Clara Wells Patience
“Who was that?”
Postmaster Alan looked across at the man who stared out the door, following a young woman as she sashayed outside.
“That is our very own Clara Wells.”
Both men stared at Clara.
Tim Donnehy looked back at the post man. “Her clothes. She looks like she just walked out of the nineteen forties.”
“She does at that,” replied Alan. “Never looks any different, never any older and every day she comes down here and posts a letter to him.”
“To who exactly?” Tim asked, his tall, lean frame draped over the old counter of Baden Hill’s post office.
“Her boyfriend. He went away to fight in the last war, and never came back.” Alan returned to his stamp register, adjusting his glasses.
Tim stared at him. “What last war? We haven’t been going to war since Vietnam.” He paused. “Have we?”
“Some newspaperman.” Alan looked over his glasses. “You know, Tim, you’re new here at Baden Hill. And you’re a newspaperman. Two things that put you behind the eight ball straight away. Clara Wells’s boyfriend went to war in 1943 and every day since she’s come in here and sent a letter. Has done for fifty years.”
“Nuts! She’s no older than me,” Tim cried.
“Nope, not nuts. That’s just how it is. That’s our Clara Wells.”
Alan went back to his stamps. Tim stared out the door, following the pert sway of Clara’s backside as she sauntered down the dusty street.
“If a man believed that, it means she must be in her seventies at least.”
“Don’t even try and work it out, young fella. Clara is one of our little secrets, you know? We dunno how, or why, but there you are. She hasn’t aged a damn since he went away.”
Tim shook his head again. “I saw her with my own eyes.”
“We all do. And I see her more than most. Not a hair gone gray, not a new wrinkle, nothing. And she’s as beautiful as ever.”
“She sure is,” Tim agreed vaguely. This wasn’t happening.
“Like I said,” Alan reiterated, turning to stare at Tim over his bi-focals. “Don’t try and work it out. She’s just waiting, that’s all. Just waiting. She’s patient.”
Tim was beside himself. “But surely this is big news, Al! I could – you could – the whole town and Clara Wells … !”
“Steady on. Think about it. Who’d believe that a woman in her seventies, can look like a fresh faced kid straight out of the ’forties? They don’t go for stories like that. They immediately think it’s some trick. Why do you think your predecessor went bonkers?”
Tim frowned. He had, too. Stark raving mad. “I have to do something, Alan.”
“Let it go, mate. It’s just a mystery. And we all love her the way she is. She’s sweet, adorable, kind. Kids love her. Town protects her. Yep, she’s a bit crazy, I suppose, but wouldn’t you be if you knew you weren’t aging like the rest of us?”
Tim gaped back at him. “And her letters – where do they go?”
“Always addressed to the same fella, and not one returned.”
Tim swallowed. “Ever any … answer?” he asked.
“Apparently there was early days, before my time. Then nothing. And she’s been like it ever since.”
“I have to go, Alan.”
The post master nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
Tim followed Clara for a little way then noticed people staring at him. He stopped, made a mental note of where she lived. He’d visit when he got up the gumption. Maybe he’d visit later today.
Clara snipped heads off the dead marigolds. She straightened, flexed her back, adjusted her sun hat. And stared into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Er, Miss Wells?”
She extended her hand. “It’s Mr Donnehy, from the newspaper.”
“Yes. Tim is my first name. Can I ask you some questions, Miss Wells?”
She sighed, her pretty face clouding for just a second. “Oh yes. I have been expecting you.”
“Mmh,” she said absently and beckoned him follow her on to the porch. “Tea or lemonade?”
“Er, tea, please.”
“Take a seat here in the shade. I’ll be right out.”
Tim took stock. Not a wrinkle, not a gray hair. Slim and attractive, though the hairdo was well dated, rolled waves kept primly off her forehead by a subdued band. And the dress, he could only imagine was classic ’forties in style and length.
