by Julia Wood
Moon’s up tonight. Like a dirty great sixpence it is, all smirched and grimy. But it’s not moon. It’s the windows. I don’t have energy to clean them, not with Daddy coming.
Peggy from next door says my windows are the filthiest in Manchester and a dirty window is a sign of a soul that’s lost God. But I don’t mind her really. She’s Catholic, way she were brought up. And it’s not her fault ‘cos I haven’t told her about Daddy.
It’s a miracle, that’s what it is, a flamin’ miracle. I stare out into the garden, through the streaks of dirt and pigeon poo. There he is – my Arnie. I’m looking right at him. He’s laughing and waving, like he’s flagging down one of them Hansom cabs. I go downstairs, slowly with my hand clutching the banister. I’m weak but manage to open the door. I let myself into the small garden. I stand there, unable to believe my own eyes.
‘Mam, I’m home.’ Our Arnie’s blonde hair settles on the shoulders of his jacket, his green uniform all smart; makes me so proud. He smiles at me. I go all buttery and soft inside, like them crumpets I warmed on our Rayburn last winter.
‘Arnie! Is it really you?’ I look into his pale blue eyes; I take his wrist, feeling the roughness of the wool against my skin. ‘It’s so good to see you.’
‘It’s over, Mam. War’s over.’
‘I know. I heard it on the wireless.’
His hand grasps mine. I press my face in the heavy cloth of his jacket and it smells of that funny foreign tobacco and aftershave. To me he’s still a little boy, and I want to keep him safe from the shellfire of them nasty Germans - safe in his bed, all tucked up nice and warm.
‘Snug as a bug in a rug.’ That’s what Dad used to say. I used to love my Dad’s voice. It were all soothing and pink-sounding, like that calamine lotion he used to put on me when I got stung.
‘I’ve missed you so much,’ I said.
‘I’ve missed you too, Mam. I missed your vegetable broth and them cheese scones that melt in my mouth.’
I pull away. ‘You always did think with your belly, you.’
I had Arnie in 1924. I were in the middle of scrubbing step. When my waters broke I thought it were soap suds, dripping all over the place. It took me three more pails before I realised - oh heck, here he comes, faster than a flamin’ Whippet Tank.
‘Pop kettle on then, make us a brew.’ Then he goes all coy and he says, ‘love you, Mam,’ as he follows me into the house.
‘You daft apeth.’
As I put kettle on I’m singing that song Mam used to sing when I were little, before she got bronchitis and passed on. ‘There is one green bottle standing on the wall. And if that green bottle should accidentally fall, they’ll be no green bottles standing on the wall...’
‘What you singing that for?’ Arnie says. ‘It’s a bit gloomy in’t it? We used to sing it in the trenches, like to say, “you could be next.”’
‘Your granny used to sing it, do you remember?’
Mam tried to come through once, in the privy, month after she passed but Dad said it were rats in the U-Bend. I think there’s something after death, me - someone waiting to collect you and take you home, like a child that’s just been let out of school.
I pour tea into the cracked old teapot. I sit down and it’s just like old times, me and Arnie, sat around kitchen table, laughing and joking; war’s a million miles away, like it never happened and I’m so happy I want to get on my lumpy old knees on the stone floor and thank the lord for bringing him home safe.
Pain’s bad now. It’s sharp, right under my rib cage. I feel like some bugger’s trying to slice me open. Last night I dreamed about our Arnie. He were in yard playing with his pals. I couldn’t get him in. I yelled until my throat were all rough like one of them scouring pads I use to get grease off frying pan. But it were no flamin’ good.
Then I woke up and it were slicing into my ribs again. Doctor’s due today. I don’t see point, I mean, what’s he wasting his time for? I said to him, I says, ‘you’re better off helping them you can save, don’t go wasting your time on a clapped out old banger like me.’
He’s nice, is Dr. Brittlewaite. He’d not say a bad word he wouldn’t, not about anyone. He’s nothing like his name. He comes through the door with his little leather bag that has more creases than his face, and he sits down at the side of me. I’m on couch with the hot water bottle pushed up against my ribs.
‘How are you doing today, Mrs Winters?’
I laugh weakly. ‘I’ll not see another one of them, that’s for sure.’
‘How bad is the pain, on a scale of one to ten? Ten being the most severe.’
‘Flamin’ heck, twenty.’ I look at him, my hand pressed against my heart. I can tell what he’s thinking. ‘Daddy’s coming soon, in’t he?’
