First and Last, 1917

A tale of love and war, a hundred years ago.

Image Credit: 
© David Bryant / Used With Permission

On the days when she couldn’t leave the house, she watched for the soldiers coming home. Standing at the kitchen window, she could see the road pinned to the back of the peninsula, like a grey ribbon winding over marshes as dull as sheep’s scat in winter, acid green in spring and now, at the end of summer, burnished like fool’s gold.

The stranger appeared along the road, walking fast. She drew closer to the window pane to try to see him more clearly and the sharp morning sun made her squint. Gingerly touching her eye socket, she winced.

Last night, Ted’s fist had had a conversation with her. For Ted was a meticulous man and, yesterday, he had been meticulous about salt. A pinch? Not enough. A spoonful? Far too much. She had ruined the stew and it had met with the flagstones, the crock pot shattered. He’d watched her get to her knees to extract the broken pieces, rinse them and set them out on the window sill to dry. Her mother had given her that crock pot. She tapped the shards now with her fingertips, remembering the violence of Ted’s silence, his brooding stare. The bruises would keep her prisoner in the house for days.

In the past three years, she’d seen many men return on leave or for good: withered and stooped with dull hell in their eyes, wending their way past Ted’s farm, the first and last house on the peninsula, depending on which way you were going. Home for the soldiers must be the fishing town, its harbour patrolled by gulls, for there was nowhere else to go if they came this way. If they kept on walking, they’d topple into the sea.

But this one? She opened the window. The first autumnal chill was sharp on her tender cheek bone. This one had not gone to war. She could tell by the confident set of his shoulders and the purpose in his stride as he made his way along the road towards her. He did not appear half a man like the others did. This soldier had been spared.

Ted had not gone either. Got away with it. Farming was exempt. He drank his way through the last three years as men he knew, men he didn’t know, went to war and didn’t come home.

The stranger was closer now, almost by the gate. Joy lifted her suddenly, as rich and as light as air. She ran to the door. She had not run in years. She had not called out in years.

‘Harry!’

Harry from the school playground, Harry from dances in the town hall. Harry from the past, a time of childhood, when lamps were brighter, laughter easier. She shouted, his name hoarse in her throat.

‘Is it you?’

He looked back over his shoulder. She saw him register her bruises, hesitate.

‘Of course it’s me,’ he said, his never-forgotten smile brightening his face. ‘But is it you?’

He came closer, his eyes growing opaque with memories. Cautiously, he stepped through the gate and walked towards her.

‘So, you married him, then?’ Harry weighed up the farmhouse.

She nodded. Could say nothing else about it. Instead, she bade him come in, close the door. She asked him to sit in her husband’s chair by the range while she made him a pot of tea. Harry from the school playground. Harry from the town hall dance. But, he corrected her, he had gone to war.

‘I’ve been away for three years. Signed up with the rest of the fellows, in that first jubilant month. But now,’ he said, and his eyes softened as they hooked onto hers, ‘I’m almost home.’

She set the tea pot down, her hand shaking, the cups chinking as she rearranged them. It was unusual to sit drinking tea with a visitor at this time of the morning when there was housework to be done.

‘You left the town quite suddenly,’ she said, stirring her tea. ‘I heard you went up to London.’
‘Art school. Can you believe that? A boy from round here, indulging in that sort of caper.’
‘I remember you, always drawing,’ she smiled. ‘You sketched me down by the harbour. Do you remember? And that painting of yours, that the headmaster put up in his study.’

‘Probably still there, gathering dust,’ Harry’s laugh was a brief gasp. His face fell, became unreadable. ‘But when the war came, I couldn’t sit around painting. Had to do my bit. But I drew in the trenches. Couldn’t stop myself. Pictures I can never show you, show anyone.’

‘Perhaps, one day, Harry you ought to?’

His eyes roamed around her face. ‘And Ted?’

She shook her head. ‘Farming,’ she said.

She stood suddenly, scraping her chair over the flagstones. She must get on. Ted liked his meals on time. She had stew to prepare.

‘Would you mind,’ said Harry, ‘I’m not in any hurry. Can I sit a while, stay a while?’

All she could do was nod and turn her face away in case he saw the hot prickles of tears. And he sat quietly while she chopped mutton, sliced carrots, his presence comforting, his presence from a time of light and laughter.

She found her second-best crock, stoked the range until she had a good fire. There in her husband’s chair, Harry seemed to have taken himself far away, his face quiet and peaceful. And she saw him as if for the first time, a young and vibrant boy.

‘So, you married him?’ he asked again.

The look on his face frightened her, for, reflected there, she saw herself and what she had wanted once.

