She had not wanted him to go to war in the first place. To her, the idea of war was an archaic and primitive one, and could only end in the complete destruction of everything for which it had begun, and the thought of her Tony being shipped right into the middle of it made her blood run cold. He had looked so different in his uniform when he came home for the first time, so proud and strong – and as handsome as ever – but there was something sinister in his eyes. They were familiar in colour but behind the iris lay movement which told of pain and unimaginable horror. She had brushed past him to put the tea on the table and he had flinched, cried out, put his hand on his heart and laughed nervously, telling her that it would take some getting used to, but she had seen the sheer terror that scarred his features and wondered if this was really her Tony. But she could do nothing about it. This war would go on for years and years, and she would lose her children to the army – even Tom, with his shy lisp and imaginary friend – and they would lose their children to the clutches of the war, and then their grandchildren, and she would be alone, a remnant of a family that once was. But they had told her that this was no time for thoughts of tragedy. Her Tony was out there, fighting for his country and for the lives of countless innocent people, and she should be proud of him. Jane’s husband was a hero – her Tony, a hero! And yet she hated it.
She had received a letter about a month ago, written in a scrawled script that she could barely read, but it told of glory and pride and heroic deeds. There was a great section in the middle that had been cut out, and Jane presumed that Tony had changed his mind about what he had written.
But now she knew differently.
The telegram had arrived about two weeks ago. The knock on the door had been hesitant and urgent, and Jane’s curiosity was immediately roused. The boy had looked apologetic, worried, as though he knew that giving it to her would cause her grief, but Jane did not blame him. He had received orders that he had to carry out no matter what they led to – just like her Tony.
Only now her Tony was gone.
She could scarcely remember what she did after she read those awful words, burned onto the paper like a branded criminal. Did she scream and cry as though her own life had been torn from her? Or did she sit in stunned silence, unable to believe that this could possibly be? She could not remember, and she did not want to. Not knowing almost made it unreal, as though she had merely dreamt of the death of her husband, a premonition that would never come true. But it had, as all premonitions eventually do, and now Jane was lost.
Two weeks passed in a haze, a blur of comforting faces and tearful friends. Jane couldn’t count the number of times she’d heard the word ‘sorry’ repeated over and over again through wary lips. Now, that had all faded away, died, and she was left with bitter memories and a son she feared she could not care for alone.
Every day was lived through a monotonous routine, and today was no different. She had already eaten breakfast and walked Tom to school, and the clock had not yet struck twelve. She sighed and shifted in her chair, looking around her primrose-coloured kitchen of which she was so proud, took in the family portrait above the stove and the cake on the table she had baked for Tom’s birthday party that evening. It all looked the same. It all looked normal. A visitor would never guess that anything had happened at all. Suddenly, her thoughts were jarred by a sharp knock on the door. Sighing, she stood up, dusted some invisible crumbs from her apron, and opened the door. Standing there was a tall man, with snake-like eyes and the posture of a bear. Jane scolded herself for fearing a man she had not yet properly met.
“Mrs Brown?” enquired the man.
“Yes, that’s me,” Jane said, raising one eyebrow. The man raised his hat slightly in a polite gesture of greeting.
“Good afternoon, ma’am, I’m here – ”
“Morning,” Jane interrupted. The man tilted his head in confusion. “The clock hasn’t yet chimed midday,” she continued. He nodded slowly.
“Well then, my apologies, and a good morning to you,” he said. “Now, I’m here on official business. May I come in?”
Jane nodded and stepped back to allow him to enter. He nodded again, and walked briskly into the kitchen, sitting in the very chair from which Jane had just risen. She closed the door and sat in the chair opposite. The man reached into the pocket of his vast grey overcoat and pulled out a crisp brown envelope and a pair of thin wire spectacles. Jane’s pulse quickened. She could guess what this visit was about.
“Mrs Brown, my name is Mr Smith,” the man explained. “I’m here on some unfortunate business. I suppose you can guess what it’s about.”
