The engine judders in its cage, like swelling fit to burst and then tunes out. Silence. Then thrumming back to life, purring and snoring like a giant cat behind us.
“Cloud cover”. Jake says, points to that dark bank of greyness shifting. Rising. He mutters something I don’t hear, I catch the end of curses. “Something’s rattling wrong.” I say to Jake. He turns toward me slowly. “I know. Is it coming from behind, or up in front?” And I don’t answer. Only look him eye to eye, like that. Control lights dim and flare. I listen.
“I can’t hear it now.”
Jake turns away and sighs. And now we’re watching the last of sky light stubbed out. The rattling of the Lancaster, rough clank of metal against metal. I unzip the sky, like that.
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I have to brace myself. There is another crack developing, running down the centre of our living room, first like a thin seam and then all the edges of it casting out. The shadow of the door, just like the door grows. I breathe my fag-smoke at it ‘til the dark space seems to rise up. Else only swaggers through it, ticking, leaning softly, oddly. Then flicks her tail-tip, leftward. Darts. In the direction of smoke, like it points the way. Her tiny sign. Out, around and in, she goes. The other side of Evie. And hides behind her. And then curling round her leg. “Bloody cat.” Says Rob.
“A watched door never knocks.”
Eve can’t raise a smile, she tries and fails at it. And in a bit I fail at it as well. Clock ticking and gets louder and smoke rising up. A burning in my throat.
“Your bloody fag.” She says. “Your bloody fag.” She sours her lip at me, “You blow it at the cat, Frank.” And wipes one sleeve across her face and turns. To face the mantle shelf, the photo of the son we wait for. In uniform and standing to attention.
And then the simple way the one thing changes to another as the hand turns, “Won’t turn backwards any,” I say. “Tock tick.” And I look Eve eye to eye. Her face filling up with something cold and slow and obscene then she looks away (Joe is ten weeks late home, I’ve never seen his mother so angry). Door grows and quiet ticking. I see Our Rob drawing his coat on. Slow, like a man acts in a dream. Or puts his coat on for the first time in his life. “And you can take that off. Right now.” She barks at him. “You’ll wait for your brother.”
There is a knock, a rattling. He didn’t fight the squeaky gate, Our Joe. We didn’t hear his feet slide in the gravel. Eve, startled, fumbles with the front door, hands not working, “Frank …” she gasps. Then frees the catch, scraping her fingers on it. Stumbles on the door jamb, yanks the door that hard and fast into her chest.
“A special tea for your homecoming.” I say. Move aside and let Joe past. Watch him go hand to hand with his brother, who was sloping in the inner doorway. They go hand to hand again, then hand to shoulder then a brief, breathtaking hug. Rob’s slapping at his back, wiping his eyes. And now Joe’s looking at his father over Robbie’s shoulder, Rob pulls him off his feet and lurching right, Joe putting out a hand, his dad breaks his fall. Only Joe’s shoulder hits the mantelpiece, slow stumble, and Rob is laughing, ruffling up Joe’s hair. Joe rubs the shoulder which appears to pain him now.
“Stop bein’ a puppy, Rob.” I say. “You great big oaf.”
“Get us some tea, Eve.” Frank says.
He means so ‘the men’ can talk. But there’s a thing in me was folded, put away, and it uncoils. It’s glistening, sliding … Something happens, “I don’t take orders.” I say, stiffly, to our Frank. “I don’t take orders. From you.” And Frank’s eyebrows rise, like that. Two black hinges creaking skyward. Then the dark eyed challenge in our Rob, the lightest thing: “Please, Mum.” All the soft lashes framing his iris-less eyes and Rob evaporating me like this, the way your youngest does. And then grins, knowing it. But I go on, “Don’t you have a bag, Our Joe?” And look for it until it dawns on me what Frank and Robbie must’ve seen already,
“Oh God, Joe, aren’t you even staying?” And watch Joe’s eyes go cavernous, like that, two candles burned down to the wick and guttering out and hold my arms toward Joe, hold myself for him, knew it before him that he wouldn’t … that he couldn’t hug me … “Joe … Joseph. You are home now, Son.” His face falls. I lock eyes with Frank, then it’s me that makes a dash for the kitchen with Rob’s “Muuummmm…” and with Frank’s “Evieeeeee…” trailing after me.
“Leads with her bloody chin every time, that woman does,” Frank says to our sons.
“And I can hear you.” I say. “I can hear everything you say, Frank.”
I will get a hold of myself in the kitchen. I’ll think about Joe’s boyish face when he was waving me goodbye. Smart uniform, shiny buttons. Soft chin of still-youth, round freckled nose. Not this stooping man I struggled to recognise for the first full seconds. Strained taut about the mouth, listless eyes, low-lidded like an alligator’s. Same face but some kind of structural rearrangement to him. It’s like sewing. And you take a little tuck, a tiny one but right there, then you stand and, fabric falling from you, it’s another dress. It’s another son.
They said, “Bombs. Your boy’s a bomber then, Eve?”
I drew myself to my full height, I said, “It’s very precise. These days. It’s all precision.”
The milk for the Welcome Home Tea curdles quietly. Something rising softly to the top.