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The Last Telegram
by Liz Trenow

Published: 2013-04-02
Paperback : 416 pages
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"A book to savor."-Kate Furnivall, author of The Russian Concubine

We all make mistakes. Some we can fix.
But what happens when we can't?

Decades ago, as Nazi planes dominated the sky, Lily Verner made a terrible choice. She's tried to forget, but now an unexpected event pulls her back ...

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Introduction

"A book to savor."-Kate Furnivall, author of The Russian Concubine

We all make mistakes. Some we can fix.
But what happens when we can't?

Decades ago, as Nazi planes dominated the sky, Lily Verner made a terrible choice. She's tried to forget, but now an unexpected event pulls her back to the 1940s British countryside. She finds herself remembering the brilliant colors of the silk she helped to weave at her family's mill, the relentless pressure of the worsening war, and the kind of heartbreaking loss that stops time.

In this evocative novel of love and consequences, Lily finally confronts the disastrous decision that has haunted her all these years. The Last Telegram uncovers the surprising truth about how the stories we weave about our lives are threaded with truth, guilt, and forgiveness.

"Sparked my interest from the start...charming."-Sharon Knoth, Between the Covers, Harbor Springs, MI

"This book will easily appeal to fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and I can see it quickly becoming a favorite of book clubs."-Billie Bloebaum, Powell's Books

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

1

The History of Silk owes much to the fairer sex. The Chinese Empress Hsi Ling is credited with its first discovery, in 2640 BC. It is said that a cocoon fell from the mulberry tree, under which she was sitting, into her cup of tea. As she sought to remove the cocoon its sticky threads started to unravel and cling to her fingers. Upon examining the thread more closely she immediately saw its potential and dedicated her life thereafter to the cultivation of the silkworm and production of silk for weaving and embroidery.

-The History of Silk by Harold Verner

Perhaps because death leaves so little to say, funeral guests seem to take refuge in platitudes. "He had a good innings...Splendid send-off...Very moving service...Such beautiful flowers...You are so wonderfully brave, Lily."

It's not bravery: my squared shoulders, head held high, that careful expression of modesty and gratitude. Not bravery, just determination to survive today and, as soon as possible, get on with what remains of my life. The body in the expensive coffin, lined with Verners' silk and decorated with lilies and now deep in the ground, is not the man I've loved and shared my life with for the past fifty-five years.

It is not the man who helped to put me back together after the shattering events of the war, who held my hand and steadied my heart with his wise counsel. The man who took me as his own and became a loving father and grandfather. The joy of our lives together helped us both to bury the terrors of the past. No, that person disappeared months ago, when the illness took its final hold. His death was a blessed release and I have already done my grieving. Or at least, that's what I keep telling myself.

After the service the house fills with people wanting to "pay their final respects." But I long for them to go, and eventually they drift away, leaving behind the detritus of a remembered life along with the half-drunk glasses, the discarded morsels of food.

Around me, my son and his family are washing up, vacuuming, emptying the bins. In the harsh kitchen light I notice a shimmer of gray in Simon's hair (the rest of it is dark, like his father's) and realize with a jolt that he must be well into middle age. His wife Louise, once so slight, is rather rounder than before. No wonder, after two babies. They deserve to live in this house, I think, to have more room for their growing family. But today is not the right time to talk about moving.

I go to sit in the drawing room as they have bidden me, and watch for the first time the slide show that they have created for the guests at the wake. I am mesmerized as the TV screen flicks through familiar photographs, charting his life from sepia babyhood through monochrome middle years and into a Technicolor old age, each image occupying the screen for just a few brief seconds before blurring into the next.

At first I turn away, finding it annoying, even insulting. What a travesty, I think, a long, loving life bottled into a slide show. But as the carousel goes back to the beginning and the photographs start to repeat themselves, my relief that he is gone and will suffer no more is replaced, for the first time since his death, by a dawning realization of my own loss.

It's no wonder I loved him so; such a good-looking man, active and energetic. A man of unlimited selflessness, of many smiles and little guile. Who loved every part of me, infinitely. What a lucky woman. I find myself smiling back, with tears in my eyes.

My granddaughter brings a pot of tea. At seventeen, Emily is the oldest of her generation of Verners, a clever, sensitive girl growing up faster than I can bear. I see in her so much of myself at that age: not exactly pretty in the conventional way-her nose is slightly too long-but striking, with smooth cheeks and a creamy complexion that flushes at the slightest hint of discomfiture. Her hair, the color of black coffee, grows thick and straight, and her dark inquisitive eyes shimmer with mischief or chill with disapproval. She has that determined Verner jawline that says "don't mess with me." She's tall and lanky, all arms and legs, rarely out of the patched jeans and charity-shop jumpers that seem to be all the rage with her generation these days. Unsophisticated but self-confident, exhaustingly energetic-and always fun. Had my own daughter lived, I sometimes think, she would have been like Emily.

At this afternoon's wake the streak of crimson she's emblazoned into the flick of her fringe was like an exotic bird darting among the dark suits and dresses. Soon she will fly, as they all do, these independent young women. But for now she indulges me with her company and conversation, and I cherish every moment.

