I watched the way Oscar wriggled around in my brother’s hand; it did well to distract us, for a while, until: ‘put that dirty thing down this instance; come inside and wash your hands – the pair of you!’ I then watched the way our caterpillar spelled out a ‘goodbye’. It reminded me of my father’s last goodbye, for he left me with many. I knew that the last time was the last time. I felt it. It felt that it was final. I can still feel the touch of his lips on my cheek, that scent of cigar smoke on his breath. His stubble often tickled my chin but on that goodbye, I remained still, wouldn’t let go of his hand, refused to ‘look after mummy and Alphonse’ because I knew it wasn’t my job: it was my father’s, and deep down I knew he wouldn’t be around to do it.
My father left on a cold night in his camouflage gear, his tattered brown rucksack was slung over his right shoulder; his other hand lifted his weight up into the truck that took him away forever.
As for my mother, she promised she’d be on the next train – right after me and Alphonse – that we’d all live together in a small cottage in the countryside, and that daddy would come and find us as soon as he gets home, and we’d have a perfect roast dinner because it was daddy’s favourite. Then we would have ‘Victoria Sponge’ – my favourite, because I always felt special, thinking the dessert was named after me, because I loved it so much.
I can’t eat it now, because mother never kept her promise, she never got that next train: she didn’t get any train.
Mrs Peters, the woman who cared for Alphonse and I, I wouldn’t say she was a bad lady, but she wasn’t our mother. She would let me and Alphonse play out in the woods next to her home when the weather was nice, but we always had to be back in time to wash up for supper and we were always sent to bed straight afterwards. We shared a bedroom: Alphonse and I – we had separate beds but we always shared mine and we’d fall asleep talking about how great things would be when mummy and daddy would come to get us.
But they never did.
Our lives went on. Physically; I could feel myself becoming older and I watched Alphonse grow but emotionally, I stayed put. I was blank, even when Mrs Peters died, around the same time the war ended. It was spring 1945, and it was a quick transition for me, from being a child to becoming an adult and responsible for Alphonse, who, like me, was grieving the death of our father: his messy, bloody, painful death, Alphonse would always add, and that he was murdered for no reason, that he will never forgive himself for leaving on the train with me to leave our mother behind, because nobody can tell us what happened to her: how she died, or when, where or even why.
Mrs Peters had no children when she died, and like our father, her husband was killed in war. Alphonse became my responsibility and he would look at me with rely in his eyes. What made me worry was that he would probably never understand the difference between right and wrong, because there has been so much war in his life; it made me dread his memories, his opinions on life, about love, how he saw death. But despite my worries and his pain, we looked after each other. Immediately Alphonse found work in the coal mines and worked long hours whilst I would cook for him, wash and clean and of course worry about him. When he didn’t work, he was out in the woods hunting for the both of us. I could tell how much that hurt him, ever since I can remember he wanted to be a vet, ever since he found an injured fox in the woods where we used to play. He hated to hurt animals. He hated it.
For years, it was the two of us, surviving and dying at the same time, because we were still mourning, and we could barely speak to each other without it hurting us both because we could each see the hurts in each other’s eyes. We still shared a bedroom though, but in our own beds. Neither of us could set foot in Mrs Peter’s room after she died. She hated us going in there, and we never wanted to disrespect her after how much she did for us. Alphonse and I don’t sit up talking about our parents all night though, there is no conversation. What hurts the most, is that some nights, when I whispered ‘good night’ to Alphonse, his response was ‘goodbye’. When I asked him why he said that, he’d say ‘I mean good night’. That’s what hurts: it hurts to know he was lying. It hurts to know that he felt as if he had to say that to me, because he worried that the next morning, things might have been different once again.
When Alphonse met Helena, another miner’s daughter, they found a true connection that what I can only assume is rare. I saw that in their faces, the way they looked at each other; it made me wonder if I would ever look at someone like that, or if I would catch someone looking at me like that. It wasn’t long after meeting Helena that Alphonse proposed marriage to her, they were only twenty and she found herself pregnant with their first child so they moved to a place of their own as soon as Alphonse found some work in the city where we lived as children. He wanted me to follow him and Helena, live close by but I told him there would be no work for me: a woman, because there wouldn’t be. I also told him that I am too scarred to move back there, that that is the reason I love these woods so much, in Mrs Peters’ old cottage, because nobody can find me here.
