‘What more proof do you need, Vera my girl?’
Mam pushes the photograph across the table. It leaves tracks in the flour she spilled while rolling pastry. The snapshot is worn and curling at the edges.
‘Another woman’s face in your husband’s pocket.’ She taps it with her finger, a sifting of flour settles over the large eyes and smiling mouth.
‘Alfie says he’s done nothing wrong, and I believe him.’ I meet Mam’s eye although my legs shake beneath my skirt.
‘You know about it? So what does he have to say for himself?’ She narrows her eyes, but I say nothing. I believe Alfie; of course I do. These years he’s been away he’s written every week, promising he’s been true to me. I can’t let doubt creep into my heart now he is home and safe, his body not broken or maimed like so many others.
‘Anyway,’ I point to Edith who is lifting a batch of mince pies from the oven, avoiding my eye, ‘why was she poking about in our room? I know this is your house, Mam, but our bedroom should be private; just for Alfie and me.’
‘And this lovely girl, don’t forget.’ She barks a laugh; makes to snatch the picture but I grab it first and head for the stairs. ‘Stay out of our things,’ I tell my sister whose lips are set in a humourless smile.
I sit on our bed. Though the door is latched the scent of baking fills the room. Christmas Eve should be a happy time, not one for angry words and accusations. I wipe the photograph and slide it back into my apron. How can he be guilty when he doesn’t even try to hide it? He knows I’ve seen him put it into his pocket. If Edith hadn’t come snooping I might have made myself forget about it.
Mam has never taken to Alfie. A townie, she calls him. Well he can’t help where he was born or the fact he was orphaned and pushed into labouring work.
I can see him now from my window; he’s walking along the hedgerow of the two-acre field. His breath blows out in clouds. He isn’t wearing the scarf I knitted for him and I worry he’ll catch a chill or worse: the influenza that is running mad in the city.
He says our cottage walls make him feel closed in. I’d have thought living in a trench month in and month out would make him glad of cosy fire but as we sit in the evenings, me and Edith sewing, Mam at the knitting machine, I can see the uneven rise and fall of his chest as though he can’t get enough air into his lungs. Then he’ll catch me looking and give me that smile that melts my heart and if we were alone I’d go to him, comfort him in the way only a wife can, as I do silently when our door is closed and we’re safe from Edith’s constant prying.
I won’t believe that the girl in the dog-eared picture has lain with him, received those deep and wonderful kisses that send my heart and body floating on a breeze of joy. ‘Oh, Alfie, my Love,’ I whisper aloud, ‘tell me who she is and why you keep her photograph.’
I was just eighteen when we met. Edith and I were taking the cart to the market town, piled high with socks that Mam fashioned each day on the knitting frame. A team of men were digging out the new road bare chested in the summer heat. Edith carried a basket of eggs and as we passed by Alfie joked that the sun was so hot if we cracked one onto the stones it would give him a fried egg for his tea. His smile was wide; his tall frame tanned and muscled from the heavy work. In town, after we’d delivered the socks and sold the eggs, I bought him a fruit bun, telling myself if I lost my nerve I’d give it to Mam instead. But there he was as we pushed the cart back, handsome and strong, lifting kerbing stones as though they were loaves of bread. He whistled as we drew near.
‘Have this for your tea instead of a fried egg,’ I said, holding out the bun. My face was burning with shyness and I knew Edith would tell Mam the minute we got home, but I didn’t care, I wanted to see that smile again.
The first time he came courting Mam made us a nice tea but was button-lipped as we ate. ‘We don’t know nothing about him,’ she said when he’d begun the long walk back to the city. ‘What’s wrong with our village boys? That’s what I want to know. You don’t want to marry a townie and live in a dark, smoky street.’
But I did marry my townie, in our little church with Edith a surly bridesmaid and Mam conceding that we made a nice couple. By the summer’s end the war that none of us dared even think about came to tear us apart. ‘I’ve got to do my bit, Vee,’ Alfie had said, ‘couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.’ When he came home in his uniform, such rough, unyielding stuff it was made of, I thought I’d never stop weeping.
But now my lovely man is home again for good. He hasn’t found work yet and with Mam’s jibes about keeping us all it’s no wonder he wants to walk the fields all day.
