An icy blistering morning dawned. A young man of mere seventeen woke up to the warm, heavenly smell of freshly made pancakes and the mouth-watering aroma of sizzled bacon.
On any other day, Adrian Schneider would have remained tucked away in his warm bed than leave it this ridiculously early in the morning. Mostly because he knew that his dear old mother would keep aside his share of breakfast to serve him when he’d come running to her with a grumbling stomach. But, today was such a day he couldn’t possibly contemplate remaining in bed any longer. He’d have to drag himself out of bed, slip his warm feet into the cold folds of his slippers, and walk the chilly corridors, down a flight of stairs to join his family in the kitchen for breakfast.
So, since it was no ordinary day, Adrian shot up on his bed and flung the covers away from his body with such force that they slipped off the edge of the bed and landed on the thin-carpeted floor with a soft thud. Praying under his breath that he hadn’t yet missed his brother, he bolted out of his room, slamming against the opposite wall of the corridor. Not deterred in the least, he tore down the stairs as fast as his unsteady legs could carry him.
‘John – John’ he called out taking two steps at a time. Completely missing the last landing, he dropped violently at the foot of the stairs. Shakily he rose up and began his run again.
‘Mum’ he shouted into the dim corridors, his eyes fixed on the pool of light coming from the open kitchen door. ‘Has he gone yet?’ Have I missed him?’ He cried out as he ran at the door and came to a jolting halt just inside the warm holds of the room. The door, which he had so mercilessly flung open swung and slammed angrily against his back.
‘So you’re still here?’ he asked quietly staring into the young face of his older brother (only by eighteen months), who, seated at the small table in between the only two women in his life looked rather out of place. The tiny, cosy kitchen paled with comparison to his proudly worn and distinctly outstanding uniform. The dim light from the light bulb cast soft shadows on his sculpted face.
‘Yes’ his brother answered intently looking up from his steaming plate of food.
Adrian nodded, looked at his mother on the right of his brother, crying silently. Then he looked at the young woman on his brother’s left. Her moistened, crimson veined eyes stared at him a short while before the woman rose from her seat.
‘I’ll get some tea for you Adrian – have a seat’. She smiled weakly and walked towards the cupboards. Getting a chipped cup out with her unsteady hands she returned to her seat. Pulling the teapot close to her, she began pouring the hot, amber liquid. Once filled to the rim, she gently pushed the cup towards Adrian who was slightly shivering, standing afar in his thin pyjamas.
Sighing heavily she hid her face in her hands and Adrian could see her shoulders tremble as she fought hard not to cry.
Jonathan stared at his shivering brother standing by the door and let clatter his cutlery onto the plate to get his attention. ‘Just sit down Adrian and drink the tea Sophie poured’.
His brother’s voice suggested an order, not a request and Adrian found himself doing as he was told. He wasn’t quite sure why he was obeying orders when he was so angry. Maybe it’s the stupid uniform, he thought miserably. Grabbing the cup hastily with his shaking hands, he took a sip. The amber liquid swirled in its container and he thought he was observing a slumbering eye of a storm. Shaking his head to get rid of the negative thought, he took another sip and couldn’t help smell fear rushing out in waves, riding the ghostly shape of his winter breath.
His curious eyes rested on the freshly ironed shirt his brother wore, travelling up to the stiff collar. He loathed the khaki colour of it – like wet cement, it would trap his brother in an unbreakable bond with time. Soaking with the spilt blood of innocents, Adrian couldn’t help but think.
‘So you’re going ahead with this?’ he asked after gulping down the last of the tea.
‘You know the answer already’ Jonathan said sternly. ‘I didn’t join the army simply to pull out at the first sign of trouble, little brother.’
‘So you’re okay about leaving us? What about Mother?’ His voiced feebly escaped him at first. ‘What of Sophie? What is she supposed to do?’ But word by word, his voice rose as his temper flared. There seemed to be red hot lava of anger, not words, pouring out of him.
Frustrated, he looked to his mother for support. Stop acting helpless, woman, he thought angrily. Glaring at her a moment, he rather rudely asked, ‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’
‘Don’t you yell at her’ Jonathan hissed. ‘Don’t you raise your voice to our Mother’
The vein in Adrian’s neck bubbled; his skin crawled with goose bumps of confusion and irritation. This is suicidal! Absolutely suicidal, he screamed at his brother in his head. Clutching his fists and clenching his teeth, he fought with every pore in his body to keep from yelling and screaming out loud. His chest heaved like a sea-saw from the effort.
