© Embe Byron
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(Please note that dashes appear as question marks in the middle of sentences - not intended)
Like foxes gone to ground, the girl and her mother hid from the new American attacks, the biting spring winds, and the growl of empty stomachs.
Bombs carried from Italy maimed the great city of Vienna; sufficient to expose the city’s torn belly, to knock it to its bloody knees, to leave the city quaking, shivering, and hungry. It had been a brutal winter of shortages. For those who had somewhere else they could be, they had left it too late. There was no fuel for their cars and the train was no longer an option; the same bombs that targeted the central station at Westbahnhof had closed that escape route.
Operation Frühlingserwachen –charged with protecting oilfields and refineries on the Eastern Front – was the German Army’s last major offensive of the Second World War. It failed. At the end of March, the Russians crossed into Austria. They were a little over one hundred kilometres away. Conscripted boys as young as sixteen were ordered to the front to protect Vienna. They left behind a city choked with their mothers’ fears, a city strangled of hope.
The wind carried the sound of guns, a thunderous Russian vendetta. On the days when the girl left the latest burrow in search of food, she watched resigned citizens tear pictures of Hitler from walls and pillars and remove them from the windows of their homes. Army and militia deserters bloated the ranks of bedraggled citizens; homeless people swelled in number. They carried sacks of clothing over their shoulders and crawled their way to cellars. There they protected their lairs as fiercely as cornered animals.
She was a Hungarian refugee this girl, a filthy scavenger. The same age of those youths sent to the front, she fought her war on the back streets of Vienna. She had broken the big toe on her right foot, had it rag-strapped to the next one. She compensated by walking on her heel, but scraps of shoe were no protection and soon it too cracked and bled. People lurched, drunk on fear and helplessness. They shoved others aside all the while keeping their eyes pinned on the sky above them. An hour earlier, the sky’s belly had ripped open. Echoing, thunderous shrieks carried by a thousand town criers. Forced marches were back, and the Germans were again in retreat. Just as they had to leave Budapest in December, the girl knew that she and her Mama must now leave Vienna; this new enemy cut deeper than any hunger and cold. They could have travelled west with the retreating army, but the talk was that the Russians would not stop until they reached German soil.
The older woman shuffled slowly, was not fit for a long walk. The girl sat her down on a low wall and with a cursory glance around her, took a wheelbarrow from a neglected front garden. She lowered her mother into it. Their few possessions now fitted in two ragbags the girl had picked up along the way. She cushioned her Mama’s neck with one and placed the other under her knees. Not yet forty years old, her mother’s eyes were empty; she had not spoken in two days. Not since the man...
Her mother was hardly more than thirty kilos now - but the girl found it hard to push the barrow on the cratered road. Her arms locked at the elbows for hours at a time and attempts at the end of each day to straighten them scraped scalding tears from her eyes. Nightly, she had to ask someone to rub the life back into her limbs, tasting blood as she bit down hard on her lip to stop herself crying out.
There was talk on the roadside that the British and Americans had crossed over the Alps into Austria. The girl fell in with a group of refugees walking south. Some had a plan of walking to Graz. The girl asked how far that was.
‘Two hundred kilometres,’ someone offered from the rear of the group.
Her only plan was to walk and keep walking. She allowed herself a fleeting thought that every step took her further away from Hungary, from her half brother, from the baby she has never met and whose face she could not imagine. She moved slowly and attracted the company of other straggling walkers. With scored and grubby hands, they shared what food they had amongst their company until it ran out. Rust bled from the barrow’s handles into the girl’s hands; driving rain washed it off. The sun caught up with them and passed over, and the days walked on.
London, March 1943
Beware the toils of war ... the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world.
Daniel ran for the last bus, just missed it. He had a long walk home, tried to think which bomb shelter was nearest, pulled the collar of his coat up around his ears and stuck his hands in his pockets. Lord, it was perishing. The blanket of sky above him glittered like a shattered pane of glass, the only lights the war could not extinguish. A world at war and it occurred to the priest that the self same constellations exposed them all - politicians, soldiers, and civilians alike.
God’s mysterious ways.
He walked briskly for another ten minutes, fragments of light visible behind blackout curtains, like the too-bright bulbs of the reporter’s camera. He would surely make it home. Seconds later, the wail of the air raid siren stripped him of that notion.
