Keep Calm and Sew On by Kim Hart

  Dotty kept her head down, fighting against the wind and the rain. Ice cold rivulets ran down the back of her neck, finding the gap between her old wool coat and her skin. She shivered and pulled the coat tightly around her. 

  The distance from the cottage to the train station was only a mile but in this weather it felt much further. The horror of the past few hours, no, the past year if she was honest, replayed in her mind like a recurring nightmare she couldn’t wake from. 

Not wanting to attract attention to herself, she kept her pace steady and her nerves in check. Her bag was clutched tightly to her body. It contained all she needed to begin again, money and her sewing kit. 

   How her life had come to this, fleeing her husband in the pre-dawn was incredible. If she hadn’t lived through it, she wouldn’t have believed it. The station loomed out of the mist to save her; like a refugee seeking sanctuary, she hurried toward it.

*

  ‘Lizzy, look at how your sister is sewing. You can learn a lot from her, young lady. Your needlework is poor and your cooking skills are worse. Who, might I ask, is going to marry you?’

  Lizzy turned to her sister and poked out her tongue. Dotty reciprocated; they both giggled, rolling their eyes at their mother. For Elizabeth and Dorothy, looking at each other was like looking in a mirror. Close in age, they had the same soft blonde curls and green eyes. 

   ‘Actually Mother, there’s something I need to tell you and Father,’ Dotty was not confident this conversation was going to go over well at all. ‘I’ve joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and I leave for training in three days.’ She held her breath unsure how they would respond.

  Lizzy was the first to move. She jumped up and hugged her sister.

  ‘Oh, you lucky duck! How I wish I was old enough to sign up. As soon as I turn eighteen I’ll join you; thirteen months and counting.’ 

  Their parents though were less enthusiastic.

  ‘Well, I suppose the war shouldn’t just affect families with sons,’ Dotty’s father said. ‘We all have to make sacrifices.’ He winced, realising his choice of the word ‘sacrifice’ was not ideal.

 ‘Yes, of course. Can’t be selfish now, can we?’ the girl’s mother added, more to convince herself than anyone else. ‘Poor Mrs Thompson down in number 36 received a telegram this morning. Her boy Percy is missing in action.’

*

   Dorothy’s training was brief. Help was needed urgently in Europe and she soon found herself on the battlefields of France.

   Day after day, night after night Dotty cleaned and sewed the soldiers’ wounds that had been inflicted by the enemy’s guns and exploding mortar shells. 

   ‘If only Mother could see how handy her sewing lessons have become,’ Dotty mused.

   Her stitching was so fine that even though the wounds were jagged, Dotty did her best to make them neat. 

  The head nurse complimented her, ‘Their physical scars will be a lot less noticeable because of your work, Dotty. It’s a pity we can’t mend their emotional wounds as well.’ 

After a year of exhausting but rewarding work, Dotty received a letter from Lizzy.

Only another month and I shall be joining you, Dotty. Mother and Father aren’t happy to be losing a second daughter to the nasty Nazis but they are proud and are telling everyone they meet how “Even though we don’t have sons, our daughters are doing their bit to help win the war.”’

  A week after this letter, the head nurse delivered a crippling blow to Dotty. The Luftwaffe had bombed London and her family were among the victims. This news, so unexpected, so ironic, had the effect of tilting Dotty’s world off its axis.  

  The noise of the bombs and mortars she had previously been able to ignore became louder, more menacing. The injuries to the young men she tended became more horrific. Her own sleep, like that of the soldiers, was now interrupted several times a night by gruesome nightmares, hot sweats and insomnia. 

 The end of the war did not mean the end of her suffering. 

*

   Standing in the street she had played hopscotch on, Dotty searched for anything familiar among the grey, discordant shapes of rubble. The air felt solid around her, pressing in on her, squeezing her heart till it ached, making breathing almost impossible. Nothing looked or felt familiar; she was a homeless orphan.

Tears coursed down her cheeks unchecked. She didn’t just feel alone, she felt hollow, empty and desolate. 

 ‘What was it all for?’ she questioned the piles of brick and mortar.

 ‘Freedom, supposedly, but at what cost?’ 

  Dotty’s head snapped around to find out who had intruded on her grief. 

   ‘Sorry if I startled you miss, but I saw you standing there and thought you may be able to use this,’ the stranger handed Dotty a handkerchief, ‘Men’s handkerchiefs are so much more practical, are they not?’

  ‘Oh, ah, yes thank you. That’s very kind.’

  ‘May I be so bold as to offer to buy you a cup of tea? You look as though you could use one.’

  Dotty felt as though she couldn’t refuse the offer. He’d just sacrificed a hanky and she could use an ally today, and a cup of tea.

    A month later she felt as though she couldn’t refuse his offer of marriage. Charles had been the lifeline she’d needed, the replacement family she’d craved. He was attentive and steady. Dotty needed steady. The nightmares weren’t as frequent, and daily life was becoming more normal. 

   Her sixth sense prickled occasionally, however, like when he told her, ‘I hate shortened names, Dorothy. Don’t ever call me Charlie.’ Dotty had wanted to ask ‘Or what?’ but the look in his eyes had made her bite her tongue. Doubts tried to enter her consciousness but she pushed them down, not wanting to be alone anymore. 

  Being alone was hard.

*

 The violence began on their honeymoon. 

