Half Past Two
by Genevieve Allen
The wallpaper was growing increasingly difficult to ignore. That morning, Lyle had felt the same vague distaste for its sugary green and twee mauve flowers that he always had. Then he’d read the paper, and found himself unable to think of anything else. By lunchtime, the buds and blousy petals had seemed disappointed, smug, as though mumbling, “We told you this would end in tears.” By half past two, the sight of the sickly wallpaper picked out by Sam had driven him from the house.
The street outside was dreary in its emptiness. He couldn’t recall seeing it crowded since the local lads had left to a chorus of cheers, waving and songs nobody had sung for over two decades. People had lined the pavements, all proud, smiling tears. Those like him, who remembered the last, were grey-faced: gloom amongst the bright, flecks of mould on white walls. Sam had been swept away smiling, the most vicious reminder of his youth that Lyle had ever been handed.
“Sorry about your pal Sam,” Mrs Carne accosted him near the green. “Papers can be wrong, though. He’ll turn up.”
Lyle nodded through her sympathies, trying to smother thoughts of Sam mowing the grass, smoking in the bath, of eating his ruddy morning Cornflakes. The weight beside him at sunrise.
When she finally relented, he walked on with false purpose, squinting against drizzle that swept under his hat. Past hastily dug vegetable beds and despondent children playing at the park’s muddied fringes, to the prickly, winter-hostile ground that ran alongside the railway tracks. He tripped along dank, foxy-smelling hedgerows, ferns stippling his legs, flashes of russet with each furious, watery blink. He ducked under branches of sickly-looking larches, pale with frothing lichen, spectral in the mist.
Missing. Where does someone go when they’re missing? They’re always somewhere, dead or alive, they are still somewhere. He was aware, having made it home from Amiens and living to natter about it, that it was illogical to expect those in charge to know the whereabouts of every soldier who’d signed his name. But what use was logic?
The earth stilled, waiting to fall away, swallow him up. Fill his mouth with crumbling soil, in and in until the earth breathed with him, each breath a roll of green hills, rabbits, moles and mice, twitching whiskers and bounding forth with each exhale, roots of brambles, primrose, daffodil bulbs crawling deeper, reaching out to hold him until moss grew over his eyes and worms filled his belly, and sour blackberries went from red to purple over the ground where he’d disappeared. Missing.
The train rattled along the tracks, hot metal and soot, bringing with it the careful weekends he and Sam had travelled to Oxford, Dorset, the seafront at Brighton. The memory drew him back. Back to himself, back to grim afternoon rain. Back to Sam’s name listed “Missing” in the paper, to the voluminous dining room wallpaper that he’d never change because Sam had proclaimed it jolly.
Genevieve Allen studied at the University of Gloucestershire, where her work was published in the anthology Smoke, and adapted for the stage. Her writing has most recently appeared in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. She writes LGBTQ+ and historical fiction, and edits at Flash Fiction Magazine. Find her on Twitter @GenAllen52.
Wallpaper image by salomenj via depositphotos, ID 27947289.