The Knife by Frances Holland


In the topmost attic room of a run-down terraced house in Salford is a small packing trunk. Inside the trunk is a canvas bag containing an identification card, an empty brandy bottle, and, wrapped in a grubby handkerchief, a small switchblade knife with a mother-of-pearl handle. I take out the knife and turn it over in my gloved hand. I slide it inside an envelope concealed in my coat pocket, and leave without a word.



I adore the sound of the telephone ringing in the hall. It makes me feel connected to the world, to life and activity everywhere. We have several in the newspaper offices in which I work, writing articles on local leek shows, or trials in the assizes, or even obituaries. I can turn my hand to anything. I learned that in France.

Today the telephone rings at half past six, as I’m boiling the water for my tea. My aunt and cousins are away for a weeks’ holiday, and I instantly worry that something has happened to them.

Hello?” I say nervously into the receiver.

Katherine? Katherine, it’s Thomas.” He always says that, even though I always know the sound of his voice. He was the only one of my brothers’ friends to return from the front, my childhood hero, and only friend when I moved to Salford after the Armistice.

I need to see you, Katherine,” he pants.

What’s wrong?”

I can’t tell you here, but I need to see you. I’ll call round in half an hour. Telephone your editor and tell him you’re chasing a story or something.”

He hangs up. I pause for a moment, then make up the fire in the grate.

Half an hour later, I’m ready, the tea is made, and Thomas is lifting a cigarette to his lips with shaking hands. I clutch the gold locket at my throat and wait for him to speak.

Do you remember that night in France? The man we let go?”

Of course I do.”

This came for me yesterday at work.” He hands me a letter, and the envelope it came in, and I see that he is biting his lip.

I take the letter, and read the loopy handwriting. It looks as if someone right-handed has written it with their left.

“ ‘A man of your upstanding reputation would be disgraced if people learned that you allowed a coward to escape court martial for desertion and attempted suicide during the Great War,’” I read aloud. Thomas puts his head in his hands. “Who could know that we let him go?”

I let him go, not you. You nursed him, but he was my responsibility. You’re not getting mixed up in this. Nowhere in this letter does it mention you.”

I am mixed up in it, like it or not. But I never told anyone about this and I’m assuming you didn’t, either?”

Suppose someone was watching us?”

But why wait until now?” I say. “It’s nearly five years ago, neither of us are made of money…why wait until now to blackmail us?”

They’re not blackmailing us, Katherine, they’re blackmailing me!” Thomas hisses.

We sit in silence. The clock ticks oppressively, and I’m grateful for the erratic crackling of the fire in the grate.

What was his name?” I ask, getting up and walking over to my bureau.

John Anderson,” Thomas replies. He follows me, throwing his cigarette into the flames.

Yes, I remember…it was a funny sort of Anderson, wasn’t it? Spelled differently, with two Ss or something?”

Thomas lingers just behind me. “His father was Swedish. Two Ss and ‘en’ on the end, rather than ‘on’.”

I pull out a sheaf of papers and leaf through them. “I knew I’d seen it recently…my editor gave me the deaths for this week’s obituaries yesterday and I knew that name looked familiar…” I hand Thomas a slip of paper: John Anderssen, aged 25, originally of Brixham, Devon. Suddenly, after a short illness.

The colour drains from Thomas’ careworn face. “We didn’t save him for much, did we?”

A tear escapes from his hazel eyes and I do not give in to the urge to embrace him. That won’t make anything easier.

He may have told someone. Or, like you said, someone saw.” I say. Thomas nods. “Have they been in touch since yesterday?”

They telephoned just before I called you. They said they want to meet at eleven today.”

I’ll go with you,” I say before he can tell me I’m not to come. “You can tell him I’m your wife or fiancée or something.”

I should be so lucky,” he responds wryly.


It’s a dingy little café in which we wait for this man. My editor is satisfied that I’m out on the trail of a story, and so Thomas and I sit, clutching cups of tea that neither of us can drink, waiting for the man with the loopy handwriting.

When he eventually arrives, Thomas and I are both so astonished that I grip his hand in shock. The man is the image of John Anderssen, so much so that for a second, I think it is John Anderssen.

Mr Doyle?” he asks Thomas uncertainly. Thomas stands – even now, his manners do not fail him.

I remain seated. Ten years younger than Thomas, I revert to being a sulky, petulant child. With good reason, I argue internally, for this man is a blackmailer.

Miss,” he nods politely towards me. I am disconcerted enough to allow my expression to soften, and he takes this as a sign that he may sit in my presence.

I take it that it was you who sent the package to my place of work yesterday?”

Thomas speaks levelly, like I imagine he does when people come to him with a complaint about the roads, or –

Yeah, that was me. I’m Peter Anderssen, John’s brother. So you know what I want?”

Money, presumably?”

You do know we’d be perfectly within our rights to go to the police about this, don’t you?” I snap at the man. “Who are you anyway?”

The man fixes his eyes on me. “You won’t go to the police,” he says. “Captain Doyle here got my brother sent home on false pretences. Hushed up the fact that he tried to do himself in. That’s breaking the law, Miss, and I reckon the police would take a dim view of a respectable councillor like Mr Doyle here breaking the law.”

What proof do you have of any of this?” I sneer with as much derision as I can muster.

John was my brother, weren’t he? He told me all about how kind Captain Doyle had been to him. How he hadn’t gone straight to his superiors when he’d tried hanging himself. If it hadn’t been for your hogwash, my brother would have been sent to prison where he belonged!”

I look sideways at Thomas. The man has it wrong. He’s got it all so terribly, terribly wrong.

