Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Lily White Boys

By Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2005

He hadn’t been able to use the rear-view all the way up because of Jack’s stuff piled up in the back, and it wasn’t until they were nearly half-way home that he realised he was still using the side mirrors out of habit.

She went straight to the kitchen to make the tea when they got in. When she brought him out a cup he was sitting there with his coat still on.

“He’ll be having his dinner now I expect,” she said as she worked her way round the lounge switching on lamps and drawing down the blinds. “It looked alright, that canteen, I thought. I don’t expect he’ll ring till tomorrow, he’ll be settling in. I thought we could just have something out of the freezer.”

“Whatever’s easiest,” he told her, and he reached for the remote control.

Jack didn’t call until the Thursday, when they were just settling down to their tea. He kept an eye on the pans while Susan talked to him and the sauce was just beginning to stick on the bottom when she called him through to have a word.

“Don’t waste your money; your mother’ll tell me your news,” he said as soon as he picked up the receiver from the hall table. “How are you getting on; ok?”

His son sounded echoey and far away. “It’s great, dad. Really cool. I’ve met some really nice people, and my room’s fine, and I’m going to the tryouts for the football team tomorrow.”

“And how about the work?”

“Well, lectures don’t start till next week, but I’ve met my tutor and she seems really nice.”

“That’s right. They’ll keep you busy I expect. Well, I mustn’t keep you. Are you out tonight?”

“I thought I might go down the bar.”

“Alright. Well enjoy yourself. Remember your money’s got to last you the whole term.”

“Yes, dad.”

When he put the phone down she was watching him from the kitchen. “You didn’t have to be so quick,” she said. “We got him that card, remember?”

“Aye, well.” He took the plate she was holding out for him. “He’s got more important things to do than spend ages gabbing to us. He’s off out, anyway.”

“Is he? I hope he’s being sensible. Hurry up now, that thing’s on you wanted to watch.”

He had done the Sudoku by the time she went for a shower on Monday morning, and when she came out he was making a start on the crossword. He didn’t even like crosswords.

“What are you going to do today?” she asked him while she looked round for her keys.

“Oh, I don’t know.” He folded the paper in half and looked at her over the top of his glasses. “There’s that fence at the back. And I suppose I ought to check the guttering before the winter.”

She checked in her bag for a packet of tissues. “Why don’t you make a start on that stuff from your mum’s in the loft? You could move some of the boxes down into Jack’s room while you sort through them and decide what you want to keep.”

She saw him bristle, and wished she could bite back her words. “That’s his room for as long as he needs it. I’m not putting our stuff in there. What if he wants to come home for a weekend?”

“Alright then.” She smiled meekly, and went in for a kiss. He gave her his cheek, and shook out the paper with a grunt, trying to think of a (6,4) phrase that meant “shapely manoeuvres a hit with military”.

He didn’t get up to the loft until the following week, when the weather made getting anything done in the garden impossible. He felt even closer to the rain up here with it drumming on the tiles just a few inches above his head, but thankfully it didn’t seem to be coming through anywhere. There was no sign of mice, either, which was a relief.

The boxes from his mother’s house were not far back – they had only cleared out her house in February – but Jack had dumped a load of his stuff in front of them, helpfully blocking the duckboards which led down the middle of the loft rather than balancing it across the joists under the eaves where everything else was. There was his old Dungeons and Dragons stuff – he had been mad about that for a couple of years – some bin-liners full of clothes he wouldn’t wear any more, CDs he didn’t want his friends at university to know about, and a box of books too. He spent a while leafing through The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe in the light of the single 60 watt bulb, smoothing out the dog-eared pages and remembering how they had read it together when Jack was little enough to tuck into the crook of his arm and carry up the wooden stairs to Bedfordshire when his head started to droop into his chest.

When he had shifted Jack’s stuff to one side there was a gap just wide enough to drag his mother’s boxes through to the trapdoor. One of them seemed to have split, and it left a trail of reddish dust, or maybe rust, on the boards behind it. He would have to bring up a dustpan and brush later. But when he got it to the edge of the trapdoor and hoisted it down, holding it awkwardly above his head, there didn’t appear to be anything leaking from the bottom. Strange. He hefted it down to the lounge and dumped it on top of a newspaper just in case.

It took him three more trips to get everything down, and when he was gathering the last bits and pieces together he thought he heard a noise from downstairs. He called out “hello?” thinking that maybe Susan had popped back for her lunch, and even stuck his head through the trapdoor to peer down at the landing, but there was nobody there. He was hearing things, now. He was finding it hard to get used to how quiet the house seemed without Jack in it.

