She tried to sell it to him as a big adventure, hoping his eight-year old imagination would thrive on such a thing. But Mathew was a bright child and did not buy it for one minute. On the platform with hundreds of other children frantically making their farewells, he looked up at her. His eyes were red from the earliness of the hour, but more so from tears.
‘I don’t want to go, Mam,’ he pleaded while trying to conceal the tremor in his voice. After all, he was acting as the man-of-the-house.
She gulped back the rising despair. Promising herself she would not allow him to see her tears. He could not know how hard this was for her.
‘I know, love,’ she assured him and hunkered down to match his eye level. Clutching his outer upper arms in her hands, she deliberated how to make him understand. “My poor child. How can I tell him the truth?” Biting her tongue in an attempt to drive away the overwhelming urge to cry, she found herself lying. ‘It won’t be for long, you’ll see. I need you to be brave for mammy. Wont you? Won’t you be brave for mammy?’
She engulfed him in an embrace as the pain of the imminent separation erupted. A single tear escaped. She could feel it burrow into her skin matching the wounds etched in her heart. Anything but this, she thought, Almost, anything but this. She knew, however, it had to be.
Mathew gripped onto her light woollen overcoat. His little sobs vibrated with the flow and ebb of his tiny chest against hers. She waited until the worst of his crying dwindling away. Quickly, she wiped away her own tear with a gloved hand, thankful he didn’t notice.
Pulling back from the embrace, she looked long and hard at him attempting to absorb every detail of his beautiful cherub face. His fluffy brown hair, unkempt and mouse-like; his button nose sprinkled with minute freckles, his cold flushed cheeks, pert lips and the makings of a strong chin, all these things resonated from his father’s features.
She drank in every part of him from his scuffed shoes, off-white stockings, bruised kneecaps, khaki shorts and dark navy woollen coat. Although it was there, she tried not to look at the green rectangle box slung over his holder with a piece of rope. Every child carried one and most of the adults too: a gasmasks. She did not want to picture him with anything associated with the war, but war was everywhere. It was the reason she had to send him away. Stolen innocence was among the thousand other things the war thieved.
She did not want him to leave, but knew it was probably for the best. So far their street was lucky, but the adjoining ones were not. Pickers’ road, Andrews Lane, the Avenue and Murfruit Street were nothing but rubble now. The shells that fell left little other than ruined shells of buildings and desperate shells of lives.
At least this way he had the chance to escape the worst of it. She had to believe. Believing was all she could do to keep her sanity. ‘God, you better bless him and keep him safe, you hear!’ she warned the Almighty when she finally made up her mind. Mathew would leave for some strange family to care for him in the country two hundred miles away. ‘And they better be a good family. I’m warning you.’
Matthew’s little tattered suitcase caught her attention. The brown fake leather was worn in most places showing the cheap cardboard which lay underneath. She listed everything within and felt guilty at the poor contents. Three pairs of socks, two shorts and underclothes, two clean shirts, and a cardigan she knitted in the shelters during the night raids. It helped keep her mind off the hell exploding above ground. Yes, a silly cardigan. She knitted it with more love than he would ever know.
Seeing Mathew’s little possessions, his treasures, crammed into the corners of the suitcase brought a pang all or its own. The tiny childish things were his world: comic books, string and conkers, his favourite toy car and tin soldiers and a penknife his grandfather gave him. She knew about the small transmitter radio that he made himself. Bless him, she allowed him to believe he had hidden it from her. She loved his innocent rogishness.
What the family would think on seeing such meagre things, she could only guess. The letter she received from the Willoughbys described how they were an elderly couple who never had children of their own. They promised to look after him as if he was their own son. (Stressing) until peace returned once more. They had chickens, rabbits, two cats and a lazy dog that could do with a youthful companion to help keep his weight down. They seemed nice, but there always lurked the fear…
The stationmaster’s whistle blew recalling her from the darkest of thoughts. It was time to board the train. She forced another wave of heartache away as the memory of another farewell returned. It was that of her husband setting sail to join the war effort. Mathew’s face echoed his father’s. It only made things harder for her to say goodbye.
Peter was in the Navy touring some stretch of ocean which he was not permitted to name. Times being what they were, in his letters he had to leave large chunks of detail as vague as possible, even that didn’t stop the sensors destroying his precious words. By the time the sensors were through hacking and blackening out his pages all that remained was a correspondence not a heartfelt letter.
Their delivery was a paradox. She hated and loved their seldom arrival in equal measures. Peter’s words were always upbeat. They were always positively sketching things as being not so bad. The food was always fine, but never a match to her homemade cooking. And he always wrote of his love for her and Mattie, as he called the boy. She supposed he did this in the same way she treated Matthew with news of his departure. Peter didn’t want her to worry about him just as she didn’t wan Mat to worry about her. Oh, what fools we can be.
Still, she was so, so grateful the postman did not deliver the telegram. That was one of her biggest fears. She was there when Alice Waynor received hers. Her dear friend did not have to look at it to know its contents. Jerry, her husband, was killed in action. The rest of the details about his valour and patriotism meant nothing. Alice broke down in the doorway like so many others. They came to hate the mailman. The poor sod was only doing what the government were too scared to do. She never knew of a politician knocking on anybody’s door to inform them their loved ones had been killed, taken prisoner or worse: missing in action. At least there was a definite to the first two, but only worrying desperation to the latter.
The whistle blew one last time. It was time. Clutching him as close as she could, she could not help tears streaming down her cheeks in rivulets.
How can I let him go? How can I? but she knew she must.