A Prologue

Fields of green had given way to a wasteland of mud and broken things. Where the wasteland ended, a city of worn red brick began. Vast factories and their chimneys stretched high into the sky, and on the ground people scurried like ants among black, soot covered buildings. They had a tired, ghost-like quality to them. Atop a hurriedly built wall, men paced nervously, carrying telescopes and battered tilley lamps.

They are waiting for news. News that a war has ended. A brass band plays a slow march outside a grand town hall, and posters litter the street, carrying repeated words of “Victory is ours”, “Freedom costs lives”, and “We speak for the many”. The occasional motor car whistles down the road, always taking someone important somewhere in a hurry, or otherwise carrying an urgent telegram to the war office. 

Everywhere, people stop in the street to greet each other. They shake hands with grim smiles and ask, “any news?”, and the reply comes – “not yet, but it won’t be long now.” And with that they hurry on, coats wrapped tightly around them to keep out the cold. News will come soon, but the cold bites, and they all have work to do until it does.

Among them, a couple hurry along the road, past the town hall and the marching band, their long coats flapping behind them. They turn corner after corner, not slowing down or stopping for breath. In his arms, huddled inside his coat, the man clutches a baby to his chest. It does not cry or stir. When at last they come to a halt, they are on the edge of the city, and they draw back behind the last standing wall of a bombed out house. Round the corner is a large iron gate that stands open onto the wasteland beyond.

Checking they are unseen, they lean back and catch their breath. The woman is tall, with long hair brown tied in a loose bun. She has an elegance and finery to her that he does not. The man is slightly shorter, with short, scruffy hair and an honest, unshaven face. He kisses the baby and places it in the mother’s arms. They have hurried, worried looks about them.

Everything around them seems to be moving in a blur. They draw close, holding on to everything they have in the world. The baby, snuggled warmly between them, is fast asleep. It hasn’t known any other world but this one, but in its parents arms it sleeps peacefully unaware.

They look at each other with love and fear – in these times there is little difference -, clinging to each other, knowing time is short.

“I have to go”, says the woman, “I have to warn them.” She pauses for a moment and adds, “Father will agree to the terms. He has no choice now. And anyway, he would sign anything if it would mean my return.” 

The man nods. He doesn’t like it but knows there is no arguing. Her mind is set and he trusts her implicitly. Resigned, he smiles. “When the peace is settled we will live in a whole new world. It won’t be long now. One final push.” His voice is accented and rough, contrasting her smooth, dulcet tones. “Then I’ll come to you. To you both”. He strokes the baby’s head with hardened fingers. “She’s spent too long in this place already.”

She grips his hand, wanting to say something profound, something meaningful, but nothing needed to be said.  

A motor car suddenly turns a corner and hurtles towards them, wobbling down an uprooted road. It is time to go.

As it screeches to a halt, she clambers into the carriage and he shuts the door behind her.

“Stay safe.”

With a glint in her eye that reminds him of happier times, she smiles and says “don’t worry. We’ve made it this far. It’s just the beginning”. 

*****