Brennig Davies’ ‘Leftovers’ is the winning entry of the HT19 ORB fiction competition, adjudicated by award-winning author and journalist Cressida Connolly. Congratulations also to Eleanor Redpath, whose story ‘The Heron’ was named runner up.
“Don’t forget,” said Mrs Llewellyn, “they’ll be here soon.”
Mair nodded, but she forgot. It happens every year, the dinner, but she’s spent too long out with the dog- looking at flowers, at birds. Collecting the ‘presents’ the dog has left, like a breadcrumb trail home. She knows her mam will kick off about it, but it’s too late now.
You can’t turn back the clock.
The men trudge through mud, a messy mass of it. One foot in front of the other, bent double, hags with bags as big as them. Their boots becoming spouts for rain. Falling apart like they do. They are coming. They are coming. They will not be late.
“Where have you been?” Mrs Llewellyn cries, flapping, and Mair tells her to calm down. “How can I calm down?” she says, fiddling with the potatoes and the faggots and the peas. “Go and lay the table, quick!”
Staggering blindly, falling and falling, sinking into the bog. Backs breaking. So much hurting. Nests of lice, their heads have become. Never mind. Nearly there now. Just keep going. Keep on keeping on.
Mair tells Mrs Llewellyn that the table’s laid, and her mother tells her to go get Him. So Mair steels herself and climbs the stairs to the bedroom to fetch Him, to get Him ready for dinner. She knocks on the door when she gets to it, and hears a groaning from inside the room. She knocks again, and walks in.
He lies on the bed like He’s dead, but He groans and turns so she knows He’s not. She calls him the Mummy Man, because of the way He’s all wrapped up in those bandages, white ribbons, like a Pharaoh. It’s also all He says these days- “Mummy… Mummy…”- calling out like a lost child. So He’s the Mummy Man. And He scares her. She knows He shouldn’t, but He does. Something spectral and wrong about Him, writhing in the bed like a ghoul, lying in the dark room all day. He barely comes down. She hears Him moving sometimes, the creaking of the floorboards- a ghost, haunting the house.
“Hello,” she tells Him, and goes over to the bed. He’s flailing like He’s had a bad dream, so she does what her mother’s shown her to do- holds onto His legs while He kicks them so he doesn’t hurt Himself. “Shhh,” she says. After a while the fog clears, and He lies still again, whimpering. She can hear it, faintly, through the web of bandages and gauze- “Mummy…Mummy…” She rubs His back like her mother’s shown her. Consoles Him like a mother herself.
“They’re coming today,” she tells Him, as she gets Him to sit up, as she lifts Him from the bed. “It’s That Day again.” He doesn’t seem to hear her, but she feels like she can feel part of Him unclench.
She helps the Mummy Man to the bathroom and wipes for Him, then leads Him to the bathtub in the corner of the room. Mair fills it up with warm water and soap, and gently eases Him in. He shivers with pleasure and pain. She scrubs His muddy body, and redresses, replaces, the wet bandages. She does it as quickly as possible so her eyes don’t have to linger on His wounds, the burns and scars and disfigurement. She catches glimpses, though, of course she does. And then she makes a Mummy Man of Him again, with as much care and love as she can. He winces as she does it, but He holds her hand when she’s done. She holds His hand too, and feels bad that it disgusts her. She feels like it shouldn’t, but it does.
She leads Him back to the bedroom as He shivers and trembles all over, like He’s stabbed with electric shocks. She carefully picks out His Sunday best clothes, His shirt and waistcoat and suit, and drapes them on Him, bit by bit. She helps Him pull the shirt over His bandaged head, pull the trousers up over His scathed thighs. She bends down and ties His shoelaces for Him. Then she leads Him downstairs like a blind man, making Him hold the banister as He takes one step, then another, then another, so that He doesn’t fall.
Coughing and coughing, blood and lungs and gas. They stagger on. They have to get home.
Mrs Llewellyn in the kitchen hears them coming down the stairs, as she slaves over the steaming pot, martyring herself for the meal. She hears the footsteps- Mair’s, slow but sure, and then His, faltering. She checks on the potatoes and stares out the window. She loves This Day and she hates it. She’d like to cry, but she hasn’t got the time.
Come on, boys, nearly there… Just a bit more, just a bit further… Watch your helmets… Watch the guns…
Mair leads Him to the dining room. She’s laid a place especially for Him today, at the head of the table. She helps Him lower Himself into the chair. She flaps His napkin and then tucks it into the collar at the front of His shirt.
Mrs Llewellyn brings in the potatoes, the carrots and parsnips and beans, the gravy and the mint sauce, the slices of meat on the big plate.
“Mair,” she says, “the clocks.”
Mair goes through the house, stopping all the clocks as they reach the Time.
Can you believe it, lads? We’re nearly there now, nearly home…
Mair and Mrs Llewellyn and the Mummy Man all sit at the table and wait, watching the food, worrying that it’ll go cold.
