinked at the apparition who was beaming back at him with tears in her eyes. Exactly the same as she always was—but different.
Her blonde curls tamed in victory rolls. Her pert figured encased in a nurse’s uniform beneath her open winter coat. As one tear rolled down her cheek, he reached out because it looked so real, and then stared in disbelief at the moisture on his finger.
“They told me you were missing in action… presumed dead. I refused to believe it because I could still feel you...” She touched her heart. “Here.”
“They told me you’d died during the Blitz.”
“Thank god they were wrong.” She ran her hands over his face, his shoulders, his chest, as if she couldn’t quite believe he was all in once piece. Then her lovely eyes became troubled and she stepped back. “It’s been a long time… if you’re here to tell me you’ve gone and married someone else when I’ve been diligently walking past this church every damned night for five years then…”
He shook his head, laughter bubbling out of him like foaming champagne when he saw his ring still on her finger, the muscles of his face aching because they had forgotten how to smile. “There’s only ever been you, Rita.”
He hauled her into his arms. Tears streaming down his own face now at the unexpected miracle fate had gifted him, wishing he’d listened to the nagging call of Love Lane months ago when he had first heard it, pouring everything he had into a kiss that apparently had the power to make everything better. “I should have come here sooner. I wanted too but couldn’t. I was too scared to come in case you were…” She pressed a finger over his lips.
“All that matters is that you are here now.” Then she shook him by the shoulders. “And I’ll bloody kill you myself if you ever think of leaving me again.”
She kissed him and the heavens chose that moment to open. As the rain splashed their faces they gazed up at the sky where the roof should have been. “Did you ever find another wedding venue?”
“Of course, I did.” She grinned as she held out her hand and, as her fingers closed around his, the last six years of hell melted away as his bright, Technicolor future all suddenly returned in a whoosh as she yanked him into the downpour. “Follow me, Charlie…”
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