The ringing phone filled her with dread. Dot Penrose looked at the large clock on the wall beside her. Ten minutes past eight in the evening.
Three times that week she had answered the telephone at exactly that time, and three times there had been a man telling her some dreadful things that she didn’t fully understand, and really frightening her. She had to answer it again, though, because it might not be him; it could be someone else, someone important. It could even be her grandson, David.
She loved it when David called. He was such a bright, enthusiastic young man, so full of plans and ideas. Clever boy, too. He had been to university and got a degree in some sort of ology. Dot couldn’t remember what it was, but she was so proud of him. He told her he was a doctor, but when she asked him about her arthritis, he laughed and said that he was not that kind of doctor. Dot didn’t really care what kind of doctor he was, she was sure he’d be a good one. He must be, they made him a Sir a couple of years ago, and they don’t do that unless you’ve done something special, do they? She would tell anyone who was prepared to listen, just how brilliant her grandson was. Sadly, precious few people were ready to listen these days. What would she know about anything? She’s old, she couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say, they’d say. If only they knew.
Dot was a force to be reckoned with when she was younger. She was born Dorothy Ann Jones in 1914. Her mother had been carrying her when her father had to go to war, and he was killed on the front before she had her first birthday. She had never seen her father, nor he her. Her mother had brought her up alone, and had made sure she could read and write well before normal school age. At school she was lucky enough to have a very special teacher. He recognised her as being unusually gifted, and pushed her ahead with extra lessons after school. She took and passed her Higher School Certificate at only 16, when most pupils of her age were struggling with their ordinary School Certificate examinations. She was snapped up by the University of London, and graduated in 1934 with a BSc in mathematics.
She met David Penrose at university. He was studying the same courses as she was, and they spent a lot of time in each other’s company. They married the day after their graduation ceremony, and spent their honeymoon in Clermont-Ferrand, in France’s Massif central – the birthplace of mathematician Blaise Pascale. On their return from honeymoon, Dot and David both taught maths at secondary schools, Dot at the local state school, until she became pregnant and gave birth to George in 1937, and David at a nearby private school until the outbreak of war in 1939.
When the war started, David trained as a pilot in Bomber Command, and was lost over Germany in 1942. In 1940, young George, then three years old, was evacuated to Cornwall, where David had family, and Dot volunteered her services as a mathematician to the war effort. She has never spoken about her time during the war, and no-one alive now has any idea what she did or whom she worked with.
When the war ended, Dot compensated for the loss of the love of her life by throwing herself even more deeply into her other first love. Keeping in close touch with David’s sister Jane, who was looking after George with her husband, Richard, she went back to university to update her maths, and added an interest in astrophysics to her already impressive tally of skills.
After graduating in 1947, Dot moved to Cornwall to be reunited with George, then ten years old. George had accepted Jane as his mum and Richard as his dad, so his mother became Auntie Dot. Dot reluctantly accepted this situation and worked to maintain a close tie to the family, rather than cause George any confusion during this important time in his development. She secured a post teaching mathematics in Truro, where she remained until finally having to retire in 1965 at the age of only 51, due to her failing eyesight.
In 1959, George had graduated from university in Exeter, with a BA in modern languages, and prepared to marry his fiancée, Pauline. Jane decided that he needed to know more of his provenance than he did, and had a family tree drawn up for him as a pre-wedding gift, which she gave to him, along with his birth certificate which, of course, named David and Dot as his parents. Thus did he learn for the first time that Mum was Auntie Jane, that Auntie Dot was, in fact, Mum, and that his father had perished in the war. Apart from anything else, this explained to George why his surname was Penrose, the same as Jan’s maiden name, instead of Trelawney, which was her married name. George took the news very stoically, declaring that this information would make no difference to his relationship with Mum/Jane, but would strengthen his already close kinship with Mum/Dot. He also said that it would be nice if he and Pauline could take their honeymoon in Clermont-Ferrand. This reduced Dot to tears, something nothing had done for many years.
When George and Pauline had a son in 1968, they named him David, after the father George had never known. David was a repeat of Dot; quick to learn and extraordinarily gifted. Dot was close to him as he was growing up, and encouraged, supported and coached him where she could.
Since retiring, Dot had lived an increasingly solitary life, her eyesight becoming ever weaker, her confidence ebbing with it. George and Pauline had both passed on, but David was a regular visitor, and made sure that Dot had all the help that modern technology could give her, and that she was comfortable using it.
She could have done with him this evening. She picked up the phone and held it to her ear.
“Hello?” she said, in a small, frail voice.
“Is that Mrs Dorothy Penrose?” asked the male voice on the other end of the line.
“Yes, it is. Who is this?”
“Mrs Penrose, I’m happy to talk to you. My name is Bertram Hambly-Smythe, and I work for Her Majesty the Queen in the anniversary office. I understand that one of my staff has been trying to call you, but left you uncertain about why they called, and I want to apologise for that.”
“What do you want of me?” Dot asked
“Your grandson, Doctor Sir David Penrose, contacted me and told me that you have your 100th birthday coming soon. It is my job to arrange the congratulations cards for Her Majesty to sign, and to send them out to people who reach the age of 100.”
“And that’s all? That’s what these other calls were about? They didn’t say that; they confused and frightened me. Oh, David is so kind; thank you.”
“But that’s not all, Mrs Penrose. Do you recall, in 1945, helping a young subaltern prepare for her maintenance test on an army ambulance?”
“Yes I do. That was Princess Elizabeth, now our Queen, wasn’t it?”
“It was, and when Her Majesty learned of your 100th birthday this year, she remembered it, too. At Her Majesty’s request, I also dug out the records of your service during the war, and…”
“Not allowed to talk about that – official secrets,” she interrupted.
“I think it’s alright now, Mrs Penrose. That was a long time ago. Anyway, Her Majesty instructed me that your card should not be sent to you by post. I am to invite you, together with your grandson and his family for afternoon tea with Her Majesty, at which she will hand it to you in person. How does that sound?”
“That would be wonderful. When would it be? and… oh… I don’t know what to wear or anything.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs Penrose. My people will talk with your grandson to arrange everything.”
She peered at the old, fading wedding photograph on the table beside her. “David. Oh, David,” she said and wept quietly to herself, as joy and immense pride blended with the pain of decades of loss and loneliness.