Doors opened ahead of him and families spilled out onto the road. They all had one destination in mind. Running behind them, he pounded the pavement down Buckfast Street and his heart fell into his stomach, knocking in rhythm. Dozens of people ran far ahead of him and turned the corner out of view. Bethnal Green was the nearest shelter; he would never make it.
Within a few minutes, the siren ended abruptly and Daniel staggered to a stop. He bent and folded his long frame, planking his hands on his knees to catch his breath. For the love of God, make up your mind.
Long breaths only froze his nostrils; he straightened up and tramped into the evening. On Dunbridge Street, screeching fire trucks overtook him. What had happened? It couldn’t have been a bomb; none had fallen.
Minutes later, he caught sight of the staggering crowds outside Bethnal Green and started to run. As he neared the underground station, the sight of bodies laid out on the pavement stopped the prayer on his breath.
He had come upon the dead many times and knew what was expected of him. Here, the tragedy was unfolding before his eyes and he was suspended, at a loss as to what to do. How best to help. As he edged himself to the front of the crowd, a young fireman he knew by the name of Harold caught his eye, beckoned him over. Handed him a small child.
‘You can lay him over there beside his Nan, Reverend’ his hoarse voice instructed.
Daniel took the boy into his arms and looked down at his silent face, framed in damp, black curls. He was hardly two years old, if that. He, like Daniel’s brother Robert, would forever be two, forever lost. He signed the figure of the cross on the boy’s forehead. ‘God speed you little one.’
Daniel could do nothing for the boy now and settled him gently in the crook of his grandmother’s arm. He crouched lower to pull up the boy’s well-darned socks and, on this bitter March night, gently rubbed his small feet between his palms. He turned and looked about for the boy’s shoes.
Daniel’s breath caught suddenly and his chest tightened. Dear Lord. No. Not here. Not now. But he could not stop it. The priest could not stem the panic that mounted in his chest. And although he was powerfully built – six foot four in height and as solid as a cliff face – he had no armour for this ... this visitation. The two-inch white streak that bled into his otherwise coal-black hair marked the first time that panic had taken him. Felled him. Owned him.
He did what he had to do; he dropped to his knees, bearing down on the front of his thighs and locking his elbows into place by his sides. He did this for two reasons: primarily to resist the almost inexorable urge to bring his hands up and over his ears to block out the fury that would surely follow, and secondly, so everyone would think he was praying. And, yes, it was mendacious, but God would understand, he reasoned. For what was the alternative? Gasping and staggering around the road, unable to draw but the shallowest of breaths? Distracting rescuers from what they must do?
Ambulances continued to pour onto the London street; clanging bells reverberated in his ears, and throbbing lights pierced his closed eyelids. He snatched in icy air through his mouth, his throat raw and scorched, his nostrils assailed with the smell of rubber tyres. The screams of the injured perforated the night and every particle of air was sucked out of his lungs until his hammering heart collided with his rib cage. It took all his strength to stay upright; his eyes welled and spilled over. He could not move his hands to wipe them. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life...
Breath by punishing breath, he regained control and counted himself down, finally taking in enough air to fill his starving lungs. His eyelids snapped open, his flooded eyes blinking furiously. He listened for the finale – the wails of the family members searching for their loved ones. Anxious, terror-pitched calls descended into desperate numbing cries as parents found their children. Most people hated this more than any other sound. He did too but it was his summons back. This was when they needed him. A final shudder and he unfolded to his full height, shaking the last tremors through his fingertips.
He rubbed his aching chest. What was he doing before this happened?
Yes. Yes, of course. He knuckled his eyes.
Missing shoes. Daniel looked about and caught the fire chief’s attention.
‘Reverend,’ acknowledged Tom White, bow-shaped as if he had taken a blow to his belly. His silver hair was swept back from a high forehead, his face bleached of colour.
Daniel shivered. ‘What you saw there –’
‘What I saw, Reverend was a priest brought to his knees.’
Daniel blinked his thanks.
‘I know that little boy’s family,’ the fire chief said. ‘His Ma was taken off in one of the ambulances. She’s little more than a girl herself. God help her when she comes around.’
Daniel pulled his collar up against the unforgiving wind. ‘Do you know what happened, Tom?’