It was only when he had closed the trapdoor and put the ladder away that he realised he had forgotten about the dustpan and brush. Oh well. It would wait.

When she got home from work he was poring over the old family bible, with the photographs in the front going all the way back to Victorian times. “Look,” he told her. “I haven’t seen these in years. She must have had them when her mother died.”

She was dying for a cup of tea, but it was so nice to see him enjoying something that she sat down next to him and put her reading glasses on. “Who’ve we got, then?” she asked, pointing to a little girl in a white dress sitting on a high stool. “Is that your grandmother?”

“No,” he chuckled. “That’s a little boy. My Great-Uncle William. I never knew him, he was killed in the war.”

“Oh, yes, I’d forgotten they used to put the boys in pinafores too. Oh, look at his little face! He doesn’t look too pleased to be having his picture taken, does he?”

He smiled. “None of them do. Look at them. Miserable as sin. I think it’s because they had to sit still for so long. Look, here’s Nana.”

“Oh, wasn’t she pretty.” The girl bore no relation to the sour-faced old woman she remembered from their engagement party, though she had spoken barely a word to her. She had nearly spoiled the wedding, too, dropping dead just a month before with the church all booked and the dresses all ordered, and they had worried they might have to cancel though Colin himself had not seemed that upset, saying they had never been close. She hadn’t thought about her in years. “How old is she there?”

He peered at the inscription beneath the photograph. “1916. So she would have been” – he consulted the family tree at the front of the book – “eighteen. I wonder what the occasion was?”

They peered at the long white dress with its corsage of lilies. “Could it have been her engagement?” Her own was still fresh in her mind.

“No, she didn’t marry Grandpa till years after. It’s in here. 1926. And besides, he’d be there too.”

She pursed her lips. “Not necessarily. He might have been away in the war. And she might have had this photo taken for him, so as he could carry it in the pocket of his uniform, to remember her by.”

He smiled at her. “You’ve been at the Catherine Cooksons again. D’you want a cup of tea?”

“Oh, go on then.” She took the book from him as he stood up and slid it onto her own lap. “Could it have been, though?”

“I don’t think so. I think she met Grandpa through the church, and mum said they married and had her quite quickly because by then Nana was already getting on for thirty, and that was late to be having kids in those days.”

“Hmm.” She gave one last disappointed glance at the picture before turning the page and as she did so, a piece of stiff card dropped out and slid to the carpet.

“What’s this?” she asked him when he came back in with the tray. She had put the photograph on the arm of the sofa. There didn’t seem to be an obvious place in the book for it to have fallen out of.

“Oh, I don’t know. It was tucked in on that same page with the picture of Nana. I suppose they didn’t bother to mount it because of the faces.” The picture was of two young men in army uniform stood in front of the usual painted backdrop, but although their tunics and puttees and even the badges on their caps could be seen clearly, where their faces should have been there were just two blank white spaces.

“I wonder if somebody scratched them out,” she commented, swapping the picture for the packet of chocolate biscuits he was holding out to her.

“I don’t know.” He ran his thumb across the surface of the photograph. “It doesn’t feel like it. It looks more like light shining off them. Did they have flash in those days? I suppose they must have. Or perhaps something went wrong with the processing. Either way, they can’t have been pleased. Look, it’s in a studio, they must have paid good money for it.” He turned the card over. The name of the company inscribed on the back meant nothing to him. But there was something else there, in spidery pencil that he had to hold up to the light of the window to decipher. “It says Will and… Tommy, I think it is. Look, here, very faintly. I don’t remember a Tommy. Have a look in the family tree.”

She wiped the last traces of biscuit from her fingers with a tissue before leafing back through the pages of the bible. “No. William’s here – killed at Flers, 1916 – but no Tommy. What was your granddad’s name?”

“Bert,” he said, so that settled that. “I expect he was just a friend. They did that, didn’t they; joined up together. The Accrington Pals and all that.”

“I think so.” She was looking down at the family tree, tracing the branches with her finger. She found her own name etched in at the bottom in biro: m. Susan Spencer 1976. “You should update this,” she told him. “Put Jack on, and Sarah’s lot. You could even take it back further. They have all sorts on the internet these days, you can go back centuries. Carol at work was telling me, she’s doing theirs.”

