Monday, March 13, 2017

The Home Front by Bruce Costello

Bruce Costello tells the nostalgic story of Patty's homecoming to rural New Zealand after World War II.

The bus was rickety and should have died long ago. It spluttered to a halt outside a country store and a young woman wearing a floral dress struggled down the steps with a large leather case. She put it down and looked around.

Everything was how she remembered it. The store still had rotten timber and sunken piles, giving it a drunken lean, and the dirty cream paint on the courthouse was marked with ginger stripes from the overflow of a rusty roof. A traction engine stood outside the blacksmith's store, billowing smoke and steam.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. A smile lit up her face, as broad as the wide-brimmed bonnet shading her freckled complexion from the New Zealand sun.

A corpulent man wearing a dog collar was sitting on a seat in front of the hotel. He stood up, gazed at the young woman, nodded, then turned to stare after the bus, as it rumbled off in a cloud of dust.

She approached him. "Father O'Reilly?"

The man's eyes opened wide. He took her hand and pumped it vigorously.

"Welcome back, Patty! You've grown up and turned into a beautiful woman! I didn't recognize you."

She laughed. "I was just a teenager when I left five years ago, but it feels like I've been away half a lifetime."

"And you've been helping thump the Nazis!"

"Just patching up the wounded. And jolly glad to be coming home!"

A smile spread across the priest's face. "Your Aunt Florence asked me to collect you. She couldn't come herself."

He picked up the suitcase and gestured the way towards a horse drawn buggy parked nearby.

"Very sorry about this, Patty. The old Ford's broken down and I'm waiting for parts."

It was a fifteen mile drive to the farm. On the outskirts of the town, they passed the cemetery where Patty's mother lay surrounded by bleached tombstones and dark crosses. Patty was keen to stop and visit the grave, but that could wait for another day, when she'd come back with fresh flowers, and perhaps a photo of herself in nurse's uniform.

Soon they were bouncing along a road, little more than a track, through an expanse of undulating countryside, stretching towards a distant range of low mauve hills.

The paddocks were dotted with sheep, standing out like white shrubs against the green pasture. Here and there a rabbit stood nose raised to the wind then whhht! - gone with kicking heels and white backside signalling alarm. Sparrows scattered from hedges and a hawk rose lazily from the roadside as the buggy approached.

The horse trotted jauntily, the sun growing hotter and hotter, opening wild flowers in multitudes of brash and pastel colours. Different perfumes rose like bees and the oddly familiar smell of heated soil and paspalum soothed Patty with memories of dawdling to school.

Abandoning herself to the countryside, Patty forgot the chaos of England, the long rows of beds, cries of the wounded and stench of death.

Oh God, she prayed, may I be happy here.

Father O'Reilly's voice broke into her reverie. "I'm afraid it's going to be a sad thing seeing your father after so long, how he's gone downhill. I visit him once a week, but he's a shell of the man who fought on the Somme, nursed your dying mother with that horrible influenza and raised you alone on the farm with Aunt Florence. A man with a splendid past and a very poor present, who values his existence so little now that he sits all day by the fire, whether it's lit or not, and only talks to himself. Aunt Florence sends him to bed each night after the six o'clock news from the BBC. She browbeats him something awful, but she's probably just letting off steam, having no one else around to help, and spends her days keeping the house spotless - which is a bit of a distraction I suppose - while the farm goes to rack and ruin and they live off charity."

He turned to her, smiling sadly. "I'm sorry to have to tell you these things, but as they say, forewarned is forearmed."

"Thank you," Patty replied, and looked away.

They were driving through a narrow gully, overgrown with self-sown pines and thistles on the slopes where the land had once been cleared. The air felt moist. The stream had dried up, leaving a stagnant pond, from which a solitary duck flapped in a panic. Patty remembered coming here with her father in his gleaming green Studebaker to picnic and play in the water or cast for trout.

They continued in silence, nearer and nearer to the farm nestled at the foot of the mauve hills, which seemed to grow darker and to huddle together, peering out over each other at the cloud stirred up by the approaching buggy.

It was mid afternoon when they arrived. Aunt Florence waddled down from the veranda and flung out her arms.

"Our wee girl," she cried, "home from the wars. My, how you've filled out! I've so much to tell you and there's such a lot we can do together now you're home."

"Lovely to see you, too, Aunt Florence." Patty freed herself from the older woman's arms, helped Father O'Reilly lift the suitcase from the buggy, and then ran up the steps into the house.

Her father was standing by the lounge window. Patty's hand flew to her mouth at the sight of his emaciated body and staring expression. He was wearing overalls, which hung loosely from his body as if on a coat hanger, and looked like they hadn't been washed for years. His hands were buried deep in the pockets.

"I told him you were coming," said Aunt Florence, following Patty into the room, "but he won't know who you are."

Patty wrapped her arms around her father, held him tight, then pulled back and looked into his eyes, which now gleamed with recognition. Tears flowed down his cheeks and he reached out to touch Patty's face with bony fingers.

"He's gone doolally," said Aunt Florence, tapping the side of her head. "You'd better get changed, then we'll have a cup of tea and a lovely chat. Oh, by the way, Mr David Donnelly is visiting us tonight. He bought the farm next door and saw your photo when he called to introduce himself. He can't wait to meet you. The property's a pig farm now and he's about the most important man in the district. A rich bachelor, just right for you, and quite handsome in his way, once you get used to the scars on his face."

"I'd love a cup of tea," Patty replied. She was sitting on the sofa, rubbing her father's back. "Wouldn't you, Dad?"

"Don't pander to him," said Aunt Florence, leaving the room.

