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The Home Front

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It's a fine morning for February, dawning bright and blue. The lane's solid underfoot, too, thanks to a few days' dry weather. Alec walks a good pace, despite the handcart, and whistles a tune that he's halfway through before he remembers it's a hymn he learnt as a boy. Ah, well, it's got a cheerful sound if he ignores the words.

Just outside town he overtakes an old woman staggering along under heavy panniers of apples, and finds a space for them on the cart. She gives him one for his trouble. It's firm and only a little browned from storage. He ought to save it, bring it home and give half to Maurice, but his mouth waters at the thought of its sweetness and he crunches it down to the core. It's so good he buys another, which he puts in his pocket. He'll give Maurice that one, or share it anyway.

Coming over the hill past the church he sees that the market square is already busy. Men are setting up something like a band stand and draping red, white, and blue bunting all over it. Recruiters, it must be. Christ. And there are new posters up everywhere. Alec stops to look at one once he's eased the cart down the hill. It shows an old gent in a red coat shaking a soldier's hand, and says ENLIST NOW in big letters. Why a handshake from a white-bearded granddad is meant to urge you on, Alec doesn't know. The soldier's not bad, though. Tall and broad-shouldered, like Maurice. Does anybody ever join up because he fancies the man on the poster? That'd be a laugh.

All the fuss draws people to the market, and Alec has sold most of his charcoal by half past eleven. It brings in more money than it did before the war, too, what with proper coal being scarce and dear. Maurice likes to joke that they're turning into war profiteers. Alec just hopes the real war profiteers don't catch on too quick, or Maurice and him will wake up one morning to find the whole wood cut down around them and smouldering in a hundred new kilns. That'll be the end of their livelihood. The war hasn't changed the way rich men get their pennies from poor men's pockets. Just speeded it up, maybe.

People have begun gathering in front of the little stage. The speeches'll be starting before long. Alec wants to leave, but there's still a good sixpence worth of charcoal left in the cart, and then he's got to do the marketing for him and Maurice. All morning his mouth's been watering at the smell of fresh bread from the baker's across the street.

While Alec's wondering if he can afford some jam, a motorcar pulls up and a man in an officer's uniform gets out. There's a woman, too, holding on to him. She almost makes it look normal, just a wife on her husband's arm, but he walks slowly and her eyes watch him all the time. His uniform hangs loose, and what Alec can see of his face under the cap is bone-white and bone-thin. When he turns, Alec sees that his other arm is in a sling. He's not been out of hospital long.

The officer and his wife walk through the market towards the stage, pausing and talking to vendors in a stiff way like Lord and Lady Muck being civil to the servants, and that's what Alec recognises first. He's ready when they get to him, when the man's eyes lock and then go wide as saucers, when his yellowish cheeks turn red and he says, "Good lord."

"Mr. Durham, "Alec says, and he doesn't take off his cap though old habits tug at him.

"It's Captain now," Mr. Durham says, as automatic as the responses in church.

"Are you acquainted with this man, Clive?" asks his wife. Alec mightn't have known her if he'd seen her on her own. She's thinner, and she's got that drawn nervous look around the eyes that comes from worrying all the time. Before the war only poor women had that look, not ladies.

"He was a servant of ours. A footman," Mr. Durham says casually. He's a better liar than Alec would have expected. "Before your time, my dear."

Alec sees the interest vanish off Mrs. Durham's face, like her mind's drawn a curtain. She must have seen him around the old place a hundred times, maybe even knew his name once. He stood with the other servants to welcome her and Mr. Durham after the wedding. He was sorry for her, innocent as she looked in her white dress. But he's not surprised she doesn't remember him. That's what they're like. Mr. Durham wouldn't remember either, Alec thinks, but that he's got reason to.

"There's Major Predmore," Mr. Durham says quickly and starts leading her away. "He's waiting for us." Alec sees from her frown that she thinks it's a bit odd, a bit rude even towards an ex-footman. Mr. Durham'll tell her something to explain his hurry. Probably that Alec was dismissed for pilfering spoons or kissing the scullery maid.

People near Alec are giving him funny looks. He's not sure if it'd be safest to leave now or shrug it off. If he goes, they might think things, or worse yet, Mr. Durham might ask after him. Not that he'll find much--none of the market folk know where Alec lives, or anything about him beyond passing the time of day. They'd wonder about the questions, though.

If he stays, Mr. Durham could make trouble for him. Couldn't he? Could he fetch a constable, have Alec arrested as a . . . what's Maurice's word? . . . an unspeakable? It's a mad thought, got to be mad, but it makes Alec colder than the wind does.

Then again, Alec could cause trouble right back, and Mr. Durham's got a name he can't just shrug off like a dirty coat. He's got a house and a wife and a uniform. And the truth is, Alec's curious. This is the man Maurice used to love. Got his heart broken by. Alec knew some of the story before he ever spoke to Maurice--Mr. Durham's wedding put new life into the downstairs talk about him and his dear friend Mr. Hall--and he heard a lot more of it later, of course. But he's never been able to see Clive Durham as anything but a suit of expensive clothes and a voice giving orders. He never seemed a proper man with blood in him, although he must have been, because he's bled half of it out now and the difference shows.

