When he’d come in, we’d be lying tucked up in bed just after the sun had begun to slip between the slits of the blinds. Lights and shadow fell like prison bars across the carpet. Despite wearing his chunky boots that stomped across the floor, he’d float to each of our beds and press a soft kiss against our foreheads. I don’t know if the others did the same, but I’d pretend to be asleep so he wouldn’t feel guilty for waking us so early before school.
“Bye dad,” I’d whisper as the door gently clicked shut and the camouflaged uniform disappeared out of sight. Then, I’d try and catch the kiss and hold onto it until he came back.
All of us would go to the station. As far as I can remember, mum would drive because we would never let go of his hand.
Lost in a sea of people, busy bodies rushing in and out of the carriages, baggage blending. Only seconds would pass before we couldn’t see his backpack or his beret, but that didn’t matter. As the engine yawned and the carriages clambered to life, we were ignited.
The soles of our shoes slapped against the tarmac as we chased after the train. We were convinced that if we kept going and reached out just a little further, we’d be able to clasp it in our fingertips and drag it back. Or cling on and maybe he’d take us with him on his adventures around the globe where we never saw the dangers, just the suntan he came back with and the presents he would bring. Like that pretty, pink cashmere scarf.
As all children should be, we were protected from knowing reality.
Our breath was ripping from our chests in ragged exertion and we keeled onto our knees once we reached the end of the platform. Together, we’d watch as the machine vanished from sight. The sky swallowing it. Smaller and smaller. Then, nothing. The ones he left behind.
We called them blueys. Letters on the floor waiting for us to get home from school, the only mail my siblings and I ever received. Mum would slice them open with a knife; the paper stuck in on itself. We’d retreat to our rooms, alone, to study them. He’d scribble drawings of deserts and helicopters, ask us questions about days long past, and tell us he couldn’t wait to be home.
Written on thin blue paper, cheaply made, my fingers always finding the gutter of the grain. Compact and flimsy. I picture the sack holding thousands of identical blue letters shoulder to shoulder, an army in itself. So much hope, so much despair.
We were given one each to send back, scrawling as small as we could, almost illegible, so we could spend as long as possible with him. Counting down the days until he was home. The closest we could be to him till then.
Stay safe, I promise I will. All my love, Dad, he’d write. I’ve memorised the words, etched them on my skin, a family prayer we clung to.
Flailing sky-coloured paper acting as a paternal substitute. It wasn’t enough, how could it ever be enough?
I find myself reading over them in adulthood more than I admit. As I reread the words and trace the crawling impressions, I’m bothered by his lack of punctuation. I keep them stashed in a non-fiction book that compiles the farewell letters of soldiers who never returned.
Dad did return. Safely, but not unchanged. He could be sat on the sofa directly below my bedroom with the sound of his movie vibrating up the walls, but the fear still catches in my throat. Everything we could’ve lost. The possibility of a farewell letter. If you’re reading this, it might have begun. Torturing myself by imagining the words.
It was the height of summer, denim shorts and vest tops, early mornings and late nights, only popping home when we were called in for dinner. No strict regimes, no officers to report to, no boots to polish.
Chloe, Archie and I spent lingering afternoons in the deserted car park behind our house, playing games that took place in imagined lands far beyond our childhood ceiling. The absence of the eldest Peters sibling silently gaping. He had traded in his youth for a uniform. Running in the smoke of our father’s footprints. Trying to fill the imprints. Still trying.
Our calves burned from pedalling and sunburn prickled our shoulders.
One day, we looked up into a bottomless blue sky and saw the trails left behind from a plane. Crisscrossing. Three of them. Like kisses. The same way dad signed off his letters.
Our bikes slowed to still, all three of us in a line, chins pointing upwards.
“It’s a message from him,” Archie uttered hardly louder than the breeze. It’s unlikely, but we believed it.
At the time he was either in the deserts of Afghanistan or the jungles of Belize. I sometimes forget exactly how his timeline draped itself over the endless world like a red, fraying string. The rope of a kite that we could never hold on tight enough to reel back in. But there he was, watching. We thought of him thinking of us, because no matter where he was, we all shared the same sky.
There are seven years between my brother and I; my earliest memories of him are fighting through the grey fog between boy and man. People say that he is the one I look most alike. Same dark hair and dark eyes.
Him just being in the same room as our dad seemed to provoke an argument: two manly voices too stubborn to let the other be heard. A pride can only have one leader. They’d circle each other, bulls seeing red and all the observers faded into shadowy edges.
Our father laid out his own successes like hurdles for his son to jump over. But no matter how high he jumped, how quick he ran, or how much his legs ached, there was always another race to run. Muscles aching with bitterness.
It was no surprise when I found out that Tommy had enlisted for the army. Since he found one that fit, he’d always dressed up in camouflaged army jacket.
I cried the night my brother left. My friend had hosted a sleepover for her birthday and mum had convinced me that it would be okay to go.
“You won’t miss anything,” she had said.
But as we settled into bed, reality filled my bones like a jug left under the tap too long. Retreating under the quilt, I tried to release the pressure.
Holly Peters currently lives in Plymouth and studies English Literature with Publishing at University. She currently holds the position of Plymouth’s Young City Laureate for 2019-2022. Her favourite writing companions are her bow-tie-wearing spaniels: Dotty and Booby. You can usually find her curled up with a book, listening to music too loudly or daydreaming about the sea. Her poems have recently been published in magazines such as Lucent Dreaming, Plymouth University’s INK and Dare to Create’s Lockdown Anthology.