I’ve done it, Ma. There, what d’you think of that?’ Alfie unscrewed his hand. On his palm lay a shiny new shilling.
‘Oh Alfie, you never ’ave,’ Mrs Duggens stopped in the middle of blacking the kitchen range and stared at the coin. ‘Tell me you got it somewhere else, not from that recruitment place.’
‘Where am I going t’get a shilling ’cept from there?’ Alfie looked down at his mother’s face and noticed the moistness in her eyes. ‘Now don’t you take on, the war ain’t going t’ last long, year or two at the most. I’ll be back in no time.’
‘You don’t know that for sure,’ Mrs Duggens blinked through her tears, ‘’n anyway, you’re not sixteen yet – they can’t take you at fifteen.’
‘They can if you say you’re nineteen,’ Alfie pulled his thin shoulders up and back, ‘they didn’t ask no questions.’
‘Oh Alfie, course they didn’t. They want every man they can get. It was in the paper.’ She took a breath to steady her voice. ‘And you’ve been a man, a hard-working man, ever since your dad was took ill and died these last two years – you had to.’
Alfie moved nearer and patted his mother’s arm. She was such a little person, making up for her lack of size with a fierce energy and quick tongue. Not now though. For once she seemed to have run out of steam. He bent closer still and saw silver hairs among the tidy black plaits coiled round in a bun.
‘I never minded, mum, delivery work’s alright. But I wanted to join up. ’
She raised her head and managed a smile.
‘Course you did. Enough of me, my lad, you’ll do fine, you will. Now, when do you go?’
‘Tomorrow, seven o’clock sharp.’ Alfie pushed two coins into his mother’s hand. ‘I got some ration money, too. You have it.’
His mother stared at it for a moment. Then she walked over to the door, took off her apron and put on her plain straw hat and navy blue jacket.
‘Tell you what, I’ll see if the butcher can find me a bit of steak and kidney to make a nice meat pie for your tea, how’s that?’ Then she fastened the buttons on her jacket and was off, hurrying down the street to the shops before Alfie could say a word.
Alfie spent the afternoon sorting his things in the tiny bedroom he shared with Joe, his eight-year-old brother in their north London home. From under his worn mattress he took a little velvet-lined box and opened it carefully. Inside was a silver locket and chain, thin with age but still clearly marked with delicately-engraved patterns. Alfie gave it an extra polish before putting the box in his trouser pocket.
He put aside a book and some postcards, found a small piece of paper and wrote Joe’s name on it, arranging the pile on the wooden locker set between their beds. He looked round the room, bright with summer sunshine tracing patterns through the net-curtained window, committing it to memory, then went downstairs for tea as the clock struck five.
The rich smell of meat and pastry greeted him as he walked over to the dining table and pulled out a chair.
‘Hi Alfie,’ Joe threw himself on the opposite chair, ‘cor, meat pie.’ He grabbed his knife and fork and set to.
Mrs Duggens set down her own plate and smiled at her two sons.
‘Your last meal before you go off, Alfie, it has to be a good one.’
The ticking of the mantelpiece clock was the only sound during their meal.
‘That was smashing, Ma,’ Alfie mopped up the last of the gravy with a piece of bread, leaned back and patted his stomach. ‘I’ll miss your cooking.’
Joe nodded, too busy finishing his share to talk. Their mother smiled as she cleared away the plates for washing-up.
‘Go on with you. I expect you’ll be going round to see Millie now?’
Alfie stood up. It had been hard telling Mum. It was going to be even worse telling Millie. She lived just along the street and he’d known her all his life. They’d gone to school together, played together, and until today he’d expected they would be together, always.
Walking down familiar streets to the canal bank, their usual way on summer evenings, he kept clearing his throat. At the waterside they leaned against a wooden fence, watching the slow movement of boats and barges. In the end it was Millie who spoke first.
‘Come on Alfie, spit it out. If you’ve got something to tell me, let’s have it.’
‘Alright Millie, love, I’m going to the war.’ Alfie grabbed her hand and squeezed it.
‘I thought so.’ Millie turned her face away. ‘There’s been so many others going, Bill and Ted from next door, my cousins up north, everywhere you look’s full of soldiers and brass bands. But they go away, and we’re left behind waiting, wondering if they’ll ever come back.’
Alfie pushed her soft fair hair away from her face and pulled her close.
‘I’m coming back, I promise.’
He paused while her tears ran their course, then took the box from his pocket.
‘Here, I want you to have this.’
Millie fumbled with the lid then held the silver chain and locket carefully between her slim fingers.
‘Oh, it’s beautiful Alfie. But you shouldn’t have. It must have cost you –’
‘It wasn’t new, but cost don’t matter. I was going t’ give it to you for your birthday. And I wanted to ask you –’
‘– I wanted to ask you to marry me.’
‘It’d have to be when I get back, now.’
‘I’ll be waiting, Alfie.’ Millie’s smile was soft, luminous as a candle. ‘And I’ve got something for you too, but not here, with me. I’ll drop it round in the morning.
Next day Alfie was up at six, hurrying downstairs to wash in the scullery. He lathered up the yellow soap in his hands before dipping his dad’s old razor into the cold water to begin shaving, then plunged his head in the enamel bowl to wet his curly dark hair. Through the kitchen door he could hear his mother boiling the kettle for tea and stirring a saucepan of porridge. He dried himself and sat down at the table.
