Lily lifts her head to drink from the beaked cup offered by the nurse. It is very late in the day. Very late. But it is light at tea time – the winter has passed. She will not see another. Maybe summer… but not autumn. Autumn is unlikely.
Beyond dreams, she exists in 1915. Lily walks cobbled streets that turn her ankles in her only pair of dress shoes. If her father knew… It is a summer evening and the light caresses her. That’s how it is, like a caress she has only just learned to feel. The light seems to penetrate her skin, to bathe her soul in something universal. She perspires gently inside the cotton frock. Her scalp is damp under her pinned-up hair. If she could, she’d take off her shoes and run, up the street, and through the meadow to the cottage where he is. But she must not draw attention to herself. It’s a secret.
He said she could have his university books. On sure commitment that she’d read them. Or try. Some of the books are advanced, but she is a clever girl. He told her about light rays and electricity. How light shining on a metal can make an electric current. How light is made of waves that can travel across the universe. He kissed her, made her lips tingle, told her that her eyes shine like stars. She shouldn’t be with him, not like this, her father would have him shot. Tomorrow he’ll be gone. She knows she’ll never see him again. He knows too. He never promised her that he’d return, and marry her as he should.
Lily studies late at night after work. He left her enough books to fill her empty wardrobe. Some of the books are very old and tattered, full of strange diagrams and symbols. Her father wants her to sell them, something to pay for what he’s left behind. But she said no. She’ll return to work in the munitions factory. Mother will look after the baby, and that’ll look proper, if she can hide her swelling belly. She’ll study the autumn, and winter through, before the baby is born. She won’t give up. Now she has the basics of algebra and geometry, she is ready for the science.
The war is over, and the enlightened world has gone mad for this new relativity of Einstein’s. It is in the papers. In the newsreels. All of space and time is drawn in geometric figures. Space-time, in which nothing happens that does not affect something else, and no one can agree on what the other sees if he is moving relative to the other. Even art and literature has taken it to heart. It is a marvellous puzzle. Some say it is just an illusion of mathematics; that God would not make things so that they were not truly universal. Others argue that the constancy of the speed of light is evidence of a Divine hand at work. Only, for Lily, life is contained in the tiny universe of a small town in England, caring for her young daughter. Occasionally, she has a chance to visit the library to read the latest science journals.
1925. Summer. Lily walks by the river with Marcie. Flat-bottomed clouds sail the bright blue sky and the sun is a yellow ball with rays like a Clarice Cliff design. She teaches in the primary school, where Marcie goes in her grey pinafore. Poor Marcie will never make a scholar. Not like her mother who is a scholar still, exchanging naïve letters with a university don who writes articles for a popular science magazine to encourage the young. She calls herself Albert. The cheek of it! She pretends she is at school, and she is, in a way. He praises her and sets her problems and even sends books. Ones his own son used. Another bright boy lost in the Great War.
The don wants Albert to take a scholarship exam, when he’s old enough. But he can’t, of course. So, eventually, she pretends to be Albert’s aunt, and says the boy died of scarlet fever. They are truly sorry to lose a student with such potential.
In the small town where Lily lives, they still think that Marcie is her sister, an afterthought. That Lily is a devoted sister to a dull mouse of a girl, a simple, shy, creature whose parents are now dead. Only Marcie’s blue eyes remind Lily of the young man with the books. Years on, Lily has heard nothing about her lost sweetheart. She imagines him lying forever in a field of poppies, in a bloodied uniform, blue eyes open to the endless blue sky, all the dreams of the future drained out. But, in a way, he is still with her. Relativity tells her that the past is no less real than the present, or the future. But the memory of him is inadequate. He seems a child, now the same age as Marcie, who is 19, and able only to do the simplest of jobs, working for a kind greengrocer, sweeping floors and polishing apples.
There is another war, another stint in a munitions factory. This time she is a morale officer. The women worry about their neglected children. She chivvies them along. Teaches some of them the basics of mathematics. ‘It won’t be forever…’ Surely the war will end soon? And it does, with a bomb.
Another baby. Victoria. This time it is Marcie’s. Out of wedlock, of course, who would marry such a useless girl? Lily supports Marcie, teaching at a girls’ technical school. Lily manages to send a few of her brighter pupils to university in this brave, new world where women go on to higher education. She hopes to hear from them, but they never write.
Victoria’s life is shadowed by Marcie’s early death, and by the Cold War. Lily takes her granddaughter to Ban the Bomb marches. How she hates this outcome of science. . How two into one makes death.
Lily tells Victoria about her grandfather, and how he would have been a brilliant scientist if he had lived. They go to Greenham Common and camp with the other protesters. Victoria grows into a vivacious young woman, and obtains an exhibition at Cambridge for Natural Sciences.
Retirement, an amorphous time. One year blends into another. A trip to America to see Victoria. Victoria now lives there. Her wonderful house in a sunny place, a husband, very handsome, very clever. Three beautiful children. This is another world that co-exists with hers in England. A world that could have been hers if she had been born half a century later. Victoria shows her a photograph of an old man. Something, something… but what? It makes no sense, but she knows the man with the books is truly dead now.
Years that could be months, months that could be years. Lily no longer cares.
Victoria, 2015… Her handsome husband is dead. How many more years has she to go? Where she lives is beautiful. Not like the mean world she left behind in a small English town. Her children are grown and successful in different fields. She is a grandmother twice over. Her little granddaughter is excited about a red helium balloon that bobs along the ceiling trailing its shiny ribbon just out of reach. Victoria tells her about helium, tells her that it is made in stars, giving off light to warm the earth. Victoria tells the little girl that she once worked in a place where they tried to make little stars, hoping to make electricity for the world, but it was much too hard.
‘Perhaps, one day, Grandma, I shall make you a little star to keep you warm.’
And, watching the seemingly weightless balloon, Victoria dreams that perhaps she could.