I haven't posted fiction on this blog; I haven’t written many short pieces that would be suitable. But I have just completed a short story for a writing group. The set title was Leaving Home.
My contribution was prompted by a recent house move. My new home was built in 1888, and I have been thinking of those who were here before and what became of them. Hence this story. I noticed today’s date, and thought I’d share it.
I wish he wouldn’t make that bloody row, thought Priscilla as Martin dropped one tool on another in the bedroom across the hall. She winced at the clang and tried to refocus on her screen. The rain streaked the window behind her monitor; grey clouds scudded past outside.
Martin let out an exclamation.
Dammit, how am I supposed to mark a bunch of crappy first-year essays with this old clown working next door.
She stood up and crossed the corridor. The fitted carpet in the bedroom was peeled back so Martin could get at the broken floorboard; it was just beside her bed so she always stepped on it in the night. He had pulled up the broken board, but was now squatting on his haunches, the claw hammer on the carpet beside him.
“I wish you’d make less noise,” she said. She regretted it at once; her voice sounded tense, uptight.
Martin seemed not to hear. He held a small square piece of paper.
“I found something,” he said. “Old photo. Under the floorboard.”
He passed it to her. It was rather small.
“Why print a picture that size?” she said, puzzled.
“It’s a contact print from an old-fashioned negative,” he said. “Six centimetres square, I think. I have a friend who likes mucking about with old cameras and he makes those.”
She turned it over in her hands. It was brownish and faded and showed a youth in his late teens and a girl who looked a little younger. The girl wore a dress with a rather prim collar. Her hair had been done with care and was formed in a high roll above her forehead. The youth wore uniform; he had a narrow cap without a peak that came to a point at the front, rather like a ship’s stem.
“Why are they sticking their tongues out at the camera?” asked Priscilla. She frowned.
Martin chuckled. “I reckon their mum and dad made them go and have their portrait done,” he said. “And they didn’t fancy that much and they took the piss out of the photographer.” He looked over her shoulder at the little square of photographic paper. “Look, it’s got PROOF embossed on it. I reckon that’s how they did it then – the studio gave you a load of contact prints and you chose which one to have enlarged.” He turned it over. “Look, there you go. It’s the studio’s stamp. Pringle’s, 31 The Broad. I remember them, just. Where MacDonald’s is now. They closed when I was a nipper, back in the 70s.”
“What on earth has she done to her hair?” asked Priscilla.
“Victory Rolls, they called them,” said Martin. “The Hollywood stars had them apparently.” He peered at the picture. “Royal Air Force,” he said presently. “Not an officer I don’t think. Look, he’s got a half-wing.” He pointed to the man’s breast. “Air gunner or navigator maybe.”
“Oh.” She handed the picture back to him. “I wonder who they were. Anyway, you can pop it in the rubbish I suppose.”
He frowned. “I think I’ll keep it,” he said. “Someone might know something. My mate Josh, he likes local history, he’s one of those blokes digging up the old City Station up near Halfords. He knows how to look at the old census returns and he can see who lived here.”
“Please yourself,” said Priscilla. “I have 20 essays to mark before lunch.”
She went out. Martin looked at the picture then up at her retreating back. And stuck his tongue out. Then he chuckled, tucked the picture away in his jacket and went back to work.
Priscilla went back to her study. She did not hear the front door close or feel the faint breeze as a middle-aged woman in an apron and sensible shoes descended the stairs behind her.
In the front room a man with a pipe and cardigan looked up from the Daily Sketch as his son and daughter came in.
“Did they get the proofs?” called his wife as she turned into the kitchen at the back of the house. “Ted, Sarah, is that you?” She went on into the kitchen, filled the kettle and put it on the range. “I’ll make a cup of tea.”
“Don’t make tea if we haven’t the coal,” her son called out. “You’re spoiling me, Mum, but you’ll need it when I’m gone.”
“Don’t worry, Ted. We’ve got a hundredweight in hand, and we’re allowed more on the first of the month.” She came into the front room, wiping her hands on her apron. “Let’s see these pictures then. Oh, they’re lovely, aren’t they?”
“They’re not bad, eh?” Her husband smiled up at her. “And old Pringle on his own now, with his son in for the duration, as they say.”
“He’s back on leave,” said Ted. “Mr Pringle told me. He’s been in Egypt, he said.”
“We’re not supposed to say where people are,” his father said.
“I don’t think as we’re going to lose because someone knows where young Pringle is, Bill.” She took the proofs from him and leafed through this one, then stopped. “Oy! What’s happening here!”
“It was Ted,” said the girl. “He sticks his tongue out and before I know it I’m sticking mine out as well. Let’s get Pringle’s to blow that one up.” She giggled.
“Oh no we won’t. You can have that one, you cheeky monkey,” her mother said, and handed her the proof. “Dad and I’ll choose one for the mantelpiece. Ted, you must get ready, you’re off in half an hour.”
