Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 32

‘Tell me what to do, grandma,’ said Ruth, pushing her hair out of her eyes as the wind flicked strands across her face. ‘Everyone says he’s dead, like the others, like Harry, but I don’t – I don’t – I don’t know what to think. You always said to follow my heart, but my heart doesn’t know where to go. I feel so lost. Tell me what to do. Please.’

A cold gust shivered the hyacinths Ruth had brought. She pressed them more firmly into the pot, the damp black soil sticking to her fingers. She read the name on the millstone grit gravestone: Lillian Victoria Oldham, née Yarwood, 1837-1918. In more weathered letters was granddad’s name: Jedediah Matthew Mark Oldham, 1832-1899. ‘Together forever in Jesus’.

Here were lives completed, she reflected, lives begun and lived all their days through, to their end, and laid to rest under the same stone. As it should be. Somewhere you could come and sit for a while, remember them.

If only she could do that with Tolly.

There was nothing definite even to say he was dead. No body to bury. Missing did not mean dead; it just meant missing. Lost Tommies had turned up from hospitals and camps and prisons. At the hidden core of ‘missing’ lay a bitter hope that some miracle would bring Tolly back, and he would come walking up Salt Street with that skewed smile and an incredible tale to tell.

Missing presumed killed. You couldn’t put flowers on a presumption.

She lifted her head and looked beyond the graveyard, past the squat tower of All Saints to the hills in the east. The dark spine of the Pennines crouched under clouds bustling in from the west. The nearer hills looked stripped and scrubby, most of the woods and copses of her childhood having gone for the war. Mill chimneys fingered the sky.

‘Florrie says I should marry John Babbitt,’ she said, turning back to the gravestone. ‘She says she will if I don’t. It’s not as if we’re spoilt for choice these days, is it? I’m lucky to find a man who’ll take me after…what happened, Florrie says. I suppose she’s right. And it’s not just me I have to think about. The boy needs a father.’

The thought reminded her to look around, to check. It was all right. Her son, easily spottable by the shock of white-blonde hair, was squatting by another grave running those green crystalline stones some of them had through his fingers, playing quietly with all the focused fascination of a three-year-old. He was picking up handfuls of the stones and letting them fall one by one, his head cocked to hear the thunking noise they made, humming a little tune.

He had his father’s wide and wary hazel eyes, that high forehead corrugated with questions. There was something in him too of his uncle Harry, especially around that imp’s smile, that gleam of glee that could light even a graveyard like this. The Lafford line, her side of the family.

Tolly and Harry together, in one little boy. It was too much, sometimes, when she looked at him.

Ruth hadn’t even known she was pregnant – from Tolly’s last leave, in the May – when the news came about Harry, about that dreadful battle. And Tolly missing, and missing still as the days went by, and then the weeks, and then the months, while her body bore his life growing inside her.

All Millbridge became numb as the letters containing the dreaded Army Form B 104-82 continued arriving, one after the other, endlessly, the town failing to comprehend the scale of its loss until it was impossible to deny, too enormous, and the North Cheshire Herald printed the lists on black-bordered pages. No word of Tolly, no word of so many of them. All those names. Missing, missing, missing. The limbo of not knowing. The wounded at the hospital not wanting to say anything, becoming blank and stiff when she asked before turning away and mumbling: ‘It’s difficult to say, sister. I’m sorry.’

Grandma Oldham and Sister Trixie had been with her for the birth. First had come waves of astounding, cleaving pain, smearing the room lights into greasy starbursts. Each spasm had left her gasping and drenched in sweat. Then, as the waves crowded together into one crashing peak, a primal power stepped in and took control of her body away from her – an unstoppable, imperative force like an express train driving through her and dragging her helpless with it. Push. Push! Push! She had screamed – once – as a climactic, wrenching, slippery burst of blood and life threatened to tear her apart.

She had seen him then, her baby; this red, wet, wrinkled creature squalling its rage and bewilderment, beautiful beyond belief. The pain miraculously forgotten, she had counted fingers and toes through laughing sobs, drenched in sweat and fluids, while pure love surged through her and into him; an outpouring of white, eternal light.

Tolly’s boy. Their son.

Grandma had forced something foul and herbal into her then busied herself with cleaning up, on some mysterious mission, later producing a rich, brothy soup, smiling: ‘Just get it down you, girl.’

At least grandma had got to see the child, to hold him, to see him take his first steps in the cluttered, hotpot-smelling cottage they shared with the basilisk cats.

But there had been no word of Tolly. Hope had faded like a plant in shadow. Time turned and the war ended, the world smashed and sick, and grandma had given Ruth her old, whisper-thin wedding ring as she lay dying on Christmas morning in the first weeks after the peace. ‘Follow God and your heart and you’ll never be far from doing the right thing. Trust.’

Ruth and the child had remained in the house, old Clegg leaving the rent as it was, not caring much about anything any more with his son gone, the stables opposite the Waggon now a motorcycle repair shop. Florrie brought food from the market – ‘it’ll only get thrown away otherwise’ – liar – and Sister Trixie brought clothes of beautiful quality and cut, claiming they had grown too tight for her, though she retained the slim grace of a heron. Minnie Threlfall sent her wreaths to make up, piece work for shillings. Too many wreaths. They managed. No pension, of course.

And there was John Babbitt, building his great big house on Croft Lane as his business prospered, willing to take her and the boy too.

Why? She didn’t love him. He must know that. What did he want?

Ruth sighed, shook her head. ‘Tell me what to do, grandma. Please.’

She straightened up, brushing the soil from her fingers. The boy was still playing with the green stones.

‘Come on, Harry,’ she called. ‘Time to go home.’



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