‘Adrian, please -’ Sophie’s weak voice escaped her twisted face. ‘Don’t make it any more an ugly departure than it has to be – I don’t have that much strength in me’. Her eyes skimmed over his taut face, pleading. ‘He’s already made his decision.’
Wave after wave of shock crashed into his shores, and Adrian reeled for a moment. ‘You’re saying this, Sophie? You of all people should know –’
‘Yes Adrian, I do know’ Sophie cut in shortly, ‘-but the country is at war, and it is the duty of young men –’
‘Bullshit’ Adrian stared at his sister-in-law with nothing but pity in his eyes. Despite his brother’s warning look, he didn’t apologise. ‘You’re only saying that because he’s standing there’ he said jerking his head in Jonathan’s direction.
‘There’s no glory in fighting a war where innocent blood gets spilt, no glory – only death and destruction.’ He said all this without removing his eyes from Sophie. ‘You may not be brave enough to tell your husband that, but I am–’
‘That’s enough, Ad’ for the first time that morning Adrian’s mother addressed him. Her voice was neither kind nor angry, and neither were her eyes any different and he figured she was no longer going to humour him by keeping mum. ‘It is your brother’s decision, be it joining the scouts, or the infantry.’ She rose up from her seat and winched as she stood up and walked around the table. It was only yesterday that she had badly sprained her left ankle.
‘It was his decision and not yours’ she kindly said laying a hand on his arm and giving it a gentle squeeze. For a moment, her eyes glistened with tears. ‘Now, be civil and bid your brother a fitting farewell and wishes for a safe return.’
‘No Adrian.’ She shook her greying head. Streaks of sliver strands draped the side of her handsome face. He thought the few wrinkles and imperfection suited her very much. Lines say a lot about a person’s history, he heard his father’s voice speak in his head. His throat began to knot and his stomach squirmed uneasily. How was he to say goodbye? What if it was forever?
He looked into his mother’s eyes again. Its crystal blue looked back at him with such love that it calmed the unsteady waters of his worried heart.
‘Ad, won’t you let me leave with a piece of mind, knowing that you are there to carry on doing what I’ll be missing out on?’ The sudden change in his brother’s voice pulled him out of trance and Adrian turned to see tears glistening in the similar crystal blue eyes of his brother. The similarity between mother and son was striking, why hadn’t he ever seen how much of his mother was staring back at him through his brother’s kind face? His eyes tingled. It was an odd sensation, never had he in his living memory wanted to cry so much.
He looked at his brother again through blurred vision, wanting to remember every detail, every hair, every wrinkle, every crooked tooth that were part of that brilliant man’s smile. In the hazy moment he looked upon Sophie, who had attached herself to her husband’s side. This may be the last I’ll ever see this, he thought, and again his stomach squirmed, only five times more uneasily. He wanted to run back up to his room, slam that door, drop under the covers and wail. What would happen to his family? His family? But there he was, his mother still holding onto his arm lovingly, or perhaps to keep him from doing exactly what he was thinking.
Finally, he nodded. ‘Promise to write everyday’ he asked choking on the words, and saw his brother nod vigorously.
‘I’ll write everyday.’ He smiled satisfactorily and walked arm in arm with his wife towards the other two. ‘But I can’t promise you’ll receive it everyday’ a slight teasing grin crossed his poignant face and Adrian couldn’t help but return the grin despite the agony it caused him to think the worst.
‘And promise you’ll come home soon’ he asked hoping despite everything that Jonathan would change his mind and return home from half way to join his family the next day for breakfast. He watched Jonathan’s jaw clench and unclench and felt a ton of weight come crashing down on his wretched heart.
‘We’re going to miss you!’ He swallowed hard and took his mother in his arm. He had no courage to say goodbye and that much was for sure.
‘I have to get going now’ Jonathan said weakly and tried his best to hide his sniffling.
It took half an hour more to say goodbye and the twenty minute walk from the house to the train station seemed like ages. The two brothers walked on side by side, neither speaking more than the other. The silence spread. Adrian heaved Jonathan’s bag higher on his back and walked. There were a thousand more things he could say to try and change his brother’s mind – but in the end, he knew, none would make a difference. As the station came into view, he kept looking at his brother expectantly.