‘Please go now, Harry,’ she said, fear making her angry. Ted might walk through the door at any moment. ‘You must leave.’

Harry didn’t argue, he simply understood, just as he had always done. Without a word, he walked to the door, his footfalls barely registering on the flags. In an instance, he was gone, and she thought that the sun had gone behind a cloud.

As the day drew on, and the stew bubbled away, she sat staring at the empty chair until Ted blustered in, newspapers under his arm, hat low on his brow, sniffing the kitchen air like a dog sensing something.

She hurried to the dresser to pour his ale. He sank his face into it and drank deeply, his legs outstretched, his boots stomped onto the fender. She busied herself around him, stirring the stew, boiling the kettle. He wouldn’t look at her face, for then he’d have to witness what he’d done. Instead, he shook out the broadsheet, asked for more light and read. She’d have to wait until he had finished before she could ask to have a look.

The other paper that Ted had brought home, the local rag, was folded on the table; she decided to save that for Sunday when she might have more time to sit, more time to think. Watching the empty road from the kitchen window, she tapped her fingertips over the broken crock pieces on the windowsill. The afternoon was deepening, the sun sinking. She wondered where Harry was. At home, with his mother in the house by the harbour? Yes, by now, surely. By now.

‘Lads from school. In the lists.’ Ted tapped his newspaper, his voice a grumble, rising behind her. ‘All from the same regiment. Wiped out. Bloody fools.’

Part of her crumbled at the thought of reading the relentless columns, part of her had ceased to be able to take it in.

‘I’ll look later.’ Or, perhaps not at all.

‘I need to bathe,’ Ted said.

Out in the shed, she unhooked the heavy iron tub from the wall, lugged it back in, set it in front of the range and began to fill it with steaming water. Her back ached. As she bent over with the deadweight kettle, searing pressure tore inside her bruised face. Ted stripped, his white skin bright in the dim lantern light. She turned her back as he eased himself in to the water, then she took her position behind him, to wash him.

‘What’s in the pot?’ he asked.

Mutton, she told him, speaking with difficulty. The intimacy of the bath muffled her words. She stared at the nape of his neck, at the dirt caught behind his ears and wondered if she had ever loved him, his skin, his hair, his eyes or his voice. As she had loved Harry.

‘Not my favourite,’ he said.

Her fist was a tight ball as she squeezed the flannel and trailed the water down Ted’s back and he flinched, annoyed at her touch. He stood up in a rush of water and reached his hand out for the towel. She kept her eyes on the window as she held it for him.

‘Mutton stew? My mother’s was always better.’

He walked naked to the stairs. The ale had got the better of him and he’d sleep until supper time.

She turned up the lantern in the darkening room and opened the newspaper Ted had been reading. Her mind travelled along the road to the town by the sea, under the sky filled with seagull cries. She thought of other lanterns going on in other parlours, newspaper pages being turned, could ignore it no longer. She found the lists and began to read.

Who had Ted seen here from the Buffs? How many more of the town’s boys were gone? Missing, presumed dead? Missing, presumed drowned?

Harry’s name caught her eye because of a typesetting error. A letter in his surname was wonky, below the line. She stared at it and smiled. The military were wrong. They got things wrong, sometimes, didn’t they?

But her stomach was a sluice of ice, a creeping chill at her core. She reached for the local paper and unfolded it. Harry was headline news. A photograph of him, in neat, tight uniform, looking just as she remembered, as happy and as fresh-faced as she had just seen him, sat there in her husband’s chair. She wanted to laugh. He had looked well, so very well. Not as a man might do, who had just left the inferno of Passchendaele. Sitting by her hearth, he had looked young, as young as when he’d first left home, the town, her life.

She turned to the stew and began to stir. It was catching on the bottom. Ted would be furious. She wiped sweat from her forehead, flinching with pain.

Harry said he was going home. Home to his mother. He was compelled to do it. They all willed themselves elsewhere, from their stinking posts in the trenches, up to their waists in foul mud. And Harry had found her along his way. For how else would he have got there without passing her front door? And forcing her to remember. That he had been her first, and her last.

She plucked her coat from the hook and belted it tightly. She fitted her hat well onto her head, for the wind was picking up. Scooping up the pieces of the broken crocks from the windowsill, she poured them into her pocket. There was nothing else she needed. She folded both newspapers neatly, for that was how Ted liked to find them.

As she lifted the lid on the pot, she heard his snores through the ceiling. The stew was burnt, as she knew it would be. She picked up the salt cellar, tipped the lot into the pot, gave it a jolly good stir and shut the door quietly behind her.

Author and freelance sub editor Catherine Law has known and loved Thanet for 25 years...so much so that she moved here in 2014.

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