Caroline's Storybook

Elizabeth On The Home Front

by Caroline Ashbee

Elizabeth was sitting in the lounge. The wireless was on, but she wasn't listen ing to it: it was just droning on in the background. Today was the longed for day, the day Robert was coming home. She had said goodbye to him in 1940 and hadn't seen him since. John was four and he had never seen his daddy; and today Robert was coming home. Her parents had suggested that they look after John while she went to Liverpool to meet the train, and she had already taken him to spend the afternoon at his grandparents' house. Up to then her father had been the man in John's life. It made Elizabeth smile to think of how he had mellowed from the stern Victorian father she and William had grown up with, to the genial old gentleman doting on his only grandson. Her mother had been the softening influence in their life when they were growing up, but now it was she who tried to preserve the austere values. 'Don't spoil the boy ...' but they spoiled him, lavishing affection on him all the more because of ... She deliberately stopped thinking about it. She had decided that if she left by twenty past two she would be in plenty of time to meet the train: there was the bus to Hamilton Square, the underground to Central Station, and the short walk up from Central Station to Lime Street Station where the London train arrived. The walk to the bus stop would take about ten minutes, 25 minutes on the bus, the train another 15, the walk: allow another 15 for the walk. She did the sum in her head again: 65 minutes. The train was due at 4.03, that meant she would have to leave at the latest by 2.58, but the buses left on the hour and every twenty minutes, so she would have to catch the 2.40; that meant she would have to leave at 2.30, and just as well to leave ten extra minutes in case of anything unexpected, because she didn't want to be late on this day of days, that made it 2.20. 'Have I left enough time for the walk?' always the same thought, fending it away, but however hard she tried not to think about it it was always there, the sick feeling, and today, Robert is coming home.

She is suddenly aware of the wireless. She hears the pips of the time-signal and:

'This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the one o' clock news and this is Alvar Liddell reading it . . ' One o'clock, three hours to go. Three hours of not thinking about it. Three hours ...

She is already dressed to go out, black two-piece costume, the jacket square-shouldered, with the box-pleated skirt, white Crêpe de Chine blouse, her best piece of jewellery, a cameo brooch, at her throat. Her best gloves, old, but carefully mended, and the hat she has chosen, the black felt with the wide brim and the veil, are lying on the table in the hall, ready to be put on when she goes out, with, beside them in a glass of water, the scarlet rosebud that her father had given her. As she was leaving he had gone into the garden and cut her a rose. In his hurry he had pricked his finger. He was sucking it when he returned. 'Wear it in your buttonhole when you go to meet him. You'll be all right. You'll look lovely.'

Though it was a balmy evening in July, the stars twinkling in the royal blue sky, and the moon three-quarters full, the weather was absolutely dreadful, worse even than dreadful: it was terrifying weather, because it was July 1941 at the height of the Great Blitz.

When the war had begun Elizabeth had persuaded Robert that she should do her bit on the home front and had trained to become a telephonist. She was on night duty, sitting at her position in the switchroom of Green Lane Telephone Exchange. It was hot in the switchroom; but the windows couldn't be opened because they were all blacked-out, so there was no ventilation. Though she was expecting it to start, had been waiting for it to start, she still jumped; they all jumped; she could feel the room jump when it started. It had happened before but there could be no habituation to this. The loudspeaker hanging from the middle of the ceiling crackled - the air in the switchroom was electrified - and the voice said:

'Purple Wrexham.'
'It's started.' Elizabeth thought. She carried on operating. The minutes passed.
'Red Wrexham.'

Elizabeth knew Wrexham, it was a small country town in Wales quite close to the little village where Uncle Maldwyn and Aunt Megan lived. They used to take her up to Wrexham on market days when she visited them in the school holidays. She used to love to see the old farmers coming to town with their wives in their pony traps - The farmers still wore gaiters then, and coloured handkerchiefs tied round their necks - and the drovers bringing stock to the markets, and the farmers' wives, some still wearing the long skirts and aprons, and the red capes on their shoulders, selling eggs and milk and cheese at the stalls. Every summer for about five years, five or was it six? she spent weeks of her holiday with Uncle Maldwyn and Aunty Megan. Now she realised that they had wanted children of their own, but somehow they had never had any, there had been something that had prevented them. Now she understood those quiet conversations among the women of the family that somehow always seemed to peter out when she went near. She remembered overhearing the phrase 'Poor Megan' and she was almost certain now that she had heard the word 'miscarriage', poor Megan; but she bore her disappoint ments bravely: there had been more than one, poor Megan; and she was glad to have her niece to visit.

