As he said in "A Long Way Home", Mick Carpenter lost his father to World War I when he was still very young. I think this first and early loss of a loved person influenced much of his future life and I tried to imagine what kind of boy he may have been.
Alice had just finished hanging some washing out to dry in the backyard in the warm air of a bright and sunny late August morning. She walked back to the house, a slender woman in a simple blue cotton dress, pretty in a rather earnest way, her long nut-brown hair loosely plaited and pinned up at the back of her head.
Pausing by the back door, she tucked a stray strand behind her ear and watched her son, a tall, lithe boy of almost five, circling the clothes line with his arms stretched out, making a humming noise, pretending to fly a plane, to be one of those fighter pilots his dad had told him about.
"Be careful, don't tear down the sheets, Mick", she called to him. "And will you stop that noise please?"
The boy peeked out from behind a large white sheet and grinned at her mischievously. "Awww, Mommy, you know I can't! I'm flying through the mountains and my plane's going to crash if I turn off the engine now! There's no room for an emergency landing here! It would be dangerous to try one!"
Alice couldn't help laughing. That kid's imagination was boundless, and she sometimes wondered where he got all those ideas he expressed so very eloquently for a boy of his age. Often, she couldn't bring herself to scold him for misbehaving because he was so charming with his sparkling green eyes and disarming cheeky grin. So much like his father.
The thought of Henry sobered her, and her face grew serious again. He had been gone for more than a year now, fighting over there in Europe, and although she knew she should be proud of him for bravely serving his country, she hated being left alone with their son and her anxiety, constantly fearing for Henry's life.
When she had tried to talk him out of joining the forces, imploring him to think of Mick if not of her, telling him she didn't want the boy to grow up alone without his father, he had only laughed and said, "Don't worry, love, I promise I'll take care. It can't be long until this is over. We'll finish off those Germans for good and I'll be back with you and Mickey in no time. And then we'll finally have a little brother or sister for him, with a war hero for a father."
She had shaken her head doubtfully. She didn't get all that excitement of so many men (and also some women) over the prospect of going to war. She had to admit that she didn't know much about international politics, so maybe there was a good reason for sending young men to fight over there, but still her misgivings remained.
Alice turned away from the back door, leaving Mick to his noisy game, put away the laundry basket and began to prepare lunch.
Busily chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes, clanging around with pots and dishes, she missed the knock on the front door. It was only when she heard Mick shout, "Mommy's in the kitchen, just go in there", that she looked up, right into the face of a pale gangly teenage boy hesitating on the threshold of the back door. At first she couldn't place him, then she noticed the envelope in his hand, and her heart sank. She set down the dish she was holding very carefully.
"Mrs. Carpenter?" She nodded automatically. "Telegram for you", he said gravely. He held it out to her, letting go almost before she could grab it, as if it was searing hot, said goodbye hastily and hurried off.
She knew what the message would be even before she opened it. She sat down on a kitchen chair, neatly slit open the flap with her chopping knife, cast a fleeting glance at the telegram, scanned it for the dreaded words, and closed her eyes.
She hadn't noticed that Mick had come inside. He stood by the back door, looking at her questioningly with large eyes, and seemed to sense that something was wrong. He had never seen his mother so eerily calm. She was a rather quiet person in general, unlike his merrily boisterous dad, but this was different, he felt.
She held out her arms without a word, and he stepped closer reluctantly, letting her hug his wiry little body to her chest while she stared at the wall with tearless eyes, unable to say or do or feel anything.
Eventually the child started to wriggle free from her stifling embrace. She loosened her grip, and he gazed at her, unsure what was expected of him now. Why did Mommy have that look on her face? He wanted to go back outside to play but didn't dare to walk away from her. His heart began to beat very fast, and he mustered all his courage to ask, "What is it, Mommy? You look so strange."
Alice put an arm around his narrow waist and pulled him onto her knee. "It's Daddy, Mick. We have very bad news about your dad. He is … he won't come back."
"Why? Does he like it better in Europe? But we are here! Why won't he come back?"
