The telegraph messenger knocked on the door at eight o’clock this morning and I just knew that it was bad news. When I read the words ‘Missing in Action’ my heart jumped out of my chest and the silent voices in my head were screaming. Harry was not coming home, not yet anyway. It did not say he was dead, just missing. How could I bear it when I did not know where our boy was? Was he hurt? Was he hungry or thirsty? My husband Henry tried to comfort and reassure me that Harry was fine, but I can’t stop thinking about the fact that it will be the first Christmas that there will be an empty chair at the table. If only there was a sign that he was alive, then perhaps this feeling of dread that hangs over me like a black shadow might stop following me around.
As I looked out of the kitchen window at the weak winter sun shining onto the frosty paving stones in the back yard, the warm rays caressed my face. I could not stop thinking of those words, ‘missing in action.’ I wondered if Harry was looking at the same sun or if he was somewhere dark and in the shade. I just hoped that wherever he was that he was not injured or in pain.
That afternoon going into town on the bus, I sat and stared out through the grimy windows as we travelled down Hart Lane and passed the local cemetery. I closed my eyes; I could not bear to look at the crumbling old gravestones that taunted me as if to say you will be visiting here soon. I waited until we turned onto Victoria Street before I opened them to see people going about their daily lives; housewives donkey stoning front doorsteps, young mothers with toddlers admiring shop windows decorated with tinsel and holly wreaths, men up ladders cleaning windows, and friends chatting on street corners. In fact, everyone going about their business as if there wasn’t a war on. I wondered what Harry was doing all those miles away in a foreign country. What did he do to fill in his day? Not knowing was killing me.
Mrs West who lives a few doors down from me was sat in the seat behind. She tapped me on the shoulder and said,
‘Our Jane’s lad is home, but he’s in hospital down south somewhere. She said he doesn’t seem right in the head, just lays there staring into space all day long in a state of shock. The poor bugger!’
I just couldn’t stop myself and said,
‘She’s lucky at least her boy is home, and he is in one piece. I wouldn’t care what state our Harry’s in I just want him home.’
‘It must be hard for you love, but keep your chin up, eh?’
But how could I when my stomach was in knots with the fear of not knowing and the dread of hearing worse news about Harry? I tried to snap out of it and think of my other boys Albert and little Jack. I must attempt to make Christmas happy for them. We haven’t got much, and rationing means Christmas Dinner won’t be the same this year.
There was a long line of women queueing outside of Blackfords Butchers because they had bacon on sale today. I wondered if I should join the queue. I had never been that partial to bacon as I find it too salty for my palette. But isn’t it strange that when you have lacked something for a while, it becomes something you long for? It is the smell of bacon sizzling in the pan that I missed more than the taste; that rich smoky, savoury aroma that floats in the air. It brought back memories of a time when all the family would sit around the kitchen table on a Sunday morning waiting for their breakfasts to be cooked. I was always the last one to sit down to eat but the look of satisfaction on their well-fed faces made it all worthwhile. How I yearned for us all to be together again. I decided that I may as well queue up as the boys would be chuffed to have a bacon butty for a treat. At least it would be something tasty for a change, a bit of normality, because who knew when it would be available again? I decided to place an order for a small chicken for Christmas dinner as my rations might just stretch to that.
Diary: 17th December 1940
I can’t believe it! Harry is alive. The post card we received today says he is a prisoner of war and has been taken to a camp in Poland. He is in a stalag whatever that is. I know it won’t be a bed of roses for him, but I can’t stop smiling because now I know he is not lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Suddenly the black cloud of misery has floated away. Now I must galvanise and think of what he would need and make sure it gets to him. The Red Cross Shop is a good place to start, they’ll know exactly what is needed. I will go without myself so I can send Harry some home comforts. My head is in a whirl thinking about the warm clothing he will need, such as socks, gloves, and scarves, as I have heard that the Polish winters are brutally cold. I will make a start knitting them tonight.
I brought the box marked ‘Christmas Decorations’ down from the loft. How my heart skipped a beat when I opened it to see the Christmas Angel that Harry had made when he was eight. It looked a bit tattered and battered, but I took that as a sign all was going to be well. I placed it on top of the little artificial tree and when I look at it, I will think of Harry all those miles away and say a little prayer for his safety.
The boys will be home soon, and together we will decorate the tree with tinsel and glittery glass ornaments and hang up their stockings, and I will hang one for Harry too. We will sit round the table and sing Christmas carols as they write their letters to Father Christmas. Then we will make paper chains and blow-up balloons and pin them up in the front room and it will soon look all Christmassy. Wherever Harry is, I hope he is enjoying some Christmas comforts and thinking of us, as we will be thinking of him all those miles away. Although his chair will be empty on Christmas day, I know he will be with us in spirit.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This short story is part of a larger piece about my father’s time as a prisoner of war in World War II.
I am a recent graduate of Creative Writing at Teesside University where I gained a First-Class Honours degree at the age of 68. In 2017 as a member of a creative writing collective, I contributed to the self-published book of short stories, 'Of Prose and Pen', with all profits being donated to the Bright Red Charity at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. For the final assessment of my degree, I produced a work entitled, ‘Leaving Lamsdorf: Harry’s Long Walk Home to Freedom.’ My current work is rooted in northeast popular culture and familial relationships of my working-class upbringing. During studying on the degree course, I discovered a penchant for poetry and have crafted an anthology which is a combination of recollections of my family incorporating experimental writing with writing for well-being. I am passionate about life writing and believe that currently there is an under representation of British working-class writing in this hybrid of genres. My ambition is to address this by having my work published.