Crusted with rust, the track waits. I follow its path with my eyes, out of the miserable station, choked with goodbyes, to the emerald landscape beyond, its plane dotted with sparse trees, somewhere between life and death, stretching their recumbent limbs in anticipation of a long sleep. And then I lose sight of it. It merges discretely into its surroundings, as if to evade the question I am trying not to ask, yet am desperate to know the answer to…
I wrap my arms around myself; whether for warmth or comfort I’m unsure. Is it the faint breeze that makes my eyes water? Or the knowledge that my life is being dragged away from me?
A hesitant sun peers out from behind a cloud, apologetic, as if she knows she shouldn’t be here. Her rays attempt to thaw the frozen air, lancing down and casting spotlights on the platform. Even through my mosaic vision, I pick his face from the stagnant crowd in a matter of moments, leaning as far over the bridge’s railing as gravity will permit; our three years of marriage have yet to dull the explosion at my core, triggered by his presence.
The train arrives at the platform.
FRANCE, NOVEMBER 1918
I was too impatient to wait for the maid. I flung my legs out of bed with surprising energy, considering I had barely slept, and skipped over the cushioned carpet, barefoot, to draw back the curtains. Miniature suns glimmered in each bead of condensation on the window pane, their rays infusing me with unseasonal warmth.
After dressing with a careless rapidity, I bounded down the stairs, crashing into the maid at the bottom. She stuttered a few words of contrition which, to her confusion, were met with a glowing smile. ‘Breakfast is on the table ma’am,’ she whispered as she passed me with a curiously unreadable expression. Perhaps it was the excitement seeping through my every pore, pumping from my heart, coursing through my veins, which enabled my mind to skate over the atmosphere clogging the house: that of a wake.
Breakfast, in the scheme of things, seemed unimportant, and I flirted with the idea of skipping it. However, the grandfather clock in the entrance hall decided otherwise: I had another hour until his train arrived.
My eyes were trained on the long hand of the clock face as I picked at the bread before me. Forty minutes to go, thirty nine, thirty eight… I let them wander for a moment, hoping that the next time I looked it would be time to leave. They skimmed the room, absorbing articles which held no interest for my otherwise-occupied mind: the daily newspaper, a sheet of paper torn to haphazard pieces, a vase of fresh flowers. Thirty seven.
I grabbed my coat.
Impatience crawled and wriggled beneath my skin. I tapped my foot, tattoo. I bit my lip. I pulled at the skin on my finger. Drew Blood. Boom boom.
And then my breath caught in the back of my throat as the shrill cry of the train’s whistle swept over me, through me. I stood up instinctively as if propelled by the fizzing, bouncing, dancing particles now vibrating within me. Immediately, I wished I hadn’t: the platform whirled before my eyes and the party in my stomach threatened to toss out the little food I had managed earlier. Breathe Marie.
Eight million screams issued from the track as the train stopped. The door nearest slid open, pushed by a familiar hand. And then he was there: olive skin, dark hair, chiselled jaw, Roman nose, squared shoulders, muscled arms, broad hands, black eyes, blazing. I wanted the moment to stretch out; I wanted time to take all of him in, inch by inch. But the crawling beneath my skin won out as he took me in his arms and the years apart were obliterated his touch.
Days which had previously been filled with menial tasks- going to the florists, visiting the theatre with friends, reorganising the wardrobe for the fifth time- were now filled with him. Slipping back into our old life was like sliding into a warm bath: all the aches, repressed for the sake of ‘being a good, patriotic wife’, were soothed.
I looked at the other women in the street, swathed in black, their bewildered, red eyes on the ground, and guilt pricked at my skin; it could easily, so easily have been me. But more than guilt, I felt the habitual panic, built through years of suspense. Each time there had been news of a death, the village had held its collective breath, then pitied the newly-blackened figure, then thanked God it wasn’t them. Even worse, when the deceased was verified, there was an overriding, yet irrational, contentment that you were safe for a while; probability ruled that there would be a gap of about two weeks between each death in the area. Inevitably, as the time dwindled, you were desperately looking at the other parents, wives, children, hoping they would be next- anyone but you.
‘Ben?’ I whispered, suddenly.
‘Mmm?’ he murmured somewhere between the sleeping world and this.
‘Am I selfish?’ I asked, searching his face, almost pleadingly, for reassurance, ‘I mean, is it wrong that I should be so happy, whilst everyone else around me is grieving?’
His eyes flickered open, gluey with dreams, and he rolled over to face me, ‘Of course not. You didn’t fire the bullets that killed those men; you were just as likely a victim as anybody else. You were under so much strain. Your body has a right to be relieved,’ he smiled crookedly, adding, ‘Anyway, I would be offended if you weren’t.’