‘There were hundreds down there when the sirens went off. Up on a thousand more pushed in from the cinemas and off the passing buses. I’ve told them ’til I’m hoarse. You provide one entrance to a shelter with five thousand bunks and you are asking for trouble. But will they listen?
Passing buses. Daniel listened but did not answer; it was not expected. Once again, he felt as if he had a walk-on part in a macabre drama.
‘We think they panicked at a sound of a new Army rocket test over the way and pushed in,’ the fireman said, slapping his hands off each other to warm them. ‘Most of the dead suffocated. It must have been hell down there.’
Hell, otherwise known as Bethnal Green Underground Station, still under construction, its deep tunnels doubling as a refuge for its East End neighbours.
‘The wife and kids are gone up north to her folks. I miss ’em something awful. On days like this, I just want to go home and hold them. But Reverend, this is senseless.’ The man shook from head to frozen feet. ‘What kind of God lets this happen to kiddies and women and old folk?’
Daniel was thankful that he was not pressed for an answer this time. The fire chief straightened up and returned to the job in hand.
Daniel knew how it worked. A siren drowned your heartbeat; Luftwaffe planes splintered clouds to drop their bombs; buildings fractured, and fired; streets cratered and swallowed machine and man – then and only then did people die in these numbers. Daniel knew this with an absolute certainty – he feared and loathed it – but he understood it.
This he did not, and tonight he had no answers. Nothing fell from the sky and broke these people; those that died did so panicked, frightened, and falling, a nightmare dragging you in so deep that you want to wake up and thank God that it never happened. There were so many of the dead now they were being laid out side by side on the pavement; stiffened bodies like the bound sheaves of corn he had seen gathered on his father’s estate as a school boy.
Daniel took a long, cold breath and walked back to the line, all the while looking out for a pair of boy’s shoes.
Friendship makes prosperity more shining and lessens adversity by dividing and sharing it.
Over two thousand kilometres away, Gávavencsello, a small town in North-East Hungary was untouched by bomb or bullet. In 1943, the town was abuzz with talk of the German Hitler who had declared war on half of Europe. Hungary seemed to have caught that bug too and had declared war on the USSR and the United States. Great Britain, in turn, had declared war on Hungary. All of this, sixteen-year old, Magda Hartmann, learnt at school. It swirled above her head and snapped at her ankles, but none of it touched her.
She and her mother lived on the third floor of their shabby apartment building. Magda ran the last two streets, pulling off her scarf and coat. With her coat billowing around her, the raw, spring air seeped through her thin blouse. The apartment would hardly be warmer, but the air out here smelt deliciously of spent rain and Cherry blossom.
Boiled cabbage, curdled milk, and if she was especially unlucky, the spiky smell of urine from an open toilet door, these were her daily companions on the stairwell. Magda was late as usual; she bounded up the stairs, declining to hold onto the peeling banisters.
She stopped on the final return; there was something wrong, something different. What was it? She looked behind her thinking that Mr. Hahn had stepped out of his door after she had passed, but he was not there. Turning back, she could see her front door; there was nothing between her and it. Sweat gathered on the back of her neck. There was no presence, in fact, just the opposite; the silence troubled her. The whirring and cranking of Mama’s sewing machine was as familiar and constant as her own breath. Both were silent.
She ran up the last steps. ‘Mama,’ she called out, pushing in the front door of their apartment and discarding her school satchel on the floor. She back kicked the door shut; Mama offered no rebuke. Her face was the colour of wispy gauze silted with her life’s many disappointments, and her tiny body shrank into the two-seater sofa that had once been Magda’s bed. Her fingers clasped an envelope as if she was making an offering.
Eyes that begged for good news stared at Magda. ‘It’s your father’s writing.’
Apa. ‘Apa has written!’ Finally. ‘What does he say, Mama. Is he coming home?’
‘I... I haven’t opened it. I can’t.’ Her mother held the envelope up to Magda but did not let go of it.
Magda started to ease her mother’s fingers apart; years of sewing had sharpened and chiselled them hard as sea shards. She turned the envelope over. It was still sealed.
‘Open it, Magda,’ her mother said.
Magda slit the envelope with her nail. Inside were a single page letter and a certificate, which Magda ignored for now. She scanned the letter for an address, but it had only one line: Budapest. She sat back on the couch, shaking. She cleared her throat and read aloud.
