Short Story 2016 Results

3rd Place

THE DISSOLUTION by Theresa Curnow

Matthew prised back the boarding from the kitchen window and rubbed some of the grime off the glass. Outside the spring day cast a benign smile and tried to convince him that the daffodils were something to feel glad about.

“Matty! Come away from the window!”

His mother’s voice slipped like a dull knife into his thoughts.  “Just looking mama,” he said.

“Nothing to see out there; you know that.” He felt his mother’s fingers on his back, like a crab scrabbling for purchase.

“I wanted to see the flowers.” Matthew wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

“Got flowers in here son.”

He glanced back into the darkened room. The roses on the table sat in the chipped brown vase, their heads drooping miserably to the dusty table. Matthew let his gaze trail over the gouges on the wood. A flash of a memory exploded in his mind; of a rough brown hand stabbing a blade into the table, twisting and gouging, the splinters corkscrewing upwards. He couldn’t remember whose hand that had been. Had it been his hand? He glanced down at his fingers; five still pale doughy appendages. They didn’t seem to belong to him. He screwed his hand into a fist almost feeling those splinters in his skin.

“Those flowers are dead mama,” he whispered.

She cleared her dry throat and licked her cracked lips. He watched as a flake of skin drifted down onto her grubby blouse. She reached a trembling hand to his face and he felt her cold bony fingers rasping on his stubble.

“They’re just resting is all, like your daddy,”

Matthew moved away from her touch, her fingers leaving a heaving memory of another time when there were golden dusty motes and the scent of jasmine.

“Daddy’s dead,” he said. He stepped to the table and plucked a petal from the roses. Once waxy and fragrant it was now rotting and left a slimy stain on his fingers.

“We have to bury him,”

He felt rather than saw his mother tighten her lips, a thin grey slash in a canvas of lines etched with hardship and a profound darkness.

“He’s sleeping!” she said. She coughed and then spat on the floor. Matthew wiped the dead petal off onto his jeans.  Outside he heard a voice, cold and clear.

 

“I need to fix that board mama,” he said, stepping to the window.

The voice had been joined by others and he heard the word repentance used. Matthew gave a little hiccupping laugh. He remembered repentance when it was something that could be attained easily after going to church once a week after fucking your married neighbour. Repentance now was a rare commodity. If you ever attained it, it usually meant you were dead.

“We have to bury daddy,” he said again. His mother sniffed and he looked at her. She was only fifty but she was a small, grey bird of a woman now, ground down by events that lay stained and bloody in the ruins of her mind.

“I can’t,” she muttered, “just can’t.”

She crouched down to the floor and sat down right on the dirty carpet where the dead bugs lay, where piles of books sat leaking their stories onto the shag pile, their pages yellowing and curling.

Matthew hovered beside her, his body bent and thin, his hands clasped before him in a parody of prayer.

“I loved him,” she murmured.

Matthew sat down opposite her, dust making his nose itch.

“I know, he said.

“We had a good life once,” she said, pointlessly.

He knew all that but it seemed eons ago. Maybe it was. He just couldn’t remember. His body felt hollow. He was an empty sack, a crumpled paper bag flapping in the wind with no hope of disposal. Was that how he thought of himself now? That he was something to be disposed of? He picked at his shoe lace. There was gum stuck to the bottom of one of his sneakers and suddenly a memory moved like a sun ray through his mind. He was sitting in the back of a car and David Bowie’s Heroes was on the stereo. He was singing along, ‘I can be King and you, you will be queen, though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them just for one day…’ The girl beside him was blonde and pretty with green eyes and freckles on her nose. She was laughing and her laugh made the hairs on his arms raise up and he knew that he was the happiest he’d ever been. She  put one piece of gum in his mouth and then the other in her mouth and they ate the gum until their lips touched and they were kissing. He recalled her teeth grazing his bottom lip, her hands in his hair.

The memory evaporated as quickly as it had arrived and he tried desperately to hold onto it but it was like holding onto water and he couldn’t. His face was wet and he rubbed the wetness away before pushing himself to his feet.

