Violet lived 15 minutes from the office in an area called the Soke, on the eastern side of Winchester just across the river Itchen. On a single typist’s salary, she could not afford the nicer areas in the west with their larger houses and gardens, their swept streets and well‑maintained motorcars. The houses in the Soke were smaller yet had more inhabitants. There were fewer motorcars, and the local shops had dustier window displays and sold cheaper goods.
She shared the house with two other women as well as the landlady, who took up the ground floor. There were no men, of course, and even male visitors other than family were discouraged downstairs, and forbidden upstairs. On the rare occasion there were men in the front room, Mrs. Harvey had a tendency to go in and out, looking for the copy of the Southern Daily Echo she’d left behind, or her reading glasses, or feeding the budgies she kept in a cage there, or fiddling with the fire when no one had complained of the cold, or reminding them to be in good time for the train. Not that Violet had any male visitors other than her brother Tom, but Mrs. Harvey had given him this treatment until Violet showed her a family photo as evidence. Even then she did not leave them alone for long, but popped her head round the door to remind Tom that petrol stations shut early on Saturdays. Tom took it as a comic turn. “I feel I’m in a play and she’ll announce a body’s been found coshed over the head in the scullery,” he remarked with glee. It was easy for him to enjoy Mrs. Harvey as entertainment since he did not have to live with her. Occasionally Violet wondered if in moving to Winchester she’d simply exchanged her mother for another who was equally tricky. On the other hand, she could go upstairs and shut her door on it all, which was harder to do with her mother. Mrs. Harvey respected a closed door, as long as there was no man behind it; in Southampton her mother had sometimes barged into Violet’s bedroom as if the door did not exist.
Back now from work, she declined tea from her landlady but smuggled some milk up and put the kettle on in her own room. This was her seventh cup of the day, even having been out part of the afternoon at the cathedral. Cups of tea punctuated moments, dividing before from after: sleeping from waking, walking to the office from sitting down to work, dinner from typing again, finishing a complicated contract from starting another, ending work from beginning her evening. Sometimes she used cigarettes as punctuation, but they made her giddy rather than settling her as tea did. And they were more expensive.
Sitting with her cup in the one armchair by the unlit fire—it was not cold enough to justify the coal—Violet looked around her cramped room. It was quiet, except for the ticking of a wooden clock she’d picked up at a junk shop a few weeks before. The pale sun sieved through the net curtains and lit up the swirling red and yellow and brown carpet. “Thunder and lightning carpet,” her father would have called it. Fawn‑colored stockings hung drying on a rack. In the corner an ugly battered wardrobe with a door that wouldn’t shut properly revealed the scant selection of dresses and blouses and skirts she had brought with her from Southampton.
Violet sighed. This is not how I was expecting it to be, she thought, this Winchester life.
Her move to Winchester last November had been sudden. After her father’s death Violet had limped along for a year and half, living alone with her mother. It was expected of women like her—unwed and unlikely to—to look after their parents. She had done her best, she supposed. But Mrs. Speedwell was impossible; she always had been, even before the loss of her eldest son, George, in the war. She was from an era when daughters were dutiful and deferential to their mothers, at least until they married and deferred to their husbands—not that Mrs. Speedwell had ever deferred much to hers. When they were children, Violet and her brothers had avoided their mother’s attention, playing together as a tight gang run with casual authority by George. Violet was often scolded by Mrs. Speedwell for not being feminine enough. “You’ll never get a husband with scraped knees and flyaway hair and being mad about books,” she declared. Little did she know that when the war came along, there would be worse things than books and scrapes to keep Violet from finding a husband.What depressed her even more than the complaints themselves was that she had counted them.
As an adult Violet had been able to cope while her father was alive to lighten the atmosphere and absorb her mother’s excesses, raising his eyebrows behind her back and smiling at his daughter, making mild jokes when he could. Once he was gone, though, and Mrs. Speedwell had no target for her scrutiny other than her daughter—her younger son, Tom, having married and escaped years before—Violet had to bear the full weight of her attention.
As they sat by the fire one evening, Violet began to count her mother’s complaints. “The light’s too dim. The radio isn’t loud enough. Why are they laughing when it’s not funny? The salad cream at supper was off, I’m sure of it. Your hair looks dreadful—did you try to wave it yourself? Have you gained weight? I am not at all sure Tom and Evelyn should be sending Marjory to that school. What would Geoffrey think? Oh, not more rain! It’s bringing out the damp in the hall.”
Eight in a row, Violet thought. What depressed her even more than the complaints themselves was that she had counted them. She sighed.
“Sighing makes your face sag, Violet,” her mother chided. “It does you no favors.”
The next day at work she spied on the notice board a position for a typist in the regional Winchester office, which was doing well despite the depressed economy. Violet clutched her cup of tea and closed her eyes. Don’t sigh, she thought. When she opened them she went to see the manager.
