Alice stares out of the window and lets the blackout curtain embrace her, as heavy on her shoulders as her familiar school duffle coat. It traps the draughts fingering their way around the frost-laced panes and muffles the steady drone of Phyllis humming We Three Kings in the parlour. Snow soft as goose down tumbles out of the night and settles on the steps of the war memorial across the street. In the dimmed half-light of a street lamp she can see it is sticking. Some of the names are starting to disappear.
One of them is Johnny’s. She knows that the John H Wright picked out in lead near the base of the pillar is her uncle and not her brother, but every time she sees it she feels light and peculiar, as if a shuttler has clicked and she is trapped in a photograph. Phyllis says it is someone walking over her grave.
Johnny was supposed to be here to spend Christmas with them. She should be listening for the roar of his motorcycle ripping up the Baslow road, but this morning he rang to say his leave had been cancelled. Alice knows this means a raid, but she has convinced herself that the snow will keep the bombers on the ground. In her mind she is flying over the flat Lincolnshire fens, a sharp-eyed merlin seeing nothing but a white blanket tucking up villages and airfields safe for the night. She sees her brother lying on his bunk in his blue shirt and braces, reading the Picture Post. If she can hold him there, if she can concentrate and count backwards from fifty without making a mistake, she can keep him safe. On no account must she conjure him up in his glass turret at the tail end of the Lancaster, scanning the clouds for the fatal shadow of a Messerschmitt 109.
Something by the memorial catches her eye. A figure, or not so much a figure as a dark shape, an emptiness into which the snow doesn’t fall. It is shifting from side to side as if stamping its feet to keep warm. Alice presses her nose against the frozen glass to see what it might be, but it is just out of reach of the streetlamp’s feeble glow. It turns and appears to look directly at the house. A draught brushes her cheek like the fingers of an icy woollen glove, and she finds she cannot move. The snow continues to fall, hesitant, untouched, virgin. The crack of a coal in the hearth makes her jump. When she looks again, whatever it was has gone.
She fights her way out from behind the folds of the curtains, back into the stuffy warmth of the parlour. Phyllis is still gluing strips of newspaper into paper chains, humming to herself. Alice has hung her stocking on the mantle, next to the picture of Johnny in his uniform. He is looking straight at her. She commands herself to think of snow lying deep and silent over the fens, and Johnny on his bunk, but the image shatters before she can grab hold of it. All she can see is the empty space on his side of the sofa, the antimacassar laying straight and smooth as the day he left.
It was coming. It would mark each house, visit every family. It was out there. Somewhere.
Anne Soilleux lives in Berkshire in the UK and likes to write short things. She was recently shortlisted for Retreat West’s Best Overall Micro Fiction in their 2020 Awards.