To Breathe Again

1

In the exposed land halfway between the woods and the farm, I crouch, watching the figure of a man advance along the driveway. He is tall. Is he taller? At this distance I cannot be sure. To steady myself, my hand is on the basket of wood I was carrying; my stomach rests upon my knees. As I watch, I run a finger back and forth along my lips, barely noticing that I am doing so, until they are dry. I sink lower beneath the mounds of the parkland and stare until I am certain that it is not him.

Standing, I stroke my hand over my stomach and close my eyes. A breathless air. Two heartbeats. A tear over my cheek. The outline of the letter in the pocket of my pinafore.

The day is warm and the sky clear. I lift the basket of wood to my hip, circle around by the pond and sit beneath the willow. The man retreats up the driveway as I watch. He is carrying a pumpkin. Perhaps he will not come. But he will. I know that I must return, one day. I long to. But only after the child has come. It is heavy in my stomach, but the weight is on my soul. The weed-covered water looks so welcoming.

I remove the letter from my pinafore, look at the folded paper. It is brushed with mud. A fingerprint. I trace the path with my thumb. It is of thin leaf, dry, almost brittle. I imagine the route that it has travelled to find my hand, as I always do, until it overwhelms me. The paper flutters in my shaking hand. I unfold it for the second time that morning.

   My sweetest Marie,

 To write to you keeps you close to my heart. I keep your photo in breast pocket. I feel that it keeps me safe. Your letters in reply add great cheer, although your last was rather beaten by the bitter weather that we have encountered of late. That you are safe in Shropshire lends me comfort. Think of me also safe here, for there is word that all is not well within the Jerry ranks. Spirits are lofty among the chaps. Indeed, we were each rationed a finger of brandy this past night. It seems that we will be permitted home within the final months of this year. The war will be over. I shall not miss a day in this trench that I call home. When I return I promise you again that we shall marry and start a home of our own. I can picture it, a cottage on the coast, a dog by the fire. We were right to wait until after the war ends.

I have heard that your father’s business has taken a steep fall, which I was sorry to hear. Upon my return I will speak with him again about the position that he offered.

I must finish now as the endless rain returns in abundance.

With all of my endless thoughts of love to you in these words, you are in my dreams each night.

 Yours

Neville

I look at words that jump from the page and dance through standing tears: heart, safe, cheer. Comfort, love. Dreams. I hold the letter to my breast. I can picture him, there beside me, so clear. The slight lop-side of his smile beneath his thin line of moustache. The sharp angle of his cheekbones. The reflecting light on the surface of his dark eyes. His shoulders, broad, solid beneath his open white shirt. His knobbly knees and pale, vulnerable skin. His soft voice: self-assured, quiet confidence. The child shifts inside me and I vomit on the grass.

I see that Janet is heading this way. Dab my eyes with the dress of my pinafore. I know that she will want to talk. Talking too much is her trouble; so many words to give, when few, no, none are wanted. I stand, to meet her halfway, to restrict the talking time. In hefting the basket to my hip, a few logs tip out. I watch as one rolls down the soft slope and into the water. Tears come; I cannot help but cry. If Janet were not nearly upon me, I should feel like heaving the entire contents of the basket, and the basket itself, into the pond.

‘You shouldn’t be carrying things around. Not in your condition, duck,’ she caws. Even her voice goes through me, a bow across a poorly played violin. I do not dislike her much, but am not fond of her enough to want anything to do with her. I had encountered few people as common as her before I arrived here. She means well, but so do most doctors, and neither do I enjoy their company. With all of the logs back in the basket, I wipe my face with my sleeve and lift basket to waist.

‘You’re to give that to me,’ Janet says, steaming forward and yanking the basket from me when I have only spoke, ‘I’m fine, th –’ We look at each other. ‘You been crying, you ‘ave.’

I do not reply. To do so would be to authorise conversation. I know that this will not desist her. She shows concern, as unwanted as her conversation.

‘You been out ‘ere reading your letters again?’ The basket wobbles. She rights it, using the basket to scoop a log that was about to spill.

‘I might have been reading a book.’

‘You ain’t got a book with you, though, ‘ave ya, missy.’

I look down, hoping beyond rationality that I might, in fact, be holding one. I see the letter sticking out of my pinafore. It is too late, but I stuff it back in.

