A Reserved Occupation
It was pristine; white and pure with a slim, neat stalk. Quite a contrast to the place it sent me, a blasted wasteland of mud, rats and little hope of return.
I met her at a dance two years previously and courted her devotedly. She was pretty enough to hide her flaws and, being somewhat more confident and worldly than the girls I was used to, I quickly developed quite a passion for her. She was by turns encouraging and distant; every time I was brought to the brink of a proposal, she twisted away from me and I lost my opportunity over again.
When war was declared, I was determined not to leave her. I had a reserved occupation and so I was happily exempt in any case; I could not risk her being swept away by another man in my absence, something that was not out of the question given her flirtatious nature. She came to tea one afternoon and asked when I would be leaving for France. I told her the happy news that I was exempt from conscription and she didn’t seem as elated as I had expected, but perhaps that was just the surprise.
The following week the first one arrived; a white feather pushed through my letterbox. The housekeeper had to explain the significance and I passed it off as a silly joke – everyone in town knew that members of my profession were spared the trenches, and for good reason too. But they began to arrive each day after that and I found myself less popular as a dinner guest, less warmly welcomed by neighbours in the street.
She still received me when I called but pursed her lips when I told her of the feathers and looked down at her clasped hands, as though she was quite ashamed of me. As though I were a coward.
I made up my mind then and there to resign my position and enlist immediately. I could not expect a marvellous girl like her to marry a man widely believed to be a coward, a man she would be unable to respect.
I wrote to her as often as I could, painful love letters to her, to home, to England – everything I missed and was frightened I had lost for ever. I received no replies, something that grieved me sorely at first but, gradually, it dawned on me that the feather was not a symbol of cowardice, but a dismissal of the firmest kind.