I have tried to write many times. Please forgive me for keeping you in silence these past two years. I hope you have made
another life for yourself as I have.
Anna, I have remarried, to a fellow Volksdeutsche. Her name is Karolina. The paper enclosed with this letter is our divorce.
Mama cried out. Magda stopped reading. Another life? Her father had replaced them with another city, another family. She desperately wanted to stuff the words back into the envelope and forget the message ever arrived.
Magda’s eyes welled and she could not see the writing. Her mother handed her a piece of cotton from the floor. She wiped her eyes clear and blew her nose.
Magda, whom I miss with all my heart and send my deepest love, has a baby brother, Endre. He is just one month old and has her golden hair and blue eyes.
Magda’s throat hurt and she did not recognise the strangled sounds her voice made.
I have joined the Waffen SS and leave tomorrow for the Eastern front. I have every belief that we will quickly overrun the
In the service of the Fatherland,
Mama put her hand out for the letter but did not speak. They both sat in their isolated shock until Magda could bear it no longer.
They had only two rooms in the apartment, so she escaped into the bedroom. She lay down on the patched counterpane but did not cry; she was too numb. Where once her father’s boots had stood, hers replaced them on the cracked linoleum. Where once his tobacco-scented clothes filled the wardrobe, now hung the few clothes she owned that still fitted her. Her father had not been in their lives for some years but until today, he had remained in her heart and in her dreams. She had often lain on this bed beside her tired Mama and daydreamed of Apa coming through the door. That dream was now crushed; all she felt was an overwhelming sense of cold certainty; her father was dead to her. But, as she closed her eyes, the pictures and the memories stacked up and she had no armour to still them.
Apa was proud of his roots and spoke of what Hitler would do for his beloved country. He only spoke German at home with her; it was not allowed outside. Mama used to get angry at this; she argued with Apa that he was filling her daughter’s head with his dangerous political ideas. By speaking German, Apa cut Mama out of their conversations. The worse Mamas temper grew, the more Magda sided with Apa.
Apa used to crank the gramophone to life at night when he waltzed Mama into good humour. They danced tangos, Viennese and English waltzes. Magda learnt her first dance steps holding onto Mama’s waist as all three of them twirled around the front room. Now the machine gathered dust under the bed.
Things changed four years ago when Mama lost the baby. It was too early, and Magda’s little sister died. Nobody would talk about it; it was as if it had never happened. And, as though it was wrong to be happy ever again, Mama shed her joy. She cried quietly, her eyes so polished with tears they may have drowned.
‘Anna,’ her father had pleaded. ‘Stop crying. Look you are upsetting Magda.’
He pulled Magda over to stand in front of her mother. Mama always looked up when he said that and a thin smile wounded her face before she once again dropped her eyes and returned to her grief.
Then Apa started staying out at night and the gramophone quietened.
Magda’s father was a printer, and he often brought pamphlets home. Volksdeutsche party members came around after dark and were free with their talk after Mama had left the room. Apa insisted his daughter stay, and she had felt proud of him directing the men and telling them where to distribute the pamphlets. Before they left the apartment, Apa called them into a circle and dropped his voice.
‘Heil Hitler’ he whispered and the circle answered him ‘Heil Hitler,’ including Magda with her right arm raised in imitation. Soon, he promised, they would speak it openly and in victory. She had not been clear back then what they were exactly fighting for; she was happy to be Apa’s little soldier and once the Germans came, she would be able to join a special youth group.
Mama had often argued with Apa about the dangers he was putting both her and their daughter in. Magda remembered how childishly she had defended her father. Maybe it was because she was enough for him, whereas Mama grieved for her lost baby and could not find any consolation in her living child. As his absences from home grew longer, Magda had many arguments with Mama, blaming her for pushing him away. But Magda was a child back then. She was sixteen now and had grown to realise that though her father left her, Mama would never abandon her. They hadn’t seen Apa since the spring of ‘41.
Mama stopped speaking of him after a few months’ absence. When she was younger, Magda had slept on the sofa in their front room, but some months after Apa had left, Mama suggested she share her double bed. She was happy to; the sofa was lumpy and smelt of cooking fats and Apa’s pipe. She and Mama used the front room now for cooking and sewing. To heat the apartment, they left the oven door open after their evening meal.
