Judith stares out at the grim morning with its grey skies and dampness clinging to the windowpane. There is something about the day she knows is going to be unpleasant; she can sense it in her *****. She pushes her fingers through her auburn hair and parts the curtains a little more for a clearer view of the street.
You watch your sister, see her move the curtain, see her auburn hair touch the collar of her grey dress, the dress Mother bought her some years back. Your father is downstairs; you can hear him coughing and sounding more and more like a sea lion each time. Your mother is in the garden hanging out washing, wondering no doubt where Judith is, why she isn’t helping, what with your mother’s bad back and all.
I suppose you’ll be wanting some dinner? Judith says to you, letting the curtain close.
I’m not worried about food, you reply, searching Judith’s features for some sign of happiness, but see none.
Randal’s letter is on the mantel shelf if you want to read it, Judith says. He doesn’t say where he is. Says Tommy Fisher’s dead; nasty business this war.
You wonder if your brother will survive the war. He thinks his luck will hold out. You wonder how many thought that before they were killed. Your eyes follow Judith as she leaves the room, see the slightly bent back, the grim face, the certain virginity that permeates through her whole body like some cancer that she half wants and half fears, but have sought to retain, while you yourself lost yours at sixteen with that Mardy boy. She hesitates at the door, turns and gazes at you.
How long are you back for, Esther? she asks stiffly.
Can’t say, you remark. Secret to all but those who need to know.
I’m your sister, not some spy, Judith says, turning her back on you and stomping down the stairs.
If she knew what I’ve seen or have done she’d be different, you muse, standing up from the chair by the fireplace and going to the window. Being back is hard. Knowing how to relax is like remembering how to walk after some accident; it takes time. The street is the same; no bombs here; not like London. You remember your first dead body. The face was gone; the hands were spread outwards as if in some gesture of the Crucified. Indecent how some bodies are left. You close your mind off from it all, stare at Mrs Frown walking up from the shops, puffing and blowing, getting what she can with the coupons. Her Eric was killed at Dunkirk, poor soul. You move away from the window and glance about the room. Used to be your room once. Judith has it now; you can smell her presence here with your eyes closed. You sigh at the ghosts that linger here. Uncle Geoffrey died in this room before you were born: T.B. your mother said, as she wiped tears from her eyes. Long ago. Long, long ago.
Judith is in the kitchen with your mother. Your father is out in the garden pottering about in the vegetable patch. You stand by the back door staring at him puffing on his roll up, his back curved, his hands fiddling with something you can’t make out.
Judith says you’re on secret work, your mother says mixing something in a large bowl.
Yes, you reply. I have been told to tell no one, not even relatives.
Aren’t we to be trusted, now? your mother says sarcastically, staring at you under her dark brows as she did when you were a child before she smacked you. What with Randal writing home bland letters and now you with your secret work. Makes me wonder what all the fighting's about, she moans.
Judith at the sink, says nothing, but you can see her shoulders rise and tense. You remember her going tense many times. Being the eldest, she was often the first one to be chastised for wrongdoing as mother put it. Judith would raise her shoulders and tense herself even before your mother’s hand touched her.
Your father was not involved in such matters as he was at work most of the time and too tired when he came home for such doings as he referred to it.
Blame the Government not me, you say. I just obey orders.
Your mother stares at you with her dark brows lower still. She mixes faster, noisily and sighs loudly. There is hardness at the core of your mother, which even now has not softened, not with all the years and suffering. If I spoke to my parents like that I’d have my father’s hand across my face, she says looking away from you, now, letting her head turn to Judith at the sink.
You turn and stare at your father rising from the ground with his roll-up nearing its end, hanging from his lip. He gives a small wave. You wave back with a child-like wave from years ago. He smiles and then lowers himself down again.
Your mother is still moaning, but you have not heard what she has said so cannot reply, but stare at her blankly as if you were deaf and wanted some explanation of what is being said.
You remember a year back being deaf for a day or so when a bomb had gone off near by and it had left you numb and momentarily deafened.
It doesn’t do you upset, Mum, Judith says looking at you from the sink. Your mother has gone off to the pantry and your sister finds time for her own words. It makes her nerves bad.
I’ve said nothing, you reply.
Secret work is meaningless to her if she’s not to be trusted. And you so rude, Judith says. Her eyes darken and her lips pull tight across her mouth, as they did when we were children and she wanted her own way and didn’t get it.
