This piece was my entry for a recent local writers’ group 2000-word short story competition. I don’t really ‘do’ fiction but we were given the theme – ‘and no birds sing’ – and my story was based entirely on the history of my 2x great aunt, Hilda Beatrice Tiller (14.11.1875 – 28.12.1958). It did not get placed, but it did get very pleasing feedback from some of my family.
The vast expanse of the sky is a perfect cornflower blue above them as they walk – Hilda and her Henry – hand in hand across the short, sheep-shorn grass and along the clifftop path. Only very far away do tiny cotton-wool clouds kiss the distant horizon. ‘There’ll be a storm in a day or two,’ he says, pausing briefly to scan the sky. He would be right, of course; no one knew the signs as well as he did.
In their tiny cottage near the Cobb, Hilda sits waiting as she so often does now. On her lap, untouched for the past hour or more, is the latest in a series of rag rugs – a pastime that helps her cope with the long, silent evenings and brings in a few extra shillings when she sells them to grateful neighbours. The colours are for the most part muted – remnants of local people’s worn-out work clothes in browns and greys – relieved here and there by a dash of scarlet, blue or green. Hilda sighs; she doesn’t know quite why she waits night after night for the sound of the door opening, accompanied always by the sound of the bell that hangs above it, a chirrup like that of the spring songbirds in the meadows nearby, reassuring her that Henry’s work is done for another night and he is home safe again. He will come at last – as always – and chide her for staying up to wait when she could have been sleeping. Lying peacefully in the small bed at one side of their single upstairs room, Harold sleeps unperturbed. He is almost five years old now and takes it for granted that although the sea can be dangerous it will always treat his daddy right, always bring him back to him and his mum. But Hilda is older and wiser – she knows that her brave husband’s work can be dangerous. How could it be anything else: the coastguard is only needed when there is trouble offshore and once the siren sounds he is off, and Hilda is left to wait – again.
Hilda and Henry have salt in their veins; their ancestors walked the same coast paths, scratched a living from the same inshore villages and maintained a healthy respect for the unforgiving power of the open sea. Henry had tried his hand at plumbing for a while but the sea had always been his dream and now, not yet nineteen, he is in the Navy. Although fearful, Hilda watches her childhood sweetheart leave for the first of many times, her heart as heavy as a ship’s anchor and yet soaring like a topsail with pride. This is her boy and the sea will make him into her man.
Hilda’s seafaring man leaves and returns in a slow-motion mimicry of the tides – weeks or months passing between outwardly cheerful farewells and tear-stained, joyous reunions – and then, at last, and to her immense relief, he kneels on that clifftop path, produces a simple band from his trouser pocket and asks her to share his life. ‘Get up, you great lummock, before you green your knees,’ she teases, but her broad smile and the rosy blush that spreads across her face tells him all that he needs to know. He rises obediently – on land she will always be the captain of their ship – folds her in a warm embrace and then, stepping back, he becomes quiet and thoughtful. ‘You do know, don’t you,’ he says, as his fingers toy with stray wisps of her hair. He is a strange and endearing mixture of tender and clumsy and fails miserably to tuck her hair back beneath the starched white cap, settling instead for winding it behind her ear. ‘You do know, don’t you, that I cannot leave the Navy? I’ll still be off at sea. Do you mind awful much?’ She does – but she also knows that she could never change him without losing what she loves most about him. While she will always be content to stay at home, to be a living, breathing but fixed part of this place, he brings a spirit of adventure into her life, with tales of faraway places and foreign parts – and she has come to love the excitement of it.
Harold is their only child – a sadness in Hilda’s life that the many nephews and nieces who seem to arrive with almost monotonous regularity only serve to exaggerate. She has known from the day of Harold’s birth, a day that she only just survived, that there could be no further children, that in this alone she would always disappoint her Henry, who proved to be a doting father and would have relished having a whole tribe to fashion into his very own crew. But just as she would never display anything but openhearted lovingkindness to the swarm of nephews and nieces, so Henry would never betray the merest hint of dismay that their family has failed to grow in size. She has a good man, a generous and loving man, and she knows it and is grateful.
They say a war is coming again and Hilda shudders at the thought. Her companion, Ellen, is eighty years old and can no longer comprehend the headlines that Hilda sees almost daily as she goes out to the shops to buy ingredients for their regular but unadventurous and meagre meals. Hilda almost envies Ellen the creeping senility that will protect the older woman from what they may yet have to face: more young men separated from their families and sent far away; more scarred and damaged men returning to vainly try and rebuild some semblance of the lives they left behind. Hilda mourns for what is happening again and, as the evening light fades, she closes the curtains, tiptoes across the dark floorboards, turns on the table lamp and takes up another rag rug. She is waiting again – and this time, much of Europe is waiting too.