Elizabeth hated the name 'Wrexham' now. The minutes passed. The bombers were over Wrexham. Lucky Wrexham: there were no shipyards at Wrexham; Wrexham was safe, frightened but safe: the bombers were coming for Cammell Laird's Shipyards in Birkenhead and the docks across the river, in Liverpool.

Thinking about the Summer holidays made her think about school, about the nuns. She remembered Sister Auburn, and Sister Stephanie especially. Somehow she was always getting into scrapes at school. Partly it was her father's fault. There was only one decent girls' school in the neigh bourhood, the convent school, and he wouldn't send her away to boarding school: 'Tuppence must stay at home.' he always said, he always called her Tuppence, it was a joke because the family name was Tanner, and when she was small she was too small to be a sixpence, so her father called her Tuppence. 'I'm not sending my Tuppence away.' and so she had to go to the convent. The problem was that her father was a protestant; but there was nowhere else to go. There was the question of prayers: her father had been angry about the stopping in the morning and in the afternoon for prayers, and had demanded that she be allowed to leave the classroom while the prayers were going on. Elizabeth had been frightened to take the letter to the Mother Superior that communicated her father's demands . To her surprise, no comment was made, but she was allowed to leave the classroom during the prayers. She would wander alone through the empty corridors of the school until the prayers were over, and then she would go back to resume her lessons. She was not the only protestant girl in the convent, but the others simply stayed and joined in, or sat quietly in their places. Only her father objected.

'Why can't I be like the others ?' she asked.

'Because you are a protestant.' It wasn't as if he was religious; but the church he didn't go to was the Church of England.

It was for a dare that she tried to find out what Sister Auburn wore under her habit. Before Sister Auburn came into the classroom to take her Latin lesson, Elizabeth hid under her desk. The others all knew about it, but Monica Gorman gave her away.

When Sister Auburn arrived she stood up,curtsied and said

'Please, Sister Auburn, Elizabeth Tanner is hiding under your desk.'

'Elizabeth, are you there?' Sister Auburn was far too fat and old to bend down and look for herself. Elizabeth stayed still. She didn't know what to do.

'Come out, Elizabeth.' and to Monica Gorman: 'This isn't some kind of a joke is it, Monica?'

'No, Sister Auburn.'

Elizabeth realized that there was no brazening it out. She crawled out from under the desk.

'Oh, Elizabeth, I'm shocked. What were you doing there?'

'I was ... looking for something.' she said at last, pleased with herself for not actually telling a lie. She had been looking for something after all, whatever it was that Sister Auburn wore under her habit.

'Oh, Elizabeth,' she said, sadly. 'Go and sit down. Come and see me at four o'clock and we'll have a little talk.'

At four o'clock Elizabeth went to Sister Auburn's study. She knew the routine, you had to be apologetic until Sister Auburn had finished her 'more in sorrow than in anger' homily, then at the first opportunity, you had to ask her about Ireland, and she would talk until the end of the hour. Elizabeth knew a lot about Ireland by then because she had had to stay behind before, and more than once, indeed more often than most of the others, so she knew about the heartless English still exporting food from Ireland in the famine of the '40's when the people were starving. She knew about the persecution of the patriots by the English, about the brutality of the Black and Tans. She felt sorry in an abstract kind of a way, and sympathetic in principle to the Irish rebellion. Once she had mentioned her feelings to her father:

'White niggers, that's what they are. Ravelled up in popery and superstition, the only ones worth a damn went to America, the rest of them ...'

'I don't agree with you.' she had said stamping her foot and walking away. 'I think England has treated Ireland shamefully.'

'Is this what they are teaching you at that damned convent?'

'No.' What Sister Auburn told her during detention wasn't teaching, it was whiling away the hour in the least unacceptable way.

'Purple Wrexham, purple Chester.' She was back in the switchroom.

