Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Men who Look After Women

Buckinghamshire, Christmas 1914

It was the noises that had changed  the   most. The early morning sounds that had always been there, comforting him from the moment he opened his eyes.

Henry's father, Archie, would often be whistling 'You made me love you, I didn't want to do it' and his mother Elizabeth would laugh and reply 'Oh yes you did'. Then Henry would wait for the sound of his father stamping his feet outside the backdoor and the coal scuttle being refilled. Sometimes he'd sing up the stairs to him his favourite song 'daddy has a sweetheart and mother is her name.'
He might hear his sister Joan singing 'When Irish eyes are smiling' and then asking their mother to help her take out the strips of rags that gave her golden blonde hair curly ringlets that would sway and gleam in the sunshine and guarantee that young Monty from the next village would keep calling on her.

On Sundays Joan and Monty had been allowed to have the front room all to themselves while Henry played in the back room with his baby sister, Mary. Sometimes they would all go along to the Rye where his father would be playing cricket and his mother in charge of the teas.  Henry would entertain the baby and pull funny faces or make clicking sounds with his mouth, he was always rewarded with giggles and smiles and the baby would clap her fat hands together in delight, gazing at him in adoration.

On cold winter mornings like this, Henry used to love listening to the hiss and spit of the fire. He knew his mother would be warming their clothes on the fire guard.
He used to like to wake up and then lie in the warmth of his bed, relishing that moment before his father called up the stairs that breakfast was ready.
His mother always insisted everything was warm and dry because of the TB. For a long time Henry had thought TB meant Two Babies because all the people they knew with TB had two babies, but then Jimmy- next- door had said that was nonsense, that you got two babies if you spent a lot of time in the front room with a girl or you took her up the Common.

Last Christmas, they'd all gone up the Common to collect holly with bright red berries and ivy. Henry's  father had carried him high up on his shoulders and Henry  had reached out to touch the tall beech trees. He loved those trees. Bright fresh green in the springtime making the carpet of bluebells shine bright and look like the sea, golden brown in the Autumn and with the sun shining through, his mother would dance and call out that it was like being in a cathedral. In the winter you could see right across to the forest where the trees never lost their leaves and run about in the bracken and make a den.
This year they couldn't go to the Common. Jimmy- next -door told him that he'd tried to go up there with Dorothy Price and a man in a uniform had shouted at him to go away. He said that there were men there practicing how to save England.

Henry stretched his legs out in the warmth of his bed and thought about his secret. A funny feeling came over him when he thought of how happy his mother would be, and Joan. The baby was always happy so that was good.
He knew his father wasn't coming back for Christmas. A card had arrived and his mother had wept while she was reading it and then gone into the front room for a long time.

Everything was different now. He couldn't hear his father whistle or his mother sing. His sister came down with her hair matted and flat, and his mother always had red swollen eyes.
Monty had been called to go and save England. 
Jimmy's brother had gone and was already missing. 
Jimmy's father couldn't go because he fell down outside 'The Hour Glass' and hit his head and now he couldn't speak.
Henry's father had said he wasn't going to wait for the married men to be called and decided to go to save England.
No-one else in the family could go.
Uncle Jack had flat feet and couldn't march.
Uncle John had lost an eye in the factory where he worked and Uncle Harold had TB and a terrible cough. 
Henry's father was big and strong and could pick him up together with the baby and even  Joan although she squealed and wriggled and  made them all wobble.  Henry knew that if anyone could save England it was his father. If only he was older, Henry would have gone too, but his father said he was needed to look after his mother and his sisters.

Jimmy- next -door said he was going to go and save England after Christmas. He was going to teach them all a lesson for losing his brother.

Henry's father had promised to be back by Christmas but today was Christmas Day and there was no sign of him.

Henry had a secret and he hugged himself with the thrill of it. He was going to make everything alright again. He wanted to hear his mother singing and his sister tossing her curls and laughing.

When Henry's mother had come to tuck him in last night he'd flinched when she stroked his cheek. Her hands had always been so soft and now they were rough and hard from all the washing she did for the people in the big houses across the Rye.  He'd seen the hurt in her eyes and quickly kissed her hand all over so she'd think he hadn't noticed.  Often, if he woke in the night, he could hear Joan making kisses noises and knew that she was clutching the photo of Monty in his uniform.

