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.
Very nice, Selma.
‘There was no mystery in the mist at all, just a white sheet solid as a shawl, and sorrow.’
Dead sad line.
I watched this morning on France 24 News about a ceremony for Africans, from Francophone countries, who fought in WWI and died. It is so tragic for young men to lose their lives in wars they hardly understand, but the tragedy of a colonised people forced to fight to maintain the coloniser seems much worse some how. I’ve been thinking about it all day.
Such bittersweet beauty in this piece. You captured the heartache so perfectly.
Oddly, we couldn’t just leave November 11th as the day to honor the fallen, but had to add Memorial Day in May to serve the same purpose. We all get Memorial Day off, while some of us (but not me) get Veteran’s Day (or Armistice Day, as it used to be called)too.
It’s always nice to remember “the war to end all wars”. Uplifiting episode in history, that one.
Another wonderful story.
You ‘captured’ my heart with this one…………….again!
Rememberance day is always a day of celebration and sorrow for me. I was born on the 11th. of November, so I get lots of phone calls from family, but I always, also, listen to the “Last Post”.
DAVID – such a beautiful photo. I just love it!
LAURI – I feel bad admitting I didn’t know young African men were called up in the Great War. That is really sad. I think you should write a story about that, I really do. How must their families have felt? It really was a tragedy.
KAREN – thanks so much, hon!
MELEAH – you too. Thanks so much.
RICHARD – I know. It really went wrong from start to finish, didn’t it? I do think it’s important to remember those who served, however.
LINDA – you are always so kind to me. Cheers!
CHRIS – wishing you a very HAPPY BIRTHDAY for yesterday. I can understand that the day must hold some poignancy for you with all the remembrance celebrations going on. I have a friend who was born on Christmas Day and she always says she never really feels her birthday is celebrated properly, that she’s always competing with ‘that baby Jesus’ as she calls him. She says it stinks having to give other people presents on HER birthday. We laugh about it, but I can appreciate what she means. Hope your day had some wonderful moments.
Another wonderful story Selma. I so love your writing.
Beautiful. Sad. Poignant. Rich in imagery as always. Lest we forget.
CRICKET – you are so kind to say so. I am also a fan of yours. I still can’t believe you met Elvis. I am bouncing in my chair as I think of it.
GYPSY – we must remember all those who lost their lives in war and those who still fight for us today. Such bravery. Thanks for your kind words.
Selma, what a powerful story and told in such a convincing fashion. The final line is fabulous. Thanks
sad story, makes me think of the 1920’s or late where wives are left at home while the men goes off to war, I like the historical details, it makes it seem so true
I read this and your NaNo excerpt yesterday but didn’t have time to comment until now
I thought your NaNo story, Because of you, was realistic in portraying the young and homeless, it makes me sad to think people still had to run away from their abusive families
the usage of Chook (I like the name and reference), and her perspective makes it seem so real, I know I mention real again but your stories whether true or not always sounds real to me, I don’t know if it’s because the details you use but whatever it is, it always like authentic to me
Wonderful. I really love how the narrator becomes so genuine to the reader (at least me) easily and gradually. I so wanted a miriacle for her at the end, though I knew it could not be so. One thing that makes this piece so very effective for me, is your use of so much resonant straightforward detail – so many examples, here are two of my favorites:
“…scrubbing shirt collars all day.” not clothes, not shirts, but shirt collars – brilliant! and
“The old clock ticked on the mantel, the coal in the fire turned red in the middle…” these precise descriptions really make me see the scene and make the characters seem quite real. Nicely done – thanks for the wonderful read!!
You have perfectly captured the incredible loss that was experienced by so many of the family members left behind, waiting and hoping.
You have paid tribute in a very personal and evocative way, to all those who ‘fought the good fight’ and felt that they had to go to war, no matter what the cost. G
Geraldine is right,
“Violence is the last resort of the incompetent”, (read that somewhere and its always stuck in my mind), I just wish that we would remember it and stop so much poignant loss.
Selma, another piece of wonderful writing from you. Very touching piece.
DAN – how nice of you to stop by and sorry for the very late reply. I am so glad you enjoyed the story!
LISSA – thank you very much, hon. It is really important to me to make the characters believable. I feel I can relate to characters more easily when that is the case. I really appreciate your encouragement!
KAYT – you know me and my love of everyday objects. I can’t seem to get away from using them. It really means a lot to me that you liked this!
GERALDINE – the waiting would have been agonising, I think. There would have been such fear that the person you loved might never return. This is the tragedy of war for me. If I can pay tribute to those who fell in my small way, I am delighted.
CHRIS – I know. I truly wish that too. Hopefully one day we won’t use war to solve conflicts.
AUTUMN – thank you so much. I really appreciate it!