I saw over the borders of my mind the summer my son left. I stood right on the edge and peered over.
War is a man’s business, so I never made the effort to understand the ins or the outs. It started with the Kaiser, I knew that — and Krauts are always up to this sort of thing. I had been at Myrtle Nichols’ home when I found out, and her husband said we would have won by Christmas, so I paid little mind. Jack was only fifteen then. We would be the lucky ones.
But it didn’t end by Christmas, and when the rations kicked in it became increasingly difficult for me to pretend there was nothing the matter. Jack made fun of me worrying like that. I suppose I can be prone to that sort of thing.
Jack worked in a stable most days. I would bother him, telling him to go to school. We had his father’s pension and there was really no need for him to be down there every day, but the boy insisted on it. He told me it was the most important education he could have, and that there was always a meal to be had off of horses. He was right, I supposed. So I stayed home alone usually, until Ruby returned from school. I was happiest there, to be honest, and I kept up the act of the unconcerned widow.
And I persevered right until the day my boy left. And I still do.
I met him before the front. Smart-looking fellow, very cheery. I took a cigarette from him, thought he’d help me beat the gloom — for a time at least. We were bunkmates at the Stamford camp, trained a whole summer before we shipped. There was a sickly depression clouding the place, dripping from the air. The stink of it lingered everywhere; the coagulated odour of young men’s fear, homesickness, and national duty. Dulce et decorum est, the old men would ensure us, pro patria mori. Maybe that’s what it was: the stench of lies.
But Jack was oblivious to that foulness I sensed. He was delighted. It was like a holiday for him. In the evening’s he’d get talking. He was from someplace in Wales, Gilwern. Near Abergavenny, he said. I told him I’d never heard of it. He didn’t seem to mind though, and he went on. He told tales about his late father, who had been to Africa and died of one of those tropical diseases. His mother was still grieving, though privately in her own personal way. Brittle woman, my mother, he’d say, a stiff breeze would blow her right over, and she’d shatter into a thousand pieces. He would always make this joke and he would always slap his knee in laughter. He made me smile, the dopey chap.
If Stamford was a holiday, then it was on the Titanic. When we arrived in Europe there was very little cheer to be had. Not even with Jack. On the first day he killed a man — a straggler. Unarmed. The poor sod didn’t know what to do. One night he pulled me aside and said, If it’s me, Bertie, if it’s me that goes tomorrow, you will look after them, won’t you? My Ma? My little sister? Maybe it was the atmosphere in that little corner of hell that led me to do it. Shit, I wasn’t feeling very immortal myself. And if it’s me, I said back, you’ll do the same.
We shook on that pact and Jack was cheery again. Then the sun rose above the field. Across the plane there was fire and there were seismic convulsions of mortar shells. When the sand and dust settled even the sky seemed caked in blood. I was sent to a hospital in Dover and an old man gave me a medal. Jack came home in a bag.
When the telegram came I knew it was a joke. I knew Jack would be home soon, and this whole awful hoax would be up. But that October it was a different man on my steps. A friend of Jack’s, from the front.
Just like him really, to make friends in the most amazing of places.
I let him in, and he said his name was Albert. I told him I had a brother called Albert, but he seemed only to grunt at anything I said. He was carrying a bag over his shoulder. There was a scar across his right ear and I presumed one across that same leg, as he walked with an ugly limp.
I asked him if he would, smoke outside, please.
When he came back inside he told me he was to stay, on account of a promise he had made my son. Oh no, no, I implored. Thank you for your kindness, and you are always welcome, but we have money from the pension, and we really wouldn’t be needing you.
Don’t be silly, he scoffed, as he showed himself upstairs. Next morning, I came down to breakfast fully made. That week, he mended the fence and helped me move the lounge. Eventually, he asked Ruby and I to move to his family home in Coventry.
I didn’t say anything, but I knew I would not be going. It’s silly, but I knew I still had to be here. What if Jack did come home? Would he really be welcomed by an empty house? I couldn’t stand the thought.