“I’ll help him pack his kitbag,” said Sarah. “He’ll scrunch up his shirts otherwise. Boys are so messy.”
They rushed up the narrow stairway of the small house and their footsteps could be heard from the master bedroom, where Sarah had laid out her brother’s clothes ready for folding.
“I reckon this is the one we’ll get blown up,” said Bill, and looked up at his wife, who looked at him then let out a sob that she tried to stifle.
She tried to dry her eyes on her apron but couldn’t because it was tied at the waist so she untied it, sniffing and laughing at the same time. “Oh, I am silly,” she said.
“Try and hide it, my dear. It won’t make it easier for him, you know. And he’s left home before. Remember he went off to basic training, then the gunnery school on the Isle of Man, and now he’s just going off for more training.”
“Oh, I know. It’s just that I have a bad feeling about this,” she said. “As if he’s leaving home for the last time.”
“Well he probably isn’t,” said her husband, a little shortly. He was silent for a moment, then said: “Don’t fret. Sit down and let’s listen to the news, eh?”
He got up and twisted the bakelite knob on the wireless. The dial took on a soft, old-gold glow and the sound started, softly at first then growing louder as the set warmed up. The Home Service filled the room, an emollient voice reading the six o’clock news.
Upstairs, Ted sat on his parents’ bed and watched as his sister folded his shirts.
“I want to do something too,” she said. “I’m going to join the Women’s Land Army.”
“Not yet you’re not,” he said. “You’re only 17.”
“I’ll be 18 at Christmas,” she said.
“But you have to be 20, don’t you? Anyway, you’d be dead useless shovelling manure. Or catching rats. Imagine you catching rats. They’d take one look at you and you’d scream your silly head off.”
She gave his leg a pretend slap with the back of her hand. She went back to folding and smoothing the shirts. He watched her deft movements as she said: “Dad says you’re going for more training.”
“Yes,” he said. “Well, sort of. I’m posted to No. 12 OTU at Chipping Warden in the Midlands. It’s near Banbury I think. An OTU is an Operational Training Unit.”
“Does Operational mean what I think it does?”
“Yes. But it shan’t be much. Just minelaying off the coast and stuff I expect. You mustn’t worry.”
“Oh.” She thought for a moment. “Do you remember when I was 10 and Roy from No. 6 pulled my pigtails?”
“No, I don’t,” he replied. “Did he really? What a rotter.”
“Yes, and you boxed his ears.”
“Oh, I think I do remember. Did I box his ears? I thought I gave him a Chinese burn.”
She sat still, looking down at the shirt. A silence grew heavy.
“Look, we all have to do it,” he said. “Everyone’s leaving home. Dad did last time. Roy’s gone, come to that.” He paused. “Have you got that proof Mum gave you? Give it here.”
She did, and he knelt down where there was a creaky floorboard, just beside the bed so their mother always stepped on it in the night. He pushed the small square of paper down between the cracks.
“There,” he said. “When it’s all over and I’m home, we’ll pull that floorboard up and get that picture, and we’ll have a giggle about it and I do think I’ll go down to Pringle and get it blown up.”
“And if you don’t come back, I’ll leave it there,” she said. “And maybe in 70 or 80 years’ time, someone’ll find it and wonder who we were.”
“That’s it. But I’ll be back.”
“Hope so.” She looked at him.
“Ted,” his father called up the stairs. “It’s 6.30. You ready? Where you going from anyway, City Station or Thorpe?”
“Thorpe,” he said. “They bombed City Station.”
His sister finished folding shirts and he clattered down the stairs with it and took his greatcoat and gas-mask case from the coathooks.
“I can go with you,” said Sarah.
“Don’t,” he said. “Station’ll be bedlam. So many trains going now. ’Spect I’ll get a cuppa on the platform though, the WVS ladies have a canteen there when it’s busy.”
“I’ll come some of the way with you though.”
“Just to the corner, all right? We can say goodbye there.”
Her father was looking at her as she put her coat on. He leaned towards her. “Leave him at the end of the road, my dear. Let him be. They need to be alone with their own thoughts a bit when they go,” he whispered.
She nodded and waited while her brother gave his mother a peck on the cheek and shook hands with his father; then they went out into the street. It was nearly dark. The blackout was complete, but the moon was nearly full and a bright light caught the beginnings of a frost on the pavement. She walked with him to the end of the street, where it joined The Avenues. To the left the road ran downhill, in a straight line; then it climbed to a junction about a quarter of a mile away. There the road joined another and swung round to the right. They didn’t say anything, but he paused a moment and grasped her shoulder and squeezed it with his hand, and seemed to want to say something but didn’t; then he turned abruptly and trudged away. She watched him for several minutes, the moon making a stark figure of him, standing out against the glitter of the frosted pavement. Then he rounded the bend at the top of the hill. He paused for a moment and she thought he looked back, the moonlight catching his face; but he was too far away to see really, and then he was gone.