The Phantom of Sandwood Bay

2 Dec

‘Hamish’

The voice came again.

‘Hamish’

He heard the voice often when he was little. It could have been the wind whispering through the scrub and the long grass but he knew it wasn’t. He gave the voice a name. It was The Other Hamish. The Other Hamish went away years ago. Now back, calling, beckoning.

‘Hamish, Hamish’

Hamish was a strapping young man A crofter, out in all weathers, digging and stacking peat, growing, harvesting, feeding. Feeding, him and his mother. Hardened to the harsh climate he rarely wore more than two layers. His jeans were held up by a piece of rope tied around his waist, one end hanging down, like a clamped umbilical waiting to drop off. He refused to wear a belt, maintaining that the rope may come in useful.

Hamish was brought up by his mother. His father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. His body, washed up at Sandwood Bay, was an hour’s walk from the cottage he shared with his wife, Morag, and their and young son. Morag, remote in her manner, always told him he was his father’s boy, loved by him beyond reason. She did her duty and the best she could.

‘He’d have been proud of you.’ she’d say.

Hamish took that as a sign of affection.

Hamish worked hard day after day. Digging, stacking, growing and harvesting, the piece of rope still holding his jeans up. Although he hardly remembered his father, he missed him. Hamish felt warm, when he thought of him. Warmth dredged up from the past? Hamish didn’t know, just knew he did.

One day, sitting on an upturned oil drum, eating his sandwiches, he was approached by a walker, looking for peace.

‘Plenty of peace here’ Hamish remarked, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.

‘Yeah, nothing here but ghosts.’ the man said, ‘Just gliding and floating silently here and there.’

Hamish smiled.

The walker asked if there was somewhere he could stay for a while. Hamish directed him to the local guest house.

‘Mrs McFarlane will look after you.’

The walker, who introduced himself as Robbie Logan, was researching ghost stories for a book he was compiling. Each day he sought out Hamish and they shared the oil drum. Hamish would labour his way through his doorsteps; Robbie ate the lunch more delicately prepared by Mrs McFarlane. They got on.

Hamish didn’t know much about ghosts. His mother was down to earth and didn’t believe such rubbish; she passed her cynicism onto her son. But Hamish enjoyed Robbie’s stories, vaguely wondered where he got his information from and decided it was probably from the local bar. Robbie spent his evenings there, by the fire, recovering from one of Mrs McFarlane’s famous suppers.

Hamish laughed at the thought of the regulars winding Robbie up.

‘Won’t matter whether or no.’ Morag snarled, ‘It’s all nonsense. Don’t you be taking any notice.’

Hamish thought he sensed unease in her voice. But he continued to tell Morag Robbie’s stories and snippets and although it seemed she wasn’t listening, he knew she was.

Hamish looked forward to his lunches with Robbie, disappointed when the weather was poor and he didn’t turn up. Still, after a few of those days, Robbie had a bunch of stories to tell and their break would extend into the middle of the afternoon.

This particular day, Robbie was excited.

‘Have I got a yarn for you, Hamish. The phantom fisherman of Sandwood Bay.

Hamish listened, he hadn’t heard this one before.

‘The phantom fisherman of Sandwood, who drowned off the Cape and trawls the coast to the bay searching and crying out for his little boy. They say he had tied his son to him with a piece of rope.’

Morag refused to listen when Hamish began to relate the tale.

‘Told you before, it’s all nonsense.’

Hamish persisted. As the tale unfolded, realisation overcame him. He felt light headed and ran the track though the sandhills to the beach. There he saw his father walking out of the waves towards him, arms outstretched, an umbilical made of rope dangling from his waist.

‘Hamish’ he called and then again, louder this time, ‘Hamish.’

Ruby’s Day Out

15 Nov

RUBY’S day began as usual, lifted out of bed, washed, dressed and lowered into a chair where she sat all day until she was undressed, washed and lifted back. This was the routine since she suffered a stroke five years ago. A nice man fetches her The Daily Mirror and her television is switched on.