The bombers were only about twenty miles away now. She didn't hate the Irish exactly, even now. She could understand that they had every reason to hate the English, but England was at war, not just for England, but for the civilized world, and Ireland was neutral. She could understand that Ireland did not want to get involved; but the bombers were coming. It was the foolishness of Irish neutrality that amazed her. Did they imagine that if Hitler won he was going to leave anywhere alone? England's peril is Ireland's opportunity. Neutrality meant that Dublin wasn't blacked out. Why should it be blacked out? Ireland wasn't at war. And the bombers flew from Germany, round the south-west coast of England, north over the Irish Sea until they saw the lights of Dublin, burning like a beacon, a lighted signpost to England, and then, located, the bombers took a bearing, turned east, and bombed the shipyards, and the docks of Liverpool. If only Dublin had been blacked it out it might not have been so bad ...

'Green Wrexham, red Chester, purple Liverpool.' and then 'Red Liverpool, repeat, red Liverpool.'

They were here. She could hear the wailing glissandi of the air-raid sirens and simultaneously there was a cacophony of anti-aircraft fire. There was something about the sound of the German bombers: the roar of their engines had a pulsating drone quite different from the bombers of the RAF. The bombs were falling, the regular thumping as each bomb of the stick hit the ground. The distant thunder, then thud, Thud, THUD, and the walls were shaking, distemper snowflaking from the ceiling, and all the time there were the booms of the anti-aircraft guns, and the rhythmical pounding of the pom-poms, and they sounded wonderful.

The supervisor evacuated the switchroom. Only the emergency military communications operators were left. She was one of them. She picked up her head-set and her tin hat and moved to the special military suite of switchboards and took up her position.

Robert was with the army somewhere in the south of England. She hoped he was safe. Her father was at the docks in Liverpool. Too old for active service, he was fire-watching, fire-fighting, first-aiding, in the thick of it. He was an old hand, had survived the Great War as a sergeant of infantry, and was reliving his youth with a verve which frightened her and her mother; but Robert, she didn't know where Robert was, just somewhere in the south of England. She thought of her mother sitting, alone, in the Anderson bomb- shelter in the garden of the house where she had grown up. A house four hundred yards away had been destroyed by a landmine two weeks previously. The blast had brought down the ceilings and cracked the wall of her parents' house. They blocked the gap by moving the wardrobe to hide the hole. 'Perhaps, that's close enough.' she thought, 'Perhaps that means lightning won't strike a second time ...'

'Robert ...'

She was very tired. There was a great weight crushing her left leg, and twisting her foot; but she was in bed and there couldn't be a weight. She was dreaming. She fell into a doze. At least the raid was over .

The pain in her leg hauled her out of her sleep. She tried to move it into a more comfortable position but somehow it was held down. Trying to move it made the pain much worse. She moaned. A nurse came. 'I'm in hospital.' she thought, incuriously. She wasn't surprised. They would be getting off whatever it was that was crushing her leg. The nurse gave her an injection and she slid off to sleep again.

Daytime again. She is awake. They have stopped giving her injections: now they just give her tablets. The nurse is washing her face.

'What's wrong with my leg?' The nurse won't tell her, but she goes to get a doctor who will. Gently he tells her what she already knew. The exchange had been hit and her leg crushed under falling masonry, had been amputated. She had guessed really, but it feels so real.

'... most people get it after an amputation: we call it a "phantom limb".'

'I can't believe it: it feels so ... real. Let me look.' The nurse looks at the doctor who nods. She turns back the bedclothes. Then with the doctor and nurse together supporting her shoulders, Elizabeth can look down the bed. She sees her right leg and just a flatness in the nightdress on the other side.

'Oh, I see.' she says.

'Your baby hasn't been harmed.'

'Oh, good ... I think I'd like to be left alone now.'

Afterwards she was amazed that she had been so detached.

'Of course,' said the nurse as she bandaged Elizabeth's stump, 'it won't be long before you'll be doing this for yourself. People often find it hard to come to terms with having a stump and don't want to touch it even. This can lead to problems, so we try to get you used to handling your stump as soon as possible after the operation.'