“Hmm.” He was still staring at the photo in the last of the day’s light coming in through the window on the western front of the house. “Maybe.” He slipped it absently into the breast pocket of his shirt and rubbed his hands together. “I think I might put the heating on tonight. It’s cold in here, isn’t it?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if you could see me,” he told Jack. “I managed to find the census for 1901, and I found your great grandmother on there, and her brother and mother and father.” No Tommy, however – not that that was worth mentioning to Jack. “He was a stonemason, it turns out, your great-great grandfather. You have to pay extra to get a printout. I’m going to order some next time I’m online.”

His son chuckled at the end of the line. “I never thought I’d hear you say ‘online’. You’ll be getting broadband next.”

“I might do, we had a thing through the door.” He smiled. “For stuff further back than that you have to go to the public records office, so we’re thinking of getting the coach down to London one week when your mum’s got a couple of days off and staying with Sarah.”

“Wow. You’re taking it really seriously.”

“It’s interesting. Well, I find it interesting.” He felt suddenly bashful, embarrassed by his enthusiasm. “What have you been up to, anyway?”

“I went on the march on Saturday,” Jack told him. “Did you see it on the news? The student union organised a coach and we all went down to London.”

“The war one?”

“Uhhuh. Troops out. And I’ve signed the petition. It’s online, I’ll have to email you the link now that you know how to use it. Did you know they’re thinking of bringing back the draft in America?”

“Are they? I’ve not read about it in the paper.”

Jack sounded exasperated. “No, well, it’s hardly been reported. But it’s in front of the senate, or congress, or whatever. And if it happens there, it’s only a matter of time before it happens over here.”

“Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about that.” He suddenly felt sick in the pit of his stomach. “I can remember the fuss when they got rid of national service, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to bring it back again.”

“Did you have to do it?” His son sounded curious.

“No, no, they got rid of it long before I was old enough. Your granddad did, though. He was in the Royal Engineers just after the war. I remember him taking us to Aldershot to show us his old barracks. And my uncle Graham was out in Malaya. And it turns out my great uncle – that would be your great-great uncle –“

“Enough family tree!” Jack protested, laughing.

“Alright, alright,” he smiled. “You look after yourself, anyway. D’you want to speak to your mother again before you go?”

Susan stubbed her toe on one of the boxes when she was on her way to bed, and because she was only wearing her rabbit slippers, it really hurt. “Right, I want these shifted,” she told him, leaning on the computer table and trying to pinch some of the pain out her foot. “You’ve had them down here nearly three weeks. Jack’s not coming home till the holidays, he’s said he’s too busy, so you can put them in his room in the meantime. No arguing. Alright?”

“I’ve not even looked in that one yet,” he said guiltily. “I’ll move them first thing in the morning.”

They went up to bed. There were the usual sounds of running water, and Colin setting the alarm, and the floorboards in the bedroom creaking. Then the landing light went off, and the twin yellow glows of the bedside lamps not long after. Soon the only sounds in the place were the clicks and gurgles of the central heating as the system switched over to economy seven, and the only light came from the clock on the video and the thin strip of moonlight that slipped between the curtains and stretched across the hearthrug and half-way up the scuffed magnolia on the far wall. As the night wore on it worked its way slowly across the room, striping each of the cushions on the sofa in turn and inching across the side table with its neatly-stacked pile of ceramic coasters until it illuminated the cardboard boxes stacked in the corner, beneath the desk where the computer stood.

The machine started up without a sound. Its flat screen glowed white for a moment, a cold bright rectangle in the darkness, but just as soon as the light had built up to its full intensity it faded away again, leaving just a blank frame in the corner of the room.

The digital figures on the video silently rearranged themselves: 05:00.

“Sergeant says we go over the top at dawn: oh-five-hundred hours as the army insists on calling it but a d—n silly time to be up in anyone’s language and an even d—n sillier thing to be doing in it. One of our lads came up the line from Pozières yesterday – poor sod, I think he thought he was out of it for the foreseeable, but they just patched him up and packed him straight back down here with his arm in a sling, saying they’d give him a Webley instead of his rifle because you only need one hand to fire them and they knew he would want to do his duty alongside his comrades. Anyhow, he was talking to some of the lads in the clearing station who’d been up at the front there and they said Jerry looks to be in pretty bad shape – we’ve had our Jack Johnsons pounding him for three or four nights making a hellish noise that you wouldn’t believe, so maybe, just maybe, tomorrow’ll be the push that takes us there. That’s what the lieutenant keeps telling us, anyway. Myself, I won’t believe it until I’m sipping a beer and writing you a postcard from sunny Berlin, but what do I know.”