Jane looked down at her lap and nodded faintly.
“I’m sorry to have to bring this up,” Mr Smith continued. “But there appears to be some inconsistencies surrounding the death of your husband.”
“Inconsistencies? What can be inconsistent? My husband was killed trying to save this country!” Jane said sharply, looking up and meeting Mr Smith’s piercing blue eyes. For a split second she thought she saw a flicker of alarm in them, and smiled sadly at the thought of a man like him being afraid of a lonely widow like her.
“Yes, ma’am, of course, but the circumstances surrounding his death are rather… peculiar,” Mr Smith said, choosing his words carefully this time. “You see, Mrs Brown, your husband was not actually in Dunkirk at the time of his death.”
“Not there? Then, for God’s sake, where was he?”
“In his bunk.”
“We’re not sure, but suffocation seems to be the most plausible explanation.”
“But I thought…” His words were cold and clinical, and perhaps it was that very quality that enabled Jane to understand them, that allowed her to take them to her heart and make them warm and reassuring. Her Tony hadn’t been killed in battle. He hadn’t lived his last moments amongst wailing warfare and dead friends. It was a little comfort, but not much.
“We will be conducting a formal enquiry to determine the exact events that lead to his death.” Mr Smith’s hawk-like eyes once more met Jane’s, weary grey as they had become, and his face softened. He sighed and took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “But, Mrs Brown, do not let any of this detract from the memories you have of your husband. He was, and always will be, a soldier, and a British soldier nonetheless. You should feel very proud that your husband was a part of this glorious cause.”
Jane nodded, and stood up. She opened the door and gestured for him to leave. As he did so, she grabbed his arm, and he turned around.
“You will tell me if you find anything won’t you?”
There was something in her voice, a desperation and pleading that told him he had to. This woman had had her entire world torn apart, and she deserved to know why. He smiled thinly.
“Of course. Good day, ma’am.”
Hours passed. Time was no longer constant, Jane thought. It had become a series of memories stitched together by threads of limbo. She brushed a hand through her hair and tried to remember the last thing she had said to her Tony before he left. She could not.
“Mummy, Harry’s here!” Tom shouted excitedly, tugging at Jane’s shoulder. She smiled.
“Why don’t you show your guests into the living room? You can show them your presents,” she suggested. Tom beamed, his gap-toothed grin a display of sheer joy. As he bounded from the room, Jane collapsed onto her bed. One side had not been used in months. She thought of the times it had comfortably held two people, and sometimes three when Tom was frightened by the air-raids, and the thought made her let out a shuddery sigh, the closest she could get to a sob without the boys hearing. She thought of the earlier visit she had received from Mr Smith. Suffocation? What did that really mean? She only knew of one person who had died of suffocation, her friend’s daughter, who had choked on her food one day. That had been an unfortunate accident. But something told her that there was more to her Tony’s death than that.
Sighing, she sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, rubbing her eyes. She fixed a smile on her face, adjusted her hair, and made for the living room.
It was a mess.
Cake crumbs were everywhere, as though the cake had exploded, and the walls were coated with jam. All the boys had food smeared over their faces and chocolate had been spread over the carpet. All that food wasted. All that food for which she had saved up her rations, especially for her son’s birthday party, and it hadn’t been appreciated in the slightest. She thought of the times before the war when she could have easily prepared a birthday meal in a day and compared it in her mind to the month she had spent collecting enough birthday treats to make a small boy crow with delight.
“What is all this?” she asked quietly. Tom cocked his head and furrowed his brow.
“It’s food, Mummy,” he answered.
“I can see,” she said slowly, still quietly. Each word was a catalyst for her rage. “But why is it all over the room instead of on your plates?”
Tom did not heed the warning signs.
“We got bored of playing with my toys, so we had a food fight instead. I’m sorry mummy,” he gabbled, his eyes beginning to well up.
