She could hear the wet, blocked breath as it fought its way from George’s ruined lungs. In the bed, his white face, as if carved from soap, sunken, sharp, he wheezed out each agonising draught. She smoothed his face with a damp flannel, a beard forming once again on his cheeks like the sweepings on a cotton-mill floor. She’d have to root out his shaving kit, again.
Little George and Stanley played quietly in the corner of the room, mindful of their father. They had built a fort from the wooden blocks the Lieutenant’s wife had given them, and their lead soldiers fought over this tiny field. The Army had taken care of them all right, and Alice was grateful. She knew, though, that once George died, as he would soon enough, they’d be turned out, just as she and her father had been when times were hard at the mill. If George dies, she thought; when he dies; if he dies, we’ll need somewhere to go. Tramping to find work wouldn’t be easy with two young boys.
George coughed under the blankets, the starched white sheet rotten with spittle from his broken lungs. He’d lain under gas, in France, and breathed in his death. After two months, she knew that, now, her George, not this wheezing mannequin, was never coming home.
She touched his forehead. She still loved him; and when he was lucid, which was not often, her blood beat like the shuttle of a loom, and she dared hope that the fever was broken, and he’d be well. But all too soon, he sank back into his twilight, and one day, he’d never rise to the surface again. That day might have already come, and gone.
There was the pension, yes. There was that. There was that.