"How are you?" Patty asked her father, over and over again, but getting no response, she took a deep breath, and began to tell him about the voyage home on the troopship.

"The same route you took when you came back after the first war. It was so good to travel by ship knowing the fighting was over and we weren't going to be attacked. We didn't even get sunk once."

She attempted a laugh, then noticing an ugly bruise on her father's wrist, Patty rolled up his sleeve and looked closely at his arm, before unbuttoning his shirt. Tears sprang into her eyes as she stared at her father's upper body. She quickly buttoned him up again at the sound of footsteps on the squeaky floorboards. Aunt Florence set down a tray with teapot and two cups.

Patty regained her composure, though her heart was thumping and her mind was racing. She nodded attentively as her aunt regaled her with district gossip and complaints about the food shortages, talking at the top of her strident voice, waving arms that wobbled with fat and stopping only briefly to take a breath.

Later, leaving her father on the veranda to enjoy the late afternoon sun, Patty walked round the house, noting its sagging spoutings, and a downpipe peppered with large rust holes, hanging like a broken bone at right angles to its original position. Lichen covered the weatherboards like a whiskery beard. The flower gardens had been utterly neglected. A solitary Red English Rose clung defiantly to a broken trellis. Its fragrance reached out to Patty across the vegetable plots and former neat brick paths, now covered in grass, fat hen and docks. White butterflies fluttered around a cabbage plant, gone to seed and sprouted, its ragged leaves black with caterpillars.

From the garden she made her way towards the barn, unlatching a dilapidated gate, which groaned as she dragged it across overgrown ruts made by tractor tyres. Long, brown grass scratched her legs as she pushed through the paddocks, stepping around patches of yellow gorse and flowering blue thistle.

I am young and my life is still ahead of me, she reflected, stopping to rest against the old tractor, now dead in its tracks and home to a broody hen.

She cried for her father as she looked out over a rolling countryside whose vastness threatened to swallow her life like moth plant strangling the old barn, and reduce her to nothing.

From the direction of the neighbouring farm, a mile away behind a shelterbelt of pines, Patty imagined she could hear pigs grunting as their stench wafted towards her on the wind.

And for some reason, she thought of her mother in the grave, sleeping, sleeping, sleeping...

"Hullo, there!" a male voice called out. Patty spun around to see a short man in a tweed jacket limping towards her across the paddock.

"Sorry, if I startled you," he said, approaching her, removing his hat, and giving a little bow. "I'm David Donnelly, your neighbour."

"Pleased to meet you," said Patty, stepping back.

"You must think me rude, greeting you like this," he said. "Your aunt insisted I come for tea and I thought I'd grab the chance to have a word with you first, while she's busy in the kitchen. I hope you won't think I'm presumptuous."

One side of his face was disfigured. His hazel eyes were soft and kind.

"May I speak frankly?"

Patty nodded.

"I'm concerned about your father. You've seen how he is. Your Aunt won't take him to see a doctor and I know she's mistreating him. I arrived unexpectedly the other day and caught her chasing him around the yard with a hearth brush. I tried talking to the old priest, but he doesn't want to know, just says he'll pray about it. "

"I've seen the bruises."

"Good God!"

He hesitated, and then said, going red. "There's another thing I need to warn you about. Your aunt is trying to marry us off, presumably to solve the money problem, despite the fact that I'm nearly as old as your father." He pointed to his face. "And who would want to marry a man who looks like this? I got caught in a Zeppelin raid, in London, 1915, on leave from the front."

They talked for a long time, and then wandered back to the house, where Aunt Florence was waiting impatiently in the dining room. She had laid the table with a white tablecloth and silver cutlery. An ornate three candle candelabra sat in the middle, lit with two low candles, flickering pitifully.

"Sorry we're late, Aunt Florence," said Patty. "We were watching the sun go down and Mr Donnelly was telling me about his pig farm."

The meal consisted of mince on toast, served on a floral dinner set. Patty's father said little but ate ravenously, much of it dropping on his trousers between fork and mouth. David asked Patty about her war service. Some of the towns and camps where she'd been based were familiar to David. Aunt Florence smiled from one to the other, evidently pleased at how well they seemed to be getting on.

Suddenly the pig farmer pushed back his chair and rose with a smile at Patty.

Aunt Florence put down her knife and fork. "Oh, surely you're not going already, Mr Donnelly? Won't you be staying for supper with us? I've made a Madeira cake."

"No. I have to go, sorry. Excuse me, Patty. And thank you for a lovely meal, but my best sow is about to deliver and I can't leave her much longer. She rolled on two newborns last year and crushed them. I just can't take any chances with her."



After her father had gone to bed, Patty turned to her Aunt Florence.

"I'll be in my room unpacking, so I can give you my suitcase as a farewell gift."

The older woman's eyebrows knitted together.

"In the morning," Patty continued, speaking quietly, "Mr Donnelly is sending over two of his workers to start clearing my parents' land while he and I take Father to the doctor. I want you to be packed and gone by the time we get back."

6 comments:

  1. A powerful story told with restrained and effective skill. Beautiful descriptions and tonally strong. Thank you,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Rich descriptions and such a fitting ending. Great story! Thank you.

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  3. Well done, Bruce. This is a powerful piece that takes us into the hearts of the characters. Your descriptions carry us into the heart of the setting too. A most enjoyable and poignant read with a great ending. Thanks. Jane

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  4. A timely reminder of what awaits.

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  5. I truly loved the descriptions of the area. A powerful and thought provoking story with clearly defined and convincing characters.
    Mike McC

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  6. Great story .Thank you so much for sharing this story.

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