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The Color of Secrets

By´╝ÜLindsay Ashford



The photograph still startles me, even though I’ve looked at it a dozen times since it landed on the doormat. An elderly white woman with her arm around a beautiful black girl. The magazine has put us on its front cover with the line: “Mixed Blessings—Rhiannon’s White Family.”

The article is to help publicize her new show. I understand that, of course, but I was worried when she told me about it. Afraid of what she would say about me. She knows only the bare bones of what happened because I didn’t want to tell her. That was a terrible mistake.

I wondered if she would tell them that my stubborn silence almost proved deadly. Thankfully she told them the truth, but not all of it. She painted me much better than I am.

And the real story? That will never be told. Not by me, anyway. Some things are too painful to put into words.

Will he tell her?

He stares out at me from the inside pages of the magazine. It’s a picture of the two of us, taken that summer of 1943. There was a time when I couldn’t have looked at it. Even now I’m fighting back tears. But Rhiannon smiles at me as I turn the page over. I can hear her voice, as clear as if she was standing next to me. Don’t cry, she says. Look at you and Granddad: you were happy, weren’t you, in the end?

It’s a question she has never really asked me. Perhaps she doesn’t need to. Perhaps she thinks she knows the answer.

Part One


Chapter 1

JUNE 1943

Eva sensed what was coming before she saw it. She could feel it through the soles of her boots. Catching her breath, she tasted smoke in the air. She heard the rumble of the wheels. It was the rhythm of carriages, not the usual clatter of coal wagons. Wiping her forehead with the cuff of her jacket, she leaned forward on the handle of her spade.

The other women had heard it too. Shovels, rakes, and pickaxes were cast aside as they shaded their eyes against the sun. Some pulled off their hats and scarves, trying to fluff up hair gone limp with perspiration in the unexpected heat of an English summer morning.

As the train slowed to a crawl, eager heads leaned through the windows. They were wearing squashed-up caps the color of sand. Some were blowing kisses. A cargo of men, carriage after carriage of them. About to pile out here. In this town.

The women started cheering, waving, but Eva’s hands never left the wooden shaft of her spade. She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t bring herself to smile at the faces gliding by. The sight of so many men in uniform triggered a dull ache below her ribs. She was searching each passing carriage, as if she might spot Eddie’s face among these American soldiers.


She made herself stop, look away.

He’s not coming home because you don’t want him to.

The words dropped into her head, as clear and brutal as a telegram. Was it true? Had she done it by some sort of telepathy? Jinxed him?

A loud wolf whistle cut through the engine’s noise. One of the older women was wiggling her well-upholstered behind at the men hanging out of the carriages, sending a peal of raucous laughter down the line. Something flew through the air and landed a few feet from where Eva was standing. A brown tube, like the inside of a toilet paper roll. A little scuffle broke out. The winner was a woman whose head looked too big for her body, swollen with rows of curlers crammed inside a workman’s cap. She waved the tube in the air and it rattled. Then she cupped her hand around her mouth and yelled at the passing carriage.

“What is it?”

“M&M’s! Candy!” the men shouted back.

Eva felt a trickle of saliva run beneath her tongue. Funny how the very thought of sweets did that to her now. And these Americans were throwing them from trains. She swallowed and reached for her spade, trying to think about something else. But not Eddie. She mustn’t think about Eddie.

“Want some?”

Eva looked over her shoulder. “Me?”

“Yes, you!” The woman held out her hand, revealing a perfect little disk the same vivid yellow as the curlers poking out of her cap. “Plenty more where these came from, eh?”

Eva hesitated. The woman’s smile was conspiratorial, the implication obvious.

“What’s the matter? They’re not poisonous!”

Eva felt something shift in her stomach. It had been hours since breakfast. She stretched out her hand. “Thank you . . .”


Eva nodded. She popped the sweet into her mouth. As her tongue brought it up against the roof of her mouth, the candy shell disintegrated, releasing the long-forgotten taste of chocolate. She tried to hold it there, but she could feel it melting away, dissolving so fast that she just had to swallow.

“Mmm . . . sex-starved Yanks! Yes, please!” Iris arched her eyebrows and cocked her head at the train. “Thirteen carriages so far—and there must be about sixty or seventy in each one. That’s . . .” Her look of concentration vanished as the last carriage rolled into view. “See that lot coming now,” she said. “At the back?”