“We’ll bury him in the cellar,” he muttered.

She met his gaze then nodded slightly. He lowered a hand down to her and she took it and he pulled her up, feeling how frail and light she was, his once strong and proud mother. He laid a finger on the side of her head, where her hair was shaved, where the penny sized scars marked her forever.

“We’ll do it together,” she said quietly, “then I’ll make us some tea but first, fix that board.”

He stepped back to the window and picked up the hammer that lay against the wall then he used it to quickly bang a few nails back in. Through the crack in the wood, he could see that someone had raised a St Piran’s flag, had tied it to a fence pole. Matthew watched it flap enthusiastically in the wind then he heard the voices, saw the shadows and moved away again.

He took his mama’s hand. “Let’s go bury daddy,” he said.

**

 

Matthew patted down the compacted earth of the dirt floor of the cellar then laid the shovel against the wall. He looked at his dirty hands, the lines engrained with the dirt and blood from burst blisters.

“Matthew?”

“Its all done mama,” he called back.

He made his way upstairs trailing one hand on the damp wall, feeling flakes of plaster drift away from the brick.

From outside he could hear shouting and screaming. Gunshots.

“Matty?”

A note of alarm and panic in her voice.

He ran up the remaining stairs, “Coming!”

His mother was standing in the middle of the kitchen, staring at the boarded up window.

He strode past her and to the window where he peered through the gap in the boards. At the bottom of their overgrown garden and outside the broken gate he saw figures dressed all in white.

His mouth turned dry. It was them. They were back.

“What Matty? What?”

His mother’s voice had taken on a frangible quality. She asked the question but the answer was in her head riding on the back of her polluted mind, among the shards of her ruination. He glanced at her, at her stretched parchment like skin and realised that he could only realistically do one thing for her.

He stumbled past her and into the hallway to the cupboard under the stairs.

“Matty, I think they’re coming up the path…what do we do Matty? I can’t do this again…not again…”

He stepped back into the kitchen. She was still standing where he had left her. He slowly walked towards her, his heart turning to ashes in his chest.

“I think its time to leave Mama,” he said.

She turned and looked at him. “And go where?”

He reached for her hand and she gave it to him, a brittle sparrow that he enveloped in his shaking fingers. He pulled her closer to him then closed his eyes and raised the handgun, his father’s old service pistol to the side of her head.

She didn’t flinch, didn’t move away. “Matty?”

“Ssh, don’t talk Mama…you don’t have to worry about anything now,”

He pressed his lips to her dry forehead. “Love you.”

Then he pulled the trigger.

The sound was deafening in the small space and his ears rang. His mother jerked in his arms and then she slumped and he couldn’t hold her weight. Gently, he lowered her to the laminate flooring, her blood spilling onto his arms and face. He tasted copper and the saltiness of his tears.

He knew that the gunshot would bring them running.  He had three minutes at most before they came through the door, so he laid his mother on the floor then sat beside her trying to grasp onto a happy memory, of the time before all this, before the dead zone. It had been building for years, the disillusionment of the lower class, the chattering of unrest and the birth of a revolution. As the divide of the classes widened ever more, the poor and the disenfranchised rebelled and rose up against the government. This revolution could only ever have been a fractured lip service however, and the riots were quickly brought under control until the next time and the next time. Ten years ago the government and army cordoned off the poorest districts in the cities, towns and villages imposing a curfew. The curfews only served to turn a boiling situation into an overflow of anger and desperation and emotions which spilled over into more violence and deaths. Eventually, fences were put up, topped with razor wire. Matthew thought of the flag fluttering freely above the lethal wire.

It was in the year 2030 that people started going missing from their homes. Some came home, stumbling back in the early hours, dazed, traumatised and usually unable to say what had happened to them; some never came home at all.  Matty’s Uncle Gary had been one of the ones that had vanished and never came home. His Aunt went searching for him and then she disappeared too, only to return six months later thin, malnourished and mentally unstable. She had killed herself only two weeks after her return. It had been someone in the next street who had found out the awful truth. Noah Andrews staggered into the town square one hot and humid July his head shaved, hospital gown hanging off him, scars all over his body but the most terrible thing of all was the fact that he had no arms. They had been removed from him. The truth was something that stunned even the most hardened of people.