You say your brother told you he tried to hang himself?” Thomas repeats.

He tried doing himself in, didn’t he? And then he gets invalided home, no questions asked?”

But did he himself say he’d tried to hang himself?” I repeat desperately.

The man rubs his nose with the back of his hand. “John were always the favourite, right from when we was kids. And now he’s gone, and I’m left with his widow and baby, and not a penny coming in from the bloody farm that goes with them. And you’re living the life of Reilly, Mr Doyle! You and your lady friend here.” He looks me up and down in that way that certain men have, a way of making your stomach chill and turn, and your mouth contract and your eyes falter. Thomas’ fists clench under the table and I put my hand over his to steady him.

Your brother was ill,” says Thomas. “He was almost out of his mind and in no fit state to carry on at the front. That is why he was sent home. You have no proof he ever intended to take his own life.”

Peter Anderssen leans in menacingly. “A friend of mine saw it.”

Saw what?” I ask.

He was posted with him and he had a girl out there at the time. Used to meet her round the back of these old milking sheds of an evening. He was headed back to the barracks one night when he heard a commotion, and saw a young nurse cutting my brother down from the rafters of a barn. And he described the knife she was using – shiny, on the handle, like pearls or something. Probably cost a fair few bob, so it stuck in his head, see.”

He sits back in smug triumph, but I relax my grip on Thomas’ hand and stand up. Smoothing down my skirt and coat, I say, “You have no proof that your brother tried to hang himself. And if you wait five minutes, I’ll show you why.” I walk out and leave Peter Anderssen sitting alone with Thomas. He won’t try anything. Thomas may be a respectable local councillor now, but he’s from the backstreets of Manchester like me, and he was made a captain in the army for good reason.


In the topmost attic room of a run-down terraced house in Salford is a small packing trunk. Inside the trunk is a canvas bag containing an identification card, an empty brandy bottle, and, wrapped in a grubby handkerchief, a small switchblade knife with a mother-of-pearl handle. I take out the knife and turn it over in my gloved hand. I slide it inside an envelope concealed in my coat pocket, and leave without a word.


Here,” I say on arriving back at the café. Peter Anderssen stares at the grubby handkerchief I have placed upon the table.

What’s this?”

Open it.”

He does so, and sees the knife he has just described.

Your friend didn’t see your brother being cut down. I know he didn’t, because I’m the nurse who cut down whoever that soldier was. He was French or something, and he ran off before I could find out who he was.”

He stares blankly at my knife, this secret I’ve hidden away for so long.

Whoever it was that your friend saw trying to hang himself, it was not your brother,” I say.

I try not to think about how frantically I hacked through the rope as the man at the other end of it jerked desperately in the air.

Peter Anderssen says nothing. He knows he’s lost.

As he stares furiously, defeated, I feel a surge of pity for him. His brother is dead and he’s been left with all of his cares. I rummage around in my purse and find two half-crowns.

Here,” I say, placing them on the table and picking the knife up again. “For your train fare back home.”

He blinks rapidly, picks up the money, and leaves without a word. I wrap the knife back up in the handkerchief and slide it back in my pocket. As I do so, I notice that Thomas’ shoulders are tense, and tears are running down his cheeks.

You never told anyone, did you?”

I promised you I wouldn’t, Thomas.”

I sit next to him and take his hand gently in mine. He grips it like it’s the only thing anchoring him to this world.

When that letter came, I thought that was me done for.”

They wouldn’t have prosecuted, not after all this time.”

Wouldn’t they?”

They’d have had to prosecute me, as well. I was the nurse on duty when I found him there…”

The sight of John Anderssen trying to slit his own wrists with a piece of broken glass in the deserted sick bay sent me running for Thomas, panicking and shaking as he calmly returned with me to help me clean up the mess and bandage John’s wrists. He hadn’t done much damage, but we’d had to say he’d been helping Thomas with some barbed wire when he cut himself. It was a miracle anyone believed us. John had been invalided home with nerves and a shrapnel wound to the thigh shortly after.

You helped me that night, Thomas.”

He laced his fingers into mine and raised his eyes to mine. “You helped me, too, Katherine.”

The locket at my throat seems to pull at my neck and I know that for as long as I live, I’ll never forget the sight of Thomas swinging by that rope.

I cut part of the rope away, you know,” I tell him, indicating my locket. He always thought I had a picture of my brothers in there. “As a promise. To always look after you.”

We sit in silence in the café as the woman behind the counter chatters away to the milkman who has just come in. Our hands stay clasped together, our heads bent towards each other, just as they had been that night in France when I held my brothers’ friend in my arms as he sobbed and sobbed like a little child and told me over and over how sorry he was, but that he couldn’t stand the guns and the killing any more.

We can’t seem to pull ourselves any closer to each other, but we’re locked together by this shared memory.

After a few minutes, Thomas breaks the silence. “To think I was the one who gave you that knife.”

You were horrified when I pitched up in France, weren’t you? Probably more than any of my brothers.”

Of course I was horrified. You were seventeen years old, it was no place for a young girl! You did some growing up during those two years, didn’t you?” he asks me sadly.

I try to smile. He opens his mouth, then closes it again and looks down.

Katherine, did you never wonder why I was angrier than Billy or Jack or Michael that you’d come over to France?”

You were always the sensible one of the bunch!” I say.

Thomas shakes his head. “It wasn’t that.” He suddenly puts his hand on my cheek. I realise what he meant and feel so foolish. “Katherine, I…”

He trails off, then kisses me lightly on the mouth. I kiss him back and know that tonight, for the first time in four years, we will sleep without nightmares.

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