The heat of the sun was intense, the village’s main street still and waiting. The absence of young men and the heavy burden on those remaining here had changed everything. That time before the war was a distant, innocent land, often dreamt about, but as out of reach as the silver-white clouds billowing in the intensely blue sky.
Hearts plummeted and breaths quickened at the sight of the post-boy. The surge of relief at seeing that he was going elsewhere was short-lived. It didn’t do to tempt fate. No one knew the hour the news might come to their own doorstep. The realisation that it may well come was sinking in. Even young people had ceased talking of excitement and adventure. Many hearts were questioning patriotism and honour, however fervently they upheld them in public.
It is all wrong, she thought, a servant bringing me such a thing as this on a silver plate. Because she knew, of course, in that few seconds of suspended time, before she opened it. Nothing would ever be the same again. And then she read the words, and did know. In an eerie echo of death, she really did feel as though she stepped aside from her body. She, with an almost cold detachment, witnessed herself walk across the hall and into her sitting-room.
No-one knew but her and then her husband. But soon, as is the way in these country places, everyone knew. The other woman heard it in the shop. The Sowerby sisters served here, and gossip rose and fell and whispered amongst the flour and loose biscuits, the mops, buckets, carbolic soap, tea and stamps. She held back the howl of anguish as she slipped out without her shopping, and lurched her way home.
The door shut tight behind her, in the empty house, she let herself slide to the floor. She doubled over, her knees drawn to her chest, her arms over eyes, and wailed at her loss.
There. She ticked the name off her list. The handwriting on the page was as devoid of any defining characteristics as she could make it. She had written the words in blunt, fat capitals. She re-read the letter, and smiled. Not perfect, but it would do. The main thing was the feeling she had now, satiated, warm and at peace. The trouble of course, was that the feeling would not last.
But she was keeping a tight check on herself. One letter a fortnight was the bargain she had made. With whom she wasn’t sure. Herself? God? She had read somewhere about anonymous letter writers who cut letters out of magazines and papers and glued them to the page. There were also others, apparently, who took journeys to all sorts of different places, so the postmarks would confuse. Yet, all that seemed too elaborate. It would be like cheating.
And, if she was discovered? It would, at least be fair and square. She took precautions, but nothing excessive. After all, this was never meant to be safe, was it? She had left the need for safety behind her, years ago. There was only one good thing that came from no longer caring, and that was the liberation of not needing to mind yourself all the time.
Finding things out had been heart-hammering at the beginning, now it had become second nature. She had turned herself into a trained observer. It was a truly fascinating occupation. Immersion in the lives of others had been the only medicine that finally managed to soothe her jangled nerves. Wielding the power of knowledge, had been a bit of payback for the bad hand she had been dealt.