It’s so unfair having a birthday at Christmas, one never properly gets two celebrations. In any case there was nothing for his birthday, nothing for Christmas; everything depended upon coupons and he was too old for the cardboard toys in the sweetshop window.
Aunt Jean sat beside the range in the kitchen knitting him socks from an unravelled cardigan that had belonged to his mother. He had kept it on his bed, telling them he was cold, but really it was for company, for draping round his shoulders and seeking her smell amongst the prickly wool. Aunt Jean had pulled a long dark green strand away from the cardigan, a frizz of curly yarn dropping to her feet, to be skeined around his outstretched hands and then wound into a tight ball. It unnerved him, watching how the garment vanished, line by line.
When would Mother come home? He knew it was no use asking. Father would not speak about what she was doing in France; it was, he said, a state secret, special operations. She had been away for three years, not even returning home once. Sometimes he even wondered if she had been killed and Father had lacked the courage to break the news. That was when he woke in the night, hardly able to breathe, clinging to the cardigan.
Aunt Jean, glancing up from her knitting needles, saw the pain in his eyes. She frowned at him, her bony fingers continuing to work the wool with small, precise movements.
‘You need new socks, Richard. It’s your age. You keep growing.’
He was turning fifteen.
In the New Year he would start work, an apprentice at Parnall’s in Yate. The old gun turret factory, bombed and burned four years ago, had been rebuilt and refitted to manufacture Ascot water heaters. He might get to technical school and be an engineer.
‘We must look forward, Richard,’ his father had said, ‘Don’t look back, look forward, be glad you have your life ahead of you.’
But his childhood was gone, his Christmas birthdays had passed uncelebrated in the ever deepening darkness of war. Everyone was thin and tired.
This year, though, they were to have a turkey for Christmas. It was in a holdall in the larder. They hadn’t used their meat coupons for it; Aunt Jean had traded her sealskin collar, the one where the fur was so dense and soft that you couldn’t really bury your fingers in it beyond the velvet surface. The turkey was surely more than they needed and Richard half-wished that she had kept the fur. She had got sausage-meat with the coupons, to use for stuffing.
There had been a storm the previous night, and in the garden a bough had fallen from the apple tree but thankfully had missed the Brussels sprouts which still stood upright like knobbly soldiers in Father’s vegetable patch. The shed too, with their stores of potatoes and onions, remained intact. There would be a good dinner for Christmas, finally.
But lunch today was only vegetable soup with barley. Afterwards they listened to the news on the Home Service in the sitting room.
Large numbers of passengers are travelling home for their first peace-time Christmas for six years. All the big London stations were exceptionally busy with the start of Christmas holiday traffic yesterday, and the rush for the west began particularly early at Paddington, where barriers were thrown round the departure platforms, and queues began to form two hours before the trains were due to leave. Long queues formed at booking offices and many extra police helped station officials to regulate the crowd. Most of the travellers at all the stations yesterday seemed to be members of the armed forces, many of them heavily laden with kit and with presents for the children at home. Many trains were run in duplicate; twenty relief trains were provided during the day. Meanwhile, last night’s storm washed away railway lines at Dawlish and all services to Plymouth and Cornwall are to be diverted via Okehampton.
Then Father tuned the wireless to the Light Programme. He sat in his armchair marking next year’s seed catalogues with a pencil and listening to the band of the Grenadier Guards and the Irish Rhythms Orchestra.
At three o’clock there was Association Football, Nottingham Forest versus Arsenal, but just after kick off Father got up and said that they ought to be at the station by four o’clock: it was something for Richard’s birthday, but he didn’t want to say too much, just in case. His eyes were very bright.
The weather had cleared and there was a smell of wood-smoke in the frosty air, with the sun going down behind the trees as they walked down the hill to Temple Meads. Father was still limping and Richard slowed his pace.
A song crooned in his head, a song from the wireless, but it wasn’t the Grenadier Guards, it was Kitty Kallen:
You’ll never know how many dreams
I’ve dreamed about you
Or just how empty they all seemed without you…
They walked through the town. Toward the end of the afternoon, as dusk fell, the magic was back. The shop windows glowed, embellished with paper decorations, and Christmas carols echoed from the depths of the church. On the street, a man was roasting chestnuts in a steel drum of hot charcoal, the delicious smell recalling memories of childhood. His father handed over a farthing and they shared a paper bag. Richard peeled one open, almost dropping it because it was so hot. The charred shell was velvety inside, the nut sweet and soft and smoky, its crinkled surface toasted brown.
The station was by a bombed church, and had itself lost the spire that once rose above its turreted front. The beginning of the sunset threw the station buildings into dark profile against a clear sky, starlings chattering in the trees as they settled for the night. A chilly breeze pinched Richard’s cheeks and found its way through his duffle coat.
They paid for platform tickets and went in past the barrier. Cones of smoky light glowed beneath the platform gas-lamps. Richard looked around at the waiting crowd. The benches were full, while others stood at the end of the platform gazing up the line. Old couples held hands, mothers cradled their infants or held toddlers in walking reins.
They heard an engine whistle, and the train could be seen in the distance, its lamps glowing against its dark silhouette, its wheels squealing over the points. As it slowly rolled in Richard counted twelve carriages, the passengers sliding the windows down to reach out and open the doors even before it had come to a halt.
The engine made him jump as it let off a blast of steam, the carriage doors slammed open and the passengers began to alight. There was a sudden hubbub, those who had been waiting so patiently searching through the crowd, loved ones reunited, crying and shouting and embracing. Soldiers on furlough for Christmas, in uniforms that still reeked of sweat, embracing their wives and sweethearts, hoisting children into their arms.
But his father remained still, grasping Richard’s arm so they would not be separated by the current of the crowd, scanning the faces eagerly as they passed. They waited. The crowd began to disperse. It seemed as though the platform was nearly empty, and still they waited there.
At last from the far end of the train a woman alighted, handing her bag down to a porter’s barrow, and walking on ahead of him, her step firm in her flat shoes, and something military in her bearing even though she wore a plain beret and coat. She quickened her pace when she saw them, striding until she stood before Richard, and he saw that her smiling face was the same as he remembered, only the eyes had changed, had seen things that could not be recounted. We must look forward…
‘Happy birthday, Richie.’ He felt her arms hugging him, thin and strong. He was, he realised, taller than her.
‘Mother,’ he said, his hands coming up around her shoulders, brushing the loden coat, almost afraid to grasp her in case she melted away. ‘Mother.’
‘Happy birthday, son,’ said his father, enfolding them both in his own embrace.
So kiss me once then kiss me twice
Then kiss me once again
It’s been a long, long time…
They walked home from the station; tiny snowflakes fell out of a clear sky and speckled his mother’s dark coat.