Stars in Your Eyes
We cheered as you marched past, smart in new uniforms, heads erect, arms swinging, hobnail boots ringing on the cobbles.
The town gave you a good send-off. The colliery band strode in front along the route to the station. We lined the pavements to watch, sitting with our feet in the gutter to wait. They gave us children paper Union Jacks to wave.
I craned forward to see, brandishing my flag.
“Papa, Papa!” I shouted. You didn’t turn your head but I saw your moustache twitch so I knew you heard. You were between Maud’s father and Willie’s older brothers. Half the colliery had signed up to go. You were all so straight and tall. I felt my chest swell as I pointed you out.
Mama stood behind me. Her best lace handkerchief was screwed up in her hand and pressed to her cheek.
“Don’t worry,” you said before you left, stars twinkling in your eyes. “We’ll give the Bosch what for and be home by Christmas.” You twirled your moustache round your finger. It was a big adventure. You were off to France with your friends and no more black diamonds for a while.
We waited anxiously. Letters were scarce. Mama snatched them from the postman but read them slowly. She tutted and her eyes watered as she scanned your neat, tense words.
“Papa says he loves you and you must be a good girl,” she told me after each letter, folding it away carefully and slipping it in her apron pocket.
“I’m always good,” I said, hopping from foot to foot, trying to catch a glimpse of the words that made her cry. Sometimes she stood with a letter pressed to her chest, staring into space. She read them so often the paper softened and corners wore away.
We sent parcels. Mama knitted socks, made cakes and I wrote cards and drew you pictures that we packed into brown paper and tied with rough string.
Christmas passed and then another. Men started coming home. One of Willie’s brothers returned, a fresh white bandage about his head hiding his eyes. A nurse led him by the hand. He was pale faced, cliff-like cheekbones protruding from below the dressings. The laughing boy had gone and a silent youth came back.
“What happened? Was he wounded?” I pestered Willie. I wanted to see a bullet. I’d never seen one.
“He won’t say. He sits in bed all day and smokes. Mam is at her wit’s end with him.”
I kept a careful watch on Willie’s house trying to catch a glimpse of his brother, but for all the time I stalked the place I never saw him again.
Maud’s Dad didn’t come home. A telegram arrived.
“It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of (rank) Gunner (Name) M.J. Tanner…”
Mama cried for hours when she heard, the lace hanky spoiled again. Maud and her mother packed their belongings into two trunks and moved away.
More telegrams. Colliery men went missing or were killed in action. Some returned, thin and haggard. They wouldn’t speak to us children.
“Oh, France now. Lots o’ mud.” One man told me. Nothing more.
You slipped back one day when no one was watching. No band, no flags, no celebration. You were shivering by the fire when I got home from school. Your smart uniform was gone and your suit was made for a bigger man. The moustache that had twitched as you paraded down the High Street was streaked with grey and your face was yellow like old parchment.
“Papa, Papa!” I leapt at you, expecting to be lifted and spun around but you barely acknowledged me.
I kissed and hugged you, examining your body for wounds. The father of a boy from school lost an eye and wore a leather patch. Others had scars, pitted where the skin was crudely sewn together. You had nothing to show. Nothing I could brag about at school.
“Were you shot, Papa?”
You didn’t answer. You didn’t seem to hear. Your eyes were fixed on the distance, a place I couldn’t reach you.
“Leave Papa alone, now. Give him some peace.”
We gave you peace. We tiptoed round. We were so pleased to have you back but you hardly noticed. You didn’t ask how school was or if I’d learned my sums. You didn’t join in the celebrations on Armistice Day. You sat and sipped tea by the fire.
The colliery wanted you back, they were short of men, but you couldn’t go. You could hardly dress yourself and no longer hauled the logs for the fire or carried the shopping. I wanted to know what had changed you.
“Leave your Papa alone, do you hear? He’s enough to deal with. He’ll be better with some rest.” Mama guarded you closely.
I watched. Waiting for the sparkle to return, but you didn’t move, quietly shrinking until you melded with the chair by the fire, the same worn look, the same dowdy colour, and not even a tremble to show you were there.
I wanted my papa back. Not the dried husk that sat by the burning grate to keep warm. Each time I passed my chest tightened and a bitter taste rose in my throat. Sometimes I even left the room rather than sit with you.
Loud noises scared you. You clenched your fists and became rigid as the milk cart rattled over the cobbles. Mama kept the door shut until the milkman had gone by. You put your hands over your ears and rocked yourself when the claxon sounded at the pit. If a door slammed, you jumped.
Sometimes I thought you were crying. Your body shook, but you were dry-eyed.
“Tell me,” I demanded. “What happened? What was it like?” but Mama bundled me away with her catchall phrase, “Leave your father alone now.”
Why wouldn’t you tell me? I didn’t understand.
So, I pretended the thing by the fire wasn’t you. I told myself you hadn’t returned yet. It was easier that way. In my room at night I prayed you would come home, striding up the path, opening the door and swinging me round like you used to do.
When Mama found you cold and stiff in the chair you were barely half the man who had marched away. Knees stuck sharply through the wool cloth of your trousers and your fingers were sticks. Your skin was waxy and your cheeks were hollow.
“The war killed him,” people whispered as they came to pay their respects.
But when the town raised a monument to those who died in the war, your name wasn’t there. We shivered in the icy wind as the mayor unveiled the stone cross. No band, no flags, no celebration.
“Because he didn’t die fighting,” Mama said, dabbing her tears with the lace hankie.
The injustice stung like the wind. I knew you had died in the war. It had taken the stars from your eyes and left us with nothing.