Last year at Christmas, their house had been full of warmth from the fire and the delicious smells of the roasting of the goose that the man from the factory had given them. They'd all had presents wrapped in shiny paper. Henry had had a wooden train and a ball, Joan a soft blue scarf and the baby a little doll made with all the left over bits and pieces from his mother's work basket. There'd been grandpa with them too. Henry still wanted to cry when he thought about Grandpa and there was a great big ache in his heart that just wouldn't go away. Yet, it was Grandpa that had given him the idea for his secret.

Just after his father had gone off to save England, his mother had called him and Joan into the front room.  Joan burst into tears and put her arms around him. Henry felt sick as he heard his mother tell them that Grandpa had gone away because someone called Jesus had called him.  Henry had looked at his mother and his sister, their faces sad and their eyes full of tears and decided he needed to take charge. He drew himself up tall and puffed out his chest like Jimmy did when he was talking to girls. He blurted out:

'Well he called me once,  but I didn't go.'

He saw the relief in their eyes and was rewarded with their laughter. They were so happy that he wasn't going to go anywhere, he was going to stay with them. They needed him. That's when he'd started his plan.

Whenever he went with his mother to take the washing back to the houses round Rye, the maids in the kitchen would give him biscuits with fancy names like Custard creams, Bourbons and Digestives. He hadn't eaten any of them, he'd kept them all in a secret place. Jimmy- next- door had given him lots of shiny paper from the factory where his mother worked, making postage stamps,and the biscuits were all wrapped up. His crowning glory though, he had done especially for his father, he'd done it for him, so he would be proud of him when he came home.
His mother had given him his grandfather's beautiful, silver, whittling knife saying it was an heirloom and very precious. Henry had gone to the bottom of the garden where his father kept bits of wood from the factory where he had worked before he'd gone to save England. People would often say how Grandpa and his father could turn a chair leg like no-one else, Henry wasn't sure what that meant except it was good.
Henry used to like holding the shavings in his hand and stroking the pieces of wood that his father brought home. He wanted to be like his father, knowing how to transform pieces of wood. The whittling knife was a sign that was what he should do.

There was a swish as his mother pulled back the curtains and then she leant over to kiss him. He put his arms around her neck as she pulled him out of bed. Neither of them could bring themselves to say Merry Christmas. They could hear Mary making pretty gurgling noises and smiled at each other. Then there was a shout from Joan from downstairs.

'Come and see! Oh how beautiful!! Oh, Henry and Mother come quickly, bring Mary to see!'

Elizabeth quickly helped Henry on with his dressing gown, wrapped the baby in her blanket and carried them both downstairs to see what was causing such excitement in her eldest daughter. She paused, as she did every day, to look out of the landing window at the morning star and to wish that her dear Archie was safe. Her heart ached for him and for how their lives had changed. Their marriage had been full of joy and heartache. They had been blessed with their dear Joan very quickly but had then lost four babies until at last they had been blessed with dear Henry and Mary.

Elizabeth entered the front room where Joan was standing, pointing and smiling in delight. It was the first time she had seen her daughter smile since Monty had left. Then she too stared in amazement. There, in the front window, for all the neighbours to see, was  a huge branch from the Beech woods, propped up on the best table, covered with little parcels of shiny paper, glittering and sparkling in the early morning sun and on the top, a roughly carved wooden angel, her vast wings pointing upwards. Elizabeth put Mary down and turned to look at her son. He was standing by the open door, his little face bright, his eyes full of life, and she saw her Archie there. The essence of her dear husband was there in her son and she knew Archie would always live on.
whatever happened in France. She  must make sure they were all ready and waiting for him when he came home.

She picked Henry up and hugged him hard,

'Oh my little man, you dear little man, you did all this didn't you? Your daddy will be so proud of you.  Just six years old and already a man like your daddy. We're going to have a lovely Christmas and then write and tell your daddy all about it.'

Henry hugged his mother back, really hard. He knew his father would be proud of him now.

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