Magda rose and stood in front of the mirrored wardrobe door. Her waist length corn blonde hair was platted neatly, her only childlike feature now. She had once been Apa’s little princess. Well, no more. She had day dreamed more than once of getting Mama’s scissors and hacking her hair off above its bindings. That would shock him. But then it scared her more, and she shook her head at the notion.
She stared at the mirror. She had a slim, slightly upturned nose in a face shaped like a pearl. And eyes the colour of Judgement day ? or so her father had told her often ? as if God himself could see through the solid, unbroken blue. But eyes that were brilliant and warm to those who loved her were sharp and reflective to those she exposed – their pettiness, greed, and ignorance mirrored back on them. She had no appetite for the adult art of concealment.
Magda became aware of the whirl of the Singer machine. Mama’s sewing brought in the only money they had since Apa left. There was a time when she had hand-finished beautiful christening gowns, a time when Magda had tripped the streets with her mother on deliveries, the delighted clients often slipping her a few extra pengös in payment. Now she must collect and deliver everything; Mama did not leave the apartment. Mama rarely worked with new material now, but cut down dresses and coats to fit smaller children.
Apa’s letter disappeared and they did not speak of it again.
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Though less ferocious than earlier years, explosives continued to tear apart the nights, to scream and whistle, burn and split the very heart of London. Early mornings saw Daniel out on the streets. He occasionally bussed but infinitely preferred to cycle, weaving around solid obstacles (including people whom he always greeted with a nod), daring an over-the-top trajectory if the impeding hillock looked stable, and, if all else failed, swallowing his impatience, and dismounting. In the latter cases, he carried his bike shoulder-high over the mounds of broken glass and jagged rubble. Weekly rounds to the housebound were sacrosanct, and, when compared with visits to homes imploding with bad news, by far the easier task. The boxed gas mask slung from his handlebars and knocked against his knees when it wasn’t covering his face like a second, reptilian skin.
He regularly strayed in fogs of rubble dust and soot that billowed from smouldering buildings. Water grabbed at his ankles from burst mains and he resorted to tucking his trouser legs into wellington boots. Mother would be dismayed if she saw him now, he thought. Her standards were legendary. She had already written of unfortunate sacrifices including Father’s tailor having to forgo turn-ups on his trousers to save material.
When he had no time or patches to mend a ripped tyre, he resorted to the bus. From a top seat, he spied on gouged houses parading their papered walls, crockery still in dressers, kitchen cupboards disgorging blue and red tins. He imagined himself the reporter, capturing those streetscapes in print; the cameraman recording them on newsreel; the photographer snapping them for reproduction. But, as he had told his mother in letters (never posted), a black and white print cannot depict a vivid red dress glimpsed through a swinging wardrobe door, the choking inhalation of a fog of smoke or the searing yellow heat of a burning street. Nor can the printed word capture the pitch of a scream or the tear of flesh.
Once a month he wrote home. These letters he did post. Carefully chosen, upbeat words, sharing the little joys that crossed his path, avoiding any mention of hardship that would give his mother cause to, yet again, question his vocation. He shared the streets with the many uniformed men and women on leave or travelling back to posts. They respectfully touched their hats or nodded their greeting, but since Bethnal Green he had a cavernous ache in his chest, a deep, hollowed out feeling like a tangible sense of waiting for something to happen, of being glad when it didn’t and at a loss at the very same time. He lay awake many nights thinking of how he mopped up tragedy after tragedy but prevented none, shielded nobody.
A letter arrived from home. Mother wrote that his cousin Eddie – naturally called Edward in her letter – now had a good job in the city, and passed on his telephone number. Good could have meant anything, Daniel knew, but it most certainly meant important.
Eddie was delighted to hear from him, and the cousins arranged to meet one evening for dinner in St Ermin’s.
Daniel’s life had changed irrevocably since his shoes last echoed in the vast foyer of the balconied hotel. The restaurant was surprisingly busy but Daniel was quickly led to his cousin’s table.
Eddie had never seen Daniel in his clerical clothes. ‘Heavens above, Daniel, you look so ... so different,’ he said, thick eyebrows scurrying toward each other.
