“Well go on take it, you’re a man now after all.” John Baxter poked the tankard towards his son. Joe hesitated then nodded and accepted the drink. Father and son touched mugs. “To your health,” said John beaming with the glow of the two mugs he’d already consumed.
“Cheers,” replied Joe taking a long swallow of the hoppy amber ale. His father clapped him on the back. “Chip off the old block eh Joe? You’ll be running things before you know it.” Joe nodded in agreement but his mind was miles away.
Joe scanned the crowd for Aggie’s face. He knew how the day would end and he hoped part of that picture included him no longer being a virgin. He didn’t want that hanging over his head. If he was a man now then he wanted to claim it.
He’d said nothing to his parents yet. Why ruin their fun. It was the finest party the Baxter clan had ever had and all because he’d become a day older. He’d have much rather repeated the day before over and over for an infinity than this one.
He should be celebrating shouldn’t he? But his stomach was so tied in knots he could hardly think straight. He’d have to tell them sooner or later. They deserved to know. Joe wished his brother Rob was there. He had such a way with their parents. He could talk them into anything. But it had been a long time now since any of them had heard from Robbie.
He hadn’t wanted to inherit the farm any more than Joe did. Rob left shortly after his 18th birthday and Joe would do the same.
He spied Aggie come in through the gate. Her hair was loose and caught flames in the evening sun. Their eyes met across the lawn and Joe felt certain the night would end as planned. He’d have married her if he stayed. But not even Aggie could change things now.
In the corner by the barn the band had started tuning up their instruments. Joe smiled to himself. Old time fiddlers, a snare drum and a double bass was not the stuff young people dreamed of. But they’d get the crowd going just the same.
From where she stood Aggie watched Joe. Her mind was made up to give him what he wanted. She’d planned it carefully. It should be okay. She hoped so. There was nothing she wanted more than to marry Joe Baxter but not that way. She wanted him to want her.
She knew he had something on his mind. She didn’t pry. Her mother always told her that getting a man to talk was like pulling teeth from a donkey. He was more likely to tell his friends what was bothering him than to tell her. It didn’t matter. She knew.
She knew without him saying a word. She knew he didn’t want to inherit the farm. But she also knew he didn’t want to end up like his brother. Aggie waited until she saw Joe alone, then calmly went and took him by the hand and led him away. She had to do it. She had to and she wanted to.
No one missed them and when they returned hand in hand the older people looked at them fondly thinking of young love. Joe looked happy, they thought, and he should. It was a big day for him. What a fine pair the two of them made, with Joe so handsome and Aggie such a good girl. She’d make any man happy. Most people thought of a June wedding. God willing.
The war had been going on far longer than anyone had thought it would. Young men were dying faster than they could be accounted for. It astonished Joe that some of his friends had lied about their ages to enlist. He couldn’t understand it.
His conscription papers were on his desk. He had no idea how to tell his parents what he was going to tell them. One son gone was bad enough. They’d taken it hard. His dad harder than his mother it seemed. But his mother had always been the one that looked after things. She saw the practicalities that needed attending to. Ahh Robbie, Joe thought.
The party was winding down. Guests teetered out, stopping to congratulate him, which seemed ill timed to Joe. He wondered how they’d feel tomorrow after his parents knew. They’d all say something like what a good thing it was to have had a party. Joe sniffed. It wasn’t easy.
Aggie hugged him and squeezed his hand then stood out of the way while he posed for pictures with his mother and younger brother William. She wondered if he’d come back and prayed that he would but even as the thought passed through her mind, she knew she’d never see him again.
The next morning John Baxter woke with a thumping head. What a night. Joe wasn’t up yet but then he didn’t expect him to be. He pulled his suspenders over his shoulders and went down the hall to wake him. For no reason he could understand his heart had begun to pound.
John opened his son’s door slowly not wanting to face what was on the other side for everything in him told him it wasn’t good. It all made sense now. Joe’s mood for the last few days wasn’t because of the party. He’d gotten his papers. God almighty, thought John, not again.
The bed was empty, neatly made and on it was a letter.
‘Dear Mom and Dad, Please forgive me. I wanted to tell you last night but I couldn’t bring myself to see the look on your faces when I did. My papers came as we knew they would. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.
I know you won’t understand but I can’t face it. I can’t bring myself to go fight a war I had nothing to do with for the sake of someone whose choices I don’t agree with, someone who won’t even send their own sons. I want to live. Is that so wrong?
I want to live and I want to get married and do all the normal things that other people do. I don’t want to kill. I don’t want to be killed. I want to live. Of course I want to be patriotic. It’s just that I’ve decided to place that patriotism somewhere else. I don’t want to die like Robbie did. I can’t.
I’m not sure if we’ll ever see one another again. I love you both and William too, more than you know. Thank you for all you’ve done for me. For everything. Please watch over Aggie. Maybe I’ll be able to come back for her one day. Love always, Joe.
John Baxter let the letter fall and sobbed. He cried for his boys and all the others at the mercy of the ways of the world and had never been more proud.