I used to watch her walk the Coast Path every morning through my grandad’s old spyglass. Sometimes, she’d stand rooted to one place, looking out past Pordenack Point at one of the small fishing boats, or a merchant ship, and I could picture her in my imagination as a young Penelope searching for her Ulysses. It struck me at times that perhaps she was looking for a piece of herself out there—that maybe she’d given away a piece of her heart, or perhaps misplaced it. I didn’t know her name at the time—I didn’t know anything about her—and so was quite content to sit at the table with grandad’s spyglass, watching her walk the jagged outcrops like an acrobat dancing a tightrope.
It’s a cold, wet, wind, with a fine mist of sea spray that slaps at you as if it were a bitter pronouncement of what’s to come; where winter’s waves come crashing down as loud as thunder, sounding for all the world as if it were the wrath of a thousand angels. She’d stand as still as a stone statue—transfixed—her shawl wrapped around her shoulders as she struggled with the wind as if it were a living thing. With her long, dark, hair flowing behind her like a gutted candle, she’d stretch her arms out like a bird—maybe thinking she could fly—while her shawl spread out behind her as though she were the winged portrait of a Greek goddess, or maybe a siren luring small boats to the rocks below?
I lived with Mum and my two younger brothers at The Dog’s Ear, a small five-room hotel and public house, on the outskirts of Trevilley Station, near Land’s End. Each morning at five, I’d hear Mum walking down the dark, narrow, staircase leading into the kitchen—the same walk she’d made every morning for as long as I could remember—where she resurrected the embers in the stove, and put the first batch of fresh Cornish pasties in, which I’d later sell to fishermen working on the beaches.
Da’ left for the Great War during the first months of 1914. He was among the first wave to be sent over there. Being a bona fide professional soldier in his youth, he’d said it was Everyman’s duty to serve both King and country. He left little for us to remember him by, except a youthful portrait of himself staring down at us from above the hotel desk, hanging next to a portrait of the King. We’d had no word from him in over a year, although we knew he was still alive—they were quick to let us know he was still alive—and that it was only a matter of time before Da’ returned home. That was late in October 1916; it was now fast approaching the winter of 1917.
I had to give up school to deliver pasties now that Da’ was gone, as well as delivering the post since poor Charlie Smythe had proven unable. I’d spend my mornings delivering ale and Mum’s fresh pasties to the fishermen on the beach, and my afternoons delivering the mail—as well as Mum’s left-over pasties—to the farmers of St. Just-in-Penwith, and finish my rounds at Penzance, three miles to the west. I rode Da’s big-wheeled bicycle along coastal trails and through the outlying villages, only to find myself stopping when I neared the house where Charlie Smythe lived. That’s where I’d pause for a bite to eat and a jug of beer I’d pilfered from home, before finding a spot in the tall, cool grass where I could lay my coat under the trees and scan the open ocean with grandad’s spyglass. I suppose I was thinking I might spot the ship that was bringing Da’ back home, but all I ever saw was the endless expanse of the great, silent sea.
I’d follow the coastline with my spyglass, moving from left to right, from crag to shore, watching the old men stitch up fishing nets as if they were spiders weaving silken webs, their overturned dories looking like beached whales in the distance.
I was reluctant to turn my spyglass toward Charlie Smythe’s house. The windows still looked to be closed up tight—just the same as they’d been for the last two years—the house looking as deserted as it was haunted. There seemed little sense in me staring at it, and yet, something compelled me—just as much as people often pause to view a tragedy on the roadside. When everyone had run off to sign up and fight for the Empire—for King and Country as me Da’ cried out that night—Charlie Smythe had been quick to follow.
There was a mistaken belief that it would all be over within six weeks; but Charlie and Da’ were the only ones who come back. It had been Charlie’s job to deliver the post before the Great War, and I remember how I’d watch him ride his sputtering Ariel motorcycle along the dusty trails. But Charlie came back from the Front missing his left arm and leg, and now he lived a sheltered life. I think people preferred it that way, because no one knew what to say whenever they saw him stumping about the village lanes on his single crutch. Is it any wonder he rode his sputtering Ariel motorcycle over the cliffs, late in the spring of 1924?
At last I’d turn me spyglass toward McCreary’s Place—out toward Pordenack Point where she lived. Sometimes, I’d see her standing in the yard hanging her laundry on the line, just as I’d sometimes pass her riding her bicycle down the hill on a Wednesday afternoon. I’d quite often pause and watch her follow the small, dusty path down to the village. She’d always wave at me, afraid of letting go of the handlebars for even the briefest moment, a look of fear and concentration etched clearly on her face. Once in the village, she’d give her order to the grocer, meaning to pick it up the following Saturday. I’d lay under the trees with my spyglass and look for her walking the village streets. She’d always pause to watch the fishermen stitching their nets before she rode out to the Hotel where she insisted on picking up the mail herself.
Mum told me how she seemed surprised when she realized for the first time there were only old men and boys living in the village. I could almost picture Mum looking at her from under those close-knit brows of hers, before explaining to the woman that wars wreak havoc on small villages like ours. I was willing to forgive her the question though, because I was young and she was beautiful. I’ve long since learned a man can forgive a woman anything if she’s beautiful.
She’d tousled Robbie’s hair the first time she met him, grinning at him and saying he had Mum’s smile and dimples, as well as her blue eyes. Mum laughed and said that was the moment Robbie fell in love with her. I told Mum she should’ve told her Robbie had Da’s flaming red hair and temper to match. Instead, Mum told her Robbie was her youngest, David four years older, and I was the man of the house at seventeen.
Mum said it with something of a sigh though, and it seemed to slip out from deep inside of her, the mournful recognition of her self-abnegation. And then she looked at me and tried to force a smile, as if she were suddenly aware that she’d let her guard down. I think it embarrassed her to realize that I knew when she was thinking about Da’—but she was always thinking of Da’. I’d sometimes hear her cry out in the middle of the night, her moans low and soft—almost muted—sounding as if she’d buried her face into her pillow before calling out his name and falling back into silence.
Mum told me her name was Felicity. Such a beautiful name that, she smiled; the name she’d chosen herself for the daughter she never bore. Mum told Felicity Da’ had fought in the Boer War, and was well past forty—he was closer to forty-five—and that they’d put him in with the Sappers. Working in the mines here about, it seemed like the natural choice, she’d said. She thought he’d be safer there, but in the end, she knew she was only fooling herself. There’s no safe place to be in a war, she said with a sigh, and I looked up at Da’s portrait next to the King’s, staring down at us from above the desk.
I wanted to ask Mum about Da’s wound, but I knew she was not about to discuss it with me. I wanted to know when he was coming home, or if her expectations were any greater than my own, but she’d already turned away from the picture, looking right at me when she told me Da couldn’t wait to be part of the Great War. She said it with a note of resignation.
“Just like yerself,” she said, and I felt the blood rushing to my face. She said Felicity simply nodded when she’d said the same thing to her; her husband had felt the same way.
“And then there’s yerself,” Mum said into the silence of the room, and I could see my only chance of leaving off, would be without her permission.