I have not been rude, you inform. Merely stating facts.
Judith turns away from you as your mother returns to the kitchen. Your mother thumps down the flour on the table and takes a deep intake of breath. How long are you back for? she asks.
As far as I know a month, you lie to make for peace.
You could stay here if you wanted; you could have Randal’s room, he won’t be back for sometime, your mother says.
I’ve got to get back to London tomorrow. But I’d like to stay the night if I may, you say, your voice softer now, less hostile.
Of course you can, your mother says, her brows rising, and her eyes gazing at you in that way of hers when she wants something or wants to say sorry without actually speaking. You nod and smile. That’s settled then. Judith and you can have a good old chat; she’s in need of someone else to speak with apart from me and your father.
Judith looks at you from the sink, her head turned like an owl. Yes, it will be nice, she says.
The kitchen mellows. The day brightens. You can hear your father coughing from the garden. And the dead face of a child staring up at you from the pavement, her arms missing, rises from your memory and settles itself by the table where your mother mixes again and the eyes are blank as white paper.
Judith has gone to work on the farm, her part for the war effort. You and your mother go down to the shops, leaving your father to potter in the garden if his cough will let him for much longer.
Judith wanted to join up, but I told her I needed her near in case your father is taken bad, your mother says, lifting her eyes up briefly from the ground where they had been gazing. His cough’s getting no better. He can barely potter about in the garden without his coughing going off.
Must be hard to be left at home with this war on and so much seems to be going on and feeling left out of it all, you say.
That’s as may be, but I’d not cope with him if he was taken bad, your mother says glancing at you with her brows lowered. There’s many that can do war work on ships and such, but there’s work to be done here to feed us all and keep the country going while the men are away.
You feel a sense of being trapped in a dark room. Your mother’s voice rambling on, but you are far away, where none of your mother’s worries seem to weigh in the balance. Max Elton went weeks without saying a thing of importance, but then after so much torture even he gave way and then they shot him. Dark rooms are your one fear. On your last mission Max had been quite close to you, had stressed that being a woman wouldn’t save you from anything once you were caught. Then he was captured and you never saw him again, never saw his bright eyes and curly dark hair on your pillow as you had before.
You are so quiet these days, Esther, that I wonder what’s been going on in your life with all that secret work, your mother says, stopping on the kerb for a bus to pass by.
Not that you’d tell me if you could. You always were a secret little madam when you were young, keeping a still tongue in your head, your mother drones on, her eyes sweeping over you as if something could be found of your life on the features of your face.
Nothing happens much where I am, you say looking past your mother at the hills far off to your left. Secret work in an office. Not much to write home about, you say coolly, remembering the hills and the place where you and the Mardy boy lay and made love.
Randal’s not much for letting on where he is; says it’s all hush-hush. As if I’m going to blab my mouth off to ****** himself or any of his cronies, your mother says stiffly, pausing to look at her shopping-list and take out her coupons.
She moves on and starts to speak again, but you have left her behind in your mind and are wandering the hills with Tommy Mardy with his big blue eyes, red cheeks, and his hand holding yours.
What happened to Tommy Mardy? you ask suddenly cutting through your mother’s conversation.
Your mother hesitates and searches your face as if she were seeking clues for the question. He wasn’t fit for the services so he works on his father farm, she replies. Funny heart, she adds.
You nod and look away from her. Nothing wrong with his heart that afternoon, you muse, hiding a smile inside you, almost feeling Tommy entering you once more in that clumsy way of his. Then there had been Max. Our love a secret between the bed and us. Nothing clumsy about Max except being caught that night. Nothing clumsy. Nothing. Nothing.
Your father is sitting on an old wooden seat at the end of the garden, his eyes gazing up at the sky. There is something old about him although he is only fifty. His cough wears him down and his hair has turned prematurely grey. He muses on the coming spring, vegetables, and flowers that will grow. The dull clouds do not dishearten him; he looks beyond the obvious, looks to the future.
When he hears you approaching, he lowers his eyes and takes in your dark hair and deep blue eyes and the widening smile you always have for him.
Come to see your old dad, then? your father says.
Of course, you say. What would a home visit be without a talk with my dad.
He moves to the end of the seat to make room for you. Sitting down you realise how thin he has become, how drawn about the eyes. His fingers have nicotine stains on them and his nails are bitten down.
They don't know about war, he says nodding towards the house. I’ve seen what war does to people. And I guess so have you, he says searching your deep blue eyes.
