When John Harris saw the swastika, his hand clenched until the knuckles turned white. He imagined some jumped-up little gobshite coming here in the dead of night, giggling while he drew this monstrosity. The sheer disrespect made his teeth grate. Salford Lads Club used to be a place of hope. Windows were now cracked or faded and the brick work was rotting. The painted roses that once hung proudly above the door were chipped away. The Dangerous Building sign completed a tarnished picture of childhood memories. A place of gymnasiums in the evening and choirs in the morning. Knitted scarves and free meals at Christmas. Eighty years of breaking his back and he’d returned to a miscreant paradise. John gripped the railings, took a breath and turned away.
He dug his hands into his pockets, scrunching his shoulders against the chill. He walked down a narrow street walled by black bins. When he reached the corner he sighed. Robert Hall Road appeared as if from another life. The house he’d grown up in wasn’t there anymore. In its place was a grubby council block that sucked the life out of everything around it. John glanced at the rows of terraced houses packed tighter than sardine cans. Not an outdoor toilet to be found. There were no children playing in the street. Tag, kick the can, a football made out of rags; all the little things that made up an innocent day were long gone.
John sat down at a bus stop and looked at the pocket watch his son William had given him for his 70th birthday. It was silver plated with the initials of his late wife Moira inscribed into the surface. Not a day went by that he didn’t miss her, not even today.
It was one in the afternoon. It wouldn’t take him long to reach the ship canal. John rubbed his clammy hands together, he couldn’t be late to see her. When the bus arrived he found a seat at the back and took out the clean handkerchief from his breast pocket. He looked down at his brown shoes and spat into the handkerchief, like his father Jack used to. He polished his shoes in practiced swabs until he could see his reflection.
A sudden banging stopped his routine and he looked up to see stones pelting the window. A troop of hoodie wearing kids whooped and shouted, bearing their teeth like chimpanzees. The bombardment reminded John of the Anzio beach front, the trenches and mortar fire. John couldn’t bring himself to be annoyed at the kids. When he was their age he’d thrown rotten apples at horse carriages. Boys would always be boys.
As the bus approached a set of red lights John saw a puddle of water through the window. He witnessed the reflection of Bill Hawkins cowering over a ditch, terrified of waist deep water. Jimmy Thorpe, a hardy, rational kind of soldier kicked him down as a sniper fired. Bill was soaked, shivering but alive.
John thanked the driver when he reached his stop and crossed the road. He felt the sun on the back of his neck, it cast a silver streak across the canal. Seagulls cawed overhead, swans glided below. John relaxed into the bench where he could get a perfect view of the ships.
“The years have been kind, you old dandy.”
John still remembered that voice like it was yesterday. A petite woman dressed in a burgundy coat with a navy scarf around her neck had taken a seat beside him – Emily Barnes. Her white hair ran thick and free. She placed a striped handbag down into her lap.
“Plenty of clean air and fresh living.” John pushed his fingers through his full thatch of silver hair.
He touched the tie beneath his lavender pullover as if he was conscious of it being too tight. He thought about kissing her cheek, thought about wrapping his arms around her and saying all the things he wished he could’ve said long ago. The distance of time made him hesitate.
“Was starting to think you’d keep me waiting. It’s good to see you, love.”
It was here among the ships, hard living and struggle that John had met Emily for the first time. The mischief in her chestnut eyes hadn’t disappeared. He could stare into them all day and still never know the full story. Despite this he felt tentative, like he was dipping his foot into a lake and he didn’t know how deep it was.
“The bus was taking it’s time. Wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” Emily fiddled with her handbag.
“I got the bus here too,” John blurted out. He scratched his ear and tried to think of something better. “You look grand.”
“Oh, it’s kind of you to say so,” Emily gave a nervous smile and looked to the side.
John wanted to reply with something that would put them both at ease but all he could manage was a grunt. His mouth stopped working at the thought of having a conversation with her.
Just as he was starting to consider throwing himself into the canal Emily piped up.
“How’re your kids?”
