Ypres by Jamie Thunder

There were nights that summer when it seemed certain the world would end; the sudden thunder from the front, as if the earth was coming apart; the dawn’s shamed silence in the face of the aftermath.

“Mathilde? Are you awake?” Claudette whispered between barrages as we lay side by side in my bed. “Go to sleep,” I’d reply, or not respond at all, although she knew I was awake. No-one could fail to be roused by the blasts, and in the silences I could hear her murmuring a prayer.

Claudette was my cousin, less than six months younger but with none of my brash, only-child confidence, something I used to my advantage as we worked the farm. “Clean out the pigs,” I’d command, and she would dutifully comply. I even half convinced myself she enjoyed it; if I’d been ordered to go into the stinking barn, rich with filth, and shovel shit I’d have yelled and yelled until I’d extracted a promise of some sort of reward, or been given another task entirely.

But we were friends as well as cousins, and often sat on the front step chatting as the evenings darkened into nights. We were drinking a jug of cider I’d swiped from the storeroom when I saw them. Two shapes, crouched and moving quickly along the eastern fence, the moonlight picking out their helmets. I nudged Claudette.

“Look!” I whispered.

“Where? Oh!”

“Do you think they’re Germans?”

Claudette shuddered. “Don’t. We should tell Uncle Henri.”

She got up, but I tugged at her sleeve. “Too late, they’re coming over.”

They stopped a few feet from us, as cautious as animals. “Parlez-vous Anglais?” asked the taller one. Even Claudette couldn’t stifle her laughter at the accent, so choppy and pronounced.

“Oui,” I said with a curtsey, then switched to English. “My name is Hélene, and this is Florence, my sister.”

Although he spoke slowly it was hard for us to follow. Through a combination of repetition, gestures, and guesswork we learnt that they’d seen us in the field some nights previously, and decided to visit the next time they could. This clearly alarmed Claudette, but I ignored her; this was wartime, and these were young men.

I offered the jug, which they greedily accepted, then apologised for how little they left. I sat next to the taller one who said his name was John. He looked barely older than me, with a clear face and a scratchy little moustache, but mostly I remember his eyes: as brown as vinegar, and strong, despite their nervous flicker.

Unless I did something we would stay out here all night; they had exhausted their courage in approaching us. I took one more swig. “Do you want to go inside?” I asked John, who nodded, slowly at first then quicker as his resolve found him.

I led him up the steps, ignoring Claudette’s panicked stare; Eric, the other soldier, was now eyeing her hopefully. My parents slept in an outbuilding, but we still went quietly, testing each stair before committing. He wanted to bathe first, so I ran the water hot into the tub. Without his uniform he seemed helpless and bald, shivering even as the steam began to rise. He didn’t let me touch his clothes; they must have been riddled with lice, but he folded them as neatly as a schoolboy on the chair.

That first night I lay awake listening to the soft sounds of his sleep, and when the guns began I prayed I wouldn’t see Claudette’s small, scared outline in my doorway. But she didn’t appear that night, or on the other nights John came, even when it seemed heaven itself was splitting above us. Afterwards John and I would lie in the dark and talk aimlessly, about the weather, about food, about nature. He called the town ‘Wipers’, which I made him repeat again and again, laughing every time. There was no talk of England, or the war. Our time together existed outside of that world, until morning came and I snuck him out with some coffee beans and fresh bread pressed into his hands.

The world, however, seemed determined to intrude. The first month I told myself it was nothing, but the second – which followed consecutive days of rushing secretively to the bathroom after breakfast – confirmed my fears. There were options of course, even then, although had my parents ever learnt of it they would have disowned me. I even considered claiming an unknown assailant had forced himself upon me, but quickly discarded the idea and instead carried on in the hope that the situation would somehow resolve itself.

I was never sure when I’d see John, and so each evening I stayed out in the hope of spotting his furtive movements along the fence. After that first time he was always alone, but Claudette showed no sign of jealousy. One hot night in August he fell asleep as I described a kingfisher I’d seen by the river, and slept through until morning, despite the roar of the guns.

The next night’s bombardment was the loudest and longest yet. Claudette, back in my room, reached for my hand beneath the sheets and I woke the next day still gripping it. For two weeks I sat out on the step each night, feeling not unlike a dog waiting for his master’s return, until it was clear John was not coming back.

“Do you miss him?” Claudette asked one afternoon, pouring swill into the trough. The pigs jostled and squealed for their places, the rough hairs on their backs bristling.

“No,” I said. Slop sloshed from my bucket onto the ground and the pigs busied themselves with it.

“What will you do?”

I stiffened.

“I’ve heard you, in the mornings.” Still I didn’t say anything. “It’ll start to show soon.”

“Shut up.”