Mum seemed to come back to herself after that, saying Felicity’s smile was the kind that put you at your ease as soon as you met her, and I wondered if I’d ever be at my ease with her. Robbie said he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and David, not to be outdone, said she smelled of soap and talcum powder, even after the long ride down from the Point.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her dark hair, with those long ringlets cascading down the middle of her back, even when she gathered it all on top of her head in a mass of shimmering curls. Her hair glinted like the ocean at midnight under a full moon, and I tried imagining what it would be like to run my hands through it. She had large brown eyes with thick lashes, full pouty lips and high cheekbones; she was a portrait of youth and beauty, as the poet’s say. Mum said she was no more than twenty-five—if that—and then looked at me and smiled, saying how she’d bore me when she was that age.
She told me Felicity wrote letters while she waited for a lunch of cold pasties as well as a beer. She told Mum it seemed a bit ironic how her husband had so desperately wanted to go to the Front, and now that he was there, wanted nothing more than to come home.
“She told me going over the top was unbearable for him, an’ him an English gentleman an’ all.” That’s what had prompted Felicity to move out here in the first place, Mum said. But by the time she’d arranged everything, his letters stopped. She still came in with her own to post, but the answers were slow in coming—if they came at all.
When she finally did get an answer, they said her husband had been executed for cowardice.
If Charlie Smythe’s return home had caused something of a stir, Da’s return brought a whirlwind of whispers. I remember him arriving with a loud knock on the back door. On a night when the cold air came crawling through the cracks, icing over the windows and steaming our breaths as we lay in bed, there was a knock that became a bang, worming its way through my dreams and waking me up. I heard Mum hurrying down the backstairs. I crawled out of the bed I shared with my brothers, pausing to look that they were still sleeping. Wrapping a blanket around myself, I made me way to the window where I breathed a hole across the icy swirls on the glass and watched a shadow in the darkness slowly take form.
I knew him in an instant, of course, standing in the soft light of a silent moon that fell across the doorway at a slant. He stood locked in the shadows as the steam of his breath wreathed about his face while he shifted his weight from foot to foot. He appeared nervous, anxious, even as he stood silently shivering beneath the muffler and hat pulled low over his face. As I watched, he looked up and the light reflected off his strange, unmoving face, and I stepped back lest he should see me. I saw two black eyes—two holes lost in the darkness of the night—just as suddenly disappear as he turned his face away.
And then Mum was at the door, crying out and throwing her arms around him, and just as quickly pulling away—as though recoiling at the touch of him—a hand going to her mouth as she bit back a scream. Da’ pushed his way around her and she closed the door behind him with the silence of a whispered sigh.
I made me way to the edge of the stairs—mindful of the third riser and the insistent creak it gave underfoot—where I huddled in the cold and darkness, listening to the sound of Da’s voice as it rose out of the kitchen in a slur of words difficult for me to understand. Mum kept asking him to repeat himself. I noticed how his tone changed—and wondered that Mum didn’t—thinking he must be getting frustrated trying to make himself be understood. The tiny kettle on the stove whistled, and his voice faltered, as if the whistle were a reminder of where he was. I heard Mum say that it didn’t matter, not now that he was back.
But Da' didn’t sound convinced.
“I wish it t’were true, Tilly,” he said at last. “But I’ve seen the look on peoples’ faces. I’ve seen how they try to hide when they see me. I can see it on yer own face—even now. Ye can’t hide that kind of shock, not when ye turn away from yer own man. It’s in the eyes; it’s always in the eyes.”
“I’ll never turn my face away from ye Jack.”
“No? I wish that were true.”
“Why don’t ye believe me, Jack?”
“Because of what I am under the mask.”
“Then show me,” Mum said softly. “I din’t marry ye ‘cause ye cut a dashing figure in yer uniform—even though ye did—I married ye for what was in yer heart. I married ye for the man ye were, and the man ye still are; I married ye ‘cause I loved ye Jack, an’ I still do. What do ye think’s happened to change that?”
There was a moment of silence, and I felt certain he’d removed the mask.
“This,” he said.
I thought about creeping forward and maybe pushing the swinging doors open an inch, but held back, fearful of what I might see and sensing the intimacy of the moment was the only thing that mattered.
“In sickness and in health, Jack,” Mum said in a voice that seemed to echo with tears. “I meant every word of it; for better or worse,” she added.
I could hear her push her chair aside; I could easily imagine her standing in front of him, reaching out and holding him, because she had a habit of holding you whenever you hurt yourself, and I wondered what lay beneath the mask.
There was a long moment of silence, and finally I heard Da’s tear-stained voice saying, “Ah, Tilly, I can’t even kiss yer hands.”
“Yer with me, Jack,” Mum said. “That’s all that matters. We’ll take everything one day at a time.”
Da’ sat in the dark shadows of the pub as we came down for breakfast the next morning. I’d been unable to sleep, quick to tell the boys that Da’ was home. Robbie ran down the stairs as fast as he could, calling out to Mum that I was lying. David and I were quick to follow. Mum came out of the kitchen—the smell of fresh pasties filling the room with the swish of the swinging doors—and stood in silence, slowly wiping her hands. She looked at me with a sullen expression, and I wondered what the matter was.
“Tell them, Mum,” I said. “Last night. Tell them. I heard him.”
“Is he back, Mummy?” David asked, and she nodded slowly.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked, afraid of what she’d say. “Is he all right?”
“Did he lose an arm and a leg, like Charlie?” Robbie asked, the excitement of having Da’ back clouded by the confusion of knowing there was something wrong.
“No,” I said quickly. “He’s not hurt like that.”
“He isn’t?” David asked. “But that’s not what the letter said. It said he was hurt. Ye told us he was hurt,” he added, looking up at Mum. “Ye sat us all down and told us,” he reminded her. “Remember?”
“Why don’t ye leave off bothering yer Mum and ask me yerself? She has work to do.”
“Da’?” Robbie cried out, and ran toward the sound of Da’s voice coming out of the shadows like something hollow and muffled. David turned, running to him, and I watched Mum wiping tears from her eyes as she ran into the kitchen.
“Why Da’, what’s happened to your face?” Robbie asked, stopping short, and then I turned to look myself.
Da’ fell on bended knees, pulling my brothers into his large arms. I could see his stooped shoulders shaking as he wrestled with a sob, and I watched Robbie pull away, touching the ivory mask that was Da’s face. Da’ had let his red hair grow, and it rested against his large shoulders, covering the mask for the moment.
He took a deep breath and seemed to gather up his strength as he sat in the chair with an effort. He turned toward me and I could see two glistening eyes staring out at me from behind the dark shadows of the mask. I turned away.
“Why do ye have a cane?” David asked, pointing at the stick hanging on the back of Da’s chair.
“I’ve lost part of my foot,” Da’ said, distracted.
“What part?” Robbie asked, looking down at it. “Which one?”
“Does it matter what part, or which one?”
“All that matters is that yer home,” I said slowly. “Isn’t that right, boys?”
“Ye won’t leave us again, will ye Da’?” Robbie asked, and Da shook his head, pulling the two of them onto his knee. He looked at me again, and once again I turned away.
“Don’t ye have a hug for yer dear old Da’?” he called to me, and I found myself saying I had pasties and the post to see to; if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.
