The war to end all wars – a wish to end all wishes.
‘Rebecca Bryn has a consistent flair for scouring out your heart with her painfully honest accounts of heartbreak, loss and courage in the face of unspeakable horror, as I first discovered when reading Touching the Wire. I therefore should have known I would read much of The Dandelion Clock in tears, held to the insistent narrative by an aching empathy for all the people who came so vividly alive within its pages.’ – Amazon.
‘I’ve read several of Bryn’s books and am an unashamed fan. I had the privilege of access to an early draft of this one and found it to be the best yet. Because she is self-published, this book will not get the sales it so richly deserves. That is a shame because Bryn is, without doubt, one of the best writers of historical fiction writing in English today. In The Dandelion Clock you will not just read about the horrors of war, you will live them in all their stark reality.’ – Goodreads.
And it wasn’t just men, women, mules, horses, and donkeys who played their part in The Great War! Dogs did as well.
Lifesavers don’t just walk on two legs.
— British Red Cross (@BritishRedCross) August 26, 2018
READ ON FOR A FIVE CHAPTER SNEAK PEEK INTO THE DANDELION CLOCK!
Available on September 5th, but order now at The Dandelion Clock to get the special pre-order price of 99p/99c – royalties of pre-orders and books sold up to the Remembrance Day Centenary, November 11th 2018, will be split between two charities.
The SoldiersCharity.org A hand up, not a hand out – in memory of the 40,000,000 casualties of The Great War. Supporting military veterans, their widows, and families in time of hardship.
TheBrooke.org Every horse remembered – to honour the 8,000,000 horses, donkeys, and mules who perished in the conflict. #Everyhorse Rescuing horses, donkeys, and mules in the poorest parts of the world.
Please click and pre-order to help support these charities and thank you for reading.
The idea for The Dandelion Clock came from sorting through some old photos I found when I moved house and a memory of something my grandfather told me just before he died.
These photos are of my grandparents, Bill and Florrie. Florrie’s family has already been the subject of an historical series, FOR THEIR COUNTRY’S GOOD, when I discovered her great uncle killed one of Lord Northampton’s gamekeepers and was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for life in 1841.
Book One – On Different Shores can be seen here
This time, for The Dandelion Clock, I turned my attention to my grandfather, Bill, who was the love of my young life and whose character was a blueprint for Walt in Touching the Wire, here He had a way of telling stories with his hands, and he used to describe the vast deserts of Egypt in 1914-18 with a slow sweep of a broad paw. It grieves me that I can’t remember the tales he told, but the spirit of them lives on as does his love of horses, a passion he passed to me.
Research turned up war service records, more photographs and, although the facts are sketchy, much paperwork having been destroyed after the war for security reasons, I have pieced together enough for a story. It may not be his story, exactly, but it’s a story of any of the young men who left their homes and their sweethearts to fight a war about which they knew nothing and which was, in many places, commanded by men who had military and social seniority but little practical, tactical battle experience.
This is the scenario into which our young men went and the research I’ve undertaken has brought me to tears at the waste of young lives. Many died due to the mistakes made by incompetent generals, and many more to the cold, the heat, dehydration, and disease, and those who survived and came home found that they and England had changed. They didn’t want the same things they’d craved before they went to war, and many were disillusioned with the England they’d fought for and many had died for.
Gallipoli, Cholocate Hill, Jerusalem, Marne, Ypres, Loos, Somme, Paschendaele: they are names that evoke a sorrowful and morbid fascination, a horror of the waste of the flower of England’s youth – the war to end all wars. But nothing was really settled, and the wounds of war festered and still fester, politically as well as physically.
There are no winners in war, and if you ask most ordinary people, the ones who were called upon to lay down their lives, or live with the grief of the loss of their loved ones, they would make a wish to end all wishes – an end to war.
© Rebecca Bryn 2018.
On the idle hill of summer
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder
Soldiers marching, all to die.
A Shropshire Lad, AE Houseman 1896
Northamptonshire, England: June 1914.
The water was cold around Bill’s ankles, and mud oozed between his toes as he waded the brook to free the fishing line caught in a hawthorn bush. He unravelled the fine line from the thorns and waded back to the bank where his older brother, Ernie, sat munching a cheese sandwich.
‘You ain’t caught bugger all except a tree, Billy Mason.’ Ernie’s grin mocked him.