The nursing home, a long low bungalow, is set back from the main road. Ruby liked it well enough, just. Never a good mixer, she is happy to sit in her room and watch telly. Ruby loves the dancing on Saturday night with Bruce Forsyth. She has invited him for Christmas, she expects he’ll come.

This day was a bit different. Ruby received an invite to a wedding. She was delighted. A trip, up west. Will need something new to wear. Up west? up west? She must have been watching Eastenders.

She decided against inviting her daughter, Constance, along. She would be too busy anyway. Constance was always busy. Busy, busy, busy and full of it. Far too important to take a day off work. No, she invited Hyacinth. Hyacinth, Ruby’s friend from India, kind, caring, lovely and beautiful.

Hyacinth agreed to the trip and together they started to make plans. They would take the bus from Liverpool Street, get off at Tottenham Court Road and walk all the way down Oxford Street. They would stop on the way, several times, for coffee and by the time they reached Lyons Corner House she would have a new costume, shoes, handbag and gloves.

Constance came to see Ruby that evening, after work. She was very busy. Busy, busy, busy and couldn’t stop long. However, she was stopped in her tracks when Ruby told her of her plans.

‘What?’

She went in search of Hyacinth. Lovely, beautiful Hyacinth who was preparing Ruby’s medication.

‘What’s going on?

‘Ruby and I are off to London tomorrow.’ Hyacinth said.

‘But.’

Constance was speechless. It wasn’t like her, she was usually very vocal and unrestrained.

Seeing the look of Constance’s face, ‘I know, I know.’ said Hyacinth, ‘Don’t worry she will have forgotten by the morning.’

By now Constance had recovered herself. She wasn’t happy that Ruby had been sent the invitation in the first place. It was obvious she would not be able to go. Furthermore, Hyacinth should not have played along with her plans. Constance, busy, busy Constance, told her so in no uncertain manner.

Duly chastised, a crestfallen Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, went about her business of sorting out Ruby’s medicine.

When Hyacinth arrived to undress, wash and lift her into bed Ruby was still talking about their day out. The wedding forgotten, the trip up west, not.

Next day Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, came to wash and dress Ruby, lower her into her chair, and turn the telly on. And the nice man brought her Daily Mirror. She ate her toast, watched the news for a while and read her paper. The TV was still blinking away in the corner. Eventually, someone wheeled Ruby into the dining room for lunch. She hated this part of the day, sitting at the table with the silly old sods who dribbled, lurched and sometimes went to sleep before getting to the pudding. She couldn’t hold a conversation with any of them, didn’t try.

Dear God, get me back to the telly there maybe some sport on.

Constance was busy, busy, busy that evening and did not call in. No matter, Ruby had a go at the crossword and at seven o’clock in came Hyacinth, lovely and beautiful, and undressed, washed and lifted Ruby back to bed.

The next morning, following the washing and dressing performance Ruby went over the previous day’s events in her mind. The train was packed. She must remember that for the future and travel earlier. She was pleased with her new outfit.

That evening, Constance found a slot in her busy, busy, busy schedule, and came to visit. Ruby told her all about her day out. Constance played along this time. She was too tired to take up the cudgels. She looked in her mum’s wardrobe, admired an imaginary costume, commented on how the shoes and bag were a perfect match and asked,

‘Are you going to wear a hat?’

‘It’s in that box on top of the wardrobe.’

Constance didn’t even look up.

As weary as she was, she collected up Ruby’s washing. Constance couldn’t trust the home’s laundry. Constance couldn’t trust anyone. She wore herself out not trusting anyone.

Emptying the pockets in her mother’s favourite cardigan, Constance found half a packet of Spangles, a day return, from Norwich to Liverpool Street, and a receipt, for a hat from Selfridges, dated the previous day.

Teapots and Riffraff

10 Nov

BETTY tipped the contents of the teapot over his head before throwing it at the wall. For a split second neither of them moved. It was as if the film had ceased to roll, then, when the projector sprung back into action, so did Betty.

She ran up the stairs to the bedroom, grabbed her jacket and headed down to the front door hoping to make her escape before the credits went up and he realised it was all over.

