‘Come on, Willy, do your coat up. This is going to be the start of a new adventure for us. You’ll get to live with Charlie. I wish I could have lived with a friend when I was your age.’
Martha pulled his zip up as far as his big woolly scarf would allow and pulled his little hat over his ears to make sure as much of his young, delicate skin was covered as could be. She stood up and looked around her. Taking it all in one last time. One last breath in this house. One last smell. The last time she would smell the scent that they had created as a family. The faint scent of John’s boot polish. A whiff of Willy’s talcum powder, and whilst everyone else might not smell it, the sweat and tears of Martha with a slight pang of her royal jelly moisturiser. She could hardly bear to leave this house. Once she shuts the front door for the last time, she shuts out the life she had with John. She shuts out the memories. The plans. Willy’s first few years. The happy times. The struggles.
* * *
Martha had accepted Johnny’s death. She had no other choice. All she had now were the memories.
Every day he was serving in the army she would worry. So many people had lost their lives. So much heartbreak and families torn apart, but he would always come back. Most times with no warning. He would bound in through the front door, dump his bags on the floor, and call out to his family. Firstly, he would pick up Willy in his arms and give him a tight squeeze and plant a big kiss on his little rosy cheek. Willy’s eyes would light up, and he would giggle with pure delight. His little laugh would fill the room with happiness, changing the normally nervous atmosphere instantly. Then Johnny would put Willy down next to his toys and look up at Martha who was watching them. Martha looked beautiful as always. She would be wearing her apron most of the times he came back, with her immaculate victory rolls set in her deep brown, bouncy hair. She had winter-like clear blue eyes and always had her signature slick of red lipstick on.
No matter what the occasion, she always looked glamorous and beautiful, and what made her most beautiful was that she had no idea quite how captivating she was. Johnny would forever be in awe. Everything that had happened, everything he had seen, all the trauma he had experienced, it would disappear when he saw her. She was his everything. She was what drove him when he felt weak. When he was scared, he would be brave for her and his son too. He would do everything in his power for those two. The apples of his eye, and boy, was it good to be home. He would take a step closer to Martha, and she would look at him.
Her stomach flipped every time she saw him. Twelve years together and he still made her weak at the knees; but every time he left, she felt sick to the stomach and would stay that way until he got back. She would finish drying her hands with the tea towel, a household item which had almost become like a comforter for her.
Like clockwork, the emotion would rise in her. She would try to fight it back; but the more she did, the stronger it would get. Her big blue eyes would start to fill quickly with salty tears, and then the first big tear would leak from her perfectly lined, doe-like eye and roll down her cheek; and then another and then another until she was crying uncontrollably. She would fling her arms around him and sob. He would pull her in, one arm around the top of her back and shoulders and the other at the bottom of her back, and gently rub his hand up and down her slight frame, soothe her and tell her it was ok. He was back now.
She hated doing this, and every time promised herself she wouldn’t the next time, but she knew that was a promise she couldn’t keep. She didn’t want him thinking she couldn’t cope, she didn’t want to make his job any harder for him than it was, but the relief to have him home every time was a feeling that would never grow old.
Those memories, for Martha, were to be just that. On April 22nd, 1943 life changed. It was one of those life events whereby people say you will never forget it, but it hadn’t been that way for her, she was already beginning to forget. It was one big blur, and that blur lasted for months.
On April 22nd, she had been playing with Willy. She had not long bathed him. He was on his baby towel on the living room floor, and she was drying him off. Although he did bear a slight resemblance to Martha, he was his father’s son, and she loved that. For every day that she missed John, she could look at Willy and know that he was with her. His eyes, although only baby eyes, would bore through her and reach right into her heart and soul. Mostly that soothed her, but sometimes the darkness of his pupils staring into her used to make her nervous and unsettled and wishing that John could be there immediately. She wondered if the baby was an indicator of John’s safety, and that’s why she would have those feelings sometimes. Maybe she could pick up a sixth sense from Willy when John was in danger; after all, he was made by both, he shared both of their genes. She would never know.
When she did see John, he would tell her nothing. He would say that everything was fine and that she shouldn’t worry so much. He was a man, a typical man, but also a gentleman and very loving. She hoped Willy would be just like him. How could he not? A beautiful baby boy. She leaned down and tickled him, and he began to laugh and coo. She then blew a big raspberry on his belly, and he laughed and giggled in sheer delight. His skin so soft and delicate – scrumptious. They played this game for a good few minutes. His laugh was so infectious, how could she stop?
