HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Casualty

CASUALTY


They were told at school by the headmaster that war was coming and they must get used to carrying their gasmasks with them at all times.
But the boy was not thinking about that now. It was dusk and the Monday market was waiting. And as all the women of the town, it seemed, poured from the factory gate he had eyes only for seeking his mother. Lights blazewd from every window illuminating the dark street. The factory was long, high, huge, and always reminded him of a great ocean liner with rows of lighted portholes.
Then he was clinging to his mother’s hand, breating in the fain scent of cotton oil that clung to all the stocking-makers of the town. It was pleasant, like a scent, and he often thought you could breathe it in from all the red brick factories from all over the town. And he remembered what his father was always saying: This town sends stockings all over the world.
And now they were in amongst the market. The boy gasped with awe. The crowds, swinging lamps, angry canvas, cries of traders, banter of women, left him open mouthed. His mother often said the traders dare not pack up before the women left the factories.
He marvelled at the light and movement – the Monday market defying the winter darkness, as if it were the Grand Finale of an opera, the six o’clock freed women the cast, and the Town Hall Square the stage, backlighted by bright shop windows.
Without understanding, he was aware that the wonder and mystery were best caught when winter winds shook the stalls, when vendors’ voices were swept away to where night gathered, waited, among factories, cobbled yards and black alleys.
He took it all in eagerly, just knowing and glad that he was part of it. Paraffin lamps swung on hooks, making shadows dance to the whipcrack of flapping canvas. He loved to breathe in the tang of salt-sea fish; he loved to hear its slap on saucered scales, the clang of weights on brass.
Being small meant clinging to work-worn had; rough worsted brushed his cheek, between hips he noticed tired empty fruit crates, gaudy labels from countries he’d never heard of. He learned the argued price of carrots, caulies, pots and pans; dress lengths, tea towels and – once – woollen underpants for the old man. Monday night, he thought, was the best night of the week.
But during that August of 1939, together with talk of gasmasks, there descended on them – so it seemed – Blackout Regulations, handed out, tied to lampposts: Market Trading: Strictly Daylight Hours Only.
He saw the stocking-makers, men and women, stop, read, and sadly shake their heads. And it was as if the town mourned its first casualty of the war.