The self-conscious loop of Albert’s writing filled Grace with an unexpected warmth. She remembered how she’d cherished the almost daily missives which had punctuated their courtship, felt again the bittersweet longing for the postman to arrive, watching for him from the window of their lodgings, the thrill of envelopes on the hallstand. When a letter arrived she’d find a quiet corner where she’d be confident of being undisturbed. Sometimes that was easy because her parents were still in bed and her brothers off to work or school. Sometimes it meant secreting the letter in a pocket until she could take a few minutes to sit in the park on her way to run an errand. On a few occasions she’d read Albert’s latest missive in an outside privy. She imagined the jokes he would have made about that had he known, but she never admitted it to him. She’d read every word he wrote over and over, memorised her favourite parts and touched the script to get closer to his meaning.
Grace and Albert had met when he’d come to The Theatre Royal in Brighton with his sister, Jean and friend, George. Henry and Edith were appearing as ‘The Vanderbilts’ in a comic song and dance routine, second on the bill. Had she an ounce of talent, Grace could have followed her parents onto the stage (or so her mother claimed) but the mere idea of being scrutinised by so many people was anathema to her. Instead she worked, for a pittance, in the theatres where her parents performed. This particular evening she’d ushered Albert’s party to their seats. The boys, in high spirits, were joshing with one another and Grace had giggled along with Jean. The attraction was instant and the foursome met as often as they could. Edith and Henry showed little interest in their daughter’s choice of friends. So long as the chores in their lodging rooms were completed, her social life was her own.
The summer season in Brighton had ended and the family headed to Windsor for the winter. When Albert’s letters began to arrive Grace’s brothers teased her about her ‘beau’ but it was an old joke by Christmas. It was Edith who suggested Grace should forget about the scavenger’s son from Brighton and cultivate one of the Coldstream Guards who were barracked in the town. The young officers were often at the theatre singing along with the bawdy songs and Edith went as far as to invite some of them to after show soirees. She insisted her daughter attend, pushing her into the limelight, presenting her like a delicious sweetmeat to be first admired and then consumed.
Her mother’s uncharacteristic interest in her wardrobe and beauty regime was a pleasant interlude. With Edith’s encouragement, Grace had her hair cut fashionably short, curls smoothed into finger waves close to her head. Together she and her mother pored over the newspaper reports and photographs of the wedding of the Princess Royal in Westminster Abbey, marvelling at the lavishness and pomp, looking for inspiration in the cut of their clothes.
New dresses in the blues and greens of kingfishers made from diaphanous fabrics accentuated the colour of Grace’s eyes and gave her hips a sensuous curve. Grace observed how men of all ages flirted with her mother who replied with a clever insinuation of passions aroused. She saw ladies swooning, tittering, as her father cast lascivious looks carefully hidden under a veneer of gentlemanly reserve.
For a brief few months she dared to believe she might learn to belong to her parents’ world, to be as sophisticated as her beautiful mother and as quick witted as her handsome father, but Grace recoiled at innuendo and was tongue tied in the face of flattery. Some men found her blushes and stammering naivety alluring but they soon tired.
When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons married the Duke of York, Grace attempted to resurrect her brief friendship with her mother. For one afternoon they gushed over souvenir postcards.
“Oh look, eight bridesmaids and just look at those gowns, Mum.”
“Must have cost a small fortune!”
“Did you have bridesmaids when you and Dad got married?”
“Yes of course,” Edith stroked the picture in the newspaper.
“Oh, um, quite a few, six actually, yes six. All in silk and lace. My train was one hundred inches long. It was the grandest wedding they’d ever seen in Chicago. We had a ball afterwards at the Regency Hotel. It was in all the newspapers.”
“A ball, my goodness, how amazing.” Grace had hugged herself and twirled on the spot visualising the glittering ballroom with candles on every surface as her parents danced in the centre, eyes for no-one but the other. Now, looking back she wondered how she could have been so gullible, so stupid. She had even sympathised with the tale about the trunk containing photographs and newspaper cuttings in it being lost on the voyage back to England.