The disappeared, as they were called, had been used for medical experimentation and drug testing, limb transplantation and the most terrible of all, body parts and organs for the rich and upper class.

The lower class weren’t simply poor and useless anymore, they were now beneficial and an important part of the whole system, a crucial part of society. Matthew looked down at his trembling hands, at the scars that connected them to his arms. He was a black man with the hands of a white man. Swapping body parts had taken on a whole new sinister turn. He tried to grasp a happy memory but he wasn’t even sure if he had any. Who knew what they had done to his mind. Was he even himself anymore?  He suspected not.  He looked down at his mother and Bowies’ Heroes slipped into his brain effortlessly. At least he was a man with taste he thought…‘I can be King and you, you will be queen, though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them just for one day’

He could beat them today. He raised the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

 

2nd Place

MARIA’S CURSE by Charles Warren

Rain drummed on the roof of the old woman’s hut as she handed me a glass of warm spiced wine.

‘I’ve got a little bread if you want it too,’ she said. ‘Sit here by the fire and I’ll fetch it.’

I stretched my legs and felt the heat begin to warm my sodden clothes. After two years on crusade in Palestine I had forgotten how miserable the rain could be on an autumn night in Normandy.  I had been making my way home for three months, but the deluge had halted my travels here.

The woman returned with a platter of bread and cheese. ‘You were lucky to find this place. There is nowhere to stay on this road between here and Caen.’

‘I am grateful to you,’ I said and reached for some bread.

With a movement as sudden as a snake’s she grasped my hand.  ‘You’ve been in the Holy Land,’ she said, squeezing my tanned fingers. Her tongue ran across her lower lip. ‘There’s been one or two other good Christian knights stop here on their way back north.’

There was sarcasm in her voice. Her eyes, the colour of amber in the fire light, met mine.

‘I was in Palestine too, you know, years ago,’ she began. ‘My grandfather joined King Raymond’s crusade. The family was granted a castle outside Acre. I am the last of us.’

So she fell to gabbling about the Holy Land. I needed to wait for the rain to stop and so I remained by the fire listening to her. One of her stories I have good reason to recall.

It concerns a French knight, William of Tours, and the terrible manner of his death. It begins with William’s discovery of an old fortress in the desert. The gate was open and there was no one on the walls and so he rode in. No one came to greet him, no men at arms, no servants.

William was thirsty under the merciless sun. He was a fat man and the leather coat and linen shirt beneath his chain mail stuck to his back. After a clash with two Saracen outriders an hour ago, he had become thoroughly lost.  Everywhere looked the same in this land of sand and rock.

He climbed from his horse and walked to a small well that stood by the wall of one of the towers.

‘Welcome sir,’ said a voice behind him. William spun round, his nerves still taut from the morning’s skirmish.

‘Good God, you startled me,’ he said, relaxing a little as he saw the European face and clothes of the stranger approaching him across the courtyard.

‘I do apologise, let me offer you a real drink and a little food.’ The newcomer, a man of 40 or so in a threadbare tunic, gestured towards the keep. ‘We don’t get a lot of visitors here and the knights of Christ are very welcome. Please.’

William followed his host up a flight of steps and into the keep’s great hall. The room was empty but for a bug infested tapestry on the wall, a long table, a few worn chairs… and a young woman.

William stared at her. She was beautiful. He could barely remember his wife, he had been in Palestine so long, and now, in this crumbling little fort, he felt desire awaken.

‘This is my daughter Maria,’ said William’s host. ‘I am Peter of Blois and this,’ he gestured around him, ‘is what my grandfather gave up his estates in France for.’

‘Why not go back?’ said William, still staring as the girl placed a goblet of wine in front of him. She met his gaze with the slightest of smiles.

‘We cannot,’ said Peter of Blois. ‘We are cursed.’

‘Cursed?’