“Jackie!” he called out after me, but I pretended not to hear him as I went into the kitchen, letting the swinging doors flap behind me and thinking I was shutting out the world.
Mum looked at me as if I were an intruder, and wiped her tears as she stood staring out of the window above the sink; she was a woman lost within the depths of her own sorrow.
I rode Da’s bicycle to the top of the hill and threw my jacket on the cold ground, sitting with my back against a tree. A bitter wind swept in from the sea, biting and tearing into me as if it were a wild thing, and I knew soon enough there’d be another storm. I could see storm clouds kneading their way across the distant horizon.
I pulled my knees up tight against my chest, wrapped my arms around them, put my head on my knees and wept. The tall grass shivered in the hard wind—like someone rubbing their hand along the back of an arching cat might see—as the echo of a gunshot sounded somewhere in the distance; a singularly melancholy sound I soon dismissed.
There was such weight of sadness on my heart, such a sense of loss, that I felt as if I’d smother underneath it. I felt unable to catch my breath. Everything he’d ever had was now gone, I thought; his smile, his laughter, the deep creases that lined his face—even the sparkle in his eyes lost somewhere behind the blank stare of that mask. All I’d ever see of him were the two dark holes where his eyes peered out, the hole that was his nose, and the jagged line that was his mouth. I’d never see him smile again and eventually, I’d forget what he looked like. We still had the portrait of him above the desk—that familiar young man not much older than I was now—a face staring out at the promise of youth; seemingly nothing now except the empty reflection of a last rueful memory.
I don’t know how long I sat there feeling sorry for myself, but I could hear the gulls scream overhead as the wind swirled about me. My body felt as numb as my mind, when a sudden shadow fell across the path. I wiped my eyes and looked up at the figure before me. Charlie Smythe stood leaning on his crutch, looking for all the world like Long John Silver might look in a child’s stick drawing, as he worked at stuffing his pipe. His gloves were in his right-hand pocket and I remember wondering why a man with one arm would have two gloves. There was a rifle strapped across his back, and a wicker basket—the kind you use for fishing—hanging off his right hip, the lid pasted with blood and black feathers.
“What are ye sitting here for, Jackie boy? Have ye done with yer deliveries? I haven’t seen ye riding about,” he added, chewing around his pipe and searching for a match in his shirt pocket. I nodded slowly.
“Are ye here spying, then?” he asked when I didn’t answer, striking the match against the side of his crutch, and rubbing his eye as the smoke drifted about him.
I looked up at him, squinting into the sunlight that seemed to filter through him as much as it filtered through the naked trees around us.
“I’m not spying on ye Charlie,” I said, wiping at my face with my hands. “Really, I’m not. I don’t even have Grandad’s spyglass with me.”
“Ye mean today? Yer not spying on me today,” Charlie said, laughing between puffs of his pipe. He looked toward the point, toward the McCreary Place, and I followed his gaze. Felicity was pushing her bicycle up the long hill. He nodded as he rolled his leather tobacco pouch against his thigh, biting the string tight. He leaned on the crutch under what remained of his left arm—he’d lost it just above the elbow—and put the pouch in his left pant leg—now an empty sack where his leg should’ve been. He reached into a hole he’d cut into the front of the pant leg, dropping the pouch inside.
“Don’t think I haven’t seen ye lying under these trees, watching me. Or is it her ye’ve been looking at all this time?” he asked, giving a nod in Felicity’s direction. “What a fool I’ve been, thinking it was me ye’ve been watching,” he grinned, looking out at the hill
“Does it matter anymore?” I asked, turning my gaze toward the distant sea before looking at the hill where Felicity was lost behind the rocks, and there was nothing left for me to see but the endless crash of waves and the screaming gulls overhead.
“It’s yer Da’ then, isn’t it? He’s come home?”
“How’d ye know that?” I asked, squinting up at him.
“I saw him in Penzance.”
“Yesterday. He come in on the train and was standing about like a man having a time of it, making up his mind.”
“About what! Why, staying, of course! But he’d come this far, didn’t he? And I told him that, too. ‘What’s the point in coming all this way, Jack,’ I asked him, ‘and not seeing yer family?’”
“Ye talked to him?”
“I did,” he nodded.
“How’d ye know it was him?”
“Ye mean on account of the mask he was wearing?” he asked, and now it was my turn to nod.
“Funny ye should say that,” he said, pointing his pipe at me as he talked. “He stood there staring at me, and I stood there staring at him—both of us feeling the other man’d suffered more than it was worth for either of us—when I got the feeling there was something about those dark eyes staring at me that made me think I knew him. But it was his shoulders, Jackie, and that stoop of his, ye know, the way he leans off to the right like that? It was the way he was standing there as he was—there’s not many men as big as him in these parts—I mean, there was a hunnerd little things about him. And when I stumped over to him, the people, well, they’d just as rather move out of the way than have to talk to the likes of us, and he says to me, in that strange new voice he has, he says, ‘Hi Charlie’, just like that. Just like it was yesterday, and we’d had a pint together.”
“I don’t know what to say to him, Charlie,” I said, as the sea crashed into the Point. That’s when I saw Felicity coming out from behind the rocks, the wind ripping at her long dress and her hair flying loose as she paused to tie her hat down on top of her head.
“It’s not what ye were thinking it’d be, is it?” Charlie said with a sigh, turning to watch her as well. “His coming back, I mean?” he added when he saw I didn’t understand what he meant.
He pulled the rifle over his head, and then the basket, slipping out of his coat and dropping it on the ground beside me. He leaned against the tree, holding onto the crutch as he let himself slide down to his coat.
“Was that you I heard shooting earlier?” I asked.
“Aye. T’was. It’s why I was in Penzance yesterday. I’m shootin’ crows, Jackie. They want me to cull the flocks. ‘Charlie,’ they says to me, ‘Murder the murder. There’re too many of ‘em.’ So now, I’m a murder murderer,” he said with a grin. “I wonder why they call them that—a murder of crows, I mean? No matter. They pay me a tuppence for every crow I bring in. It’s not much for a man like me to live on, but at least I’m living,” he added with a grin. “And that’s all that matters.” He sat against the tree puffing on his pipe.
“What of yer Da’?” he asked me of a sudden, looking at me sideways. “Maybe I should come in for a pint an’ we can talk about what it means to want to die. D’ye think he’d like that?”
“Ye say ye don’t know what to say to him. How can ye not know what to say, Jackie? He’s yer Da’, for Christ’s sake.”
“I haven’t seen him since the war started, Charlie. Yer the only who made it back, and look at ye, yer missing an arm and a leg. Da’s got no face. There’s no way Mum’ll let me go—”
“Go?” Charlie asked with a laugh. “Why d’ye wanna be goin’ out there for, ye daft bastard? There’s nothing there for ye; it’s a killing field. The generals don’t know what they’re doing; they send wave after wave of young troops in like they’re still fighting the Franco-Prussian war—only now, they’ve got machine guns facing them. What kind of way is that to fight a war?”
“But what about the glory, Charlie?”
“There’s no glory in a war where people’d rather shoot themselves an’ get sent home than face the enemy.”
“That’s a coward’s way out!”
