“Oh God, not again, who is it this time?”
Sarah looked at the envelope, the only typewritten letters she ever received were from the army. She walked outside the general store, put her basket down and sat down on the top step, staring at the envelope as if willing it to disappear. The townspeople kept an eye on her, but no one interfered, almost every family in the district had had their fair share those letters.
She took a deep breath, turned the envelope over, slowly opened the flap and removed the contents. She was an expert at this now, she could look slightly to the side of the envelope with unfocussed eyes, carefully unfold its contents, and take one more deep breath before focussing on the words.
“REPORTED SERGEANT BASIL HENDERSON WOUNDED WILL ADVISE ANYTHING FURTHER RECEIVED.”
“Basil” she said to the air, shaking her head. The nearest onlooker, nodded politely and quietly passed the name on. Everyone understood.
“Thank God John did not live to see this. Four sons fighting in someone else’s war, Edward dead, George, Basil and Leonard, I’ve lost count of the letters.”
The shopkeeper, her best friend had come out to comfort her. “He’s a tough li’l bugger, you’ll see.” She sat beside her.
“Remember that day he disappeared?”
Suddenly they were both back in time.
She groaned as she rolled out of bed. She had barely slept. Lack of cloud cover made the night colder than usual, but for once, farmers were praying for it to not rain. Some of the men had continued to search throughout the night with a slither of a new moon reflecting only just enough light. Sent to bed at midnight, she had woken up every time one of them came in or out.
It was barely first light and already people were streaming in from the town. It was the second day. For the children, it was like a carnival, as whole families turned out to help. The women manned the kitchen and watched the children while the men and every boy over twelve, were out searching in rotation, on foot and on horseback. Thomas and Isaac had already left with their father.
The atmosphere was surreal; her mind and body had disconnected to stop her from thinking about who they were searching for or whether he would be found. Her calm exterior belied the fact that she was on the verge of hysteria. She took charge of the kitchen, making sure that everyone had enough to eat and drink, and sending refreshments on horseback out to the search parties. The hours passed.
She looked up to see the face of her best friend in the doorway.
“Sarah Henderson, if you don’t sit with me and take tea, you will feint with exhaustion, and then what use will you be to Basil when they bring him home? The dark rings around your eyes have dark rings around them.”
She had six other boys, four born on this very farm, and she had never lost one. For the first time since they had moved to the farm, she wished they had stayed keeping shop, in the township where no one could ever get lost.
Suddenly she was back there, having tea with her friend.
She could feel the sawdust under her feet; smell the soaps, spices, fruits, wafting in and out with the breeze; hear her friend’s raucous laughter; and feel her face redden as meaning dawned on her innocent mind.
Sarah, Sarah,” the sound of her name bringing her back to life.
Outside was ominously silent. They went to the door and saw a man on horseback riding like the devil towards them. Sarah’s legs gave way as she swooned, it took several of the women to coax her back into the sitting room.
He burst through the door, red faced from the wild ride and with tears streaming down his dust encrusted face, he could hardly speak. Someone thrust a glass of water into his hand and he took a great gulp and then a great gulp of air.
“They found him Mrs Henderson, they found him. And the wee tyke is fine! Can you believe it?”
He was too choked with emotion to say any more. Outside, there were wild shouts of hooray and long piercing whistles, men, women and children whooping with relief. Even the dogs, sensing something, were barking.
“Oi, is anyone looking after this shop?”
The two women, jolted from their daydream, breathed sharply in. They looked at each other
“Yeah, he’s a tough li’l bugger, he’ll be fine”.