A Stitch in Time – Janet Newman
A distraught Mrs Prior stands at our back door. Her face looks dark and red as if the blood is trapped there, and crumpled, like the scrap of paper she’s clutching between her trembling fingers.
Mam swings the door wide. “Come in, Ethel, come in,” she cries, beckoning our neighbour inside. But poor Mrs Prior just stands there, rooted to our doorstep. Her mouth moves soundlessly, and her eyes bulge as if at any moment they will pop right out of their sockets for the sheer horror of what they’ve seen on the paper. We wait: Mam and Nancy and me, as if rooted to our own spots, transfixed by the darkening face and the bulging eyes, willing the restless mouth to make some sound, even though we fear what shape those sounds may take, once Mrs Prior’s tongue finds them, and moulds them, and spits them out.
“It’s Billy. It’s my lad.” As the words find voice at last, the blood drains from our neighbour’s face, the eyelids hide her bug-eyed stare and her legs begin to concertina. The paper flutters to the scullery floor and, but for Mam’s capable arms, poor Mrs Prior would surely follow.
“Come on in, Ethel. Come and sit down, love.”
While Mam gently guides Mrs Prior indoors, Nancy and I rush ahead: me pulling out two chairs from their places beneath the kitchen table, Nancy clearing away our abandoned breakfast dishes and mopping up the stains they’ve left on the oilcloth.
“There now,” Mam soothes, coaxing the weeping woman onto one of the chairs. She flaps her arms at Nancy and me, indicating that we should give over gawping and do something useful.
“Make a brew, Charlotte,” Nancy whispers, taking charge, and pulling me away. I fill the kettle and set it on the hob, and she takes four of our best china cups from the cabinet, rinses and wipes them for their lack of use, and places each on a saucer.
“Oh Billy,” Mrs Prior sobs.
Oh Billy, my heart echoes.
“Get the tray, Charlotte,” Nancy instructs. She shakes out the folds of a white linen cloth and carefully positions it on the tray. And while we wait for the tea to draw, I run my fingertips over the tray cloth’s lacy trim, stroking the intricate pattern of twists and loops that Nancy has fashioned all around its edge. My sister is a fine needlewoman, and I’m strangely pleased that she’s brought out her best for Billy’s Mam.
“Cuppa, Mrs P?”
My hands shake a little as I set the tray down. The spoons clink in their saucers and tea sloshes over the sides of the cups. A half-dozen drops settle on Nancy’s pristine cloth and flower like bloodstains on snow.
“My poor boy,” Mrs Prior wails, rocking her misery back and forth. “Why, oh why did it happen to him?”
Looking back, I see that none of us had thought to question the rights or wrongs of what Billy Prior had done. “My lad’s enlisted,” his mother confided; a mix of pride and anxiety thickening her words. “Good on you, Billy,” we said. “Our hero,” we said, and sent him on his way. The whole street turned out for his leave-taking. Nancy made a banner and we hung it over the entry. She’d embroidered ‘Good Luck and God Bless Private Billy Prior’ in silk thread all the way across it.
“Your lass is a dab hand with a needle,” Mrs Prior told Mam, as they stepped back, the better to admire Nancy’s handiwork.
“A fitting tribute,” Mam declared, “for a brave lad.” And, the two mothers, puffed up with pride and patriotism, linked arms and joined in a chorus of Tipperary with the rest of the well-wishers. Somebody called for three cheers and Billy blushed at the fuss we all made of him. And after he’d gone, we consoled ourselves with the lie that he’d be home by Christmas.
But, of course, Billy didn’t come home. Not that Christmas, or the one after. From time to time, Mam asked Mrs Prior for news of him, but, “Our Billy was never a great one for letter-writing,” was all his mother had to say on the subject.
Eventually, Mam stopped asking. And just as we were getting used to Billy Prior not living next door, he came home. He’d been wounded; a narrow escape by all accounts, but serious enough to earn him a spell in a military hospital, and a few precious days home-leave while the medical board deliberated his fitness.
We made a great fuss of our hero, and when he asked if I’d go to the chapel social with him on the Saturday night, I said yes, even though we weren’t sweethearts or anything. But Billy and I had grown up together, playing out our childhood in the narrow entry between our two houses. And we were easy with one another.
