The Effects of the War
The houses were shuttered against the bitter wind, their roofs covered with heavy mounds of snow. With their gray lattices and blackened wood frames, they seemed bowed with fatigue and grim sorrow. Most of the passersby were silent and would only nod or put a finger to the rim of their caps by way of greeting. Alan was grateful they were not very sociable at present. He wasn’t feeling sociable himself, and the annoyance of the goose had robbed him of polite deportment and manners.
He hurried along as fast as his leg would allow him, but it would hardly be true to say he was bent on the chase. Indeed, Alan was more interested in finding the bank where Guy Watson worked than in finding the goose which had escaped.
Nearing the end of one street, he suddenly heard a familiar, “Honk!” Quickly turning, he saw an old washerwoman trudging slowly down the street and beside her waddled the goose. Alan recognized the red mark instantly and the roly-poly gait was unmistakable.
The woman moved languidly, bent under the weight of a heavy laundry basket. Just as she came near, the goose waddled too close to her. Startled, the woman kicked the goose roughly.
“Out of my way, foolish bird!” she said angrily.
As she kicked though, the basket on her shoulders became unbalanced by the movement. It overturned and the laundry fell onto the cold snow. The woman gave vent to her frustration in angry, incoherent words. Then she leaned her crooked back against a door post and began to cry, burying her face in her soiled apron. The few on the street did not stop and passed her by without a look, but Alan had seen everything.
In spite of himself, Alan felt sorry for the old woman. He may have lost a leg in battle, but she, with her crooked spine and gnarled hands, was just as tormented by the war as he was. Somehow, it didn’t seem right that in her old age she should have to be prey to the fear and turmoil ravaging her country and the world. No wonder she was so unhappy.
Instinctively, Alan knelt down on his good leg and began to place the tattered garments back in the basket. The woman kept crying and did not notice his act of kindness. He was about to rise, when a loud honking sounded near. The woman raised her eyes and saw Alan kneeling beside the basket.
“Oh...bless you, sir,” she sniffed.
She came forward and lifted the heap once more to her shoulders. As Alan rose to his feet, he could hear her withered joints cracking like dying embers.
“Curse this weather,” the woman moaned unhappily. “Curse this war. Only brings death and misery, it does. I lost my own boy to the Great War thirty years ago.” She looked up at Alan miserably beneath her wretched burden. “Why did they start another one?” she whispered hoarsely.
Alan couldn’t answer. He had often asked himself that question when he was on the warfront. Her pinched face and hollow eyes seemed to reflect the pain-wracked faces of his dying comrades, faces time would never efface from his memory.
Why did they start another one? He swallowed the lump he felt forming in his throat.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he sighed. “But...” and he placed the handle of his cane in her bony hand.
The woman looked as if a blessing had kissed her. Her hand quivered as she cradled the precious wood in her fingers. As she raised her eyes to his, Alan was surprised by the transformation in her withered face. Tears glistened in her eyes, and for the first time a smile crept into the corners of her mouth.
“...thank you, lad,” she whispered, her lips trembling. “Me—merry Christmas.”
Merry Christmas. How long it had been since Alan heard such a welcome greeting. It seemed as though the dark clouds of war had parted just long enough to allow a single ray of hope to fall on the abandoned street. For a moment, Alan felt as if someone else had tried to reach him through the wall of darkness the war built around him.
Overcome, Alan mumbled an inarticulate reply. The woman clasped the cane firmly, and squeezed his fingertips in thanks. Then, with one hand on the basket and the other gripping the cane, she continued plodding down the street, with firmer tread and lighter heart.
Only after she was gone from sight did Alan realize that he had given away his cane, practically the replacement of his wounded leg. He groaned and his groan mingled with an inharmonious “Honk!”
Alan looked down. He knew exactly what he would find: two beady black eyes reflected his frown. On its part, the goose cocked its head and peered at him with one eye. It looked to the old woman disappearing around the bend, then returned to Alan with a soft, “honk, honk!” It seemed as if thanking Alan for his kindness.
