When Jean was born for the first time, her mother said it split her like a rail and was done on the topic. Some mothers do not love their children, but most at least forgive them.
Jean's mother was thirty-four and had herself entered the world at the height of the floral craze. Against a bed of Violets, Lilies and Roses, she was named, by a mother with a botanical dictionary and seemingly the gift of clairvoyance, Wisteria – a tough, twining climber. Only she never flowered. Gums of lemon rind and teeth of pure alum couldn't produce anything to rival the malevolent arsehole of a mouth Wisteria sported. Disappointment was her drug of choice and she was a good way through a lifelong bender.
At twenty-eight, Wisteria gazed long and hard into a scratched mirror and decided that life had promised far more than it had delivered. Her eyes were pale and watery, her hair clung to her scalp in ashy licks and her colourless skin indicated its intention to gather in folds with unmistakable clarity. She looked as though she needed to hang upside down for a while. If only she'd been beautiful, she thought. That's all it would take. She had spent years waiting to become so; it had proved to be an exercise in futility. Wisteria believed there was nothing in the world a well-shaped nose couldn't bring her; it had not arrived, and neither had a change in fortune. The injustice of it was like lit matches between her toes.
War would prove to be a great force for change in Wisteria's life. The declaration of the Great one caused a marriage-rush strong enough to sweep even her along. The hotel filled with men celebrating their last nights of freedom, the streets were strewn with the fallen after closing time. Even Wisteria might find herself grabbed and kissed before a man really knew what he was doing. A shrewd judge of the moment, she accepted three drunken offers of marriage and settled back to see which of the trio would return to claim her. If there had been time for a ceremony she would have made it legal with whichever one was sober enough to stand.
Wisteria saw no danger of a farcical reunion of all four in a marriage dance. By the time she became engaged, the decimation of the first pals' battalions had begun. With the skill of a street-corner bookie, she calculated the odds of three pieces of cannon fodder returning to make good their pledge. She needed only one, which was still something of a long shot. She sent socks instead of the photographs they asked for, and in return extracted written promises from her doomed youths.
All three survived. The places they had been became new names for death, given in answer to an enquiry after the health of a son or brother. Two of them had fought next to each other, advancing as men fell to their left and right. Tipsy with life they returned – still intent on marriage – to a vague memory overlaid with hopeful details cribbed from other girls. The three were brought home on the same troopship and by the time they docked had discovered themselves to be trousered lots in a Dutch auction.
Wisteria received three handwritten notices advising her of a death in action, one scrawled on an advertisement for a digestive tonic. Faced with defeat, she regrouped and rethought. She, for one, had learnt the lessons of the war and would never fight on three fronts again.
There were many veterans' associations, and Wisteria threw herself into volunteer work at various functions, which she cruised like a salvage merchant looking for wrecks.