Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.
Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.
Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.
Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.
Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.
“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.
“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.
“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.” He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”
She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.
Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.
Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.
A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.
“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.
Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.
“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.
“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.
Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.
“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”
She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.
As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.
“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”
“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”
From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.
“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.
“Daughter…” Nat repeated.
“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”
“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.
Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”
He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.
“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”
“An angel.” he said.
“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”
“An angel…” he said again.
“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.
“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”
She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.
“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.
“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”
Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.
“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”
She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.
“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”
When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.
“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”
Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.
The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.
Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.
Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.
“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”
There was a brisk knock at the door.
“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”
Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.
Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.