“Is it?” he said, staring up at the clouds as he puffed on his pipe. “I wish I’d’ve done it.” He turned to look me square in the eye, puffing his pipe, and I could see there were tears in his eyes.
“I’ll bet yer wishin’ yer Da’ would’ve done it.”
I was silent for a moment. I didn’t know what he expected me to say.
“The best thing ye can do right now is talk to him, Jackie. He might not be the man he was, but that man’s still inside. It’s up to you t’ find him, Jackie. Ye’d best talk to ‘im before it’s too late,” he said, wiping his tears.
“Too late? Too late for what?”
He was silent a moment longer—I could hear my heart racing, feel the wind coming up from the sea—before he reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out another wooden match. I hadn’t even noticed his pipe had gone out. He struck the match and puffed his pipe back to life.
“A man loses a part of himself when something like this happens—especially with what yer Da’s lost—an' I don’t mean just his face, but his self-worth as a man. It’s hard to be sincere once ye’ve gone through what he has.” He was quiet a moment longer as he puffed his pipe back to life, shaking the match out slowly. “Well, all sorts of thoughts go running through yer head, actually, but that might just be me talking,” he said, looking at me with a half grin. “I know all too well what he’s thinking, ‘cause I’ve thought about it m’self. Maybe I’d best come in for a pint with ‘im; sort of talk it out of ‘im?”
“Talk what out of him?”
“Do I have to draw ye a picture, Jackie boy? Ye’d best find out what he’s thinking.”
I knew Charlie was right. I’d have to say something. I couldn’t help thinking of the night before, and the face he’d shown Mum. How would I react if he showed it to me? I knew if a woman could love a man that unconditionally, it was a testament to the love they shared. But what about the love between a father and his son?
I saw Felicity on her bike, coming up the small path toward me, and I stopped to let her pass. She came to a stop beside me, catching her breath and wiping her forehead with a small, gloved hand.
“Jackie, isn’t it?” she said in a singsong voice that made my heart melt; the perfect lilt of her Kentish accent sounding as I imagined an angel would sound.
“Yes,” I said, almost stammering that single word out and feeling myself flush just being close to her. I saw her smile at me unease.
“Have you done with the post then?” she asked.
“And you’re off for home?”
“Come on then!” she said, tying up her dress and pushing her bicycle down the hill. “I’ll race you!”
I could hear her laugh, her long hair streaming behind her as she pedalled. She’d stop pedalling as she took a corner, or else stand up when she rode over a particularly rough spot, and I could see that she knew how to ride. I could see I was in for a go of it, and began cutting the corners sharper, my pedals hitting the ground as I leaned into the muddy turns. I felt the bicycle slipping under me, and for a moment feared I might fall. She was a hundred yards ahead of me if it was a foot, and I knew I’d have to take drastic measures if I wanted to beat her, and oh, did I want her to know I was a man who didn’t take to being beaten by a woman.
I left the worn-out path, feeling myself go airborne for the briefest of moments and coming down hard enough to feel it in the core of me. I knew the bicycle could take it; I’d ridden these hill for years and knew every hole along the path—just as I knew where I could cut corners and skirt along the track without sliding. The wind was a bracing scythe that cut through me and I could feel tears squeezing out of the corners of my eyes with what felt like the keen sting of a slap.
I passed her just as we approached the hotel entrance, skidding to a stop in a choking cloud of dust and a splatter of rocks that rained across the yard and hotel doorway as if it were hail. She came in behind me, laughing, and I thought she brought with her the song of angels.
Da’ came limping out of the doorway leaning on his cane and her smile faded at the sight of him, draining from her face as if a cloud were passing in front of the sun. She stood rigid as she straddled the bicycle—perhaps frightened at the thought of what lay beneath the mask—because I could see what he meant about how people perceived him. She forced herself to smile, and I could see it was forced; but so could he. I saw him look at me before turning and going back inside without a word. There was a lingering hurt in the depths of his eyes, and it felt as if a piece of my heart broke with him as he went back inside without a word.
“Who was that?” she asked, pushing her bicycle toward the wall and leaning it against the arbor.
“It’s me Da’,” I said slowly. “Been home three nights now.”
“Oh, the poor man,” she said, and for some reason I felt my anger rising, knowing how Da’ didn’t need her pity any more than I needed to hear it. Perhaps she saw the anger in my eyes? I don’t know. She looked down at the ground for a moment before lifting her eyes up to me again and I could see how everything about her changed in that fraction of a heartbeat. There was compassion in her eyes, and tenderness in her voice.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to sound like that. He startled me coming out like that, is all. It must be hard for you. I should be happy for you—happy for your Mum, I mean—at least she has her husband back. I know what it means to be alone—as well as lonely. That’s why I’m thinking of making my way back to London.”
“Yer leaving?” I asked, thinking how I’d just now got up the nerve to speak to her.
“I said I’m thinking of it,” she said, forcing a weak smile.
“Would ye like to meet him then? My Da’?”
“I’d be happy to meet him,” she said, and I knew at that moment that everything would be fine. Even though she didn’t know it, she’d shown me a part of myself I hadn’t even seen before—a part of me I couldn’t see—and that was the reflection of myself I’d shown Da’. I thought of what Charlie had said as I walked inside, calling for him.
He stepped out of the kitchen, Mum following, and I hugged him, holding him close and whispering in his ear that I loved him. I stepped back and looked at him, peering into the darkness of his eyes where I could see tears.
I looked at Mum standing off to the side as if she were a breathless girl and saw there were tears in her eyes, as well. I smiled, looking sheepish. She burst into one of those happy, laughing sobs as she fought for self-control, wiping her eyes with the corners of her apron.
“Da’,” I said stepping back. “May I introduce Mrs. Felicity Sidereal?”
“Do I know ye?” Da’ asked with a curious tilt of his head. “Seems I’ve heard that name somewhere before.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The hard winter gave way to an early spring, with huge cumulus clouds cutting across the horizon and tripping over themselves, looking as if they might fall off the edge of the world at any moment. The hills and fields around us grew ripe with the golden sheen of daffodils and colourful clover, wildflowers that pushed their way up through crags and fissures, and the lively melody of birdsong. I’d watch the sea come crashing in with the tide, punishing the shore with a brutality that only the sea can bring.
We’d walk the beaches, my brothers and me, looking for hidden treasures tucked in among the rocky shore. Once in a while we’d find things—a life-ring, or a hat—sometimes it was clothing, like a shirt, or a pair of pants, which served as a reminder of the madness consuming the world around us. While my brothers frolicked and played in the sand and along the rocks, I sat with my grandad’s old spyglass, watching over them and making certain they weren’t swept out to sea.
The endless rain and harsh, blustery days spent riding Da’s bicycle on the rain-soaked tracks delivering mail and pasties were soon forgot in the warmth of the early spring. As we left the seashore to make our way back up the long, hard, trail, I saw Felicity riding her bicycle with three bags of groceries in her carrier, and carrying a fourth, when she slipped along the muddy path and fell.
She’d pulled the hem of her dress up and was looking at a bloody scrape on her knee by the time we three arrived—breathless and bent over from the long run. She was quick to pull her dress down as soon as Robbie and David came running in behind me. She seemed genuinely pleased to see us, and tried assuring me she was fine as I bent to pick her bicycle up while Robbie and David gathered up her scattered groceries.
