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Hell in a Pocket by J A Newman

HELL IN A POCKET
Cornwall 1917
Ada quickly wiped her floury hands on her apron and took the official-looking letter from the postman. Holding it between finger and thumb she wandered through to the back parlour and placed it on the table, where it sat, menacingly waiting for its reader to give life to the words. Heart thumping, she went back to her baking, but despite the warmth of the scullery a chill ran through her veins. She snatched the letter from the table and stuffed it in her apron pocket. She would read it later when they were all together.
*
Jack leant against the hay cart and took out his chunk of bread and cheese and a raw onion, salt on his cuff to dip in. Cutting up his food with his pock knife he surveyed his eighty acres of God’s earth bathed in autumn sunlight. It had been a wet harvest at Highcroft farm but they’d managed to salvage a lot of the hay. He’d had his doubts at first – women working the land – but he’d been amazed at how the land army girls threw themselves into their work. He thanked the Good Lord for without them he didn’t know what they’d have done, what with the government making huge demands on his out-put, and Charlie and the other lads away fighting for king and country. He fell to wondering what it was like for them on the Western Front. If the newspapers were anything to go by it was hell on earth, but here, intense peace – buzzards circling high up in the thermals, sheep and cows grazing on the hillside while the river Lynher flowed calmly below. The contrast tugged at him.
The jingling harness jogged Jack out of his reverie. Dale and Clyde, his two remaining heavy horses, snorted and dug their hooves into the rich earth while they waited to resume their work. They could feel it too, he could tell. Not much difference between horses and humans when it boiled down to it.
*
Edith stopped feeding the pigs and leant on the railing. She had been working since daybreak and now the smell of the pig food was beginning to turn her stomach. At times like these her thoughts turned to Charlie.
It had been a warm May evening when he had suggested they walk to the west meadow to watch the setting sun. Edith had been glad to change out of her unbecoming land service smock and gaiters and into her one-and-only frock she’d brought with her, just in case. Charlie’s face had lit up at the sight of her in the pure white dress that complimented her glowing complexion and red hair, but Ada had scoffed, ‘Huh, too fitty for these parts!’
Charlie had whisked Edith outside and kissed on the cheek. ‘Take no notice o’ ma. Bark’s worse ‘en her bite.’
Taking Edith by the hand Charlie had led her through the five-bar gate and up the narrow lane to the meadow where the sun was beginning to slip behind the hill. Edith had been stunned by the colour of the sky – streaks of pink, purple and orange – then Charlie gently turned her face to his and kissed her. She didn’t know how many times she’d relived this moment – the sight of the orange glow on his corn-coloured hair, his loving smile. She could almost weep with the beauty of it. And the time when she felt his strong body, skin against skin, it took her breath away. And how handsome he looked in his khaki when she accompanied him to Liskeard station! She felt the envy of every girl there as he dragged her through the crush of people towards the waiting train full of young men in uniform bound for France and Belgium. He had pushed down the window and shouted, ‘We’m get wed soon as I come back!’ But she couldn’t help noticing the shadow of doubt that crept across his pale eyes as he bent to kiss her goodbye. Ignoring the urgent whistles they held hands as long as possible but finally the train gathered speed and wrenched them apart. Waving frantically they kept eye contact until the train snaked into the distance and he was gone.
Betty came bounding up to her like a playful puppy. ‘Hey, wassup? You look like you’ve lost a pound and found a penny. Come on, let’s get these piggies fed then it’s off the milking shed.’ She stopped working and studied her friend. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Oh,’ she sighed, ‘I don’t know. It’s just…nothing to do but work, work, work. When was the last time we had an afternoon off? It’s worse than working in munitions.’
‘Now then, don’t start all that again. It was you that dragged me down the recruiting office, remember? You who wanted to be out in the countryside instead of being cooped up in some stuffy factory turning our faces yellow, and…’ she smiled cheekily, ‘you who would never have met ‘You-know-who’ if you’d stayed in London.’
‘I know but I haven’t heard anything since his censored letter two weeks ago. There’s something wrong, Betty. I can feel it.’
Betty put an arm round Edith. ‘Cheer up. He’ll be fine. He’s a savvy lad.’
Jack trudged into the milking shed and smiled at the sight of Edith getting on with her work. He could see why Charlie was taken with her. ‘A’right there, maid?’
‘Not bad, Jack.’
Betty darted him a look. ‘I think she needs a rest.’
Jack ignored her remark. No rest on a farm till all the work was done. They knew that. But come to think on it, Edith look a bit wisht. It was hardly surprising; a woman’s place was in the home, like Ada, looking after the chickens, making bread, butter and cheese.
Young Davey came sauntering into the shed with three dead rabbits slung over his shoulder.
‘Ah, you’m bin busy,’ said Jack. ‘Put ‘em down and give us hand, will ‘e?’
Davey did as he was told and set to work with his father, tying the cattle up in their stalls. Davey glanced at Edith sitting astride a three-legged stool with a bucket between her knees. She met his gaze but looked away and got on with the milking.
*
At 5 o’clock, Ada dished up five platefuls of rich rabbit stew and set them on the table. Jack, ravenous as always got stuck in straight away. Davey followed suit. It did Ada’s heart good to see her husband and son tucking into her food. But there was one missing.
Missing…
Ada felt in her pocket but lost her nerve. No, she’d read it later.
Betty came rushing in through the door and plonked herself at the table. ‘Mm, this looks good.’
But Edith dragged her heels and stood staring at the brown congealed mess on her plate.
Ada glared at her. ‘Not hungry?’
Edith shook her head and ran outside.
‘Been a bit off colour all day,’ offered Betty, ’I’ll go find her.’