This could easily be a trick on a poor newspaper bloke new to town.
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr Donnehy. Tim. I know you’re thinking I am the town’s little joke on you.”
“No, Miss Wells.”
She sighed. “Of course you do. They all do. I have a very simple story, Tim. And I’ll tell you like I’ve told all of them for nearly thirty years.”
Tim took the teacup she offered and it rattled while he waited for her to pour. “Would you mind if I taped our conversation?”
“Of course not.”
Clara Wells had waved goodbye to Richard ‘Stormy’ Weather on the 22nd January, 1943. He’d eventually gone to France. She would write every day, and at first he wrote back. Then, he just disappeared and there was nothing.
“And I haven’t grown a day older.”
Tim stared at her. He was falling in love. She smiled and his heart pumped madly. She was beautiful.
“Wh –what do you think … ?”
“I do have an idea, Tim, but they just won’t believe me. Not yet, anyway. I just know that I keep writing each day and I stay like this.”
No, it didn’t bother her. Yes, it was a mystery. And yes, she did mind people staring, but usually the town protected her. “When you’ve finished your tea, it’s time you were going.”
Tim set his cup and saucer down, tea untouched. He stood up. “I’d like to see you again tomorrow, Miss Wells.”
“I don’t think so, Mr Donnehy.” With a swish of delicate lavender, she’d gone inside and closed the door.
Tim raced into the post office. “Al, where are the letters sent?”
Alan looked over his specs again. “I thought as much. Don’t do it, Tim. It’ll drive you mad. “
“I’m already mad. Does everyone fall in love with her?”
“Yep. Everyone before you. They never listened. She loves only Stormy. That’s it. Just forget it, Tim. It’ll make you mad,” Alan repeated. “We all just accept it.”
“Yeah, just like those before you. Here, it’s a Canberra address.”
“Where apparently she was told to send her letters. War office or something. Look, I don’t know,” Alan said. “I gave up on it a long time ago. I fell for her, too. But it was too much for me.”
Tim jotted down the Canberra address. It did look like an official address.
“What’ll you do now?”
Tim looked up at Alan. “I’m going to Canberra. Of course.”
He took the train. Sat quietly as people jostled around him, found their places, opened their papers. Read books, magazines, threatened their noisy kids.
He was lost in thought as two old men made their way into his compartment and sat down, one nodding at him.
Tim nodded back. Looked them over. Old blokes, mid seventies, he mused. Nice types. They mostly were, that generation. He thought of Clara Wells and smiled to himself. Maybe Stormy is a nice fella, too.
He blinked, admonished himself. Stormy wasn’t about, but he’d thought of him in the present tense. He’d better watch it.
Something in the two old fella’s conversation caught his ear.
“George, paper says they’ve identified one of them Unknown from “forty-four,” one said as he peered at the other.
“I heard it, too, Ted. If they know who he is, maybe they can give the poor bugger’s family peace of mind.”
Ted nodded, rheumy eyes unfocused for a minute. “Wonder if we knew him?”
“Don’t reckon,” George said quietly. “Most of all our mates came back.”
“Pardon me,” Tim said, startling himself as well as the two old boys. “Are you saying you’ve heard they identified the Unknown Soldier?”
“An Unknown. On the news today.” George nodded at him.
“You didn’t happen to hear a name, did you?”
Both shook their heads, slowly. “Someone in your family got lost at war, son?”
“Someone I know lost someone.”
“Ah. Might be the Unknown, hey?”
Tim felt strange.
As he stepped off the train the headlines hit him. Unknown Soldier Named! He bought all the national newspapers he could, but not one reported a name. His stomach fluttered. He fished in his pocket for the address where Clara sent all her letters, hailed a taxi and arrived twenty minutes later.
A clerk looked at him. “Yes, sir, we know of Miss Clara Wells. We’ve never met her, but she is well known to us.”
“I wonder if I might ask someone a few questions?”