There was a knock at the door. She called out that she would be just a minute. She wrapped little Willy up in his soft baby towel and stroked his face with her index finger.
‘Now you wait there like a good boy, Willy. Mummy will be just a second.’
She got up and wandered just out of sight to the door. The door was a solid wooden one with no window. She patted down her skirt, checked her hair, and, with what would become slow motion in memory, turned the golden latch on the door. The gloomy, poorly lit hallway came to life with beams of the outside world flooding it with colour. On the opposite side of the door to Martha was a boy of about fourteen. He had a plain envelope with a cross on it. Of that moment, that was all Martha could remember.
The boy had delivered a telegram. Martha had known what it was as soon as she saw the envelope. She had heard it before from people she knew quite well and others she barely knew. The news was always delivered by a teenage boy and the envelope would be plain with a cross on it. It was the fastest way of delivering the message. When she opened the door, she didn’t even see his face. She saw the envelope instantly and passed out.
* * *
The months passed by in a haze. Martha tried to be as strong as she could for Willy. Heavens, if it wasn’t for Willy, she might not have coped at all.
Martha kept thinking back to how they had met. She wished that she could go back to then. Go back to when they were all so young and happy and carefree. John, or Johnny as she affectionately called him, was her world. She came from a normal working family and was one of three sisters. She was the middle one. Their mother had died giving birth to Susannah, the youngest of the sisters. After that, their father had never been the same, choosing to drown his sorrows and slowly lose sense of reality. He became quite a cruel man. Whether it was him that was cruel or the alcohol that made him that way no one would know, but life was certainly not rosy for the girls back then. Jane was the eldest sister and the most beautiful. She was married off at seventeen. She married into a wealthy family and had hardly looked back since. These days they only heard from her on birthdays and Christmases and that was it. Martha didn’t blame her. Although Jane wasn’t as compassionate as Martha, she accepted her for who she was.
Martha just wanted to have a family of her own. A family that would always be together and never abandon each other. Susannah was to be the career woman. She went to college as soon as she was old enough to begin a career in nursing. She was a very sweet girl but possibly quite damaged. She lived in the wake of her mother’s death, and although their father had never blamed her, he might as well have said it at times. Martha was extremely proud of her younger sister and slightly disappointed in her older sister. Maybe disappointed wasn’t the word, just a bit sad that she married off and never got in touch. They had been so close when they were younger. Life hadn’t been easy for the Henderson girls, but you could say they had all achieved a life of their own.
Jane was married and living with a wealthy family. Martha was married to an army boy and had a baby, and Susannah had the brains and a bright career ahead of her. Yet, despite all of that, they had grown quite distant. Martha often felt lonely and left out, and so she was delighted when John asked her to marry him. They had been teenage sweethearts. He had chased her for some time, but she was rather reserved whereas he was not. He had that boyish charm, played the clown, and was ‘one of the lads’ as it were, but it was all camaraderie. He had loved Martha from the minute he set eyes on her.
It was June 1930 when Johnny and Martha had been introduced. He was playing rugby in the local league. He had played since little school. His Dad had always pushed him to be competitive but he didn’t mind; in fact, he thrived on it. He loved showing off, and he could because he was naturally very good at most sports. Martha had been invited to watch the match by her friend Mae. Mae’s brother played in the team, that’s how she got the tickets but that’s not why they were going. Mae had a big crush on several of the boys, and she would be happy to win the attention of any one of them or all of them. Although the two girls were best friends, they were different in appearance and morals to a degree. Mae was much more voluptuous than Martha but quite beautiful. She was confident, buxom, sexy, and much more outgoing than Martha. She always gave the impression nothing phased her. She was always on at Martha to show a bit more cleavage or even just a bit of skin. ‘It drives the boys wild,’ she would tell Martha.
Martha just wasn’t like that. She was nervous around boys, around a lot of people, in fact, and didn’t like to attract attention. Sometimes she wished she had an ounce of Mae’s confidence, but sometimes Mae’s confidence would make her cringe. Like the time when there had been a regatta on in town. All the men were competing in strength competitions such as tug of war and who could punch the punchbag the hardest. The women would all be helping each other out on the various cake stalls and mingling together, but not Mae.