I had the house to myself, Jemma and Fiona were at school and Tom was still away with his regiment. This was our first home, we’d been married for ten years but always lived in quarters – adequate, but no matter how hard I’d tried they’d always felt like they belonged to someone else.
“I want a home of my own, where I can paint the walls yellow and the ceiling green. Where our kids can go to the same school and make real friends.” I’d told Tom.
He’d been reluctant to cause trouble, hadn’t wanted to step out of line. I’d had a visit from Mrs Debronze, the Brigadier’s wife.
“Moving off the base, why do you want to do that? We are all family here. You don’t want to jeopardise your husband’s career now, do you?”
Her tone had been patronising and belittling, her message clear. I’d wavered a little. Perhaps it would be best to stay and not cause trouble. But then I remembered all those houses, flats, bungalows, all that packing and unpacking and marching out. I’d never joined up. So I stood firm and got my own way.
The house was old and the estate agent described it as ‘having character but in need of some renovation’. Approaching from the road, it looked like a stunted tower, only one room wide and three storeys high. The front door was painted yellow, maybe that was what had attracted me. The inside proportions were equally bizarre. On the ground floor, four rooms were laid out like a row of dominoes. Then on the first floor three rooms, then two at the top, so from the back it looked like a giant set of steps. An overgrown garden sloped away towards the woods and at the far end was a dilapidated shed whose windows were boarded over. The redecoration kept me busy, my mind occupied and my body tired so I was not troubled by Tom’s absence. I started with the girls’ bedrooms, they’d picked the two rooms at the top of the house. It was when I started on our bedroom that I found the small paint-encrusted door. There had been no mention in the particulars of a cupboard. As I scraped away at the layers of paint the outline became clearer, two panels, divided by a wide piece of wood carved with flowers and leaves. Further scraping revealed hidden amongst the garlands, three small holes just large enough for fingers. With some effort and splintering of paint the door opened. I saw it was not a cupboard but a short flight of narrow stairs that turned sharply to the right.
I fetched the torch from the kitchen; it was a tight squeeze. Cautiously I climbed up the stairs, tapping my toe on each step before putting my full weight down. I emerged into a small windowless room, made out of one of the roof spaces. Shining my torch around I saw in the middle an old dilapidated wooden trunk. Some of the slats of the curved top had come away and the large lock at the front was all rusty. I pulled at the lid, but it would not budge. Shining the torch around, I spotted a key hung on a beam. It fitted but would not turn. By now I was getting tired, so I decided to give it one more try and hit the lock with the end of the torch.
The inside of the trunk had a musty, stale smell. It reminded me of the crate the army had once lost when I was a child in one of their many moves. My mother had been very upset but Father had said, “Don’t make a fuss, woman, it’s not important.” It had turned up three years later, damaged and rifled through. My dresses no longer fitted and some were missing, along with my toys.
In the wooden trunk there were faded sheets of brown paper; as I lifted the brittle sheets out they cracked and some disintegrated between my fingers. I slipped my hands down to where I thought the paper ended and felt around. There was something soft, I thought perhaps a blanket. Carefully I eased out a checked woollen shawl with torn edges. I felt a sudden chill and wrapped the shawl around myself.
“Charlotte, Charlotte, where are you? Come here! I need you! Charlotte.”
His tone was insistent. She heard the sound of his lop-sided gait making its way across the linoleum floor.
He was closer now – she could hear the pleading in his voice.
He would not be able to get to her up here, he could not manage the stairs. They were too narrow, too steep. He would tire soon and retreat to the shed. He had banked up earth around the sides and boarded the broken windows. He was in there three days last time. He was not like this before the war when her mother was alive.
“Charlotte, please, just some baccy from the shop, please, Charlotte.”
I heard the back door being slammed.
“Mummy, Mummy, we’re home, can I have some milk?” Jemma called out.
“Are you ok, you look bit pale,” Jackie asked as she struggled into the kitchen carrying discarded coats, bags and artwork.
“Thanks for picking up the girls, they weren’t any trouble were they?”
