Winter arrived late. It was held up by an extraordinarily long and mild autumn, and now it enters with an almighty blizzard that paints this month of March white. The snow slows everything down and it gives me time to contemplate the handful of memories it brings with it.
I sit on the sofa, rather than my armchair, and lean forward to check that the line of trees remain in their position. I watch the world outside disappear into white noise and I can’t help but get lost in my thoughts, something that is happening with increasing regularity.
I am disturbed by a crash coming from the kitchen. The nurse that has come today is new. She tells me she has been sent this afternoon because she only lives a few streets away and she was the only one who could make it to me.
‘I’m sorry Mr Thomas, I knocked a mug and it fell off the worktop,’ she says as she appears in the kitchen door. I nod in her direction and try to remember if her name was Karen or Katherine.
‘Do you take sugar?’ She asks. Again, I nod and try to offer a smile which she politely returns.
After some more thuds and fumbles, Karen or Katherine comes back into the sitting room with a fully loaded tray. My standard cup of tea and my ham sandwich is accompanied by a round of cakes. Sandra, who usually does the lunchtime call, hides the cakes and, come to think of it, I think she also hides any sort of smile. She’s a fierce woman; goodness knows why she’s a nurse.
‘Right Mr Thomas, is it just your insulin injection we need to do?’
‘I have a dressing that needs changing as well,’ my hand rests on my stomach where the dressing hides beneath my jumper.
‘OK, shall we get those done then, whilst the tea cools.’ I nod and lift myself to the edge of the chair. She gets everything she needs out of her bag and arranges it on the coffee table.
‘So we’ll do your injection first,’ she says, syringe in hand. ‘Just a small scratch,’ she warns me, but I’m more than used to them now.
‘Right, now let’s take a look at that dressing,’ she kneels beside me and gently pulls at the dressing that’s already in place and mirrors my wince as the last bit is removed.
‘That sore? I’m sorry,’ her voice is kind and I smile down at her, ‘I’ll just give it a little clean and pop another dressing on. Then we can have a little tea and cake.’
I tell her about Sandra hiding them and her ranting about my diabetes. Katherine (she reminds me) says that one won’t hurt and she won’t tell if I won’t. I laugh.
She makes herself comfortable on my armchair and we sit, sipping our tea, talking about the weather. Blizzards, in March, it seems so ridiculous, it should be spring. I’m keen to see the daffodils in the garden, to see anything in the garden really.
‘They say it’s the coldest winter for sixteen years,’ she says, ‘the last time temperatures dropped like this was 1963. Well, that’s what the paper said.’
‘That sounds about right. I remember snow like this, in March, when I was a young man, the blizzards and storms were strong enough to bring trees down. An old elm tree, that had stood for God knows how many years, fell down and blocked the roads,’ I look back out the window to count the trees.
Talk of the weather runs out pretty quickly so we chew over the strikes that have been happening, the ‘winter of discontent’ as they call it, but silence quickly falls and I can’t think of anything else to say. I can see her glancing around, though she tries to hide it, and I am suddenly self conscious about my humble flat. I’m pleased she can warm herself by the fire but I wish I was able to clear away the stacks of newspapers or at least clear a bigger space for her on the torn (and patched) armchair. I’ve never really noticed the growing stains on the carpet and I feel a need to distract her from them, although now I see her scanning the shelves and looking puzzled. I have a feeling she is searching for photographs in order for something to talk about and I only have one.
‘That’s Annie.’ I say, anticipating her question.
‘Yes, she was. She passed away a few years ago now.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she says and I know she is sincere, not just polite.
‘We would have been married sixty years this year.’ She looks at me with interest and I can feel words rising up my throat.
These days I get very little practise when it comes to conversation. Usually that doesn’t bother me, but today, I don’t know whether it is the snow or the company, I feel the need to fill the silence before it even occurs.
‘We married shortly after the war. The First World War.’
‘You made it back for her, how romantic,’ she says, clutching at her heart.
‘Not exactly,’ there is a brief moment of confusion that shows on her face, but she sips her tea and looks back at the photo.
‘How did you meet?’
‘We grew up together really; she lived on the farm next to mine. Her brother, George, was my best friend,’ it’s my turn to sip my tea but she looks at me, waiting for me to carry on. ‘George and I were the same age, we were at school together, and our families were always helping each other out on the farms. We got up to all sorts of mischief, Annie use to follow us around, it drove George mad, but I never minded,’ I smile, for George and for Annie.
‘How lovely,’ her eyes keep returning to the picture, ‘what did he think about you marrying his sister?’ she smiles.
‘He never knew,’ I pause to sip my tea and prepare myself. ‘George died in the war. He’d only been in France two days. We got the news the day that elm fell down, in all that bad weather. I couldn’t believe it, he was my best friend.
‘Annie cried and cried, there had only been the two of them, no other brothers or sisters. I comforted her as best I could and I helped her family out on the farm.
‘We spent a lot of time together after that, me and Annie. We grew closer and I realised how much I loved her, I think I always had, it just took me a while to see it. A year later she agreed to marry me.’ I glance quickly at Katherine who is listening intently. ‘We had a wonderful life together,’ I look at the only photo I have of Annie and force any tears to stay put, forbidding them to fall. ‘It was cancer in the end.’
‘I’m sure she loved you very much. Do you have any children?’ All I can manage is to shake my head, it is a question I always dread and she seems to notice. ‘It’s a really lovely photo.’ Katherine follows my eyes back to the photo. ‘What’s that beside it?’
