Alice Coogan is anxious for her husband’s safe return.
By Ian Harrison
He was due back today.
Alice Coogan silently rose as the fast train from London approached. Her heart, swollen, fit to burst through her chest with pride and anticipation. Cheers erupted and echoed along the countryside platform. Youngsters, who were regularly instructed to ‘be men’ for King and country, somehow instinctively became children with a single nod from their mothers.
It was a day to rejoice and celebrate.
Despite herself, Alice could not resist a smile.
Lieutenant Jonathan Coogan had lost track of time and missed the previous train, it seemed. So she explained to the other lady she made small-talk with. Such behaviour was pure Jonathan. He was probably caught up, talking to comrades-in-arms – or had gallantly foregone his own seat for someone with greater needs.
That must be it.
Jonathan had kept Alice appraised of the European situation with a regular succession of letters, all vividly describing life in the muddy trenches. How, regardless of rank, men supported one another, to keep sagging spirits aloft.
Letters, stained with dark smudges of, what? Tea? Mud?
Each tome recounting horrific tales of mundane life, sprinkled lightly with heroism. And hope. Reassurance. In that order. Jonathan would not have had the desire to upset his wife, but clearly felt that these stories must be recounted.
Soldiers sprang from the slowing train, each man hauling enormous baggage. Alice found herself in a human version of musical chairs. Delighted men, finding their other halves, gaping at their rapidly-growing children. Relief flooded the station like the engines’ steam.
Alice, the odd woman out.
But the noise, the noise! While some shared silent embraces, the excited children told the stories they’d been holding onto as long as they could remember.
Before long, whistles blew and the train slowly puffed away. Alice was again left alone on the platform. Looking at the letter in her hand, bearing its royal mark.
The envelope, spoiled from spilled tears, and being opened, sealed, then re-opened again, almost compulsively.
John would explain that. She would not, could not, believe. Until Jonathan, himself, confirmed it. She would trust no other source.
The subsequent train was not due for another eighty-three minutes, but Jonathan dared not miss the third. Not without somehow getting word through to her.
It finally arrived, half-way through her fourth fingernail. Alice’s official letter continued to repel all comers. Crowds of couples and families filed noisily from the station, arm in arm, but Alice could only watch, forlorn, as train after train came and went.
She departed the station under darkness’ cover, just as she had arrived.