Lucy hadn’t expected the arrival of George Winton, but it was the expression on Matthew’s face that told her he was more shocked than she would ever be.
George Winton had just won his first job as a lawyer in March, 1944 when Lucy met him. Matthew had returned from Europe twice since his letter to Lucy, and she’d seen him both times, although she’d made sure he hadn’t seen her. She watched him buy the newspaper from the deli during his first return and hid away until a week later. The following occasion, she sat a few rows behind him at the theatres. She never saw the end of the movie.
But George Winton gave her confidence, pulled her out of her pool of anxiety over Matthew. He was a loud man, but undeniably loving. He wasn’t very attractive, certainly not muscly like Matthew, and although he wasn’t as warm as her first love, he led a stable life. He didn’t drive fancy cars like other fellows in the neighborhood, but he took Lucy to the beach, watched her read and enjoyed the silence she offered.
Matthew arrived home a day before Lucy Garrold became Lucy Winton. The war was in a pause, all countries surfacing new ideas and strategies to outsmart each other. Maybe it was the uncertainty of his future that carried him to the Garrolds’ front door, but it was dread that welcomed him inside.
Lucy was standing by the fireplace, holding a photo frame under her chin, when she first noticed her mother staring at her, flanked by a familiar silhouette. He was tall, his chin spotted with stubble, but his hair was longer than she’d remembered last time. His hair was almost an inch long, long enough to run her fingers through.
Matthew was careful not to push Lucy, although neither really knew what to say. But an unavoidable talk of a miscarriage and a wedding brought the words to Matthew’s mouth. Suddenly he had everything to say, and Lucy had no filter available to let them in.
She didn’t cry when she shut the door behind Matthew.
‘I wrote the dedication to ye, Luce,’ Matthew said, his voice bland. For a moment, Lucy felt a stranger in his presence. She had the impression he’d written it because he had to; he’d written a book about a girl he used to love. Maybe he felt he owed it to her to write a personal message.
‘I’ve done a lot o’ things in me life, Luce. I regret so much, but, ye just ‘ave to know, I never regret’d you.’
Lucy’s heart quickened. ‘I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come see ye.’
‘I’m sorry I can’t see ye,’ he laughed, and it even made a smirk play at the corners of Lucy’s mouth.
Lucy was sure she was going to fall in love with Matthew again. He’d rushed back to war after visiting Lucy before the wedding, where he was quickly blinded by chlorine gas. Matthew Wellington lost sight permanently on September 21st, 1944. When he returned, as per usual, Lucy kept quiet, unaware of his condition. She didn’t run into him on the street, she didn’t see him sitting at the cinema. He wasn’t anywhere to be found and, in the end, she waited the week out and assumed he’d gotten back on the bus.
It wasn’t until December that she saw him. He had a long stick in front of him, his mother with her arms around him, hobbling alongside him down the street. The wind had knocked Lucy flat in the face. Beside George in the middle of the street, she watched Matthew and Mrs Wellington enter the old library. Stopped in the middle of the road in the hot, Australian summer, the heat from the gravel road radiated up through her sandals, singeing the pads of her toes. Her yellow dress wasn’t as vibrant anymore. The sun wasn’t as bright. It clouded over itself, faded by the sight of Matthew slung over his mother, unseeing of the path ahead. The sun had watched Matthew lose his sight on the battlefield, and now it glowed sympathetically over Lucy.
Lucy couldn’t help but think it was her fault. She’d driven him away.
But Matthew was still alive, and he lived his life as good as any. For two years, at least. Lucy ran into him at fairs and markets, and fought the urge to cry as she had to explain who she was. Every time she watched as his face lit up, as if he’d miraculously forgot the past four years of agony. She envied his ability to move on, his ability to hug her with a friendliness that sent a dagger to her chest. Suddenly, everyone in town knew who Matthew was, and helped him along, tapping him on the shoulder and offering complementary goods from the farmers’ markets. Lucy lay awake beside George in bed and tried, tried so desperately, to battle the sense of belonging she craved in Matthew’s company.
