During the war, my Grandmother Betsy struggled with rationing, pregnancy and an ill-humoured mother while she waited stoically for the return of her husband, Bert.
One day, she received a telegram from him, stating that he would arrive on leave the next day and that he would bring a rabbit.
Now Betsy, who was feeling a little weak, often complained to Bert in her letters, that she found rationing such a trial and was in need of more meat, so as you can imagine, the telegram brought more than one cause for celebration.
After she heard the good news, even her mother secretly harboured a kindly thought towards Bert. He had rarely, if ever, been the beneficiary of the old lady’s kindly thoughts, not that he was ever to know about this one.
Next morning, they were up early to tidy the little two-up-two-down house for the hero’s return. It didn’t need to be tidied; Betsy kept it immaculate anyway, even the parlour, which was rarely used, was never left in peace for a little dust to settle.
The housework complete, they went to the allotment to select the best vegetables for the rabbit stew.
The prospect of Bert’s arrival and of fresh meat put a spring into Betsy’s step and for once, her mother neglected to mention that Bert was a nitwit or a ne’er do well. A surprise concession you might think, after all he was only bringing a rabbit.
However, the rabbit represented more than just dinner. It hinted that Bert might be showing signs of usefulness. No doubt, you wonder what Grandma saw in Granddad. Well all I can say to that is, obviously more than her mother did.
By all accounts he was a bit of a nincompoop, so there was some justification for his mother-in-law’s disdain, but Betsy loved him, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t be the first clod to find a devoted wife – far from it.
As the hour of Bert’s arrival approached, they abandoned their usual places in the kitchen, and in their Sunday best, they sat like real ladies drinking tea in the parlour.
Betsy occupied herself with her knitting, though knew that in her state of excited anticipation, she was dropping so many stitches she would have to undo it all later. Her mother sat in silence next to the broken wireless, darning her lisle stockings. Bert had supposedly mended the wireless, but as usual did a partial job. It worked intermittently until finally, it gave up the ghost completely about a week before.
The clock ticked, the knitting needles clacked and time passed, until finally Betsy’s mother broke her silence and stated what had been on both their minds.
‘ Bert’s late!’
‘ Hmmm,’ Betsy didn’t want to positively agree with anything that put her husband in a bad light.
‘He’s probably found some friends, gone to the pub and forgotten all about you, dear.’
‘Don’t say that.’
Betsy glared at her mother and they continued their awkward silence.
I don’t know how long they waited until there was a knock at the door. When it came, Betsy threw down her knitting, almost leapt out of the chair and reached the front door as fast as a heavily pregnant woman possibly could.
As she was expecting her apologetic and possibly drunken husband, she was dumbstruck to see a young policeman on her doorstep.
‘Good afternoon, are you Mrs Collins?’ he asked.
His tone was so serious and his face so grave that Betsy felt all the strength drain from her legs. Although, in a state of trepidation and anxious to know what this unexpected visitor wanted, she still found the presence of mind to wonder what the neighbours might think. Quickly, she looked up and down the street to see who was around to notice.
‘Yes, I am,’ she answered warily.
‘Please may I come in?’ he asked. ‘ I need to speak with you.’
She drew him into the parlour. Her mother acknowledged him, laid aside her darning and sat bolt upright as her arthritic hands twisted her handkerchief.
The sombre policeman looked as if he would rather be anywhere else in the world. However, he knew his duty and pressed on with what he had to do.
‘There is no easy way to say this Mrs Collins.’ He wiped his damp palms down his trouser legs, shuffled his feet awkwardly and after a deep breath, continued.
‘ I am very sorry, but I must inform you that your husband has been involved in an accident.’ He took a deep swallow. ‘He’s passed away. I know it won’t be much comfort, but it was very quick and he didn’t suffer.’
They were to learn more details of Bert’s demise in the days that followed.
It seemed that he had crossed the road with his typical carelessness and been knocked down by a butcher’s van. I remember Grandma telling me that the young man, who had the misfortune of putting an end to Bert, never got over the shock and refused to drive the van ever again.
Betsy’s mother became a tower of strength and took charge of the practicalities. She arranged the collection of Bert’s effects from the hospital and together they went through the contents of his duffle bag. Betsy’s grief was so overwhelming that she hadn’t wanted to face this task.
‘Dear, we have to open the bag,’ her mother insisted. ‘We can’t leave the rabbit to rot.’
Betsy stared at the bag, as if it might contain a venomous snake or at least the source of all her pain.
‘I know it has to be done,’ she said.
‘I can do it myself; you go and lie down. You look like you need to,’ added her mother.
Betsy didn’t feel right about leaving the job to her mother, so she said,
‘Lets just get on with it, I’ll rest afterwards, but I doubt I shall be able to sleep.’
Betsy took the plunge and reached into the bag. Her hand touched something furry; she grasped it and pulled it out. Mother and daughter stared in silence at what Betsy held in her hands.
Then Betsy laughed out loud and burst into tears, almost simultaneously.
Betsy hugged the fluffy, pink, toy bunny rabbit to her chest and wept uncontrollably. Her mother pursed her lips and tried not to speak ill of the dead, but that didn’t stop her thinking it.