The Last Post

‘I had to sign for this one.’ He waves an envelope at her. ‘But here’s an invitation to your sister’s wedding. Is this third time lucky?’

‘That was addressed to me.’

‘Sorry, darling. Pour me another coffee.’

‘I hope Jess is happier in this marriage.’

‘No staying power, that girl: always running from her problems.’

‘She married an adulterer, and then a bully. Sometimes you have to run away.’

‘Selfish nonsense. Any croissants left?’

‘You ate the last two.’

‘Buy more next time. Now, I wonder what’s in my letter.’

‘Only our divorce papers.’

Defence of the Realm

‘God,’ she tells her, ‘shows you beauty even when things are at their ugliest.’

Only Alice can say such a thing and mean it, thinks Hester. But it is only Alice she can bear to have anywhere near her. Alice who accepts suffering as part of life, and does not waste her time building shrines to the dead. She grieves with a raw honesty that brings more comfort than hollow words whispered in soft voices.

‘How can you not have faith when God sends us this?’ says Alice. ‘I’ve never seen such colours, come and see for yourself.’

They walk along the path to a break in the trees.

‘Now tell me, Aunt Hester,’ Alice throws open her arms as if she would embrace the world. ‘Have you ever witnessed such glory before?’

‘One summer, three weeks before you were born, there was a sunset of such rare brilliance it hurt to look at it.’

Hester closes her eyes and recalls a day when a dull morning gave way to an afternoon thunderstorm. That evening, the clouds parted to reveal a crimson-gold sky streaked with pink and lilac. She remembers her exhaustion and exhilaration, along with a glimmer of hope.

They had worked quietly and quickly, mindful of the road and the path across the fields. A door ripped from its hinges; the overturned butter churn, and a wheelbarrow of potatoes lying on its side. The loaded gun ready and waiting.

Duncan nodded approval to the destruction and handed her a broken slat. She took it and hit him.

‘Again,’ he grunted.

This was the hardest thing she had ever done, harder than telling them about Johnnie, but it was because of Johnnie she was beating her husband. She only stopped when Duncan signalled enough. Leaving him slumped on the ground; she ran into the henhouse and grabbed two chickens. Her hands shook as she wrung their necks.

‘Hester, hurry, we have little time.’ Duncan stood in the doorway.

She picked up the shotgun, aimed, and fired. He made no sound as he fell backwards. Hester dropped the gun, where was all the blood coming from? She couldn’t have missed her mark. She swallowed her panic and let fear add desperation to her screams for help.

What followed was dreamlike and vague. A strange woman tidied up the mess while her neighbours lifted Duncan onto a cart. Then she was sitting in the kitchen, wrapped in her shawl, sipping brandy from a teacup the woman held steady for her. Two men, one in uniform, drank tea by the range and talked in hushed voices. And on the table, next to a dead chicken, the gun.

‘It’s not loaded,’ the woman assured her, ‘but I expect you’re used to handling guns.’

Hester flinched, knocking the cup from the woman’s hand. It fell to the floor and shattered.

‘What have I done?’ she wailed.

‘You just sit quiet, and I’ll sweep it up.’ The woman patted Hester on her shoulder. She turned to the men, ‘poor thing’s still not with us. Hasn’t even asked about the little ones.’

‘My babies,’ said Hester, ‘where are Frank and Joe?’

The woman took her to the parlour. There they were, asleep in the cot Duncan made from an old tea chest. Had she saved them from the sorrow she had known as a child? Would they keep what she had lost? Or was this all for nothing? Her legs buckled, and she collapsed on the sofa.

‘How’s Duncan?’

‘He’ll be fine, love, bleeding like a stuck pig but you can cheer him up with a chicken pie for his supper.’ The woman winked, letting Hester know where the second bird had disappeared. ‘Now this copper needs to talk to you.’

The policeman approached and asked for a statement. He appeared bored by both her and her pathetic tale.

‘Seems your husband disturbed a burglary, don’t worry, if the thieves are still around we’ll find them.’ He shrugged as if it were of no importance to him either way. ‘Do you want someone to stay with you?’

‘No, thank you. Edwin should be home from school soon, and Ma will be back from Charlie’s in a while. But if you could let Jack know? He’ll be in The Plough.’

‘I’ll go,’ said the woman, she held a newspaper-wrapped bundle. ‘It’s on my way.’

She walked across the yard with the package tucked under one arm, a bucket of potatoes, and the shawl. Hester wondered what else she had stolen, but this was payment for both her help and her silence.

Edwin cried when she told him, but Ma showed no emotion and set about cooking the remaining chicken. Hester expected nothing less from her.