“Yeah, I gave it away,” Alan said, “No thanks to you, birdbrain. You almost knocked her over.”
“No, it’s not,” Alan frowned, “I can’t walk now.”
The goose waddled closer to Alan and stretched its thin neck, looking up and down Alan’s leg. It grunted, skeptical of the damage. Suddenly, the goose pecked Alan’s leg hard.
A sharp pain darted up his leg. Alan yelled and grabbed his knee. He could not move, the spasm was so severe. The goose honked again, a shrill sound, seeming to apologize; but Alan mistook its tone.
“You!” He shouted. “What is it with you?! You want a piece of me?!”
He was so frustrated, he lunged for the goose, which jumped backwards and began to fly off in small spurts. Alan stumbled after the retreating fowl, but his leg could not take him very far. The sharp pain bore through his mind, and at length even wore down his frustrated stubbornness. As he rounded the end of the street, his injured leg, already throbbing with unbearable spasms, struck against a broken-down pile of rotten crates. With a cry, Alan fell to the ground.
The goose must have seen him fall, because he heard it come back. It was wise enough not to come too close, but after peering at him keenly, gave a soft whining honk. Then it suddenly began to caw loudly as if calling for help, leaping and swirling about the fallen man.
Muffled by the snow, the cries of the goose recalled another sound to Alan’s mind. He could faintly hear the loud report of falling shells and blazing guns, the cries of his comrades as they fell beneath the withering fire, and his own moan of despair when he also fell victim to the merciless bullets. As he lay remembering upon the snow, the wounds in his leg stung with pain, smarting as fiercely as on that day. He remembered how cold he had felt, the coldest he had ever felt in his life, though his leg had burned from the wounds.
Alan closed his eyes. The helplessness of his position, combined with the cold and dismal surroundings, turned his memories into even deeper tragedies. Feeling a tear gather in his eye, Alan pressed his face against his arm. Why was everything always so cold?
“Halloo there!” a thick voice called. The harsh sound cut through the air like a shaft of ice, but Alan’s head was so filled with the trumpetings of the goose, he did not hear it. The frozen ground had made him numb, entrenching him in the atmosphere of his memories.
The rapid thuds of footsteps pulled him back to the present. He lifted his head and saw a heavily bearded face peering down at him.
“Oi, chum, what’s the trouble?” The cockney in his tone was brusque but kind in its own way.
“My leg...” Alan murmured, indicating it weakly. The man examined the limb, his touch much gentler than Alan had anticipated.
“Well, it’s weak, no doubt of that,” the fellow said at last, “But ya can’t keep it in the snow. That’ll make it worse. Hey-yup.”
He placed his arm under Alan’s shoulder and heaved him up to a sitting position. As the man straightened to his feet, Alan leaned on him while putting his weight on his good leg. In no time, both were standing again.
“You’re strong,” Alan said in admiration.
“Ah, nah really,” the man shrugged. “No good for the war. Lost an arm when I was a lad—well, lost half a’one.”
He pulled his sleeve to reveal his arm had been amputated just below the elbow.
“I was careless; paid for it, though,” he sighed, “Now I’m left ’ere while others do the duty I should ’ave done.”
“There’s duty everywhere,” Alan replied, “Waiting is harder than fighting.”
“Right you are,” the fellow agreed, “When ya fight, there’s an equal chance o’ dyin’ or livin’. But waitin’—”
“You’re already dead,” Alan sighed.
The man shook his head, and the quiet in the air seemed to grow heavier. Both men felt the effects of the war, and the fellow brushed some snow from his thin jacket.
“I wish,” he said sadly, “I wish it felt more like Christmas...but it can’t. It’s too cold. The world is, I mean.”
No kidding, Alan thought. Aloud he said, “Christmas can’t end the war, anyway.”