He hated being called Billy as if he were a baby. ‘Don’t call me that or I swear…’ He was rising to the bait as Ernie knew he would. He flopped down beside his brother and stretched out on the grassy bank. ‘You ain’t done so well, either, Ern. Two tiddlers ain’t nothing to brag about.’
‘I still beat you.’
A rare half-afternoon off work before haymaking began had seen them revisiting their favourite childhood haunt, the Ise Brook by Warkton Bridge. He shielded his eyes from the sun. White cloud-horses galloped slowly past in a Saturday summer sky, reminding him of his cousin, Sam’s, excited story.
‘Sam’s joined the Yeomanry. He’s training on Saturdays. Our Sam reckons His Grace is encouraging sons of tenant farmers to join. Sam reckons it’s a hell of a laugh. He’s got a uniform, and they train on horseback with swords.’ He waved his arm as if wielding a long sabre. ‘What do you reckon, Ern? You think we should see if we can join?’
‘Mmmm.’ Ernie cocked his head to one side while he chewed. ‘We ain’t sons of tenant farmers.’
‘Dad being His Grace’s head gardener must count for something, surely? Boughton House is admired for its gardens.’
Ernie nodded. ‘We could go along next weekend, I suppose. I reckon Kitty would admire me in uniform.’
‘And we’d be doing our duty, training to keep the peace.’
‘Peace? Nothing ever happens around here to need the peace keeping.’ Ernie waved an expansive arm at the avenue of chestnut trees, and the quiet brook that flowed sluggishly between high grassy banks and through Boughton Park, the Northamptonshire estate of the 6th Duke of Buccleuch, to which Warkton and the surrounding villages belonged. ‘Peace we’ve got in bucketsful.’
‘It’ll be a right doddle, then, Ern. A horse, a sword, a musket, maybe, and’ – he admitted the less noble reason for his enthusiasm– ‘I reckon Florrie would be impressed too. That settles it, then. We’ll go along and try our luck.’ He broached the subject that had kept him awake half the night. ‘You reckon I should ask Florrie’s dad for her hand?’
‘She’s a good-looking woman and knows how to care for a man. You’re twenty, Bill, and Florrie’s of age. What’s stopping you? You love her, don’t you?’
He’d pinched flowers from the garden and given them to her on her twenty-first birthday back in April. He went hot under the collar at the thought. ‘Course I do, I can’t think of anything grander than being married to Florrie, but her dad scares the shit out of me. Where would we live, and how do I earn enough to support a family?’
Ernie swallowed and frowned, wiping crumbs from his mouth. ‘There’s no room for another body at home, that’s for sure, let alone a family. You could move in with her, surely? Them houses have front parlours. You could put a bed in there.’
‘I was hoping to avoid that. Joe Wesley rules Florrie and her brothers and sisters with a rod of…’ He’d been going to say iron, but Joe had a stick he used to beat his children, like he’d beaten their mother when he was drunk and before she’d succumbed to one too many childbirths. ‘You’re right, though. I don’t see any other option. All the estate cottages here are occupied, and anyway old Joe’d struggle to raise his children without Florrie. She’s like a mother to them. If I want to marry her, I’ll have to leave Warkton, move into Joe’s front parlour, and find work in Kettering.’
‘It’d mean me and Kitty could marry and have us boys’ bedroom in the cottage.’ Ernie took a swig of cold tea from a bottle and helped himself to another sandwich. ‘The shoe factories pay well, I hear, but it ain’t like working the land, Bill.’
Haymaking under a blue sky, stacking the sheaves of corn into stooks, walking the furrows behind the plough and the duke’s bay Shire mares: he’d miss it, but it was hard graft and farm work meant he was out all weathers. At least a factory would be dry in winter, and life in town would be more exciting unless he got to join the Yeomanry and charge around Boughton Estate sword in hand on a blood horse. He sucked on the sweet stem of a blade of grass. Kettering was only a mile or so across the fields; he wouldn’t have to give up everything to be with Florrie.
Her grey eyes had crinkled in a rare smile when he’d kissed her. His hand went to his lips, where the touch of hers still lingered. She had a hard life for a girl her age. She smiled too rarely, but he could make her happy and protect her from her father. If he worked hard, he could afford to rent their own home, eventually. She deserved to be happy, and that was all he wanted. ‘I shall ask him.’ He’d try to catch the old bugger in a good mood before he asked though. Mind made up, he sat upright again. ‘Hey, you haven’t left me much grub, you greedy bugger.’ He grabbed what little was left of their lunch and shoved Ernie in the brook.