Betty made it into the street, heart thumping, awaiting a hurl of abuse. Mercifully, nothing. She picked up some speed and the house disappeared as she rounded the corner. Then, another stroke of luck, a 73, which would drop her at her dad’s, was waiting at the bus stop.

She hopped on and threw herself into the seat behind the driver crouching against the window. She felt hidden and safe, at least for the next half hour. The conductor didn’t come for a ticket. Maybe he sensed her distress.

Betty thought about how things had been when she first met Ralph. He was tall, good looking and a sergeant in the Army. He had a presence, a confidence that made her feel secure. He was never stimulating company, talked about himself and his achievements a lot, and was not very exciting in bed. But nonetheless, he was dependable and protective without being obsessive.

Betty had been a great responsibility for Violet, her mother. Betty, a teenager out of control, uncontrollable. Violet was sure she would become pregnant to one of that rough lot who had moved out of the East End into those new houses over the bridge.

As soon as Violet could surrender Betty to another, she did. To Ralph, the son of one of her friends at the Women’s Institute. Ralph was reliable and not just after one thing, not like that lot over there. She would nod in the direction of the bridge. Betty smiled at the memory. If only her mother knew. However, her mother believed, marrying Ralph would save her daughter from becoming pregnant to one of that riffraff .

Ralph became a prisoner of the Japanese in 1943, leaving Betty alone in her own house with no chaperone, no curfew and no limits. It was as if someone had opened her cage door and gone away. She went wild. Sometimes with riffraff and sometimes not but always with people her mother desperately disapproved of. Betty’s reputation spread.

Violet was struggling to hold her head up in public and was starting to miss meetings at the WI. She prayed for Ralph a safe return, a rapid safe return. At this rate she was going to lose her flower arranging skills. Her husband didn’t seem to mind what people thought. Betty was just like him and Violet told him so.

Betty reached her dad’s just as he was showing Florence, his new lady friend, Violet died and left him in peace in 1953, how to change the oil in a car. This involved him lying on his back, under the kitchen table with screwdriver and bucket. Florence appeared interested and only slightly amused. She had grown used to Ernie and his strange little ways. Loved him for them.

Betty stood by the table, Ernie addressed her feet and legs, ‘You left him then? This time for good? I’ll just finish this and you can tell me all about it.’

Florence saw this as an opportunity to leave. It was never her intention to change the oil in a car.

‘I threw the teapot at him, dad.’

‘Well done, did it make contact?’

‘It did, with the wall.’

‘Never mind, a lick of paint will sort it. Want a cuppa now?’

They sat for a while, Betty and her dearest dad. They drank tea and chatted about nothing in particular. She chuckled when he told her he had taken Florence for a posh meal and asked for Chicken Frickarse for two.

‘What did Florence say?’

‘Nothing, she laughed along with the waiter.’

She envied his relationship with Florence.

It had never been like that with her and Ralph. Never had time to be like that.

She remembered going to the station to meet him when he was released in 1945. Encouraged by Violet, she put on her best dress and coat, made up her face and sprayed on the last of her Evening in Paris. Violet didn’t know she had got it from an American airman, along with the nylons. She was early and apprehensive. Betty knew this was the end of the life she had enjoyed. She tried to feel guilty but couldn’t. She stood looking at her feet which would not stay still. They wanted to run.

The train chugged in. Betty painted on a smile and looked for Ralph. She wondered how she would greet him. How should she greet him? After all he was her husband. Was she expected to run into his arms squealing how she had missed him? Could she play that game? So many questions; answered when she saw him. He was in the first carriage behind the engine and emerged through the smoke. It was only when he said her name she realised it was him.

‘Hello Betty, how are you?’

She just stared at him her scarlet smile turning into a gaping red hole. She tried to speak but couldn’t. If she hugged him he might break; she had no desire to kiss him.

‘What happened?’ And trying to catch her breath, quickly, ‘I am so sorry.’

