I am sneaking out of the farmhouse and I can hardly believe my boldness. I am not a rule-breaker, and Mr Reece is a fair boss as bosses go, but it’s been weeks of rain and mud and horrible cows kicking over their buckets. Lucy’s invitation feels like hope, like an chance to leave the war behind and just be a girl again for an evening. The moon is out and the sky is clear enough to see my way as I walk the ten minutes through the little patch of woods between the farm and the cottage. I don’t dare use a light because of the blackout. I am so nervous that my chest hurts and I keep forgetting to breathe. But Lucy is waiting for me at the door, and it is all right.
I have such a good time that I don’t notice how late it is. We play cards, listen to records, eat cake (no eggs or butter of course, sweetened only with apples) and drink lemonade with actual sugar that Reg got in a parcel from home. That’s all we do. We are just three kids, really, none of us even twenty yet. The war has taken so much from all of us that to spend an evening laughing a little, enjoying ourselves, feels as cheeky as slapping Hitler in the face. Lucy has lost her brother, Reg has lost his pride (thanks to his asthma) and I have lost Charlie, of course. But his face is fading in my memory and I think I might miss the years more. I barely knew him when he went off to fight, so smart and brave in his uniform. He left me at the station with a kiss and I never saw him again. The years, though, have crawled past, my youth leeching away in dreary hours and minutes, one milk pail, one pile of cow dung at a time. My country needed me to work the land. I heeded the call and put aside lipstick, dancing and learning for overalls, shovels and mud. My country called, and I stepped out, into the muck.
It happens on the way home. The moon is lower and I can barely see in front of me, it is so dark. I stop dead, stifling a scream. From the silhouette I know, instantly, who he is. Those trousers, all puffed-out over the knees. The creak of leather in the silence, pale, pale hair fairly glowing in the starlight. I saw the bomber the other day, saw it smoking, stuttering approaching Mr Reece’s fields far too fast. I heard the impact, saw the smoke rising into the air. I heard the commotion, the shouts of the search party that seemed to go on for far too long. Mr Reece said the body must have incinerated when the plane exploded. On his way to hell, the old farmhand muttered. Others were reluctant to call off the search. Too many hiding places around here, they said. Plenty of snake holes to hide the devil.
He stands still at the side of the path, as surprised by me as I am by him. Three days, I think, amazed. Before I even wonder if he might have a gun I am impressed. Three days outside, hiding, in this mouldy grey spring, surely injured from the crash. He raises his hands, though, and says one word.
He says it and I realise I have forgotten to be afraid.
I know what it means. Granny’s surname was Black, Schwartz before she left the Fatherland to marry Grandpa. I know. It is not a detail I tend to share. Hitler, I think, as I stare at him, is stealing my youth. He stole Charlie and Lucy’s brother, and is trying to take it all, but I do not scream. It isn’t that I don’t want to get into trouble – I have forgotten that I am breaking curfew. In that moment instinct takes over, and my instinct is to crouch down and place the paper bag I am holding on the side of the path. Then I walk on towards the faint shadow of the farmhouse ahead of me.
I dream that night of kisses at train stations, of young men disappearing down the tracks, leaving their futures behind on the platforms. I dream of planes spiralling out of the sky. And of a boy, his pale hair glowing in the starlight, opening a paper bag to find cake and a jam jar of real lemonade.
The days afterwards are full, as they have been before, of stubborn cows, buckets in the thin, washed-out dawns, rain dripping down my collar and into my bones. I remember every now and then, amazed at what I have done. Treason. The word whispers from somewhere behind me. I resist. Compassion, I push back. Compassion. Some mother’s son.
Mrs Reece sends me to the cottage to fetch butter moulds from Lucy. On the way back I see something glinting in the weak afternoon sun at the base of a tree. A jam jar, empty of lemonade, rinsed clean. Inside, a single snowdrop.
