‘Yes?’ She couldn’t help the leap of her heart, the clench of her stomach. She tried frantically to damp it down, deny it, the hope that had sprung up like a struck match. A mistake. There’d been a mistake. He hadn’t been killed, he’d been lost somehow, maybe captured, and now they’d found hi— then she saw the small box in the soldier’s hand and her legs gave way under her.

Her vision sparkled at the edges, and the stranger’s face swam above her, blurred with concern. She could hear, though – hear her mum rush through from the kitchen, slippers slapping in her haste, voice raised in agitation. Heard the man’s name, Captain Randall, Frank Randall. Hear Roger’s small husky voice warm in her ear, saying ‘Mummy? Mummy?’ in confusion.

Then she was on the swaybacked davenport, holding a cup of hot water that smelt of tea – they could only change the tea-leaves once a week, and this was Friday, she thought irrelevantly. He should have come on Sunday, her mum was saying, they could have given him a decent cuppa. But perhaps he didn’t work on Sundays?

Her mum had put Captain Randall in the best chair, near the electric fire, and had switched on two bars as a sign of hospitality. Her mother was chatting with the captain, holding Roger in her lap. Her son was more interested in the little box sitting on the tiny pie-crust table; he kept reaching for it, but his grandmother wouldn’t let him have it. Marjorie recognised the intent look on his face. He wouldn’t throw a fit – he hardly ever did – but he wouldn’t give up, either.

He didn’t look a lot like his father, save when he wanted something badly. She pulled herself up a bit, shaking her head to clear the dizziness, and Roger looked up at her, distracted by her movement. For an instant, she saw Jerry look out of his eyes, and the world swam afresh. She closed her own, though, and gulped her tea, scalding as it was.

Mum and Captain Randall had been talking politely, giving her time to recover herself. Did he have children of his own? Mum asked.

‘No,’ he said, with what might have been a wistful look at wee Roger. ‘Not yet. I haven’t seen my wife in two years.’

‘Better late than never,’ said a sharp voice, and she was surprised to discover that it was hers. She put down the cup, pulled up the loose stocking that had puddled round her ankle and fixed Captain Randall with a look. ‘What have you brought me?’ she said, trying for a tone of calm dignity. Didn’t work; she sounded brittle as broken glass, even to her own ears.

Captain Randall eyed her cautiously, but took up the little box and held it out to her.

‘It’s Lieutenant MacKenzie’s,’ he said. ‘An MID oakleaf cluster. Awarded posthumously for—’

With an effort, she pushed herself away, back into the cushions, shaking her head.

‘I don’t want it.’

‘Really, Marjorie!’ Her mother was shocked.

‘And I don’t like that word. Pos— posth— don’t say it.’

She couldn’t overcome the notion that Jerry was somehow inside the box – a notion that seemed dreadful at one moment, comforting the next. Captain Randall set it down, very slowly, as though it might blow up.

‘I won’t say it,’ he said gently. ‘May I say, though . . . I knew him. Your husband. Very briefly, but I did know him. I came myself, because I wanted to say to you how very brave he was.’

‘Brave.’ The word was like a pebble in her mouth. She wished she could spit it at him.

‘Of course he was,’ her mother said firmly. ‘Hear that, Roger? Your dad was a good man, and he was a brave one. You won’t forget that.’

Roger was paying no attention, struggling to get down. His gran set him reluctantly on the floor and he lurched over to Captain Randall, taking a firm grip on the captain’s fresh-creased trousers with both hands – hands greasy, she saw, with sardine oil and toast crumbs. The captain’s lips twitched, but he didn’t try to detach Roger, just patted his head.

‘Who’s a good boy, then?’ he asked.

‘Fith,’ Roger said firmly. ‘Fith!’

Marjorie felt an incongruous impulse to laugh at the captain’s puzzled expression, though it didn’t touch the stone in her heart.

‘It’s his new word,’ she said. ‘Fish. He can’t say “sardine”.’

‘Thar . . . DEEM!’ Roger said, glaring at her. ‘Fitttthhhhh!’

The captain laughed out loud, and pulling out a handkerchief, carefully wiped the spittle off Roger’s face, casually going on to wipe the grubby little paws as well.

‘Of course it’s a fish,’ he assured Roger. ‘You’re a clever lad. And a big help to your mummy, I’m sure. Here, I’ve brought you something for your tea.’ He groped in the pocket of his coat and pulled out a small pot of jam. Strawberry jam. Marjorie’s salivary glands contracted painfully. With the sugar rationing, she hadn’t tasted jam in . . .