“I thought you were supposed to be moving that stuff, not reading it,” said Susan, brushing her hair as she came into the lounge.

“Mmm. Mm. Going to. It’s just – there’s a lot of stuff here in the box I haven’t been through yet. I think it might be the answer to our little mystery.”

“Oh, the unknown soldier?” She walked over and stood beside him, looking down at the yellowing paper in his hand.

“Yeah. It’s a letter. There were a load of them in there, all tied up with ribbons, you’d love it. I think all the stuff in there is from Nana’s. I’m not sure mum even ever bothered to look through it.”

“And who are they from?”

He turned the letter over in his hand. “Private T.A. Boscombe, 13th Service Batallion of the Cheshire Regiment. Or ‘forever your own Tommy’ if you prefer.”

She looked delighted. “So there was a sweetheart!”

“Looks like it. I guess he didn’t make it through the war, though. This is the last of the letters.”

“Oh, how sad. Has it got a date on it?”

“November 1916. Doesn’t say where he was, though. I expect they censored that sort of thing.”

“But it would be easy enough to find out, wouldn’t it, now that you know what regiment he was in. Look, I must go, the traffic’s been murder this week. And I still want this stuff moved, you know!”

He kissed her goodbye and listened as her heels clicked down the driveway and the car reversed and disappeared off up the street. It sounded a bit off, he thought. Be worth checking the brakes when he had a chance. It must be due in for a service pretty soon anyway.

He returned to the letter.

“This will make you laugh. Or maybe it won’t, I don’t think I’ve got a very good idea of what’s funny or not any more after ten months out here. I was talking to one of our fellows the other day, a lieutenant who’s been interrogating a lot of the prisoners down at GHQ – he speaks good German, was a sales clerk for Lever’s before all this began – and guess what they call the trenches? Schützengraben, if you can get your tongue round that. And it’s because a graben means a grave, in German. Think of that! Sometimes when I’m standing to out there in the freezing cold with the water up to my ankles and the rats swarming round my feet and the stink rolling in of all the bodies that are lying out there, the only thing you want to look at is that rectangle of sky above the top of the trench with the clouds still scudding by as if everything was normal down beneath them, and that’s where I think I am. Already in the grave, and they’re just saving time by sending me there early.

Forgive the ramblings of a lonely soldier. You mustn’t worry about me. Will has promised to look out for me, and I have promised to look out for him, and I know in your prayers you are looking out for both of us. He is a good man, your brother, and I will be proud to have him standing beside me when the order comes and we go over the top together. And no doubt the lieutenant is right, and this will be the push that ends it all, and Will and I will be back before you know it. Back from our grave, and home where we belong. And know this: whatever the dawn may bring, I will always be

Forever your own


“I put all that stuff back up in the loft,” he told her that evening, as he fiddled with the thermostat. “I don’t think I’m going to carry on with it, to be honest. What is wrong with this thing? We never had any problem getting the house warm last winter. It can’t be on the blink already.”

“Why not?” she asked him, surprised. She was folding towels ready to go in the airing cupboard.

“I don’t know. It just seems like it might be better to leave some things as they are. I mean, Nana obviously never wanted us to know about this Tommy, did she? I don’t think she ever told mum about him.”

“Your mum had the letters,” Susan pointed out.

“Yes, but that was in the stuff that we cleared out from her attic. I don’t know if she ever even looked at them. She never said anything about it. What if she did look at them, and it upset her?”

“Why would it upset her? Here, help me with this.” She passed him the end of one of the big bath sheets they had got for their wedding anniversary.

“Well…” he said, and tailed off, thinking. “If he hadn’t been killed, she would have married him instead of grandpa, and mum and Sarah and me and Jack wouldn’t even exist!”

“Yes, but he was, wasn’t he. And you do. It’s just the sort of thing you expect to find out about when you do your family tree. It’s fun!”

“Hmm.” He didn’t look convinced.

“Well, I think it would be a shame to stop. You were enjoying it so much.” She picked up the pile of towels and walked out onto the landing. “God, look at this! It’s no wonder you can’t get the place warm!”

He followed her out. She was looking up at a black rectangle above her head. “You’ve forgotten to put the trapdoor back over!”

He stared up into the darkness. “But I’m sure… I remember…”

“Oh, go and fetch the steps. That’s where all the heat’s going, up there!”