They went home and tried to settle into something resembling a normal life. Betty played the caring wife while Ralph struggled to get better. In time his outward appearance restored, he reverted to something like his former self, talking about himself a lot but leaving a big gap where 1943-1945 should be. But now there was an edge to his behaviour, hostility in his conversation. Betty felt she was living on the rim of a volcano which was about to erupt. Eventually it did, several times, smouldering in between.

Ralph’s language was spiteful and cruel. His face transformed into a mask of hatred. He lashed out at her several times. She tried to understand, all the time knowing it couldn’t go on for ever but not knowing how it would end.

And now here she was, sitting in her dad’s kitchen drinking cups of tea.

‘What’ll I do dad?’

‘Go back, get your stuff and come home.’

Home had never been with Ralph. Betty and Ralph only ever had a house and now she was out of there and coming home. Home to someone who cherished her. Spoke to her with affection. No malice, no spite, just humour and love. Home to dad.

She finished her tea.

‘I won’t be long.’

‘I will be here.’

Betty caught the same bus back to the house she had shared with Ralph. No ticket. She jumped off just before the corner. As she turned into the street she saw an ambulance outside her house. She walked cautiously towards it. Surely Ralph hadn’t killed himself; Seppuku. He was always threatening to do so, telling her how brave the Japanese were in the face of defeat. Did he believe he was defeated? Did he feel dishonoured and beaten by a woman?

There was crowd at the gate. The police were leading Ralph away. She stood back, not wanting to be seen. And then she saw. A body lying on the path being covered with a sheet. Betty gasped as she recognised herself.

The Secret

29 Sep

HER tears made the ink run as they dropped on to the letter she was reading.

‘No.’

Lizzie whispered the word although there was no one else in the room.

‘No.’

There was no one else in the house. The house where the sisters had lived all their lives; the house they were all born in; the house with the outside lavatory and no bathroom; the little house where they had been so happy as children; the little house, in the little town by the sea.

Lizzie and Edith were twins. Twins, but not identical. In fact, they were so different in appearance that they could have had different fathers. Lizzie, as fair and blond as Edith was olive skinned and dark. But they had a strong connection, loving, trusting and intense. Despite their looks they were so rarely apart that people did not know which was which.

In 1919, the boys who had survived the Great War, returned home. And in August 1920 a ball was to be held in the Victory Hall. Musicians from neighbouring brass bands regrouped and formed a dance band. They were due to strike up at eight. Refreshments would be served in the Supper Room at ten thirty and ideally every lady should be escorted. Waiting to be invited to supper was both exciting and agonising.

Archie asked Lizzie up for the first dance and the next and the next. They shimmied and swirled, sashayed and strutted around the floor. He invited her to supper. She was in heaven. During supper they chatted and laughed and fell in love.

The following weeks flew by, summer faded into autumn and autumn soon became winter. The slump was as biting as the north wind. Archie left the shores of this country fit for heroes, on a boat from Liverpool. It was January 21st 1921; the date was etched into her brain. He headed for the New World promising to send for her. As a token of his love he gave Lizzie a brooch, a delicate stripe of gold with an opal tear drop. A tear drop to copy the ones Lizzie would cry for the rest of her life.

The weeks turned into months and the months into years. Lizzie thought her heart would break, thought she would die. Edith was her consolation. They took long, silent walks, hand in hand along the shore. She felt the warmth of Edith’s caring and the comfort of knowing that nothing would ever break their bond.

One glorious summer’s day Edwin Thompson and his cousin Toby invited the sisters to join them for a game of tennis. Lizzie was reluctant but Edith persuaded her and they met on the courts behind the Victory Hall. Lizzie remembered the night she met Archie there; she felt a strong sense of betrayal. Hadn’t she promised to wait for him?

Lizzie teamed with Edwin and played mixed doubles. They all arranged to meet for another game at the weekend. Lizzie expected to partner Toby this time but he got together with Edith. Afterwards, they went for tea. Edith and Toby went to the counter, leaving Lizzie and Edwin alone.

‘They seem to be getting along.’ Edwin said.

‘Mmm, yes.’ murmured Lizzie, conspiratorially.

