Children grow up when they realise that one day they must watch their heroes die.
I, for one, understood this from the start: allow me to tell you the story of the men in the snow.
They came in steps then strides…
Mother brought us to the new house on a bitter November morning. As we sat round the kitchen table watching the fog roll past through the thin glass windows she told me we would be safe here. Father simply read his newspaper a distance away from us, his spectacled face never leaving the pages.
I remember in great detail the childish glee I experienced as I walked, ran and swam through the gardens, fields, woods and lakes near my new country home, paying special attention to the small stream that trickled close to the house, where I would often catch newts to serve as my only friends.
I also remember in great detail the extreme cold, even in hotter summer months. The invading winter fog seemed never to leave the place, and left my limbs encased in a chill wind all year round.
I’d not wanted to come to the country, but the increased bombings had necessitated a move. Father became even more distant as a result. Mother was catatonic. We’d left our lives in London.
Almost immediately upon arrival I set about finding my own form of entertainment. What else was a young and spoilt girl to do devoid of her applications? The house was as gaunt and barren as my Father and Mother, so I sought solace in the frog-pond situated in a small alcove, set apart from the stream in the garden. Mother would often have to retrieve me from the freezing cold, counting frogs and chasing water boatmen, lest I perish in the merciless winds.
Tea and cake were to be followed by a swift retreat to bed, as ever.
Of course, Mother had never known that I simply must have a glass of water within reach of my sleeping arrangement and as such I would have to creep back down to the kitchen to retrieve one, perched on the tips of my cold toes so as not to make a noise on the unreliable wooden stairs I would have to descend.
The day had been like any other, but this particular evening was defined by a strange happening. One that had never occurred before in the many other nights spent in the looming country house. As I stood, still on tip toes – in order to reach the sink – filling my glass with cloudy water from a tap showing clear signs of aging, I noticed a figure in the garden, through the pale glass.
This creature was some ways away and situated near a large tree, the only sort of landmark I recall being in view, underneath it on the right hand side, and wondered if perhaps I had spotted a heron, standing forlorn in the dark, having failed to catch its evening meal.
Sure enough, this was no heron, but a man, standing resolutely in the beginnings of the winter snow, unflinching in the bitter air. Of course, I fled this sight, having remembered the nurturing comfort of my cotton blankets and the relative safety of my small cot-bed in my small cot-room.
I’d left the water on the work surface.
The following morning I resolved to bother Father about our visitor, for I was an inquisitive child from the city, quite unused to this awful jungle and its lack of crowds; its lack of anyone at all.
I beseeched my Father to look up from his paper and pay me heed time and time again to no avail, and Mother simply looked at me as though I was very wrong to disturb him; simply a child possessed of some girly notion of boys in the garden.
At Mother’s behest, I went to play outside, and I stayed there until nightfall.
Upon re-entry to the house, a tiny sanctuary of warmth and hope, my hands and feet turned a shocking purple and I gazed upon them for a time, pondering why I felt nothing. Mother and Father were in the kitchen, and I stared at them whilst they stared at each other.
It occurred to me for the first time that they might not be happy.
And so, as I became increasingly ignored within this large empty space, I invented a friend. He was dreadfully shy though, and would only stand at the end of the garden, by the large tree on its right side.
The next night, he had taken a step closer.
And the night after that, he had brought a friend.
Perhaps he had wanted company, I didn’t blame him: we had no interaction beside distant vacant stares. I watched them take a step closer in unison, their feet disappearing into the snow. They must have been about fifty paces from the house, straining my vision as much as I could, I could not make out much of their shadowed forms.
I wanted so awfully to run to my friends and greet them, but in honesty, I was as shy as they. If they came much closer, Mother would surely invite them in for a cup of tea. Or maybe, if they introduced themselves, I would.
I resolved to wait it out, until my friends had the bravery to meet me in person.
On the third evening of this particular week – nearing Christmas time I think – the snow was growing heavy, and it was with some surprise that as I was filling my glass of water at the sink, I looked up and out of the pale pane that overlooked our garden to discover my friend… had made yet another accomplice.
I watched as the three of them took a step closer, in perfect unison, shadowed hands clasped together. Something about this movement caused me to feel uneasy and I retreated to bed where I slept, oh how I slept.
On the seventh day, I had finished my usual activities which included reading a particularly interesting colouring book about English mammals of the Mustelid Family and was ready to head to bed. It occurred to me that Father was still sat with his paper in the kitchen, he rarely moved; when was the last time I had seen Mother?
