‘It’s like that old game of ours here, Mum-the one you always loved and were so good at. You remember? “Would you rather?” You know, live in the jungle or the desert, be invisible or able to fly, only ever eat Black Jacks or Fruit Saladsexcept now, it’s arms or legs, life or death? Would I get a bonus for rhyming if I changed it to breath or death? I’m afraid, though, if you’re reading this, I will have lost the ultimate match. But Mum, I’ve got one last challenge for you.’
Penelope smoothed Robin’s letter down on the davenport’s leathered desktop, tucking it under a spattered blotter, then unearthed it again, and picked up the paper. She ought to go and do the flowers for tomorrow and hadn’t yet cut anything. Already, the light was going, shrouding the village in dusk and stealing colour from the gardens, making it resemble the abandoned village out on the Plain. Armed with secateurs and Robin’s old cricket bag, capacious and thornproof, she hurried out, on second thoughts placing the letter on the hall coffer, where it lay lifeless, a blue shadow beneath the shining copper planter.
‘I’ve thought about this carefully, so you wouldn’t have to, but in the end, I’d like you to have the final choice. It’s still just as hot and the same old round of rations is just beginning to pall slightly. Give me the Mess any time; curry lunches just aren’t the same out here. The point is, Mum, that if you could find me space somewhere out on the Plain, I’d be chuffed. The dogs will still need walking, so, like it or not, you’ll get to see me every day, in a way.’
Penelope returned from the church’s flinty cool, now lit with volleys of sparky Forsythia, bright and resilient in its donkey-grey gloom. The dogs greeted her with tumbling loyalty. When a call came later, just before she took them out for their last visit, she saw her reflection in the hall’s darkened window pane, a grave, pale lady, not yet too old, talking to herself, animated. She saw it, but was looking through to the dark expanse beyond.
‘In a way, it reminds me of home here, though I can’t quite picture you in Helmand. There’s a similar feelingcall it the weight of agesas if it’s all been smoothed by the past and we’re just incidental, scratching the surface. Of course, we get news, although it’s all politics and people. I’m glad never to hear about the Plain, not even that ash dieback you mentioned. It seems to keep it as mine or maybe it just never changes. If I think about it, that must be the attraction. Choose me somewhere with a view-that shouldn’t be difficult. Always reverse into a hide! Just not in the middle of any beech coppice-I couldn’t stand the aconites, staring at me yellow-eyed. I’d feel like a mahout, minding my elephants from all those rooks overhead. I’d rather be out under the sky, glimpsing the hares box, hearing the sheep graze, eyes peeled for bustards. I think it would comfort me. Somewhere within range of you.’
When David went, Penelope had followed his wishes. Not many miles distant, they’d sprinkled him into a gentle chalkstream where grayling hung and glimmered in the shades. Just thinking of it, she could smell summer’s tindery hay, in her mind’s eye see but not name wild liquorice and giant knapweed, hear relief in the water’s restful retreat, rippling south from the chalky downland.
There, Robin had loved to help his father, even as a tiny boy, ricocheting fat-legged through the hollow grasses, untroubled by the dwarf thistles that ambushed him, demanding they look-‘Look!’-at the butterflies, fritillaries and Adonis blues, brazen with life and skirmishing wildly as David, on leave, tied his gaudy decoys. ‘He’s like live ammo, darling,’ David had said, as she chased Robin until he screamed with delight. ‘We’ll have to keep him exercised, like the dogs.’
Early next morning, before church, the doorbell sounded vigorously, heralding Vivien, fellow widow, fellow walker, ready for a quick turn, one of her ‘Joie de Viv’s’, and triggering slippery excitement in Bom’ and Brig’, always ready for action. Penny could not imagine life without their daily walk, would prefer not to walk anywhere else. Despite the decades, the village gave onto fresh territory year round, the naked Plain kept in perpetual camouflage by the changing weather. To Penelope, its colours seemed stored in the cloud shadows that scouted its wire-quilted expanses, the English-setter speckle of its chalky flanks, the gravid lumps of ancient barrows, close-turfed and inscrutable. Like a favourite book on re-reading, each day vibrated with small differences from the last. With Bom’ and Brig’ their advance party, noses down, ears tuned to the frequency of any passing hen harrier, Penelope and Vivien fell in and followed, capable, companionable and at home.
A small patrol on a regular sortie, they knew, like the lines on their palms, the drove roads and tank tracks, edged with stubby hawthorn, that laced out from the village and over the Plain. Skirting artillery and small-arms ranges, grassed and gravelly, the dogs reconnoitred ancient tumuli for the umpteenth time as they passed training areas via puddled tracks, surfaces shivering with winter rain. Paths that were tyre-patterned, boot-dimpled and horseshoe-pocked, some iced-over or cordoned-off, led them away and back again, as they had done others, for generations. Silent pipes of last year’s cow parsley and cascades of old-man’s beard lined the verges, guard of honour to their passing thoughts.
In Robin’s lifetime, since she’d married into the regiment, the long views were unchanged, although lately, the wind up on the downs seemed to make her eyes stream. Where the MoD had custody, it felt abandoned, a landscape that belonged exclusively to her and to nobody in particular, like an ocean.
‘I thought first of the badges carved in the chalk, but have settled on Stonehenge. Just imagine the effort, heaving those stones, inch by inch, one by one! They must have thought it was worth it. Do you remember going there when I was small and we could still touch the stones, running my latest Matchbox toy up and across their lichened surfaces? I remember wanting to carve my initials, but my penknife couldn’t hack it. They seemed so pointless to me then, although you always said they must, for them, have been so full of purpose, so important. I wanted to live there when I grew up, picnicking on top of the world, watching the nearby pigs barrow and loll in their earthen paddocks. They looked so homely to me, those rows of pig arcs, just like the Nissen huts back at camp. “Bacon rolls”, Dad called them.’
She’d do it for him, them, knowing they’d be proud to see her follow through, commando crawling across the turf, a nose-length above the sheep’s-bit scabious, trefoils and squinancywort, dodging the rabbit pellets peppered all ways. She’d do it by moonlight, in the searchlit glare of a nighttime manoeuvre, heading for the nearest monolith, upright as a tank turret, her son’s headstone, outliving everything, protecting her secret as it held onto its own. Robin’s rest in the navel of the Plain.
The phone rang just after church. Penelope was still invigorated by her walk, the dogs peaceful, her head filled with space borrowed from outside. She lifted the receiver, her other hand resting on the letter.
‘Mum. It’s me. Robin. I’m back. I couldn’t say we were coming home for security reasons, but I could be with you next weekend, if you’ll be there? I’m sure the dogs need walking!’
Seated at her davenport, she looked up and smiled over the light-flooded landscape beyond her window, its greys and greens vibrant with winter sunshine. With Robin’s letter on her own azure writing paper again lying smoothly before her, Penelope, carefully, filled her pen, before adding a postscript, in the same fluent hand: ‘Would you rather fear or hope? Would you rather I just came home?’