This would normally have quietened her, but not today. “Did you tell him?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fine, we can wait until you’re the size of Louis and talk about it then.” Oblivious, Louis burrowed his snout into the swampy mess of his dinner.

“Oh, thanks.

Claudette began to snort hoggishly, and despite myself I smiled. “Come on. Are you going to help me here or what?”

We finished up and started to walk back to the house. “What was it like?” she asked suddenly.

I stopped and looked at her. “You mean you didn’t — ?” She shook her head, and I started to laugh in hiccupping gulps. “My god – sorry, it’s just – he came all that way – for some warm cider and – poor Eric!” This started her off as well, and our laughter pirouetted into uncontrollable shrieks that left us red-faced and hardly able to breathe.

“What are you girls doing?” my father asked when we collapsed into the hallway. We clamped our mouths shut, but his stern expression set us off again. I was giddy and, between desperate gasps, the words forced themselves into the air.

Immediately the delirium vanished. If you’ve ever stood up and struck your head you’ll know the sharp, disorienting feeling. “Claudette, go to your room,” my father said, without taking his eyes from me. He marched me through to the dining room, called my mother in, and made me repeat what I’d told him. She was perfectly still except for her fingers, which wound around and around.

“How long?” she asked.

“Two months. Ten weeks, maybe.”

At that she got up from the table and left the room, and I dissolved into helpless sobs.

There was no discussion. I would have the baby, who would be taken into the care of a convent. I was not to be told which one for fear that, in the words of the Mother Superior the night before the birth, I would be compelled to find it. God had given me a blessing that was not mine to receive, and so this was best for both me and the baby. I took in this logic dully, and after the sweating, heaving, matted hours of labour, I didn’t protest when after only the slightest glimpse of the red bawling bundle he was taken away.

After the war Claudette returned to Brussels, and I moved to Ghent to work as a secretary for a university professor. It was a wonderful time to be young, and I rarely thought of the events of the war. The world seemed content to act as if those years were but a dream, to be forgotten, and so was I.

But dreams, by their nature, end. In 1938 as war again glowered I moved again, this time to England, where I stayed until my mother’s death in 1950. At the funeral I was surprised to see Claudette, who I had lost touch with many years ago, barely recognisable in a habit and wimple.

“It’s good to see you, Mathilde,” she said in the slightly patronising tone I’ve found the religious reserve for the godless, as if we are fortunate not to have been struck down by a vengeful bolt from the sky since we last met. “May the Lord be with you.”

“And with you,” I replied.

I expected her to move on, but she didn’t. “I gave the convent your address,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry, but it’s not right what happened.”

The letter arrived a few days later. Records had been lost, were incomplete, or in some cases had never existed, but based on the information at their disposal, they had identified someone who could be my son.

I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. Ornate light coverings hung from the ceiling, but the room was lit only by candles that flickered, giving life to the tarnished brass fittings. He was already seated when I arrived, then he stood – he was tall but not imposing, with a thin worried face. “Mathilde?” he asked, uncertainly.

“Yes. Louis,” I replied. The letter had given his name. We kissed and he pulled the seat out for me. The waiter took our orders. “I had a pig named Louis,” I said, for no reason at all.

“As a pet?”

“Not exactly. My parents were farmers, and I helped to raise the animals.”

“Did you find that strange? When they were taken to market?”

I considered the question. “No,” I admitted. “But perhaps I should have done.” He was watching me over the rim of his glasses, candlelight dancing in the depths of the blue. I wondered whether I had revealed something a little vulgar, unmaternal, whether he was regretting having come. “So, down to business!” I said with a little laugh and a clap. “What do you know about your parents?”

He knew little. His mother had been young, his father unknown, possibly a soldier. There were no names on his records – not uncommon, to spare a family’s pride. He started slowly and restrained, but became more animated as he moved from the scraps of information about his parents to the sprawling whole of his life. It spilled out of him, the stories fighting to be next on his tongue: the viciousness of the convents, the injury that kept him from service – a livid scar like a raised artery threading up his shin – and the feeling of abandonment that had always lived within him. Then he asked me what I knew, and I told him about John, his birdlike body, and the way he folded his uniform before bathing.

“So is it possible?” he asked once I had finished. He leant forward ever so slightly, his fingertips resting on the table. I knew I couldn’t speak, so I just nodded and took his hands. The waiter, when he brought our mains, looked surprised and a little disgusted to see two guests crying at their table, but neither of us offered any explanation.

Jamie Thunder lives, reads, and writes somewhere near London, and tries to behave better than his characters. He’s been published in places like Prole, Storgy, and Spelk Fiction, and was one of The Short Story’s selected writers for 2017/18. He also writes on his blog here and tweets here.

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