“Drink up, Ethel,” Mam says, pushing Mrs Prior’s cup towards her. Nancy and I sip in unison, willing Billy’s mam to do the same. The tea is sweet and strong, and tastes nicer somehow for its china cup, and we sip and sip until only the jet black leaves remain. An uneasy silence settles between us, broken only by the ticking of the kitchen clock, and the wind soughing in the chimney.
It seems a lifetime since the Priors’ door-knocker had assaulted our senses with its early- morning clattering. We knew from experience the sound spelled trouble. Front doors are seldom opened along our terrace; visitors come round the back via the entry, except for strangers. Especially the ones bearing bad news. We’d jumped up from the table, leaving our breakfasts, and rushed through to the parlour. Nancy held me back to let Mam to the window first. We watched her lift the nets and peek out; heard the sharp intake of her breath and the dreaded words “The telegram boy’s bicycle.” She let the curtains drop back into place and, without turning round, added, “Leaning up against next-door’s gatepost.”
The next thing we knew, Mrs Prior was near to fainting on our doorstep, bringing the first news of Billy since the night of the chapel social.
That event turned out to be a miserable affair, what with the young men away at war and the girls staying home because of it. And worst of all, Billy had received word from the Board: he’d been deemed fit for action and was to report for duty next day.
We dawdled home afterwards, neither of us wishing to hasten the coming of the dawn. Billy’s spirits were low, and it took no working out that, in his mind, he was already back in France. Back on the frontline, caked in mud and blood, living amongst the dying and the dead. I couldn’t imagine it. Not really. But I suddenly wanted to know. All of it.
“What’s it like Billy?” I linked my arm in his, reached up and touched the puckered scar at his temple where the shrapnel had been removed. “Tell me, Billy. What’s it really like? But he pulled free and quickened his step. I had to run to keep up. And though I knew he didn’t want to talk about it, I would keep on. “What’s it like Billy? What’s it like to kill someone? What’s it like to watch them die?” Again he pulled away and he raised his hands, as if to fend off my questions. But I just wouldn’t let up. “Come on Billy,” I persisted. “Tell me. I want to know. What’s it like?” And, to my horror, Billy’s face began to contort. At first he wept silently, the heels of both hands pressed tight against his eyelids as if to keep the tears from falling. Then, suddenly, a great bellow burst from him; an animal roar that swelled and echoed around the silent street.
“Oh Billy,” I breathed, reaching up to try to quiet him. “Don’t. Please don’t.” I was scared someone would hear, and I kept glancing round, half expecting to see curious faces emerge from the shadows. But none did. There was not another soul in the world to witness Billy Prior’s tears that night. Nor any to comfort him. Save me.
And so I held him close while the torment heaved and hiccupped out of him. “Hush,” I murmured from time to time; “Hush Billy, Hush,” until there were no tears left.
We walked the rest of the way in silent companionship, just the two of us, leaning into one another, and the moon lighting our path. And when we came to the entry between our two houses, we lingered awhile, remembering our younger selves, and wishing away the intervening years. And when Billy kissed me, first on the cheek, and then full on the mouth, I didn’t try to stop him.
It wasn’t romantic. Or exciting. It was nothing at all like either of us had imagined our first taste of lovemaking would be. But it was special nonetheless, and I like to think it was some comfort to Billy.
“Thank you, Charlotte. “
The voice brings me back. I blink away the memories and Mrs Prior’s face swims into focus
“Thank you,” she says again, squeezing my arm.
For a moment, I think she means the tea. But she doesn’t.
“For being there,” she says. “That night of the chapel social. Thank you for being there. For Billy.”
She stands then, steadying herself on the table’s edge, and, pausing only to retrieve the telegram from the floor, Mrs Prior turns for home.
“Let me come with you Ethel,” Mam says, trailing after her through the scullery and out the back door. “Just as far as the entry.”
The door closes behind them, Nancy takes up her sewing and, with a sigh, drops down into poor Mrs Prior’s chair. She pushes aside the woman’s untouched cup of tea, cold now and with a skin forming on top, and motions me to sit too. But I remain standing, still thinking of Billy Prior and of what we’d been to each other that night. And as I run my hands over the swell of my good woollen skirt, it occurs to me that I shall have to ask Nancy to let out the waistband again soon.