Today, on Armistice day, I would like to dedicate this story to all those who have fallen in war.
And to all those left behind.
May we never forget.
CANDLE IN THE MIST
Even though Esther was only twenty she felt like she had waited all of her life for Tom to come along. He smiled and everything seemed possible. When her hands were pink and swollen from scrubbing shirt collars all day for Mrs. Briggs or she was covered in soot and ashes from sweeping out every grate in the house, he had a way of coming up with a little turn of phrase that made the sun come out again.
They were going to be married as soon as Tom had saved enough money. He was working at Mr. McKendrick’s the Grocer’s and was doing really well. The customers loved him.
Life was beautiful with Tom. Esther’s life before him felt bleak. She didn’t mind when Mrs. Briggs shouted at her for not starching the aprons properly if she could speak to Tom about it afterwards.
‘Don’t worry about Mrs. B, my sweet,’ he said. ‘She has no one to love her, that’s why she is so grim.’
It was true. Mr. Briggs had been killed in a mining accident ten years before. Mrs. Briggs had no one to love her. Put like that Esther could almost forgive her superior her irascibility.
When Esther heard that Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated, she felt bad a man had lost his life, but she didn’t think any more of it. It had happened in Sarajevo. She hated to admit that she didn’t even know where Sarajevo was. Somewhere in Europe, said Mrs.Briggs. It might as well be on the moon for all Esther knew – she had never been outside of London.
When war was declared Esther felt a little sharp nudge of panic in her ribcage. Tom was of the age to go to war. She hoped he would believe as she did that war was wrong. That men raising their hands against one another never solved anything.
For a year the war raged in places far away. Tom read the papers and listened to the radio. He had an angry look in his eye. His cousins were serving on the Western Front.
‘I should be there with them,’ Tom said. ‘I should be fighting for England.’
Mr. McKendrick fell ill and Tom managed the Grocer’s. Esther and Tom decided to get married and were able to buy a little house – two up, two down – by the river. It was cold in the winter and every morning the mist rose like smoke, but it felt like home.
As news of the atrocities experienced by British troops filtered back home, Tom became more and more incensed. ‘I should be there,’ he said every night after dinner.
In January 1916 the first Military Service Act was passed. This Act called for the compulsory enlistment of unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41.
The very same day the Act was passed Tom received news that his cousin was injured, lying close to death in a hospital in France. He was quiet all night and into the next morning.
When he came home from work the next day he had an important-looking piece of paper in his hand. ‘I’ve signed up,’ he said. ‘I’m being shipped to northern France in two days. It’s the right thing to do.’
A hollowness began to fill Esther’s chest. Surely Tom hadn’t spoken? Surely he wasn’t really in the room? Wasn’t it only the unmarried ones who had to enlist? The married ones were needed at home.
Don’t go, she wanted to shout. Don’t leave me here alone, I don’t want to have no-one to love me; but she could see the resolve with which he sliced the bread for dinner and knew he would not welcome anything she had to say on the matter.
Two days later Esther found herself waving goodbye to a bus full of recruits heading for Dover and then France. Tom was surrounded by so many men laughing and chatting with him – he made friends so quickly – that he almost forgot to kiss her goodbye.
‘Light a candle for me every night,’ he said. ‘Leave it on the sill of the window that looks on to the river so I can find my way home again. And don’t worry, the Germans won’t get the better of me.’
For almost six months Esther received regular letters from Tom. It was cold, it was wet, the food was terrible, but the camaraderie between the men made it all worth it.
Every night Esther lit a candle, placing it in the window by the river, watching as the evening mist melded with the candlelight to form a soft, yellow glow so mesmerising it was as if something magical danced there.
In the last week of June 1916 Tom wrote, saying he was about to be shipped to northern France, somewhere near the River Somme . ‘The two rivers will link us,’ he wrote. ‘I will look at my river and think of you and you will look at your river and think of me.’ Esther took heart that nothing bad could ever happen if they each had a river.
On July 1, 1916 the Battle of the Somme began. It waged for five weary months. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War. 19,240 men died on the first day, with the most casualties occurring in the first hour. Tom was one of the fallen.
Esther knew when he fell. She held her breath, waiting for a sign – a knock at the door, a cry at night, the flickering of the candlelight – but no sign came. Everything looked just as it had moments before. The old clock ticked on the mantel, the coal in the fire turned red in the middle, occasionally sending sparks up the chimney; the table was neat, laid for the morning. Same as it ever was, just as it should be, but she knew.
The candle in the window cast its light out into the night but the mist was thick as snow; the feeble candlelight could not pierce it. Esther sat, clutching the arms of her chair. The mist masked the night so she could see nothing through the window. On a night such as this she and Tom would drink tea and guess what lay beyond the mist. The mystery of the mist, Tom called it. But tonight there was no mystery in the mist, no laughter, no forming of shadow puppets on the windows. There was no mystery in the mist at all, just a white sheet solid as a shawl, and sorrow.
*Inspired by the men who fell and the Search Engine Stories prompt candle in the mist.