“Oh boys, you’re a lifesaver, all of you. Would you like a spot of tea when we reach the top? I can make it for you? It won’t take long. I know it’s a nice day and that you’d rather be out and about, but it’s still cold, and a spot of tea would really do a world of wonders, for all of us,” she laughed awkwardly, looking up at me with a tilt of her head and a beautiful smile.
I stammered a nervous yes, and she smiled at me from under delicately arched brows, putting the last bag on top of the others in the carrier as I pushed her bicycle up the long hill.
Robbie and David purposely fell behind, looking at the path where Felicity’s house rested on a small hillock around the gently sloping bend. There was an open field littered with rocks that seemed to stretch out forever, falling into the distant sea. The wind brushed across the long grass as if it were a chop on the sea, while Robbie slowed his pace until he finally stopped, saying he wouldn’t go any farther.
“I doan wanna go up there Jackie; not to the McCreary Place,” he said. “Ye can go if ye want, but I’m not.” He was looking at Felicity who had stopped a short distance away, waiting.
“The house is haunted, Jackie,” David said with what amounted to a loud stage whisper. I knew they’d been discussing it on the way up the hill; it was the reason they’d lagged behind.
“I can’t very well leave her now that she’s invited us in, can I?” I said, in the same loud whisper David used. I looked at Felicity and half shrugged.
“We can watch out for ourselves,” David said. “I’ll take care of Robbie.”
“All right; but ye both go straight home now, and make sure ye tell Mum why ye wouldn’t help.”
“Bye!” Robbie screamed out, and started off at a quick run down the hill.
“Mind ye don’t fall and break yer necks!” I called out, as David followed Robbie down the hill. “I’ll be looking to break ‘em myself when I get back home,” I added under me breath.
I turned and followed Felicity up the hill.
“Why do the people here insist on calling my house the McCreary Place? I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but hear what your brothers said.”
“They weren’t being very subtle about it, were they?” I laughed.
“I wish more people could be as subtle as them,” she smiled.
“McCreary was a miner that used to work with Charlie and me Da’—or so me Da’ tells me. One day, he came home and found his wife with another man. The man was supposed to be a close friend. Anyway, McCreary went out to his workshop and came back inside with an axe and killed the man outright. Right then and there, without so much as a by-your-leave-guv’ner. He threw the man’s body off the cliffs. After that, he killed his wife and their three little girls.”
“His children? He killed his children?”
“He cut them up people say. I don’t know if it’s true, it’s just something they say. I wasn’t even born when it happened. But I heard he threw his wife over the cliffs as well.”
“Twenty years ago, maybe more. It was before me Da’ left for the Boer war. Da’ said McCreary was in the Zulu wars; that’s why he chopped up the kids and put them in the stove.”
“In the stove? My stove?”
I laughed. “It’s just a story people told themselves; I doubt it’s true.”
“I’ve heard being in a war changes a man,” she said after a moment. “Do you think it’s true?”
“It helps to turn a boy into a man,” I said softly.
“Is that what you think it takes to be a man?”
“Can ye think of another way?” I asked.
“Oh Jackie,” she smiled, and lifting a sack of groceries out of the carrier, went inside.
The McCreary house sat on a large tract of land, with a weathered fence partially fallen over, and a gate hanging off to the side on one hinge. The windows stood wide open, as was the door, and I watched the lace curtains fluttering as if they were flags, as the wind swept in from the sea below.
“I thought I’d air it out while I was gone,” she explained.
“That’s fine,” I said, pulling the three grocery sacks out of the carrier.
“Do you still want that cup of tea, or do you have to go off and find your brothers?” she asked, looking at me over her shoulder, smiling.
“I might be able to stay for a cup, if it’s no trouble for ye,” I said, carrying the bags inside.
She put the bag she was carrying on the small kitchen table. It was a clean, wooden table with an oilcloth, place mats, napkins, and a doily under a porcelain vase filled with fresh cut flowers. She put her foot up on a chair she pulled out from under the table, lifting her dress up over her knee and looking at the scrape.
“Pass me that dishrag over by the sink, will you Jackie?” she said, pointing at it for me. I put the bags down on the countertop and turned to her, holding the rag out. She smiled, seeing how awkward I felt.
I tried not to look at her exposed leg, but there was little I could do not to look. There was nothing else to look at, except the sparse surroundings which made me feel even more awkward. Everything was open and spacious; I couldn’t help but notice how clean it looked. The chairs were tucked neatly under the table—(except the one she had her foot on)—the china cabinet full of dishes and ornaments, with doilies scattered about and fresh cut flowers everywhere. I knew I’d have to tell Mum how everything looked; after all, this was the McCreary Place and she’d want to know, it having sat empty for so many years.
There were pictures of her and the man I assumed was her husband—both of them appearing ghostly and unsmiling, purposely posed and pedestrian—while oil paintings of large city streets lined the walls. There were two overstuffed chairs, an upright piano, and a large sofa and coffee table on a real Turkey rug. There were end tables set up with kerosene lamps, and everything about the house was neat, orderly, and organized.
“Do you play?” I asked, looking at the piano.
“Every night,” she nodded.
There was an easel in one corner with an unfinished painting of what she later told me was the White Cliffs of Dover—a view from the beach below, she said—looking up at a wide expanse of white rock filled with crags and cracks that seemed to fill the entire canvas.
“Did ye paint that as well?” I asked. I began looking at the other paintings, studying each one closely, until I came across a nude portrait of her.
“My husband’s the painter. My late husband, I should say. I suppose I better get used to saying that,” she said, dropping the hem of her dress and walking to the sink where she filled a kettle of water from the hand pump. She rinsed the bloody rag out and hung it up to dry.
“We weren’t married long enough for me to get used to the idea of being called his wife, let alone his widow,” she went on as she began to put her groceries away.
“Six weeks,” she laughed, “and then he went off to war. He was thinking it might help him with his painting. But they gave him a rifle instead of a paintbrush.”
“Da’ said he wanted to fight, and they sent him off to join the Sappers.”
“Those are them that dig tunnels and trenches under the enemy lines. They put him there because he worked in the mines here. He was in the Boer War when he was younger.”
“Yes, so your mother said. I saw his picture hanging on the wall above the desk. He’s very handsome. It must be hard for your mother?”
“Have you seen him without his mask?” she asked.
I shook my head and the room filled with a hard silence that was as palpable as a dying man’s rasp before she spoke again.
“Does your mother know you’re planning to go up?”
“I never said I was.” I tried sounding indignant, but all I managed to do was make her laugh.
“No. You didn’t. But you have that look about you; the same look my husband had before he left. I’m sure it’s the same look your Da’ had.”
“All my friends have joined,” I said in my defence.
“Have they? And have any of them come back?”
I shook my head.
“And you think going off to war will make people look at you differently? That maybe they’ll call you Jack, instead of Little Jackie? Is that it?” she said with a playful smile.
The kettle began whistling and she paused to pour the water into an earthen teapot.
“People will say I’m a man,” I said with a nod, not really understanding that she was teasing me.