I pick up the jar, remove the flower and lay it on the ground. There is no one around, just me and a cloth bag of wooden butter moulds, clinking dully as I bend down. I look around. Five days now, alone in the little wood. I walk briskly back, slipping in at the back door while Mrs Reece listens to her music programme on the radio. I leave the moulds on the kitchen table and run upstairs, dig under my bed and pull it out – a dull green men’s jumper, thick and warm. Mother sent it to me, saying perhaps I could unravel it and use the wool to make something for myself. I stuff it into the cloth bag, with my little knife, barely sharp enough to open letters. And a grey wool cap, fresh off my needles. No one has even seen me knitting it.
How? I wonder. Treason follows me to the tree where I left the snowdrop and all the way back before Mrs Reece even notices I am gone. How? Where has he been sleeping? What has he had to eat, other than a little piece of cake? One thing I know: in Luftwaffe leather he will die here. The patrols will find him, eventually. And the dogs will not be kind.
A chance, I tell myself, as I stoke the fire in the Aga and begin peeling potatoes for supper. A small chance. But as the soggy peels fall from my knife into the basin and Mrs Reece tells me sternly to keep them thin, the whispers grow louder. Treason. Treason! For what? No chance at all. For another day, perhaps, no more. Compassion? Charlie is dead, and so is Lucy’s brother. Some mother’s son, yes, born to bring us suffering and to suffer himself.
I forget, after that. Work, solitude, Mrs Reece’s endless yapping make me forget everything. I work, I work myself exhausted all day, knit another sock, sleep another night. Then a day off, a stroll to town with Lucy and Reg. A shout as we pass the grocer’s shop. Oi! Not over there, dumb idiot!
A boy picks up a heavy box, straining thin arms. He does not respond to the grocer’s insult. He looks up and I am frozen. Pale hair under a grey cap. A shapeless, filthy green jumper. No shoes, trousers roughly hacked off short like a boy’s. Only I know they once ballooned over the knees and were tucked into leather boots.
The grocer shouts again, then sees us, touches his cap. All the help I can get, he shrugs. Deaf and dumb but stronger than he looks. Keep forgetting he can’t hear me!
We walk on. Treason! Compassion! I take a deep breath. So not no chance at all, then.
Spring is busy. I feel my arms turn hard as steel. The pitchfork is lighter than it used to be. The milk flows quickly. I learn to tune Mrs Reece out. I knit in the evenings, sneak out sometimes to the cottage. When I go to town I always look when I pass the grocer’s. Twice I see him, once sitting on a box in the alley next to the shop, a mug in one hand and an apple in the other. He doesn’t see me. The next time he is lifting boxes again and he does. We look at each other, for a second. Still the grey cap, different jumper, long trousers and shoes now. Still silent. The grocer bangs a stick on the doorframe and calls to him. He smiles, briefly, nods to me, picks up a box and turns away.
Summer comes and there is more time for trips to town, for evenings playing cards and music, for lying on a haystack with a book and feeling the sun fill me with youth again. The war is almost over, people say, and I find that I have hopes again. I have dreams, plans, things to learn. The cows and the mud have not broken me; they have only made me more determined. I have done my part for my country and I will live. There is a harvest celebration, an evening of bonfires and homemade cider and hope in all the loss. I am laughing with Lucy when I see him across the flames. My wages are in my pocket but I know I do not need them. I leave Lucy and make my way over, press the notes into his hand. He cannot thank me; only he and I know he is no mute. But I am not proud of myself. Perhaps I am a traitor. Compassion wins over duty this time. Perhaps I am in credit when it comes to duty anyway, after giving years of my youth to the cows and Mrs Reece.
It is a year later. The war is long over and I am a student, filling my mind with books and poetry, with wishes for a better future. I go home to my family to find a letter waiting for me, forwarded from the farm. No sender, no return address, my name written in a clear, sloping hand.
At first, I think the envelope is empty. I turn it over and something falls out: a snowdrop, pressed and dried, spiralling gracefully onto my hand.