by Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon
The telegram came one cold Friday in September, and within minutes Stella knocked on the door of my Ladies’ Boarding House.
‘Rachel,’ she said. ‘Wor lad. He’s missing. Missing in action.’
‘My poor hinny,’ I said.
She collapsed into my arms, where she belonged. We knew each other inside out, solid together since her husband enlisted.
‘How’ll I tell Ethel and James? How’ll I cope by missen?’
‘Ye ken I’ve no ties, Stella. Nae bairns, nor man. Say the word, and I’ll come and stay at yours.’
‘What’d the nebby folk say? Me, a widow, keeping house with a lass who’s not kith,’ she said.
‘Easy. I’ll cut my hair, don men’s clothes, cast as your brother down from the Scottish Borders? None’ll know me as female.’
As I spoke, I conjured my work as herring girl across town, down the Fish Quays. Trousers at home, skirts at work. How not to be caught?
Days cyem an’ went, and after All Hallows I moved in with Stella. It shames me to say, at a time when so many suffered, we were reet myed up to be together. I changed me kecks behind the Shields Ferry buildings before each stint and back again at night. My plan worked well.
Ethel and James took me as family, called me Uncle Ray and did n’ae question why their Ma’s marra, Rachel, had disappeared. In time they told me of the beatings; they said they were glad their father had gone.
Today’s, a fine spring morning, the children have left for school and there’s a braying at the door. I go to open it. There he stands, grim and grey.
‘Back from the dead, lad?’ I say.
In my trouser pocket, my hand clutches the blade of my filleting knife so hard, it makes my fingers bleed.
Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and writes short stories and poetry. She has been published in on line magazines and in print anthologies. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in December 2017. She believes everyone’s voice counts.
Find Ceinwen on Twitter @CeinwenHaydon.
Image detail from Flora Lion’s painting of the Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford (1918), courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © Art.IWM ART 4434
Audio version voiced by Amy Swan; sound recording by Joe Haydon.