‘There were many creeds here before the infidels and even before the Jews. As old as the world, some of them. My grandfather took it upon himself to crush them…’ Peter appeared to hesitate, and then sat opposite William. Something about the way he appeared to dart from place to place, like a lizard on a hot wall, made William pause and look into his face.

‘Yes!’ said Peter. ‘You could help us. A fighting man like you. I have nothing to offer you but…’

‘But what?’ said William.

‘You could do it, you said yourself you had seen off four pagans this morning. Four…’

William nodded. He had lied a bit. Though he loved fighting, and was good at it, he had killed only one of two Saracen horsemen. The other had run.

‘What do you want me to do?’ he asked eventually. His gaze had travelled back to the daughter, drinking in the curve of her hips and breast as she leant across the table to refill his wine.

‘Kill the beast.’ said Peter of Blois.

‘Beast? What is it, a lion?’

Peter smiled. ‘No, not a lion. If you accept this task you’ll see what it is. You’ll find it three miles from here, by the river bed when the sun sets. You are welcome to wait here until then.’

William shifted uneasily under his host’s scrutiny. ‘I’m not doing it for nothing,’ he said and nodded towards the girl.

Peter seemed to have expected the request. ‘I accept. She is yours for one hour after your return.’

*

There was no one to see William off when he left the castle. He rode for several minutes towards a low rise of broken rock and stunted plants that Peter had told him screened the river.  Beyond it he heard a man scream. He climbed off his horse, drew his sword and dagger and scrambled to the top of the rise. Below him, beneath the setting sun that had turned the sky livid crimson, was the river bed.

‘Good God,’ he muttered. There among the parched rocks and silt, among a litter of human bones, was the Beast…a low crouching thing bent over the thrashing figure of a man.

William hesitated and then began close the gap. Despite his bulk, years of fighting had taught him to move with speed and he was quickly on the river bed. By now the screams had stopped and the prostrate man was still. It was the other horseman from that morning.

The Beast lifted its head and looked straight at him. William froze, all his fighting instincts suspended. Narrow yellow eyes stared back at him above a churning mouth hung with the pagan’s entrails. William’s fumbling thoughts were catapulted back to his childhood, to his nightmares and the grinning church gargoyles that populated them.

‘Come on, come on,’ he urged himself and his body began to respond, his sword arm coming up, the point of his blade tracking the Beast as it moved to his right. In his other hand he held a dagger. Unlike almost all the knights he fought alongside, he never used a shield if he was fighting on foot. It just got in the way.

His quarry’s sudden movements stirred something in William’s memory, before every stray thought was consumed in the heat of his concentration.

He was ready when it lunged, stepping aside at the last moment. But it was quick, very quick, and his sword stroke came late.  Then it was upon him, throwing him back on the sand, the amber eyes inches from his own and its yawning mouth bearing down on his throat. His sword was lost and this was when so many of the demon’s other adversaries had failed – pinned down with only a shield left to fight with.

But William had the dagger. Again and again he drove it up into the demon’s belly, his face turned from the ragged teeth. At last its strength ebbed, draining away in the black heat that streaked over his hand and forearm.

*

‘Surprised to see me then girl?’ William snorted when he found Maria in the castle’s hall. In his hand was a linen sack, black with the blood of the Beast. He had struck off its head and brought the trophy with him.

‘Where’s your father? Tell him I’ve kept my part of the bargain.’

Maria stared at the sack.

‘Cat got your tongue? Here, look at this.’ He turned the sack upside down. The head dropped out, rolled over once and William found himself looking at the grey face of Peter of Blois.

Maria broke the silence. ‘You’ve done it. You’ve killed him. At last, at last…’

‘I ..?’

‘The curse is broken. You have done it.’

William tore his gaze from the head on the stone floor. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘My father was the demon. He was the Beast. I was the bait. For years he has been feeding on the knights who thought they could have me. Now I am free, free from this place. Now I can go home, home to Normandy.’

William watched the girl in silence. He helped himself to a drink and assembled his thoughts. ‘There is the matter of my reward. Let’s see how grateful you really are,’ he said.