‘He’s a great help,’ her mother put in stoutly, determined to keep the conversation on a proper plane despite her daughter’s peculiar behaviour. She avoided Marjorie’s eye. ‘A lovely boy. His name’s Roger.’

‘Yes, I know.’ He glanced at Marjorie, who’d made a brief movement. ‘Your husband told me. He was—’

‘Brave. You told me.’ Suddenly something snapped. It was her half-hooked garter, but the pop of it made her sit up straight, fists clenched in the thin fabric of her skirt. ‘Brave,’ she repeated. ‘They’re all brave, aren’t they? Every single one. Even you – or are you?’

She heard her mother’s gasp, but went on anyway, reckless.

‘You all have to be brave and noble and— and— perfect, don’t you? Because if you were weak, if there were any cracks, if anyone looked like being not quite the thing, you know – well, it might all fall apart, mightn’t it? So none of you will, will you? Or if somebody did, the rest of you would cover it up. You won’t ever not do something, no matter what it is, because you can’t not do it; all the other chaps would think the worse of you, wouldn’t they, and we can’t have that, oh, no, we can’t have that!’

Captain Randall was looking at her intently, his eyes dark with concern. Probably thought she was a nutter – probably she was, but what did it matter?

br />

‘Yes?’ She couldn’t help the leap of her heart, the clench of her stomach. She tried frantically to damp it down, deny it, the hope that had sprung up like a struck match. A mistake. There’d been a mistake. He hadn’t been killed, he’d been lost somehow, maybe captured, and now they’d found hi— then she saw the small box in the soldier’s hand and her legs gave way under her.

Her vision sparkled at the edges, and the stranger’s face swam above her, blurred with concern. She could hear, though – hear her mum rush through from the kitchen, slippers slapping in her haste, voice raised in agitation. Heard the man’s name, Captain Randall, Frank Randall. Hear Roger’s small husky voice warm in her ear, saying ‘Mummy? Mummy?’ in confusion.

Then she was on the swaybacked davenport, holding a cup of hot water that smelt of tea – they could only change the tea-leaves once a week, and this was Friday, she thought irrelevantly. He should have come on Sunday, her mum was saying, they could have given him a decent cuppa. But perhaps he didn’t work on Sundays?

Her mum had put Captain Randall in the best chair, near the electric fire, and had switched on two bars as a sign of hospitality. Her mother was chatting with the captain, holding Roger in her lap. Her son was more interested in the little box sitting on the tiny pie-crust table; he kept reaching for it, but his grandmother wouldn’t let him have it. Marjorie recognised the intent look on his face. He wouldn’t throw a fit – he hardly ever did – but he wouldn’t give up, either.

He didn’t look a lot like his father, save when he wanted something badly. She pulled herself up a bit, shaking her head to clear the dizziness, and Roger looked up at her, distracted by her movement. For an instant, she saw Jerry look out of his eyes, and the world swam afresh. She closed her own, though, and gulped her tea, scalding as it was.

Mum and Captain Randall had been talking politely, giving her time to recover herself. Did he have children of his own? Mum asked.

‘No,’ he said, with what might have been a wistful look at wee Roger. ‘Not yet. I haven’t seen my wife in two years.’

‘Better late than never,’ said a sharp voice, and she was surprised to discover that it was hers. She put down the cup, pulled up the loose stocking that had puddled round her ankle and fixed Captain Randall with a look. ‘What have you brought me?’ she said, trying for a tone of calm dignity. Didn’t work; she sounded brittle as broken glass, even to her own ears.

Captain Randall eyed her cautiously, but took up the little box and held it out to her.

‘It’s Lieutenant MacKenzie’s,’ he said. ‘An MID oakleaf cluster. Awarded posthumously for—’

With an effort, she pushed herself away, back into the cushions, shaking her head.

‘I don’t want it.’

‘Really, Marjorie!’ Her mother was shocked.

‘And I don’t like that word. Pos— posth— don’t say it.’

She couldn’t overcome the notion that Jerry was somehow inside the box – a notion that seemed dreadful at one moment, comforting the next. Captain Randall set it down, very slowly, as though it might blow up.

‘I won’t say it,’ he said gently. ‘May I say, though . . . I knew him. Your husband. Very briefly, but I did know him. I came myself, because I wanted to say to you how very brave he was.’

‘Brave.’ The word was like a pebble in her mouth. She wished she could spit it at him.

