The drawer creaked as she pulled it towards her; a gentle sigh of a creak. The musty smell of aged paper, laced with a touch of lavender made her nose wrinkle. It matched the house; a place where little had changed in the last sixty years. No electric stove; the old combustion sat cold in its brick shroud. The copper in the laundry; ringed with green, black beneath. People’s stern faces in faded black and white, framed in gilt. A table spread in handmade lace.
Liz sneezed, and blew her nose, wiping at the tears that sprung to her eyes as memories of warmth and laughter and love, so much love, came to her as she sat in the cold museum that was this house.
Why had the family chosen her to empty the old house, to sort her Grandmother’s possessions? Admittedly they were all now interstate, and Liz, they had felt, as a librarian, a person to whom organising and order was second nature, would take great care in sorting the dead woman’s possessions.
Sighing, she lifted the old tobacco box from the drawer, wondering as she did, what her Grandmother would have kept such a thing for. She brushed her hand over the lid, noticing the faded picture of bob tailed horses and beagles. Lowering herself into a low leather chair, its seat fissured and faded, she lifted the lid.
Thick parchment, thin note paper, lined pages; Liz selected a yellowed, frayed, folded paper from amongst the others, carefully smoothed it out and stared down at the faint blue spidery writing.
Her eyes glanced over the first few lines, then she paused and re- read them.
A seed of wonder that quickly turned to avid curiosity caused her to stop, lean back into her chair, and out loud, she read the letter, her voice echoing into the shadows of the old house.
I write to you after a great to do. Our boys acquitted themselves well, and we took what we had to do.
Two regiments, many men, and brave horses, galloped across a land from biblical time and took their objective.
It was a grand gallop, one where we could finally show what we are made of.
After the attempts of past, this charge will be, I am sure, recorded in history, as one of the finest.
The horses suffer terribly here in the desert, and the march to where this charge took place, was nothing short of an heroic feat by our trusted mounts. For two days, they went without water, then, in the dying light of another hot day, they carried us to victory.
Afterwards, I sat with my mates, and although we were happy with our victory, our thoughts turned to home.
If you could possibly find time, could you visit Jack’s wife?
He is on his way to England, and I fear he may not make it home.
I know that it is calving time, and my Dearest, I know it must not be easy since I left for the war, but Gertie may need all the support that you can muster. I fear bad news at any time.
Has the old draft mare foaled? She ought to throw a good one from that Thoroughbred stallion of Harry’s. And has Jack been to lay in enough firewood for you?
The back paddocks are full of weeds I suspect. Don’t you worry about that, I’ll clean them up when I get home.
I hope that my pay is getting to you regularly, and that Mr Thomas is helping you with the bills. He has looked after our family accounts for many years. Don’t forget that Donaldson has offered to come and see to the fences, he is a good man.
Well my dear, the Corporal has given us the nod that we must saddle up again, so I leave you with my fondest thoughts,
Your loving husband,
Liz relaxed back into the chair, her mind taken to another time. Opening the box again, Liz selected another letter.
She shivered as the dank coldness of the house settled around her, and for a moment, she thought of lighting the fire. Curiosity got the better of her, and she opened the thin delicate note.
My Dearest Husband,
I write this to you, with full understanding of the hardships of what a soldier’s life contains.
But, I fear you have no concept of what is happening at home.
Mr Donaldson had his three sons killed in France, and no longer leaves the house.
Jack has gone off and joined up, he told me that he was needed, and he passed for thirty eight years of age, but we know he is closer to forty five.
Young ladies have joined the Land Army and are helping to bring in the crops, but there are not enough of them to go around.
The windmill sits silent, the pump broken. The parts required to fix it are on the waiting list, for all the available metal is needed for the war effort.
The drought has meant that we have no grass, and I have been forced to sell all the heifers. I have kept the better cows, and the Shorthorn bull, but have had to get rid of everything else for a pittance.
Last year the milking cow had a big bull calf, and then her udder swelled and went black. I had to take your rifle and shoot her, she was in such pain. I am glad that you showed me how to fire the rifle before you left, as yesterday I also had to put down the dog. He was snake bit.
These things I have coped with but my worst times are with our son, Jimmy, whom you have not yet laid eyes on, and who has had many bad turns. I fear for our boy. It is as if his heart stops, he turns blue, and it is only when I turn him upside down and swing him, that all comes right.