John breathed in relief. “Our Will’s doing well for himself. He was in Geneva a couple of months back. He brought Annie round the other day. That grandkid of mine’s full of energy.”
“How old is she?”
“Four last September. Always happy our Annie, can barely keep up with her.” John said.
“I always pictured you as father material.” Emily remarked. “On the night we met I knew you were a protector.”
John felt like speaking but looked out at the water instead. He stared at her from the corner of his eye with a thin smile. He’d been fooling himself into thinking leaving Ireland would be simple. That his time away would somehow give him a different perspective.
When he’d seen Emily sitting outside the docks on a warm summer evening in 1939 it was his mate Alfie Maylin who tried chatting her up. Alfie fancied himself the Clark Gable of Little Hulton. He swaggered over and put the moves on her. John hovered around the conversation, accustomed to Alfie’s self-professed charm taking centre stage.
When Emily looked at him, she asked if he was going to be dancing. Before he could answer Alfie insisted he had two left feet to which John agreed. She went with them to a dancehall filled with people dancing to Bing Crosby’s Deep Purple. While Alfie was seeing to the drinks Emily grabbed John by the arm and tugged him on to the dance floor. Emily told him he was cute and that Alfie was the shiftiest sod she’d ever met.
To his surprise John found he wasn’t as bad as he thought, probably because of the way Emily guided him. She’d given him a playful look, suggested that maybe he’d found the right partner. Alfie was gracious in defeat; he polished off two Tom Collins and moved on to a woman near the bar. Down but never out was Alfie Maylin’s motto.
A couple of Gin Fizzes later and Emily was opening up about why she was sitting at the docks. Her mother Ruth was sick with a disease that messed with her head. It made her scream and rave and black out. Her dad was doing the best he could but the doctors were useless. Ruth had one of her worst episodes earlier that day. She wailed about crows attacking her face and called Emily a devil spawn.
John shuffled on the bench. A squadron of seagulls dive-bombed the pavement in a search for food. “Emily, what happened to you?”
“John,” Emily became reserved. “Before we go too far down…that road I’d appreciate it if we don’t say owt for a spell. Let’s just sit here a -”
“I need to know what happened!” John sent the seagulls scattering for dear life.
He realised he sounded harsher than he meant, but all this uncertainty was too much. John hated being left in the dark, hated the grief that resurfaced when it should’ve been dead and buried.
For a moment John thought she was going to cry. But Emily only sighed. “No, you’re right. Before I tell you I need you to come with me. We’ll need to get a taxi.”
“Think you’ll know it when you see it.” There was a pleading look in her eyes.
“Aye, no problem. Will put all the numbers in my phone.”
John produced a small Nokia-made mobile. The buttons were tiny and he had no idea what half of them meant. He fumbled with the pad for a few minutes, getting frustrated when he somehow ended up with a game called Snake on the screen. When he finally managed to press the call button he did so triumphantly.
When the car arrived John insisted on opening the door for her. He fumbled for the tenner in his jacket, making sure he hadn’t lost it. He kept it in his hand for the rest of the journey. Emily was quiet after she told the driver where to go. The name of the street sent a chill down John’s spine. He thought about saying something, anything – but words tasted like cinders on his tongue.
He felt the bumps of the road, the wheels shaking beneath his feet. It reminded him of the journey through the Alban Hills; cramped inside a tank, waiting for the desolation of the world to break in. Although he felt a similar apprehension in the taxi he wouldn’t let fear stop him from being there for Emily.
A sleepy looking road with clustered homes appeared on the left called Barnaby Street. When the taxi stopped Emily started to breathe quickly. John put her hand in his and squeezed gently.
“It’s been so long.” Emily tried to calm down.
John wasn’t sure what she meant but he didn’t like seeing her in distress. He patted her hand and turned to the driver. “If you could take us -”
“It’s fine, we’re here.” Emily raised her chin in a gesture of resolve. She asked for the driver to wait for a little while and let go of John’s hand. He followed her and put the tenner back in his pocket.
