When the Fighting’s Over

Jenny loved dancing. On Saturday night in her blue taffeta frock and high-heeled shoes she foxtrotted round the Cavendish Ballroom floor. The gilt-framed mirrors shone back her happiness.

Frankie liked dancing, too, especially once he’d spotted the bonny lass in blue with the beautiful smile. Soon they were dancing together, and before long they were inseparable.

After the dance Frankie would foxtrot Jenny home. Click, click, clack-clack-clack went the shoes of the two carefree lovebirds along the cobbled streets.

One night, Frankie seemed subdued.

‘What’s the matter, Frankie?’

‘Well, Jenny. Haven’t you heard? We’ve declared war on Germany.’

‘Oh, that. But that’s in Belgium, isn’t it? What’s that got to do with us?’

‘They need good soldiers, of course. Lots of lads are signing up. I’m thinking about it myself, in fact.’

Jenny stared at him. ‘What for?’

‘To do the right thing for my country.’

‘No! You can’t!’ Jenny gripped Frankie’s hand.

‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’ll be over by Christmas.’

Tears ran down Jenny’s cheeks. ‘Don’t leave me, Frankie.’ She buried her face in his chest.

Frankie bent down to be level with her face. ‘Tell you what, Jenny, m’darling. How about you and me getting married before I go? Then you’ll know I’ll never leave you. I’ll be yours forever.’

Now Jenny was weeping tears of joy. ‘And I’ll be yours,’ she choked.

Three weeks later, Frankie and Jenny took their marriage vows. The day after that, Frankie strode off to sign up.

He came back furious. He flung his coat across the room. ‘They said to come back when I’m nineteen. As if I was a kid!’

It was hard for Jenny to feign sympathy. She put her arms around her strong handsome husband. ‘Of course you are. But Frankie, now we’ve got another year together. Isn’t that lovely?’ She caressed his cheek with her lips and Frankie had to admit she was right.

In that first year Frankie and Jenny were wrapped in marital bliss. They set up home in a two-roomed flat and a baby was soon on the way. The war had not ended by Christmas, but to Jenny it seemed very far away. But Frankie walked past posters every day, reminding him that his country needed him. Most of his pals had already answered the call.

He also heard reports of local boys dying in action. The news was always shocking, but it made Frankie even more resolute; he had to help defend his country.

Shortly after the baby was born, Frankie’s nineteenth birthday arrived at last. Jenny was barely awake when he returned from the recruiting station beaming.

‘That’s it, Jenny. I’ve signed up and I’m off on Monday.’

Jenny’s jaw dropped. ‘Are you leaving me alone with the baby? What will I do?’

‘Don’t worry m’dear. We’ll sort out the Hun in double quick time now.’

Jenny burst into tears after she waved her husband off. Her neighbour Lizzie took her in for a cup of tea. ‘I know it’s hard, hen.’ Her man, Billy had signed up some months earlier. ‘But they’re only doing their bit. You should be proud of them. They’d be cowards if they didn’t go, now, wouldn’t they?’

Jenny missed her husband terribly at first. Everyone told her to be brave; but still she couldn’t understand why he had to go and fight. So when he turned up at the door one night without warning, she was overcome with joy.

‘Frankie! You’re back! Oh, what a lovely surprise!’ She rushed up, flung her arms around his waist and burst into tears. ‘Oh Frankie, I’ve been missing you so much. Have you changed your mind?’

Frankie pushed Jenny away. She nearly fell over with the force of his thrust. She stared at him, open-mouthed.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, woman! I’m a fully-trained soldier now. Soldiers don’t change their minds. I’ve got two days leave then I’m going to the Front. So don’t just stand there. Get me my dinner!’

‘F-f-frankie – I wasn’t expecting you –  there’s nothing to eat – I’ll run next door and borrow some potatoes…’

‘Potatoes!’ Frankie bellowed. ‘I want more than potatoes. I’m a soldier. Soldiers eat beef. What have you been spending my allowance on if there’s no food in the house?’

‘Frankie, it’s not very much…’

‘Oh it’s not enough for you, is it not? Not good enough for you, am I? And what have you been up to, you slut?’ Frankie picked up a cup and hurled it at his wife. Jenny shrieked. The baby woke up and screamed.

‘And shut that brat up! And get me hot water. I need to wash!’

Trembling, Jenny put the kettle on, picked up the baby and ran next door.

When Frankie finally slammed the door on Monday morning Jenny ran through to Lizzie’s and broke out in sobs. ‘He was horrible to me, called me names. He was drunk. He kept swearing and saying I didn’t know anything. He said, ‘Do you think you’re my one and only? Well, I’ve got new pals now.’ And he wouldn’t look at the bairn. It just wasn’t like him. I can’t understand it.’

‘Ah, don’t worry, hen. He’ll be a bit nervous about going to the Front. They tell the new lads terrible stories, Billy says, like soldiers getting blown to bits…’

‘Wh-what?’

‘But it’s not true. They’re only teasing. The Hun’s no match against our boys, like they said.’

Jenny was not consoled. She remained baffled and distressed, and looking after the baby took all her strength. She never heard from Frankie. It seemed he hated her, but why? Sometimes she hated him back, but then sadness, guilt and confusion would overcome her. Was he in danger? Did she care? She didn’t know.