But when he went up the ladder it didn’t feel like there was any heat in the attic at all. Quite the opposite in fact. There was an almost tangible chill rolling out of the black hole above his head. He could see his breath clouding in front of his face as he came level with the frieze that ran round the top of the landing, and he stopped, clutching the ladder in a sudden fright.

What was this? This was ridiculous. He was a grown man, and he’d never been afraid of the dark. But he was no more willing to put his head up into that cold blackness above the rim of the trapdoor than he would have been to let go of the ladder and tip himself over the banister twenty feet down into the hallway below. What the hell was wrong with him? What did he expect to happen? The light switch was only a couple of feet above the trapdoor, attached to one of the roof beams: he had gone up and pressed it a thousand times. He knew perfectly well what was waiting for him in the darkness – just the boxes and bags he had been up there shifting around a few hours before.

Forcing himself to smile at his own stupidity he screwed his eyes shut and groped above himself with a trembling hand for the handle of the trapdoor, holding on tightly to the cold metal of the ladder with his other hand. He was letting out his breath in little sharp gasps, all his senses straining out for the tiniest noise, the slightest sensation from the blackness above. And all he could think was – if something reaches out and touches my arm right now – but then his grasping fingers found the knob on the trapdoor and he pulled it towards him just as a board creaked a few feet away from his head and something started to move across the attic.

“What was that noise? You didn’t fall, did you?” asked Susan, appearing at the foot of the stairs.

“No – no, just came down the ladder a bit quickly. Thought there was another step,” he gasped, drawing back into the doorway to Jack’s room so that she wouldn’t see the clammy sweat that had erupted on his forehead, in his armpits and in the small of his back. “All sorted now. I’ll put this ladder in the garage, I think. We’re not going to need it for a while.”

The shopping centre was crowded – Christmas shoppers, she supposed, even though it was barely the second week of November – and the only table was right in the far corner of the food court, and it hadn’t even been cleared. It was only after they had shifted the dirty cups to the side and unloaded their own trays and shucked off their coats and bags, taking care to put them well under the table where no one could make off with them, that she told Carol what was really on her mind.

“I’m worried about Colin,” she said as she split the foil top on the cream carton and spiralled it into her coffee. “He’s having trouble sleeping. The number of times in the last couple of weeks I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and found him just lying there, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling. I keep telling him to go to the doctors, but he won’t listen.”

Her friend smiled. “Oh, they never do, do they. When Rob’s back went it was a week before he’d admit there was anything wrong, and even then I had to drive him down there. Is he worried about something?”

She shook her head, lifting the cup to her lips but finding it still too hot to drink. “I don’t think so. Not that he’ll talk about, anyway. I think he misses Jack more than he’ll admit. He’s been quiet ever since he went off to university.”

Carol nodded. “They’re close, aren’t they?”

“Always were. And… I don’t know. I think when Jack was coming and going all the time it sort of gave Colin some structure to his day. You know I was worried when he took the early retirement that he wasn’t going to find enough to do with himself. That’s why I wanted him to get going on the family tree stuff.”

“He’s not kept up with it?”

“No, he seemed to lose interest. He was so enthusiastic about it to start with. We were even going to have a trip down to London. Then he just sort of… turned in on himself. He just sits around all day. He’s stopped getting up in the mornings when I go to work, which is fair enough because he’s so tired all the time, but the other day I swear he didn’t get up at all. He was still up in the bedroom when I got home, and he hadn’t even shaved. I’m really worried about him, Carol.”

Her friend gave her a reassuring smile. “Well, we should be able to sort out the sleeping thing, at least. I used to take Valerian when my periods kept me awake. We’ve got time to get across to Holland and Barrett before we’re due back, if you don’t mind abandoning this coffee.”

She shook her head, grateful that at least her friend was taking the problem seriously. “It’s almost undrinkable anyway. I don’t know why we carry on coming here.”

“Good.” Carol retrieved her coat from the back of the seat and slipped it on, adjusting the crumpled red flower that was pinned to the lapel. “Look at the state of this poppy. They always get tatty, don’t they? It feels so disrespectful.”

“Oh, I feel terrible, I haven’t even got one.”

“You can get one here, I saw them earlier. Where have they got to?” She stood up, scanning the crowded mall. “That’s weird. There were two of them, all dressed up in the old-fashioned uniforms. They were just over there, I saw them when we were trying to find a seat. Staring over in this direction they were, I thought they must have their eye on one of the waitresses.”