Everything about the change was easier than she had expected, at least at first. The manager at Southern Counties Insurance agreed to the move, Tom was supportive (“About bloody time!”), and she found a room to let at Mrs. Harvey’s without much fuss. At first her mother took Violet’s careful announcement that she was moving to Winchester with a surprising lack of reaction other than to say, “Canada is where you should be going. That is where the husbands are.” But on the rainy Saturday in November when Tom drove over with Evelyn and the children and began to load Violet’s few possessions into his Austin, Mrs. Speedwell would not get up from her armchair in the sitting room. She sat with a cold, untouched cup of tea beside her and with trembling fingers smoothed the antimacassars covering the arms of the chair. She did not look at Violet as she came in to say goodbye. “When George was taken from us I never thought I would have to go through the ordeal of losing another child,” she announced to the room. Marjory and Edward were putting together a jigsaw in front of the coal fire; Violet’s solemn niece gazed up at her grandmother, her wide hazel eyes following Mrs. Speedwell’s agitated hands as she continued to smooth and re-smooth the antimacassars.
“Mother, you’re not losing me. I’m moving 12 miles away!” Even as she said it, though, Violet knew that in a way her mother was right.
“And for the child to choose for me to lose her,” Mrs. Speedwell continued, as if Violet had not spoken and indeed was not even in the room. “Unforgivable. At least poor George had no choice—it was the war; he did it for his country. But this! Treacherous.”
“For God’s sake, Mum, Violet’s not died,” Tom interjected as he passed by with a box full of plates and cups and cutlery from the kitchen that Violet hoped her mother wouldn’t miss.
“Well, it’s on her hands. If I don’t wake up one morning and no one discovers me dead in my bed for days, she’ll be sorry then! Or maybe she won’t be. Maybe she’ll carry on as usual.”
“Mummy, is Granny going to die?” Edward asked, a puzzle piece suspended in the air in the clutch of his hand. He did not appear to be upset by the idea; merely curious.
“That’s enough of such talk,” Evelyn replied. A brisk brunette, she was used to Mrs. Speedwell, and Violet admired how efficiently she had learned to shut down her mother‑in‑law. It was always easier when you weren’t related. She had sorted out Tom as well, after the war. Violet appreciated her sister‑in‑law but was a little too intimidated to be true friends with her. “Come, give your Auntie Violet a kiss good‑bye. Then we’ll go down to the shops while Daddy drives her to Winchester.”
Marjory and Edward scrambled to their feet and gave Violet obedient pecks on the cheek that made her smile.
“Why can’t we come to Winchester?” Edward asked. “I want to ride in Daddy’s car.”
“We explained before, Eddie. Auntie Violet has her things to move, so there’s no space for us.”
Actually, Auntie Violet didn’t have so very much to move. She was surprised that her life fitted into so few suitcases and boxes. There was still space on the back seat for another passenger, and she rather wished Edward could come with them. He was a spirited little boy who would keep her cheerful with his non sequiturs and shameless solipsism. If forced to focus on his world, she would not think of her own. But she knew she could not ask for him to come along and not Marjory or Evelyn, and so she said nothing as they began to pull on their shoes and coats for their expedition in the rain.
When it became clear that Mrs. Speedwell was not going to see her off as she normally did, watching from the doorway until visitors were out of sight, Violet went over and kissed her on the forehead. “Good‑bye, Mother,” she murmured. “I’ll see you next Sunday.”
Mrs. Speedwell sniffed. “Don’t bother. I may be dead by then.” One of Tom’s best qualities was that he knew when to keep quiet.But it was not easy to meet men, because there were two million fewer of them than women.
On the way to Winchester he let Violet cry without comment. Cocooned by the steamed‑up windows and the smell of hot oil and leather, she leaned back in the sprung seat and sobbed. Near Twyford, however, her sobs diminished, then stopped.
She had always loved riding in Tom’s handsome brown and black car, marveling at how the space held her apart from the world and yet whisked her efficiently from place to place. “Perhaps I’ll get a car,” she declared, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief embroidered with violets—one of Evelyn’s practical Christmas presents to her. Even as she said it she knew she could afford no such luxury: She was going to be dreadfully poor, though as yet that felt like something of a game. “Will you teach me to drive?” she asked, lighting a cigarette and cracking open a window.
“That’s the spirit, old girl,” Tom replied, changing gears to climb a hill. His affable nature had helped Violet to cope with her mother over the years, as well as with the war and its effects. Tom had turned 18 shortly after news of his brother’s death came through, and joined up without hesitation or fuss. He never talked about his experiences in France; like Violet’s loss of her fiancé, they took a back seat to their brother’s death. Violet knew she took Tom for granted, as older children always do their younger siblings. They had both looked up to George, following his lead in their play as children. Once he was gone they had found themselves at sea. Was Violet then meant to take on the role of the eldest, to assume command and set the example for Tom to follow? If so, she had made a poor job of it. She was a typist at an insurance company; she had not married and begun a family. Tom had quietly overtaken her—though he never gloated or apologized. He didn’t need to: He was a man, and it was expected of him to achieve.
After they had moved her things in under Mrs. Harvey’s watchful eye, he took her for fish and chips. “Mum’s a tough old boot, you know,” he reassured her over their meal. “She got through George, and Dad too. She’ll survive this. And so will you. Just don’t stay in your room all the time. Don’t want to be getting ‘one‑room‑itis’—isn’t that what they call it? Get out, meet some people.”