Florrie brushed her hair back with quick fingers and tied it in a neat bun. It was Friday afternoon, the dinner was cooking, and she must hurry if she wanted to meet Father at the gates of the Kettering Gas Company when he left work. Missing him didn’t bear thinking about: he’d be up The Cherry Tree, or The Windmill, drinking his wages away, and there’d be nothing left to feed the family for the week. Worse still, he’d roll in drunk, complain his dinner was ruined, and lay about her or Nell with his stick before he collapsed unconscious in his chair.
She did her best to please him, but his drinking had become worse this last year. As the oldest of the girls, she tried so hard to keep the family fed and clothed, and the house clean, but it was more thankless work than the Kettering Corset Company, where she’d worked for pennies from the age of eleven until her mother’s death less than a year ago.
A noise from the living room made her turn. Her sister, Jane, was doing an extra shift at the corset factory, the older boys were still at work, and Arthur, at twelve, was in his last term at school and was playing football in the street with his friends. She didn’t begrudge him his last month of freedom. Work, when school closed for the summer, would trap him for the rest of his life. Little Ellen, the baby of the family at eight, was in the garden checking if the sheet she’d wet during the night was dry, which meant the noise could only be their sister, Mabel, home from work. Boxes for shoes were steady employment in a shoe-making town even if they did only pay her a pittance.
She peered around the door between the kitchen and the living room. ‘Mabel, keep an eye on the dinner. Nell can come with me to the gasworks and help carry the shopping. The walk will do her good.’
Mabel glanced at the clock on the mantelshelf. ‘You’d better hurry.’
She called Ellen, known affectionately as Nell, and gave the child’s hair a quick brush. ‘Come on, Nell. Best foot forward.’
Outside, the air smelt of leather, and the clacking of the machinery in the shoe factory down the street carried on the breeze. They turned uphill and were rewarded by the smell of horse manure from the Kettering Co-operative Society stables in Crown Street. It was a long walk through town from Regent Street to Gas Lane, where the gasworks were. Father would be hot, tired, and thirsty.
He was a stoker, keeping the coking ovens fuelled with coal. It was hot, hard, filthy work, and she was proud of the fact that he helped keep the street lamps alight at night and gas cookers cooking. The smoke from the gas-works’ chimneys hung over the town, filling the air with smuts of soot that would doubtless fall on Nell’s still damp sheet. Her little sister dragged at her hand. Impatient, she quickened her pace. ‘Come on, Nell. If you want to eat this week, stop dawdling.’
The gates of the Kettering Gas Company stood shut. The clock above them showed ten minutes to the end of shift. Already, men on foot or with bicycles gathered in the lane ready for their turn at stoking, and a small knot of women waited with children clutching at their skirts. Their menfolk were hard men, muscled and stocky with grim red faces, and long used to shovelling coal into the ovens for hour after hour in stifling heat. Was it any wonder so many of them were drunkards and spent their wages in the public houses, and the women looked worn down by childbearing and poverty?
Would this be her lot if Bill asked her to marry him? She’d had dreams once. Dreams of dancing on stage like Phyllis Bedells, a Covent Garden ballerina, whose pictures she’d seen in the newspaper, but those dreams had evaporated when Mother died. The family had needed looking after, and, as eldest daughter, the lot had fallen to her. Anyway, she’d probably never have been good enough to dance in public and couldn’t have afforded the fare to London.
Her heartbeat quickened. Bill had seen her dance. He’d kissed her, but marriage wasn’t necessarily on his mind when their lips met, judging by what she’d overheard her older brothers whispering about. And what would Father think of her choice of husband? She shrugged mentally: she didn’t care what he thought. She was twenty-one and could make her own decisions about whom she married. Bill was a handsome man and offered hope of escape from her father’s violence and his recent unwelcome visits to her bedroom when her sisters were asleep.
The gates opened and a drudge of weary men, coal blackened and bent, lumbered through them. She grabbed Nell’s hand tighter and stood on tiptoe to see over the crowd. ‘Father?’ She pulled Nell along with her. ‘Can you see him, Nell? Father!’