On this particular evening, as the snow billowed down, blanketing the world in its cold venom, I remembered my glass of water before heading upstairs, only to have to sneak back down. I had taken little notice of my friends in the snow, deeming them unworthy of my friendship, but on this, the seventh day, I looked up, out of the glass that caught my breath and steamed immediately. Once it had cleared I saw seven figures in the garden.
They had moved closer.
They were not boys at all, but grown men, and their shadowy forms jittered and twitched as they took a single step towards me, and my home. No longer were they in unison: they ambled and shuffled forwards like the drunken men I had once seen at Father’s working men’s club. Something about their fall from grace, their solidifying escape from fluidity utterly unnerved me and I strained on the very tips of my toes to reach for the blinds, and pull them somewhat satisfyingly closed, locking the monsters from view because no, I did not like these new men at all.
I had created them, and I could hide them away, behind those flimsy paper blinds.
We did not open them again.
After a fretful night in which I did not sleep one wink, life continued as, well… not quite normal. Something had changed Mother. Had she seen the men too? If this was the case, she certainly did not make it known.
In fact, she very rarely spoke at all now. Only to tell me to stop shaking, and call me for tea, but lacking the energy she once had. Father, as ever, sat by the window with his paper.
I wondered if Mother stopped speaking to me at all, how I would survive. Whilst I did know she keeps the bread in a small container next to the fridge, situated on the left of the large window next to several storage cupboards, I did not know how to make anything as impressive as mashed potato.
What would it matter, though? Considering I had lost all appetite. The very house seemed to be mocking me. It was getting smaller, its hallway lengthening, the small flight of unruly stairs I had mastered. I could even reach the cord to open the…
“Stop shaking, darling,” She says, and with that I fled to bed, tummy growling, and dreamt of a thousand eels, writhing together, trapped in a wooden barrel fit to burst.
The sun had been fighting a losing war with the moon, and would illuminate the snowy fields around our land for only a few hours a day. I was dismayed to discover my frog pond had frozen over, my newt friends likely trapped in tiny cold prisons.
I had spent some time clawing at the frozen surface of my amphibian friends home, hoping that my efforts may thaw me a new plaything, but I was gravely mistaken, and as I felt a shadow cast itself over my back I turned to witness the sun set behind that tall, lonely tree.
A peal of thunder tore through the pallid sky and sent a new chill through me. I wanted desperately to flee to my bed, but could not tear my eyes from what I saw.
From behind the tree, spilling like eels from a barrel, some 49 bodies invaded my eyesight, falling over each other and clambering to their feet. I watched wide eyed, breathe billowing in the cold air as they organised, rank and file before me in one great line, illuminated in the desperate light of the moon. They were ever so close now, and as they shuffled I turn and ran.
Ran not to Mother, or to Father, but to my small cot-bed, in my small cot-room, where I slept and dreamt of great engines and spinning wheels like the kinds I had seen on the automobiles back in London.
I dreamt I had wings.
Oh how I dreamt and slept and dreamt ever more, soaring in the snowy clouds.
I know not whether I slept through the next day, or whether the sun had simply given in and admitted defeat. I doubted it was even there behind the clouds: for me it no longer existed.
On trembling legs I stood in my small cot-room and reached for my night lamp, the only current source of illumination. It travelled with me, down to the kitchen where my cold throat, begging for warming moisture, might be sated.
Father had, for the first time in my knowing memory, moved from his vigil, leaving only his paper on the work surface. I moved to look at it, but my thirst could not wait. As I stood, no longer on tip toes, filling my small glass with cloudy water, a curious sensation overcame me and I reached with long and spindly fingers for the cord to the blinds. The cord I could now reach.
I would lift it, ever so slightly, and just peek…
I speak now to you with tear filled eyes dear listener, and I swear to you I tell no lies. Unveiled to me by the sickly light of my lamp behind that flimsy, skin-like blind were two hundred angry eyes.
Raw and hate filled eyes, yellow and throbbing, the skin around the blistered and caked with the unknown. I could hear the moans of the dying fill not my ears but my eyes as I understood the chilling truth – observe the hairs on my arms raise as I narrate this to you! – and I snatched for Father’s paper.
It was a London publication, the headline ran:
DECEMBER 1940, 100 ENGLISH SERVICEMEN KILLED BY NAZI BOMBINGS.