Send Him Victorious
by Jude Higgins
I last saw my big brother Charlie laugh in 1937, the day after George VI’s coronation. He nearly wet himself when I asked him about a word in the National Anthem. Why were we supposed to send the King Victorias? They weren’t in season.
He biffed me with a pillow. ‘Nincompoop. It’s victorious.’ He spelled the word. ‘Like we’re going to be when we beat the Fascists.’
We were in his bedroom packing his bag. Ma wouldn’t come up. She still couldn’t believe he was sailing for Spain the next day to fight against Franco. But nothing she and Pa said could make him change his mind. Even Ma repeating he should be ashamed to waste his music scholarship.
I packed the socks she’d knitted for him, lanolin greasing her fingers as she crouched on the settee, clicking like a fury. She said they’d keep his feet dry and warm, but her tears had soaked through the thick wool more than once.
‘D’you think I should take my guitar, ’ Charlie said. It was leaning against the wall and he stroked the wood, as if it were his best girl. If he didn’t take it, I could have a go, like I’d always wanted to, but Charlie never went anywhere without his guitar.
I nodded. ‘It’ll keep you company.’
Charlie hugged me. ‘Good lad,’ he said. ‘It’s for our future I’m going. You know that, don’t you? Ma and Pa don’t understand. Look after them while I’m gone.’
I wasn’t sure I did understand or that I knew how to look after them, but it was me who suggested we go to the sea for the day like we always did in August. It was three months after Charlie left and we hadn’t heard a word.
At the seaside, we set up near the jetty to watch the pleasure boats come in. Ma and Pa sat in deck chairs, trying to catch some warmth from a weak sun. Me and my little sister Enid were after crabs, those transparent ones that look scarcely alive. When the last boat came in, Ma cried. She’d spotted a man in the stern playing the guitar and thought for a moment it was Charlie.
Ma’s crying set me off, and Enid. Dad went to fetch chips, but you could tell he was upset too. When he came back, his handkerchief hung out of his pocket.
Ma hugged me so tight I could scarcely breathe.
‘Don’t you ever go off like Charlie did,’ she said. I wished at that moment I were old enough to go after him, if only to persuade him to come back.
He never did return from Spain. And everyone forgot about the International Brigade when World War Two started. But now, when I go to the cinema and folk rise for the National Anthem, I remember Charlie laughing while he corrected me and I won’t stand to join in the singing.
Jude Higgins’ début flash fiction pamphlet The Chemist’s House was published in June 2017 and she has been published in the New Flash Fiction Review, Flash Frontier, The Nottingham Review and National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies, among other places. She organises the Bath Flash Fiction Award and directs the Flash Fiction Festivals UK. Find her on Twitter at @judehwriter and online at judehiggins.com.
Image: ‘A Landsturm Duet’, Bain News Service, 1914. Title from data provided by the Bain News Service on the negative. Photograph shows men playing stringed instruments by the railroad tracks during World War I. Part of the George Grantham Bain Collection, US Library of Congress. Reproduction number LC-DIG-ggbain-17971.
A version of ‘Send Him Victorious’ was first published at Visual Verse in November 2016.