By: Kathryn Kirby
He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and looked into his son’s eyes. Be safe is what he wanted to say, but before the words could quite get out, the train whistle uttered a shriek, and a sea of young men in dusky green uniforms moved as one over the platform. The station was decked with garlands of Union Jacks and a bright red poster advising to Keep Calm and Carry On. He watched in sadness as that one particularly new uniform walked away from him in finality. No, not final. He’ll be back.
Walking home from the train station, every breath made a soft white billow of condensation in the bitter November air. It was hard not to make a mental list of all the trouble Hitler’s lot had brought on him in recent months. Rations had tightened, and now his only son was speeding away from his home in a train filled with other helpless nineteen year-olds. Though he had received his citizenship nearly twenty years ago, his neighbors had begun eying him with suspicion, and every time he thought of his boyhood in Germany he had a guilty twinge, as if even now he wasn’t British enough. It was hardly fair, but it had to be endured, at least for the duration. God, help it come swiftly.
The path home took him past a neatly kept red cottage on the edge of town, where a young woman sat on the porch and smoked a cigarette aimlessly. Her hair was so light brown that it looked gray from a distance. He wondered why she seemed so familiar when he remembered; he’d seen her photograph lying on top of a pile of folded clothes in his son’s battered suitcase. Someone else was waiting for him to come home too. This thought comforted him for the next few weeks, the knowledge that there were two in the village missing that particularly new uniform.
It was just barely past noon when it hit the sleepy village. Some were tending gardens, planting cabbages or weeding turnips. Others who were less industrious were just barely washing up from a satisfying meal. A wandering Luftwaffe plane released a sleek gray mass to soar over the serene hills and pleasant houses. The men inside the local pub were in the middle of a heated argument over fishing tactics when the bomb found its mark through a long, sickening whistle. The explosion ripped apart the room. Rustling flames lingered on the thatched roof of the pub, and a sickening silence hung over the brand new ruins as the dust took its time to settle.
Neighbors rushed in to frantically pull victims out. Everyone was shaken but all right except one man, who lived with his daughter in the neat red cottage. He had sustained an injury that made those who had fought in the first war shake their heads, and though the doctor had delivered more babies and saved more sick horses than any other in the county, he knew not what to do with comatose patients, nor an accurate timeline for when they might awake.
In the weeks that followed the bombing, he felt like a sleepwalker. His hometown seemed to simmer with hostility towards him wherever he furtively looked. Even the weather got bitterly cold and windy overnight, and it battered his cottage mercilessly, thrashing the dying trees against a stormy-ruffled sky. Villagers who used to greet him kindly now only looked warily at him as he passed. The boys who usually played cricket in the field near his home stopped coming.
One day he returned from an afternoon of shopping to a wrenching sight: his beloved garden trampled and a crudely painted swastika on his front windows. It was large, almost as big as his wingspan, and the red paint was still slightly damp, the shape's broken arms stretched over the panes of glass like the bad omen it was. Stunned, he set down brown paper bags and sat down unsteadily on the short brown grass, meditating on the injustice of it all. Had everyone forgotten that he had lost something too? He stayed mostly inside after that, reading or thinking worried thoughts about where his son might be by now.
Whispers came that the man who once lived in the neat red cottage had died. The funeral fell on a Sunday. As the people gathered on the uneven turf of the country graveyard, the first snow started to fall, as if a blessing. But unfortunately, it was a blessing that some could not receive. Clumps of people dressed in dark colors wandered home talking about anything but the tragedy, anything but the war.
He sits beside his low-lit fireside when he hears drunken threats come in muffled through the windows. Still dressed in their funereal black, the dead man’s brother and a drinking mate begin to throw stones through the windows that have just been washed clean of the red swastika. He feels resigned to his fate, although that hardly stops his heart from beating wildly against his ribcage. He gets up with fear and dignity and walks towards the door, opens it, and steps out into the snow and moonlight.
They are waiting for him, swaying on the spot with rage and sorrow and cheap whiskey. He knows that they are beyond any reason, and that his accent would only enrage them further. So he stays silent, and simply looks at them.
They make the first collective move towards him when a bright voice sparks out of the dying trees.
Her grey-brown hair shines dimly in the cloudy moonlight as she steps between him and his accusers.
“Both of you, go home.”
They look blearily at her, slightly confused.
It seems clear that she intends to wait for them to leave. They slowly trudge off into the night, taking the gravel path back into town. She turns and looks at his cottage.
“I’ll send someone to help with the window tomorrow, if that’s all right.”
He nods numbly. She turns her back on him and disappears into the forest.