Lizzie felt slightly, ever so slightly, envious. Wasn’t that like her and Archie in the beginning? Her envy turned to concern. Was Toby going to go away and forget Edith like Archie had forgotten her? In that moment, she began to feel resentment. Resentment towards Edith for being so happy; resentment towards Toby for his potential treachery and resentment towards Archie for his disloyalty and disregard.

Edith and Toby came back with the teas. Lizzie turned to Edwin, suddenly.

‘Do you take sugar?’

Edwin appeared bemused by her sudden attention. Until then she had appeared aloof.

‘Yes please, just one.’

From that moment Lizzie and Edwin became close. He was charming and courteous. They spent the rest of the summer playing tennis and having picnics. She accompanied him to the theatre and they sang together in the church choir. Edith and Toby sometimes joined them but Edwin preferred it when they were on their own.

Edwin was the local pharmacist and a member of the local Masonic Lodge and considered himself to have some standing in the community. Edith was thrilled when he asked her to be his partner at Ladies Night. He insisted on paying for her gown and they went together to choose it. He had wonderful taste and although she fancied the blue silk he thought the lavender suited her better and he was right. She looked beautiful. He brought her a collage of violets to wear on her shoulder. That evening he asked her to marry him.

The next day Lizzie told Edith.

‘How lovely, you said yes?’

‘I said he will have to speak to father.’

Father said, ‘Yes’ and so therefore, did Lizzie.

The wedding was as grand affair as their little town had seen. Lizzie hardly recognised any of the guests. Edwin assured her that they were the best people and due to his status in local society he was obliged to invite them.

Their honeymoon was brief and awful. She hated the intimacy. Edwin sensed her reticence and his attitude towards her quickly changed. Wasn’t she his wife, the woman who promised before God, to obey him?

Edwin bought a house in a nice area of the town. They had a son, Stanley. Stanley died of consumption when he was three. Lizzie thought she would never recover from the heartbreak nor the desolation she felt at losing the two men who had touched her life so briefly and whom she had loved so much. Edwin put Stanley’s death down to frailty, inherited from Lizzie’s family. She fell into despair, despair that stayed with her, despair she could not shake off. He constantly reminded her that she had married well and for that she should be grateful.

Edith’s liaison with Toby spluttered before finally fizzling out. He married someone else very soon and Edith remained in the little house. Lizzie and Edith saw each other as often as Edwin considered appropriate. Edith seemed not to notice the depth of Lizzie’s wretchedness. She was happy that Lizzie had forgotten Archie and settled for Edwin who would not take her dearest sister away. Edwin was Lizzie’s solace for a love lost. Edith was happy for her sister.

On September 17th 1947 Edwin died suddenly and on his own. Lizzie had been to choir practice and returned home to find him on the floor in the parlour. She felt nothing, only sorrow that he was lonely at the end; sympathy she would have felt for anyone. She had to step over him to reach the telephone.

After the funeral she settled down in Edwin’s house. She made some changes and her mood lifted. She was free to cry for Stanley and to think of Archie and wonder. She and Edith became closer, the bond ever tighter. No one to follow them, no one to mourn, they were content.

They reminisced, laughed and cried together, chatted about Edwin and his smug ways and speculated about Toby. Edith had had several liaisons during her life but they never amounted to anything. If anyone was crass enough to mention she had been left on the shelf she would retort, ‘Yes, but taken down and dusted off now and again!’ And then they would giggle like adolescents. Edith was happy just to be with Lizzie. They never talked of Archie.

Weeks before their ninetieth birthday, Edith became ill and the end came quickly. Lizzie didn’t leave her bedside and when the time came, Edith grabbed Lizzie’s wrist, her bony fingers gripping so tightly that her knuckles gleamed white. Her last words, before she went to the light, were, ‘Lizzie, I’m sorry.’

The day came when the little house went under the hammer and Lizzie had to clear it. She had decided to only take a few personal things, things that reminded her of those happy times when she and Edith were children and then she would lock the door, turn and walk away without a looking back.

She found the letter hidden in the lining of the lid of Edith’s jewellery box. It fell out when she was poking about amongst the rings and brooches.

