SEPTEMBER - NOVEMBER 1944
Would have been different. For it would have been
Edward Thomas, "As the Team's Head-Brass"
In the months afterwards all of the women, at some point, said they'd known the
men were leaving the valley. Just as William Jones used to forecast the weather
by studying the sky or the formations of migrating birds, so the women said
they'd been able to forecast the men's sudden departure. After all, they were
their men, their husbands. No one could read them like they could. So no
surprise if they should see what was coming. That's what the women said in the
long silence afterwards.
But in truth none of them saw any change in the men's behaviour. None of them knew the men were leaving and in many ways this was the hardest part of what happened. Their husbands left in the night. Just days after news of the invasion came crackling through on Maggie's wireless, propped on a Bible on her kitchen table, the men, lit by a hunter's moon, met at William's milking shed and slipped out of the valley. Moving in single file they walked through the higher fields and up over the Hatterall ridge; an ellipsis of seven dark shapes decreasing over the hill's shoulder, shortening to a last full stop and then nothing, just the blank page of the empty slope. The women, meanwhile, slept soundly in their beds. It was only in the morning when a weak September sun shone into the valley that they realized what had happened.
For Sarah Lewis it began in her sleep. The drag, rattle, and bark of the dogs straining on their chains was so persistent it entered her dreams. A ship in storm, the sailors shouting for help from the deck, their pink faces and open mouths obscured by the spray blown up the sides of the hull. Then the noise became Marley's ghost, dragging his shackles over a flagstone floor. Clink, slump, clink, slump. Eventually, as the light brightened about the edges of the blackout curtain and Sarah surfaced through the layers of her sleep, the sound became what it was. Two dogs, urgent and distressed, pulling again and again on their rusty chains and barking, short and sharp through the constraint of their collars.
Without opening her eyes Sarah slid her hand across the sheet behind her, feeling for the warm impression of her husband's body. The old horsehair mattress they slept on could hold the shape of a man all day and although Tom was usually up before her, she found comfort in touching the warm indentation of where he'd lain beside her. She stroked her palm over the thin cotton sheet. A few hairs poking through the mattress caught against her skin, hard and stubborn as the bristles on a sow's back.
And there he was. A long valley where his weight had pressed the ball of his shoulder and his upper arm into the bed; a rise where his neck had lain beneath the pillow. She explored further down. A deeper bowl again, sunk by a protruding hip and then the shallower depression of his legs tapering towards the foot of the bed. As usual, Tom's shape, the landscape of him, was there. But it was cold. Normally Sarah could still feel the last traces of his body's heat, held in the fabric of the sheet just as the mattress held his form. But this morning that residue was missing.
With fragments of her dreams still fading under her lids, she slid her hand around the curves and indentations again, and then beyond them, outside the borders of his body. But the sheet was cold there too. The dogs below her window barked and barked, their sound making pictures in her mind's eye: their sharp noses tugging up with each short yap, exposing the white triangles of their necks, flashing on and off like a warning. She lay there listening to them, their chains rising and falling on the cobblestones of the yard.
Excerpted from Resistance by Owen Sheers Copyright © 2008 by Owen Sheers. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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