This tense and suspenseful story about the return of a young girl’s possessive lover–long after she’d grown up and given him up as dead–is another episode from the 1980s ITV series, Shades of Darkness. It’s based on a short story by Elizabeth Bowen.
In 1916, Kathleen was engaged to Keith Cameron, a somewhat forceful and intense young pilot. One evening at a party in her parents’ home he took her aside and quietly told her, “I’m off to war, but I shall be with you sooner or later. You need do nothing but wait.” He made her promise, although we never hear what exactly she promised him she would do.
“An unnatural promise,” Kathleen (Dorothy Tutin) recalls in voiceover, much later in her life. “I could not have plighted a more sinister troth.”
He grabbed her by the wrist, twisting her arm up to kiss her hand. Frightened, Kathleen broke away from him and ran back to join the others at the party.
Some months afterwards, Keith’s mother telephoned to tell her that Keith was shot down while flying a mission over France. He was reported as missing, believed killed.
Kathleen grieved, but lived on. Years passed. Eventually, she married a writer named William Drover (Robert Hardy) and had two sons, the elder of whom Robert (a not-yet-famous Hugh Grant) is now grown and has joined the RAF to fight in WWII. Robert, home on leave, wants to marry his girlfriend Anne right away before he returns to duty. While watching the young couple courting in the garden, Kathleen remembers her own wartime romance.
The Drovers have been living out in the country during the first years of the War because of the Blitz. Now that the bombing seems to be over, Kathleen is taking a trip to London to visit old friends and see how their townhouse in Kensington has held up. As long as she’s at the house, she intends to pick up a few things they left behind there, including some books her husband wants as references for a history he’s currently working on.
Most of what follows is a detailed picture of wartime Britain during the summer of 1941. There are ruins of bombed-out houses, surviving houses crowded with unusual boarders, plenty of people in uniform on the streets, rationing of food (Kathleen brings some carefully packed eggs from her own chickens with her as a gift for a friend).
One might almost take this for a drama about life during the War… except that when Kathleen arrives at her Kensington home–which is undamaged apart from some cracks in the walls and plaster dust over everything–she finds a letter addressed to her on a table in one of the rooms upstairs.
A clean square in the dust on the table in the front hall shows that the letter was lying there first. The doors were locked and the windows are intact.
How did it get there? Kathleen wonders. Did the caretaker bring it in?
She opens it. It’s from Keith.
The letter reads:
You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. I come to seek my sacred vows that you promised me before.
The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged.
The letter is dated August 14, that very day.
Kathleen doesn’t remember what hour was “arranged,” not after so many years. She doesn’t remember Keith’s face. She doesn’t remember him being kind.
What she does remember is the way he held her wrist when he made her promise him. She repeats the twisting gesture as she remembers the way his grip hurt her hand.
Is it really him? Is he still alive after all? How could he know that she was coming to London today?
She visits an actress friend, Mrs Graham, who has a house down the street and is home after a tour of the Midlands, which ended when the theatre she was performing in in Nottingham was bombed while she was on stage. Mrs. Graham wasn’t harmed, but she talks at length about the experience.
Mrs. Graham has a boarder, Gina (a pre-famous Miranda Richardson, looking surprisingly like Lucille Ball), her husband’s former secretary who’s still having an affair with him, which Mrs. Graham is unaware of; they weren’t expecting her to return from her tour so soon. A teenaged nephew is also staying with her for a few days before going back to school; he has a thing for Gina and watches the courting couples in uniform strolling in the park behind the row of houses.
As we meet these people and briefly become entangled in their lives, Kathleen chats with Mrs. Graham. She asks her friend about the caretaker and receives the disquieting news that he had a stroke during the worst of the bombing. No one else has had access to her house since he went to the hospital. He couldn’t have brought the letter inside and left it on the table.
Tension builds as Kathleen meets another friend, Mary, for lunch at a restaurant. As she sits at their table, she’s distracted from the conversation by looking at all the men around her of the right age, and wondering if any of them might be Keith.
One middle-aged man with burn scars on his face, who does look something like the young pilot 25 years older, speaks to her but nothing comes of it. It isn’t him.
Kathleen shows Mary the letter and confides her fears that Keith has indeed come back and means to hold her to a promise she barely remembers making.
After lunch, they return together to Kathleen’s house. She goes upstairs to gather up the books while her friend stands guard in the front hall below.
Real moments of suspense occur as Kathleen dashes around to get the books and other things and puts them into a box. Then there’s a terrible moment of silence. Mary calls anxiously up to her.
Kathleen appears at the top of the stairs. Both women are extremely relieved as she races back downstairs and they head out the front door.
Safely outside, Kathleen leaves Mary standing on the sidewalk with the box of books while she runs down the street to fetch a taxi…
When I read Elizabeth Bowen’s original short story, I note that it has a much more straightforward narrative: Kathleen Drover returns to her empty home in London, finds the letter, and is so frightened by it that she decides to leave immediately and take a taxi back to the train station. There’s no Mrs. Graham, Mary, Gina, or teenaged nephew. Kathleen’s sons are still little boys, none old enough to be a pilot himself. We see no glimpses of wartime courting couples, echoing Kathleen’s own hasty, girlhood engagement to a man she barely knew. I’m not even certain it’s a ghost story.
A fully faithful adaptation wouldn’t have filled out a 50-minute drama, but I’m pleased with the additions in theme, characters, and life-during-WWII details. They increase the richness of the story.
The recurring images of older Kathleen holding and twisting her wrist, recalling the way Keith held her hand, and the old photograph of his forgotten face with his intense and haunting gaze, suggest that when he does come for her, the reunion will not be a happy one.