written by: R. A. Adams
Already a queue had formed outside the town hall, with many onlookers. Old, dry leaves littered the square but it was a clear September day with little wind.
“It’ll be an age before we’re seen,” Bobby said.
“No, look, it’s moving,” Roger said, as they joined the back. “Steady goes it, Bobby.”
“My beard will be to my knees by the time we get to the front,” Bobby said, scratching his stubble, “and maybe Theo will start growing one and all.”
Theodore, caught off guard, scoffed and punched Bobby’s arm.
“Come on, Theo!” Bobby joked, winding up his arm. “This is the war, give it a bit of zing!”
As Theodore brought up his fists, Roger pulled his brothers apart.
“Theodore’s going easy on you,” Roger said, “now, come on, no more of that.”
Bobby crossed his arms and muttered, “killjoy.”
Roger was the eldest of the Haye brothers. He was tall, with blonde tufts of wavy hair. He had incredibly blue eyes and a handsome grin. Bobby was the middle brother. He was shorter, grumpier and stockier, like his father, with dark brown hair. Theodore could have easily been mistaken for the middle child to those who didn’t know them – but this was a small village and everyone knew everyone, from their gossip to their favourite biscuit. Theodore stood taller than Bobby, but he was indeed the youngest, both in spirit and in age. He had a lean frame, topped with a messy head of golden hair, and the murkiest green eyes. The three of them had arrived into town wearing their Sunday best.
It was twelve o’clock by the time they’d made it to the door.
“God, I’ll be needing a bite to eat at this rate.” Bobby said.
“What’s taking so long?” Theodore asked, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Can’t feel my fingers.”
“Just got to be patient, don’t we?” Roger said.
“Don’t see why,” Bobby sniffed, “all this carry on for signing our names.”
In fact, there was a lot more to it than that. Bobby kicked loose dirt with his shoe as Theodore and Roger looked in through the doorway. Their eyes flicked from one officer to the next. Screens and booths had been set up, with a waiting area and a form filling table. Men of all walks of life were reading them, filling them out and handing them up to the nearest officer. It was managed chaos, as far as Theodore could see.
“Mikey?” Bobby called.
They were approached by another set of brothers, who were on their way out of the hall, holding signed documents.
“It’s only the bloody Evans brothers!” Bobby proclaimed.
“How goes it up the road?” Mikey asked them.
Michael, or Mikey, Evans was the eldest of the three. He was tall, freckled and wearing a hat on his head of brown hair. To his right stood Doug, the middle brother, and a near picture of Mikey, except for his strawberry blonde hair. To Mikey’s left was Ben, who was short, freckled and holding a well-loved football.
“Same old,” Roger answered, hands in his trouser pockets, “we’re hoping it’s not going to change too much.”
“Made it to the front then?” Asked Ben.
“Just waiting for the call,” Roger said, and he nodded towards the football, “you lot ready to lose tomorrow night?”
The Evans brothers scoffed to one another.
“Hardly,” Mikey said.
“We’ve got a wager.” Bobby said.
“We do?” Theodore retorted. Even Roger looked surprised.
“Just a couple of lads have put some money on the winner,” Bobby said flippantly.
The Evans brothers smirked.
Doug said, “Our chances are looking pretty good then, aren’t they?”
“Don’t get cocky now,” Roger piped up, “our Theo here is playing goal keep.”
“That’s right,” Bobby chimed in, “our Theo’s going to play for England, aren’t you?”
Theodore shrugged, feeling his cheeks flaming up.
“Well then, game on,” Mikey said.
As they laughed and said their goodbyes, there came a strong voice.
“You three,” and the Haye brothers whipped round to the front, where an officer stood, holding a clipboard, “you have forms to fill out so I suggest you get filling.”
Their cheeky charm evaporated into mutterings and nods as they gravitated towards the form table. Eventually, after processing, and an all clear from the doctor, they were sent to Captain Grant for sign off. He sat behind a wooden desk, surrounded by stamps and used tea cups. He had a smooth face, sharp features and wore his hat neatly on his head.