I snorted and rolled my eyes at his mock vanity, the eddying current of worry now stilled by his words.
The next morning I was awoken by a dream, immediately erased from my mind at the opening of my eyes. A nightmare, I was sure. A relentless pulse throbbed in my ears; sharp, shuddering breaths shook my whole body; sweat stuck, cold and clammy, to my nightdress. It took a moment for me to calm myself, to reassert my breathing. When I was quite still, I realised I was crying.
I reached my arm across to the other side of the bed, searching for the comforting contours and heat of Ben’s body. But it was cold. And empty.
I padded downstairs. All of the curtains were drawn shut so it must have been early. What was he doing up?
I went to the dining room first, then the drawing room, then his old study, then the bathroom. My movements were steady, my thoughts rational. Yet I was still crying. Hot tears gushed over my cheeks and onto my night dress, leaving darker patches on my chest where they fell.
‘Ma’am?’ A voice, trickled with trepidation, drew me from my confusion, ‘Are you quite alright?’
Embarrassed, I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and gave a mechanical nod. The shock of being interrupted had halted my free-flowing and unfounded tears. The maid made to turn away.
‘Have you seen Ben?’ I asked, hastily.
Something akin to panic flushed her face, red, ‘No, ma’am.’
I closed my eyes and drew in an audible breath through rounded lips, ‘I shall take breakfast in an hour.’
Each bite of croissant was an effort. My throat was tight so the lumps of dry bread which squeezed through caused me to wince.
I concentrated on organising the turbid thoughts churning in my mind, attempting to pinpoint the sense of foreboding which lay heavy in my every cell. It was futile. A blanket-like smog clouded whatever it was that lay beyond my reach; each time I tried to penetrate it, I felt myself reclining, basking, in its all-too comforting warmth.
Frustration ebbed below the surface of my skin. It was ten ‘o clock and Ben still hadn’t returned. On impulse, for no conscious reason, I grabbed my coat and left the cosy haven of my home in exchange for a biting December morning.
The air was alive with brisk hands, slapping my face awake as I walked, seemingly with purpose, although there was none which I could find. Blood poured forth to my cheeks, protection against the clarity of the winter wind. I breathed through my mouth and the unwelcome icy drink which froze my insides made my eyes sting with water. Recoiling, I nuzzled my head to my chest where I discovered its warmth was dwindling.
‘Good morning Mrs Bernard.’
I looked up. The face only barely registered, drawing out a watery memory of a dinner party. One of Ben’s friends, probably.
‘Good day…’ I avoided supplying a name, ‘How are you?’
I hated such formalities; pointless exchanges of hollow, rehearsed words. How many hours of my life had been taken by such ridiculous conventions? I itched to get away, to continue with my directionless pursuit.
‘Very well, thank you,’ he replied, and then tilted his head to the side, with what could only be described as sympathy, ‘How are you holding up?’
Ice crept from my core, stretching out its brittle, frozen web to my arms, my legs, my throat. ‘What do you mean? Do you know something?’ I choked.
The man shrank a little, beneath the confrontational barrel of my words, ‘I only meant… what with Ben being gone and all…’
Biting back on the acrid bile in my throat, I tried to placate the waves of ridiculous dread building in my stomach with soothing thoughts, but none came. And then my hands were on his jacket, desperately grappling at his tie, ‘Is he having an affair? Has he left me?’ I was almost begging, as he shook his head, wide-eyed. My voice trembled an octave higher, ‘Don’t pretend… don’t act like you don’t know. Don’t…’
Air came into my lungs sharp and fast. As did the memories.
The maid’s panic at my questions. The caution with which she regarded me around the house. The torn up letter on the table. The letter. Delivered on a glorious, silver, shining plate. A thick envelope. My address on the front. Sharp slanted writing. The grating sound of the knife as it sliced it open.
Dear Mrs Bernard,
I am most sorry to have to inform you that your husband has gone missing in action. He was…
An oppressive blackness roared around me as I soared through the barrier in my mind, free fall.
The troops board the train, a collective mass of khaki moving in unison. My eyes are trained on him, only him. For a fleeting moment, I think he looks up at me; I raise my arm in greeting but let it fall as he reaches the train door. Ben.
The vision falters, blurs like a mirage, then slips away. A family stands on the platform, waving eagerly to someone in a nearby compartment. The youngest, a small, blonde girl, stretches up on tiptoes and cranes her neck to get a better view. Funny, I’d never thought about having children. I suppose it would have happened someday, were it not for…
A rumble from below shakes me from my reverie. Lethargically, the train pulls away.
And I follow, free fall.