‘’Ere, take me book and ‘ave a read.’ Matthew winked, looking dazedly past her face. ‘Gives ye a reason to come back.’
Lucy reached for the book. The cover was uneven, as if Matthew had worn it away, but the pages smelt untouched. The scent of the unread book sent a shiver down her spine. It smelt like his letters.
Lucy’s last letter from Matthew was sent two years after she’d first seen him, standing in the middle of the road, as he walked blindly into the library with his mother. He’d been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; it’d hit him in his sleep on the anniversary of the chlorine gas.
Matthew had spent five years at the institute, forever cared for by nurses and jelly in cups. When Lucy had first visited him, she understood why he was kept there – she barely recognized him. The nurses, “the enemy” in Matthew’s mind, fought against him everyday to shower him, to feed him, to exercise him and then to put him to bed at night. Day in, night out he was trapped in a world of blinding chlorine gas.
The hallucinations faded gradually, which Lucy was told she’d helped greatly with. Mr and Mrs Wellington visited Matthew, but he wasn’t as calm with them as he was with Lucy. She held his hand, read him novels and watched him fall asleep.
It was her last visit that Matthew had asked something of Lucy. He wanted her to read his letters aloud. It wasn’t that Lucy had gotten rid of them, but she knew she wouldn’t have been able to handle reading the love-filled letters, to look at his boyish handwriting and see the blotches of ink he called a full stop. Lucy was sure she wouldn’t be able to hold back the emotions that forced their way through her barrier every time she visited Matthew.
Lucy left that day with no intention of ever going back.
Lucy pulled out of the compact car park and wound the window up. She let the smell of the book resonate its scent throughout the car, throwing memories across her vision that made tears brim in her eyes. She’d memorized every single letter Matthew had sent her, including the one smudged by both their tears.
Driving along the coast, Lucy pulled the car to a stop and carefully opened the book. She let a tear fall upon the first page, empty and white, yet full with one name. Lucy.
Lucy read Matthew’s book in less than three hours. Her eyes skimmed every page, quicker than a normal read, but taking in every single word. Matthew was an artist, she noticed. He detailed his feelings in one sentence, while others would have struggled for a paragraph. The book was completely Matthew.
She found comfort in his novel. His story was her story, and his words brought both tears of laughter and sadness to her eyes. With her bare feet slumped across the dashboard like she had in his truck many summers ago, she felt young and alive in the pages of Matthew’s novel.
The last chapters recounted the many times Lucy had visited the institute, and she cried her way through the pain he wrote about the years he’d gone unvisited. He wrote about his father’s death and his mother’s inability to visit him for the fear of seeing her husband in his face. He wrote about his loneliness, the slowly returning hallucinations and nightmares of trenches, bloody corpses and chlorine gas.
On the last page of the novel, Matthew couldn’t have known Lucy was going to return. So he wrote the end to his story. The words took Lucy back to their first kiss at the Royal Fair, at the bubbling laughter she couldn’t have swallowed even if she’d wanted to at their Senior Formal, and then to the way it had felt to fall asleep in his arms. Safe.
Loving Lucy Garrold does not bring an end to this story. I’ve spent years choosing the perfect words to best express the endless joy she sparks in every person she encounters, and I am yet to find a way to end this tale of love and loss. There is no end to a story that was never allowed to see its way through to the finale. So I wait, I wait here for her, and here is where the end will arrive.
Lucy took a breath and swallowed. The book was light in her lap, weightless.
She pulled her legs down from the dashboard and placed the book atop her purse on the passenger seat. She switched the engine on, listened to it chugging to life and let her feet shake over the clutch and accelerator. But instead of continuing on in the same direction, Lucy Garrold flung the car around and drove back to Matthew Wellington. It was only then that the story could truly be at its end.