So Alec stays. He sells the last of the charcoal to a woman in black with a mended sleeve and two kids in tow, and lets her have it a penny cheaper than the price, though it'll mean no jam for him and Maurice. They'll still have bacon and eggs tonight while those kiddies'll be eating stale bread with margarine, most likely. That woman'll lie alone and cry for her dead husband, but Alec will have his friend in his arms.

There's a stirring at the band stand, and a marching tune starts up. Alec waits through a few of those, then a prayer, then an officer with a walrus moustache who must be Major Predmore and who keeps losing his place in his notes--but finally Predmore looks up from the page and says he's giving the stage over to "a true hero who has been awarded the Military Cross for his service at Ypres, Captain Clive Durham."

After all that, Mr. Durham doesn't talk for long, and most of what he says is so quiet that Alec, just on the edge of the crowd, only catches every other word. It's about soldiers, mostly: about what a hard job they do and how they need help at it. Like farming, Mr. Durham says, every hand to the plough, and this crowd full of farmers listens though it's clear Mr. Durham never touched a plough in his life. It's a good speech. Alec likes it better than some others he's heard, or mostly tried not to hear, that were all about the filthy Huns spitting little babies and violating women. Mr. Durham doesn't need the blood and thunder, not with his peaky face and the sling on his arm. Alec can see young men in the crowd, and some not-so-young ones, glancing around and squaring up their shoulders. They'll be in uniform tomorrow. When Mr. Durham stops speaking there's one of those deep silences, and then people clap.

"You not joining up then?" asks old Mr. Joles a little later, as Alec is buying potatoes.

"No."

"Why's that?" He frowns over the tuppence Alec gives him, like maybe he can't trust coin from a man who won't volunteer.

"Don't see why I should kill a German just because he's German," Alec says, and walks away.

He only gets a few yards before someone catches his arm. Alec shakes loose and then sees it's Mr. Durham, all by himself without his wife to protect him.

"Scudder," he says. "I should like a word with you."

For a second Alec can't breathe, and he feels the hairs on his neck stand up, which he never thought really happened. "Don't know no one called Scudder, sir. 'Fraid you must be mistaken." Which is bloody daft when he spoke to the man an hour ago. But seeing Mr. Durham makes him feel like a servant again, makes him behave like a servant in trouble. Act stupid, admit nothing, delay and delay and delay.

"It's all right," Captain Durham says, quiet and urgent. "I don't want to create any unpleasantness, I swear. I only - come with me, can't you?"

Alec follows him to the edge of the square, where it's quieter. A few people are watching them. That's only natural--why'd an officer be talking to the likes of him?--but Alec wishes he'd stayed where he was. It's easier to be secret in a crowd, though he could never make Maurice see it. Maurice fancied the greenwood, and Alec did too in his way, and so off they went to play Robin Hood and Little John. But you can't live your whole life in the greenwood, not unless you can eat leaves and acorns.

For maybe half a minute Mr. Durham just stands there looking hunched and cold, staring past Alec at nothing. "I -" Something odd happens beside his eye, like a twitch but so small and so fast that it's gone as soon as Alec notices. "I see Mr. Hall isn't with you."

"Maurice," Alec says slowly, "is at home." He can't come to the market. People would notice a gentleman selling charcoal. And Maurice still talks like a gentleman, walks and smiles and moves his hands like one, however hard he tries not to.

"Oh. Oh, I see." He's still not looking at Alec. It's not quite the way he didn't ever really look at Alec when Alec was his under gamekeeper. There's a fear in it. "So, is - that is, is everything -"

"Maurice is just fine. You don't need to concern yourself with that."

"I didn't . . . I never thought . . . " He shakes his head roughly, like a wet dog, like he's shaking off whatever he almost said. His back straightens out and his eyes focus at last on Alec's face. "Will you be enlisting, then, Scudder?"

"Why should I?"

"Good God, man. You're an Englishman. You've a duty to your king and country."

"That's the same king and country that would chuck me in prison for two years' hard labour on account of being what I am, is it?"

"Keep your voice down." Mr. Durham hisses like a bad-tempered swan, and Alec can't believe he ever called this man sir. "Surely you don't think your . . . your condition exempts you from responsibility?"

"I think men like me haven't got a country." This is something he's never said even to Maurice, because Maurice looks sick whenever the war's mentioned. Old beliefs hurt him. Alec thinks those schools Maurice was sent to were as bad as factories in their way--you can lose bits of yourself in the machinery and have nothing left but scars. "We've only got each other."

There's the twitch again, almost shocking when the rest of Mr. Durham is so still. It's like he's a wax model of a man, but with a real man inside, trapped and signalling. "Soldiers have . . . comradeship."

"I don't mean that. As you well know." Only maybe he doesn't know. He's been through the factory too, and maybe he lost whatever lets a man judge between the lies that keep him inside the law and the truth that drives him out of it.

The hint of life in Mr. Durham's face smoothes out. He's all wax now. "Good day, Scudder," he says, and walks away as steady as a soldier on parade. Maybe that was what Maurice saw in him when they were lads. There's a strength in that certainty, like there is in putting on a uniform and going off to fight. It's just not a strength Alec can see the good in.

A little later, when Alec is in the butcher shop buying bacon, a pretty woman gives him a long look. He smiles--no harm in that. But she draws herself up rigid and gives him a white feather. "Thank you, miss," he says, which makes the butcher scowl at him too and mutter something ugly.

Alec puts the feather behind his ear, like a flower. And all the way home, he whistles.