Elizabeth looked down at it below her nightdress: it looked like a rolled joint of beef in a bandage. The nurse went on quite matter-of-factly:

'It's very important that the stump is correctly bandaged especially in the early phase of healing, because if it's done right it makes the fitting of an artificial leg much easier. I've got a leaflet about it. I'll leave it for you to read when you feel like it.'

Later Elizabeth picked it up. She read the title: Bandaging the above-knee stump. 'Oh Christ,' she thought, looking at the diagrams of pretty feminine legs beside stumps bandaged with improbable precision and elegance, 'I wonder do they have a different edition for men?' She read the text. One of the paragraph headings was How to look after your stump. It was really funny, like the instruction booklet they give you when you get a new wireless set or gramophone: How to get the best from your new ... or How to use and maintain your new ... , and here she had a leaflet that might as well have been entitled: Welcome to your new stump: How to care for and get the most out of it. Her laughter soon turned to gasps and then to gusts of sobbing as she turned her face to the pillow.

Later in the afternoon. Her parents had come to visit her. They had been before and she had remembered seeing them but the drug had taken away the significance of the previous visits.

Her father was dressed for town in his dark blue serge suit, her mother, wearing a cotton skirt and jacket, with a narrow brimmed hat and her fox stole.

'Well, Tuppence.' he said, 'How are you today.'

She smiled at him. 'Such a brave smile' he thought, his eyes prickling.

'Very well, thank you, Daddy' she said, remembering the phrase from a game they used to play when she was a little girl. He couldn't stand it. He turned away, looked out of the window, the tears running down his cheeks.

'Oh, Lizzie,' said her mother, 'I don't think you knew we were here before.'

'I did ... in a way, but it's lovely to see you now.'

Her father turned back to her. He tried again.

'Well, Elizabeth, they tell me that they make very good artificial ...'

He couldn't go on. His shoulders shook. The tears gushed from his eyes. He turned away again and mopped his face with his handkerchief.

'Come here, Daddy,' she said, 'I'd like you to hold my hand.'

He sat down on the bent-steel-tubing chair beside the bed, and she held his hand.

'They've told me that I'll be able to manage. I'm sure I will be able to. I'll just need a bit of help at first. And remember, I'm alive. I'm one of the lucky ones.'

Six weeks later she was at home, alone. Robert was somewhere in North Africa. After leaving hospital she had stayed with her parents for three nights. Her father did not want her to leave. He wanted her to stay at home until Robert was back permanently to look after her.

'But, Daddy, I want to go home now. To our home. Robert's and my home.' He could tell by the set of her chin that she was not going to be deflected by any arguments of his. The next phase in the argument was the stamping of the foot ... Oh, no, never again, and the great pang of unhappiness once more. Where before she had got her way by defeating him, now he resigned.

'Oh, very well, Tuppence.' he said, and she recognizing the change, instead of flashing her eyes at him, the victress, said gently,

'I've got to try, Daddy. I don't want to become more of a cripple than I have to be.' But for all that going home had been difficult. They had walked together through the blackness. Elizabeth's arms and shoulders were getting stronger, and though it wasn't far to walk, and though, when they were halfway home, her father suggested that he would like a rest (!), she wouldn't give in; but when she arrived home she was exhausted. Her father made the fire in the sitting room. The house had a cold, lonely feel. She sat resting beside the fire while her father made her a cup of tea and filled a hot water bottle and put it into her bed.

'I'll stay until you've gone to bed.' he suggested hopefully.

'No, you will not. I'm a big girl now.' They said goodnight, and he let himself out. Elizabeth sat, looking into the fire. She was thinking about what she had resolutely refused to think about - as if you could refuse to think about something, but she had been trying hard not think about it all the same - how to break the news to Robert. The only thing to do would be to write to him straight away and tell him; but then she thought: 'It would be better to wait a while, until I'm back at work and coping, so I can reassure him that I'm managing on my own.' The decision having been made, she stood up and looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. Of course, it needed winding. As she stepped towards it her right crutch caught the edge of the hearth rug and she fell head first into the fire. The fireguard - One of the few things that her father and Robert agreed about was fireguards - saved her. Shaken, she pulled herself up, thinking 'I'll wind the damned clock all the same.' Glancing in the looking- glass over the mantelpiece she saw that in falling she had scratched her face: it was just a little scratch, only about an inch long, on her forehead. 'I'll have to be a bit more careful.' she thought.