“Oh no, no trouble, anytime. Are you sure you’ll alright?” Jackie eyed me over the top of her glasses.
“I am fine, just a bit tired. Oh, by the way, do you know anything about the history of this house, who used to live here?”
“Well, it’s been empty for ages. Years back it was part of Pritchard land.”
“What’s Pritchard land?”
“Oh, the Pritchards used to own most of the land round here, but after the war, there weren’t none of them left to run the estate. Shame – my Gran says they were good landlords.”
“There weren’t any girls?”
“Don’t think so, they used to let this house mind, so who knows who lived here. The Ratchetts lived here for years, they were a nice couple, no kids – shame that.”
“Mummy, look what we did at school today.” Jemma held up one of the pictures Jackie had been carrying. “It’s Daddy at work, look there’s his tank.”
Tom’s leave came and went all too quickly. There were family days out, picnics, playing on the beach where the girls enjoyed burying Tom in the sand. We had even managed a long weekend away on our own – Jemma & Fiona stayed with Jackie and her Gran on the farm and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They came home with a kitten and their heads filled with tales of romance and adventure. Fiona now knew all about the village folk and Jackie’s Gran’s sweetheart who died of his wounds. This had led to an awkward moment when she asked would Daddy die.
I could hear the faint meow, it was coming from behind the panelled door in our room. The kitten’s amber eyes glinted in the torchlight as it ran past me down the steep stairs, its soft fur brushing my leg. I placed the torch on the floor beside the trunk. The lid was still open from the first time I’d come to the room. I carefully removed the remaining sheets of crumbling paper. Beneath where the shawl had been was a cotton bag embroidered in silk with a border of faded acorns and oak leaves. I hadn’t noticed it the first time I’d come up. I gingerly loosened the drawstrings and withdrew a piece of card dotted with rust spots. Written in neat copper-plate handwriting it read:
My dear brother George died of his wounds last month. I know you will miss him as much as I do. I thought you would like to have back the little black bear you gave him as a keepsake.
With best wishes,
I put my hand in the bag and lifted out a small black bear with pin head sized glass bead eyes and the faintest remains of a mouth stitched in red thread.
“Charlotte, Charlotte, are you coming down? I have made a cup of tea.”
He had made tea yesterday and the day before.
“Charlotte, Charlotte, it will get cold! Please! Come on now!”
She wondered how long this placid mood would last. When would the shed beckon? Last week he was there four days. No one could persuade him to come out. He had howled and raged for hours, hitting the sides of the shed with the handle of the shovel. She did not know what might set him off. One time she had baked a pie with some fruit from a neighbour. Hurling it across the kitchen floor, he yelled,
“We don’t need charity.”
He limped off to the shed, leaving her to clear up the mess. He had once randomly dug up flowers and vegetables and piled them on top of the mound around the shed.
The candle flickered, spluttered and finally went out. Oh, it didn’t matter, she didn’t mind the dark, it was like an enveloping blanket. If she closed her eyes she would see pictures of the people she loved – her mother’s tired grey face, smiling at her despite the black eye. George, in his Sunday best suit, waiting for her after church. She had given him the little black bear as a good luck mascot. It hadn’t brought him much luck.
His voice was beginning to sound a little frantic. She pulled her shawl tighter; there was the comforting faint aroma of lavender, her mother’s favourite scent. She could remember her sitting by the fire waiting for him to come home from work with some sewing or mending in her lap. Her quiet presence was reassuring to Charlotte that all was well in her world.
“Here’s your tea.”
His voice was angry now. She heard the cup rattle in its saucer as it was put down on the bottom step. There came a dragging, shuffling sound, followed by a soft thud and then another. She could hear his rasping breath – it was getting louder. Charlotte involuntarily moved further back into the room. She could smell tobacco and sweat, feel his hot breath on her face. She tried to duck away, but he grabbed and caught the shawl.
I could hear Jackie calling. “There’s someone here from the Army to see you about Tom.”
I came downstairs slowly, trying to compose myself. I slipped my hand into my trouser pocket and held tightly onto the little black bear.