SOLDIER BOY by Tesni Jenkins (1st place, Oct20)

Soldier-boy sat on the bottom step, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He watched his father tie his shoelaces with care, pulling them tight against his ankle before twisting them into loops. His shoes were boots, heavy, dark, and leather. Soldier-boy wore similar boots, only his were suede and a more yellow colour. Father’s face was one of concentration. He was that kind of man, the kind that cared as much about how well his boots were tied as he did about whether or not he was wearing any. The house was always orderly and always clean. When he’d said at school one time that Father liked to clean the house, Soldier-boy had been met with laughter, “What does your mother do then?” one boy had jeered. Soldier-boy had an answer, an answer he’d heard Father say jokingly before he kissed Mother on the cheek. “She messes it up.”

Soldier-boy wasn’t his real name, of course, but his real name was a lot more boring. He’d earnt the more exciting version from the old tin helmet he had been given by his Grandfather. It was dented in places, and the green paint was chipping away to reveal silver, but it was still a thing of beauty. “Soldier-boy” his Dad had called him when he’d worn the hat home, “Soldier-boy.” He’d told the kids at school that was his name now, the nice ones, not the ones who laughed, and when he showed them the helmet, they all agreed it was a fitting name. Father had finished getting ready and had slung his satchel over his shoulder. He held out his hand, and Soldier-boy lifted his helmet onto his head before taking it. Together they walked into the street, pausing only to lock the front door.

Perspective is a funny thing, and from the perspective of a child war was fascinating. It was black and white, good guys and the bad ones, simple. Soldier-boy knew they were good guys. His brother flew planes and he was a good guy. Mother helped build those planes and she was the best person he knew. She hadn’t known how to build planes before the war started, but after all the men who used to were sent away they taught her how. Her hands were more scratchy now, but that was the only difference building planes had made. She still came home and made her mess; potato peels and carrot tops across the kitchen counter, recipe cut-outs from magazines piled on the dinner table and her coat hung across the banisters, instead of on the hook where it belonged. Outwardly, her makeup was still the same, accept when she couldn’t find the right shade of red lipstick in shops, and had to opt for a lighter colour. Inwardly, she seemed the same too. She still read bedtime stories in the same thin, sweet voice, only now the reminders at bedtime included where his gas mask was and what to do if the house caught on fire.

War was also, from where Soldier-boy stood, cool. He’d seen the posters and heard the adverts on the radio about how brave all the men who went to war were. He’d even met a soldier on a train, years ago, who talked to him about his family and showed him his knife. The soldier was a young man, and handsome, with floppy brown hair and docile eyes. When Soldier-boy’s stop had arrived, he’d waved goodbye to the soldier, who raised his hand in return. Just raised it and kept it there, didn’t shake it. That was how Soldier-boy waved from then on, lifting his hand, holding it there for a moment, and then bringing it back down. Each time he did he felt jittery with excitement. His arm for a moment, he thought, felt like the arm of a man, the arm of a soldier.

They passed the corner store with the green sign and white doorframe and Father agreed they could go inside. He told Soldier-boy to pick out whichever sweets he wanted and rummaged around in his satchel for the ration tickets. The man who owned the shop had an old, round face and wispy grey hair. He had a grown-up son who was friends with Brother, and Soldier-boy asked him how he was. The shop owner nodded and smiled sadly, “He’s alive.” Soldier-boy was too young to understand the full weight of the shop owner’s answer. He saw it only as informative. If he had been older he would have noted the bitter sarcasm in the shop owner’s voice. He would have understood this as a jab at the authorities who had killed so many young shop owner’s sons that simply being alive was considered a notable state. But he didn’t, he only smiled and took his bag of rhubarb-and-custards from the counter.

Soldier-boy and Father sucked on a sweet each as they continued their walk. Mother was going to meet them at the station, Father said. Soldier-boy nodded, it would be nice to meet Mother at the station, but it would be sad that Brother wasn’t there. Brother was even cooler than soldiers, and now he was also a soldier he was double as cool. He had blonde hair, different from the rest of the family, and the same piercing blue eyes as Father. He was cool enough that when he was eighteen, a year before he had to leave to fly the planes, he’d had a girlfriend. She was nice, Soldier-boy thought she was probably the nicest girl in the world apart from his mother. She always wore knee-length skirts with patterns like strawberries on them. She would play scrabble with the family sometimes and would bring presents for them from the shop her father owned. When Brother had left, she still came around with these presents. She brought Soldier-boy a little model plane once, and she read him aloud a letter his brother had sent from France. She hurried off to the bathroom after she’d finished. Soldier-boy assumed she just needed to pee, but if he’d been more observant he would have seen the slight red in her cheeks when she came back. She was a nice girl.

Soldier-boy’s sweet was almost finished, and he found himself trying to save the final part of it, sticking it between his teeth to keep it out of the way of his tongue. The station was just one turn away now and was feeling less and less appealing with each step. He asked Father with a shaking voice whether he’d remembered to pack the model plane, to which Father said yes and placed a hand on Soldier-boy’s back. Soldier-boy’s legs turned jelly and he gripped Father’s arm as they shuffled around the final corner. Mother was there, her work clothes still on. She crouched and opened her arms wide.

In brother’s last letter he’d told Soldier-boy to brave, that this was his mission and he had to complete it to make sure the country was safe. Father had read the letter out when they sat around the table for dinner one evening, and he had echoed Brother’s words of encouragement throughout the week since.

Soldier-boy sank into his Mother’s arms, crying thick tears that landed on the shoulder of her shirt. Father crouched besides them both, taking one of Soldier-boy’s hands while Mother took the other. “This is your mission, Soldier-boy,” he said, “You have to go on this trip, and you have to stay alive. Britain is counting on you, Soldier-boy.”

He caught his breath, “Father, you have to make sure you keep tidying up the house while I’m gone, and Mother keep making a mess or he’ll have nothing to tidy.”

Father handed him the satchel, and he opened it, triple checking his plane was inside. It was there, along with all his other necessities and his bag of rhubarb and custards. He pushed his helmet further down his head, took a last look around the station and, with the help of a kind lady in a dark blue uniform, climbed up onto the train.

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