He’s out of sight now. I slip on my good boots and pull a warm scarf from the drawer. Ignoring Mam’s cries that I haven’t done my share of cooking I put on my coat and step out into the icy afternoon.
The light is fading but I see Alfie ahead, close to the falling down barn. He’s gathering wood; I watch him bend and straighten, tucking the kindling under his arm.
When I reach him he doesn’t smile. He’s expecting a row, I suppose, about the picture. I unwind the scarf from my neck and wrap it around his, planting a kiss on his cold lips. He drops the wood and draws me into the shelter of the barn, clinging to me, his arms crushing me against him until I pull back to breathe. His cheeks are wet from weeping.
‘Can you tell me, Alfie? Whatever it is that makes you cry?’
‘I don’t like Christmas Eve.’ He blurts it out, kicking at the twigs and branches.
‘That’s alright. You don’t have to come to church if …’
‘Nothin’ to do with church.’ He leans against the wall of the barn and slides down it until he’s sitting, his arms wrapped around his knees, his face buried in his sleeve. His sobs ring out in the stillness of the gathering darkness.
I sit beside him, gently tugging at his arm, trying to see his face then I pull the photograph from my pocket, my heart drumming. ‘Is it … her … making you sad? Can you tell me about her?’
He glances at the picture then looks away. Standing up he pulls a newspaper from his pocket, scrunches up a few pages then places twigs on top. He flicks a match from a box and in minutes a cheery flame illuminates the crumbling stones of the barn.
‘Warm your hands,’ he says.
I sit beside him, his arm around me and I wonder if he’s going tell me he wants to leave.
‘It was the first one,’ he says, so quietly I can barely hear him. ‘The first Christmas Eve. We were dug in … yards … that’s all it was … yards from the German line. If I’d thrown a stone it would have sailed over their heads we were that close.’
I stare at the flames as he adds more wood.
‘It was like tonight, bitter cold, stars all above us. Then we saw the strangest thing. A tree; a Christmas tree coming up out of their trench like it was alive, candles burning on it. A few lads fired but then we heard …’ Alfie’s face contorts with grief and I grip his hand. ‘Singing. No joke, they were singing Silent Night … but with German words. It was …’
Tears course down his cheek again.
‘It was beautiful, Vee. The most wonderful singing I ever heard. We stopped firing and they set up more candles along the top of their trench. I … I thought I was dreaming. Then little flags went up, white handkerchiefs in the candle light.’
He grabs a piece of kindling and waves it in the air. My tongue won’t move in my mouth but my eyes beg him to continue.
‘One of their officers climbed out of the trench, stood there like a sitting duck for any of us to pick off but then he walked across that stinking no man’s land, coming right for us and do you know what?’
I shake my head.
‘Our Lieutenant stood up and walked straight to him. I thought he was going to shoot him but … they shook hands. Then we all climbed out, knowing a bullet could take us any second but …’
I find my voice. ‘You shook hands with Germans?’
‘I did. I shook hands with a soldier and he looked me in the eye. Vee, he was just like me. Just like any of us. Just a man.’
Alfie wipes his face with the back of his hand.
‘Next day, Christmas, they came again. Someone had a football and we kicked it around on that frozen earth for hours. Officers were swapping rum and chocolate. That’s when I talked to him.’
He gestures to the photograph still in my hand. ‘His name was Karl, came from some place I couldn’t pronounce. She … she’s his sweetheart.’
He takes the picture from me, runs his finger gently over her face. ‘He gave me this. I gave him one of you. I had another.’ He touches my hair. ‘Your face was with me every day.’
Relief makes my own tears flow. ‘But after that day, Alfie …’
‘Yes, we had to start shooting again, all the time I was praying a bullet wouldn’t go through his chest, through your picture.’
He pulls me to my feet. ‘Four years on I still wonder if he made it through; if he’s standing with her right now, singing those German words. I’ve no way of knowing.’ He holds me close and I know in that moment I’ve got to be strong for both of us.
‘Maybe the photographs were lucky charms. She saw you through it; maybe I kept him safe too. What do you say?’
He takes my face in his hands. ‘I’d say I hope she’s as lovely as you, Vee.’
I slide my hand into his. ‘Let’s you and me stay out till they’ve gone to church,’ I tell him. ‘We can say our own prayer for Karl and his ladylove with no one to hear.’
Then I kick over the embers till the barn grows dark and only the stars can see us.