The December of 1915 marked two returns for me. Freezing temperatures which I recognised, and my father, who I didn’t. I was five when he enlisted, but nearly 7 when he appeared in our kitchen with coathanger shoulders and his face turned away. I knew it was him instantly, from the way he rested his hand on the mantelpiece and drew out his cigarette case. Whilst my mother just stared and shook, I dashed to the hearth to light a spill. This was a ritual that had been clockwork to me, and I remembered it keenly. Only when the tip of his fag flared did I look at him, and gritted my milk teeth as I was confronted by his exposed ones. Half of his face was gone. His only words to me were ‘thanks for holding the fort, old chap’, before he sank into a chair and my mother shoved me towards the staircase, slamming the door in my face.
I was terrified, and pelted up the stairs to my bedroom three steps at a time. I will never forget the tenderness glinting of that one remaining eye, the only familiar feature in the shattered visage that leered at me. He had come home. Still, I was haunted, and threw my face out of the window to clear my head. The close-headed gaggle of tweed-capped boys that I saw huddled in the street told me that I was not the only witness to this apparition. I knew even then that there would be trouble. It came in the form of Davey Willis as he barged me in to the churchyard wall later that day. ‘Your father’s a skeleton, and a coward’, he said, then slashed at my head with a rock, knocking me to the ground. I only got up when I knew he’d gone, oblivious to anything but the bottle of whisky that mother had sent me to fetch, still cradled to my chest.
The following three days passed in a blur, with visitors and family trooping upstairs to greet the man that was my Dad. I was busy, fetching this and that, and opening and closing doors. Few people had any words for me, and many just a sympathetic glance at my gashed eye. I slept in the kitchen, too frightened to go near that monstrous face. On the eve of the third day, Mother left at dusk to tend to her duties up at the big house, and I curled up by the stove, trying to glean a little warmth as it grew even colder outside. It felt unrehearsed when I was roused by his tobacco smoke that night , but only after a decade did I realise he had planned that evening’s activities precisely.
Opening my eyes, I saw that he was sat at the table, dressed not in the khaki of his army uniform, but his old one; brown greatcoat and dark trousers, with his rifle already slung on his shoulder. He’d been the estate gamekeeper for years, and was probably why they’d made him a sniper over there, he later told me. Sitting in profile, he must have sensed my waking. ‘Come over here and look at me in my eye, Billy, when you’re ready’. I got up hesitatingly, steeling myself for this second encounter. I just couldn’t do it. ‘Blimey, we’re two of a kind’ he chuckled, and gestured to the shadowy cavern that used to house his right eye and cheekbone. ‘Between us, we might just catch ourselves some Christmas dinner’. Only then did I remember that it was Christmas Eve. ‘Come on’ , he said. ‘Let’s go get ourselves in to mischief before your mother gets back. Don’t worry, its pitch outside, so you won’t see my face’.
I couldn’t help it. ‘What happened?’ I whispered. ‘Met my match in no-man’s land’ was all he said, and I never enquired further. Helping me in to my jacket I knew he was sizing me up. ‘By Christ you’ve grown’ he growled, as he slung his game bag on to his shoulder. ‘Come with me’. He led me down to the lake, striding confidently on to the frozen surface and beckoning me forward. The ice was brittle with carved grooves from countless skates, and my feet crunched under the scattered detritus of careless Christmas skaters. Disturbed pebbles skittered over the surface as we walked, and my feet tapped ominously loud as I picked my way onward, trying not to slip. ‘Here’ll do’, he said, and sat down on his bag, drawing me on to his lap as he settled himself. ‘We’re downwind, so it won’t be long. Hush’.
After a long time the clouds cleared, and perfectly silhouetted by blue-flecked beams stood a stag, facing us. My father stiffened, let out a long sigh and the rifle cracked, the report rolling around the lakeside. It dropped soundlessly. He strode in to the darkness, head pivoting left and right then shouldering his quarry swiftly. ‘They come for the rubbish’, was all he said. Back in the warm glow of home, I looked at him properly, with my one eye that could see. We stared at one another, and I saw his gaze shimmer as he took me in. ‘We’ll both heal Son’, he said, ‘and tomorrow, we’ll feast like kings’. I ran to him then, and with the enfolding of his arms, he was back.
©Tom Tide 2016