Going upstairs was difficult. The method she had worked out was to leave one crutch behind and use the other and the banister. When she was in bed at last she couldn't get to sleep thinking about her fall. 'This is what it is going to like for the rest of my life.' she thought. She had not realized how much she had come to depend on the help her parents had given her, and alone, in her house, her home, she felt isolated and anxious. Living in the house had become a nightmare, a claustrophobic dream, where everything is familiar, and yet everything is menacing. She fell into a restless sleep and in the morning, waking up, she forgot, for a moment, her amputated state, until she tried to sit up in bed. Dressing and washing presented no difficulties, but then she had to go downstairs. She stood at the top of the stairs looking down. She had gone downstairs often before, but that had been at her parents' house, and it had been before the fall.

She was on holiday again in Switzerland before the war: When she was fifteen she had gone to stay with Katherina Keller, her penfriend, the daughter of a teacher of English in Bern. Katherina wrote to Elizabeth in English and Elizabeth replied in German. One bright summer morning they had gone for a walk on the Niederhorn and had strayed quite deliberately from the path, and after a scramble up a grassy slope, to her surprise, because she was never one of the fainting kind, Elizabeth began to feel faint, and wanted to go back. They turned and looked down over a seemingly vertical slope. It had been a shock ing moment for both of them: hard enough scrambling up, it looked impossible to go down, but inching their way, they slowly regained the gentler slope and then the path. They sat down there and ate their picnic lunch in the midday sunshine.

'It was wonderful up there.' said Katherina.

'No, it is wonderful to have been up there.'

'Never, again.' she thought standing at the top of the stairs looking down, but she dared not go down with her crutch. She didn't know what to do. She couldn't stay upstairs all day. Then the problem solved itself. She sat on the top stair and lowered herself to the next taking her weight on her arms, and in this way began to go downstairs. She had gone down only a few steps before she thought 'This is so silly. You've got to be brave, Elizabeth. This really won't do.' When she got to the bottom of the stairs she picked up her other crutch and went straight up, and then, heart hammering, but fully in control, fearful of falling but looking fear in the eye and staring him down, she went carefully downstairs. After that, feeling proud of herself, she went into the sitting room and sat down. In a moment she felt annoyed with herself again: 'Proud of going downstairs, a great achievement.'

One day, out shopping - she had discovered how to hang her shopping bag over the crosspiece of a crutch, so shopping was not so difficult after all, tiring, but not difficult - turning a corner, she saw a young man with one leg, walking jauntily towards her using a single crutch. She was impressed by neatness of his gait. When he came up to her he said:

'Snap.' and laughed. Elizabeth did not know what to do. Everybody had been so solemn about it that it was refreshing to make a joke about it.

'Snap, yourself.' she said laughing.

'Got to laugh about it, haven't you?'

'I haven't actually done an awful lot of laughing.' said Elizabeth.

'Well, I suppose you've thought about all the advantages: half the number of toe-nails to cut.'

'Not really.'

'Well, you know what they say "When two English people meet for the first time, they talk about the weather." It's awful isn't it? The weather I mean And when two amputees meet for the first time they talk about ...' - he paused only for a second, even he had to work hard to make a joke about it - '... their legs: "Gone but not forgotten". So how did it happen? I think it helps to talk about it, don't you?'

'I've never talked about it before ... the blitz, you know the story, the war. I suppose it's the same for you?'

'God, no. I've always been like this, well almost always: trod on a piece of broken glass on the beach at Wallasey when I was four, blood-poisoning, and off it had to come. Lucky really, safe at home. It would have been nice to be able to do my bit, I suppose, but I'm used to being a cripple. Of course, now I tell everybody else that it's the war. Makes all the difference: the girls wouldn't look at me before, but now I'm a hero.'

'I hope you don't mind my mentioning it, but you walk beautifully.'

'I should hope I do, a lifetime's practice: I've tried them all, crutches, peg-leg, the easiest way is with one crutch so long as you don't hop. Watch, carefully.' He demonstrated. 'The slower the better until you get the hang of it. Try it at home, see how you get on.'

When she got home she learned to mimic what she had seen.