Susan gazed around at the milling shoppers and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I think they sell them at the station, I can pop in on the way home. Come on, or we’ll never get back in time. What did you say this stuff was called?”

She sent an advent calendar off to Jack at university. It was silly she knew, but she thought it would probably make him laugh, and anyway, he would be glad of the chocolate.

He was still lying there on his back when she came back from brushing her teeth, just staring up at the ceiling.

“Did you have another bad night, love?”

He nodded, without even looking at her.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She sat down on the bed beside him, stroking his bald patch. “D’you think you managed to drop off at all?”

“Don’t think so.” His mumble was almost unintelligible.

She glanced across at the clock on the bedside table. She was going to be late again. “Look, why don’t you come down and meet me for lunch today? We could pop into Boots in the arcade and see if they can recommend anything stronger. I thought those things of Carol’s might start working if we gave them a few weeks, but they don’t seem much good, do they?”

He shook his head emphatically, rumpling the pillow. “No. Not today. I can’t go out. Not feeling like this.”

She balled her fists, digging her nails into her palm, but when she spoke she managed to keep her voice calm. “Well, why don’t you try to have a bit of a nap this morning, and see how you feel later? I’ll give you a call from the office.”

He scowled up at the ceiling. “No. You just go. I’ll stop here. It’ll be ok.”

“I…” She really did have to go. She shook her head. “I’ll give you a call later anyway. Maybe go out for a walk or something. The fresh air might help.”

He listened to the sound of her car as she pulled out of the drive.

“And you’re sure I’m doing the right thing?”

Carol glanced round the office to check there were no supervisors lurking before scooting her swivel chair round to Susan’s side of the desk and taking her friend’s hands in her own. “Look. You need to do this for your own sanity, if not his. There’s no shame in it these days. Look at Robbie Williams. He’ll thank you for it in the long run, I promise you.”

Susan nodded.

“Now, go on and get it done while her highness isn’t around to listen in on you. I’ll make us both a cup of coffee while you’re doing it.”

She punched in the number from the piece of paper she had been carrying around in her handbag for a week or more. The receptionist answered on the first ring.

“Hello. Oh hello. It’s Susan Baxter here. I wondered if I could make an appointment with Doctor Virdi. I… it’s actually my husband I need to talk to him about.”

He sat on the edge of the bed, his hands on his knees, absolutely still, his face turned up to the ceiling. He had an idea that the thing in the attic only moved when he moved, so he was concentrating every ounce of his will on maintaining his position, ignoring the pins and needles which were creeping maddeningly in his legs and the cramp in his neck and straining his ears for the slightest sound from above, so when the phone rang and shattered the silence it was like an electric shock running through his body.




“Sorry, were you out in the garden?”


“It just took you a while to answer. I thought you might have been gardening.”

“N-no. I was just – sorry. I was doing something.” He glanced out through the patio doors at the garden. It was already getting dark. Susan had been nagging him about getting out there and raking up the leaves that morning. Or it might have been the day before. Too late now, anyway. He pulled the telephone cord to its full length so that he could stand at the bottom of the stairs and keep an eye on the trapdoor while he was talking.

“Oh. Well, I just – how are you, okay?”

“Fine. Fine. And yourself?” Jack didn’t normally phone during the day. He usually waited till the weekend, when he knew his mum would be around for a chat.

“Yeah, yeah, fine. I was just – we’ve got a reading week next week, and I was thinking I might come back and see you.”

“No!” The word came out so quickly it startled them both. “I mean… aren’t you supposed to be studying? Isn’t that the point of a reading week?”

His son sounded hurt. “Well, I’d bring some books back with me. It’s fine, my tutor said quite a lot of people go home. And if I need anything else, I’m sure they’ll have it at the library in town.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t have thought so. I mean, it’s specialist stuff you’ll be needing, isn’t it. They don’t really have… academic things.” He was gabbling, searching for excuses.

“Well… I’m sure it’ll be fine, anyway.” He sounded doubtful. “I’d probably just come back for a couple of days. Maybe get the coach down on Tuesday?”

“It’s not really convenient, Jack. Your mum’ll be working, and you’ve left it too late for her to arrange any time off. It’s their busiest time, the run-up to Christmas. If you’d let us know earlier…” He put a hand over the mouthpiece and held the receiver at arms length, climbing the first couple of steps to peer round the turn of the stairs at the door to Jack’s bedroom. It remained very firmly closed.

“Oh. Well… I guess I won’t see you till Christmas, in that case.” His son suddenly sounded like a little boy again, in need of comfort. But in need of protection as well. And that was more important.