‘From your man, ay?’ Janet leaves it long enough to know that I will not confirm. ‘You ‘ave such a sad face on all the time, lovely. But you mustn’t. By the time you is twenty, that sorry expression of yours will etch itself on ya skin, if you ain’t careful.’ Janet is smiling. She comments on my countenance most every time we meet. She has not been here long. I know that she means well, is simply trying to be friendly. Yet, like her words, it is unwanted, as much as it is unwarranted. I attempt to smile in return. It falls away before it reaches its peak. ‘E’ll be back soon, just you see. ‘Ad a letter from my bruvva Bob. On ‘is way this week, ‘e is. Ain’t seen ‘I’m in time.’

Janet watches my hands moving over my stomach and smiles again. I shan’t vomit, not in front of her.

‘What a lovely surprise you gonna ‘ave waitin’ for your man, eh? Must be due any day, you. S’a wonder that you didn’t just pop right our ‘ere, ‘eftin’ this about.’ One arm over the top, hip holding the weight, she jiggles the basket. ‘’E won’t be able to wait to see the both of you, ay? What a fing to return to.’ Janet never tires. Every time, she will wait until I give her nothing in return but slow blinks. Truth told, I do feel cruel. I answer most of her questions, but rarely rise to her baiting for more. She seems content enough to just talk at me. ‘’Ow long ‘as it been since you seen ‘im then, your man?’

‘More than a year,’ I reply before I can stop myself, cursing each word as I watch them drift in through her ear, process through her brain; passing through confusion and into realisation.

2

I go straight through the farmhouse kitchen, up the stairs and to my room, leaving Janet with the basket of wood and the near-silence that travelled with us back to the farm. When, in my hurry, I trip on the stair I hear her squawk, telling me to be careful. I close the door quietly as I can. Even though I have noticed other girls attempt to avoid Janet, downstairs she will find fresh listening ears and more responsive tongues. I hope that is enough to grant me my solitude.

I stop for a while by the open window, sitting in the chair that creaks, next to the writing table that wobbles. I watch the boys and their father out in the fields, the sun only now beginning to low. If I was not carrying I would be out there with them, harvesting the wheat. I had done not a day’s manual work in my life before coming here. If he could see me, Neville would admonish me, reminding me that it is not work to be undertaken by a lady.

As I stare out, I hear the kitchen door close, two voices. The unmistakable shriek of Janet, even in whisper, and Mrs Jenkins, the farmer’s wife. The leaves of wisteria are thick around the windows, the flowers gone for the year. They cover me. I cannot see them, but their voices travel to me. I hear a slurp, as Janet does with each mouthful of “Rosie”, as she is wont to call tea.

‘I’m tellin’ ya, she can’t’a been preggers when she come ‘ere,’ I hear Janet say. ‘’Er man been away for more than a year, she tells me.’

‘That girl was pregnant when she arrived here, she was,’ Mrs Jenkins says in reply, her Welsh accent that I become fond of. ‘The little one must be ready to arrive any day now. Been counting the days, I have. Almost put her as overdue.’

‘Well, it is queer, I tell ya,’ Janet says. I can picture her face, beset with confusion. She’ll be raising her eyebrows, asking a question of Mrs Jones.

‘It’ll just be the babi brain,’ Mrs Jenkins says. I hear her wedding ring click against her mug – her “Toby”, as Janet would say. ‘I was the same,’ Mrs Jenkins continues. ‘Didn’t know what day of the week it was most of the time, when I was pregnant with my two. I remember putting a fresh bowl of trifle in the bin and then put a bowl of potato peelings in the fridge, one time, before I realised what I’d done, so batty it made me.’

Janet cackles. ‘You’s probably right.’ I heard her sigh. ‘She’s a pretty little posh fing, too. Ain’t like the girls from round my way. Guess it’s just the way I fink, like. Finking that she’s done the wrong’un on ‘er old man while ‘e’s away.’ She laughs again; feckless, braying mirth that disgusts me.

Before Janet arrived with her talk of American airmen and East End alleyways, I was content enough alone with my thoughts. The other girls tend to keep to their own ways: reading and knitting, helping in the kitchen, keeping their own counsel. I am not the only burdened woman here. Yet I am the only one who prefers to stay away from the farmhouse. Mrs Jenkins shows us more prudence. When we each arrived, she discreetly let us know that she is available to us, should she be needed in a house of three men. Her face is kind. Plump women tend to radiate trust, in my opinion, learned from my church. It does not escape my notice that she does not share in Janet’s levity.

‘I keep an eye on her,’ Mrs Jenkins says, echoing my thoughts of her, ‘as I do with all of the girls. She keeps her space, and that’s just fine.’