Henry’s latest letter has arrived and Hilda is thrilled to read that he will soon be close by. There is to be a grand review of the fleet in the middle of the month – to mark the coronation of the new king – and it will take place off Spithead, just along the coast. But fifty miles might as well be a thousand miles; she certainly won’t be given any time off to make a journey that might give her even a chance of waving towards his ship. Her employers are kindly – George and his two sisters, Mary and Harriet – but they are all so much older than she is, none of them have ever married and how could they possibly understand their parlourmaid’s longing to be there, to share in the cheering and the emotion of the crowds, and to have her heart leap in her chest at the knowledge that her Henry – her own sweetheart – is part of it all, out there on the waves.
Hilda sits propped up in her room, dwarfed by the blankets and eiderdown piled onto the high bed. She is so old – and very tired – but Harold and Ethel have come to visit, giving the live-in maid a day off to be with her own family for their Christmas meal. Hilda is still at 19 Rose Gardens; the genteel, detached house has been her home now for well over twenty years and Hilda has spent much of that time alone apart from the daily fussing and dusting that a succession of young maids have undertaken. But they haven’t been company, not like Ellen was company, although – truth to tell – she wasn’t great at conversation once her mind had started to wander off. But Ellen, with whom she shared those companionable, bygone years in mutual consolation, has been dead for over sixteen years now and Harold and Ethel have come every Sunday to keep her company. On Christmas day they bring a portion from their special lunch for her but this year she cannot get down to the old mahogany dining table, and the room remains bare and cold. Her bedroom is cosy though, and Fanny the maid has made it cheerful with some holly sprigs and paper chains. ‘Such a silly fuss for an old woman,’ Hilda mutters when her son and his wife remark on how nice it looks. But she is grateful for the warm food, and for their visit. ‘Ethel is a good girl,’ thinks Hilda. ‘Yes, she’s a good girl. But, goodness me, she must be forty-five now!’ and Hilda chuckles to herself, not realising that salty tears are creeping down her deeply lined cheeks as she ponders the happy but sterile marriage that has failed to bring her the solace of grandchildren in her advancing years. There is just her sturdy carpenter son – thank the Lord that he did not have to go to war, that his young wife did not suffer the anxiety that she had gone through – her strong, blue-eyed boy, who had always been the spitting image of his father. She loved to see him, could not believe that he was over fifty now – but sometimes it tore at her heart to realise that this was what her Henry might have looked like.
It had been inevitable that Henry would face greater danger once the war started. His long years in the Navy’s Coastguard Service, much of it spent only just offshore or even based on land, meant that he was already trained and ready when the call-up came. Their happy years on the Cobb came to an abrupt end in July last year and the following month he had been sent off on the Goliath, a beast of a ship. With a name like that, did no one realise it might well come to a bad end? Did no one read their Bibles anymore? Hilda and Harold had stayed on in the cottage, waiting for news that came only many days or even weeks after the faraway actions. There were small victories, and then losses, but this campaign – some of the papers were calling it Churchill’s Gallipoli campaign – had taken so many of the local seafaring men over recent months and Hilda has fear in her chest day and night. She knows that it might be many weeks before the tinkling of the doorbell could possibly herald Henry’s safe return and yet she cannot bear to feel the disappointment when Harold occasionally comes in at the front door; last week she banned him from using it, insisting that he use only the back door.
Today the news comes, the postman sombre and unsmiling as he hands her the telegram edged with black, giving her a brief sympathetic nod and then jumping back on his bicycle – fleeing before there is a chance of being swamped by an outpouring of grief; he has done this too many times now not to know what could happen. But Hilda is controlled; she has dreaded yet expected it, perhaps even prepared for it deep down. Her tears will come later when she has to tell young Harold that his daddy isn’t coming home this time, that the great beast of a ship has been hit by three torpedoes and has sunk with the loss of almost six hundred men, and that in some distant place called Morto Bay his daddy is sleeping forever under the sea. And when, in years to come, she looks back on the remaining few months that she and Harold stay on in this cottage, she will think of it as the time when no birds sing to herald a welcome return. For now, Hilda turns slowly back from the gate and enters the front door; reaching up, she takes down the bell hanging just inside, cradles it in her trembling hands and ponders where to hide it.