Daniel laughed at his cousin’s reaction. ‘It's still me underneath the collar, Eddie, and I bet I could still outrun you,’ he playfully patted Eddie’s rounded belly. As he sat down, he suppressed a twinge of envy at the finely tailored chalk strip, double-breasted suit, having been until recent years, as dapper a figure as his cousin still presented.
The hotel manager was on first name terms with Eddie and saw to it that he and his guest enjoyed a tasty meal of ham – not minced for once – with a generous helping of potatoes and carrots so fresh Daniel fancied he could smell the earth off them. The cousins chatted late into the evening, occasionally distracted by a loud laugh, a dropped knife, a cross word here and there. The starched snow-white linen, porcelain dinnerware, and crystal glass reminded Daniel of home; he was overdue a visit.
He declined the wine – never his drink of choice; Eddie polished off the bottle. Daniel was curious about Eddie’s job. ‘So, tell me cousin, what exactly do you do in the inner sanctums of government?’
‘Oh, boring stuff - reports and more reports.’
‘Come now, Eddie. You didn’t come to London to file reports.’
Eddie leaned over the table, tapping his nose with a forefinger. ‘Do you want to know the secret? I am not nearly as important as my mother believes and tells everyone.’
‘Message understood, Eddie. Tell me about Ann, then. Mother wrote that she is quite the catch.’
Eddie relaxed back on his chair; he was on safer ground here. ‘Ann is divine and an angel to put up with me. Imagine with my lug ears, I manage to catch her,’ he laughed, ‘you will love her. She is all heart and has a face that I hope our children will inherit instead of mine,’ he said, pulling a finger along the knuckle of his nose, the product of a rugby match clash in his younger days.
Daniel, if asked, would have admitted his envy. No one asked. Being everybody’s confidante meant he was rarely alone. But there was no one to rush home to at the end of his day, no one to share his thoughts, no one waiting. He had always presumed he would marry and father children, but that had not been God’s will to date.
‘Now, how is the delectable Caroline?’ Eddie asked.
Daniel shrugged. ‘Last I heard she was appraising the suitability of the dwindling bachelor population.’
‘Bugger. So, it didn’t work out then.’
‘No, Eddie. Caroline decided that my revised prospects were not ... were not of the nature designed to keep her in the style she deserves.’ Daniel managed to laugh at it now. ‘Too tame and too hard up, I think, to meet her standards. Not to worry, it’s over two years ago now.’
Daniel shook his head.
‘I’m sorry, Daniel. It must be hard to absorb all the misery and not have anyone to share it with.’
He could have had, Daniel thought. ‘Do you remember Robert?’
‘Your brother, Robert?’
‘Yes. I know it’s strange to drop this in now to the conversation, but the other day I cradled a two-year old boy. He died in the crush at Bethnal Green. I suppose men like you keep those tragedies off the front page?’
Daniel's voice had an edge to it, the turmoil inside him threatening to boil over, to smack headlong into his cousin. Eddie was better at hiding his emotion; his face gave nothing away. ‘You were there?’
‘I was.’ Daniel shivered. ‘This boy - he reminded me of Robert. Why I don’t know. It was not as if I actually knew my brother. I was away at school for most of his baby life. He was two when he died.'
'What happened?' Eddie asked.
'Succumbed to croup, the Master told me. I had no idea what they meant for years. They didn’t take me out for the funeral, so my abiding memory is that we had no Christmas decorations that year. Imagine that.'
Eddie fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable. ‘Sorry, Daniel, I don’t remember ever seeing him.’
To change the subject, Daniel brought up the question of how they had spent their school holidays. ‘A thought occurred to me the other day. How come you holidayed in our house every summer, but I never got to go to your house?’
‘That, cousin was down to your dear mother. According to mine, she wanted you where she could keep an eye on you.’
Daniel raised an eyebrow. ‘That hardly equates with packing me off to boarding school, does it?’
Eddie laughed. Loudly. ‘Ah, but the school no doubt disciplined you well. My mother’s idea of discipline was to deny me a hug until she caved in.’
They had slipped back into easy friendship that Daniel found himself telling Eddie of Bethnal Green and his uneasiness since the disaster. ‘I am twenty eight years of age and have moved from a sprawling home in Somerset to a Bishop’s Palace. I am not hungry or destitute. I hear the heartbreak and sadness, but I don’t live it. I feel ... I feel as if I am hiding away.’
