When World War 11 was declared Billy went upstairs put on his dad’s old uniform and stood to attention by the front door. He wouldn’t budge not even to eat. In fact his mum had to stand on a stool to feed him. Eventually, however, he realised he’d probably have to show his prowess with a rifle, so he left his post just long enough to saw off two thirds of his mum’s broom handle.
‘Hey our Billy,’ she shouted, ‘if there’s any brushing up to be done you can do it with that bloody stump of a thing you’ve left me.’ But Billy just stood there inscrutable, unflappable, enthusiastically staring at a battlefield playing out on the opposite wall.
It was six o’clock when his father came in from work. In strict military style Billy took two steps to the right. As usual his dad followed the smell of scouse to the kitchen. ‘Hey Mam, what’s that daft bugger doing in the hall?’
‘Chamberlain’s been on the radio, love; wars been declared.’
‘I know, and he’s a daft bugger too. Put him and our Billy together and the Jerries are bound to win.’
Expecting the knock on the door to be imminent, Billy refused all requests to eat and Dad refused to let him be fed. ‘He’ll not have his mam in the trenches.’
Billy was still there when Mam and Dad set off for bed. His dad attempted a slightly military tone. ‘Turn off the light son,’ but his memories, still preserved in the neat folds of the uniform, forced a crack in his voice, ‘oh and make sure the cat’s out.’
Billy saluted. ‘Aye aye Dad.’
‘No lad, it’s those bloody puffs in the Navy that say aye aye.’
Sleepless, his mum made the excuse she’d forgotten to dampen the fire down so that she could climb the stool and put a pink wafer into Billy’s mouth. ‘Don’t say ‘out to Dad, or we’ll both be at war.’
At dawn Billy had gone, not to war but to bed. He missed school the next day. ‘I can’t budge my legs Mam,’ he said, ‘will they still take me?’
‘They probably will son, when they need all they can get they don’t check too hard.’
Billy must have filled out his dad’s old uniform well enough and like his mum said, they didn’t check up when he lied about his age.
After the war his mate said Billy was blown up while he was returning to the field hospital with a minor wound. He said Billy was whistling something and, reaching into his kit bag, was taking the opportunity to eat one of his mum’s wafers and think of home.
Dad leaned forward and poked the fire. ‘The daft bugger, he never did look where he was going.’ Putting the telegram onto the mantelpiece he went outside to the coalhouse for a smoke. Mam thought he was gone a bit longer than usual.