The constant ticking of the clock beat a rhythm into her cold heart, and slowly she started to move again. Slowly at first, just a flutter of eyelashes over pale cheeks, until her trembling arms reached out from beneath her dressing gown to rest on the table before her. Her fingertips brushed the edge of the letter, feeling the rough texture of the paper. She leaned closer to it, reaching out her other hand to steady the page. There was no need for her to read, for she already knew each dreadful word off by heart. The black inked letters jumped at her from the page, making her bit her lips as she skim through the printed message. Mr Peter Swanston... request that you join the army on the order of the king... permanent leave from the country until the war is won...
“Jo, come to bed sweetheart,” called a lulling female voice as its owner wrapped her arms around Josephine, “Don’t cry child, he is still here with us.”
Jo turned around and collapsed into her mother’s arms, her eyes pooling over with tears. She burrowed her head into her mother’s chest, turning into a little girl again. Her hands clutched around her mother in a strangled grasp, trying in vain to hold in her grief and anger.
“Jo, be sensible,” her mother said, her hands stroking her daughter’s brown curls, “Use what time you have left with him, instead of wasting away here.”
Jo murmured words through tears, her blue eyes staring up at her mother in reproach. What time do I have left with him? they seemed to say, He’s leaving me forever. She bowed her head as if some indescribable heavy weight had been placed on her shoulders, and rested her fever hot brow in her mother’s arms.
“Jo, listen to me,” her mother persisted, her calm voice beginning to fray at the edges with pain, “You have to see him now, before he leaves. If not you are going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
“What is the point Ma?” Jo said, her voice broken, “He’s leaving me forever and my heart’s already broken. The last sight of him will kill me.”
She sagged down against her mother, but found that there was no one there. Her mother was pacing across the room, her long fingers twining against each other as she considered whether to open the liquor cabinet. After several glances at the broken shell that used to be Jo, her mother squared her shoulders and turned the key of the wine cupboard. Taking down two clean tumblers, she poured out healthy servings of rum and brought the cups back to Jo.
“To Peter and our loving memories of him,” she said, pressing a cup into Jo’s hand and holding up her own, “And to you, for courage to face the worst.”
Afterwards she did not recall ever consciously drinking the alcohol, but she knew she did from the sight of the empty tumbler in front of her. The spirit had indeed warmed her body, but the same could not be said for her soul. She reached over to grab the opened rum bottle, pouring herself another glassful of the liquor. Gulping down the whole lot in one go, she stood up and walked towards the door before the effect of the alcohol would wear out. She needed this push of the spirit to help her through the pain of farewell.
She walked down the narrow hallway, her chest feeling the acute burn of the rum. Peter was in the parlour, waiting for the last goodbyes before he left. She sat down beside him, her hands fiddling nervously on the edge of her dressing gown. He waited in silence for her to speak, his bright blue eyes sweeping over her. She reached out to grab his hand in hers, and that one touch relayed all her feelings to him. The slight pressure of her palms told him that she never wanted to let him go, the soft caresses of her fingers whispered loving memories they had together. He laid his other hand over hers, just the way they used to put their hands when they played that childish game of old.
“I’m going to miss you, Josie,” he murmured, his voice the faintest whisper in the air.
“I’m going to miss you more,” Jo said, her eyes welling up with tears again.
“I’m going to miss you most, Josie,” he said, a trace of a smile on his pale face, “I think I’ve won this game again.”
“No, I’m going to miss you for eternity,” she told him, holding his hand to her chest, “I think I beat you just this once.”
“Well, have it that way missy,” he said, smiling in earnest now, “Just remember that I love you til death and beyond...”
She looked up at him, taking in the last memory of his pale face and smiling lips. Letting go of his hands, she leant forward and cupped his face in between her palms. Planting a soft kiss on his brows, she reached out a trembling finger and closed his eyes. She could not bear to look any longer into the vacant eyes of her little soldier and her twin, the eyes that were the same bright blue as her own.