“That’ll be nice. Yes. It’s probably for the best. We don’t want you falling behind.” The noises had started up again, louder than ever. He had to get Jack off the phone before he heard.

“Alright… give my love to mum, then.”

“Alright. Bye then. Bye.”

As soon as he had got the receiver down the noises reached such a crescendo that he had to sit down at the bottom of the stairs with his eyes shut and his hands clamped tight over his ears to block them out.

Jack didn’t phone again until the following Sunday. He was sitting in front of the Antiques Roadshow with the sound turned right down when Susan came in from talking to him and picked up the remote control and switched it off altogether.

Her eyes looked red and her lips were just a thin line. “You and I are going to have a very serious talk,” she said in a voice that was trembling.

Doctor Johnson was his favourite out of all the doctors at the unit. She was young, probably only five or six years older than Jack, and she had a way of listening that didn’t make you feel like an idiot, no matter what sort of rubbish you came out with. He was glad it was her on duty on his last day there. He wouldn’t have liked to have gone without saying goodbye.

“So, we’ve got an appointment set up for you to come back and have a chat to us in the new year, but if you’re worried about anything before then, please do give us a call.”

He smiled across the table. “I will. Don’t worry. You’ve been very helpful.”

“And you’re all clear about the medication you’re going to be taking?”

He nodded, and she flashed him a lovely reassuring smile. “As I say, I don’t think you’ll be needing the Doxepin for more than a few weeks. Once you’ve got your sleeping patterns back to normal I think you’ll start feeling a lot better about things. Try to remember all the stuff we’ve been through about keeping a bedtime routine, and getting plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day and everything should be back to normal in no time.” She came round from behind her desk and led him to the door, smiling all the way. Susan was outside in the waiting room – and she had Jack with her, looking rangy and handsome in a blue hooded top and a haircut that could have done with at least a couple of inches off the back. The three of them hugged for a long time, and he had to take a moment and borrow a tissue off Susan before he got himself properly under control and ready to walk out into the bright winter sunshine beyond the clinic doors.

“When did you get back?” he asked his son when they were all in the car and Susan was driving them home.

“Just this morning. Term only finished yesterday. Mum picked me up from the station on the way to meet you.”

“He wanted to be there when you got out,” said Susan as they pulled out onto the ring road. “I thought we could put the Christmas tree up this afternoon. You and Jack could go up to the garden centre and pick us out a nice one.”

“I’d like that,” he said, and swivelled round to smile at his son in the back seat.

“Run up to the attic and get the decorations down for your dad, would you?” asked Susan while she was tidying away the lunch things. Colin had insisted on having a look under the bonnet of the car, which he insisted was making a funny noise on the way back from the hospital. “I’ve got the ladder in ready: it’s leaning against the wall in your room.”

She got distracted while loading the dishwasher, looking through the cupboards and wondering if they had enough food in now that Jack was home for the holiday: she had got used to it being just her over the past fortnight and forgotten how much a 19-year-old could put away in a single sitting. Colin came in through the back door while she was counting mince pies. He was rubbing oil off his hands with what looked suspiciously like one of her tea towels. “I can’t see what’s wrong with it,” he announced. “It was due in for a service at the beginning of December. I don’t suppose you remembered did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” she told him. She had had quite enough on her mind.

“Not to worry, I’ll give the garage a call. I doubt they’ll be able to fit it in before Christmas though.”

There was a cry from upstairs: a sickening yell which echoed all through the house.

“Jack? JACK!” He made it up the stairs in seconds, with Susan not far behind him.

His son’s head appeared in the hole that led into the attic, his face a moue of distaste. “It’s alright, it’s just – I think it’s a rat. It’s ok, it’s dead,” he added, seeing his mother’s look of horror. “Been dead for a while, by the look of it. It’s gross. Right in the middle of the walkway. I nearly stepped on the bloody thing!”

“Oh, no! How could it have got in?” She turned to her husband, expecting him to share her disgust. But instead he was looking as if he had just got the punch line to a really good joke. “What are you smiling at?” she asked him.

“Me? Oh, nothing. It’s alright Jack, come down and I’ll deal with it. Get me some plastic bags, would you, Sue? And some Flash in a bucket. Look, it’s fine. It can’t do any harm if its dead, can it? We’ll get Rentokil in in case there are any more. Come on, smile; it’s Christmas!”

