A strangling pressure pushed up from my stomach, enveloped my heart, and gradually forced its way out of my throat in the form of a nervous puff of air. I watched the cloudy evidence of it linger in the staleness of the orange lamp for a couple of seconds before it vanished, quickly, quietly.
It seemed that you were a curl of breath in the air as well. I knew you were as elegant and elusive as one. I imagined something inside of me, slipping away when I thought back to what you said, some fundamental part of me tumbling into the deepest chasms of my body. A sob took its place; as silent as the air, and just as bleak.
“I thought you would come with us.” I had said, feeling rather stupid. Of course they wouldn’t let you join the children and the rest of our colleagues on the train. You were a strong, able-bodied, smart man. The smartest I had ever met.
“The country needs me.” It was something I had heard countless times; from my brothers, from my father, years ago. Back then, it was like I was waiting for Maurice and Peter and Father to tell me that they would be leaving, but the very same words were poison coming from you, Jem.
“I’ll join up too, then.” I had said, my voice, though determined, battled with the guttural howl that was slowly clawing out of me. “Emilia Mills is in France with the WAAF right now, I could walk down to the town hall tomorrow and sign up.”
“You need to stay and teach the children. You’re a teacher. That’s why they’re taking you with them.”
“You’re a teacher, too.”
The look on your face seemed enough to knock me down right there and then, no bombs necessary, so I closed my eyes and listened to you breathe in and out.
Colours drifted in and out of my vision, resembling the beautiful illustration of the Aurora Borealis that I would show my class when I was teaching geography. I loved the picture, I wanted it framed above our bed. I wondered, rather childishly, whether the Icelandic government were imposing a blackout on the Aurora Borealis, before remembering that the Germans were not looking to bomb Iceland, and also that the Aurora Borealis were not an electric light that you could turn on and off. I had to stop thinking about Iceland and the Aurora Borealis after that; the picture and your promise that we would visit one day burned my soul too much to bear.
Remembering felt as if someone was folding me in half, cramming me into the luggage rails of a train I had no desire to be on. I’d never been on one of the colossal engines before, and neither had most of the children that were crammed into the carriages. The crushed onion and potato soup that we had eaten as our parting meal churned in my stomach. The din of the chug-chug-chug and the wails and the laughs and the incessant chatter that coated the wrinkled paper of the walls created a headache that split my head straight down the middle. I was convinced that, had I stayed on the train for a moment longer, I would have had to sew myself back together with the darning kit in my small trunk before stepping into my new life.
Everything felt wrong when I did. Even the smallest children could sense that something was Not Quite Right. We stared at the new people, all too fat and all too clean as they browsed the children like prize pigs at one of their county fairs. Elizabeth May scowled at a particularly round, red-headed woman and the ballot officer, who was just as circular, clipped her round the ear.
My stomach twisted in a collated combination of anger and disgust. If I was a braver, more selfless woman, I would have swiped right back at the ballot officer to see just how she liked it, but I was too wrapped up in my own preoccupations. Such as where I was going to live.
The answer to my question was found in the attic of a well-meaning woman’s farmhouse. It was too dark, too cold, and too lonely, and I missed the blanket that I had left on our bed. But I wrote the second I was able to, and Mrs Jackson, who was a widow, which seemed like a terribly bad omen at the time, showed me the way to the post office on the first morning.
And from there began the waiting game. Each morning at breakfast with Mrs Jackson. Each evening when I returned from the small, brick schoolhouse that was not designed to be flooded with sixty extra evacuee children. And, inexplicably, in the middle of the night when I could not sleep for the whistling wind and the echoing radio broadcasts, so would take the short walk to the postbox at the entrance to the farm instead.
Jem, the skies were so clear there. Sometimes, I would force my clenched fists to unfurl and my forehead to smoothen, although it never felt natural, and I always felt the tension snap back into me once I had stopped concentrating on the state of myself.
The country was too quiet and too clean. Suddenly, our worries about having to buy a house that looked like something straight out of a Depression photo seemed ridiculous. I wanted to go back to the soot-covered two-up two-down. I longed for the dustbins in the street, and that funny little orange cat that often lurked behind them. When I got the message about our little house, I wondered what had become of that cat; whether he was skulking in one of those cavernous shelters, or whether he was trapped behind those forsaken metal cans.
I would often dwell on inconsequential things at that postbox, like the marmalade cat and the colour of our front door and whether you could still tell that it was bright red, even after it had been blown to pieces. The postbox was always empty, but of course, you’d know that.
It was strange, because I was with Elizabeth May when I found out. She was eight years old and I still feel the heaviest weight in my heart when I think of how scared she would have been, watching my face collapse, like the economy, like our house with the red door, when she handed me the telegram. Elizabeth May hugged me with arms that were quickly filling out with all that country food, and she told me some beautifully twee story about her grandfather who fought in a war, and I nodded my head and furiously, silently, willed the tears to retract back into my eyes, with the words MISSING IN ACTION on loop in my head.
I hated the children after that. Every single one of them disgusted me because they were what had kept me from you. Little Elizabeth May would collect eggs from Mrs Jackson every morning and I would stay, locked inside my draughty attic, until I watched her chubby little form amble away from my postbox and down to the village. Mrs Jackson learned not to talk to me, as did the mumbling, stumbling headmistress at the school. I learned only to talk to the rum that Mrs Jackson kept in the cupboard next to the kitchen door. Nasty drink, rum. A man’s drink. Not one that you would have drunk. You were far too dignified for that.
I must have lost hope at some point before this, possibly some point before Elizabeth May handed me the yellow envelope that hammered a shard of broken mirror into my seven-years-cursed heart. And I stayed like that until they finally told us it was over and we were carted back to the city.
Back to our non-existent home and a little prefabricated house that I had to share with two other women who had given up all hope.
And it was there, behind the brown door of my sterilised home, that I somehow started to believe you might come back again.
And so the players positioned themselves for another long game. The pundits took their places at the top of my flat, grey roof with the metal chimney. I checked the ugly little letterbox that was tacked next to our house number at every chance I got. I listened to the radio and read perfectly-wrapped newspaper articles about long-lost husbands returning. I learnt the names of every postman and made sure that they knew the names Elsie and James McNulty. I watched the women I lived with move on and move out with shining new husbands and matching sets of grizzling, ghastly offspring.
I waited for you to return until I couldn’t anymore. And once I was sure I was gone, I looked for you once more.