‘But don’t the good people of London need you?’
‘Certainly, but do you know something? I have suffered only one twisted ankle in all this time. I am tired of blessing boys and sending them off to fight for me.’
Even without the help of a glass of wine, the conversation had loosened Daniel’s thoughts as well as his tongue; he had not articulated this feeling to a soul before now, not even himself.
Eddie guffawed. ‘Daniel, I have to admit I was amazed to hear you had entered the priesthood. You were a past master of devilment. Heavens, when you weren’t trying to drown me, you were daring me to jump off the top of the hayshed. It’s a wonder I am alive today! And I remember a time you could drink me under the table. But you have never been a coward. Look how you faced up to your father.’
‘I think I wore him down rather than stood up to him,’ Daniel said and returned the grin.
‘That’s more like it, cousin. Now have the young maidens of London any idea how racy their current priest once was?
‘Eddie!’ Daniel reddened, already feeling the drilling eyes of his neighbours on him. He knew better than to take on Eddie when he was this inebriated, so he fixed his features into the most contrite face he could manage – after all he had had much practice – and turned to the elderly couple at the nearest table.
He fully intended to apologise but it was too late. The silver-haired woman clapped a bejewelled hand over her mouth in horror and in so doing, her fox-fur collar slipped. The tiny animal’s head was resting on her shoulder, its glassy eyes and teeth-bared mouth echoing the disapproval of his mistress.
Daniel couldn’t help it; the rumble in his stomach turned into raucous laughter. He grabbed his napkin and stuffed it into his mouth. The cousins rocked helplessly; Daniel was thankful that their fellow diners were not his parishioners.
Finally, they quietened and Eddie was the first to regain his composure. ‘Christ. I haven’t laughed that much in years. Anyway, enough of that talk. On a lighter note, I am going to extract a promise from you.’
Daniel hiccupped and wiped his eyes on his napkin. ‘What is it?’
‘Ann and I haven’t set a wedding date yet but we will this very weekend, and you must conduct the service, Daniel. Though, on reflection, maybe you should take something to fix that speech impediment.’
‘My first family wedding,’ Daniel started to shake Eddie’s hand and ended up hugging his cousin to the increasing consternation of their neighbouring diners.
Daniel was smiling inanely when he left the restaurant. He had barely turned the corner when the sirens started. He was nearest the Bishop’s Palace and he raced there. The house was in darkness apart from a low lamp in the hallway. Once inside the door, he stopped to catch his breath before heading down to the basement kitchen. A small white envelope on the circular silver tray caught his attention. He had received a letter from his mother the day before, so was not expecting any correspondence. Strangely, his name and address were written in block capitals. His hand automatically raked his hair. He grabbed the letter and the letter opener and took the stairs two at a time, turning left into the kitchen. He shrugged off his coat and dropped it onto a chair before sliding the opener under the flap of the envelope. The lamp was also low here, but he thought something fell from the envelope. He turned up the light and stared at a single white feather lying on the tiled floor.
Who in God’s name? He pulled a folded sheet from the envelope before sinking onto the cracked leather chair favoured by the housekeeper. Sturdy, expensive writing paper, same as his mother used.
Your brother, Robert would be twenty-two now if he had lived.
He would have been prepared to die for his country.
No doubt you would have let him.
Daniel gasped for air. He was back in the school shed, his eyes closed, the blackness, and lack of air in his lungs forcing tears from his eyes. He pinched himself on the hand reviving a survival plan of a time before he had thought himself to count through the terror, to continue breathing.
The siren screamed. Daniel did not move; he started to cry, quietly as if someone might hear; for Robert and the boy he had held at Bethnal Green, for all the people he had buried in this city and for the searing guilt he felt at not being amongst them. He faced God every night on his knees and knew with absolute certainty that he had made the right decision, but dawn as often as not brought the doubts crawling back. In the daylight, he was never quite as certain; taking over the Estate and marriage to Caroline had been his destiny for nigh on twenty years.
Was the author of the note then correct? Was joining the priesthood a cowardly passivity on his part, rather than his true calling? The envelope had fallen to the floor. He picked it up to check the postage stamp. Somerset.
Dear God. No, Father. Blacken me but don’t use Robert to do it.