The envelope was addressed to Miss Elizabeth Mackereth and it was postmarked from the USA in June 1921. It had turned brown over the years and Lizzie was afraid it would tear when she opened it. Folded inside were some American dollars and a note which read,

‘My Dearest Sweetheart,

May the fair winds of change carry you to me soon.

Yours forever

Archie’

A Book of Feathers

19 Sep

She opened her handbag, it was full of feathers. Little white fluffy things like you find around the base of a dovecote. Diana knew this because they had a dovecote when they were kids. The residents squabbled and cooed and fussed and fluttered and their feathers drifted to the ground like snowflakes.

That was years ago, she’s now thirty seven with one broken marriage and a broken relationship behind her. The children, three to one man and one to the another are not behind her, they are here, right in front of her, causing mayhem. Diana couldn’t manage on her own, never expected she would have to. She was completely unprepared.

‘For God’s sake, will you stop?’

She could hear her own voice reverberating. She was out of control, again. She reached for the Diazepam. She wasn’t addicted.

It had been a trying day. Most days were trying but this one seemed particularly so. She would take the lot of them to the library. As luck would have it, they all liked books and the library did not permit mayhem. They had a calming half hour and Diana managed to choose something for herself.

Eventually, but not without more shouting and threats she got them all to bed. The little one still slept in her bed and she always stayed with him until he dozed off. It crossed her mind that she would miss him when he went into his own room and as she tucked him in she thought what a rubbish mother she turned out to be. The thought came and went, replaced by another. Should she start the book or tidy the house? No contest. Diana poured herself a glass of red, found her reading glasses and threw herself onto the settee.

She opened the book and several little feathers floated out.

‘Good god!’

She brushed them to the floor to where the others lay after she shook them out of her bag earlier. Crumbs and dust combined to provide a covering that obliterated the pattern in the carpet. She made a mental note to get the hoover out.

Diana opened her book. After a few minutes her eyes felt heavy. Suddenly, she is waiting for granddad to come home from the war. He had been in the desert with the Royal Engineers, a Sapper. Diana knew this because she and grandma had been looking at photographs. One of him, in khaki drill, leaning against a truck. He had written, ‘Me in Tripoli’on the back. There were others, ‘Me in Egypt, me playing cricket in Cairo, me with a stray puppy.’ Diana loved him so much. Her love was so intense that she had raised his status to hero. She never met him but knew that he had built things like bridges, cleared mine fields and was once a despatch rider who fell off his motor bike on Mount Carmel. When they discussed the most holy of all mountains at school, she was so proud to be able to say she knew where it was and had a photograph. Diana idolised her granddad. If he was here he would know exactly what to do.

Awaking with a start, her hero faded away. She dragged herself up the stairs and snuggled into her squirming bed warmer. In a few hours it will all start up again. She wondered how long she could put up with it. Her life was becoming a nightmare. Her childhood with grandma was so lovely, how had it come to this? She’d married Shithead for a start and it was all downhill from then on. They had three children together before he decided he was gay and needed to ‘come out’.

‘I’ve been living a lie.’ He blubbered on his way out. She chased him up the path, throwing plant pots at him. The ones with hyacinths in. His favourites.

‘Living a lie?’

She screamed. It wasn’t a question.

The children watched from the kitchen window. He called her a mad bitch.

And she was. Mad and getting madder. One day they’ll cart me away, she thought. The mad bitch from number 46.

How mad was she when she had a night out with another mad bitch who got to the school gates early, in time for a gossip before the kids were let loose.

‘It’ll do you good to get out.’ The mad bitch at the school gate said.

Diana organised her neighbour to babysit and in a daze of diazepam and alcohol she went out to do herself some good. And here she was nestling into him.

The next day started like all others. Diana finally got the litter to school and went to sit in the park with her book. She couldn’t sit in the house, it was a pigsty. An overwhelming feeling of melancholy overcame her. She could not see the future. Four kids out of control, a house tumbling down around her ears, a mother who kept telling her to pull herself together.

More feathers came spilling out of her book.