Yes, you reply, it isn't something one wants to talk about.
Too right, your father says looking away from you and staring at the grass by his feet. Your Mother doesn’t mean anything personal with her going ons. She hates things that disturb her routine. This ****** war does that.
Things seem so unreal at home, you say quietly. It’s like looking through the eyes of a child at some far off memory.
That’s what I found in 1918 when I came back from the Front. Things that seemed important before seemed so ****** trivial after what I'd seen, your father says in a far off voice as if he was in a trance. His hands wrestle against each other and then he pulls them in to some prayer-like gesture and lets them sit on his knees like well-behaved children. You place your hand on his arm.
I know you understand how I feel. I cannot talk about my work. I wish I could, it would help me with the burden, but I can't, you say softly. He nods, turns, and looks at you. His once bright eyes are dull now, as if the life and colour had fled from them.
Judith’s none too happy. She was hoping to get away and join up, but your mother persuaded her to work on the land, your father informs.
Has she had a man friend since I've been away? you ask.
She hasn't been out much apart from the farm. She doesn’t seem interested, he says. Now our Randal he left behind a few girls crying after him. He writes now and then, but don't say much, your father says, looking back at the grass.
What do you think is going on with regards to the war? you ask quietly.
Something big is in the air, your father says. The Second Front it seems to me. He sighs and his eyes close. There are many deaths to come. More than your mother and such realise.
I may not make it back, you whisper. That’s why I came home for a quick visit.
I guessed as much, your father says gently. I’m proud of you, Esther. He then becomes quiet, taps your hand and walks up the garden towards the house, his head lowered and his back slightly bent, as if he carried some invisible cross over the green grass towards a hidden crucifixion.
You watch him until he disappears inside the house. A lump grows in your throat and you want to cry, but you don’t. It would only make leaving harder. You close your eyes and imagine yourself a child again playing with Judith and Randal in the garden. The swing has gone now. The voices have become silent, but Randal’s playful kiss still sits on your cheek wet and warm like an Indian summer.
Judith watches you all through dinner, her eyes surreptitiously studying your movements, your features and your lips moving as you speak.
It has been a hard day on the farm. The land girls she works with are far more outspoken than she is and their conversations make her blush with the deeds and thoughts they describe. She wonders what you know and if you and those you work with speak about such things.
You’re quiet, Judith, your mother says. You’ve not said a word since you've been home.
Judith's eyes leave you and move over to your mother. Her face is momentarily expressionless as if all emotions and thoughts had left her. Then she speaks and her features come alive again. She puts down her knife and fork and her hands move in expressive movements as if her words were in need of their assistance.
You listen to her and let her words sink into you. Whatever had been troubling her seems now to be laid before you all. Land girls and their lack of morality; their language and the things they talk about in front of her flows from her lips. And as she speaks, her eyes settle on you as if maybe you were like them. You wonder what it is about Judith that makes her so frigid and so unbending with regards other people's morals.
People are like that in London, your mother says, her eyes glancing at you momentarily. It’s what comes from living so packed together. It isn't natural to live in such crowded conditions.
You say nothing. Your deep blue eyes gaze past Judith opposite you and settle on the photograph on the wall. It shows you all together ten years before in 1934. Your father and mother sitting stiff and upright with Randal on the right and Judith on the left and you in the centre with your eyes peering mischievously at the camera. You were thirteen then. Judith was fifteen and Randal eleven. You stare at the expression on Judith's face in the photograph. Then she seemed more alive and possessed a hint of sensualness in the way she gazes out at you and your memory of her physical touches and embraces. Gone now all that. She seems now as if she had buried herself and any sensuality that she may have possessed.
Girls are like that all over the world, your father says, not just those in the big cities. It's just the way some girls are when they're thrown together.
You would know, I suppose, what with those French girls you knew in the last war, your mother says stiffly, peering at your father with her brows lowered. At least our girls have been brought up to be respectful. Such carrying-ons and with a war on too. Her eyes move to you and seem to flow over you like a cold tide.
You are aware of her gaze now. The photograph contains a captured glimpse of what has gone. Its dullness portrays that very fact. Your mother's gaze leaves you and flows to Judith who is sitting stiff-backed and stern-faced.
Can we go for a walk after dinner? you ask Judith.
Yes, I suppose so, Judith replies.
A YOUNG WOMAN ON LEAVE DURING IN 1944