I never did find out who he was. He simply appeared one spring morning many years after Father had gone to fight in France, and stood silently at the doorway of the cottage. He looked older than he actually was, and gazed out at us from world-weary eyes that glistened with melancholy. He was wrapped in a mutton-grey coat that was splattered with mud and torn at the pocket and which was held together by a worn leather belt. Dust and the grime of days coated his long greying beard, and twigs and leaves tangled in the matted hair that straggled carelessly from beneath a faded woollen cap. His boots were the colour of the woodland earth with laces missing and scuffed deeply at the toes. On his back he carried a bag of pots and pans and instruments for sharpening blades, and so we took him for a tinker. Mother would not let him in. We fussed around her, trying to see what was going on as it was so rare for us to meet a stranger. But she said little, and he less, and after a few moments he left, wandering slowly down the garden path and only looking back as he closed the gate with a click of the latch.
There was a fading photograph of Father on the mantelpiece. He stood upright and proud, his moustache neatly trimmed and his boots highly polished, and he looked every inch the part of a soldier, but there was a sadness in his eye that revealed the truth. Here was a man who was never made for war, here was a man who needed his home. The photograph was mounted in an expensive oak frame and in my distant memories I can just remember Mother clutching it tenderly in the evening candle light as she fell asleep in the chair. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays she took it from the mantelpiece only to dust it. But as the tinker melted into the mist in the lane, she fetched it down once more and touched his face with her fingertips.
It was about three weeks later that the man appeared again. Molly saw him first and cried out that the tinker was back and coming down the lane. She pressed her nose against the window pane and squinted through the marbled glass to get a better look. Mother told us to wait in the house and she gathered her skirts and set out to meet him. She got to the garden gate before he did and stood her ground, hands on bountiful hips and head shaking as they spoke. He waved his arms once or twice in a gesture of frustration and then, shoulders slumped, meandered his way back to the woods. I suppose he slept there, but I could not be sure.
And then, one day in May when the heavens were opened and cold rain fell in sheets of silver on the garden and splashed heavily from the thatch, he knocked at the door. Molly cried out, “Mother, it’s the tinker!” and ran to the door before she could be stopped. He stood there dripping on the shimmering flagstones in the yard, bedraggled and pathetic, beads of water forming on the edge of his cap and running down his face.
“Oh, Mother, please let him in. He’ll die a death out there,” said Molly, and the rest of us joined in, clamouring like hungry fledglings. Mother looked from us to the tinker and back again, her face taut in anguish. Finally she nodded, and he stepped cautiously into the house.
“Alfred, light a fire. Quick! Molly, heat some water and fetch him something to eat.” Mother was in charge, making decisions for all of us. The way she had been ever since Father left for the war, ever since she was forced to bring up four small children and keep a house and manage the provisions. She had always succeeded in keeping us fed and clothed and warm in winter and we never knew how. We just saw the house arranged to her liking and swept clean and flowers on the table. She taught us to feed the chickens and stable the horse and clean out the pig. Together we would sow the seeds in spring and harvest the carrots and cabbages in autumn. Together as a family we would laugh and play through the summer days and snuggle by the fire in winter. Together. She had kept us together.
Mother motioned for the tinker to sit by the fire, and wisps of curling steam soon rose from his rain-sodden great-coat. Molly handed him a mug of tea and a slice of bread and he tipped his head in silent gratitude and stared at her.
“Can he stay?” asked Molly.
Mother slumped wearily into the cosy chair and put her face in her hands.
“Please let him stay,” whispered Molly.
The tinker stretched out a dirt-stained hand and Molly took it in hers and stroked it. We stood transfixed and not sure what to say or do. I looked from face to face, trying to gain an understanding of what was happening but any meaning escaped me. And as the tinker wiped a tear from his cheek, Mother pushed her chair back and fled from the room.
We did not see the tinker again. Where he went or what happened to him I do not know, but even though he was never spoken of, life was never quite the same. The photograph disappeared soon after he left, leaving an uneasy space on the mantelpiece. Mother took to weeping much, and hugged us often. And year by year we grew up and we made our life. Mother and us. Together.