Whether it was the pills or the counselling she didn’t know, but he was on great form for the next few days. He was clearly delighted to have Jack back, and the two of them did everything together, from picking up the tree and the wreath to stringing a new set of outdoor lights in the ornamental cherry on the front lawn. They even stomped across to the Rec when it was already dark one evening to get holly from the big tree beside the cricket pavilion, coming back with great armfuls of the glossy green leaves which they strung up from the picture rails in the hallway, which she thought was taking the carol a bit too literally, but she wasn’t about to complain when they were obviously having such a good time. She did complain the following morning when she noticed the two sets of muddy boot prints that led through the house from the patio door, but the pair of them stood there like naughty schoolboys and swore blind it was nothing to do with them, which was such a blatant cheek that she had to let them off. On Christmas Eve she sent them both off to pick up the turkey while she peeled the sprouts and potatoes in peace with the carols from Kings, and they all had a drink together before Jack’s friend Gilbert turned up. They were going out to the pub to meet up with some old school friends.

“How’s college, Gil?” she asked, fetching him a beer from the fridge because Jack was driving.

“Fine. Good. Quite hard work, though.” Like Jack, he had filled out and was looking more of a young man than the teenager she remembered from just that summer. “They threw us straight in at the deep end with all the anatomy stuff, and we’ve got our first exams when we get back in January.”

“Oh, that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it,” she sympathised. “I’ve got a card for your parents; I mustn’t let you go without giving it you.”

“Actually we should get going,” prompted Jack, who had put on his new olive-green shirt – an early Christmas present from their shopping trip a few days previously – ready for his night out.

“Give him a chance to have his drink!” she scolded as Gilbert grinned. “Colin, why don’t you get the camera so we can get a photo of these two handsome young men?”

That took a good ten minutes, because they had to position everyone in front of the tree and then get Gilbert to take one of the three of them and then get one of Jack with his dad and another because she had forgotten to turn on the flash, and by then he was practically dragging his friend out of the door. She waved them goodbye from the doorstep and returned to the lounge to find Colin already settled on the recliner and watching some rubbish on ITV.

“I might put these on to the computer,” she told him, picking up the camera.

“Alright, love.”

It took her a while to get the cables sorted out and the right programme on the screen, but the downloading bar was soon working its was across the screen. She hummed a few bars of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear as she waited.

“Oh, what a shame,” she told her husband. “I must have got the settings wrong. The ones of us are fine, but the one of Jack and Gilbert hasn’t come out.”

He grunted, attempting to take an interest, and shifted in his chair, his head lolling into his chest. Much as she was grateful for the Doxepin it tended to mean he wasn’t much use for anything after about nine o’clock at night.

“I wonder if I can clear it up with any of these tools on the menu,” she said, mainly to herself. “I’ve never dared use them.”

After half an hour of tinkering, however, she had to admit that the picture was no better. The star on the tree was clear enough, and so were their clothes and even Jack’s trainers, the price of which she hadn’t been able to believe when he told her, but where their faces should have been there was nothing but a white blankness. It almost seemed to glow on the screen. Maybe it was something to do with the lights on the tree behind them, she thought.

She looked across at her husband, now fast asleep and snoring, and shivered. It had got cold in the house again. Maybe she would turn up the thermostat before they went to bed. Make sure it was nice and warm for Jack when he got in.

Oh-five-hundred hours, Christmas morning. It is still dark – will be for hours yet, no matter how many excited children are lying awake willing the sun to rise and reveal the stockings that they know have magically appeared at the end of their beds – but the twin beams of the headlights pick out glittering diamonds of hoar frost in the branches of the hawthorn tree that towers over the lane, and on the leaves of the mistletoe that hunkers in the cleft of its branches. In the ditch the reeds are clamped upright, gripped at their base by the glassy sheet that has thawed and refrozen countless times already this winter. Where the bonnet of the car has shattered the ice a murky brown meniscus has flowed up and over its jagged edges, but the engine has cooled now: the surface of the water will be frozen again by the time the boys’ bodies are found.

The frost is beginning to reclaim the tyre tracks too: the parallel lines which are etched down the middle of the country lane, blackening into two smears of cauterized rubber which turn this way, then that, and finally depart from the surface of the road altogether. And already you can barely make out the other marks on the surface of the tarmacadam, where two sets of army issue boots stood, and scuffed, and stamped, in an attempt to shake out the cramps and pins and needles that are the scourge of any sentry ordered to stand to in the last, bleakest, blackest hours before the dawn.