“Bobby Haye, Roger Haye,” he said, setting their documents in a pile, “and last but not least,” he lifted the final document and scanned the top, saying, “Theodore.”
Theodore stood forward, hands clasped in front of him.
“Sir.” Theodore said.
“Excellent, it says here you’re fit and healthy, good and tall,” said captain Grant, picking up a fountain pen, “now, what’s your date of birth?”
“Did I forget to fill it?” Theodore asked.
“Appears so,” he said, “but not to worry. Now, your date of birth please, young man?”
“1st of June, 1922.” Theodore answered.
As the captain filled in the blanks, a small pool of ink formed at the tip of his fountain pen where’d he paused.
“Would you repeat that?” He said.
Theodore answered, “1st of June, 1922.”
Captain Grant brought back the pen from the page, finding the lid and screwing it on.
“That would make you seventeen.” He said, his eyes firmly locked on the pen.
Theodore loosened his collar, playing with his sweater, and listening to Bobby’s impatient exhales.
“Yes, sir,” Theodore said.
“Are you aware of this?” The captain asked, glancing up at Roger.
Theodore cast his eyes back to Roger and in concern, his brothers approached the desk.
“That he’s seventeen?” Roger asked. “Yes, sir.”
“Then you’ll be aware of the age of conscription?” Captain Grant continued.
“Young men seventeen and upwards, fighting the good fight, of course we know,” Bobby said, “it’s plastered across the whole village.”
“I’m afraid you’re wrong.” The captain said, matter-of-factly. He pushed out his chair, standing up and pointing to the poster hanging off the screen. “The age for conscription is eighteen years and upward in the United Kingdom.”
A ringing sound filled Theodore’s ears, followed by a tingling in his nose and behind his eyes.
“Oh my god,” Roger said under his breath.
“Aye, but sure, he’s eighteen next year.” Bobby said, undeterred.
“You are putting me in an impossible situation, Mr Haye,” said captain Grant, “and, might I add, your brother here.”
“What are you saying then?” Bobby asked, heat to his words. “That he can’t go?”
The captain wound his way back to the desk and he took a seat.
“Unfortunately, that is the case,” he said, “Theodore does not qualify.”
“How did we miss it?” Roger said softly.
Theodore searched Roger’s face for an explanation, but he was lost in thought. Bobby, however, was furiously glaring at the captain.
“You’re not going to let Theo fight because he’s a few months shy of eighteen?” Bobby blurted.
“That is correct.”
Theodore glanced over his shoulder, loosening his collar further. Men sitting in the waiting area watched the scene play out with intrigue. Now his chest began to burn.
“Bobby—” Theodore started.
“This is daft,” Bobby interrupted, taking no notice of the onlookers, “you need men, don’t you? Our Theo’s fit, healthy, got good strong muscles. And you’re gonna let all that go because of what? Of some ruddy number?”
“I am aware this is difficult to hear,” the captain said, meeting Bobby’s tone, “but it is eighteen, not seventeen—”
“Then sneak him in for Christ’s sake!”
“Bobby,” Roger hissed, a hand quickly gripping his brother’s shoulder, “that’s enough!”
Captain Grant’s eyes appeared bristled under the rim of his hat. Theodore’s chest tightened. His eyes flicked from the floor up to the conscription notices and then back down to the floor, the only thing which happened not to be spinning.
“Your reaction is justified,” the captain said measuredly, “I have no doubt that Theodore would make a valuable soldier.”
Captain Grant shuffled through the papers on his desk, making last minute adjustments, and stamping them. There was a palpable silence.
“There are many other ways to fight for Britain.” Said the captain, as he passed over the documents to Roger. A vibrant green, red and blue pamphlet was perched on the top. “We expect to see you both in two weeks.”
They left the town hall, pushing through the crowds, with their tails in between their legs. As they made it to the bottom of the steps and started down the square, Bobby stopped the pair of them.