I still saw Alphonse and Helena regularly, though; they kept visiting with their children. Their beautiful son, Gregory James – named after our father and the spitting image of Alphonse. Their daughter, Victoria Alice, they named after our mother and I. I was there for her birth, it brought back some life into me, made me feel things I didn’t know I could feel anymore and it reminded me that not only is there death, but that there is life and I shouldn’t be hiding mine away. I had always wanted children of my own, but meeting a man to love was never something I could do. I found it difficult to love anyone, to get close to anyone because everyone I get close to, and believe them to be sticking around, leave me.
I was due for a visit from the four of them any day soon, until I received a phone call that Alphonse was very ill, and that he had been for quite some time – only not this bad: hospitalised, fighting for life, for a breath of it: something he couldn’t quite get. He was suffering with lung disease. I rushed straight into the city that year, sat by his side; there was nothing to return home for, and it was the first time I found myself there since I was fourteen. I was too scarred to be there, but Alphonse created new scars that replaced them when he fell ill.
For months, Helena sat by his beside, her life was on hold: fist tight. I took Gregory James and Victoria Alice to school every day, took them home, cooked for them, took them to the hospital where Alphonse lay still, where Helena sat, sipping coffee wondering how many more days will pass before his lungs steal his breath. The doctor had told her, and she told me, ‘there is nothing we can do for him.’ So she sobbed, and I did my best to hold it together because I didn’t want Gregory and Victoria to suffer the heartbreak that Alphonse and I had suffered.
In 1959, Alphonse pushed out his last breath. He was only thirty. His children: only ten and eight. Those mines finally killed him in the end. We never did know the damage until it was too late, and without Alphonse’s earnings, Helena would struggle, and Gregory and Victoria would suffer. That’s when I said, after the funeral:
“I’d like it if you and the kids would come and stay at the cottage, with me.”
Helena responded with a nod, a simple nod. No persuasion was needed.
“The kids, they love it there, in those woods. I want them to grow up there, where Alphonse did, where they can feel close to him.” she said.
We packed everything up, another family moved into their old home – lucky for them, just starting their lives. They reminded me of Alphonse and Helena when they married; the woman was pregnant and the man: alive.
Helena and I, along with Gregory and Victoria, still live at the cottage, and I can finally say I have a home. It feels like home. I feel that Alphonse is at peace, finally. Those scars I have, permanent but not so visible anymore. I have come to realise that those scars, although ugly, are made of stronger tissue, and it has made me stronger.
I watch, from the cottage, at the kitchen window, Gregory and Victoria playing in the woods, running around in circles chasing one another and giggling. Helena heads over to them, calms them and they stop giggling. She hands them a lunchbox each with a sandwich in and a carton of orange juice, and they sit talking, destroying their hunger. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but that didn’t matter, I could see in their faces the excitement and the happiness they’re sharing together like Alphonse and I used to. That is all that matters, really. Happiness, family.
I head over to the two quiet children, looking at something in their hands, amazed.
“What have you got there?” I ask them. Gregory opens up his hand, in it was a caterpillar wriggling around his wrinkled palms, as if it was dancing in the sun.
“A caterpillar,” he said. Victoria places some grass and leaves in Gregory’s palm for the caterpillar to eat.
“Wow. He’s a beauty. What’s his name?”
Gregory turns to me and says, “His name is Oscar, Aunt Vicky. Oscar, just like daddy’s caterpillar.”
I watch the miniature Alphonse turn away, separate his fingers and put Oscar down onto the grass. I hear Mrs Peters’ voice in the back of my mind: ‘put that dirty thing down this instance; come inside and wash your hands – the pair of you!’
I pick Oscar up in my own hands and place him back onto Gregory’s palm.
“You keep him safe, Gregory.” I look to Victoria too. I grab the empty lunchbox from Gregory’s lap, telling him to place Oscar inside. I put the leaves Victoria gathered into the box as well.
I walked away, to sit with Helena, to see if she knows she story of Oscar and Alphonse, and I watched, amazed by a young Alphonse and I, and the way Oscar wriggled in Gregory’s hand, spelling out a ‘hello’.