Before I can answer she is on her feet, reaching for the box that sits next to the photo. She opens it and looks at me with a deep curiosity.
‘You have a George Medal?’ She asks.
‘You know what that is?’
‘My father was in the army, an engineer, he would teach me and my sister all about the different ranks and medals, all the history. I guess some of it stuck,’ she laughs.
She’s endearing. I take a moment to look at her, her round face, though pale, is full of life. She has chocolate coloured hair that sits beneath her well starched nurse’s hat, and she has deep brown eyes with flecks of green. Something about her reminds me of Annie, perhaps her wide, rose smile. I take a moment to watch the snow, it creates a lace around the window. After a deep breath I feel I can answer.
‘During the Second World War the paint factory, not far from where we lived, was bombed. I was on my way home from work and I saw it reduced to rubble. I went in to try and get people out; anyone else would have done the same.’
‘Not everyone’ she says kindly.
‘The man who owned the factory was one of the men I helped out; he told a local paper and tried to find out who I was. Next thing I know I had a letter saying I was to be awarded the George Medal.’
‘Wow,’ she pauses, ‘you didn’t hang around to tell them who you were?’
‘Well I was first on the scene and the firefighters and medics soon arrived. I made sure the people I got out were OK and, if they were injured, that they saw a medic. Then I walked home to Annie.’
‘But you told her about it, didn’t you?’
‘I told her what I had seen and the horror of it.’
‘But you didn’t mention you saved all those people?’
‘Well no, not initially. I hadn’t really wanted to talk about it and she didn’t ask.’
‘And when you got the letter? About the medal? She must have been so proud. You must have been proud.’
‘Yes, Annie was proud.’ I can’t help but smile at the memory of the scream she let out when I handed her that letter.
‘But?’ She is very perceptive.
‘Like I said, the local paper was involved in finding out who I was. Once they found out I was a conchie they weren’t so full of praise.’
‘A conscientious objector.’ I study her face, I can’t sense any judgement, I wonder if it is part of her nurse training but I think it is her continuing interest. She seems to be a curious young woman who I imagine asks lots of questions, not to be intrusive, but to genuinely get to know people. ‘My mother was a Quaker and so my brother and I were raised the same.’
‘Quakers don’t believe in war do they?’ She nods as if she understands and I think there is a trace of sympathy.
‘Well, no, they don’t, a lot of Quakers objected to the war,’ she doesn’t take her eyes off me. ‘Not that I have anything against those who did fight, quite the contrary, they were brave, brave men.’ George comes to my mind again, ‘they fought for this country and gave their lives for it, they gave us freedom. I just couldn’t do the same, I had grown up with these beliefs and,’ I stop.
‘It’s OK Mr Thomas, you don’t have to justify anything to me.’
But I do, I started and now I can’t stop, the words spill out.
‘I wanted to do my part, so I joined the Friends Ambulance Unit and I helped where I could with the hospitals, and I worked on the farm of course. I just knew I couldn’t take a life,’ there was definitely sympathy in her face now. ‘There was Annie as well, she had already lost her brother, I couldn’t leave her,’ it’s difficult to hold onto the tears now.
‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of,’ and I know she means that.
‘People were never too kind to conchie’s. Thankfully I had my Annie; she always stood by my side.’
Katherine keeps looking at my medal, feeling the ribbon and then the cool metal. I keep it by the photo of Annie because I think she deserved it, she was the bravest woman I have ever known. I try to smile. A silence has fallen and I can’t bear it, why does it bother me what she thinks?
‘I’ve wondered all my life if I did the right thing. Not signing up. Not going off to fight.’
‘But you had good reason, you stood by your beliefs, and you helped where you could, you did your bit,’ her voice is kind and warm.
‘I suppose,’ I find it difficult to speak.
‘And think of what would have happened had you gone to fight, you may not have got this,’ she holds up the medal.
‘That,’ I snort, ‘I don’t deserve that medal. There are so many men who deserved so much more. Men like George, men who fought.’
‘But Mr Thomas, had you gone off to the war you may never have been alive to walk past that factory on that day, and you would never have been there to save those people. They may well have died waiting for the firefighters and the medics.’
I can only shake my head. I turn away from her to stare back at the snow, it falls heavier by the minute. I hear the rustling of papers and I know she has cleared a spot on the sofa so as to sit closer to me.
‘Everything happens for a reason Mr Thomas,’ she takes my hand, ‘what you did was remarkable.’
I bring myself to look at her and she is smiling. I pat her hand and smile back.
‘You should be proud of this,’ she says and all I can do is nod and look at the floor.
‘You must have more patients today, don’t let me keep you.’
‘I have time for another cup of tea if you’d like one?’
‘That would be lovely,’ I nod, pleased that she is staying a little longer.
‘Great, and perhaps another cake? If you promise not to tell Sandra,’ she laughs and I laugh too.
‘You can come again,’ I say and I hope that she does. I try to stand to make the tea.
‘You sit yourself down, I’ll make the tea.’
She stands and heads toward the kitchen, chatting away, asking me again if I take sugar because she’s forgotten. I take one last look at the snow, count the trees standing in their line to make sure they are all there, and finally I make a silent wish that none shall fall tonight. When she comes back in, she rests the tray on the coffee table and I ask her to close the curtains.
Claire Hughes is a Birmingham born writer who now lives in Staffordshire. She recently achieved her MA in Creative Writing (with distinction) from Lancaster University and has had her work published in the online magazine One Hand Clapping and Oxford Brookes’ e-anthology ‘My teeth don’t chew on shrapnel.’