  It had started gradually, the change in her husband from Jekyll to Hyde. The open hand slaps across her face as if he were swatting a bug just a little too hard that had landed on her cheek. Then it escalated. Small things set Charles off: his clothes not being folded correctly, his beans not cooked to his liking, his hot cocoa before bed being luke-warm. All these things and a myriad of others resulted in concussions, broken bones and bruises. She never knew what was going to push him over the edge.

Dotty was trapped and bound by a vow of ‘Til death us do part’. 

 With a jolt, Dotty came to the realisation that one of them had to die.

*

  In Dotty’s mind the guns and mortars had begun again. The injured soldiers’ faces stitched themselves into her nightmares like ghoulish spectres taunting and encouraging her at the same time. She woke from these night terrors in a sweat with her husband’s hands around her throat.

   ‘Wake up you stupid bitch! Your thrashing about has woken me again. I have to work tomorrow unlike you, you lazy good for nothing leech.’ He conveniently forgot that it was he who had obstinately forbidden her to work.

   When Charles saw she was conscious, he released her frail neck, rolled over and was snoring within a minute. No sympathy, no love, no conscience; it sickened her and frayed her nerves. 

 Dotty removed herself from the marital bed to the couch.

 Charles stormed into the kitchen the next day and threw a bottle at her.

  ‘Take this, every night. Do you hear me? I’ll not have you waking me again.’

  Dorothy looked at the bottle, ‘Veronal’: Brand of Diethylbarbituric, acid. Descriptive Name: Barbitone

 Even though it was only a sleeping-draught, Dotty felt like Snow White being given a rosy red apple.                                               

‘Thank you.’ Dorothy uttered placing the bottle in her apron pocket.

  Her only respite from the beatings was during the day when Charles went to work. He had avoided going to war because his position with the government as an accountant had been deemed necessary to the war effort. He had not, however, avoided the ire of the mothers who had lost their sons fighting for Britain and was handed many white feathers over the years. His shame manifested itself in violence towards his wife who had been to war and seen things he couldn’t begin to imagine.       Dotty had tried explaining her nightmares, tried to garner some understanding from him, but his eyes became as hard and as dark as granite, his lips a thin angry line. For her trouble, she received a black eye. 

   Every night from then on, as soon as Charles was asleep, Dotty took herself to the couch. The Veronal was safely stored, unopened in her underwear drawer. Charles’ sleep was undisturbed so he never suspected Dotty wasn’t doing as she was told.

  Instead she planned her escape, like a captured soldier in a prisoner of war camp. It wasn’t much of a leap for Dotty to see Charles as an SS guard, inflicting torture on a helpless inmate.

  Her only obstacle now was money. So Dotty went to their neighbours seeking sewing work. Word soon spread about the fineness of her stitching and the jobs flowed in along with the money. It wasn’t long before the pounds, next to the Veronal in her underwear drawer, added up to a tidy sum. 

 ‘We’re going on a holiday, Dorothy. Pack for both of us, enough for two weeks. We leave this Sunday,’ Charles ordered her one night.

  ‘Where are we going?’ Dotty found if she kept conversation to a minimum it was all the better for her.

  ‘Up North. That’s all you need to know. I’ll be fishing during the day. You can please yourself, walk, cook, knit. As long as I receive my meals on time, I don’t care.’

  Her life had been reduced to maid and punching bag. She knew she was ready now.

  The demonic faces in her nightmares urged her on, suggesting such evil she thought that hell had made its home in her heart. 

*

  Dotty’s life on holiday mimicked her life in London. She prepared Charles’ breakfast, lunch and dinner, then his hot cocoa before bed.  Her respite was still during the day but now Charles was fishing instead of working. 

  After a week away, Dotty prepared her ‘beloved’s’ cocoa as usual but added a little something extra.

 ‘This tastes more bitter than usual, Dorothy. Bring me the sugar.’

  ‘Of course, I’m sorry Charles. It’s a new brand, your usual one ran out and the village shop only had this one left.’

  ‘Excuses, excuses, that’s all I ever hear from you. You know, you really are useless Dorothy and have you looked in a mirror lately? You look like something the cat dragged in.’ He slurred the last sentence and Dotty glanced at him.

‘Are you alright Charles? You don’t look well?’

  ‘What…what have you done to me?’ His eyes lost focus and his head felt like a rock.

 No longer in control of his muscles, his cocoa fell to the floor.

 ‘Sleep well, Charlie.’

  ‘You bitch!’ were the last words he’d ever utter and the last insult Dorothy would ever hear from her husband.

  Dotty could have just left then, walked to the train station and disappeared into post-war Europe, but the demons had other ideas.  It was, after all, ‘Til death us do part’.

*

   A week later, the next guests arrived at the cottage. The smell of death as they opened the door pushed them back a step. The sight of death pulled them forward.

  Charles still sat in the armchair where Dotty had left him. The spilt cocoa was now a dried brown stain on the floral carpet. Each of his limbs was tied to the chair with his fishing line, so tight that when he’d woken in the morning and tried to move they’d cut into his flesh leaving ruby red droplets on his skin. The handkerchief Charles had offered Dotty that fateful day a year ago was now protruding from his mouth like a dead fish.

  But most horrifying of all were his eyes. They had been sewn shut with the neatest stitching the coroner had ever seen.

Kim lives in the beautiful Snowy Mountains region of Australia with her husband and their dog. She loves tea and all things sweet. Writing has re-emerged in her life after a long hiatus.

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