‘Of course he was,’ her mother said firmly. ‘Hear that, Roger? Your dad was a good man, and he was a brave one. You won’t forget that.’

Roger was paying no attention, struggling to get down. His gran set him reluctantly on the floor and he lurched over to Captain Randall, taking a firm grip on the captain’s fresh-creased trousers with both hands – hands greasy, she saw, with sardine oil and toast crumbs. The captain’s lips twitched, but he didn’t try to detach Roger, just patted his head.

‘Who’s a good boy, then?’ he asked.

‘Fith,’ Roger said firmly. ‘Fith!’

Marjorie felt an incongruous impulse to laugh at the captain’s puzzled expression, though it didn’t touch the stone in her heart.

‘It’s his new word,’ she said. ‘Fish. He can’t say “sardine”.’

‘Thar . . . DEEM!’ Roger said, glaring at her. ‘Fitttthhhhh!’

The captain laughed out loud, and pulling out a handkerchief, carefully wiped the spittle off Roger’s face, casually going on to wipe the grubby little paws as well.

‘Of course it’s a fish,’ he assured Roger. ‘You’re a clever lad. And a big help to your mummy, I’m sure. Here, I’ve brought you something for your tea.’ He groped in the pocket of his coat and pulled out a small pot of jam. Strawberry jam. Marjorie’s salivary glands contracted painfully. With the sugar rationing, she hadn’t tasted jam in . . .

‘He’s a great help,’ her mother put in stoutly, determined to keep the conversation on a proper plane despite her daughter’s peculiar behaviour. She avoided Marjorie’s eye. ‘A lovely boy. His name’s Roger.’

‘Yes, I know.’ He glanced at Marjorie, who’d made a brief movement. ‘Your husband told me. He was—’

‘Brave. You told me.’ Suddenly something snapped. It was her half-hooked garter, but the pop of it made her sit up straight, fists clenched in the thin fabric of her skirt. ‘Brave,’ she repeated. ‘They’re all brave, aren’t they? Every single one. Even you – or are you?’

She heard her mother’s gasp, but went on anyway, reckless.

‘You all have to be brave and noble and— and— perfect, don’t you? Because if you were weak, if there were any cracks, if anyone looked like being not quite the thing, you know – well, it might all fall apart, mightn’t it? So none of you will, will you? Or if somebody did, the rest of you would cover it up. You won’t ever not do something, no matter what it is, because you can’t not do it; all the other chaps would think the worse of you, wouldn’t they, and we can’t have that, oh, no, we can’t have that!’

Captain Randall was looking at her intently, his eyes dark with concern. Probably thought she was a nutter – probably she was, but what did it matter?

‘Marjie, Marjie, love,’ her mother was murmuring, horribly embarrassed. ‘You oughn’t to say such things to—’

‘You made him do it, didn’t you?’ She was on her feet now, looming over the captain, making him look up at her. ‘He told me. He told me about you. You came and asked him to do— whatever it was that got him killed. Oh, don’t trouble yourself, he didn’t tell me your bloody precious secrets – not him, he wouldn’t do that. He was a flier.’ She was panting with rage and had to stop to draw breath. Roger, she saw dimly, had shrunk into himself and was clinging to the captain’s leg; Randall put an arm about the boy automatically, as though to shelter him from his mother’s wrath. With an effort she made herself stop shouting, and to her horror, felt tears begin to course down her face.

‘And now you come and bring me— and bring me . . .’

‘Marjie.’ Her mother came up close beside her, her body warm and soft and comforting in her worn old pinny. She thrust a tea-towel into Marjorie’s hands, then moved between her daughter and the enemy, solid as a battleship.

‘It’s kind of you to’ve brought us this, captain,’ Marjorie heard her saying, and felt her move away, bending to pick up the little box. Marjorie sat down blindly, pressing the tea-towel to her face, hiding.

‘Here, Roger, look. See how it opens? See how pretty? It’s called— what did you say it was again, captain? Oh, oakleaf cluster. Yes, that’s right. Can you say “medal”, Roger? Meh-dul. This is your dad’s medal.’

Roger didn’t say anything. Probably scared stiff, poor little chap. She had to pull herself together. But she’d gone too far. She couldn’t stop.

‘He cried when he left me,’ she muttered the secret into the folds of the tea-towel. ‘He didn’t want to go.’ Her shoulders heaved with a convulsive, unexpected sob and she pressed the towel hard against her eyes, whispering to herself. ‘You said you’d come back, Jerry, you said you’d come back.’