“Nah, it can’t,” the man grunted, brushing his eyes before they became too wet. “But it’d make life a little less...broken inside, I s’pose.” He looked away. “Thought I’d ’ave more to give me boy than this...”
“Is he on the front?” Alan asked.
The man chuckled, but his voice was cracked as he answered, “No, he’s a mere lad, not yet nine. In church now, what with Christmas an’ all.”
“Don’t let me keep you if he’s waiting for you,” Alan said.
“Nah, ya not,” the fellow shrugged.
Alan raised an eyebrow. “I’m not keeping you or he’s not waiting?”
“...both,” the man answered after some hesitation. Seeing Alan’s scrutinizing look, he winced. “Now don’t go thinkin’ it that way; I’m a God-fearin’ man, but what sort of homage is it to go to church lookin’ like this?”
His worn clothes were stained and muddy, and he pulled his jacket more closely around himself.
“Don’t you Christians say God was born in a stable?”
"He was. But no one in there was,” the man gestured to the church.
“It’s not your fault the war’s been hard to you,” Alan replied.
“Ya kind, gov...but not ever’one is—least not the church-goin’ folk who see you,” the fellow sighed, “I can’t put me lad through the shame a’ seein’ his father at service dressed so—” his voice broke, but he cleared his throat quickly, “erm, well, ya know what I mean.”
Alan made no comment. What could he say? Times were hard and war made everything worse. The recruiting, the draft, the departure of the soldiers; so many changes happened in such a short time, people were still suffering the wounds of separation. But if men were already being split apart at the warfront—did the separation have to continue at home? And over such small things?
Alan took off his heavy overcoat. “Here,” he said, offering it to the man, “Now your kid won’t have to be in there alone.”
The fellow looked at the coat then at him in confusion. It was a full minute before he understood what Alan was suggesting. His eyes grew wide and he shook his head.
“No, no, it’s me own problem,” he stammered, “Ya mustn’t worry yourself about it.”
“I’m not the one worried,” Alan said flatly. “You should be more worried about your son. You’re going to leave him in there with a bunch of snobs?”
“I couldn’t take it from ya,” the man insisted, drawing back a step.
“You’re not taking it, I’m giving it to you,” Alan said.
“But what ’bout you? You’ll ’ave no overcoat for yourself.”
“Give me yours,” Alan shrugged. The fellow still hesitated. “This suit’s thick enough, and the overcoat was too heavy for me anyway.”
“I’m not sure that’s true...”
“Swap with me,” Alan insisted, holding out his heavy coat. “Come on, your son’s waiting for you to join him. You two shouldn’t be apart in hard times like this.”
Still, the thin jacket would not leave the man’s shoulders.
“It’s a Christmas gift, all right?” Alan said, a little embarrassed he was putting it like that. The man’s resistance began to wane when he heard the forgotten phrase.
“A Christmas gift?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“...What’s your name?” he asked at last, overcome.
“That comes after the jacket,” Alan insisted.
“Jim Burnes,” the fellow said, as he finally gave up his jacket to Alan.
“Alan Striver,” Alan said, passing his overcoat.
He waited to put on the jacket until he had helped Jim pull the heavy coat over his shoulders. By the relieved expression on Jim’s face, Alan could tell it had been a long time since he had worn something that comfortable.
“Oh, Striver, that is nice,” he said gratefully, “A real gift, make no mistake. Thank ya kindly,” then he wept, “I never felt so warm...”
“Your kid’s waiting,” Alan mumbled, but his tone was not as hard. He extended his hand. “Merry Christmas, Jim.”
Jim looked at the hand for a moment. Then he clasped it in a tight hold.
“Bless ya, mate,” he whispered, unafraid to let the tears show.
A flash of warmth seemed to linger in the air. Alan instinctively returned the pressure of the handshake.
“So long, Jim,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Striver.”
He squeezed Alan’s hand harder, then turned and began to plod toward the time-worn steps of the village church. Alan watched him for a few moments, before starting down the dreary street.