She smiled again and shook her head slowly, her long dark tresses quivering in the soft afternoon light spilling in through the open windows. She measured out the tea, then pushed the teapot off to the side to let it steep, staring into the distance. She stood like that for a long time before turning around to look at me.
“How old are you, Jackie?”
“Eighteen; well, soon enough. Why? How old are you?”
“That’s not a question you should be asking a woman.”
“Isn’t it? Why’s that?”
“That’s not what me Mum says.”
“She was thinking you were older—not much older—but older all the same.”
“And people think yer older?”
“Which is why I should have no trouble signing up,” I smiled. “But I promised Mum I’d not go until I turned eighteen. That makes me a man in the eyes of the law.”
“Is it? Going off to war a boy, and coming back, is that what you think makes a man?”
“I’m not sure there’s much more.”
“And if you don’t come back? Or ye back like your Da’, or Charlie—that is his name isn’t it? The man with one arm and leg?”
“There are other ways of becoming a man.”
“Let me show you what it is makes you a man, Jackie,” she said, and taking my hand, looked up at me and smiled.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, and placed my hand on her breast. I felt the softness of it under her dress as she began undoing the buttons, slipping my hand inside and pressing it against the warmth of her flesh.
I spent the better part of that spring and summer riding out to her house every opportunity I might; endless hours spent making love and learning the subtle ways of what I thought it meant to be a man.
The first time I saw Da’ without his mask, he and Mum were in the kitchen. It was early and I stood outside the door listening, not knowing whether to go in or remain where I stood.
“T’was him, I’m telling ye Tillie, I know it. They marched us out to watch. I’ll never forget the day—it haunts me still—haunts me, I say. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since.”
“Ye can’t tell her, Jack.”
“Why not? The woman has a right to know.”
“She feels bad enough as is.”
“She has a right to know.”
“No. Sometimes a person doesn’t want to hear the truth, Jack,” Mum said softly.
I moved and positioned myself to look through the door—and turned away at the sight of him. As much as I wanted to accept whatever it was that happened, I was unprepared to see what was left of him.
Mum was wiping the empty hollow that was Da’s face. He was sitting on a chair, the mask lying on the table beside him as she cleaned his face with a cloth, something she’d do everyday for the rest of her life. She’d wring the cloth out now and again, and then turn to face him, digging deep into the crevasses where I’d once kissed his roughened cheeks. There was a purple knot that once upon a time was his chin, and a garbled line that was his mouth. He was missing his left ear I’d noticed for the first time.
Mum looked up and saw me standing in the doorway—as startled by my sudden appearance as if I’d come upon her naked—while Da’, Da’ turned his face fully towards me. I’m sure he saw the shock and horror I felt, as well as the revulsion reflected in me eyes. His left cheek and nose were wholly gone; it looked as if someone had scooped them away with a spoon and cast them to the side. His bottom lip was gone as well, his jaw line distorted to such a degree that I could see three of his teeth standing out as white as tombstones. The only thing I saw in that brief moment that was truly him, were his eyes. As he turned away I could see his shoulders sag, and his head bow, as he calmly reached for the mask.
“I’m sorry,” he said in that garbled voice I’d come to know over the months. “Now ye know,” was all he said.
“How long have ye been standing there?”
I looked at Mum, unable to say anything, and then turned to look at Da’ as he fixed the mask in place.
“It’s my birthday,” I said awkwardly.
“Happy birthday, son,” Da’ said softly.
“Yes,” Mum said, picking up the bowl and pouring the water into the sink. She didn’t turn around or look at me the entire time as she wrung the cloth out, but instead stared out of the window as she spoke, looking out at the pink sky as the sun gradually rose out of the sea and over the distant cliffs.
“Why don’t ye ride up later and tell Felicity she has mail? We’ll make a party of it.”
“Yes,” I said, trying to force a smile, but unable to do anything.
“Good,” she said, finally turning around. There were tears in her eyes. “Can ye run upstairs and wake yer brothers? I’ll get yer breakfasts ready.”
I watched Robbie and David on the beach through grandad’s old spyglass from where I sat at the small table we always ate breakfast at in the hotel pub. They were walking with the pasties Mum made, trying to sell them to the fishermen. I saw Robbie drop a pastie and pick it up quickly, brushing the sand from it and replacing it on the tray.
It was quiet in the hotel because the few guests there were—four different couples had come to see the sights here at the farthest reaches of the country—were on a walking tour, hoping to be in Penzance before lunch. Da’ went out looking for Charlie.
“Have ye gone to see Felicity then?” Mum asked, stepping out of the kitchen. I turned to look up at her and shook my head as she cleaned up the scattered dishes, wiping the table quickly.
She came back out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron and went behind the desk, coming out a moment later with a small bundle of letters.
“What about her mail?” she said, sorting through the envelopes and laying them on the table in a cluster as she sat across from me. She pushed a few of the envelopes aside, looking at the letter from Felicity’s lawyer in London. “I imagine she’s been busy packing and hasn’t had the time to come get them.”
“Packing?” I said, finally putting the spyglass down. “She hasn’t been packing that I’ve seen.”
“And how would ye know that? Ye said ye haven’t been up there today.”
I sat silent, looking at the table.
“If she’s planning to go to London, you can be certain she’ll be getting herself ready.”
“Why?” she repeated after me.
“Why’s she going to London? Why not stay here?”
“Why, indeed? And what does it matter? Did you say for her to stay here? She should be remarrying, and having babies! She’s not going to find anyone here. Or were ye thinking she might wait for ye?”
“Wait for me? Why d’ye say that?”
“Do ye think I don’t know yer sneaking up there rather than selling the leftover pasties?”
I felt myself turning red.
“Ah…so it’s true,” she said with a hint of resignation that made her shoulders sag. “I din’t want to believe yer Da’ when he told me—”
“It’s not what yer thinking—”
“And what would ye know about what I’m thinking?”
“I love her.”
“Do ye now?” she said, sitting back in her chair. “And I’m sure she loves yerself as much?”
“Will she? Have ye asked her?”
“I could never ask her that!”
“Then ye can’t claim to love her, can ye?”
Charlie and Da’ were in their cups they liked to say whenever they spent their days drinking cider and beer. “Charlie and I are gonna look for the bottom of our cups,” Da’ said, which simply meant the two of them intended to drink until neither one of them could walk, or talk. Charlie liked his beer as a chaser for the whiskey shots he held up in memory of the friends they’d lost. Da’ matched him drink for drink. Before too long, they were both singing old sea shanties from their youth, as well as popular songs they’d brought back from the Front with them.
Charlie would light cigarettes for Da’, pushing them into the small opening of Da’s mask, next to the straw Da’ drank his cider through. Charlie was quick to laugh at the smoke drifting up through the eyeholes of the mask, as well as the two small slits where Da’s nose should’ve been. Da’ sat with his head bent down low—trying to see I imagine—rolling cigarette after cigarette, and puffing on the one in his sculpted mouth like a locomotive making its way up a long hill. The red tip glowed in the dark corner where they sat, and soon his head was lost in a cloud of blue smoke.