‘Was the last borrower a bloody pigeon fancier, for Christ’s sake?’

She read the words but they meant nothing and with every page she turned, more feathers. Slapping it shut and putting in on the seat beside her, she sat, gazing through the shimmering silver birch trees to glistening water of the boating lake. Quiet now. Quiet and peaceful. It would be so easy. Diana reached into her pocket and felt for the prescription. She could just go to sleep on this seat and never awake. No screaming, no pigsties, no worries. Her mother would have to take the children.

Suddenly.

‘Hello love, you alright? I’ve been watching you, you were miles away.’

Diana wondered why she didn’t tell him to bugger off, but he had a kindly, soft northern accent.

‘I’m fine.’ She lied.

‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a long time.’ he went on. ‘All your life, in fact. I was there the day you were born. You seemed to muddle through until now. I’ve been sending you signs.’

Diana turned to look at him. She saw his tanned hands, the backs covered with freckles, his ruddy, smiling face and his red hair bleached by the sun to sand. She recognised his desert drill and dusty boots.

She took his dry rough hands in hers; tears ran swiftly, chasing one after the other down her face falling off her chin on to the dryness which gave them a fluorescent appearance. She choked and tried to speak. Sobbing, she managed,

‘Are you my granddad?’

Easter

13 Sep

All heads turned as he walked into the bar. The silence hung in the air like cold mist on the Liffy. The smell of sweat combined with stout was overwhelming and the air was thick with tobacco smoke. The place was shabby and the gas lighting dull, there was a scattering of sawdust on the wooden floor. He thought the floorboards were short of a bit of caulk and shuddered at what might have dropped through them. It took Freddy a second or two to adjust to his surroundings before he ordered a pint and took it to the table by the fire.

He nodded a greeting and gave a thin smile to the old boy on the other side of the hearth but received no response. The huddle of men standing at the bar, stopped talking and turned to watch him until he sat down. Other than that no one moved.

Trying not to look self conscious, Freddy lifted his glass, took a sip of his stout, licked the froth from his top lip, and with great deliberation, put it back down on the table. He wished he had a newspaper. It was long before he got on the boat from Holyhead, that he had heard any news. Still no one moved. Just an exchange of glances between the group of men and the old bloke opposite. Glances that didn’t escape Freddy’s attention. He began to feel uncomfortable.

Content he appeared settled, the men turned back to face the landlord, busy polishing glasses, and continued their debate in hushed tones.

Freddy rubbed his hands over the smouldering peat and began to relax as the heat got through to his bones. After all, it was heat he was seeking.

He had just spent six months at Woburn Abbey, which had been turned into a hospital and convalescent home for soldiers injured at the front. The shrapnel had left deep wounds on his legs. When the shell hit, there was an enormous boom, much louder than the constant pounding of artillery and clatter of machine guns. He felt the pain in his legs, the warm blood seeping through his trousers and then silence. Loud, lurid silence. He looked up to the sky, it was overcast and threatening rain but the hush made him think he must be in heaven. And then the blackness descended and he knew no more. No more, until he awakened to find he was on his way to Woburn.

Freddy’s time at Woburn was blissful. Being bathed and deloused. The luxury of clean white bed linen. The nurturing of the angels. Strolls around the estate when he was strong enough to walk. Friendships formed, the exchanges between other survivors, the romances bound not to last and taken for what they were, all made him consider his good fortune at being injured rather than blown to bits.

Eventually he became well enough to return to the war. A Great War, a war to end all wars a war in which his regiment, The Norfolk Regiment, had been wiped out. The war which was in such a state of disarray that he was ordered to join another regiment. Any regiment. Freddy born and bred in Norfolk was ordered to affiliate himself with a regiment of his own choosing.

Freddy couldn’t face the thought of going back to the bitter, drenched ditches of Belgium or France. The mud, the lice, the trench-foot and the stench of dead comrades. He’d been told that The Royal Dublin Fusiliers was due to be despatched somewhere warm like Turkey or Greece.

He decided to join the Dubliners and head for the sun.