‘I fought she likes to be alone, that one,’ Janet replies. ‘But she shouldn’t be. Pretty as a snapdragon, but with a look as sorry as an undertaker. It ain’t ‘ealthy, ‘er spendin’ so much time alone. Fink I’ll go up an’ see ‘er later.’

I slink back. There is a vehicle approaching. Cautiously, I peer around the window frame, half-straining, hoping to hear if Mrs Jenkins warns Janet to let me alone. The vehicle is a red postal van, late in the day, as they tend to be around here. It is not him. Not yet.

I am grateful when the letter is later pushed beneath my door, after the gentle knock is not answered. Grateful to Mrs Jenkins. I see my father’s handwriting on the front of the envelope. I stop. I know already that I shall sleep less this night. I wonder if he does not sleep, thinking of me. I am certain that he wouldn’t if he knew the predicament that he has got me in.

3

The next morning is not so bright. Even so, light through the thin curtain wakes me from the little sleep that I managed. This extra weight of mine is still so foreign each day; I move and the weight follows me, disturbing and slowing my intention. Sitting up, the first thing that I notice is my father’s unopened letter. Its very existence ruined my night, plaguing my thoughts. I still do not wish to open it. My current situation labours my emotions enough.

I think of the plight of the nation, of so many young men, of Neville, and know how selfish I am to think only of myself. Sometimes it is hard to consider the rest of the world and her horrors when I am living in such an isolated bubble. It is strange that I think of mother regularly, in this place; in my way. On my next birthday I shall be the age that she was when she bore me. She lived through the division of the mainland in her youth, too. I sometimes envy her for not having to do so again, now that I experience it for myself. I wonder if anyone will ever find happiness again, should it end, as I am repeatedly told. Or if it is just me.

After sneaking downstairs for a cup of tea, encountering no one, I retreat to my room and sit at my window seat. The Jenkins’ boys, Dai and Mick, are already up and working, loading bales onto a cart. Their shire stands patiently, strapped to it. I do not see their father. It was Dai who explained to me that it was because of farming that they had avoided conscription, although upon seeing his puzzled expression, I’d had to supply the word he sought for him. It bothered him that their friends and cousins were away fighting without them. I laughed when he told me that they had been fierce opponents in the schoolyard and on the “rygbi” pitches: “The world is in the safest hands, it is. Won’t know what hit ‘em when the guards get at ‘em, they won’t.”

Even though they are older than I, both of the boys are so boyish. Perhaps that’s why they’re only ever referred to as “the boyos”; sometimes “the no-good boyos” by their mother. The men back at home are already men before they finish their schooling. I sometimes wonder if these two have had education, other than in the fields. With no propensity towards garnering approval, no false impression given of being anything other than they are, they are simply themselves. I decide that I will go out and see them. I feel that it will lighten my melancholy.

‘Alright, are ya, girl?’ Mick says, leaning an arm against the side of the cart with a puff of the cheeks.

‘Alright, girl, are ya?’ Dai says, standing with his hands on his hips. Already, with the day barely begun, both of them are filthy dirty and perspiring heavily. I cannot help but smile, as they both are. The whites of their eyes are as pale innocent as an infant’s. Their skin as golden as statues of Buddha. Both of them have the same dirty-blonde hair, unkempt, most likely chopped by either kitchen scissors or maybe even garden shears.

‘Where to ya go?’ Dai asks, picking a piece of straw from his hair and staring at it. He pops it into his mouth and begins to suck upon it.

‘I just thought that I’d come and wander in the field,’ I reply. ‘I thought that it would be rude to not say good morning while I’m here.’

‘Mind for ticks out here,’ says Mick, now leaning his back on the cart, one foot up. ‘Little buggers, they are.’

‘You’ll be alright, girl,’ says Dai, the straw waggling in his lips. ‘Covered head to toe like that, like.’

I cover my stomach with my hands, suddenly self-conscious. Here are these men of the earth, and here I am, dressed like a lady at a church fete. Again I wish that I was able to join in with them, wearing work garments rather than a shapeless dress; to feel limitless freedom rather than be a hen to a coop; to have skin such as theirs, rather than vein-lined paleness. I know that Neville would disapprove of the sun that my face has taken.

‘Do you think it will rain?’ I ask, looking at the sky, changing the direction of conversation. The wind has taken a turn, even since my time out here.

‘Can’t say if it will,’ Mick says. ‘Not ‘til it does.’