The hotel’s guests, having returned from their walking tours, sat around a large table discussing the sights and smiling politely at the antics of Charlie and Da’. They’d raise their glasses whenever Charlie called out, nodding politely as he saluted the memory of fallen comrades: Kirk Walkley; Raymond Johnson and his brothers Quentin and Jason; Michael Wandler; Dale Hollman, and his brothers, Brent and Edward; the list of names expanded with the amount of drinks they consumed.
I watched Mum where she was seated with Felicity, one eye on her guests and the other on Charlie and Da’. Once in a while, I’d catch Felicity watching me, and once in a while I’d hear her laugh. She nodded encouragement to me whenever Charlie called me to join him and Da’ for a drink.
Mum saw to the needs of her guests, bringing wine, cider, or ale, as they called for it; and she saw to it that Robbie and David were tended to as well. She brought out a dinner of leek soup, braised ribs, mashed potatoes, greens and gravy, as well as Yorkshire puddings. As the afternoon progressed toward the evening, she thanked her guests for sharing their time with us. And then Felicity said she had to leave.
“An’ what’s that ye said yer husband’s name was, Mrs. Sidereal?” Charlie called out.
“Robert,” she said softly.
“I’d like t’ propose a drink in mem’ry of Robert Sidereal,” Charlie called out. “Where was ‘e killed, if ye don’t mind me askin’?”
“Where?” she said. “Wherever they shoot cowards.”
Charlie looked at Da’.
“Ye know, Mrs. Sidereal—” Da’ said slowly.
“Yes Mr. Barrett?” she said stiffly.
“John,” Mum said softly, shaking her head, but Da’ went on talking.
“Just before I was wounded,” he said without pause, as if Felicity’s answering him were a prompt for him to continue, “me an’ several men of me unit were asked—maybe I should say ordered—(they never asked ye t’ do anything they couldn’t tell ye t’ do, did they Charlie?)—but several of us were ordered t’ report, ‘for service t’ the King’, as they liked t’ call it; t’ bear witness,” he said with a slow shake of his head.
“To bear witness to what, Mr. Barrett?”
I looked at Mum who was standing as silent as Lot’s wife, her back turned but listening, looking as though she were afraid of what Da’ might say. I didn’t know if it was for his sake, or Felicity’s.
“Please, Jack,” Mum said, the soft plea in her voice almost lost in the cavernous silence of the room.
“No Tillie, it has t’ be done,” Da’ said, waving her off drunkenly. “It needs t’ be said, it does.”
“And what’s that, Mr. Barrett?” Felicity asked.
“A man goes over the top an’ runs headlong in t’ death every time he goes into battle ,” Da’ said, and Charlie nodded. “That a man lives through his first day—or his first attack—isn’t a testamen’ t’ his brav’ry, or the stragedy of those in command, but sheer, dumb luck. It’s nothing short of miraculous. I mean, how’s it possible t’ walk through a hail of bullets an’ not get shot? It’s like standin’ in the rain, an’ not getting’ wet. But it’s what they tol’ us t’ do, an’ so we did it, din’t we Charlie? Without question.”
“Without question,” Charlie echoed, lifting his drink in salute.
“He was a coward, Mr. Barrett, and they shot him for his cowardice.”
Da’ shook his head slowly. “There’s more t’ it’n that, Mrs. Sidereal; there always is. Even though I never knew the man, I knew men like ‘im. The fact ‘e lived as long as ‘e did, proves ‘e was a brave man. ‘E went over the top more times’n any man has a right to, is what that means. ‘E was simply the victim of a bad decision.”
“And what exactly is that? A bad decision?” she asked quickly.
“Din’t they tell ye? He shot hisself in the foot.”
“I wish I would’ve done that,” Charlie said softly, and we all looked at him.
“Aye,” Da’ said with a slow nod.
“It’s a coward’s way out,” Felicity said sharply.
“An’ what would ye know of that, Mrs. Sidereal?” Charlie said slowly. “Had I shot mesself in the foot, I’d’ve been shipped ‘ome, wouldn’t I? I’d still ‘ave two arms, an’ two legs. I wouldn’t be the freak I am now—the freak ever’one sees me as. I’d’ve ‘ad a limp t’ be sure, but nothin’ more’n that. But I couldn’t do it. I thought about it. But I couldn’t get up the nerve.”
“What kind of nerve does it take to shoot yourself in the foot?”
“More’n ye could imagine,” Da’ said with another slow shake of his head. “I only bring it up ‘cause I was there when ‘e died. I was a witness t’ his final words—they always let ye have yer final words, don’t they Charlie?”
“Aye, that they do, Jack,” Charlie said, slamming the table with an open hand. “That they do!”
“And you feel compelled to share his final words, do you Mr. Barrett?” Felicity asked as she began pulling on her overcoat.
“I’d’ve never pegged ‘im fer bein’ with someone as young as yerself,” Da’ said in a soft whisper, the blank stare of his mask making it impossible to read his look. She paused momentarily, tilting her head briefly, and then looked at Mum as Da’ went on explaining himself.
“He looked old—standin’ there an’ list’nin’ t’ the charges they read out—so old, that if ye asked me I’d’ve never pointed t’ yerself as ‘is wife. I s’pose that’s why his final thoughts were of yerself? That’s why I’ll never forget ‘im. ‘Tell my wife I love her’, ‘e says out loud. Even knowin’ ye’d never get the message, ‘is last thoughts, ‘is dyin’ words, were for yerself. An’ all ye can say is ‘e died a coward.”
“Thank you, Mr. Barrett,” she said, turning with her gloves in hand and walking toward the door. “I’ll sleep better tonight knowing that.”
“Ye might not sleep better for knowin’ it,” Da’ said as she closed the door behind her, “but I will,” he added, more to himself than anyone else.
“Oh, Jack,” Mum said through soft-fallen tears. She walked to him and hugged him to her breast. “Ye foolish old sop.”
I didn't know it, but that night would be the last moments I’d spend with Felicity. She was bound for London in the morning—or so Mum said as she chatted and cleaned the tables. She stopped suddenly, looking at me with a purposeful stare.
“I suppose now that I’ve told ye, ye’ll be slipping out tonight to see her?”
“Tilly, let ‘im be,” Da’ said, half sitting in his chair and unable to move. “If that’s what it takes t’ keep ‘im ‘ere, instead of runnin’ off an’ signin’ up, so be it. Let ‘im, I says.”
“Jack,” Mum said.
“Would ye rather ‘e left one night an’ din’t come back? That’s what ‘e’s wantin’ t’ do. I know; I can see it in ‘im.”
Mum looked at me for a moment and it felt as if she looked right through me.
“Is that true Jackie? Are ye still thinkin’ of joinin’ up?”
“She din’t strike me as someone what loved ‘im though, did she?” Da’ went on in his drunken slur. “‘E looked much older’n I would’ve thought.”
“That woman—Mrs. Sidereal—Felicity. ‘Er husband, I mean. I don’t think she loved ‘im—not as much as he loved ‘er, that’s for certain. That a man knows ‘e’s about t’ die, an’ saves ‘is last words for the woman ‘e loves,” Da’ said with a low moan sounding like a sigh.
“She hardly knew him, Jack. They were only married a short time before he signed up.”
“An’ what of yerself then?”
“Me?” she asked with a laugh.