“Theodore, why didn’t you say anything?” He asked.
“What? Can’t this wait till later?” Theodore replied sharply.
“Yes, it can,” Roger insisted.
Theodore felt eyes on him, like the sun’s rays, blistering his skin. When he swept an eye round the square, he noticed the rippling of hushed chatter, and poorly hidden gesturing. Bobby narrowed his eyes up at Roger.
“You’re just going to let them win?” Bobby said, arms folded squarely over his coat.
“What else can we do? He’s young for his year,” Roger said impatiently, “it’s out of our control.”
“Do you think they’re talking about us?” Theodore asked.
“No, Theo,” Roger replied.
“They’re talking about you,” Bobby hissed, to Theodore’s dismay, “I knew this would happen.”
When they veered round the corner and found their dad chatting away to another villager, Roger turned to his brothers.
“Not a word, do you hear me?” Roger said, a tight frown across his lips.
And true to his word, they didn’t speak about Theodore’s conscription blunder, or anything else for that matter. It was lucky, for their father Bernie filled most of the journey home in the truck with matters of farming.
“Anywhere there’s a patch of green, they’ll pay you to grow something on it,” Bernie said, “rugby pitches, church yards, and it comes with plenty of money, so it does.”
“That’s good, dad.” Roger said, from the front seat.
“They’re giving us new tractors,” Bernie said, “would you believe it? And equipment! We’re feeding the bloody world now.”
“No, I don’t believe it.” Theodore said under his breath.
Later on that evening, after a rushed dinner, Theodore had been told to leave the room by his parents. What for I wonder, he thought, before shaking his head. He sat near the bottom of the stairs which lead up to the second storey of the farmhouse. When his younger sister, Peggy, saw his lanky frame hanging onto the wooden beams, she swaggered up to him.
“What’s happening?” She asked.
Theodore rolled his eyes, putting a finger up to his lips. When the voices grew louder from the kitchen, Peggy raised her brows and nodded.
“Something to do with you?” Peggy whispered.
“I’m trying to listen.” Theodore answered.
“Too young? What do you mean he’s too young?” Their parents blurted over the top of one another.
“He’s seventeen, not eighteen,” Roger said, his voice level, “and they won’t let you in if you’re not eighteen.”
As the pair of them sat listening to the voices, the realisation became all too clear. Theodore bit the underside of his lip, his eyes glazed over the front door. He thought, how can someone feel so alone so suddenly?
“What’s that there?” Asked their mum, Judy.
Theodore sat up, barely breathing.
“’Dig for victory’,” came Roger’s voice, “that’s the pamphlet the captain gave us.”
“Farming?” Bobby retorted.
“Bobby!” Judy said.
“Farming’s going to keep this country fed,” Bernie said, his voice carrying over the others, “as far as I’m concerned, we’ll take all the hands we can get.”
“—and if that’s what they want him to do, then so be it.” Bernie finished, and Bobby said no more.
Peggy moved up to the step below Theodore.
“Are you really not going to the war?” She whispered.
A stinging sensation burned behind Theodore’s eyes and he furrowed his brows, shaking his head.
“What’ll you do instead then?” Peggy asked.
“Hard to know.” He muttered behind his hand.
Two weeks and one lost football match later – which Bobby didn’t stop complaining about – the dreaded day finally arrived.
“Be strong, now,” Roger told Theodore, a reassuring hand on his shoulder, “and don’t forget to write back. Don’t leave us poor sods hanging.”
“I will.” He uttered, somewhere in between a cough and a cry.
“Come on Rog!” Bobby called from the top of the drive.
“And Theo,” Roger said, “you’ll be out there with us, right by our side. Alright?”
Theodore nodded and swallowed hard.
“Alright.” He whispered.
Theodore’s mind often sent him back to the front door, where he had been stood with his parents and Peggy. Where they had waved away the truck, with Bobby, Roger and the three Evans brothers all sitting in the back of it. There were many tears cried that day. And for a while, their goodbyes were all Theodore thought about. Even a year on, he still felt one foot out the door.