‘It might now after, though,’ Dai adds. ‘There are clouds about.’ To stifle laughter, I put a hand to my lips. They look so serious, both of them peering up at the sky, front teeth exposed and foreheads wrinkling. ‘Won’t stop us though, it won’t.’

‘Reckon the sun’s up there somewhere,’ Mick says. ‘Was about yesterday, that’s for sure.’

‘Course it’s up there,’ Dai says. ‘Wouldn’t be day if it weren’t.’

‘You know what I mean, like,’ Mick says, frowning.

‘Just playing, lad,’ Dai replies. He looks at me, eyes full of wicked glee. The child moves inside me. I can’t tell if they notice me wince. ‘Mick’s a sensitive one, he is.’

‘And you’re a cheeky bugger,’ Mick says. Dai sticks his fingers up at Mick. Mick looks triumphant.

‘Say, has da been at you again?’ Dai asks, his face turned to simple concern. I think that I see a trace of anger. ‘Has he?’

‘No no,’ I say. I look around me, to make sure that Mal Jenkins is not with us. While I am facing that way, I check to see if anyone else is arriving down the drive. When I turn back, they are both staring at me. I notice that Dai is eyeing my stomach. Mick has walked to the horse and is stroking it behind the ears. The horse shakes its head, I think appreciatively. Dai mouths You okay? I nod.

Mick turns around, one hand out. ‘Say, you want to have a ride in the cart, rather than to walk?’

I chuckle. ‘I, uh –’

‘How can she?’ Dai says, crossing his arms. I see his muscles, so defined, troubling the stitching of his shirt; the veins standing out as if to burst. ‘You don’t want to . . . you know, the babi.’

‘What do you mean, is it? Make the babi come, like.’

‘Aye. There’s a word,’ Dai says. ‘I’ve heard it.’

‘Induce,’ I say.

‘Eh?’ they both enquire.

‘Never mind,’ I say. ‘I’d love to take a ride in the cart.’ I walk to the horse and stroke its snout, looking into its big dark eye, the long lashes blinking. ‘You’ll keep me safe, won’t you?’ I ask the shire. The truth is that I hope that the ride will induce the baby. I want it gone.

4

The rain did come, but the baby didn’t. With no opportunity to spend the day outside, I take a book from the standing case in upper landing and go to my room. The book is sitting on the table. I stare at the rain. True to their word, I see the boys still working, farther into the field. I don’t see their “da” Mal Jenkins. When Mal is not working, he is in the town at the livestock markets. When there is not a livestock market, he spends his day in the pub. When he is here I keep out of his way.

When first I arrived here, immediately I received the impression that Mal did not want to have the girls around. Girls who have been sent here for safety from the war. When first we met, being naturally timorous, my characteristic heightened by finding myself away from all that I know, my face turned to the floor. When I looked up a moment later he was gone. I heard him muttering as he disappeared.

The next time that I saw Mal up close, not just from my position in the window, I was sitting on the tree stump near to the kitchen door. On my knees I had a plate with homemade chutney, cheese and Mrs Jenkins’ rye bread. I had not heard him walking from the driveway, towards the barns behind me.

‘’Ope you’re ‘njoyin’ your free lunch, cyfoethog merch.’ Before I could look up, he was already past me. Alone, I watched as he walked towards the barn. He is a stout man. His arms protrude from an uncomfortable-looking angle, unable to straighten because of his size and broad shoulders, as a knight in armour. The way he moves is to lean weight from side to side and only briefly forward, most flat-footed. He does not move fast, but he most certainly is powerful.

I did not know what the Welsh words were that he spoke. By his tone he made his grievance clear enough. There were not any more meetings, nor words exchanged for the next week after. At that time I was not watching the driveway for arrivals at the farm. From that point on I avoided lingering around the farmhouse, or any access way to the fields and barns. I found my woodland sanctuary.

I pick up the book from the table, look at the cover. It is one I have already read that tells of a woman, materialistic yet free spirited, who is married to one man but loves another untrustworthy, feckless, but vibrant character. It is long, so shall pass time. Yet as I begin, I can feel the presence of my father’s letter in the room. I try again to read, but cannot focus my concentration on the pages. Perhaps it is the “babi brain” that Mrs Jenkins spoke of. Usually so absorbed in books, am I, that it is the real world that loses focus. Not of late.