Emily stopped in front of a semi-detached house that could have been mistaken for a small mansion. John saw conservatory windows around the side. Emily’s shoulders trembled and he put his hands on both to steady her. She seemed to break out of her trance and put her hand on top of his.
“Wasn’t sure what I was going to find,” her voice was barely above a whisper.
John felt like the stitches of an old wound were being pulled open bit by bit. When he came back in 1946 he’d been devastated when he couldn’t find her. “I came back as soon as I could. Needed to see it with my own eyes.”
“I’ll never forget what the raids were like, John.” Emily tugged on the back of her scarf.
“It was just after my second day working in the factory. My clothes were like charcoal, covered in dirt from shell casings. I was sore but I didn’t care. For once in my life I felt useful.” She smiled sadly.
She went on to say that she was walking home when she saw something like a giant cigar fall out of the sky. She heard an explosion when it landed and ran towards it. “I saw what was left of my home. I kept shouting for mam and dad. Some Home Guard bloke tried to grab me but I kicked him in the shin and kept running, I knew mam and dad were in there when the bomb hit. I had to get away.”
John embraced her, knowing what it was like to lose something. Loss was the devil on his shoulder – the thing that whispered and laughed in his ear, haunted his dreams and left him a broken, self-flagellating wreck of a man. The Manchester Blitz hit all the Salford boys hard when they heard about it.
John waited until Emily dried her eyes before he spoke again. “What happened after?”
“I remember I kept running until I reached Liverpool docks a week later. I took a ship to the Isle of Man to my Aunt Maggie and she got me back on my feet.”
“Were your parents ever found?” John phrased the question carefully.
Emily moved from foot to foot uncomfortably. “By the time I came back to England in the ‘60s I guess I wanted to leave the past where it was. Maggie and I made some make-shift crosses and had a funeral in our own way.”
“There’s something I’ve got to tell you.” John’s voice was solemn. He explained how in 1944 he’d suffered a head wound during Operation Olive. It put him out for over a year and by the time he was fit enough to move again the war was done.
“Oh, John.” Emily hugged him this time. John held her and for a while they stood in the middle of the street, shielding each other from the wind.
“I’m so sorry.” He felt so useless. Like he should have searched harder, that he shouldn’t have given up so easily.
“Look at me.” Emily spoke softly and John didn’t argue. “You haven’t got nowt to say sorry for, love. It’s just one of them things.”
One of those things. Maybe she was right. John took a breath and composed himself. He looked up at the sky and saw that it was turning into an angry gunmetal grey.
“Come on. We can head back to mine for a cuppa,” John smiled.
Emily looked back for a final time at her childhood home. John got the feeling that as long as it was there, as long as it could provide a home for someone then that was something. He led her back to the taxi and asked the driver to take them to his home in Whalley Range. It was raining by the time they arrived. John paid, walked around and opened the door for Emily. It was the polite thing to do. He shoved the key in the door and they hurried inside.
His house was modest and cosy. The living room was decked with old photos and memorabilia. Two armchairs and a couch were neatly arranged around an old looking fire place. John loosened his tie and hung up his coat on a rack by one of the windows. He offered to take Emily’s coat, though she chose to keep her scarf on.
“Make yourself at home.” John set the kettle on in the kitchen.
Emily sat down and he went upstairs to the bathroom. When he came back down he saw her looking at the photos above the hearth.
“She’s really pretty. Beautiful even.” Emily motioned to the picture of him and a curly haired woman smiling side by side.
“I’ll go and get the mugs.” John made a dash for one of the cupboards by the window. He took them out and walked towards the kitchen.
Emily brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s alright to talk about her, y’know.”
“Talking about her won’t bring her back!” In his anger John dropped one of the mugs and it smashed on the floor. The sharp whistle of the kettle boiling sobered him. He sighed and gathered a brush and pan from the kitchen to sweep up the mess.
“Look, I’m sorry, all right.” John made the tea and put a new mug down in front of her.
Emily took the mug and blew on the rim. “No, I understand. I shouldn’t have pried.”
John looked at the photo of Moira. He wondered what she’d say if she could see him now – so crotchety and irritable. “She was one of a kind.”