He met a brave Irish lad, Liam O’, Something, Freddy couldn’t pronounce, in France. He had been a sniper. They were looking for men who were good shots with a rifle and Liam volunteered. He left the comparative safety of the trench and crawling in the darkness, found a tree close to the enemy lines and hauled himself up it.

‘Never shot anyone, never saw anyone to shoot.’ he said, ‘Just sat up there for days and days. Then I finally decided to creep back and I found my pals were all dead, gassed.’

Freddy and Liam developed an affinity and shared confidences. Freddy told him about Susan, and their baby, Irene. Irene, born shortly before the war started. Irene was planned to allow Susan to flee a miserable and violent childhood.

Susan, at fourteen was sent into domestic service, with a local family. Their youngest daughter, a sweet girl called Bessie, had been friendly with Susan when they were at the village school together. Susan found the task of cleaning for her friend’s family humiliating and more so when she was expected to wear a uniform singling her out from those considered to be her betters. She refused and was sacked. She joined her mother working in the laundry. The days were long, hot and gruelling. They returned home, day after day to the torment of a brutal father and equally brutal twin brothers.

And so, when Susan started seeing Freddy they planned her escape. She would become pregnant. Susan wanted freedom and Freddy wanted Susan. He was under no illusions; deep in his heart he knew Susan would never love him the way he loved her. Now she was free and he wondered if she would wait for him. Freddy spoke of these feelings with Liam. Liam assured him she would. It was this assurance that kept Freddy sane, waiting for this relentless war, that should have ended in weeks, to be over.

Freddy checked the time, he would give himself another half hour and another glass of stout. It was a about half mile to the barracks.

The sound of Freddy’s chair scraping on the floorboards as he got up, startled the old boy, snoozing at the other side of the fireplace. He jumped up. His movement signalled a warning to the assembled debate and the constant mumbling that had provided the background to Freddy’s musing stopped. Silence fell, as it had when he first walked in.

Aware of how loud his footsteps sounded, Freddy crossed the floor. He’d had segs hammered into the heels and toes of his new boots to make them last longer. Until they wore down, he walked with a rocking movement, and now, as he click-clacked his way across the room he sounded like a tap dancer and earnestly hoped he didn’t look like one. He made it to the bar, ordered another black glass and took it back to his seat.

Those next few minutes felt like hours. All eyes were on him and the old boy, having almost lost his concentration, was now on alert and stared, almost afraid to blink, right into Freddy’s face. For a moment Freddy thought he was going to say something.

Suddenly there was a spurt of activity as the door to the street opened and a thin scraggy woman dressed in a tattered coat buttoned up to the neck, rough skirt hanging down below the hem and a scarf pulled across her hair dashed in almost falling headlong. Her gaunt, long face was red and smeared with dirt and her breath came in short bursts as if she had been running.

‘Will you be giving me a drink?’ she spluttered. It was not a question. She clung to the bar as the landlord pulled the cork from a bottle and poured her a short glass.

Freddy thought she must be drunk as he watched the performance. She downed the drink in one gulp and passed the glass for another.

‘Jesus.’ she said, ‘We’ve done it, Pearce and Connelly have taken the Post Office.’

The men crowded her and put their fingers across their lips gesturing towards Freddy. She took the other drink. Her breathing subsided and she clambered onto a high stool, leaned one elbow and rested the side of her face in her hand, the other hand clutched the glass, her knuckles clenched and white. Freddy thought her a slattern with no pride, comparing her with his lovely, proud Susan. Then once again the deafening quiet.

He checked his watch, it was time to leave. He had twenty minutes to get across the city. Liam had told him a short cut from the docks. He rose from his seat, this time acutely conscious of the scraping and the click-clack. He fastened his khaki jacket, heaved his kit-bag onto his shoulder and lugged his great coat over his arm before making his way across the room and out. It seemed an interminable distance. Finally, he reached the door and grabbed the knob to pull it open. The woman at the bar swivelled around on her stool to watch him leave. As the door opened and before he stepped out into the lonely, damp evening, she called out,

‘It’s a brave young man who would walk the streets of Dublin today, dressed like that!’