She hands me a cup of weak tea with no milk, just how I like it, and then plonks herself down on the footstool next to me. We watch the slide show together for a few moments, and she says, "I miss Grandpa, you know. Such an amazing man. He was so full of ideas and enthusiasm-I loved the way he supported everything we did, even the crazy things." She's right, I think to myself.

"He always used to ask me about stuff," she goes on. "He was always interested in what I was doing with myself. Not many grown-ups do that. A great listener."

As usual my smart girl goes straight to the heart of it. It's something I'm probably guilty of, not listening enough. "You can talk to me, now that he's gone," I say, a bit too quickly. "Tell me what's new."

"You really want to know?"

"Yes, I really do," I say. Her legs, in heart-patterned black tights, seem to stretch for yards beyond her miniskirt, and my heart swells with love for her, the way she gives me her undivided attention for these moments of proper talking time.

"Have I told you I'm going to India?" she says.

"My goodness, how wonderful," I say. "How long for?"

"Only a month," she says airily.

I'm achingly envious of her youth, her energy, her freedom. I wanted to travel too at her age, but war got in the way. My thoughts start to wander until I remember my commitment to listening. "What are you going to do there?"

"We're going to an orphanage. In December, with a group from college. To dig the foundations for a cowshed," she says triumphantly. I'm puzzled, and distracted by the idea of elegant Emily wielding a shovel in the heat, her slender hands calloused and dirty, hair dulled by dust.

"Why does an orphanage need a cowshed?"

"So they can give the children fresh milk. It doesn't get delivered to the doorstep like yours does, Gran," she says reprovingly. "We're raising money to buy the cows."

"How much do you need?"

"About two thousand. Didn't I tell you? I'm doing a sponsored parachute jump." The thought of my precious Emily hanging from a parachute harness makes me feel giddy, as if capsized by some great gust of wind. "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe," she says. "It's with a professional jump company, all above board. I'll show you."

She returns with her handbag, an impractical affair covered in sequins, extracts a brochure, and gives it to me. I pretend to read it, but the photographs of cheerful children preparing for their jumps seem to mock me and make me even more fearful. She takes the leaflet back. "You should know all about parachutes, Gran. You used to make them, Dad said."

"Well," I start tentatively, "weaving parachute silk was our contribution to the war effort. It kept us going when lots of other mills closed." I can picture the weaving shed as if from above, each loom with its wide white spread, shuttles clacking back and forth, the rolls of woven silk growing almost imperceptibly thicker with each turn of the weighted cloth beam.

"But why did they use silk?"

"It's strong and light, packs into a small bag, and unwraps quickly because it's so slippery." My voice is steadying now and I can hear that old edge of pride. Silk seems still to be threaded through my veins. Even now I can smell its musty, nutty aroma, see the lustrous intensity of its colors-emerald, aquamarine, gold, crimson, purple-and recite the exotic names like a mantra: brigandine, bombazine, brocatelle, douppion, organzine, pongee, schappe.

She studies the leaflet again, peering through the long fringe that flops into her eyes. "It says here the parachutes we're going to use are of high-quality one-point-nine-ounce ripstop nylon. Why didn't they use nylon in those days? Wouldn't it have been cheaper?"

"They hadn't really invented nylon by then, not good enough for parachutes. You have to get it just right for parachutes," I say and then, with a shiver, those pitiless words slip into my head after all these years. Get it wrong and you've got dead pilots.

She rubs my arm gently with her fingertips to smooth down the little hairs, looking at me anxiously. "Are you cold, Gran?"

"No, my lovely, it's just the memories." I send up a silent prayer that she will never know the dreary fear of war, when all normal life is suspended, when the impossible becomes ordinary, when every decision seems to be a matter of life or death, when good-byes are often for good.

It tends to take the shine off you.

A little later Emily's brother appears and loiters in his adolescent way, then comes and sits by me and holds my hand in silence. I am touched to the core. Then her father comes in, looking weary. His filial duties complete, he hovers solicitously. "Is there any more we can do, Mum?" I shake my head and mumble my gratitude for the nth time today.

"We'll probably be off in a few minutes. Sure you'll be all right?" he says. "We can stay a little longer if you like."

Finally they are persuaded to go. Though I love their company, I long for peace, to stop being the brave widow, to release my rictus smile. I make a fresh pot of tea, and there on the kitchen table is the leaflet Emily has left, presumably to prompt my sponsorship. I hide it under the newspaper and pour the tea, but my trembling hands cause a minor storm in the teacup. I decant ... view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. How does the character development of Lily tell us about the impact of war on attitudes to women working outside the home? Would this differ between the UK and the USA? 2. What does the novel tell us about the nature of grief and how we grieve? 3. Why do you think that Britain was initially reluctant to accept Jewish refugees when they already knew that those refugees were being persecuted? 4. Is Robbie a sympathetic villain? What made him the way he was? Identify the moments when we—and Lily—are able to feel sympathy for him. By the end of the book, can we find it in our hearts to forgive him? 5. Can a lie ever be considered morally defensible? 6. In the final scene, does Lily understand what her granddaughter tells her?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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  "The Last Telegram"by Kristi F. (see profile) 07/31/13

This is such a great book, written well, it's hard to believe this the authors first novel. I loved how the author wove the story of silk throughout. I learned so much about the process of silk weaving... (read more)

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