Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Black-Edged Letter: An ANZAC Day Short Story

In commemoration of ANZAC Day here in New Zealand, I wrote this short story.

The Black-Edged Letter: An ANZAC Day Short Story by Kelly Dawson

Ripping the stitches off the needle, Elizabeth hurled the sock she was knitting at the wall. It was the third stitch she’d dropped in as many rows, and already, the sock was so misshapen and holey it was unrecognisable as a sock. She kicked the table in front of her and sighed; she was wasting her time. Jack would have to be content with a letter instead; the war would be over if she waited until she’d finished knitting the socks, before she wrote to him.

Her eyes filled with tears at the thought of Jack. They’d only been married a few weeks before he’d been cruelly snatched away – gone to fight a war she’d wanted no part of, but a war they had been dragged into anyway.

Running into the bedroom she’d shared with him for such a short time, she picked up the shirt he’d slept in and brought it to her nose, breathing deeply of the scent of him. Already, the smell of him on his belongings was fading. She could still remember him with vivid clarity – she could still feel the touch of his strong arms as they wrapped around her, she could imagine the rough scratch of his whiskers against her cheek as he rubbed his face against hers when he kissed her. She could still taste his salty lips. And she could still remember the way he smelled – a musky, masculine scent mixed with his tobacco. She could picture his murky blue eyes, the way she’d lost herself in the piercing depths when he’d smiled at her with his crooked toothed grin.

Returning the shirt to its spot on the bed, she fingered the locket she wore around her neck. She kept a lock of his hair inside, but the few short strands she’d gathered and stuffed into the pendant didn’t do justice to the gorgeous mane of golden hair that had flopped foppishly over his eyes and curled against his collar at the nape of his neck.  She’d reached up behind him and tangled her fingers in it when they’d kissed, tugging at his hair, using it to pull him closer, so she could kiss him deeper. He was a good kisser. Just the right amount of pressure, just the right amount of tongue, his soft lips were magical against hers.

He’d been so tall, so handsome, so strong. He’d leaned right out the window of the train, waving to her, as she’d ran along the platform as far as she could go, blowing him kisses, missing him already, before the train had even left. Many women had been at the train station that day – most of them saying goodbye to their men: mothers to sons, sisters to brothers, wives to husbands, girlfriends to boyfriends. There had been many tears; she hadn’t been alone in crying. There’d been pride that day, too, but mostly there’d been pain. So much pain. She knew, without really understanding, that she might never see him again; many soldiers never returned from war. Every day, another black-edged letter would arrive somewhere on the street, bringing tragic news to another grieving family.

Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, Elizabeth sniffed, took a deep breath, and returned to her chair by the fire. She picked up her knitting once more and painstakingly returned all the stitches to the needle, carefully going through and fixing all the mistakes she’d made. Jack deserved warm socks – the trenches would be muddy, wet and cold. She knew, from letters others on her street had received already, that there was a water shortage there, food rations were boring, and the awful square biscuits, a staple in their lacklustre diet, made better emergency paper than food.

She hated the idea of Jack living in the trenches, contending with those atrocious living conditions, the lice and flies. The idea of him being shot at, terrified her. Her heart broke when she sat in the rocking chair he’d liked. Would he ever get to sit in it again? Counting the stitches carefully, she concentrated on her knitting with a single-minded determination.  Right now, knitting socks was the only thing she could do for her husband.

***

The letter had been unfolded and refolded so many times the paper was starting to tear along the creases. She knew every word off by heart. Jack hadn’t seen any fighting yet, his time at war so far, had mostly been digging trenches; miles upon miles of trench. She smiled upon seeing his familiar cursive script, the lettering all different sizes, the writing sloping the wrong way, smudged ink splotches in the middle of the paper. Only Jack could write such a letter. The last paragraph embedded itself in her heart so deeply she knew she would always remember the words: “My dearest Elizabeth, how I long to hold you in my arms again. Until we meet again, know I love you, forever.”

Elizabeth finished the socks and packaged them up and sent them off with a letter she’d sealed with a kiss. They hadn’t looked too bad in the end, the socks. Once she’d fixed the holes and stretched them out a bit it was obvious what they were meant to be and despite being a bit of an odd shape for a sock, they would work okay. She knew Jack would wear them proudly – he was always proud of everything she made for him, even if it didn’t quite turn out the way she’d hoped it would. But Jack had never minded if the end result had been a bit wonky; he was happy that she’d tried. That was the kind of man that he was. He was sweet and he was kind. Elizabeth paced the porch. She missed him.