Setting the book on the table, I do not go to the letter. Instead I look out through the window. The rain continues. I see that Mal is now out with the boys, bulling about. Except for the loose fit of his size, he does appear quite like the boys. Unlike my father, whose thin hair sweeps in strands over his pate, Mal has the same thick, wild hair and sun-darkened skin. Also like the boys, he is taller than most men. Yet from this distance only the boys conjoining might match his bulk. I watch as he easily picks up a bale and drops it into the cart as if it were made from feathers.

I think of that third time my path crossed with Mal Jenkins. It was the middle of the night; I was thirsty. The house was dark as I made my way barefoot down the stair. Such was the early hour, I expected to encounter no one. I needed no candle; the light from the moon through windows guided my way. Because of the age of the farmhouse, it emits noises all through the night, wind through windows and the escape of stored heat from wood. In the day these sounds are not so distinct. As I trod, each step came with a long creak; as I released my step the floorboards whined. The door to the kitchen squeaked, slow as I pushed it. It was darker in the kitchen, little natural light. And then a figure, larger than a worst fear, was upon me.

His hands were strong on my slender I arms; I thought that they would snap. I was picked up and twirled into the room. Air escaped me as he thumped me onto the kitchen table. Although I was sitting, he continued holding me. Rattling me around.

‘What you doing in here at hours, cyfoethog merch? Eh? Thieving? What you doing in the dark?’

I had been wondering the same of him. It was hours yet to first light. ‘Water,’ I replied.

‘What?’ he growled.

‘I needed water?’ I said as a question. ‘I can go. I’ll go.’

I cannot recall if I shrieked when I first entered the kitchen, so shocked was I. If anyone was aware of this encounter, it was never spoken of. At least, not with me. I do not know for sure that it was due to the lack of light that his hands travelled where they did as he wrestled me through the room. I was pleased for the darkness, as I wore only my nightgown – I did not think there was a need to wear my robe. In my room I was still shaking as I raised the glass of water to my mouth. The glass hit my front teeth. Pain shot through the nerves, into my cheeks. Water was on my chin and down my front. To that day, it was the most sordid experience of my life. As Janet speculated, I was not with child at that time.

5

I have heard tell that the bombing ceased some time ago; I arrived here before it had commenced but have read of the horrors; the desolation; of the doughty spirits of the people. In my letters I hear that the war is nearly finished. It should give me hope. It only fills me with that same selfish fear. On my first night at the farm I was desperate to return home. I could not stop thinking of the girl in the picture that I once watched with Neville at the Carlton. Of the tornado that tears the girl from her existence. I do not want to be here, but know that I cannot leave.

After my late-night encounter in the farm kitchen, I knew that I would not sleep. Perhaps Janet is correct: that my world of worry has etched itself indelibly on my features. My head so often feels light, weightless, as if filled with toxic gasses. I hope that, through the quiet house, no one can hear my sobbing. I know that the sound travels, as I, too, hear other girls crying and speaking with themselves in the night. The glass of water is empty, my throat still dry. The glass sits on the bedside table, next to my father’s still-unopened letter. I pick it up.

The paper of the envelope is rich, made by my father’s company. I look at the elegant slant of his hand. I picture him writing by candlelight, the soft glow highlighting his silver whiskers. His face serious. I find it hard to recall my father’s smile, as if he only keeps his whiskers to maintain a façade of sobriety, to obscure animation. I think of that form when he ordered me to leave home and come to the safety of the countryside.

I slide a finger beneath the seal and withdraw the envelope. I empty myself of air before I read.

   My dearest Marie,

 I apologise for not corresponding with you of late. I regret to inform you that the plant was hit during the last waves of the invasion. The consequences of this has consumed my attentions. With the building in ruins, I am fighting the insurance company, who claim that “Acts of War” do not cover the policy. This distraction will further delay your return home, I am sorry to say. Be grateful that this shall postpone your witnessing of the great destruction that we live in. All will improve before your return, of this I am certain.

Be sure that you make the most of the clean Shropshire air. You will crave it when you one day return. I hope to next be able to write of a more positive tone. When my the complications of my business are resolved, I shall come to collect you. This shan’t be long, my daughter.

 Sincerely

Father

I look to the curtains, expecting them to light by a coming vehicle. In my isolation, it has become my obsession. I watch for father’s arrival, even though I know that he is not a man who would surprise without prior arrangement. He says that he shall come to collect me; my mind tells me that I will be sent for. Even so, when I watch the driveway, every visitor is him, whether postal van or purchaser of produce. He will arrive and find me in my current condition.