She wasn’t as fragile as Jack had implied, and I humoured the Woman. She was pleasant company around the home.
I think we both just wanted to keep busy. There was something there — in the back of my mind. Sometimes it came out when I heard an automobile. Sometimes — when I had found for myself a moment of stillness — it would press like a fist in my throat for no reason at all. Panic, or something like that. Like I was still in the line. Like I was still next to Jack.
Once, there were some grass clippings around the landing. As I stooped to gather them a rush of blood moved to my head faster than I could see it coming. My heart raced, and for a moment I was back on the front, next to Jack, and I could hear that peppering of rifle-fire in the distance. I stood with heavy breath, holding some clippings. I unclasped them and went back inside, plonking myself in Jack’s father’s chair.
Sometimes I thought the Woman believed that I was Jack. I would catch glances, or a lilt. Early on I had asked for her and the Girl to move home with me. I didn’t like it out there. It was like another front. Things looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t stand the feeling that it was all foreign. When I said this she dismissed me like a child, and sent me on my way to do other chores. Maybe that served me right.
I think it set in when the snow started to fall — the realisation that Jack wasn’t going to be coming home, and that no amount of baking, or redecorating, or cleaning, or sewing would make it so. It was not a change in her demeanour — she actually became much more lively. It was the shrine.
All Jack’s things; books, photographs and letters, old childhood toys. His clothes even. The Woman arranged them all in a corner of the living room, around a pyre of lit candles. I found its sight repugnant.
It was well after the new year before I told her to take it down. Put those things away. This foolishness has gone far enough. But she just stared at me, and smiled.
Strange old bag. I couldn’t stand it. It was like the kid was just sitting in the living room, watching me, checking on me. Making sure his promise was kept.
I let it go on until spring. Then I did it. I put the candles out and I gathered it all up in my hands and threw it outside. See? See what you made me do? He’s gone! He won’t be back for it! That did it. She opened her mouth like a siren and wailed. Then she turned to me and let out a deep bellow I’d have thought only a man could make.
I struck her clean across the cheek. Not too hard, I didn’t think. She stopped then. I thought she’d realised how absurd she was being, and I helped her up. Whatever had come over her had turned itself off. That night I went to bed and slept like a child. Jack was gone. The Woman was sane.
He’s a silly boy, Jack. I mean really, he goes to bed and leaves his clothes all outside! Strewn across the pavement, of all places! No matter. He’s sleeping now. I’ll bring it all into his room so it’s there for him in the morning. That’s what a mother ought to do for her son.
The young man shook and screamed, hands on his ears. I knew exactly where he thought he was. I had been there so many times before — in and out for almost thirty years. In dreams, in waking days. Without warning. You get better at it, of course. Practice.
The pharmacist cried out, and I placed my hand on the lad.
‘You’re home, kid,’ I told him. He continued shaking around, screaming. I held him closer and looked into his face.
‘You’re home, son. You’re safe. Hey, you’re here. Breathe boy, breathe.’
His eyes slowly came back. He looked at me, exhausted.
‘I did it again.’
‘Home now, to your mother.’ He shook my hand and he left.
‘Are all these boys like that?’ Wendy asked me when she heard about it.
‘Is it that hard, Jack? Even after you’ve been back all this time?’
‘They’ve not been back so long, ma. They’re only just getting home now.’
‘Their poor mothers,’ she remarked.
She pulled me into her embrace and put my pipe out.
‘Oh I’m sorry, pet.’
I shook my head so not to worry her, and rose from my seat. I thought about the boy in the store as I refilled my pipe. I sat in the yard watching the sun move between the clouds. I watched birds move through the sky, bobbing and waning. Sometimes they passed beyond my view, below the fence.
And then suddenly, I was there, and the fence was the trench, and the birds were those almighty shells, indiscriminate and final. But in all the violent noise of that yard, I just gently moved the pipe back and forth from my lips. I had been here many times, and I knew it wouldn’t be forever.
Tom is Brisbane-based writer and an editor at GLASS Magazine. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (Creative Writing) and is currently studying Communications (Journalism) at QUT.