‘There he is.’
Nell pointed. ‘There.’
‘Typical.’ He was trying to avoid her. ‘Quick, before he loses us in the crowd.’ They darted between broad bodies, small children, and bicycles. ‘Father!’ She grabbed his sleeve. ‘I need money, Father, to do the shopping. I’ve cooked up all the scraps into a stew, and now there’s no food left in the house.’
Her father scowled and shook off her hand. ‘Ain’t a man master of his own wages no more, girl?’ He lowered his voice. ‘Bloody Christ, don’t embarrass me in front of my mates, Florrie.’
‘I’m sorry, Father, but we have to eat. I need your wages.’
He tore open a brown envelope and counted out some coins. ‘There. You’ll have to manage on that. I’m parched. I need a drink.’
‘Mabel’s watching the dinner. I’ll be home in about an hour.’
‘And I’ll be home when I’m good and ready, Florrie. Now don’t pester me, or you’ll feel more than my stick on your backside.’
She shuddered and clutched the precious coins. ‘I’ll get you something nice for tomorrow’s tea. A bit of belly pork, maybe.’
He rubbed his chin, and then put a hand on her shoulder. ‘You’re a good girl, Florrie.’ His hand wandered down her back and slapped her buttock. ‘Now get yourself home. I’ll be there, later. Keep my dinner hot.’
He’d already turned away and was striding towards The Cherry Tree in Sheep Street, one of his favourite drinking haunts.
She headed for the market square; she had shopping to do and must try to eke out the shillings to feed eight of them for a week. She smiled despite her worry. The market was where she’d first met Bill six months ago. Would he be there again today?
Bill and Ernie had joined their father in the working men’s club at Weekley, the nearest village to Warkton and a five-minute walk across the fields. Haymaking was in full swing, and a pint or two of ale, a pipe of tobacco, and a game of dominoes were welcome respites from the back-breaking work of the last two weeks.
Dad laid a blank-six against Bill’s blank-two, and Ernie added a double six, grinning broadly.
‘Ern, you been looking at my dominoes?’ Bill knocked to signify he couldn’t go and sat back in his chair while Dad perused his dominoes, puffing on his pipe, brows creased in concentration. Dad never rushed anything.
Eventually, Dad laid his domino and picked up the newspaper folded at his side. He opened it out and held it up in front of his face, smoke rising from above it. If Dad had taken the trouble to look at the page facing the smoke room, which had pictures of a man and a woman on it, he’d have known he was holding it upside-down.
He smiled. Everyone knew his father could neither read nor write, unlike his mother who was educated and had visits from young Lady Alice Christabel when her ladyship was in residence at Boughton House.
Ernie placed his last domino with a triumphant bang on the table top. ‘Out. Beat you again. You owe me a pint, Bill.’
He sniffed. ‘I’ve got more spots left than a zebra.’
‘Zebras don’t have spots.’
‘More spots than our Maggie’s face, then.’
Ernie grinned. ‘That many?’
Dad lowered his newspaper and removed his pipe. ‘You leave our Maggie alone, you young beggars. She can’t help having chickenpox.’ He took another puff on his pipe. ‘You won again, Ernie? Bugger me. Bill, get a round in and pull your socks up if you want to beat our Ernie.’
There was no getting out of his bet, but he’d best Ernie one day, see if he didn’t. ‘Yes, Dad.’ More of his hard-earned wages went the way of last week’s. He needed a better paid job if he was to wed Florrie and have a life beyond work. He returned to the table with three glasses and picked up the newspaper, the Daily Chronicle.
‘There’s nothing in it, Bill.’ Dad’s usual comment after he’d pretended to read it for half an hour.
He refolded it to look at the front page. It was that day’s paper, Monday, June 29th.
HEIR TO AUSTRIAN THRONE MURDERED.
ARCHDUKE AND HIS WIFE SHOT DEAD IN THE STREET
‘These poor people.’ He read on. ‘Bomb first thrown at their car – second attempt within an hour. Apparently, some bugger threw a bomb into Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car, yesterday. The archduke chucked it out again and it blew up the next car. When the archduke and the duchess went to the hospital to visit them, somebody opened fire and put a bullet in the duchess and another in the archduke. Got her in the stomach and him in the neck. They’re both dead.’ He paused to take in the horror. ‘And she was pregnant. How can anyone harm a pregnant woman, for Christ’s sake?’
