My latest short story – Homeward Bound. A little different from the last story I posted. This one was written in relation to the prompt: ‘Despite all the obstacles Jerry saw before him, he just knew he had to get home for Christmas.’ I kinda fudged the Christmas part, but I think it was worth it. Let me know in the comments if you agree or not.
As ever, if you prefer to read offline you can download a pdf copy of the story here Homeward Bound – Paul Blake
Armistice was a long time ago.
Jerry Evans thought back to his joy at the news of war being finally over, so many months ago. He’d finally be able to go home to his dear Margaret. It had been so long. He’d volunteered for Kitchener’s Army back in ’15, much to Margaret’s protestations. She’d said she’d kill herself if he volunteered. But he did, and she didn’t. He had tried to explain his reason, his moral duty as a man and for his king and country, and kept quiet his true reason, leaving the tiny village of Herbrandston in the bottom corner of Wales and seeing the world and the sense of adventure signing up gave him. Margaret wouldn’t have appreciated that information.
Jerry and the rest of the 40th had been in France since June 1916 and they were sick of it. Having spent all their time at the Western Front, in the trenches, the mud, the rats, and the dead, they just wanted to go home. They were being held at Étaples, on the French coast as they waited for their turn to board the ships back home. Others spent their time writing letters and reading the ones from home. Jerry had told Margaret, before he left, not to send any as they’d only make him miss her more. She’d obeyed his request. His mother and father died of polio when he was in his teens so Jerry never had any post. The daily training drills and inter-division football matches did little to alleviate the boredom and longing. They’d done their duty. They wanted their hero’s welcome. They’d seen the first men to be released from service deemed be those who held jobs in ‘key’ branches of industry, the miners and farmers, then, of course, were the bankers and the civil servants. That was galling for the 40th, and the other divisions, as these men were invariably those who had been called up in the latter stages of the war, it meant that men with the longest service records were generally the last to be demobilised. Thankfully, Churchill, God bless him, came in as War Secretary in January 1919 and introduced a fairer demobilisation scheme. Jerry, a butcher by trade, and therefore unimportant in terms of key industry, found hope in the new scheme. Still, it wasn’t until June that Jerry received his wish. He’d be sailing home.
That night, he lay awake in his bunk as his fellow soldiers slept, and in many cases, screamed in their sleep at the nightmares they’d faced returned in their dreams. Friends tore apart, people they’d killed, the whistle of the shells as they fell and the tremors caused by their landing, drowning in the mud of the trenches, oh God the mud! Jerry thought of Margaret, and their future together in the sleepy village. Adventure be damned. Jerry just wanted peace in his girl’s arms. He could still remember the perfume she wore, Roger & Gallet’s Bouquet Nouveau. He’d bought it for her the Christmas before he’d been sent to Aldershot for recruit training. Saving up his wages all year had been worth it to see her smile and to smell it as they fumbled together in her farmer father’s barn that Christmas night. A month later, his adventure began and he said goodbye to her and home.
The next morning, Jerry boarded the ship to take him home. It was a typical June day, overcast with a threat of rain. He stood on deck, watching the bow cut through the choppy water. The occasional spray breached the front and engulfed him but he didn’t care. He could see England. The saltwater joined the salty tears of joy that ran down his face. He’ll soon see his Margaret. Three years of hell forgotten. This’ll be better than Christmas.
The ship entered Southampton dock. Jerry had been joined by the rest of the soldiers returning home, well at least the ones that could still walk. Where were the crowds of cheering people? They were supposed to be lining the piers. Where was their hero’s welcome? Jerry had seen the pictures in The Telegraph. Great crowds waving. All there was were a few dockers ready to moor the lines. The ship shuddered to rest against the concrete banks. The dockers did their jobs and laid out the gangplank. The soldiers disembarked and were marched to a nearby warehouse for the next stage of the demobilisation process.
Jerry watched as the other soldiers in the line before him handed over their dispersal certificate to the officers at a long table. The certificates recorded personal and military information and also the state of each soldier’s equipment at their time of leaving their unit. Each soldier was given the name of their Dispersal Station and told where to go to join up with others going to the same. The Dispersal Stations were the final step before returning home. The government had decided to ease the process and make it more efficient so that the men would travel together to the same centre under control of officers, still with their military clothes, arms, and personal effects to be processed. Jerry was given the Oswestry Dispersal Unit, which handled the majority of Welsh soldiers. He joined the others going there in makeshift barracks and waited for there to be a full trainload. It took three days for there to be enough. Three days of sitting, waiting, sleeping. He recognised others from his basic training all those years ago and exchanged stories about the intervening time, talked about mutual comrades and whether they knew their fate – either back at home or left on the muddy fields of France, talked about their time in the trenches and compared notes on their commanding officers, and talked about what the future held. Jerry spoke of his wish to get back to Margaret and even showed them the engagement ring he had picked up on his travel back through France. Many had had the same idea for their sweethearts.
Eventually, they got the call and marched to Southampton train station through the town. Citizens tipped their hats as they passed but that was the extent of their gratitude. Jerry buried the hurt inside by rationalising that the people of Southampton had probably seen thousands of returning soldiers over the past seven months so it had become commonplace. Perhaps Herbrandston would be different. He pictured Margaret running to him. Him dropping his bags and catching her. Spinning her around as they kissed.