And then, suddenly: there is a knock on the door.
Mair answers it.
They stand in the porch, the visitors. She gives them a hand over the threshold and leads them into the house, into the dining room. They take off their muddy boots by the door and they hand Mair their lice-ridden coats, which she throws onto the fire. They will give them new coats to leave with. The two men take off their helmets and rifles and place them carefully by the stairs. Mair wonders if there are still live bullets in the guns.
Mrs Llewellyn says, “lovely to see you, lovely to see you.” Mair helps them with the rest of their things, and then leads them one by one to the dining room. She sits the one man near the Mummy Man, and the other next to herself. Mrs Llewellyn is at the other end of the table.
It is not a big table. It is full with the food she’s spent hours making, but she knows that by the time the meal is over it will all be gone, because the men are always hungry. Sometimes they haven’t eaten for days and days until they arrive. She makes extra trimmings, boils extra vegetables, carves extra meat. She decides to fill up these hollow men.
She says a prayer quickly, and when she finishes, she says, “tuck in, everyone,” which she would never normally say, but this is a Special Day when Special Things happen. Like the bullets stopping. Like the men coming home.
Mair has to feed the soldier next to her because he’s lost both arms (God bless). The Mummy Man is given soup when Mrs Llewellyn works out that the meat is too much for Him to chew and swallow. He makes a terrible mess at the head of the table, His hand shaking like a skittish bird as He lifts the broth to His lips.
No matter. It will get cleaned up.
The other soldier has completely lost his hearing so when Mrs Llewellyn asks him to pass her the gravy she needs to act it out in as an elaborate charade to get him to understand. A bit spills when he passes it because his hand shakes, too. It strikes Mair that all these men tremble. None of them can ever really be still.
When the food is all gone, Mair and Mrs Llewellyn get up to clear away the plates. The men sit quietly in the room waiting for them to return. Mair wonders what they hear in their heads. The two women wash the dishes in the sink, and then dry them with an old tea towel they pass back and forth. The men in the dining room hardly move, except for the trembling.
And when Mair and Mrs Llewellyn come back into the room, the two guests make to leave. Mrs Llewellyn says they can stay if they want to, but already they reach for their helmets and guns. Like a reflex. Mrs Llewellyn fetches them the new coats she’s sewn specially for the occasion, and helps them put them on. She has made one with special sleeves for the Man-With-No-Arms. Mair puts the packed lunches of leftovers Mrs Llewellyn has made into their rucksacks. She’s shocked at the size of these bags, their weight, but doesn’t say anything.
When they’re ready to go, both women kiss them on their dirty cheeks. Mair leads them out of the house, with their kit bags and equipment and thermal socks. The men say “thank you, thank you” and then stagger off down the lane, away from the house, waving as they recede into the distance like shades. Mrs Llewellyn thinks she might cry now, but decides to leave it for a little bit longer, until everything is completely packed away and the clocks have started again.
Mair goes over to the Mummy Man and helps Him up out of His seat. She leads Him by His damaged arm back up the stairs. She asks Him if He enjoyed the meal and He mumbles something that she takes to mean that He did. She finds it difficult to interpret what He means usually, but on This Day she feels she understands Him that little bit better, that little bit more. It seems to make all the difference.
She helps Him undress back into His old pyjamas, and tucks Him into bed to sleep because she can tell He’s tired. He is always tired. She kisses the Mummy Man’s bandaged head. He is already writhing and moaning like He always does, trembling, sweating on the sheets. She doesn’t know how to make it better for Him. She gives Him some medicine and wipes His brow. She holds His hand.
She says “sleep well” and is just about to call Him “Dad” before the word catches in her throat.
She just says, “sleep well.”
She draws the curtains closed again, and shuts the door behind her.
Mrs Llewellyn has finished the clearing by now, and has put everything back where it should be. She tells Mair to restart the clocks, so Mair does. The clocks tick again, but somehow she feels like they never really move forward.
Mrs Llewellyn goes upstairs and Mair grabs the lead for the dog. She wants to feel the wind in her hair, and to see the birds and the flowers again. She doesn’t want to think, or feel, or remember. She doesn’t want to imagine them, staggering on through the wasteland of fog and blood and barbed wire until they reach the house again next year.
She calls for the dog through the house, and it’s as she reaches the door that she sees the boots. The Man-With-No-Arms must have left them behind. He must have just carried on walking without them, barefoot save for his socks. Maybe he left them because he just couldn’t tie the laces, and didn’t know how to ask for her to do them for him. Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to ask.
She stares at the boots and finds they make her feel funny. She doesn’t want the Man-With-No-Arms to be without them. But she finds that, with them here, she can almost convince herself- almost- that maybe the men never really left.
Art by Abigail Hodges
BRENNIG DAVIES reads English at Mansfield. This is despite the fact that he is Welsh, and will never stop going on about it.