The Chilbury Ladies' Choir(6)

By: Jennifer Ryan

Some of the papers say the war’s going to end soon, since there’s no fighting and the Nazis seem happy occupying Eastern Europe. But Daddy says it’s all nonsense, and the war is just beginning.

“The papers are written by fools.” He’s fond of picking up the offending newspaper and slamming it down on a table or desk. “Hitler’s taking his time in Poland, then he’ll turn his attention on us. Mark my words, the way this war’s going, France will fall before the end of the year. And then we’ll be next.”

“But it’s so quiet and normal,” I say. “My teacher is calling it the Phony War because nothing’s really happening. Half of the children evacuated from London have gone back already. He says our troops will be home by Christmas.”

“Your teacher is an imbecile who can’t see beyond his own four walls.” Daddy cut in angrily. “Look at Poland, Czechoslovakia, Finland. Look at all the ships sunk, the submarines, and our own Edmund.”

We had to end the conversation there as Mama started crying again.

My Brother Edmund’s Death

The next thing I need to tell you about is Edmund, my brother who was blown up in his submarine. We’re supposed to be in mourning, and I feel dreadful for saying this, but I don’t miss him at all. He was a disgusting bully, and I loathed him. I’ve never forgiven him for shutting me in the well, the freezing water edging up to my mouth until Nanny Godwin found me. Or for the time he used me as a target in archery practice. Although he did promise to teach me to drive when I was older, which I suppose was quite nice.

Mama is beside herself and desperate for the new baby to be a boy, as is Daddy. He thinks girls are pointless, Venetia slightly less so because of her yellow hair. I am so utterly pointless I think he’s forgotten I exist, except perhaps when he needs someone to blame. Sometimes I go to Mama to see if she can stop him from being so horrid, but she can’t do anything. She only tells me to make sure I choose a decent, kind sort of man to marry. I wonder if she’s terribly unhappy.

Every evening, Mama has the maid set Edmund’s place for dinner, as if he’s about to come in any minute, sitting and stretching his legs in his usual arrogant manner, making some cruel joke at someone else’s expense, usually Venetia’s or mine. Then he’d let out a few breaths of laughter, smoothing back his hair, as if it were simply super to be him. Sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s just gone. It was his funeral last week, without a body to bury. It seems so strange. Where did he go?

Death is at the forefront of my mind again this week, as David Tilling is leaving for France and he may never come back, especially since he’s so hopeless at getting anything done. I heard Mrs. B. say yesterday that he was the type that a bullet would find faster than the rest, and I worry that she might be right.

I can’t believe the group of children we grew up with here in Chilbury are all suddenly scattering—Edmund killed, David on his way to war, Henry flying Spitfires over Germany, Victor Lovell on a ship somewhere, Angela Quail in London, and only Hattie and vile Venetia left. I’ll miss David especially. He was always the one waiting for me to catch up with the rest, a bit like a brother, only nicer. In a few weeks’ time he’ll be home after training, and everyone’s invited to the Tillings’ for a surprise leaving party before he heads off to the front. I know we’re supposed to be cheerful these days, even if we know someone might die, but it’s hard to forget that this could be the last time I see him.

List of things to make note of before someone leaves for war

The shape of their body—the blank cutout that will be left when they’re gone

The way they move, the gait of their walk, the speed at which they turn to look

The crush of smells and scents that linger only so long

Their color, the radiance that veils everything they do, including their death

People’s Colors

I like to see people as colors, a kind of aura or halo surrounding them, shading their outsides with the various flavors of their insides.

Me—purple, as brilliant and dark as the sky on a thundery night

Mama—a very pale pink, like a baby mouse

Daddy—soot black (Edmund was also black, but black like a starless sky)

Mrs. Tilling—light green, like a shoot trying to come up through the snow

Mrs. B.—navy blue (correct and traditional)

Henry is a deep azure blue, to match his eyes. I’m always reminded of the flawless July day during our school holidays when he spoke of marriage, a year ago now. The sky was an endless blue, the stream beside our picnic spot trickling with late-afternoon laziness. Henry had joined Edmund, Venetia, and me, and we were tearing all over the countryside, Mama never having a clue where any of us had got to. Of course, because it was all out of the blue, Henry didn’t have a ring, and we’ve never made it official. But he remembers, deep down in his heart.