‘You get that inside you, Alfie, you don’t know when your next meal ’ll be.’
Alfie forced it down. For once he didn’t feel hungry. Somewhere inside was this queer uneasy feeling he’d never had before. He gulped some tea, enjoying its hot sweetness, then smiled at Mum – couldn’t have her worrying.
Mrs Duggens was busy cutting doorstep sandwiches with thick hunks of ham and wrapping them in greaseproof paper. She folded and tucked the edges into a neat parcel before giving it to him.
‘There you are, son, and here’s two clean hankies. You’ll need those if you get one of your colds.’
‘I’ll be alright Mum, but thanks. I’ll keep them in my pocket.’
A little knock on the door interrupted them. Millie was outside, holding a paper bag.
‘I’m so glad I’ve caught you, Alfie, it’s not much, but –’
Alfie took a large white handkerchief from its wrapping. In one corner was embroidered the letter ‘A’.
‘I made it myself,’ said Millie, ‘it’s best cambric.’
‘It’s lovely,’ Alfie gazed at the dainty stitches. ‘Too good for blowing my nose on.’
‘That’s alright then, keep it for best.’ Millie’s smile wavered.
Alfie reached out and dabbed away the tear on her cheek with the hanky.
‘Thanks Millie, I will. Byebye love.’
Alfie opened his eyes just as the rat’s teeth started to bite his ankle. He jerked himself awake and as the rodent loosened its hold, kicked it with the toe of his other boot. The rat flew across the trench and landed in a deep pool of mud. Alfie watched it slithering about with relief. He didn’t need any more problems.
He stood up and stretched, one ear cocked for sounds of fighting. Nothing, yet. Dawn was still an hour or so away. Routinely he checked his pockets to see if everything was still there. Cigarettes, matches, half a dried biscuit, his mother’s last letter and Millie’s hanky.
He peered along the trench. Most men were still sleeping, one or two were coughing, someone was shouting through a nightmare. It was safe to take a few minutes to himself. He unwrapped the torn paper and shook the hanky out of its folds, gazing at the embroidered ‘A’. Then he held it close to his face to breathe in the faint but still-there smell of Millie, the soft, flowery smell, reminding him of their summer walks. For a moment he was home with her. Then he folded it up and put it away.
‘Right, men, we’re attacking at first light. Wait for my order, then give’em hell.’
The officer’s voice came through clear and hard, but completely lacking in conviction. He’d said the words so many times, and afterwards, when they’d counted their dead and wounded, he’d say his other stock phrases. ‘Well played men. Jolly good try. We’ll beat’em yet.’
How much longer could they keep it up?
Alfie listened and winked at Tom. They’d palled up on the boat to France and managed to keep together since. They looked out for each other, shared cigarettes, rations and anything else worth having. Apples, sometimes, or cabbages, even the odd rabbit from the fields they’d camped in. But out here on the barren mud the only living creatures were the rats.
‘Time for a cuppa?’ Tom passed a tin mug along. Alfie downed it in one. Didn’t do to take your time. You never knew what would happen next. He put the mug down just as the big guns started. He grabbed his Enfield and pulled his tin hat down hard, then scrambled forward, just as the officer yelled the command to attack.
That day was the worst he could remember. The red dawn gave way to slashing rain, mist swirled over shadowy enemy figures, shells whistled overhead, men screamed and went on screaming. Alfie lost sight of Tom. He was trying to obey orders to advance, plunging through the mud whenever the smoke cleared enough to see the way forward.
‘Keep together, there, men.’ The officer’s voice came from a distance. Alfie looked around for the familiar uniforms of his company. Nothing. No-one. He was alone on the edge of a large crater. Cautiously, he moved sideways and stumbled over a half-submerged body.
He bent down.
‘Tom. What happened?’
Below Tom’s left knee was a mess of bone, blood and shreds of flesh. Alfie reached up his sleeve for his hanky. It was dirty but intact. Somehow he’d kept it dry, his other one had rotted through months ago. Alfie tied it round the stump as tightly as he could, then hauled Tom up. The battle seemed to have receded, or else they’d wandered off track.
‘Best get back to the trench. Take it steady.’
‘No. You go. I’ll wait for a stretcher.’
‘You won’t, they’ll take days to find you – there’s hundreds of injured to clear. Come on.’
As they limped along, Alfie heard shouts.
He paused. Jerry would shoot ’em straight, unless…
From his breast pocket he took Millie’s hanky. Not so white now but whiter than anything else round there. He leaned over and dipped his fingers in the blood running from Tom’s knee, then smeared a line on the white cotton. Then another, to make a red cross. He poked the sharp end of his bayonet through the corner and started walking, one arm round Tom, the other waving his home-made flag.
It was dark by the time they found their way back. Not to their unit, nor their officers, but, at last, British soldiers and a Casualty Station.
‘It’s his leg,’ shouted Alfie, stumbling over the tent’s guy ropes and dropping Tom’s half-conscious body. His own arms were numb and stiff with the effort of holding up his rifle and supporting Tom.
‘How’d you two get through? Jerry’s all over the show.’
‘Me? I just waved me flag.’
Alfie pulled Millie’s hanky from the bayonet. It was now so thin and torn there was little more left than a few wisps of dark-crimson cotton, but in the corner he could just make out the letter ‘A’.
‘And I was keeping it for best.’