It was while she was shopping in Bold Street that she glimpsed her reflection in an unexpected mirror. The reflection was of her right side and she noticed the woman, heavily pregnant walking obliquely towards her. It was a second or two before she realized it was her own reflection. The woman was walking so normally, and the crutch was on the side further from the mirror. It looked so normal because she hadn't noticed the crutch. It was then that she thought of the idea of having the crutch inside her coat. Obviously it would mean that she would have to alter her coat a bit, change the pocket, open it through to the inside so she could hold the crutch, and modify the sleeve, but if she could fool herself, perhaps other people would not notice, or not notice so much.

After John Robert, named after his grandfather and his father, was born, Elizabeth went to stay with her parents again, for some weeks. She filled her letters to Robert with news about their new son. There was still the need for telephonists so Elizabeth decided to go back to work part-time at first, so she could spend as much time as she could with John. She had not been back to work since the bombing. John had been born in December and it was already late Spring, so much time had passed. She had received a letter from Robert in January but had heard nothing from him since. He was still in North Africa.

Going back to work was frightening. She knew that there was no reason to feel embarrassed about going back with one leg, but she felt embarrassed. As the time approached she became more and more apprehensive. At last the day arrived. Her duty began at 6 o'clock in the evening. Because she was going to work when most people were going home the bus was quite empty - that didn't matter now: now she always got a seat on the bus - but she still preferred not to be in crowds of strangers. She went into the exchange and saw Henry, the attendant, sitting in his lodge. He stood up when he saw her.

'Hello, Elizabeth. It's good to see you back.' She smiled, thanked him for his welcome, and went to the cloakroom where the other girls were getting ready to go on shift. Angela Cotton saw her first.

'Elizabeth's back.' Elizabeth noticed that the scar on Angela's forehead was still pink but fading. The others came to welcome her, some boisterously:

'Things have been very dull without you ...', some shyly:

'We missed you...' but they all came and said something. Nobody said anything about it. The switchroom had been repaired and new steel beams spanned the ceiling. Elizabeth walked to her position, put on her head-set and began her shift. It had been hard, but it had been worth it. She was back. She thought of John with her mother, and she thought about Robert in North Africa. 'Business as usual.' she thought.

As the months passed this could almost have been as it had always been. The continuing round of telephone duties, looking after John, worrying about Robert. Occasionally little things stood out. One day, when she was leaving the exchange a brassy little girl, Maggie, with peroxide-blonde hair and rather fast - She had an American boyfriend, 'Over paid, over-sexed, and over here' - was waiting for her. Maggie was obviously waiting to speak to her and was obviously not feeling very sure of herself.

'You know Johnny can get nylons?' she said.

With rationing and the shortages everybody was always short of stockings, and nylons were like cloth of gold.

'I suppose he can. I've never really thought about it.'

'Well, you know, even if you can get them, you never get two pairs the same, do you?'

'I suppose you don't.'

'Well I ruined a pair last night.' a wicked smile, and a sparkle in her eyes. 'Laddered one beyond repair, if you know what I mean. And I was throwing them out and I thought one of these is OK, and I thought of you, you know ... So I washed it out. Would you like it?' Seeing Elizabeth's expression change she said quickly 'Oh, I'm sorry I asked, I shouldn't have. I'm sorry. I just thought ...'

Elizabeth was surprised, shocked, touched, saddened.

'Thank you, Maggie. That was very kind of you, and of course I'm grateful ... ' Then seeing the crestfallen face she said. 'Thank you. It was kind of you to think of me. I would like it.' Maggie handed her the stocking, and hurried away. When she got home Elizabeth put it away in her underwear drawer.

Elizabeth's life settled into the routine that wound itself round the two centres of John and the work. The months passed into years, and John grew up into a sturdy toddler, and into a little boy. The war began gradually to go well. Elizabeth had never believed that the Axis would win, even in 1940 and '41, but now people were talking confidently of victory. Robert had played his part in the battles in North Africa and unscathed, was coming home on leave at last; and everything should have been, not perfect, but as good as it could be under the circumstances.