They were sitting down to supper when Jack burst in.

‘Duncan’s going to be fine!’

Hester sobbed with relief.

Jack passed her his handkerchief. ‘They say he’ll most likely be deaf in his left ear but that aside, he should make a full recovery.’

‘We were lucky he didn’t get killed,’ said Edwin.

‘I nearly lost another boy today.’ Jack took Edwin by the shoulders. ‘With Johnnie gone and Duncan laid-up, you will have to be a man now.’

Edwin glowed and puffed out his chest. ‘Let’s check everything is locked up tight.’

Jack smiled and reached for the shotgun.

‘Keep the door latched until we get back,’ shouted Edwin as he followed Jack out.

‘There’s more than luck here,’ said Ma. ‘This bit of business today will stop Duncan following his brother.’

‘And my brother,’ said Hester, ‘your son!’

‘Charlie’ll do all right. You don’t need two legs to work behind a desk. He’ll be able to take care of Myra and the baby when it comes.’

‘How is Myra?’

‘Happy, as any woman would be with her husband safe at home. He could have left more than his leg out there.’

‘Like Johnnie and Da—’

‘Hush yourself,’ said Ma. ‘We’ll have no more of this talk. Jack hasn’t gone down the pub tonight so keep your dark thoughts to yourself.’

‘Will you?’

‘Oh, Hester, I’ve been in the dark since the day they came and told me about Alfie,’ Ma paused, ‘my husband, your father.’

Hester held her tongue. Ma had mourned her losses in bitter silence while Jack was drowning his in whiskey. They all missed Johnnie, but during his last leave, she’d become afraid of him. He would sit as still as a statue and his movements were small and contained, as if he were trying not to attract attention. You had to be careful not to catch him unawares or make sudden noises.

The telegram came in May. Since then, Jack bristled with bitter anger, neglecting the work while he drank himself to death. Where he got the money was his own business, Hester made sure there was never any in the house. Duncan channelled his grief into the land, but Edwin’s turned to vengeance.

‘I can pass for eighteen,’ he said to Duncan. ’If I go they won’t conscript you, not with the farm and the twins.’

Edwin’s words chilled her. She had to find a way to keep Duncan at home. The idea, when it came, was simple, and she persuaded him to go along with her plan. Now all she can think is: sins of our fathers.

‘Are you a jealous God?’

‘What?’ Ma gave her a searching look.

‘I said, have Charlie and Myra thought of any names?’

‘Laurence or Alice,’ said Ma and obliged her by talking about Myra’s pregnancy.

Only half-listening, Hester stood at the window and gaped in delight at the magnificent sunset. Was this a sign He understood and forgave them?

‘Aunt Hester, you’ve gone pale.’ Alice is squeezing her hand, bringing her back. ‘Do you need to sit down?’

‘Don’t fuss, child. You should be the one sitting down.’

‘I’m all right.’ Alice sighs and rubs her eight-month belly. ‘But I worry about you. They reported Joe as missing in action. Maybe he’s in a hospital somewhere in France.’

Alice speaks with hope, but not desperation. This is how she can stand here, brimful of optimism, only a week after burying her husband.

‘You can live in false hope, but today I say goodbye to my son.’

Alice turns away, and Hester apologises for speaking so sharply. But Alice shushes her, and they stand beneath the trees bathed in the dying light.

‘This was Duncan’s favourite time of day,’ says Hester.

‘I wish I could remember him.’

‘You were only three. We thought we might lose your mother too, what with Duncan and Frank all dying within weeks of each other.’

‘So much death,’ whispers Alice.

‘Shall we do the flowers? It’s getting late.’

They lay bouquets on the graves of Johnnie, Duncan, Frank and Alice’s husband. Then they head towards the war memorial. Hester takes a letter from her pocket and hands it to Alice.

‘Came this morning.’

‘Presumed dead.’ Alice’s eyes are wet with tears. ‘There’s no hope for Joe, but it says he saved so many. He’s a hero, aren’t you proud of him?’

‘I would rather those other men had died if it kept him alive.’

‘Aunt Hester, please.’ Alice clutches her arm, but Hester shakes her off.

‘Why is my family always the sacrifice? I did my best, but it wasn’t good enough. And now your baby will grow up without a father.’

She sees Alice is weeping, and her anger fades.

‘Forgive me.’ Hester takes her in her arms and holds her tight. She can feel the restless movement of Alice’s stomach. ‘I hope you have a girl in there.’

‘So do I.’ Alice kisses her on the cheek. ‘Shall we say our goodbyes to Joe?’

As the dusk encroaches, they lay their wreath at the foot of the memorial and bow their heads in prayer.