She smiled and met his gasping stare. ‘First you must bathe.’

*

William sank low in the warm water. He hadn’t realised how pleasant a bath could be.

‘You don’t seem concerned about your father girl,’ he said and shut his eyes, inhaling the scent she had dripped into the bath.

‘I told you how he used me. Anyway, I’ve got you all to myself now.’

‘Ummm,’ sighed William. He could feel her breath on the back of his neck as she moved to the end of the bath. He could barely wait for what was to come.

‘You see, like my father told you, it was a family curse. A curse on each one of us.’

Something had changed in Maria’s voice. William’s eyes sprang open. He saw his sword on a table far from his reach and saw, descending on him, the reptile eye and dripping mouth of the beast. Then he could see nothing at all as that mouth fastened on his face.

*

‘Well?’ the old woman snapped. ‘Do you like my story?’

‘I had not heard that legend before, but…’

‘It is no legend,’ she said and peered at me. ‘What do you think of it?’

‘Think?’

‘Yes,’ she had taken my hand again. ‘Come on.’

‘I think William died a terrible death, helpless like that.’

Her hand tightened its grip. ‘Yes, yes, what else? He got what he deserved, didn’t he?’

‘Good lord, does it matter?’ I tried to free my hand.

‘It  matters, believe me. That poor girl, kept alone and lusted after by every man who stumbled on that godforsaken place.’

She was spitting the words out, gazing into the fire. Finally her venomous stare settled on me again.

‘But she was like her father…’ I fumbled, suddenly frightened.

‘What of it? It was not her fault she was cursed.’

My courage vanished. ‘William of Tours was not a true knight, he wanted to force himself on the girl, a girl cruelly used by her father.’

‘Yes,’ she cried and let go of my hand. ‘At last a man with a little compassion.’

The fire crackled and spat in the sudden silence between us.

‘Now go before I change my mind,’ she said. ‘Go on, get out.’

‘This is not hospitable,’ I said, standing up. ‘First you offer me wine, then you throw me out.’

‘Get out,’ she said. I walked quickly to the door, turning once to look back into that hovel. In the writhing light of the fire I saw the amber eyes and churning mouth of the Beast.

I ran from that place, out into the sodden blackness and stumbled over a rusting helm that lay among the fallen leaves, left behind perhaps by some knight who had failed her test. I found my horse and fled Caen.

 

1st Place

AN ACT OF WAR by Valerie Thompson

Everyone was frightened, except me.  Their faces wore the same expression, as if they couldn’t understand how it’d all come to this.  People started sentences but their words trailed off or they’d cry like babies, even the ones you never imagined going to pieces.  I watched the Vicar sob, his bony shoulders and that dusty cassock, the way his fingers trembled as they clutched the edge of the pulpit.  He’d started a sermon, but couldn’t go on.  Miss Hayford tried playing a hymn on the wheezing organ but somehow the notes wouldn’t come together into a tune.  It was as if the whole village was breaking up, crumbling like broken biscuits.

There was nothing on the radio that Sunday afternoon, not after 1 o’clock broadcast, nothing until their national anthem was played at tea time.  Mrs Marsh wouldn’t allow the radio to be switched on in the sitting room, but I could hear it from next door’s as they had their windows open.  It was a warm spring day, you see.  Blossom on the trees and primroses in the grass verges along the lane.  I wanted to be out playing but Mrs Marsh always said playing wasn’t decent on a Sunday.  She was a God fearing sort.  Not a bad woman, I suppose, but not the motherly kind.  Her husband ended up in Africa somewhere, his bones bleached by the sun.  She’d had a telegram to say he’d died of fever, though that’d been before I’d arrived.  I’d been sent with a couple of other evacuees to a farm on Highfield Lane, but that hadn’t worked out so they’d moved me here after Mrs Marsh was widowed.  She’d not cleared out her late husband’s clothes, so my own things hung in a wardrobe next to Mr Marsh’s cricket whites and black dinner jacket that smelt of moth balls.