The sight of her son – her poor, half-orphaned son – in tears awakened something deep within Jane, a fury that she didn’t know she possessed, that burnt and burnt until it smouldered out, culminating in screams and shouts and floods of boiling tears. It was only later, as she kneeled on all fours, cleaning a house that was silent save for the sound of a weeping child, that she realised where the anger had come from, and she curled up in a ball next to the armchair and howled for all she had lost.
Mr Smith returned a week later. He wore the same grey overcoat and black hat, and carried a huge file under his arm. He smiled politely as a greeting, and she allowed him in. He sat in the same chair he had sat in last time, and she was again obliged to sit somewhere else.
“Have you found anything else?” she asked eagerly. He breathed in sharply and scratched the back of his head.
“Unfortunately, precious little,” he admitted, but upon seeing her face fall – a pretty face, he thought – he opened up the file, bursting with papers as it was, and spread the contents across the table. “Here are several transcripts of interviews with anyone in the barracks around the time your husband died. We have also managed to compile a timeline of possible events and a list of suspects to enable us – ”
“A list of suspects?” interjected Jane. “Why? Do you think…” Her voice trailed off, and Mr Smith patted her hand sympathetically.
“We’re really not sure, Mrs Brown. We need to investigate any possible causes.”
“I don’t understand,” she whispered. Mr Smith swallowed hard. He was no good with sentimentality, and he had no idea how to comfort a crying woman. He thought that was probably the reason he had gone home yesterday to find all Eleanor’s belongings packed up and a letter explaining that she’d gone to live with her sister. But Jane showed no signs of crying, for which he was thankful.
“I don’t understand why you’re going to such trouble to find out what happened,” she went on. “Mr Smith, my husband is dead. Knowing what killed him won’t bring him back. My son will never have a father again. Tell me, why did you come here in the first place?”
Mr Smith shrugged.
“You deserve to know, Mrs Brown. The wife of any deceased soldier deserves to know how her brave husband gave his life for the good of the nation.”
“But now you’ve told me these things, I can’t help but want to know more,” she said, gathering all the papers together. “And I know that I shouldn’t want to know, and a part of me doesn’t, because I want Tony to rest in peace, but the other part tells me that something is very, very wrong here. Tell me, Mr Smith, could that be the case?”
Mr Smith coughed politely.
“I think I should leave now, ma’am,” he said apologetically, standing up and pushing the papers back into the file. “Good day.”
That night, the siren wailed too.
Walking Tom to school after a week’s holiday was awful for Jane. Mothers whispered and stared, and children pointed. She held her head high, but inside she wanted to coil like bracken and hide. She couldn’t explain to them without sounding as though she were mad, which she was quite sure she wasn’t. Or was she? She hated to admit it even to herself, but she had begun to be able to look upon the family portrait, upon the eyes of her husband that stared from the photograph and pierced her gaze, without wishing as though the world would turn back. She had begun to be able to think about the next few years without her Tony clearly, and she had begun to look at Tom and see her son, not a lonely child who would grow up without a father. Was this a belated stage of grief?
Mr Smith’s last visit came approximately two months after she had received that awful telegram. This time, as he sat down in her favourite chair again, she noticed that he wore a brand new brown overcoat and his glasses had a thicker black frame. He smiled at her, almost apologetically, and took out the same file as before.
“Mrs Brown, we believe that we have found the cause of your husband’s death,” he informed her. Jane’s eyes widened.
“How?” she gasped. Mr Smith opened the file and took out a small piece of paper with uneven edges, as though it had been cut out from a larger document. He passed it to her, and she took in the illegible scrawl.
“I believe you have the other half of this letter,” he said gently. She nodded, and reached inside her dress pocket, taking out Tony’s last letter, the one which she had presumed he had written in haste before changing his mind. She fitted the new section inside the gap in the old one, and as she connected the terms of endearment with the lines and lines of hopelessness, she wove in her mind an explanation that was more hideous than anything she could have imagined. Her husband had written of crimson skies and bullets of steel, of rats and guns and death and solitude – and war. And then she realised that she could not be angry, because he had only done what any man in his position would consider doing.