“‘Ow long we were t’gether ‘fore I left t’ fight the Boers?”
“It’s not the same. I was already with child when ye left; I just din’t know it.”
“Aye. With child. An’ there ‘e stands afore ye, a man full growed,” Da’ said.
“Yer drunk, Jack Barrett.”
“Aye. That I am,” Da’ said.
“It’s time we were puttin’ ye to bed,” she said.
“What about Charlie?” I asked.
“D’ye think ye can carry him up to a room if I get it ready?” Mum asked, and I nodded.
The night was crisp and clear, with a full moon hanging low over a calm sea and lighting the hills around me with a soft glow. The dew-laden grass looked to be sparkling with gems. There were a thousand stars hanging low on the horizon, the Milky Way spilling across the sky as if it were a trail of soft, glistening tears. I pushed Da’s bicycle up to the top of the hill, looking back briefly to make sure I hadn’t woken Mum, all the while thinking that she’d be lying in bed, listening for me. When I crested the hill I paused, looking out over the wide Celtic Sea and wondering at the silence and the serenity of it—the very stillness of everything about me—before making my way to Felicity’s house where I could see the soft blush of lights glowing in the distance.
As I made my way up the trail leading to the house, I heard the piano in the distance. I’d yet to hear her play, and paused long enough to listen as the thundering notes gave way to a soft, melancholy whisper. I marvelled at the delicacy of her touch. There was raw emotion in the music she played—nothing less can describe it—and it clawed its way through the hills and surrounded me, wrapping itself around me, comforting me.
I stowed the bicycle in behind the house, hiding it in the darkness and making my way to the front door where I took my boots off before entering. The room was lit by the light of two dozen candles melting in their own little saucers on top of the piano; two of the kerosene lamps beside the sofa were burning low.
She sat at the piano wearing a delicate silken shift she’d left untied, her soft skin a pale reflection glowing in the light of the candles and radiating with her every movement. She’d washed her hair and I watched it shimmer down the length of her back, the tiny droplets of water dancing like stars as I slipped behind her and cupped my hands around her breasts. She gasped as the coldness of my hands, and leaned back against me as I buried my face into the soft nape of her neck. I could see her smile as she turned her lips up to meet my kiss.
“That’s beautiful,” I said, sitting down on the piano bench beside her. “What is it?”
“Grieg. ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,'” she smiled.
She smiled again. “Troldhaugen.”
“I didn’t think ye actually played this thing,” I said.
“I told you the first day you were here, that I played.”
“I must’ve forgotten.”
We made love by the light of the two dozen candles burning and sputtering in their little saucers on top of the piano. I lay on the floor looking up at her in the soft light, her long hair a waterfall of twists and curls hanging in front of her face and cascading across my chest. I held her breasts as she straddled me, sitting up tall and lifting her hair in her hands to let it fall as she arched her back, moaning softly that she wanted more, needed more, and then just as suddenly, crying out and falling on top of me.
After, we lay in each other’s arms staring up at the ceiling. I could hear the sea as it crashed into the rocks below and knew the tide had come in; I’d have to leave soon. I could sense the coming dawn as the white linen curtains stirred in the gentle air of a half-open window.
“Are ye really leaving for London?” I asked at last.
“What’ll ye do there?”
“I’ll live with my sister.”
“An live yer life as a war widow? What’ll ye do?”
“I’ll start my life anew.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“No one need ever know what truly happened with Robert. I suppose there’ll always be men about—men like your father, and Charlie—men who witnessed his execution—but they’ll never know me, and I’ll never know them, so it won’t really matter, will it? I doubt they’ll come searching for me to let me know his dying declaration.”
“His undying love, you mean?”
“Is that what you think it was?”
“What else could it be?”
“Because you know what it means to be in love?”
“Oh Jackie,” she said with a laugh. “You have no idea of what love is. You served a purpose for me, just as much as I served a purpose for you.”
“Served a purpose? What purpose?” I asked, sitting up on my elbow and looking down at her.
“Why, Darling,” she said, turning her head and looking up at me with a sad, mournful smile. It was the sort of smile one uses so as not to hurt someone’s feelings—the kind of smile that breaks your heart and leaves you breathless.
“I needed someone to make love to me—not someone to fall in love with me. There’s a difference. I needed to be touched and held—it’s something every woman needs…the warmth, and the passion…the raw passion I never had with Robert. I was lucky because you were able to fill that need.”
I looked at her, speechless.
“I need a child, Jack. An heir.”
“I don’t understand.”
“With Robert…” She laughed lightly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have started it like that? I know I should have never married him in the first place; I knew that after the third day.”
“Ye were married for three days and knew it was wrong? And yet, ye were willing to spend the rest of yer life with him?”
“Yes,” she said, and the word seemed to trail off into the waning night. “Robert was fourteen years older than me. I was twenty-three when we married. I was a weekend in Paris, at best—a week at most—looking at it in hindsight. His is a titled family, and they never accepted me from the moment they met me; not as I am. But Robert was the second son, and we both knew there’d be no titled inheritance for him—until his brother died in France on the first day of the war.”
“And then Robert died?”
“And then Robert died childless.”
“So the title dies with him?”
“It would have, had I not taken things into my own hands.”
“And how did you do that?”
She smiled, and the light of the candles reflected in her eyes as she leaned over and kissed me. She looked out at the breaking dawn and sighed.
“Your dear mother will be waiting at the door for you if you don’t go soon.”
Mum was in the kitchen, preparing dough and pasties when I walked in the back door. She looked up at me and I saw her shoulders sag, as if she were a puppet and someone had cut one of her strings. The air was a thick fog of flour that caught the morning light slanting in through the window over the sink as she pounded the dough with her fists. I pulled a chair out from under the small table and looked up at her with tears in my eyes.
“She’s gone and told ye then, has she?” Mum said, pausing long enough to wipe her hands as I nodded, unable to speak.
“You knew, didn’t you? All along?”
“Knew? I said, if she wanted to have a baby, she’d do no better than yerself—at least not here. ”
“I thought it was for the best.”
“Ye thought what was for the best?” I asked, confused.
She came around the large butcher’s block and sat in the chair in front me. She picked up my hands and kissed them softly, then put her a hand around my neck, pulling me toward her as she touched her forehead against mine, as if she knew it might somehow soften my aching heart.
“I knew it was taking a chance, Jack,” she said in a near whisper. “An’ I was fearful of yer falling in love with her, and that ye have—hard—but I was more fearful of ye running off to enlist with yer friends.”
“She needed a son, and I was afraid of losing mine.”
“So ye set her on me with a purpose?”
“Aye, and now she’s gone. She’s taken yer heart with her, and left ye with a broken thing in its place.”
“She said she didn’t love me.”
“A woman doesn’t need a man to love her as much as ye might think.”
“But I loved her.”
“Of course ye did. And yer a better man for it.”
“Is that all ye have to say?”
“I can’t do any more for ye than that. It’s yer father’s son ye are—through and through,” she said, wiping her eyes on the corner of her apron as she stood, hugging me close to her breast. I could smell the fresh dough in her clothes, and it reminded me of all the other times in my childhood when she’d held me after I’d hurt myself, only this time, the pain didn’t go away.