She stayed hidden behind her flour-sacking fortress, while renewed offers of tea were made and, to her vague surprise, accepted. She’d thought Captain Randall would seize the chance of her retreat to make his own. But he stayed, chatting calmly with her mother, talking slowly to Roger while her mother fetched the tea, ignoring her embarrassing performance entirely, keeping up a quiet, companionable presence in the shabby room.

The rattle and bustle of the tea-tray’s arrival gave her the opportunity to drop her cloth façade, and she meekly accepted a slice of toast spread with a thin scrape of margarine and a delectable spoonful of the strawberry jam.

‘There, now,’ her mother said, looking on with approval. ‘You’ll not have eaten anything since breakfast, I daresay. Enough to give anyone the wambles.’

Marjorie shot her mother a look, but in fact it was true; she hadn’t had any luncheon because Maisie was off with ‘female trouble’ – a condition that afflicted her roughly every other week – and she’d had to mind the shop all day.

Conversation flowed comfortably around her, a soothing stream past an immoveable rock. Even Roger relaxed with the introduction of jam. He’d never tasted any before, and sniffed it curiously, took a cautious lick – and then took an enormous bite that left a red smear on his nose, his moss-green eyes round with wonder and delight. The little box, now open, sat on the pie-crust table, but no one spoke of it or looked in that direction.

After a decent interval, Captain Randall got up to go, giving Roger a shiny sixpence in parting. Feeling it the least she could do, Marjorie got up to see him out. Her stockings spiralled down her legs, and she kicked them off with contempt, walking bare-legged to the door. She heard her mother sigh behind her.

‘Thank you,’ she said, opening the door for him. ‘I . . . appreciate—’

To her surprise, he stopped her, putting a hand on her arm.

‘I’ve no particular right to say this to you – but I will,’ he said, low-voiced. ‘You’re right; they’re not all brave. Most of them – of us – we’re just . . . there, and we do our best. Most of the time,’ he added, and the corner of his mouth lifted slightly, though she couldn’t tell whether it was in humour or bitterness.

‘But your husband—’ He closed his eyes for a moment and said, ‘The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it. He did that, every day, for a long time.’

‘You sent him, though,’ she said, her voice as low as his. ‘You did.’

His smile was bleak.

‘I’ve done such things every day . . . for a long time.’

The door closed quietly behind him, and she stood there swaying, eyes closed, feeling the draught come under it, chilling her bare feet. It was well into the autumn now, and the dark was smudging the windows, though it was just past tea-time.

I’ve done what I do every day for a long time, too, she thought. But they don’t call it brave when you don’t have a choice.

Her mother was moving through the flat, muttering to herself as she closed the curtains. Or not so much to herself.

‘He liked her. Anyone could see that. So kind, coming himself to bring the medal and all. And how does she act? Like a cat that’s had its tail stepped on, all claws and caterwauling, that’s how. How does she ever expect a man to—’

‘I don’t want a man,’ Marjorie said loudly. Her mother turned round, squat, solid, implacable.

‘You need a man, Marjorie. And little Rog needs a father.’

‘He has a father,’ she said through her teeth. ‘Captain Randall has a wife. And I don’t need anyone.’

Anyone but Jerry.

Northumbria

He licked his lips at the smell. Hot pastry, steaming, juicy meat. There was a row of fat little pasties ranged along the sill, covered with a clean cloth in case of birds, but showing plump and rounded through it, the odd spot of gravy soaking through the napkin.

His mouth watered so fiercely that his salivary glands ached and he had to massage the underside of his jaw to ease the pain.

It was the first house he’d seen in two days. Once he’d got out of the ravine, he’d circled well away from the mile-castle and eventually struck a small cluster of cottages, where the people were no more understandable, but did give him some food. That had lasted him a little while; beyond that, he’d been surviving on what he could glean from hedges and the odd vegetable patch. He’d found another hamlet, but the folk there had driven him away.

Once he’d got enough of a grip of himself to think clearly, it became obvious that he needed to go back to the standing stones. Whatever had happened to him had happened there, and if he really was somewhere in the past – and hard as he’d tried to find some alternative explanation, none was forthcoming – then his only chance of getting back where he belonged seemed to lie there, too.

He’d come well away from the drover’s track, though, seeking food, and as the few people he met didn’t understand him any more than he understood them, he’d had some difficulty in finding his way back to the wall. He thought he was quite close, now, though – the ragged country was beginning to seem familiar, though perhaps that was only delusion.

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