Just Another Casualty of War ...
The clouds plotted a storm as they rolled across the otherwise clear skies. Leaves littered the countryside and filled the ditches that lined the narrow unpaved road. The little girl was too engrossed in her thoughts to worry about such trivial things. She hummed gaily to herself as she pushed the toy baby buggy along and tried to keep pace with her mother and brother. In the pram was lay a little rag doll she’d inherited from her brother who, although only a year older, already felt he didn’t need such sissy stuff.
The pram bounced about in sympathy with the unpaved road. Although quite attached to it, the comfort of the passenger was the last thing on her mind though, even as she mechanically steered round the potholes. Her mind was a mass of thoughts, there was one that excited her the most: she was going to meet her dad — and for the first time, too.
He’d been sent overseas at the outbreak of WWII and hadn’t been home since. Born a little after he was posted to the UK, she had absolutely no idea what it was like to have a father around. Perhaps it was her mother’s infectious euphoria at the idea that this was going to be their first Christmas together in five years. Perhaps she was looking forward to going to the railway station — which kid doesn’t like that? In any case, a festive atmosphere pervaded the small town on Christmas Eve: the men were coming home from war and the little girl was ecstatic.
She wasn’t unduly bothered when the front wheel of the buggy worked its way loose at the unexpected abuse. It rolled a few feet before coming to a spinning stop. With her brother’s help, she quickly replaced it. Using a rusty nail he’d found to hold it in place, he ran to catch up with his mother who’d maintained her pace.
“Hurry up!” he yelled impatiently, but not unkindly, to his sister, “the train will be here any minute.”
He sped up the narrow wooden bridge that spanned the railway tracks and led to the platform of the tiny railway station. She struggled after him, occasionally slipping on leaves that covered the ground, favouring the errant wheel, and powered by a sense of urgency only a child can have. Instinctively, she knew there was something to look forward to at the station. Her Dad was coming home!
“How proud he’s going to be of me and my little doll,” she mused as she visualized a tall, handsome man stepping off the train, resplendent in his uniform, and stretching out his arms to her. She treated herself to fantasies of him hoisting her aloft, crooning things to her, rather like the way she saw a lot of other fathers do. She imagined his smiling face beaming down at her, and the sense of security with his arms around her shoulders. Everything’s soon going to be all right, she reflected.
With an all-too-feminine perceptiveness, she acutely felt her mother’s lonely sadness. She often saw her weep silently for no apparent reason but instinctively knew why. A feeling of compassion surged through the little girl as she recalled those long, bleak and melancholy evenings when her mother would be knitting — she was always knitting — sighing wistfully and occasionally uttering a prayer.
Since she knew, somehow, the man they were going to meet at the station was going to fix all that, memories of the immediate, unpleasant past flashed were quickly banished. They were replaced by a sense of remorse. She began to wish she’d been more help to her mother when things were bad. She was hoping to be able to tell her dad what a good girl she’d been. In fact, she was savouring the moment. Since everything was going to be okay soon, it was fine to indulge in such painful reverie. And, as she reverted to the pleasant present, full of promise as it was, she enjoyed the feeling.
They reached the station in good time. She mixed and mingled with other children — but always keeping her Mum within sight. Alter all, Mum was the only person who knew exactly what daddy looked like. She just wasn't able to translate the sepia photos she’d seen of her father into a life-sized person, full-fleshed person.
The platform was alive with the chatter and laughter of the mainly female crowd. The hubbub was punctuated by the sound of a hastily-assembled brass band as it practiced the national anthem and a couple of popular Glen Miller tunes. They applauded occasionally, almost cursorily. After all, they had their thoughts and expectations, too.
The girl’s mother reflected on her rather ambivalent attitude towards the old wizened postman as he did his daily rounds on his bicycle. For, while she yearned for news from her husband, she was painfully aware the news the postie bore could well be bad. Lord knows it had happened often enough to many an anxious friend; it could happen to her. This was psychological Russian roulette and it seemed to drive her insane at times.
The distant puff of smoke heralded the approaching train and the crowd gradually hushed to an expectant murmur. After what seemed like an eternity, the locomotive pulled into the station and slowly rolled to a stop. Grinning face poked through the carriage windows ... and then, mass bedlam.
Women uninhibitedly screamed out names, screeched, waved frantically and even swooned — as they recognized their loved ones. The little girl rushed to her mother’s side, intently watching her. Even as the place got more and more riotous, her mother suddenly seemed to lose all restraint, began vigorously waving her hands as she yelled out her husband’s name. But the man she called out to wasn’t alone...
Clinging to his arm as he stepped off the train was a lovely, peach-complexioned woman, with two small children in tow. The joyous expression on the mother’s face gradually changed to bewilderment and, as realization set in, deep hurt.
“There’s daddy,” she said weakly.
The man she pointed at composed himself, gathered up his brood and strode straight past the stunned trio waiting on the platform without so much as a sideways glance. The lady with him, however, paused just long enough to cast them a defiant look.
As she pushed her pram homewards, the thoughts foremost on her mind were that of the wobbly wheel, the long walk home and, worst of all, how uncomfortable the doll was going to be for the duration of the bumpy ride. As the first snowflake alighted on her already-moist cheek, she wished she hadn’t brought the buggy along.
The futility of it all made her angry, even if she couldn’t quite understand why.