When I walked into the garden the weather seemed to be at war too. The clouds in the sky hung thick, heavy and grey, but every now and then sharp beams of sunlight would punch through and touch the ground like angels reaching the earth.
I looked between the fallen fence and the boy as he zipped around nearby, pretending to shoot imaginary German soldiers. I took the time to study him, trying to scar his image into my memory forever. I wanted to be able to close my eyes and see him there, clear as day. Every freckle, every stray hair on his wild head. It felt like a branding iron.
He looked like his father, a mess of brown hair and those determined brown eyes. I’d fallen in love with those eyes twice. Once when I met his father at the town dance and again when I’d given birth to the boy. I wondered if there were clouds in France and I wondered if I’d ever see those first set of eyes again. Could I?
‘I said – that’ll be a job to put back up, won’t it?’
I snapped out of my thoughts and saw Mrs. Baker standing on the other side of my fallen fence at the back. Her thick jowls and pug-like face poked out between a heavy coat and a headscarf tied tightly over her head. It wasn’t raining but that was the kind of woman she was. In the battle between black clouds and sunlight she always expected the black clouds to win. Sometimes I think she even wanted them to.
‘Sorry, I was miles away,’ I said, checking my watch. I don’t know why I did it, habit I suppose. She was on time.
‘You’d do well to stay on Earth instead of having your head in the clouds. We need practicality in a time like this,’ Mrs. Baker said. ‘That fence won’t put itself up after all!’
I forced a smile at her that was mostly gritted teeth.
‘The troops keep knocking it down on their march. Over and over. Sometimes I feel like as soon as I put it up it gets knocked down again,’ I said.
A soft rumble began somewhere in the distance. I sighed. ‘But you’re right, I best make a start.’
The boy was hiding behind a tree, popping out every now and then to fire off some shots and throw invisible grenades. It made my eyes mist.
‘He’s quite wild, your boy, isn’t he?’ Mrs. Baker said, ignoring me.
‘Doesn’t seem to slow down.’
‘No. Everything seems to go so fast.’
The rumbling was getting louder.
‘Well, between you and me, I think he needs to calm down. You know my husband is the headmaster, don’t you? He was telling me-‘
‘Shut up. Mrs Baker.’
I wasn’t looking at her, but I could feel her looking at me. I could imagine her dropped jaw like I’d slapped her in the face. It wasn’t hard, I’d seen that expression before and today there was something in me. More spite.
‘He’s a boy. He’s playing. And we’re at war. Don’t you think children should be allowed to be children, Mrs. Baker? While they can?’
She twisted her face and sniffed rudely. The boy ran to my side and nuzzled into my leg and I held those moments like a guarded secret.
‘Mum, if I’m good, do you think we could go to the pictures later?’ he asked.
Mrs. Baker raised a thick eyebrow at me.
‘Of course, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we walk there and check the times? I don’t think it’s going to rain today. In fact, I think the sun will come out soon.’
His smile was filled with gaps where some teeth had fallen out and I thought how young he looked. How much like his father. I wish I’d had more money to leave under his pillow for sweets. I wish we’d gone to the pictures every day if that’s what he’d wanted.
‘One moment sweetheart, let me get my coat,’ I said, and he puffed up like a proud rooster.
I took the long walk back to the kitchen as the noise in the sky suddenly grew deafening. I shut the door behind me and stared at the floor because I couldn’t watch like I had the first few times and I knew better now than to try and change things.
When I woke up it was night, like it always was, and my head was pounding. Blood trickled down my forehead, stinging my eye. Dust lay in my chest and over and around me while my nostrils burned with the smell of fire. I wiggled my toes and shuffled under the wooden beam that lay on top of me.
This was the part that I struggled with the most. None of it was easy, of course, but deciding whether to stay under that beam or wiggle out of it like I had the first time was a terrible thing.
Should I climb through the wreckage of the house, wander into the garden and see a shoe, a torn sleeve from his jacket – a hand? The nights breeze on my skin made it crawl. I don’t know why I felt more alive when it touched me, maybe because so many people were dead? Feeling alive made me guilty.
I’d stand alone in the night and hear the nearby cries. The flames from burning buildings illumining parts of the darkness while sirens sounded too late. I’d think: Is this what it’s like in France? The wreckages and the anguish and the shouting? Is anyone I love still alive there? My husband or brothers? I’d take it all in and then the bomb would hit me all over again. The boy was dead.
The boy was dead and there would be no tomorrows for him. No more trips to the pictures and he would never age a single day more. I’d wish and I’d wish and I’d wish for more time with him and then-
-I’d be back in the kitchen. The smell of breakfast still lingering in the room and muddy shoes discarded by the door; everything just as it was.
War is a terrible thing. It robs you of the safeness you feel in everyday life. I don’t mean the concern for yourself but of the people you love, fighting in a foreign land and not knowing if they’re dead or alive. And that’s the point – as much as I love my husband and brothers, how do I know they’re even coming back? How can I give up this replay? This recurring loop of my son’s last moments for the roll of a dice that they might return home to me. Would it even be worth it, after the heartbreak? Could we cope? What feels like betrayal does leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It feels like a crime.
‘Can I go in the garden and play?’ the boy asked from behind me.
It took a minute before I could face him; I didn’t want him to see me cry. The minutes are precious but its alright, I can return to them.
When I opened the door and stepped outside into the garden I looked up at the sky. The weather seemed to be at war too.
Dylan Benjamin is a poet, writer and essayist from Newcastle. His work has featured in Misery Tourism, 101 Words and other publications and he has upcoming work in Door is a Jar Magazine. You can usually find him at the beach with his dog or follow him on Twitter @DylanBenjamin_
Image via Pixabay