I look again at the opening of father’s letter. My dearest Marie . . . So similar to Neville’s words. Two stoic men offering the best of their affections. I know that they both wish the best upon me, of that I have never been in doubt. I think always of poor mother. I think of a life when to smile is a hardship, not a naturally given grace. I think of a nation looking towards a brighter future, anticipating the end of the hardest of times. I cannot share their vision. For the burden of my internal conflict I can see no end.

6

It is assumed by all that I am now past the end of my term. Mathematically they would be correct by their assumption. To the others, I arrived here already expectant. By my own calculations I am far from ready for delivery. I had long known that the questions of conception would arrive once the impossibility of passing a full-term by such a distance arose. So far as I know, there is only one other who knows the truth of my situation.

In the kitchen, as I enter Mrs Jenkins’ back is to me, preparing turnip soup. Steam from the pot clouds through the open window above the hob. The fruity smell turns my stomach. It is the slow squeak of the door that makes Mrs Jenkins aware of my presence. I find that I am always cautious when entering the kitchen.

‘Look at you today,’ she says, smiling as she approaches and takes my hands in her damp, rough ones. ‘Just look at you. As beautiful as I’ve ever seen a girl, you are. Pregnancy doesn’t suit every girl. You it does.’ Her height reaches to my nose. I find that I smile easily at her. I think of her boys, tall and built. From this little woman. With her buxom body and easy demeanour, Mrs Jenkins is as content as I’ve seen a woman. She adjusts the shawl around my shoulders and then rubs my stomach. ‘Can you here me in there, little one, can you? Mummy needs you to come out, just as soon as you’re ready, okay?’

I had come intentionally, hoping to find Mrs Jenkins alone in the kitchen. Other than the great pain, I know little of the processes of birth. It is not solely that I wish to talk with her about. Yet as I am about to open myself to her, the water from the large pot on the stove bubbles over, sizzling on the hob.

‘Can’t take your eye off it for a second, you can’t,’ she says, waddling over to the hob. ‘Never boils when you watch it, and then soon as you turn your back it goes volcanic, it does.’ I watch her, from where I stand, lower the flat edge of a wooden spoon into the stock. ‘Old trick I learned this,’ she says, with her other hand flapping a tea towel at the massing steam.

Mrs Jenkins continues to talk. As she does, I feel a sudden torrent of wetness cover my stockinged legs and slippers. Looking down, I am standing in a puddle. Drips continue to paddle the pool. Someone was listening to her words. I look slowly up. Mal Jenkins passes by the window, his eyes fixed on wherever he leads. I watch the kitchen door. Hoping. His shadow passes farther along.

Mrs Jenkins is still talking. ‘ . . . should fix it,’ she says. And then she turns around. ‘It’ll be ready in about ten minutes, so we can –’ I notice that my head is shaking from side to side without control. I feel my lips turn down. The shake of my head increases. Mrs Jenkins looks from my feet to my face. Our eyes meet. A fleeting blackness washes over my eyes. And then again, a moment later. It feels as though the gasses in my head are escaping. The last thing I recall seeing is Mrs Jenkins rushing towards me, arms reaching out.

7

I awaken to the sweet motherly tone of Mrs Jenkins’ accent. ‘There, there, sweet girl.’ A damp cloth is being padded onto my forehead. I can feel warm wetness beneath me. I feel eased from some of my pressure. ‘Here.’ Mrs Jenkins lifts my head, proffering a glass of water to my mouth. It wets my lips, but I drink little. I try to sit up. Like each morning, the terrible weight means that I cannot do so comfortably. With her hand still cradling my hair, Mrs Jenkins helps lower my head back down to the cold tile floor.

‘The baby,’ I say, sudden panic. ‘It’s coming.’ I clasp Mrs Jenkins hand. ‘The baby’s coming.’

She continues to pat the cloth against my forehead. I can smell the awful scent of turnips. The floor is cold. ‘It’s going to be a while before the baby’s here,’ she says. Her eyes have a dreamy luminescence within them. I do not look away. ‘Just you take a moment and then we’ll get you up to your room.’ She tenders me another sip of water.

I look around the room. My eyes settle on the door that leads to the fields. ‘I’d like to go now,’ I say.

Mrs Jenkins eases me through the kitchen door and into the hallway. One of the other girls, youthful and plain, is standing in the doorway to the front reception room. She is pale; her hair half-covering her face. I see terror in her eyes as we look at each other. A look that lingers long. One hand travels to her mouth; the other moves to her swollen abdomen. She is dressed just as I am.

