It was three days after my forty-second birthday that I got the news in the form of a smart little note from Walter: Kitty Butler had passed away.
I'd had a pleasant birthday celebration, calm and quiet like so many of my settled life with Florence that contrasted so deliciously to my rather eventful past. Our friends visited and I was given with the most charming gifts; my favourite being the exquisitely soft black trousers given to me by Florence for 'special occasions', and which must have cost a pretty penny. Little Cyril (though he was not so little by then) wrapped up the prettiest of blue brooches that went astoundingly well with my favoured suit, the one I never wore around the house for fear of spoiling it. He had always been a little sweetheart with a big smile and a bigger heart.
The words in Walter's note were firm and unemotional, but then I did not expect him to be crushed too much by his loss, except perhaps as a break in his routine.
To my surprise, both Flo and I were invited to the funeral. I ripped the letter into shards and watched it turn to cinders in our modest fireplace but the day of it, my mourning dress was spread out on the bed and ironed to perfection. Florence was already dressed right up to her sad little smile.
"What's this, then?" I asked, even if I already knew.
"She was your first love," said Florence in her sensible way, pressing a short efficient kiss to my open lips. "She took you from Whitstable. She brought you to London, to me. I'd very much like to thank her for that. And you must say goodbye."
"Walter will be there," I protested. "And I have nothing to say."
She knew me well and ignored any argument I had after that.
It had been a while since I'd appeared in public in a dress, so used to strapping myself up in real clothes had I become. For that was how I thought about it, these days. Once trousers and suits had been a novelty, fancy dress as they would say, yet now it felt that way to be cinched at the waist and held up into curves by the loose lines of my dress. I felt rather out of place, stumbling over my skirts as I boarded the train.
Florence just elbowed me and ordered me to be quiet; my twittering was quite irking her, and she had spent hours as it was listening to me go on.
I sulked the rest of the way but Florence did not indulge my mood; instead she sat silent reading through some suffrage literature. "We're nearly there," she'd enthused just a few nights before. "Mark my words, Nancy, we'll have the vote soon."
Of course, I had remained unimpressed. "What's the use of a vote," I asked, "without someone competent to deserve it? Is there a politician out there worth all of this trouble?"
"Oh, Nance," Florence had replied. "Have you learnt nothing in all these years?"
I had told her, with a wicked smile, I had learnt much more than she guessed and dipped my lips to show her just how much.
We arrived at the station near where the funeral was being held and decided, since the day was so kind, we should walk to the cemetery. Flo held my hand, as bold and bright as ever though her face told a different tale, then. It was as though it was she who was being brought back to such a memory of her old life instead of me. Not a single cloud marred the sky as we approached the group gathering for the funeral. The priest stood by somberly and cast such a darkness on the proceedings that it quite made up for the good weather; he seemed determined to lament Kitty's life, rather than to celebrate it.
Perhaps that was more appropriate. Hardly anyone showed their faces. There were a few, from the old days. Billy was there with his pretty wife and adult family, casually commenting how unusual it was to see me decked out so in such a pretty dress. I fidgeted under the weight of the fabric and his praise, but smiled.
Walter didn't recognise me at first. Why should he? The years had lined my skin and paled my cropped hair. My figure was still slim but my shoulders had gathered the beginnings of a hunch from all those hours bent over the writing desk for Flo. I was not the young, innocent girl I had been in his presence. I was not the naive thing he had all but destroyed.
I introduced myself: "It's Nancy Astley - Nan King, Walker. You did invite me."
He seemed alarmed but shook my hand and tipped his hat to Florence, who didn't smile. She could forgive a drunkard for ruining her new skirt just two nights ago and she could forgive the most hardened criminal who came to her for help but she could not forgive him for the scars I still held on my heart.
Billy took me aside once the funeral was over and Kitty's body was safe in the ground. "He wouldn't have known, Nan. That you were coming. Kitty wrote the invites herself from what I heard."
"She did?" I asked, surprised. "She knew she was not long for this world, then?"
"Her heart was weak," he replied in the hushed tones of the graveyard. "She knew it. We all did, really. She'd been weak since she... well, since tragedy befell her and Walter back in her youth," he said and his coy words surprised me almost as much as the revelation. She had lost a child all those years ago, before I saw her last: had her heart already committed slow mutiny then? "She wanted to see you, before the end. It came quicker than we had hoped."
I nodded, soaking it all in, though that was almost impossible. My first love lay beneath the Earth in her best dress with sadness still wrapped in her heart. It had been a long time, more years than I cared to count, but it still stung. I wondered whether she was in Heaven, and whether she still wished me there at her side.
Florence took my arm in hers and kissed my cheek. "Come on, Nance. We should get some tea before we catch the train home."
That sounded a wonderful idea, but I hesitated and smiled at Billy. "It's been a long time. Would you care to join us, and share your last few years?"
"Oh Nan," he replied, eyes tinged with regret that almost disappeared behind the happiness lighting them, "I would love to, but I mustn't. My son is marrying a lovely woman tomorrow, and we must return home to prepare."
"That's wonderful!" I exclaimed, untwisting my arm from Florence's to embrace him. He laughed, delighted and proud.
"But it's been wonderful to see you," he said as he beckoned over the rest of his solemn crowd. "And your Florence is quite the beauty. Maybe us lot can visit you back in London, when we're there next?"
I said he could and thanked him, then watched as he made his exit. It was strange to be back among such a long lost part of my life and no longer hiding beneath the shadows of the rest of them. I had my own light now, and I shared it equally with Florence, in the most socialist of ways.
We almost made it out of there, without encountering Walter again; but he was waiting by the gate with the grimmest look I had ever seen on a man. He crowded in, and took my hand in his before I could pull away. I smelt alcohol on his breath, sour and rank. "I want to apologise, Nan," he started, but I had to back away.
"No, Walter. All that was done many years ago," I said.
"We really must leave," said Florence at my side, bristling at this man's presence.
"Let me have my say," he said, "and I shall let you leave in peace. I have waited to say this to you for years. By taking Kitty from you, I picked a flower from her natural place and she wilted and dried out into nothing, into dust and memories. It was wrong of me, but I loved her so, and could not believe that she would love another girl, like you, over me."
"Well I'm glad for what you did," I replied, but my voice was not kind. "You showed me just what kind of a woman Kitty truly was, at her soul. I loved her, part of me always will, perhaps; but she was dead to me a long time ago, as were you. Goodbye, Walter."
We marched away and left him in his own stunned silence. I heard his coach roll by along the cobblestones a few minutes later, grand and black and terribly empty but for his small aching soul.
"I should not have come," I said, then. "But I am glad I did."
"Why ever not?" asked Florence with her short little frown.
"I realise now I said goodbye to this life a long time ago," I replied simply. "And in doing so, I had already said goodbye to her. I can understand that well enough, now."
But it had not been a day entirely wasted: we walked, me with my arm around the woman who had been at my side despite everything, and I had never felt freer.