Then one morning she got a postcard. ‘I am well. Frankie.’ That was all it said. Jenny stared at it, turning it round and round. What could it mean? Finally, she showed it to Lizzie.

‘It means what it says, Jenny. He’s all right. They haven’t got time to write much out there.’

Jenny carried on staring at the postcard, shaking her head.

Eventually, Lizzie took the card from her. ‘Come on, Jenny. We’re going dancing. Your man’s all right. We can celebrate.’

It was good to be dancing again, just like old times. Jenny soon forgot her woes as she and Lizzie spun round the floor. No use waiting to be asked up; no point in asking where all the young men had gone.

One young man was watching them. They caught sight of his dark mop and wide brow in the mirror. Soon he was over asking Jenny to dance.

It felt nice to be held by a young man again. His name was Len, a clockmaker, he said.

‘Tick tock,’ smiled Jenny. ‘You must be clever, then.’

But he was working in the coalmines while the war lasted.

After the dance Len walked Jenny and Lizzie home.

‘Why are you not away fighting?’ Lizzie asked him.

‘I couldn’t kill anybody,’ he said.

‘Oh! You’re a conscientious objector, then,’ said Jenny.

‘A conchie!’ said Lizzie. ‘You’d better watch out. You’ll get a white feather.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘Don’t you think you should do you bit, like all the other men?’ said Lizzie.

‘No. I think they’re stupid.’

‘Stupid, are they? Those men are laying down their lives!’ Lizzie retorted.

‘That’s my point.’

‘Don’t mind Lizzie,’ said Jenny. ‘She’s only teasing.’

Wartime gloom soon gripped Jenny again. She waited in vain to hear from Frankie. Other women got letters. Sometimes one would get a telegraph, shocking the whole neighbourhood. Every woman became fearful for her own man. Life was dreary. Would the war ever end?

Jenny lived for Saturday nights, when she would get together with Lizzie and Len at the ballroom. After the dance they walked home together, Lizzie teasing Len about shirking his duty. He just shrugged.

Jenny heard Lizzie screaming through the wall. She ran next door and immediately knew why.

Lizzie held out the telegram. ‘What have I to do? Where do I have to go?’

The neighbours heard the screams and ran to fetch her family. They all came into her kitchen and stood, passing round the telegram and shaking their heads.

‘What do I have to do now?’ shrieked Lizzie.

‘There’s nothing you need to do, Lizzie. There’s nothing you can do.’

All day, Jenny sat rocking the baby and listening to Lizzie’s muffled sobs. What if it had been Frankie? To her shame she realised she had hardly thought about him recently. Now dread engulfed her. How was he? He never wrote. Did he hate her still? What was she to think? Would he ever come back? What then?

That evening Len was at the door. His head hung. ‘I suppose I’d better join up, then.’

‘You will not! You can’t! I need you!’ Jenny pulled him inside. ‘What’s the matter? It’s a white feather, isn’t it?’

Len nodded, without showing his face.

‘You mustn’t go, Len. I couldn’t bear it.’ She put her lips to his wet cheeks and led him into the bedroom.

‘Are you sure, Jenny? You’re a married woman.’

‘Just this one night. We need each other, don’t we?’

Len stayed every night after that. He was a great comfort to Jenny in these grim times.

Len was less comfortable. ‘I shouldn’t stay, Jenny. Your man will be back. Tell me when to go.’

Jenny stared into the darkness. When? She felt the swell of her belly. She would have to tell him soon. ‘When the fighting’s over,’ she said.

Frankie jumped when the train pulled out of the station. He was always jittery, since…. He hobbled up the road. His feet hurt terribly, swollen and pussed with always being wet – hadn’t stop him being ordered over the top, though. Dunked in disinfectant, bandaged up and sent back to the mud. Keep them dry, they had said. The mustard gas burns too. Week in casualty, another in camp, then back to the trenches. And the trembling. Could hardly hold his gun but still he had to go. And the retching, and the nightmares. A toff would be sent to casualty then home to convalesce. But in the ranks you were just being a coward. So, off you go, over the top. Not till his hand was blown off and he couldn’t fire his gun was he discharged. No use then. He’d lasted six long months. That was a miracle. Most of his pals hadn’t lasted six weeks. Had to leave them where they dropped, except those that didn’t – like Alfie – wee Alfie – strewn all over the barbed wire, his head away… Frankie stopped to retch. If only he hadn’t seen his face, he might never have known. Now he couldn’t stop seeing him, even in his sleep – especially in his sleep. Sixteen years old! Had they believed him when he said he was nineteen?

Frankie pulled himself up and staggered on. Now the war was over for him at least.

‘I’m coming home, Jenny. I’ll be so pleased to see you, and the bairn. It’s been so long. I wasn’t very nice to you. Please understand what I was going through and forgive me. I never wrote – I couldn’t. It’s been terrible, Jenny. But now it’s over, and you’ll make everything all right, won’t you? I’m not the man I was. You’ll hardly recognise me – not strong or handsome any more – these weals over my eyes, that was the mustard gas, and my feet – one’s gone yellow; I fear the worse, and my hand off – but I’m alive, Jenny. You don’t know how lucky I am.’

Frankie badly needed another rest but he pushed on. He was nearly home. He could hardly wait till he fell into his wife’s loving arms. At last he reached his own front door.

‘Here I am, Jenny!’

His remaining hand trembled as he lifted the latch and stepped in.

About julie_t

short story writer
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