It was the summer of 1940 and Theodore had grown. He had filled out and his overalls no longer hung on him. As he looked in the mirror, buttoning up his sleeves in the near dark, he sighed. He found it surprising how the sideways glances and gossip no longer phased him. He rolled his eyes. Trips into the village had become few and far between since the war began.
June rolled around and, on the day of his eighteenth birthday, he was taken completely by surprise. Peggy hid a devious grin as Theodore walked into the kitchen, after a long day in the fields, only to be met by a rousing cheer.
“Here’s the worker!” One of them called.
Theodore’s cheeks burned red as his neighbours and friends smiled at him. Plates were set out and tea was poured and happy birthday was sung. Theodore received many handshakes, hugs and compliments pertaining to his hard work. There was even a cake.
“We didn’t want to make a fuss,” Judy said, finding him later on by the kitchen sink, “I know how you feel about it.”
As the bright evening drew to a close, and his family had gone to bed, Theodore sat up in the living room. His stomach was warm, and as the buzz of the party petered off, his true exhaustion was revealed. Again, in these rare moments, his thoughts returned to the front door, his brothers’ words and faces hazy in his mind. I hope I’m not forgetting them, he thought. He turned over his calloused hand and rested it against his chest. I wonder what they’re looking at right now, he thought, if they can see the hand in front of their face like I can. Or if—
The living room door creaked open.
“Oh, Theo!” Judy whispered, rugged up in her dressing gown. “You’re still up?”
Theodore was thrust back to the present, his mother taking a seat beside him on the sofa. In her hand, she held an opened envelope.
“This came for you today,” she said softly, “but I didn’t think it were the right time to show you.”
Theodore slid out the letter, beginning to unfold it.
“Roger and Bobby, no less,” she said, a smile on her lips.
“What did they say?”
“Oh, just the usual,” she said, watching him straighten out the creases, “I got to the bottom and I thought, oh! I had better show Theo and not read on.”
There was silence as Theodore read the letter in his head, starting at: “Dear Mum, Dad, Peggy and Theo.” As he neared the bottom, he saw the words: “Oh and dear Theo…”
They exchanged a glance, intrigue in both their faces.
“Do you want me to read it out?”
His mother nodded, her eyes glossy and bright.
“Dear Theo, I hope you didn’t think we’d forgotten about your big birthday coming up. So, happy birthday from all of us here. As I write this, Bobby wants to know if you have any hint of a beard yet?”
The pair of them laughed softly.
“Of course he does.” Judy said with a tsk.
“We do hope you’ll celebrate smelling a whole lot better than we do. If mum makes a sponge, you’ll have to tell us what it was like. Can hardly remember what most things taste like these days. We wish we could be there with you all but old Blighty needs us to stay here in Dunkirk. We’ll be home before your next birthday, we know it. Happy birthday big lad and keep up the good fight. Yours, Roger and Bobby.”
He lowered the envelope on his lap, staring into the unlit fireplace. He cast a glimpse at his mum, and his smile faded to one of sadness, watching as she dabbed her tears with a hanky.
“Wish they’d get out of there,” she said, “godforsaken place,” and she cleared her throat, “well, did you like that?”
Theodore said, “it’s almost like they’re here.”
Her voice caught in her throat and she swallowed.
“And did you enjoy your evening? Peggy and your dad and I thought it would be nice.”
“It was mum, thanks.”
“I’m glad,” she said, “because you’ve been given a hard enough time. You’d work all night if we didn’t tell you to come in for your tea. No, don’t look at me like that,” and she eyed him seriously, “you’ve got nothing to prove.”
Theodore shrugged and before he could answer, his mum had wrapped her arms around him. Theodore let out a long, tired exhale. He felt like he could break. His nose stung and his chest burned as he blinked back tears.
“I know,” she said, “I know.”
“I wish I was with them.” He said, and the tears streamed down his cheeks.
“I know,” she said, holding him, “I know.”