She came running through from the back of the shop, arms wide.
He picked her up. He loved her smell, a mixture of coal tar soap and sugar.
“Milly!” he said triumphantly. It was their usual greeting.
She tipped her curly head to one side. “I need….” There was a pause. She liked to inject a little drama…. “a big smile!”
He pursed his lips producing a tiny tight-lipped little smirk, just to tease.
“No!” Finger-waggling, not amused. ”A real smile!”
Joe grinned and with a tiny movement he turned his head towards her so that she could see his gold tooth. Laughing and holding his jacket sleeve she pulled him near to her. Reaching up she tapped the tooth with her stubby forefinger.
Milly’s welcoming ritual still surprised him.
Three pals blown to bits and he’d only lost a tooth. The gold in his mouth had always been an intruder, the enemy. It was a reminder of that terrible joy in the seconds after the explosion. Just the act of flicking his tongue across the tooth had been enough to bring on a wave of guilt. All those wives and mothers back home waiting for news. For five full years after he came back he’d avoided chewing on that side.
But this girl, his darling Milly. The tooth made her laugh.
Joe ’s wife laughed. “Daft as brushes….both of you!”
“Now then Mrs Jackson,” he said.
His wife caught a strand of hair and pushed it back inside her headscarf. He caught his breath in a rush. He thought of putting his mouth against the flesh of her neck. He thanked his lucky stars.
It had all been Harry’s mother’s idea.
“I’ve bought a shop Joe, a little corner shop up in Hawes,” she’d said.
He’d nodded. It was the night after Harry had died, He’d gone to pay his respects and somehow he thought they’d be talking about the past, not the future. He must have frowned a little because she added as if in explanation.
“It’ll seem strange I know to talk about this on a day like today. But we’ve waited, me and Glad; it’s only been half a life. You know that.” She stopped for a moment and looked at the photo of Gladys and Joe on the mantelpiece.
“We need something to do, something to look forward to”. She stuck her hand in her pocket for her hanky.
The lines on her face were chiselled into the flesh. He remembered her laughing at them, like twins she said, in their uniforms. She looked so much older than the woman who’d waved him and Harry off to the Front a decade or so ago.
“Sounds like a new start,” he’d said.
He understood… more than anyone, what they’d been through.
It didn’t seem possible that Harry was gone. The kitchen still smelt of the Listerine they steeped his pyjamas in.
It was terrible at the end. His face half gone. His stomach a mess of shrapnel. Ten years of constant pain. Ten years of stinking bandages. And for ten years they’d pretended that they were glad he was alive.
He didn’t want them to go to Hawes he suddenly realised.
What would he do on Friday nights if he wasn’t sitting with Harry? Who would he talk to about his week at the Rail Yard?
He’d become part of the routine at Harry’s house too. After a while he was letting himself in and making a pot of tea to take upstairs. Glad and Harry’s mum would rush past him, the briefest of hellos before their night out at the Rose and Crown.
“Lovely piano at the Rose”, Harry’s mum would say. Joe knew she wouldn’t admit that they did a nice Milk Stout as well.
The Friday night pattern continued over the years. In time, Harry knew everything about the Rail Yard. He loved talking about Joe’s workmates. “’E’s allus slackin’ that ‘un,” he’d say nodding. For a moment he was back in a man’s world of hard work and long hours.
“I’ll miss you,” Joe said to Harry’s mum. And he meant it. No wife, no family. What did he have to look forward to?
As if she could read his thoughts the old woman put her hand on his arm. “Come with us Joe.”
He’d met her gaze and he knew in an instant what she was saying.
“You and Glad are still young,” she said. “She’s bonny. You’re a good worker. And you’ve enough in common.”
He thought he could see a hint of a blush. Surely she should be ashamed? He’d opened out his hands and considered the stretch of his fingers. He wanted to spare her feelings by not looking at her.
To be honest he was shocked.
This was a woman who’d wept noisily at her son’s graveside just yesterday.
And now she was suggesting he marry Harry’s widow!
“But Glad,” he began. “I hope you haven’t mentioned this to her…” He tailed off. It was all so awkward.
“She’ll be grateful,” she’d said. “Glad doesn’t have too long.” She raised her tired old eyes to his. “Before she’s showing.”
He must have looked dumbfounded.
She nodded her head, encouraging the suspicion. “That’s right. She’s having a baby. And of course, it isn’t Harry’s.” Her face twisted in grief.
She took a deep breath and then took his hand.
“Joe, you’ve been good to all of us. You know what she’s had to put up with... and she’s not one for complaining. I can’t lose her too. She did her best for my poor boy and now….” She sniffed and felt for her handkerchief again.
”It’ll be a new life for us,” she said. She squeezed his hand.
“For all of us.”
And that was that.
He’d finished at the Yard, he’d given notice on his flat, he’d returned his books to the lending library and followed Glad to Hawes.
He never did know who the father was.
It just seemed right. All that sadness, all that pain. It all deserved a happy ending.
His girl. His gorgeous four-year old bundle of bossiness.
She tugged at his arm. “Daddy! Come on!”
She dragged him into the steamy, teatime kitchen behind the shop. She’d been helping Glad with the housework. Picking up the bright yellow duster she reached for the tiny framed wedding photograph. The silver rose petals of its frame were bright against the grainy grey of the picture. Young and hopeful, Gladys had her arm hooked through Harry’s uniformed arm.
“Look daddy.” She held up the photograph. “I’m helping. Cleaning for you and Mummy!”
Nelly Harwood 2014
I have been writing for three years after a lifetime of reading.
I would use my own name but unfortunately there is a (brilliant) writer of the same name. Nelly Harwood was my grandmother.
I started writing this small collection of stories after entering the first in a local competition. This is story number three and the first that goes back in time. Each story is linked to the last by a shared character, a place or an object.