Mrs Marsh didn’t want for money, despite grumbles about rationing and going short.  For all her sour faced moments she’d always fed me well, better than my own mother ever did.  On that Sunday afternoon, as we heard the far off rumble of engines, I wondered what’d happen to Mrs Marsh’s money, to everyone’s money in fact.  Would they be allowed to keep hold of it?  I knew for a fact the bank manager had orders not to let anyone withdraw large sums of cash.  I’d overheard Mrs Marsh telling Miss Hayford that.  She was indignant.  “Jumped up little so and so.  Telling me what I can and can’t do with my own savings.”

“Well,” Mrs Hayford had said, “there is a war on.”

Not for much longer, I thought.  Not judging by what’s coming out way.  Anyway, if the villagers couldn’t hide their money I knew a lot of them had spirited away other valuables.  Mrs Marsh didn’t wear her gold earrings any more, and the Vicar’s wife wasn’t seen with pearls round her turkey neck.  I’d seen old Mr Trout digging a hole in his vegetable patch, burying a silver cup he’d won for ‘Best in Show’, along with his grandfather’s fob watch.  I’d had half a mind to dig them up myself, but where would I keep them?

As soon as dusk came Mrs Marsh said,

“Close the curtains so we can put on the light.  There’s a good girl.”

“But missus,” I told her, “there’s no point having a blackout now.  The bombs have stopped.”
“Hmph!  I don’t trust them,” Mrs Marsh said.  She was knitting, needles click clacking in an irritable rhythm.  “Liars and scoundrels.”  She finished a row and regarded the lines of stitches.  “I wouldn’t put it past them to drop a few more, just out of spite.”

The evening dragged on, her knitting and me sticking postage stamps in my album, and all the time there was the low, persistent rumble of engines.  Old Mr Trout, whose son perished at Dunkirk, said they’d taken Coventry.  ‘What was left of it.’  I wondered how close they were to us.  The village sits in the dip of a hollow, and sounds travel across the hills and down toward us.  In years gone by, so Miss Hayford reckons, you’d hear Christmas bells ring out from towns across the county.  Not that bells have rang lately, the metal having been needed for munitions.  The railings had gone from around the village school too, and even housewives gave up their pots and pans, much good it all did.

At 8 o’clock there was a knock on the door.  Both of us jumped, but it was only Betty Warwick, the post mistress.  She was shaking, and when Mrs Marsh offered her a cup of tea I thought how stupid, that woman wants a proper drink.  A nip of brandy would put colour in her cheeks.  As if she heard me, Mrs Marsh said ‘tell you what, Betty, I’ve a tiny bit of sherry in the sideboard.’  It was a tiny bit too, barely two inches in the bottle, but it loosened their tongues.  Mrs Marsh sent me out the room – ‘wash your hands and face, and don’t forget to clean your teeth’ – but I didn’t go far, hiding in the shadows of the hallway from where I could hear their lowered voices.

“I’m that frightened, Monica,” Betty Warwick said.  “It’s even worse with no man around for protection.  You hear such stories about their soldiers.”

“Now, now.  Don’t get yourself worked up.”

“But no one’s safe.  Not just pretty girls either.”

“Betty!  I’m sure it’s not true.”

“Even married women in their forties.  Their fifties.”  I heard her crying.  “Even old ladies.  They’ve no restraint.  None.”

I moved a fraction so I could see them, their backs toward me.  The fire was dying down, and Mrs Marsh got up to throw some coal on it.  I heard her say abruptly,

“I’ve got something.  Don’t tell anyone, Betty.  I don’t want it all round the village.”
“I wouldn’t.”

“I’ve got a vial of pills in my bedside cabinet.  My late Father’s.  He’d been gassed in the Great War, and was always in such pain.  The pills were his last resort.  You know, if there was another war.  Not that we ever really imagined – I found them after he’d died – “

“He didn’t – “

“No, don’t be daft.  A natural death.  Anyway I should’ve thrown them down the sink, but – I thought, if the worst comes to the worst – anyway, there’s more than enough for us two.”  A few seconds passed before Mrs Marsh said softly, “us three.”
There was another pause.  Betty Warwick said,

“You mean, you’d – the girl too?”