“Certainly. I’ll get the chief.”
The chief was a real help. Yeah, right. “We were told by those who came before us. Just keep her letters until told otherwise.”
“How long has this office been keeping her letters?”
“The first one was logged in around 1943.”
“It’s crazy, don’t try and follow it. That be all?”
“Just two more questions. Does anyone ever open them?”
The chief was honestly shocked. “Someone else’s mail? Not likely, young fella. What’s your next question?” he grumbled.
Tim swallowed. He almost didn’t want to know.
“You’ve heard they identified an Unknown Soldier. I wondered if you’d heard a name?”
Tim hired a car to go back to Baden’s Hill. He drove as fast as he dared, hoping he got back in time. If he was right, if this crazy, crazy thing was real, he’d miss Clara … she’d be gone, forever.
He skewed the vehicle into her driveway. “Clara! Clara,” he shouted, vaulting over the low picket fence, trampling the new marigolds.
“What on earth?” she cried. “What is it, what’s the matter?” She came outside in an emerald green twin set and a brown skirt.
Tim stood stock still. She was okay. And not a wrinkle, not a gray hair. “Have you heard—?”
“Heard what, Mr Donnehy?”
“It was the damndest thing, Al,” Tim related to the postman. “They identified an Unknown Soldier.”
“Hmm. Heard they did. Now that’s news. Poor bugger. At least now his family will be at peace.”
Tim was distracted. “Al, has Miss Clara been in today?”
Alan pursed his lips. “No, come to think of it, she’s a bit late today. Been up to see her, have you?”
“Yes, but I think I – I may have shocked her.”
“Oh?” Al peered over Tim’s shoulder and up the street. “Takes a lot to shock Miss Wells.”
“This would shock Freddy Kruger, I reckon,” said Tim, his eyes on the floor, his head still spinning with what he’d learned.
“Mmh,” Al answered, preoccupied and side-stepped Tim to walk to the door. “What did you say to her?”
“The Unknown Soldier. It – it was him.” Tim turned to Al, but the other man was staring up the street.
Tim could see Clara walking towards the post office. Why would she be coming to post her letter when—? But what he’d told her – surely she couldn’t believe he was still alive after what he’d told her.
“Who?” asked Al, not looking at Clara at all, but down the other way.
“What? Oh. The Unknown was Mr Weather. Stormy. Richard Weather.”
Al still stared up the street. “Well, I’ll be blowed.”
Tim came to stand alongside him. He saw Clara stand rock still, her hand holding her wide brimmed hat on her head, staring down the street. His eyes swivelled in the same direction, his heart in his throat. Did he want to see this?
“I’ll be damned,” Al whispered again. “Look at that.”
The only part of Tim’s body able to move was his eyes. And there he saw it, was stunned by it.
A man, not too tall, was walking wearily up Baden Hill’s main street. In army uniform, but not of the modern army, of the second world war. He stopped a few yards from Clara, whose hand had gone to her mouth.
Sunlight glistened on the tears in her eyes. Tim felt his own eyes fill.
“Stormy,” he heard Clara say and Tim’s heart broke.
“I made it home, Clara,” the world weary voice said and the man out-stretched a callused hand. “Took me a little longer than I thought. Sorry to have worried you.”
“Just a little late, but I knew you’d come, Stormy. They had to believe me sooner or later.” Clara took his hand.
“I got all your letters, just couldn’t write back. My goodness, you don’t look a day older than when I left.”
Tim blinked. This was not for real. He glanced at Al. “What the hell is going on?”
“Dunno, mate. But be glad for her. Stormy’s home. Now she can get some peace.”
Tim followed Al’s eyes again and there, arm in arm shuffling home towards Clara Wells” house were two old people, a man in army issue circa 1943 and a woman, stooped and bowed in her brown skirt and twin set.
Her face softly wrinkled, and her old fashioned hairdo, gray.