A Mother’s Love
Joe stepped off the train and held the package close to his side. He adjusted his weight on his crutch and dropped his kit bag to the platform. It smelt like home – the grease and steam from the engine mixed with that distinct smell of man, beast and machine working flat out to produce shells and armour plate. And yet there was no joy in him.
Mick’s mother lived in the notorious Crofts; he would take a cab from the front of the station: people moved aside, a look of horror mixed with pity in their eyes. Before he could attempt to rebuild his life he had to give her this – all that was left of Mick wrapped in, now smutted, brown paper – Christ! how was he going to explain to her. The Christmas table at Mick’s would have a very empty seat. Good ol’ Mick – what a bloody laugh they’d had last year – as he lost his last Christmas dinner over the side in the Bay of Biscay. Sailing to Egypt was just one big adventure then for boys who, until they’d enlisted, had never been further than Derby that happy September day in times of innocence when the United netted five.
The old horse strained to move the cab away – all the good ones had been blown to bits in France. Town looked just the same, and yet everything had changed. He fingered the string on the packet – Mick’s book – his Bible – his lucky charm – with a sniper’s bullet right through the middle of it. What sort of God was this? As he’d lain there next to Mick he felt warm liquid seeping over his own chest – he’d been hit too. Except, when he’d felt inside, it was just his pewter flask leaking whisky where it had been punctured by shrapnel. The bloody irony of that! The sweet boy who’d taken the pledge, shot dead through his holy book, and the sinner saved by his sin.
Ten minutes before Zero on the first of July they’d left the trench, comrades side by side, as the mortars opened up a hurricane bombardment and a huge mine exploded to the south shattering the world and sending smoke and earth hundreds of feet into the sky, drowning out even the deafening noise of the bombardment. There they’d lain down in the middle of No Man’s Land as grenades and artillery flew over. Then it went quiet, momentarily – perhaps it wouldn’t happen after all? But Zero had arrived – the artillery started again and the whistles blew. They got to their feet – they had to walk with rifles raised, not run – and then all of hell descended. They were supposed to be going forward but didn’t: as the front line fell more targets took their place, bodies piled up and blood and humanity mixed with mud. Screams and moans and cries of “mother” from boys only just in breeches pierced through the din, the smoke, the blasts that shook and rent flesh. Him and Mick pushed on but the bloody wire was still there and they couldn’t cross the last few yards. Then Mick fell and he’d picked him up and dragged him towards a shell hole – then a grenade went off and he came round with Mick under him and a searing pain in his foot and across the side of his face. Mick was conscious; he tried to keep him talking but gradually he had faded in his arms. He kissed him, but he had never known just how much he meant to him. How could he ever?
There were a few of the Pals in that shell hole. They’d had to fight like hell to defend that open grave until nightfall. Then he’d had to leave Mick – along with all the others they stepped over on their way back. All he could return of Mick was that precious Bible – the one with pressed poppies and wild flowers in.
He had been amongst the one in three of the City Battalion that survived that day.
He was shipped out to a first aid station and was spared those next three nightmare days clearing up the mess. He had tried to find out if Mick’s body had been retrieved and buried – he couldn’t bear to think of that beautiful boy – out there – being stripped by rats and maggots.
The next day the post from home arrived and they were instructed to open it all – cigarettes, chocolates, socks, packed up with tender cards, letters of good wishes and prayers sent out to a God who just wasn’t there.
No afterlife. Just this. One go at getting it right.
No post arrived for Mick, for which he was grateful.
He tried to give the cabbie the one and six but he refused it – always that look in their eyes – he’d rather have their respect. He stood and looked round for the right courtyard. A child stood gawping at him.
‘Nah den kid, weer’s Mick Flannery’s ’ouse?’
The child, bare-footed and wearing clothes his own mother wouldn’t have considered fit for cleaning cloths, led him timidly into a soot-blackened courtyard. There was a stench of overflowing middens; some hens pecking near an open drain and the broken paving was coated in brown slime. He shuddered as his mind flashed back to July. His hand went up to the claret scar on his cheek. The boy indicated the house; Joe tossed him a ha’penny and approached the door. He took a deep breath and knocked. A girl pulled the door open, something in those blue eyes said she was Mick’s sister – how could he not know? – but Mick never spoke of his family.
‘Is Mrs Flannery in?’
‘Mother there’s a fella at t’ doo-er’
‘What’s ’e want?’ came a voice from inside.
Joe waited. A dishevelled woman came out of the gloom. She was filthy; grey, matted hair, ancient-looking. Joe thought she had been drinking.
‘I’m looking for Mrs Flannery – Michael’s mother.’
‘Tha’s found ’er.’ Joe was shocked. This woman could surely never have given birth to someone so beautiful.
‘I’m a friend of Mick’s.’ He held out the package. ‘This was his Bible. I think he might have wanted you to have it.’
‘Tha can keep it. I’m not bothered.’
The door closed in his face. He didn’t move. She was supposed to invite him in, ask how Mick died, weep and wail.
How could a mother’s love be less than his own?
You can get the book that this story is taken from here
All author royalties go to War Child to help support children in conflict affected parts of the world.