Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

Keeping the Faith

Moira Sharpe

Those were the war years of course. The world was alight around us, but in my little crumbly village with the steep cobbles, all I remember is the cold. It was a relentless, insoluble cold that made the bones of the old ones creak, and kept us young ones in constant motion inside our barrels of clothing, worn indoors as well as out, and getting more ragged and more tattered as the war wore on. Firewood ran out early on. Trees were chopped down and derelict houses gutted, until, simply, there was nothing more to burn. That’s when the cold in the streets started to come inside too.

And the rain. It seems to me it rained for five years, but that may have been the people, not the weather. Everyone was grey, everyone cold, everyone hungry. It was impossible to dry clothes, and every house smelt like a wet dog, a smell that followed you wherever you went. Food disappeared from our little corner shops, to be replaced by things you could eat only by not thinking about them. We ground out our lives in the shadow of greater events, but nothing ever happened to us. Nothing changed on our bare stone streets, and no one bombed us. Our lives just got worse, bit by bit.

That day, I recall, I was eight, and I was in a state of rare excitement because it was the day of my First Communion. It was raining so hard you could hear it ringing off the stones like the clattering of horses’ hooves. People were stuffing old newspapers in the cracks of their battered windows to keep it out. I woke to see it streaming down my window pane and steeled myself for the feel of the icy
linoleum on my feet, trying to get all my layers of wool on as quickly as possible while still under the covers.

I remember rattling down the scarred wooden stairs, whose railings had gone for firewood long ago. At the foot of the steps, I stopped. Something was different. At the end of the dark hallway I could see a light flickering from the kitchen, playing shadows on the wall. I rushed down the hallway, calling to my mother. Perhaps we had been bombed after all.

My mother was in the kitchen, wearing her best dress, the one with patterns like teardrops. She had put down an old sack and was kneeling in front of the fire, blowing gently on a miracle of flame, conjured from dust and shavings, which she must have begged for from someone, perhaps Monsieur Dutout the carpenter. I gaped at the flame, which was bravely holding its own. My mother had placed my brother, in his usual nest of old blankets and wicker basket, right next to the fire, and his cheeks were turning red, but he had stopped crying.

My mother got heavily to her feet and straightened her wrinkled dress. ‘Lola,’ she said. ‘Come here and see what I’ve got for you.’ Her eyes were shining with excitement and it made me realise how sad she had become since our father went away. She turned away from the fire, where an old cardboard box sat on the ancient kitchen table. Hugging myself with all that was different about this day, I watched as she unpacked the box with as much care as her rough hands could muster. I heard the hiss of tissue paper, then she turned round and held it up, her face as alight as the fire, and smiling like the war had never come to us.

It was a dress. My communion dress. And what a dress! It was whiter than anything I had ever seen, and seemed to glow in the light of the fire. It had layers and flounces that fanned it out from her fingers and almost gave it a life of its own, as if there was an angel in it.

‘It was your grandmother’s,’ she said. ‘And mine. And now it’s yours.’