“I’m sure she was,” Emily sipped her drink.
John stroked the underside of his chin. He’d kept all of this to himself for so long that to speak about it felt like he was losing Moira all over again. Perhaps it would help to remember some of the better times.
“I met her a few years after the war.” John recalled. When he couldn’t find Emily he’d moved to Ireland alongside his brother with the intention of starting a new life. There were too many raw memories in Salford.
“I was in this pub with my brother and I wasn’t in much of a mood to drink. Steve’s half way through his third whiskey, singing and roving with these Irish lads. I’m happy playing nursemaid till I see this big guy bothering this lady.”
He explained how he followed the couple outside and got into a fight with the man when he wouldn’t leave the woman alone. The man was beating him until the woman tossed a rock at his back and a crowd gathered to ward the man off.
“Things seemed to fall into place after that.” John said. “We married a few months later in Belfast.”
“So, you’re saying you played the damsel in distress and she rescued you?” Emily smiled.
“Ha, yeah, I guess that’s what I’m saying.” John scratched the side of his temple. “I told her about you. She was always clever. A damn sight smarter than me. She knew there was something eating away at me. I told her not long after Will was born.”
“What did she say?”
“Well, she figured I had a type for a start! She was fond of saying that every fella longs for a woman that can boot him up the arse should it need a good kicking.”
Just as soon as he began to liven up John hesitated. He looked at Emily and at the picture of his late wife. He swore he’d never compare them but he couldn’t help it. What if he’d only married Moira because she reminded him of Emily? Moira was from a different culture, the representation of a new life. But here was the old one staring him in the face, the girl who ran off with a piece of his heart and had never given it back.
Emily reached forward and put her hand over his. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, I’m fine.” John lied.
Emily arched her eyebrows. “You’re full of it. Come on. Out with it already.”
He sighed. “I loved Moira, I still do. But I can’t help but wonder..”
“I’m not your wife, John. And she wasn’t me.”
“I’m really that transparent?” He blinked.
“That isn’t the point. Who’s to say if you and me would’ve worked out anyway. It’s not like we had any control over what happened.”
John nodded. It dawned on him then that he’d been short-sighted; that he’d been a prisoner of his past for longer than he cared to admit.
“It doesn’t make what you felt for her any less real, all right?” She patted his hand and leaned back.
“I think she understood there was a part of me that hadn’t moved on.” John said.
Emily sipped her tea. “And that’s why she she sounds like a classy woman. Wish I could’ve known her.”
“The two of you would’ve got on like a house on fire.” John managed to smile.
In his emotion, John suddenly thought of something. He got up and ran his hand over the CD player Will bought him as a house warming gift. He turned it on.
They’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover.
The melodic tone of Vera Lynn played through the speakers.
“Still trying to butter me up.” Emily smirked.
John took her hand and led her to the centre of the floor. “How am I doing so far?” He smiled wryly and began to shuffle.
“Let’s see if you can keep in time.”
I’ll never forget the people I met, braving those angry skies. I remember well as the shadows fell the light of hope in their eyes.
Emily set her feet forward while John moved back. They weren’t elegant but they moved with the character of two people with nothing to lose and everything to gain. John lost himself to Vera’s velvet voice. He was back in the dugout listening to the song as it hummed through a mud caked radio. The song of home, of freedom, of what was waiting for him when he returned.
“You sure you’re that shy lad I flirted with back in ’39? My memory’s not what it used to be you know.” She rested her head into his chest.
There’ll be love and laughter and peace ever after when the world is free.
“Maybe he’s found the right partner.” He kissed her forehead.
It’d stopped raining outside. Thin shafts of light were pouring through the lattice windows, casting golden glitter ball spots on the wall. John couldn’t say where this would lead, but for the first time in years he made a silent vow to look forward instead of back.
(Bluebirds was first published on shortstorysunday.com and it was also the first story I ever got published. It was based on my grandad’s memories of WW2 and with him passing away I wanted to make sure his memories live on. I miss you every day grandad.)