‘Her’s not cut out for farm work’, said Ada, ‘more suited to hob-nobbin’ with her fancy London friends.’
‘Let the maid be, Ada,’ said Jack. ‘Her work’s well enough.’
Outside, Betty found Edith hanging over the privy.
‘Oh, Edith. Whatever is it?’
Edith wiped her mouth and looked in the direction of the house. ‘Don’t you dare say anything.’
‘Oh, no! You’re not…’
Edith nodded. ‘Swear, swear on your mother’s life.’
‘Of course. But what will you do?’
‘Wait till Charlie comes home, of course. Then we’ll get married.’
‘Oh Edith.’
‘Stop saying that. It’ll be alright. And if not… I’ve been saving up. I should have enough to rent a place on the Bayswater Road. I can’t go home. The shame would kill my parents.’
‘But how will you manage? You could stay here – surely they’ll understand.’
‘I doubt it. Jack’s alright but it’s her. If looks could kill…’ she brightened. ‘Anyway, Charlie’s coming home and everything will be alright. You’ll see.’
*
The wind whistled through the hole in his back where the expanding bullet had exploded. It had taken him all day to crawl on his belly under heavy fire, across deep watery shell holes, horses and men half buried in thick black mud, and on towards the Red Cross station. He wasn’t going to lie down and wait to be finished off. Oh, no! He could see the flag fluttering in the distance – not far now.
*
In the evenings, Edith and Betty reminisced about the good times they’d had in London before the war.
‘What about Marie Lloyd as Burlington Bertie,’ said Betty, ‘and this one,’ she burst into song. “The man I love is up in the gallery, the man I love is waiting there for me…”
‘Oh, Betty, I do miss all that. The best they can come up with here is St Martin’s fayre or a dance at the village hall. It isn’t the same, is it? What about the dances at the Palais dressed up in our finery…?’
‘…yeah, and the warm lemonade,’ giggled Betty.
‘Mm, you’ve got a point there. Cornish cider’s much better. Come on, let’s see if there’s any going.’
They crept downstairs and into the parlour to find Ada in her rocking chair, clicking her knitting needles, with only the glow from the oil lamp for company. As the two girls slid silently into the cool pantry where the cider was stored, Edith absently put a hand on her belly.
‘You’ll have to tell ‘em soon, you know,’ said Betty, ‘you’re starting to show,’
‘Shhh! She’ll hear you,’ hissed Edith.
‘What’s that?’ Shouted Ada, ‘tell un what?’
‘Now you’ve done it,’ breathed Edith.
Betty mouthed, ‘Sorry’.
The two of them emerged from the pantry like naughty children. Standing firm side by side, Betty squeezed Edith’s hand.
‘Well?’ said Ada.
In a tiny voice Edith said, ‘I suppose you’ll have to know sooner or later. I’m expecting Charlie’s baby.’
Ada dropped her knitting in her lap. ‘You’m mistaken, maid. I brought my Charlie up proper.’
‘It’s true,’ said Betty, ‘ Edith’s been so worried…’
‘God have mercy.’ Ada got up and began pacing the floor.
‘Anyway,’ said Edith, ‘Charlie wants to marry me. It’ll all come right. You’ll see.’
But Ada’s face crumpled. She bent over and clutched her pocket.
‘What is it,’ asked Edith, ‘are you ill?’
Ada looked sideways at her, ‘I should’ve told ‘e afore…’
‘What? Told me what?’ Edith’s heart was hammering in her chest.
‘Seems we’m both been keepin’ secrets.’ Ada pulled the screwed up letter from her pocket. ‘Here.’
Edith snatched it and began to read, her eyes wide with prickly tears.
Jack was hovering in the doorway, mud-caked boots and sleeves rolled up. ’Wass that you got?’
They all looked at one another.
‘It’s a from Clarlie’s NCO,’ Edith looked at Ada. ‘She’s been hiding it for weeks.’
‘Wass it say then?’
‘Missing in action,’ Edith turned to Ada. ‘Why didn’t you tell us? Suppose he’s badly wounded somewhere and they can’t find him?’ she slumped on the nearest chair and Betty put a protective arm round her.
‘Now then, don’t go thinkin’ the worst when us don’t know,’ said Jack. ‘We’m just have to hope for the best. I’ll tell Davey in the mornin’; I’ll not wake him now. The lad’s worked flat out today.’
*
Edith woke in the night fearful of the pains that were advancing. She thought of Charlie in the trenches – had his pain been any worse than hers? She must be brave, she must. He would be so proud of her.
Betty was at her side. ‘Don’t worry Edith. I’ll get help.’
‘No! Don’t leave me. I’m scared. The pain’s awful. Feels like my whole body’s going to split wide open.’
‘I’m sure every woman feels like that. How long has the baby been coming?’
‘I don’t know. All I know is it woke me up. I was dreaming – Charlie was here.’ Another pain ripped through her body and she clutched Betty’s nightdress. ‘Help me Betty!’
Betty went to fetch a flannel and a basin of water but by the time she came back Edith was in a stupor. Betty ran to Ada and Jack’s room. ‘Quick! Do something! It’s Edith, the baby’s coming.’
As soon as Ada saw Edith she knew something was wrong. She ran back to get Jack. ‘You’m better come, no time to get midwife. Can’t be much different to calfin’ cows, all said n done.’
Jack was in two minds – childbirth was women’s business – but when he saw Edith he knew he had to do something; the baby was coming bottom first. He began pulling and pushing, sweat running down his face. Edith screamed and Betty stood in silent horror at the blood-soaked sheets. Then one big push and out gushed the little baby boy.
Edith let out the breath she had been holding and fell back against the pillows, her hair soaked in sweat. It was only Betty who heard her whisper, ‘Wait for me, Charlie.’

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