Tonight’s full moon is casting so much brilliant blueish tinted light across the valley that if one did not know better, one might almost swear it were daylight. From the kitchen window I can clearly see drystone walls laid out for miles in their dissecting patchwork patterns across the hills and all the way past the next farm’s stone cottage. Unlike here, though, my neighbours have no lit candle on their windowsill, no beacon to guide the way. They await the arrival of no-one. They have gone to bed with aches from the day’s toil and peace on their brows.
I cleared the table hours ago, save for the plate of food I covered with a clean cloth. You’ll be in need of sustenance when you return. I have well familiarised myself with late nights and consequently, have become accustomed to preparing food that does not require reheating.
I wake slowly at dawn. The kitchen is quiet and still but for my chattering teeth. I should have tucked myself into bed but guilt would ruin me if you’d knocked and I didn’t answer. But you did not come.
Ash is cold in the grate. The crocheted shawl I’d pulled about my shoulders in the early hours lies on the slate, comforting instead, the floor by my slippered feet. I haul my stiff body from its armchair nest and stretch creaking bones into some semblance of an upright stance before scraping the untouched meal into a bucket. At least the animals will have their fill when I add their usual feed to this fine waste. We have some of the best sows in the Yorkshire Dales and make enough at the markets to keep us going.
I let the pigs out of the covered pen into their larger enclosure to wallow and eat. In a few minutes there’ll be no trace of last night’s dinner, leaving me only the necessary practicalities to attend to.
I cast an incidental eye for you, along the road and then down the valley. It did not rain last night so frost has crept over the landscape and left its white blanketed calling card across the fields indicating not one stray footprint ─ either animal or human ─ that has flattened a single frozen blade of grass or traversed the undulating paddocks towards home.
Old Mister and Missus from down the road used to drop in to check on me occasionally but frankly, these days I have had neither the time nor inclination to entertain visitors, and I am pleased to know they have finally grown weary of attempting to make good company of me. When you left, everyone changed. All of them. They look at me quizzically as though I speak a foreign language. Little interests me except having you home and I no longer have the mental capacity for small talk with any of them. They’ll know I have not succumbed to winter’s cold grip because they can surely see the smoke from our chimney, so they leave me be which is just the way I like it. I am far too busy.
When hope takes a breath, sorrow is pushed aside and routine takes over. There are eggs to collect and a cow to milk. I put a pot of water on to boil, knead the bread dough and prove it by the hearth ready to form into loaves. You enjoy my homemade bread. You should be here to watch me doing the chores; you should be eating and sleeping where there is shelter and a mother’s all-encompassing embrace to warm you. How I long to hear your laughter and watch you grow into the fine responsible man your father was. But you don’t come.
You will be cold. You are without your coat and scarf, and this winter is bitter. You should not be out there, up in the hills or away from home, let alone in this chilling weather. It breaks my heart that you did not make it home again last night. I cry often. Sometimes I let out a quiet, martyred sob that takes me unaware and catches in my chest but more often, my aching soul’s anguish takes on a howling, selfish bellow enough to scare the chickens back inside their coop. But right now I have laundry to wash and hang by the fire, followed by the floors to scrub. I could not bear for you to come home to an unkempt environment.
This evening we had potato soup to share and a thickly buttered slice of homemade bread for each of us. I waited for some time but when there came no call at the door I said grace without you again. It would have been a filling supper, but I took my usual two bites and felt I could eat no more. It is surprisingly difficult to eat an entire meal alone and so very quiet in the cottage without you. I have covered your food with a clean cloth. When you come home, the soup and bread can be just as easily digested cold. I am annoyed you are staying out so late but I will not say so when you return. Instead, I will hug you closely and tell you how glad I am that you made it in before the rain started.
Storm clouds are rolling in, throwing their dark shadows into the room, so I light a candle and set it in the window just as I do every night. You will see its golden glow across the meadows and be guided to where your mother patiently waits. We have such a lot to catch up on.
I have just the one worn, black and white image of us together, your blonde mop of hair showing up starkly against the dark shade of my long dress. We owned a horse back then and made a grand day of it, taking the cart all those many miles into the village, wearing our Sunday finest, remember? It had been a long and tiring day for an excitable two-year-old and I could only afford to buy two copies of the photograph but it is a keepsake that has paid for itself many times over. Taken just four days before you mischievously wandered outside to play while I fed the chickens, it is a much-loved reminder of your cherubic little face. I question how often Sergeant Bentley looks at the other copy, the one I relinquished to the constabulary in the days after you disappeared.
Everyone in the valley looked for you for weeks but I have never stopped. Never. Not for one second, my Love. I search even now.
Sometimes I wonder how your features might have changed in four years. Will I recognise you when you return? Of course I will. A mother knows her child forever.
Torrential rain pounds at the leadlight panes, thunder reverberates loudly overhead, and I think for a fleeting moment that we should snuggle under the covers but when I remember you are still outside, I grab the shawl and settle into our threadbare armchair. Waiting for you. Perhaps tonight is the night you’ll find your way back to me.