I ascend the stair with both feet coming to rest on each step before I advance. Mrs Jenkins supports the base of my back with one strong hand. I notice that the stair does not seem to have the same creak by day. I approach the bedroom that is mine with trepidation. It feels as though it is to be my final room.

With much care, I lay down on the bed, which Mrs Jenkins quickly strips of over-covers. She leaves me for a moment, returns with a pile of towels and another glass of water. I quickly slip the letter from my father behind a pillow.

‘Just settle down now,’ she says. She is smoothing my hair back from my forehead. ‘You’re breathing too quick. Follow me, like this.’ Focused on the centre of a flower in a picture hanging on the wall, I copy the slow intake and exhalation. It clears my mind. I think of what must be done.

Wandering thoughts prevail. Panic overrides me again. ‘It’s too soon,’ I say. ‘This isn’t meant to happen now. That’s why I –’

‘Just relax,’ she replies. Even though I can think of no voice in the world so suited to soothing, it is hard to. ‘If the child has decided, it’s time.’

I think to contest, but hold my thoughts. A pain shoots through me, one that I do not wish to describe. I grit my teeth, growl within. I do not realise that I am holding Mrs Jenkins’ hand until I have squashed all of her fingers into a tight ball. ‘S-sorry,’ I manage. Yet I do not release my hold.

‘It’s okay, dear. I’m made of tough stuff, y’know.’ She pats her other hand upon mine. She places the cloth over my forehead. ‘I’m just going to rest this here a while.’

A long moment of serenity passes over me as the pain abates. It is only then that I consciously realise that I am still following the rhythmic pulse of Mrs Jenkins breathing. I stare into the flower. I feel my heartbeat. And another faint but strong echo of one on an offbeat.

8

I mostly sit outside by the pond to nurse Kieron. I cannot help myself, I watch the driveway. The comings and goings. To have company pleases me. Kieron will not remember the brief time that we have spent together. It was by pre-arrangement that he would stay. It was always to be that way. We have bonded, to a touch. Although he will not remember, I will not forget.

Kieron was to be adopted by a chosen family. I did not want to know who; I did not wish to meet with them. I only hoped that they would be good, kind people. I was foolish in believing that just because I did not wish to meet with them meant that they didn’t want to know who the mother of their newborn was; had been. Perhaps, before this final day, it was the same fate that had so embroiled my life that intervened once more.

The young couple who were to adopt Kieron had separated. I do not know why they parted company, but I do know why Kieron was not meant to be theirs. The part of me that had forgotten how to pray for hope reunited. I went to Mrs Jenkins and spoke of what I had hoped to propose to her in the kitchen on the morning that Kieron arrived.

‘Here he is,’ she said, coming to us and stroking his little red cheek. ‘What a handsome little babi you are, eh? And your smell . . . oh! I could make cheese out of you and eat you all up. Nom nom nom nom nom.’ She nuzzles into his neck. Kieron reaches out his hand and touches Mrs Jenkins on the nose. He cannot take his eyes from her. I smell the earthy, natural smell of her. Strangely sweeter than any perfume. It suits her well.

She looks up at me. ‘Why the tears, lovey? What’s wrong?’ Pulling the tea towel from her shoulder, she dabs beneath my eyes. ‘I’m sorry, I am. I know how tough it can be for any young woman to have to separate from her babi. Make the most of the time you have together, without tears.’

‘It’s not that,’ I reply. ‘I am at peace with that decision, truly.’ I look down at Kieron. He had not stopped looking at Mrs Jenkins. His little pink tongue slipping in and out from between his lips, tiny bubbles of milky liquid at the sides of his mouth. I wipe them away with his blanket and put him to my shoulder, turning slightly so that he can continuing looking at Mrs Jenkins.

‘You heard about the Thomas couple?’

‘I did,’ she replies. ‘I’m sorry. There’ll be someone else waiting, dear thing. You’ll hear soon enough, like.’

‘I . . .’ I jiggle Kieron. My hand joins with Mrs Jenkins’ in steadying his head. ‘I think that Kieron has chosen someone else for himself.’

This last morning has lasted long. It always shall until you look back and realise how quickly it has all passed. ‘You’re to think of me when you come and sit out here, Kieron. Remember that.’ His eyes are huge, looking up at me. Closing his eyes, he wriggles around, showing his bare gums, mewling, and going a little red in the face. I adjust him on my lap. Putting my lips to his forehead, I kiss him. I gently place my thumb where my lips had been. ‘I’ll understand if you don’t want to. Just if you do.’