“She can’t fend for herself,” Mrs Marsh said.  “She’s young but if what you say is right -”

I must’ve moved as my arm caught on a coat hanging from a hook.  The fabric rustled.

“Theresa?” Mrs Marsh called out.  “Where are you?”
I ran lightly upstairs before shouting,

“Having a wash, missus.”
“Put your pyjamas on.”
“Alright.”

When they’d settled again I crept back down.  They were talking about village lads, the ones too young to be called up.  ‘They’re off into hills’ Betty Warwick was saying.  ‘Taking what shotguns they can get their hands on.  I wonder if we should all clear out.’

“The two boys staying at Dover Farm certainly should,” Mrs Marsh said.  “You’ve only got to look at them.”
“They say they’re put into camps,” Betty Warwick said.  “Every last one.”

“I heard that too.”

“They go into the camp, but they don’t come out.”
“Dear God!”

Their voices were dropping all the time and it got so I couldn’t make out a thing.  I went back upstairs and put my nightclothes on.  Afterwards I stared out of the window toward Cleever Hill where the main road is.  In the distance pinpricks of light moved steadily forward.  They’d be in the village by morning and I’d finally see them.

I couldn’t imagine it, any more than I could imagine elves and goblins marching down the High Street.  They reckon London fell days ago.  I thought about Mum and Uncle Tony.  Mum’s always had a mouth on her, but she knows when to shut up and keep her head down.  I hoped Uncle Tony would be the same, but he’ll do anything with a few beers in him.  Probably end up dead in a ditch before the month was out.  I thought I’d be too excited to rest, but I yawned, sleep tugging at me, wanting me to get into bed and wrap myself around my hot water bottle.  The last thing I heard was a distant round of gunfire.  I was going to say a prayer, but never did.

 

The sky was the deepest blue.  Magpies strutted along the garden path like they were coming to pay a visit.  Soldiers lounged in the churchyard, lolling among the gravestones, smoking and talking.  They looked tired and their uniforms were frayed and stained.

No villagers were out in the street, but furtive eyes like mine peered from behind curtains.  The floorboards creaked on the landing and Mrs Marsh came into my room.  Her eyes were reddened, but she looked angry as well as scared.

“One of them’s sat on my grandmother’s grave,” she said.  “What do they care?  We’re nothing to them.  Get dressed now, there’s a good girl.”

I pulled on my clothes, all the while watching them.  I thought of Mrs Marsh’s husband and Betty Warwick’s man who was a P.O.W. out East.  I thought about Mr Trout’s son dying at Dunkirk and the lads at Dover Farm who’d aunties and uncles in Poland.  I thought about how good Mrs Marsh had been to me, how she cooked fish pie and made rock cakes.  How I liked her bathroom with its white enamel tub and the WC that was always clean.  Not like that outside privy at home.  I’d seen a rat in there once and lost count of the spiders.

I knew what I had to do.

I slipped into Mrs Marsh’s room before running downstairs.  She was in the sitting room, talking to Betty Warwick who must’ve spent the night on the settee judging from the blankets.  I crept into the kitchen and slid open the cellar door.  The blue and white striped jug was on the top step, the milk cooled by the damp stone.  It was heavy, but I lifted it out without spilling a drop.  Moments later I’d turned the key in the back door and was in the yard, careful not to trip on the cobbles.

I must’ve been an odd sight.  A freckle faced girl, skinny as an old hen in her darned Fair Isle jumper, doing what none of the villagers had dared to do.  Walking up to the churchyard, smiling at the men.  Some of them smiled back, maybe thinking the welcome was genuine.  They were grateful for the milk, producing battered tin mugs or food tins to drink it from. I poured it out until every last drop was gone.

One of them gave me a piece of chocolate.  I ate it greedily as I walked back to Mrs Marsh’s.  All the while I thought of the glass vial now lying empty on the cellar steps.  How harmless those crushed tablets had looked.  How easily they’d dissolved into the goodness of the thick, creamy milk.