My Dad were a coal miner. He’d come back from the pit all black like he were death itself. But then he’d scrub it off nice and clean. I wish I could do that, scrub myself nice and clean- get the death off me. But once it gets on you, you never get it out.
When his turn came and he were lying in front parlour, wheezing like the north wind down our snicket, he made me a promise. He took my hand, leaned forward and he said, ‘Don’t be scared. When it’s your turn, I’ll be waiting.’ Then he fell back on his pillow and that were it.
He’ll keep his promise. He always kept his promises, did my dad. He’s marching up our street, with his big boots on, I can hear him. Clump, clump, clump, clump, in time with the rhythm of my heavy old heart. I were hoping he might stop off at The Crown, give me a bit more time with Arnie.
Dr. Brittlewaite looks at me all scrutinising, like. Then, he says, ‘how’s your mind?’
I’m happy as a sand boy, me, what do you bloody think? But I don’t say that, of course, ’cos he’s nice, is my doctor.
‘I’m getting by.’ It’s what you say in’t it? Even if your house has just been bombed by the Jerries, half the floor’s missing, and bits of privy are all over the garden in little white triangles. I’m not so bad, you say, not so bad.
‘Mrs Winters, I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions, okay. Take your time answering them. There’s no hurry.’
‘Can you tell me who the Prime Minister is?’
‘Winston Churchill, don’t you listen to the wireless?’
He’s still looking at me and he looks worried. ‘Okay. Mrs Winters - what year is it?’
‘It’s nineteen forty-five.’
He gives me a funny look, like I’ve got jam smeared on me face or put a daft hat on. Then he does his kind face, the one where he goes all crinkly like that old copy of Beano I found under our Arnie’s bed, other week. He gives a little cough. I don't like it when serious people like doctors do that coughing thing. It makes me all quaky in my slippers.
‘The thing is...I’ve made enquiries-’
‘Enquiries about what?’
‘To see if you can be moved to a hospice. The thing is – you can’t stay here on your own. You need to be looked after.’
‘No, I can’t leave. This is my home. Any road, I’m fine. I’ve Arnie. He’s back from war. I’ll be right as rain, my lovely big handsome lad – proper spoiling me, he is.’
‘Please try not to get distressed Mrs Winters. We’re here to help.’ He’s got his soft voice on, the one he uses when he doesn’t really know what to say to make things better. He gives me a little injection of morphine and says goodbye. I don’t get up to see him out.
Ooh, it’s good, is that morphine. I feel all floaty like I’m drifting somewhere nice - not on the ship canal with all the bits of old rubbish and rusty prams at bottom, but an ocean somewhere foreign. I can hear the waves, I can see the ocean. Lovely it is, all fresh and clean, new as a baby.
Arnie’s not been back. I don’t remember him leaving. He were here and then he weren’t. Like it were a dream, him waving at me from the garden. And what did Dr. Braithwaite mean, asking me who Prime Minister was? I’m feeling a bit funny today because I put telly on for first time in ages and there was some broadcast thingy, it seems like the Prime Minister is someone called John Major. Who the heck’s he, I think to myself, and where’s Winston Churchill buggered off to?
Pain stabs through my chest. Even though my legs are heavy with all that morphine I stumble upstairs. I go to the wardrobe in the spare room and open the door. It’s hanging there, our Arnie’s jacket - he had a spare, see. The arm swings as I pull it out and it’s like he’s still in there, marching, alive.
I take it down and gather it in my arms, putting my face in it, breathing it in, breathing into it like I can breathe back the life I gave him, like I can kiss him - there, there, all better now. But it doesn’t smell of him anymore. It just smells of them moth balls I put in the pockets.
I fall back onto the candlewick bedspread, letting the jacket sip to the floor. It’s empty, all emptied of Arnie. I feel something inside me cracking. Tears run into my mouth. They’re all salty like the chips Mam and Dad used to get from the shop down the road when I were a nipper. I’m right back there, laughing and running in the alleys of the old back-to-backs in my battered hobnails and my cotton dress, middle of winter; laughing and young again.
I close my eyes, let the tears come. Floating in front of me is the telegram from War Office. Arnold Joseph Winters, Killed in action. June 1944. He were my one green bottle, my lad - in his mossy uniform. I only had the one. All I wanted to do was take him off wall and tuck him up in bed, nice and safe.
Pain’s gone now. I open my eyes and look up.
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