I look again at the driveway. It won’t be long now. My father has written recently. The day has arrived when he will collect me. It is the strangest of emotions that I have ever felt. My heart breaks each time I think of leaving Kieron, yet I think of the beautiful simplicity of the life that Mrs Jenkins will encourage from him. For myself, returning to a destroyed land; one of formality and strict order. Neville is to return any day. I do not know if I will still recognise him as the same man; he has drifted so far from thoughts, mine carried so far from him.

Yet it would be to deceive myself to convince my mind that my time here on the farm has not burdened me. Even out here in the fresh air I have felt the greatest of sadness. There has been a knot in my chest that is only just now beginning to ease, knowing that it is all coming to an end. I am finally able to breathe again. And I know, deep within me, that it is because it all must be.

I have left my cases outside the front the door. I go one last time to look in on Kieron. He is asleep in Mrs Jenkins’ arms. A geyser of overwhelming sadness interfused with hitherto unknown contentment rises within me. I lean my head against the doorframe and watch them. Mrs Jenkins is singing a Welsh song down to him, I think the most beautiful song that I have ever heard. She does not look up.

After looking at the clock on the wall above the pantry, I walk out through the kitchen door for the final time. I do not have long. I know that I must speak with him before I leave.

I walk directly towards the barns. The doors are open. I walk in. The sun lights through splits in the timber, onto piled bales of hay. Mites weave through the bars of daylight. It smells dusty, a smell that I have come to love. So natural; so different from the stuck air at home.

Nerves cramp my stomach, even though there is no one here. Or perhaps they are not nerves, as such. I look towards the corner where he took me. It is just the corner of a barn. I suppose that one day I might wonder if it ever did happen. Like all of my time here. A voice speaks from behind me.

‘Marie.’

In the doorway. A silhouette, tall, black against the light. One strong arm leans against the frame. Mites dance through my heavy breaths.

‘Alright, are ya?’ He laughs. And then he runs to me, lifts me in the air, spins me around. Above him, my hands are on his shoulders. I smell the dry sweat on his body. Dirt shakes from his tousled hair. He stops. My head is above his. My smile easy. Free. ‘Got my boot stuck in a sett, I did,’ he says, lifting his foot outward. ‘S’why I’ve only got one boot on, see? Slowed me getting here, it did.’

Laughing into him, I kiss him. He begins to bounce me up and down. ‘Let me down,’ I say. He squeezes me. I am so helpless in his arms. ‘Please.’ It feels a long way down as he places me on the floor. I fall into his chest. I take a moment to breathe him in, one more time. ‘Dai, I’m going now,’ I say. ‘Father is coming to fetch me soon.’ His hands are upon my back, smoothing against my dress.

‘I’ve enjoyed having you here, I have,’ he says. I do not reply. We stay that way for what feels like a long while. ‘Gives me a break from the cows, and that.’ I thump his chest. He puts his mouth to the top of my head, his arms still around me. Mine barely cross around his back. ‘I’ve never met anyone like you,’ he mutters into my hair.

‘And you’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met,’ I reply. ‘You have no pomposity at all, in your person. No hubris of character.’

‘If you knew what were saying, I might say thank you.’ Vibrating into my hair, the laughter that he brings me makes it easier not to cry. It has always been this way for my short time with him. I don’t want to leave him, but know that I must. I push myself from his grip.

Looking into his eyes: ‘Your mother has our son now. I see how much she’ll love him, and that will keep me happy.’ He nods. ‘One day you might want to tell him that you are his father. You’ll help your mother in helping him to grow.’ I put a hand on Dai’s chest. I can feel his heart, so simple, such purity. ‘You must promise me one thing.’

He frowns. ‘You’ve got to say what it is if I’m going to promise it. Never have made promise like that, not to no one.’

‘Promise that you’ll help him to grow just like you. Just allow Kieron to always be himself.’

Stooping, his hair brushing against my forehead, he kisses me. ‘Promise,’ he says. We embrace for one long, last time. I tell him again that I must go. Now he stands in the middle of the barn as I walk backward towards the light. Standing on the shards of filtering light, he lifts one hand. I slowly unfurl mine.

‘Kieron,’ he says before I reach the doorway. ‘You said that you were going to tell me why you called our boy Kieron.’

‘It means “Beam of light,”’ I call, clutching my hand to my breast. ‘I named him after you. For what you have meant to my life.’ I step backwards, out into the day.

2 thoughts on “To Breathe Again

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