Ernie licked froth from his moustache. ‘Franz Ferdinand? Where was this?’
‘Sarajevo, wherever that is.’
‘Foreign parts. It wouldn’t happen In England.’
‘They can keep their foreign parts if that’s what they’re like. I’ll stick to England.’ He folded the newspaper in half and put the royal tragedy from his mind. Ernie was right. It wouldn’t happen in England. The foreign tragedy, shocking though it was, didn’t affect him and his little slice of England and never would.
It was another week before he and Ernie had time to enquire about joining the yeomanry. They’d cut across the fields from Warkton to Weekly and found a line of horses tethered in the shade of a row of trees just inside the wrought-iron gates to Boughton Park.
He pointed. ‘They look like fine animals, Ern.’
‘Riding one of those, waving a sword, will be a bit different from two up on a carthorse.’
‘A horse is a horse, Ern, and we’re here to train. What can be so hard about it?’
A man in uniform approached, his expression stern. ‘Can I help you, lads?’
He took a deep breath. ‘We want to volunteer for the yeomanry, don’t we, Ern?’
‘We do. We heard His Grace was asking for volunteers. We want to do our bit to keep the peace.’
‘Follow me. I’ll take some details and find you some gear.’
It was that easy? He dug Ernie in the ribs and strode after the officer. In the village hall, the officer wrote down their names and address, occupations, and dates of birth and made them sign to say they were correct.
‘This way.’ The officer rose from his seat behind a table and marched from the hall. ‘The sergeant will kit you out and assign you a horse.’ He smiled briefly. ‘Train hard, and you’ll be an asset to the duke. Mess about, and I’ll see you thrown out on your ears. Understand?’
Ernie nodded. ‘Yes.’
The officer glowered at Ernie. ‘Yes, Sir!’
Ernie blushed. ‘Yes, Sir.’
He echoed Ernie’s words and focussed the man’s attention on his other new recruit. ‘And stand up straight when you address your commanding officer, Private.’
He drew himself up to his full five feet six inches, two inches taller than Ernie and a sore point between them he rarely let heal. ‘Yes, Sir. Understood, Sir!’
‘Next time I shall expect you to know how to salute a superior rank. Dismissed.’
The sergeant, a Weekley farmer called Gilbert Yeats, who’d had cause to chase him and Ernie out of his orchard on more than one occasion, kitted them out with uniforms and masses of items the use of which wasn’t immediately obvious.
He dumped grooming kit on a table. ‘You’ll be issued with a practice sword and rifle when the training session begins. You’ll get your own sword and rifle when the instructor thinks you’ve learnt to look after them and use them safely. Come and meet your horses.’ Yeats ran his eyes down the line. Most of the horses were being groomed or saddled. ‘Bill, you can have the bright bay mare with the two white socks on her hind legs. She’s a good horse, spirited but steady, and her name’s Copper. She needs grooming before she’s saddled. We start practice in half an hour. Be ready. One of the other lads will show you how to tack up.’
‘Yes, Mr Yea… Sir.’
‘And take good care of her, Bill. Copper is Lady Alice’s favourite hunter, lent by her for the good of the parish.’
‘I shall, Sir.’ He swallowed. Lady Alice shared his love of horses. She was generous and trusting, and he wouldn’t abuse her trust. He patted Copper’s neck and rubbed her forehead when she turned her head towards him. ‘You’re a beautiful girl, Copper.’
Ernie was given a grey gelding called Captain. Like Captain, Copper was about fifteen hands and both horses looked up to weight. She’d be nippy when he was wielding a sword, unlike a carthorse. Training comprised care for the horses, care of swords and Lee Enfield SMLE rifles, taking the rifles apart and reassembling them until they could do it blindfolded, and riding precision drills in tight formation. Copper was responsive and a joy to ride. She didn’t seem to mind being hung around with bedding rolls, halter ropes, canteens, water bottles, a long sword, and a rifle: all, apparently, necessities of a yeoman.
He took Copper’s reins in one hand and slid the sword from its scabbard, weighing its balance in his hand and making Copper throw up her head, her ears twitching backwards at the motion. Maybe, next weekend he’d get to practice using it. Maybe, soon, he’d have one of his own. Maybe, if he could learn to wield a sword from horseback, he’d have the courage to face Florrie’s father.