Alice bit her lip. How could she possibly explain to her little son what she couldn't grasp herself? She took a deep breath.
"Daddy's gone to heaven, sweetie. He's with God now, and with Grandpa Carpenter and Mrs. Shelton from down the street and many others who have gone before him." The words sounded hollow to her own ears and she wasn't sure if they sufficed to console the boy.
"But … why didn't he come here first to say goodbye and then go to heaven? Doesn't he like us any more?" Mick's big eyes filled with tears. "Will he really never come back? Not even if I wait for ten years? For a hundred years? For twenty million years?" His voice became small and pleading. "Forever?" As she shook her head wordlessly, his tears started to flow freely.
"Oh, Mickey." The child's distress was almost more than she could bear. She cradled his head to her shoulder and held him while his shoulders twitched and his body shook violently with his desperate sobs, stroked his tousled black curls with her free hand until the trembling and crying subsided and he lay limply in her arm, sniffling and hiccupping occasionally, his face pressed into the fabric of her dress that was soaked through with his tears. Her own eyes remained dry still, her heart heavy.
I'll be back in no time. A hero for a father. I promise I'll take care.
Henry's words echoed through her head hollowly, as if to mock her.
A little brother or sister for Mickey.
They had tried to have another baby without success for a long time. She had always wanted a large family. Now there wouldn't even be a small one, not a real family. Only Mick and herself. No father, no husband. No more laughing, no more quarrelling, no more making love with the devilishly handsome man she had loved for almost half her life. She had no idea how to go on without him.
What did you do when your worst fears had come true? What did you do when you suddenly found yourself a widow at twenty-four?
She didn't know. The only thing she knew was that she had to keep going somehow for Mick. For the boy she might never be able to look at again without the sting of regret and grief for the man she had wanted to grow old with, as her son was the spitting image of his father. The same green eyes with their luxurious curved lashes, the same black curly hair, unruly and thick, his height unusual for his age, indicating that the slim child she was holding in her arms would grow into a tall athletic man one distant day.
He was all she had now, and she was overcome by panic that something might happen to him. Children died of diseases and accidents, almost every family she knew had lost a child at some time. She would protect him from harm as best she could, no matter what.
She ran a gentle hand over his back, over the delicate shoulder blades protruding under the thin cotton shirt he was wearing. He was a strong and healthy little fellow, but she was more aware than ever of just how fragile a gift life was.
Her eyes fell upon the porcelain vase on the windowsill, holding a white rose from the garden. Henry had always hated its pink flower pattern and teased her for her bad taste, although the only reason she loved that ugly thing was that it had been a gift from her grandmother. Every time she had put a flower into it since he left, she had smiled at the memory and wished he'd be back soon.
Now she stared at the vase, paralysed.
The thought that he would never make fun of her again, never make her furious again with some silly prank and then get her to forgive him instantly with a melting look, a dazzling smile, a flower picked from the garden, finally lifted her numbness and brought out the tears she had not been able to shed earlier. She let them stream down her cheeks in silence, trying to restrain herself from sobbing. It was hard enough for Mick that he must cope with the loss of his beloved daddy somehow. He shouldn't have to deal with his mother breaking down in front of him, too.
Yet smart and alert as he was, Mick wasn't deceived so easily. He got up from her lap, wrapped his little arms around her neck and said solemnly, "Don't cry, Mommy, please don't cry. I'm here."
She wept even harder.
Mick remembered that his father had told him to take good care of Mommy until he'd be back, calling him 'the man in the house while I'm away', and he added, "I'll look after you. I'm a man after all."
"Oh, Mickey", she said again in a choked voice. "You don't have to be a man just yet, love."
But the look on his pale face, the disbelieving sadness and confusion in his eyes, the lashes still wet with tears, the way he tried to be so much braver than he was obviously feeling, betrayed the shadow of premature adulthood the telegram had cast over his untroubled child's world. His little personal universe had lost one of its guiding stars, irreplaceably, and the blissful insouciance, the feeling of invincibility and immortality that we only enjoy in early childhood, had ended on this sunny August day shortly before his fifth birthday.