I cannot sleep, for fear I will wake and find him dead.
Old Mrs Kinshaw that runs the Post Office has said she will close it, as too many telegrams are sent to her and she cannot deliver another one to a mother, or wife, who has lost a dear one.
When will this madness end, my husband? When will you all come home?
I write this, knowing that I will never send it, as you do not need to hear my worries, my grievances.
I pray every night and morning that you are safe, and have made it through the latest battle.
But if you only knew the battles that I go through every day.
Every day, for two years, I wish you had not joined.
Gently Liz folded the paper and laid it in the box. Growing up, she knew that Grandfather had died in a war, and that her own father, Jimmy, had grown up with no one to call Father or brother or sister. But somehow, it never seemed to matter to her and her siblings. Once or twice the question was raised and met with a curt, “He died in the War.”
Grandmother had been just as tight lipped, referring to him as ‘my late husband.’
Rising from the chair, Liz walked across to the mantelpiece, her eyes searching from one sepia face to another. She found the one that was her Grandfather. Wearing a slouch hat, seated on a stocky horse who was laden with man, saddlery and weapons, with desert in the background, the sepia print was fading but Liz could see the likeness to her father. She brushed her fingers over the glass, not knowing quite what she wanted to feel about this man.
He’d left to go fight another’s war, had left her Grandmother to struggle on her own. What was in his mind to join up and leave behind a pregnant wife?
These thoughts drew Liz back to the box, and she quickly flicked through the other papers in it. At the bottom she drew out a faded yellow telegram, and her breath caught in her throat as she read the words.
COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA Form No 144
Postmaster-General’s Department, New South Wales
This Message has been received subject to the Post and Telegraph Act and Regulations. All Complaints to be addressed in writing to the Deputy Postmaster-General
Station From, No. of Words, and Check
Victoria Battacks 69 5/5 12 40 RP section 9 5 Rev Elwin Manly
Officially reported that 261 Pte J Watson 12th LH previously reported missing now killed in action 14th December1917. Please allow me to convey deep regret and sympathy of their Majesties the King and Queen and the Commonwealth Government in loss that you and Army have sustained by death soldier
Col Luscombe 1 5H
Date stamp and received January 15th, 1918
Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine life for her grandmother after the arrival of this telegram.
The other ladies in the district would have gathered around, and in quiet ways shown their support. A loaf of bread, a pot of stew, gingerbread for young Jimmy. A son sent over to mend a fence, to help mark the calves. Then slowly the help would have dried up, as more felt the effect of the war, as more sons came of enlistment age.
That must have been when Grandma sold the farm, and bought the house in town. An image flashed across Liz’s mind. Rough red arthritic hands, clawed and bent. The image made Liz delve deeper into her memory. Snatches of conversation came back to her.
Her father remonstrating with her older sister when she refused to eat cabbage; “At least you do not have to scrub and clean for your life. Be thankful for what is put on this table, that which you do not have to earn with your tears!”
Her Grandmother, when Liz mentioned that she wanted the latest Monkey’s record, “Wanting gets you nothing in this life, young lady. You have to slave and scrape for everything you earn, then it is truly earnt.”
Liz’s mind slipped deeper into a trance, and she saw her Grandmother, trim and young, trudging through the mud to the bales to milk the house cow. She saw her mending worn child’s clothes, scrubbing floors, pulling wires up from a damaged fence. Her mind flitted forward a few years, seeing Grandmother hoeing weeds in a paddock, returning to her house in town sunburnt and tired, but then setting about splitting kindling, lighting the fires, cooking dinner, then after dinner, putting her son to bed, and reading letters by the light of the fire.
Liz shivered as the cold of the house seeped into her body, waking her, bringing her back the reality of today.
Looking down at the typed words, she cried. She cried for her Grandmother who had known such pain and loss, who had endured hard work and worry, but had been a warm loving woman to her Grandchildren.
It was too late to tell her Grandmother how sorry she was that she had not appreciated her. It was too late to ask about Grandfather. But it was not too late to tell her father how much she appreciated all that he had done for his family, and how she was very glad that she had not lived in those times.
Reaching into her pocket, she drew out her phone.
Her father lived only a five minute drive away, in the house where she grew up. She would go and hug him, and thank him for all he had done for his family, now, before it was too late.
Grandmother’s house could wait a few days more.