Decisions (Published in Southwell u3a Newsline Jan 23)
I sat next to her. She was so excited, her gloved hand fluttering nervously, restlessly. I placed my hand over hers to reassure her, something that I had done many times over the years. This was a proud day for her, for both of us actually. I heard someone behind us comment on how proud his father would have been, seeing his only son pass out at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. “His father had such an illustrious military career” they said. “What a tragedy for him to have died so prematurely, such a dashing and charismatic man.”
I smiled to myself, thinking back all those years, twenty-five to be exact. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. This was my first secretarial post since leaving college, and I was both delighted and nervous to have been offered it. I was to be secretary to Lady Annabelle Marshal. Her husband, General Sir Alistair Marshal, had in fact interviewed me for the post, explaining that his wife was of a nervous disposition, and needed a personal assistant to help her deal with what he described as “Life’s irritations”. At the time I thought this remark rather condescending, but what did I know about the aristocracy, and he was so handsome and charming, to my inexperienced eye. Any slightly critical thoughts were immediately dismissed; like everyone else I was in thrall to this charismatic man.
My first few months were an education, learning quickly how to mix with high society, but always, of course, discreetly in the background. I was, after all, only staff, although I must admit, Lady Annabelle was never patronising to me. She always treated me as a friend rather than an employee, for which I was truly grateful. I remember the day she asked me to accompany her to Harley Street. Taking me into her confidence, she revealed how desperate she was to become a mother, saying if she couldn’t produce an heir, Sir Alastair would be terribly disappointed with her.
Naively, I assured her that her husband adored her, and wouldn’t mind at all if she couldn’t conceive. I remember so well the look she gave me, the great sadness in her eyes, which I confess, at the time I didn’t fully understand. Several months later, her excitement knew no bounds. She was pregnant.
Having had several miscarriages in the past, she was advised to retire to their country retreat, as this was thought to be beneficial for her health. Although Benfield House was lovely, set in the Yorkshire countryside, I did miss the excitement of city life, with theatres, concerts, parties, and last but not least, my current boyfriend. Annabelle, on the other hand, didn’t seem to miss any of these things, obsessed as she was with becoming a mother. I suppose the high life was normal to her, whilst to me everything was still a novelty. The countryside was beautiful, but I did find it a little dull sometimes.
I will never forget the only visit we had from Sir Alastair whilst we were in Yorkshire. His arrival heralded a week of shooting parties, dinner parties and various social gatherings. Always the life and soul of any occasion, he certainly livened the place up.
I was in the habit of taking Lady Annabelle’s night-time medication to her. This particular evening I had also planned to tell her that I, too, was pregnant. My unplanned pregnancy came as quite a shock to me, and I hadn’t a clue how she would react. I rather hoped her also being pregnant would work in my favour. She had come to rely on me a great deal recently, and I was worried she would think I had let her down.
This was at a time she needed extra support, so, I wasn’t looking forward to telling her. How it would affect my employment, I had no idea. Approaching her bedroom with trepidation, I rehearsed exactly what I was going to say. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. As I was about to knock on her door, I heard Sir Alastair shouting at her, cruelly ridiculing her about how useless she was, and how this pregnancy had better be more successful than her previous pathetic attempts. He said she had better give him an heir, otherwise she would regret it. To this day I can hear her wretched sobs.
Trembling, I hurried back to my own rooms. Poor Annabelle. Now I understood the sadness in her eyes. How could I have misjudged him so? The bastard.
I dreaded seeing her the following morning, expecting her to be miserable. I know I was. But no, she greeted me with her usual smile, and suggested we dealt with a pile of correspondence. I had assumed there would be tears; goodness knows she would have been justified, but the good old British stiff upper lip was in place for the whole world to see. At that moment, I knew my loyalty lay totally with her. She, of course, was unaware of my thoughts, so I decided to delay telling her about my pregnancy, although ironically, as events unfolded, it was pivotal to our future. Three weeks later, disaster struck. Lady Annabelle complained of back pain, so we postponed our daily walk, deciding instead to relax on the terrace. I honestly can’t remember what came first, the cry of pain, or the fall. Whichever it was, the result was the same.
Lady Annabelle was miscarrying.
It was at that moment I had an outrageous idea, so outrageous I struggled to articulate it. I managed to get her onto her bed. But it was obvious, even to my inexperienced eye, that she had lost her baby. To say she was devastated was an understatement. She was inconsolable, clinging to me like a child, begging me to not to go for help, telling me this would be the end of her marriage.
What was I to do?
I was still pregnant and didn’t want to be. She wasn’t pregnant and was desperate to be. It made perfect sense. I told Annabelle of my pregnancy. Convincing her of the feasibility of what I was suggesting took a while, but eventually she agreed, and we made our plans. Fortunately for us, Sir Alistair was away on manoeuvres during this period, which helped enormously with the execution of our scheme. My pregnancy wasn’t that apparent; I didn’t show much, and wore loose clothing to disguise any increase in my girth. To the outside world she was still pregnant, and we even managed to obtain a false pregnancy bump from a local drama group. Living quietly away from prying eyes was imperative, even with the help of the false bump. Lady Annabelle had a sister who lived in Switzerland, which was perfect, and the Swiss air was ideal for a pregnant lady. We had to involve her sister in our plan, but Annabelle assured me of her discretion. Arrangements were made, and off we went.
I honestly can’t remember my emotions during this period. I suppose I must have been apprehensive. After all, we were taking an enormous risk, the consequences of which were terrifying, but there was no turning back. Two weeks before Annabelle’s due date, I went into labour. The local doctor was sent for, and a bouncing baby boy was delivered, the doctor thinking that I was Lady Annabelle. I must admit, fate was definitely on our side, as Sir Alistair was somewhere, incommunicado, with the British Army, who kindly got the message to him that he had a son. All we had to do now was to return to England, as ourselves.
Annabelle was besotted with Edward, Alistair, Peregrine Marshal. I know, it wouldn’t have been my choice of names either, but then, it was none of my business. Other mothers may think me heartless, but I did get to see my son grow up, in the type of comfort and security I could never have given him, plus, I am his favourite aunty.
He was an easy child, always smiling, mischievous and crazy about anything military. Everyone of course agreed that he had inherited this from his father. Everyone, that is, except Lady Annabelle. She would always wink at me whenever this was said. I would smile back, silently acknowledging our shared secret. I have a secret of my own, and I am the only person in the whole wide world who knows this. Annabelle never did ask me who his father was. A wise decision, I think.
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