The floor was swept. In the other room she could hear the children sleeping, in a single bed piled with coats. The last of the coal she had banked down and now sat, in the one cushioned chair, by the grate. The light from the embers and one guttering candle gave enough to see, and to sew by.
As the handle of the door turned, she looked up, but did not stir from her seat. She had heard, and recognised, the step in the hallway. As the door opened, she placed a finger to her lips.
‘If you must come in, be quiet,’ she whispered.
Her husband crossed the threshold and closed the door carefully behind him. In grubby working clothes he stood, then after a moment, swept his cap from his head. His thin, sandy hair fell into his eyes and he brushed it back with his fingers, waiting, anxious. Pursing her lips, Katie signalled for him to bring the wooden chair from the table and place it nearer the fire.
‘Quietly,’ she said.
Her husband nearly collapsed into the chair. His dirty moleskin jacket fell open as he sat, and Katie could see the billows of his shirt falling from his thin body.
‘How’re you keeping, Katie?’ he asked.
‘Not so bad.’
‘Still at the needle, I see?’
She glanced up from her sewing. ‘It keeps us.’ She concentrated on the frogging that had to be mended, by morning. Her husband waited, licking his lips.
‘Have you taken?’ she asked. ‘There’s nothing for you here.’
‘No, no, Katie,’ he said. ‘I had a one or two at the Railwayman’s, is all. No need to fret.’ He shifted in the chair, wincing as it creaked under his slight frame. ‘You need a wet after a day at the boilers.’
‘I remember, John,’ she said. ‘I remember.’
They sat awhile in the candlelight, which cast deep shadows in the hollows of John’s cheeks and eyes. Katie concentrated on the frogging, but glanced up to see him nodding in the tepid glow of the embers. After a few minutes, he asked, ‘How’re the kiddies? George and the others?’
‘You remember their names aright, do you, John?’ she said.
‘Katie, you’ve no need to be cruel, love. Course I do. Only little Georgie, he...’
‘He’s well enough,’ she said, softening a little. ‘I see to his schooling. His slate’s on the table there. Getting on with his letters.’
‘I’m glad to hear that,’ he said. ‘My little man.’
‘He’s stout enough,’ she said. ‘He’ll do.’
The candle guttered in the draft from the window, which hadn’t shut quite fully since the new year.
‘You’re looking thin, John,’ she said. ‘That lodging damp?’
‘I’ve had a touch of the rue,’ he said. ‘That Coggins sticks his knee in me back every night so I can hardly get a wink.’
‘You take care of yourself, John Sewell,’ she said. ‘The little ‘uns do love to see their father.’
He smiled, his teeth dark and ragged. ‘That’s right, Katie, that’s right. We got plenty to show for the love we had, sure enough.’ He turned and listened to the breathing in the other room. ‘Lucky devils. Bless ‘em.’
‘The getting and the keeping are two different things, as well you know, John,’ she said, pushing the needle through the fabric and jolting her finger.
‘Now, Katie, now, let’s not quarrel. I didn’t come here for that.’
‘And what did you come here for, John Sewell?’
The question was cast to the neat, swept floor, and John stared at the embers as the candlelight moved shadows across Katie’s scuffed boots and blue skirt.
‘Now, Katie,’ he said, and his head began to nod. His eyes closed, and one hand slipped to dangle at his side, his cap falling to the floor.
Kate clucked in her throat, and got up from her chair. Putting her sewing aside, she took her shawl from the table and draped it over her husband’s legs, then placed the loose arm back in his lap. She tossed the cap gently onto the table.
From the pile of sewing she retrieved the smallest greatcoat and slipped it on, poking her arms out of the sleeves. Poor sod, she thought, to be in the Army when no bigger than I am. But still. Sleeping in someone else’s coat. Again. She shook her head.