She holds me as I once again wake in the night from some horrid memory. Struggling against the covers confining me to the bed, lashing out at some invisible evil, I begin to hear her calming voice in my ear, shushing me gently, silencing the crashing and the screeching. The cool air kisses my face and soothes the burning underneath. My racing heart slows to match that of the clock that sits on the chest in the far corner. I turn to look at her, as she lies exhausted, but with infinite patience, and we know the worst is passed.
I thank her, placing her hand back under the covers. She rolls over as I get up and cross the room in the six steps to the window. I sit on the ledge and light up a cigarette from the chest. It’s still dark outside and very still, with only the soft pumping of the factory chimney disturbing the silence. I can faintly make it out behind the tenement opposite the road, large, looming and even darker than the night. I’ll be going there tomorrow to see if they’ll take me back on, if work’s picked up.
A noise from the street below makes me jump. Just a cat knocking over some bins. This’ll be me awake for hours now. Good. I hate sleeping. I can’t do it for fear of what awaits me. When I do accidentally drift over and my thoughts take me back there, I’m forced to relive the nightmare, the things I did and didn’t do and what can never be unseen or unheard. I fight desperately to break free, to wake and again I find myself trembling, sweating, and my wife’s arms around me.
She lies peacefully, as the covers slowly rise and fall. Just knowing she is there calms me, and I know this is reality. I feel a great deal of affection for her, she was the ideal I held for my return while I was away. We had been married two months when the call came, and I enlisted in a fanfare of buntin and scarlet marching bands. I took her dancing at the workers’ social, for a big party to see us all off. There was music, beer and laughing, lots of laughing. At the end of the night in the dimming light, we slow waltzed, and as I held her she looked up with tears in her eyes. I’d never seen her cry before. I kissed her then and promised her it’d all be alright.
The next morning me and the lads from Birkin’s assembly floor went down the photography studio and posed for a photo together, of which we all got a copy. We’d joined the same regiment and were looking forward to our trip to France, most of us having never been outside the town before. We all waved from the packed train to the jubilant crowd on the platform, me focusing on her slender figure and wavy, chestnut hair, her returning a tender smile as I turned and left her behind, racing off to war.
When I returned for good four years later, the platform was empty, save for her. I got off alone with my suitcase and knapsack, and she lunged, throwing her arms tight around me. The war had not been kind to her either, and she looked nothing like her picture or my memories of her. She had answered her call too and worked in the factory making the munitions for our guns. In doing so her thick hair had thinned, her face had wrinkled and she looked much more than her twenty-three years.
We walked along the cobblestone streets on that cold January morning, the bunting gone and the odd passerby walking quickly, head down to where they were going. I thought of the faces I wouldn’t see on these streets again, and how we’d parted ways. She led me to this room, to which I could scarce remember the way, and felt like another posting to me. It was later that week I had my first episode, and there have been many more in the months since. I throw my cigarette away and climb into bed to stare at the ceiling until morning.
I am aware of her rising a few hours later, and she prepares breakfast for us both. We eat together at the table by the window, toast and eggs. She tells me she is going to the market to pick up some material to fix some of the clothes I brought back with me. I suggest we can meet up after I stop in at Birkin’s. She smiles and tells me she’d like that. Then she starts coughing and I ask her if she’s alright. She says she is, and begins clearing up.
She’s looked out my best shirt and jacket for the meeting, the same I wore to the dancing, which now hangs loosely from my frame. We leave at the same time and she reminds me of all the things to say to the foreman as we climb down the close. I nod and say I will. Wishing me luck at the front door step, we kiss and head our opposite ways. The sun peers cautiously behind the clouds, and there is a warm breeze. Spring has come.
I make the short walk to the factory as I used to in the brief spell when I lived in that room before enlistment. I pass the big iron gates with a few others, so few others, heading to work. They are mostly in their forties or fifties. Of the group of us who signed up, I’m the only one still fit for employment. Jack Hunt was the first to go, with George, Paul, Everett and Kingsley following over the next couple of years. All that’s left is Upshaw who lost his leg a year back and Frank, a simpleton since some searing metal lodged itself in his skull. I now have five copies of the photo we took before we left.
I meet with Mr Thompson, my old foreman. When I first went to see him a week after I got back, he greeted me with open arms like a son. He was always good to us Thompson. Now though I see him shift as he spies me approaching. He grabs my hand and shakes it vigorously.
“I thought you’d be by, how good it is to see you m’boy! Keeping well? How is that pretty wife of yours? I tell you we sure could’ve used a pair of hands like hers around here when you was all gone.”
“I’m well thanks Mr Thompson.”
“Some of these old duffers, gah! True you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, not without a lot of grumping and moaning. What I wouldn’t give to have some young blood in the place again!”
“Reason I’m here Mr Thompson, I came to see if you needed any workers?”
“Oh, sorry m’boy, things still haven’t picked up I’m afraid. It’s this economy, everyone’s war weary! They’re all too busy consolidating their assets so there’s no appetite to expand! Don’t you worry, soonest chance I get you’ll be first on my list to reincorporate, get you back on the floor in no time.”
“Thank you sir. I’ll come back next week.”
“Oh yes yes, you do that. Mr Brooks!” he called into the assembly floor, “I do not believe that’s where that goes!”
At that he turns and heads off down the stairs. The grey man in a torn overall looks back, hunched over the box he just dropped, with a glare of irritation. I back away, increasingly aware my presence is no longer required.
There’s no hurry to cross town. I take my time, watching my feet as I go. I enjoy that there is time to take, that I’m not marching to a drum, and there is nothing to be aware of. Not much seems to have changed, there’s the same stores in the same places, women beating their washing from windows and children running through the streets. It’s all like I remember, yet for a reason I can’t understand, I feel a visitor.
I reach the main market street, bustling with life as women and elders dote from shop to shop going about their business. A few recognise me and run up to welcome me home. I tell them I’ve been home a while, just not out much. They launch into the gossip that happened when we were gone, then ask how it was for me. Kindly I say I’m late and brush them aside. Outside the grocer’s I see a man with his eyes cast to the ground, sloped shoulders and sullen cheeks. He notices me and I nod. He nods back.