Weeks went by. She was on her third pair of socks now, her knitting getting better, the stitches more even, the finished socks actually starting to look something like socks now, and not just a knitted blob. This was a stripy pair – she was getting fancy. It was so wrong that instead of cooking her husband’s meals, mending his pants, tending to his house, all she could do was knit him socks. She could write letters, send him care packages from home … and knit socks. Her heart ached. She longed to do so much more.

***

She was in the kitchen, up to her elbows in flour making bread when the distinctive, dreaded, black-edged envelope arrived. With hands covered in dough she sank to the floor, her body like lead. Her heart stopped momentarily, and when it started beating again it thumped erratically, a crazy tempo that matched her distress. She’d tried to scream but she couldn’t get enough air. When she’d opened her mouth to suck in a breath it had got caught in her throat and nearly suffocated her and she’d thought she was dying. Not that dying would be a bad thing; she could be with Jack, then. She didn’t even want to live anymore, not without him. Her shoulder shook in silent sobs as the tears pooled on the floor under her face. She couldn’t move, her body was too heavy. And what was the point of moving anyway, if Jack was dead? There was no point to life, if Jack wasn’t sharing it with her.

For hours she stayed there on the floor, too distraught to pick herself up. The envelope remained unopened. But there was no point opening it – she knew what it said. Not the precise wording, obviously, but the general gist of it – the “sorry Jack is dead” part – she knew that bit. But she couldn’t bring herself to read the words. Reading the words would make it real, and it couldn’t be real. She didn’t want it to be real; she wouldn’t let it be real.  Jack could not be dead – he wasn’t allowed to be – she needed him.

For two weeks the envelope stayed there, on the mantle, just watching her. She was aware of its existence; she saw it out of the corner of her eye every time she went near it. But she refused to open it. She couldn’t face reading those words. She wanted to throw it away, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that, either. The letter, even bearing such tragic news, was her final link to Jack. Even if she never opened it, she needed to keep it.

Elizabeth opened the letter, eventually. Carefully, she slid a knife under the seal, prising the black-edged envelope open gently, so as not to damage it more than necessary. She slid out the paper, holding it between trembling fingers, her hand shaking so badly she could barely read it.

“Killed” jumped off the page at her. How many other women had read those same words? How many other men’s lives had been tragically cut so short due to this war? How many other bodies would be buried where Jack lay, in a mass, unmarked grave behind the trenches somewhere in Anzac Cove?  Her tears dropped onto the paper, blurring her vision, smudging the ink. She folded it back up again, the folds precise, perfect, and slid it back into the envelope, the black stripe around the edges not letting her forget that the information within was devastating.

Elizabeth went through the motions of living, but inside she was numb. Every smile was forced, every emotion felt dull, clouded by her sadness. They’d just been newlyweds, they’d been meant to have their whole lives together to look forward to. And now, just like that, he was gone. His life snuffed out like a candle in the wind, prey to … what? A sniper’s bullet? A bayonet in a charge?  She would probably never know.

The looks of sympathy from the ladies she met in the street only served to increase her pain, despite the kind way they were intended.

Every time the train left from the station with another consignment of young men on board to fight for their mother country and their freedom, her heart broke a little bit more. How many of those young men would come back? As she watched the women left behind, dabbing at their eyes with embroidered handkerchiefs, she hoped for them, that the men would return. Wounded in body and in mind, perhaps, but she hoped they would return. Not like Jack. She would never see Jack again.

***

The writing on the envelope was an unfamiliar, wobbly script, like it had been written with an unpractised hand. It was smeared with dirt and creased; its journey from the sender to her had likely been an arduous one.

Taking a seat in the rocking chair Jack had preferred, she slid her fingernail under the seal fixing the envelope closed and pulled out a single sheet of paper, filled with scrawl that was difficult to read at first, with capital letters thrown in randomly and very little punctuation. She had to read it over several times before it made sense.

You don’t know me, the letter had read.
But I know quite a bit about you. I fought with Jack on
the front and he talked of you all the time.
I want you to know that he died a hero – he saved the lives
of six of our comrades and he died in my arms, a hero.
We will never forget his bravery and courage under fire.
His dying words were to you: Tell Elizabeth I love her, forever.

Of course he was a hero. That just the kind of man Jack was. She smiled sadly, appreciating the man who had taken the time to write to her, hoping his luck held out better than Jack’s had.

She pressed the paper against her skirts to dry the tears that had dropped there, smudging the ink, then carefully folded it in half and slipped it back inside the envelope. She kissed the seal.

“I love you, too, Jack,” she whispered. “Forever.”

~ The end. ~





2 comments:

  1. Hi Kelly, joining you in remembrance. What a wonderful and poignant story to mark ANZAC Day. Thank you for sharing.

    Hugs
    Roz

    ReplyDelete