They boarded the train. It was going to be a long ride. Eleven hours to Chester then a further hour, maybe an hour and a half bus ride to Oswestry. The soldiers were quiet on the train. Not wanting to risk being put on report by the officers travelling with them, delaying their return home. The journey took forever, and in between dozing, Jerry thought on his life to come. He wondered if he’d get his old job back at the butcher’s shop. There was rationing still in the country, so there would be far less meat available. Maybe he’d work for Margaret’s dad on the farm. He thought he’d be satisfied with that life. Routine and peace. Peace and routine. After what he’d been through it sounded perfect.
They made it to Chester after dark. The train took longer than planned due to a signalling foul-up at Lichfield. Buses weren’t running, so the men billeted in the station hall. Heads on packs and greatcoats as blankets. Screams from some of the men kept Jerry awake at night. He wondered if he put off sleeping to avoid his own dreams. The buses came for them in the morning, a bright warm day. They reached Oswestry Dispersal Station and were guided to their barracks, simple wooden huts with low slung cots for sleeping. This would be their final base before finally leaving the army and returning home.
Jerry stayed at Oswestry for two weeks as they processed the men. He was given an Out-of-work Donation Policy, which insured him against unemployment of up to twenty-six weeks in the twelve months following demob. He received, in addition, an advance of pay, a fortnight’s ration book. He was given the option to have either a clothing allowance of fifty-two shillings and sixpence or be provided with a suit of plain clothes. His final leave would begin the day after he was dispersed. While on final leave, he was still technically a soldier, although he could now go about in plain clothes. Legally he could not wear his uniform after twenty-eight days from dispersal.
Jerry left for Chester station, still in uniform and with his steel helmet and greatcoat. His destination was Milford, the closest station to Herbrandston. The sweltering heat of early July in the rickety train carriage as it followed the steel tracks was almost unbearable in his rough woollen uniform. He had some of the buttons on his tunic undone, but it didn’t seem to help. The train passed the Brecon Beacons and Jerry’s heart began to beat faster. He’d soon be home. He’d soon be with Margaret. The train passed Swansea, then Carmarthen, then finally to Milford. Jerry sorted out his uniform and gathered his belongings and stepped off the train.
Outside the train station, he stood at the bus stop, waiting. After an hour, an old dear walked up to him and told him he still had another three hours to wait for the next one. Most of the buses were being used to ferry returning soldiers to their various dispersal stations. Jerry decided to walk. It was a nice day, clouds occasionally blotted out the sun giving welcome relief, and he’d had enough of waiting. An hour’s walk would be worth it.
He walked towards home, past green fields and small cottages. Recognising insignificant landmarks that raised his spirits with each one, lengthening his stride, lightening his load, and straightening his back. Each step took him closer to home, and to Margaret. He walked down the lane to her father’s farm. The wheat and barley crops in the fields either side looked uncared for and sparse. In July, they should have been in full bloom, waiting for the coming harvest. He pushed open the wooden gate at the entrance to the farm. Chickens scurried around the yard pecking at the ground. The rough stone farmhouse was quiet. Jerry placed his belongings on the floor beside the wooden door and knocked loudly. There was no answer. He knocked again. Nothing. Again, louder. Nothing.
He heard laughter coming from behind the house. He followed the sound, past the hen houses, and goat pen. He came out into the back yard where the barn was. There was Margaret’s father, looking older than before. Much older. Grey hair and deep lines. He was holding a yellow sundress in one hand and chasing a young girl, possibly aged three or four, who was only wearing her petticoat, around and around.
“Come ‘ere and get this on. We have to go out,” he called after her, panting as he spoke.
“You’ll have to catch me, Grandpap,” the child laughed with glee.
“Noelle, get here now,” his voice raised.
Noelle continued running, and only stopped when she saw Jerry standing there, beside the backdoor.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Grandpap, there’s a man here.” She pointed at Jerry.
Margaret’s father stopped running and looked to where she was pointing.
“It looks that way,” Jerry smiled. “How have you been? How’s the farm?” Best to get in my future father-in-law’s good books.
“We’re getting by, Noelle and me. It’s been tough since…” he trailed off.
“Where’s Margaret? Isn’t she here to help you?”
“You didn’t hear? Oh, son, I’m so sorry.” He walked over to Jerry. “Margaret’s dead.”
Jerry’s knees buckled. His heart stopped. He fell to his knees. His Margaret? Tears ran down his face. Margaret’s father knelt down and put his arms around Jerry.
“It was sudden. A freak accident. Margaret was milking a cow when Noelle ran by. The cow startled and kicked out. Margaret was hit and banged her head on the side of the metal milking bucket. She died instantly. I’m so sorry. I thought you knew. I wrote you a letter.”
“I… didn’t get it. Oh my god.”
“Noelle, come here.”
The young girl walked over. “Who’s this grandpap?”
“This is Jerry, he knew your mum, he’s your father.”
“What?” Jerry said, still in a state of shellshock from Margaret’s death.
“Margaret named her Noelle. Saying you’d given her the greatest Christmas present.”
I hope you enjoyed this story, thank you for taking the time to read it.
Twenty-seven of my other short stories can be found in my short story collection A Few Hours After This on Amazon – mybook.to/FewHoursEbook.
Paul Blake, London 2019