‘Billy Mason’s a coward.’ Ernie’s voice taunted.
Bill’s fists balled. It was long past time he wiped the smug expression off Ernie’s face. ‘There’s no point me asking Joe Wesley for Florrie’s hand until I’m of age myself. I’d look daft if Dad refused me permission, and I ain’t making a fool of myself asking him. It ain’t long until my birthday. I’ll ask… No, I’ll tell Joe I’m marrying Florrie when she gives me her answer. When she says yes.’
‘Do you doubt it?’
‘No. Of course, she’ll say yes.’
‘You need something to offer the girl, Bill. Farm labourer’s wages ain’t much to live on without a tied cottage provided.’
He straightened his tie. ‘Mobbs and Lewis are advertising for shoe-last makers.’
‘In Kettering – on Carrington Street corner?’
‘I’m going this morning to see if they’ll take me on.’
Ernie nodded. ‘Good luck. I mean it, Bill. I hope you get the job.’
‘Thanks. Maybe you ain’t such a bad brother, after all.’
Ernie laughed. ‘I’m after getting you out of the cottage, so I can have our room for me and Kitty.’
He stooped, picked up a clod of earth from the track, and flung it at Ernie. ‘You’ll get your comeuppance, Ern. You mark my words.’
Ernie ducked but not before a hail of dirt had gone down inside his shirt collar. ‘You young bugger. Wait till I get you.’
He took a stride backwards, laughing as Ernie struggled to remove collar studs. ‘You can’t catch me.’ He turned and ran down the lane, vaulted the stile into the meadow, and jogged along between the chestnut trees towards the Stamford Road.
Tall red-brick terraced houses squeezed along Kettering’s streets, built by the Co-operative Society to house workers for the shoe factories. Horses and carts rumbled slowly along, loaded with milk churns, or piled high with skins of leather, timber, sacks of corn, crates of ale, and wooden boxes made mysterious by indecipherable letters in faded black ink. The smell of horse manure mingled with his own sweat and the smell of tanned leather from the open windows of the shoe factories.
Mobbs and Lewis occupied a tall, severe building with large windows of frosted glass and a grand entrance onto the corner of Carrington Street and Victory Street, a few streets away from Regent Street, where Florrie lived. The factory made the wooden lasts on which the leather boots and shoes were made and the boot trees that kept the footwear in shape during wear. It was useful work: people needed shoes. Bill brushed back his hair, readjusted his cap, and stepped up into the entrance hall.
A man in a white shirt and black waistcoat took his name and showed him through a door into the factory workshop. Men in flat caps and waistcoats, with their shirt sleeves rolled up, bent over benches set in rows and shaped the wooden lasts with drawknives and sanding wheels, while others worked at machinery whose use escaped him. The floor was littered with wood shavings and offcuts, and a table held rows of polished lasts and boot trees in size order.
‘Show Bill, here, the ropes, Fred, and let me know if he looks useful.’
‘Yes, Mr Mobbs.’
Mr Mobbs left him to the tender mercies of Fred, who studied him carefully. ‘I’ve seen you around somewhere, haven’t I?’
‘I’m stepping out with Florrie Wesley, in Regent Street. Maybe you’ve seen me walking there.’
‘Joe Wesley’s eldest girl?’
‘Terrible business, her losing her mother so sudden. Poor old Joe never got over it, you know.’
‘I know.’ And he took out his grief on his children, as if it were their fault.
‘You can use a saw and a draw knife? A sander, a polisher? You done any metalwork – drilling and the like?’
‘I’ve done some whittling, and I’ve spent time helping in the smithy. I’m a fast learner.’
‘Best I show you the ropes, then. I’ll start you on something simple.’
Three hours later, he’d made a passable last for a small girl’s shoe. Fred, who turned out to be the foreman, nodded. ‘Not bad for a first attempt. I’ll tell Mr Mobbs to give you a week’s trial.’ He looked back up at him and raised his voice over the clatter of machinery. ‘I expect you’ll do the right thing by young Florrie?’
‘Soon as I’m earning good money and have a bit put by, I’m going to ask her to marry me.’
‘Good lad. Poor lass deserves a bit of luck. Don’t you let her down, now.’
‘I won’t, I promise.’ A promise was a promise, and he wasn’t a man to break his word.