The time was passing so slowly. On the wireless there was a programme of light music on gramophone records: Vera Lynn was singing 'There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover ...' and Elizabeth sat and wept; but there were only so many tears she could weep, and then, desiccated in the spirit, worn out by mourning and helpless regret, she stood up, went upstairs without thinking a moment about it, washed her face, went into the bedroom and sat down at her dressing table. She should have insisted that they gave her a proper artificial leg. They had other priorities, she knew that, but she should have insisted. She smoothed the cream on her face. Then carefully she put on her lipstick. You couldn't get rouge so she smeared a little lipstick on her fingers and smoothed it on to her cheeks. Finally, a dusting of powder with the Wow-wow. John had been fascinated by one of her old powder-puffs and she had given it to him to play with, and one night he took it to bed with him. Afterwards, every night, he took it out from under his pillow, laid it on top, and slept with it under his cheek. Before she went to bed, she would look in on him, and he would still have it under his cheek, and if he was asleep when she went to dress him in the morning - not a frequent occurrence: usually he woke her up with a sloppy kiss - the Wow-wow would still be there, tucked in place. She was smiling unaware as she thought about it. Then she stood up. She went to the wardrobe and bent down to take out the black court shoe. She hadn't any stockings of course, so she went to the dressing table to get the 'liquid stocking' make-up, and then she remembered the nylon stocking she had put away in her underwear drawer months ago and had forgotten about. She found it, sheer, 15 denier, a small luxury in wartime. She sat on the bed, and put it on very carefully, fearful of snagging and laddering it; but it didn't really help. She put on her shoe and was ready to go. She looked at her watch: it said twenty to two. She picked up her crutch and went downstairs.

The train had been delayed several times. Robert was passing the time by playing solo whist with three of his comrades. After four years in the army he was fitter than he had ever been. His shoulders were broader, he had a healthy sun-burn and he had grown a moustache. It was true that his hairline had receded a long way, but he still had quite a lot of hair on the top and back. He hoped that Elizabeth wouldn't mind too much. The other thing that had changed was that he had gone into the army as a rather diffident civil servant and he had been turned into a soldier. He knew that he would have to adapt to civilian life. He had thought a lot about John as well as about Elizabeth and was looking forward to seeing the boy. On the luggage rack beside his kit bag was a large furry toy dog he had bought in Port Said on the way home. He wasn't concentrating on the cards. None of them was: they were all going home. The others were not being met at the station, one had to go on to Manchester, another to Lancaster and one to Glasgow. Only Robert was being met at the station.

'I don't think we should intrude when we get to Liverpool. Let's say goodbye to Bob on the platform and leave him to his reunion with Elizabeth.' The others agreed and Robert, who had been wondering how to detach himself from them made a token protest and gratefully accepted the suggestion. The train entered the cutting leading into the station. Maddeningly, it stopped in the cutting. Robert looked out at the dripping brick and a tattered fern, growing in a crevice, hanging on to life in the sooty gloom. The train started, and jerked to a halt again. 'Just relax.' he thought, 'We'll be home any minute now.' The conversation had stopped, and they had lost interest in the game in the middle of a hand. The train crawled into the station and chuffed slowly to a stop.

Robert was taking down his kit bag when he saw a woman struggling with an enormous suitcase. He helped her down with it and went back to collect his kit bag and the toy dog. By this time most of the passengers were in front of him. He said goodbye to his friends and then he slung the kit bag over his shoulder, and holding the dog in his left hand he walked up the platform seeing Elizabeth in his mind's eye. He knew where she would be standing, where they always met when they met at the station, under the clock. The concourse was crowded and it took him a moment to make her out in the crowd, but she was tall, and he saw her face with its wounded expression - Of course, she had been disappointed because the train was so late. She was standing obliquely, looking out for him over her right shoulder. She waved to him without turning and smiled wanly. He knew then that there was something wrong. Not another man? - it had happened to one of his friends; but not Elizabeth, not Elizabeth! He ran towards her, the crowd parted, and he saw. Why hadn't she told ... ? But he knew why. This was worse in a way than another man. Another man might have made her happy, and any kind of happiness was better than ... Poor Elizabeth. He smiled hard. He knew what he must do. Beneath the clock, tears running down their faces, they held each other,

'Oh, my darling,' he said, 'You look wonderful.'


Friday 23rd June 1995
© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995