Meet some men, he meant. He was more subtle than her mother about the subject, but she knew Tom too wished she would miraculously find a man to marry, even at this late age. A widower, perhaps, with grown children. Or a man who needed help with injuries. The war may have ended 13 years before, but the injuries lasted a lifetime. Once married, she would be off Tom’s hands, a niggling burden he would no longer have to worry about. Otherwise Violet might have to live with her brother one day; it was what spinsters often did.
But it was not easy to meet men, because there were two million fewer of them than women. Violet had read many newspaper articles about these “surplus women,” as they were labeled, left single as a result of the war and unlikely to marry—considered a tragedy, and a threat, in a society set up for marriage. Journalists seemed to relish the label, brandishing it like a pin pressed into the skin. Mostly it was an annoyance; occasionally, though, the pin penetrated the protective layers and drew blood. She had assumed it would hurt less as she grew older, and was surprised to find that even at thirty‑eight—middle‑aged—labels could still wound. But she had been called worse: hoyden, shrew, man hater.
Violet did not hate men, and had not been entirely man‑free. Two or three times a year, she had put on her best dress—copper lamé in a scallop pattern—gone alone to a Southampton hotel bar, and sat with a sherry and a cigarette until someone took interest. Her “sherry men,” she called them. Sometimes they ended up in an alley or a motorcar or a park; never in his room, certainly not at her parents’. To be desired was welcome, though she did not feel the intense pleasure from the encounters that she once had with Laurence during the Perseids.Her brother was gone, her fiancé was gone, God was gone.
Every August Violet and her father and brothers had watched the Perseid showers. Violet had never said anything to her father during those late nights in the garden, watching for streaks in the sky, but she did not really like stargazing. The cold—even in August—the dew fall, the crick in the neck: There were never visions spectacular enough to overcome these discomforts. She would make a terrible astronomer, for she preferred to be warm.
The Perseid showers she remembered best were in August 1916, when Laurence had got leave and come to see her. They’d taken a train out to Romsey, had supper at a pub, then walked out into the fields and spread out a rug. If anyone happened upon them, they could be given a mini‑lecture by Laurence about the Perseids, how the earth passed in its orbit through the remnants of a comet every August and created spectacular meteor showers. They were there in the field to watch, merely to watch. And they did watch, for a short while, on their backs holding hands.
After witnessing a few meteors streak across the sky, Violet turned on her side so that she was facing Laurence, her hip bone digging into a stone under the blanket, and said to him, “Yes.” Though he had not asked a question aloud, there had been one hanging between them, ever since they had got engaged the year before.
She could feel him smile, though she couldn’t see his face in the dark. He rolled toward her. After a while Violet was no longer cold, and no longer cared about the movement of the stars in the sky above, but only the movement of his body against hers.
They say a woman’s first time is painful, bloody, a shock you must get used to. It was nothing like that for Violet. She exploded, stronger, it seemed, than any Perseids, and Laurence was delighted. They stayed in the field so long that they missed any possibility of a train back, and had to walk the seven miles, until a veteran of the Boer wars passed them in his motorcar, recognized a soldier’s gait, and stopped to give them a lift, smiling at the grass in Violet’s hair and her startled happiness.
Only a week later they received the telegram about George’s death at Delville Wood. And a year later, Laurence at Passchendaele. He and Violet had not managed to spend more time properly alone together, in a field or a hotel room or even an alley. With each loss she had tumbled into a dark pit, a void opening up inside her that made her feel helpless and hopeless. Her brother was gone, her fiancé was gone, God was gone. It took a long time for the gap to close, if it ever really did.
A few years later when she could face it, she tried to experience again what she’d had with Laurence that night, this time with one of George’s old friends, who had come through the war physically unscathed. But there were no Perseids—only a painful awareness of each moment that killed any pleasure and just made her despise his rubbery lips.
She suspected she would never feel pleasure with her sherry men. She had laughed about them with scandalized girlfriends, for a time; but some of her friends managed to marry the few available men, and others withdrew into sexless lives and stopped wanting to hear about her exploits. Marriage in particular brought many changes to her friends, and one was donning a hat of conservatism that made them genuinely and easily shocked and threatened. One of those sherry men could be their husband. And so Violet began to keep quiet about what she got up to those few times a year. Slowly, as husbands and children took over, and the tennis games and cinema trips and dance hall visits dried up, the friendships drifted. When she left Southampton there was really no one left to regret leaving, or give her address to, or invite to tea.
“Violet, where have you gone?” Tom was studying her over the remains of his chips.
Violet shook her head. “Sorry—just, you know.”
Her brother reached over and hugged her—a surprise, as they were not the hugging sort of siblings. They walked back to Mrs. Harvey’s, where his motorcar was parked. Violet stood in the doorway and watched his Austin hiss away through the wet street, then went upstairs. She had thought she might cry when finally alone in her shabby new room, with a door she could shut against the world. But she had cried her tears out on the trip from Southampton. Instead she looked around at the sparse furnishings, nodded, and put the kettle on.
From A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Tracy Chevalier.