Florrie dried her hands on her apron and opened the front door to the insistent knock. It was Bill and he had a huge grin on his face.
He gave her a kiss on the cheek and stepped inside before she could invite him. ‘I’ve got a job at Mobbs and Lewis. A week’s trial.’ He held out a worn leather bag. ‘The foreman let me bring some off-cuts for kindling. I thought you might find them handy.’
‘That’s kind of you, Bill.’ She lapsed into an awkward silence. How did you ask a young man what his intentions were and explain why you needed rescuing from your own father? ‘Will you stay for your tea?’
He looked uncomfortable. ‘I can’t, Florrie. Perhaps another night?’
‘I’d like that. Father…’
‘He won’t mind me staying?’
‘You are all right, Florrie?’
‘I’m fine, really. I could make a cup of tea if you like – if you’ve time?’ The conversation wasn’t going how she’d expected. How long did it take a man to propose? Did Bill like her, or had she imagined the spark when they kissed? She led the way into the back kitchen, put the kettle on the gas stove, and busied herself with cups and saucers, a milk jug, sugar basin, and sugar tongs, and put still-warm buns from a cooling rack onto a plate. ‘It’s been a while since I’ve seen you, Bill. I was worried you were ill.’
He took a bun from the offered plate. ‘Haymaking. I’ve been working my… Working all hours. And, weekends, me and Ern are training with the yeomanry. If I get through my week’s trial, and get this job, though, I should be able to see more of you. The hours’ll be regular, and I could come and do a few jobs for you after work.’
She grasped the nettle. ‘Maybe you could come for your tea a couple of nights a week to pay you for your work.’ She smiled and arched an eyebrow.
He smiled back and his eyes crinkled. ‘Maybe I could.’
Her cheeks flushed hot, and she turned back to mind the kettle. ‘You could start by putting that kindling in the shed by the coal heap.’
Bill closed the back door behind him, setting the roller towel attached to it swinging. His hob-nail boots clacked on the blue-brick path the way Father’s did when he came home from work. He’d be here soon, if he didn’t go to the pub on his way home. For once, she hoped he would. She hoped he’d get so drunk he never came home.
She poured boiling water into the teapot. Father didn’t like young men hanging around her. He wanted to keep her at home, an unpaid skivvy, and someone on whom he could take out his frustrations. At twenty-three, her brother, George, could give as good as he got, and father had learnt the hard way not to knock him about: George had laid him out flat only last week, but it had made things worse for the rest of them. It was down to her to protect her younger brother and sisters and take the brunt of her father’s drunken violence and lust.
Bill and Ernie downed their sixth pint before the landlord of The Star at Geddington shook his head. ‘You’ve had enough, boys. Get on home and sleep it off.’
‘But we’re just getting going.’ Bill thumped Ernie on the back. ‘Me and Ern’s celebrating my new job. And I’m going to ask my Florrie to marry me.’
The landlord picked up the empty glasses. ‘I’m not serving you. Now get off home, the pair of you.’
‘We know where we’re not wanted, Bill. We’ll get a drink at…’
‘S’closing time anyhow, Ern.’ He steadied himself on the bar, before drawing himself up. ‘And it’s a long walk home.’ The night air stroked his cheek with a cool hand, and stars twinkled in a cloudless sky. It was a beautiful moonlit night.
Boughton Park lay between them and home. They climbed a gate and ambled across the parkland, familiar with the lay of the land from years of roaming free when the family wasn’t in residence. He was too drunk to care if anyone saw them. Ahead lay a sunken garden and a pond. A figure loomed black against the moonlight.
Ernie drew a quiet breath at his side. ‘We’ll cop it if we’re found here this time of night.’
They crept forward slowly; the figure didn’t move but stood with a hand outstretched.
He laughed at Ernie’s nervousness, relieved but refusing to show it. ‘It’s Stone Moses. It’s a bloody statue.’
‘Thank God for that, Bill. I thought we were in trouble.’
‘I think Moses should come with us for a walk.’
‘I reckon your right. That’ll teach the bugger for scaring the shit out of me.’
‘Who’s the coward now, Ern?’ Ernie’s earlier jibe about him being scared of Joe Wesley still rankled. ‘Come on. Give us a hand.’
Together they wrested the statue from its plinth and dragged it across the grass.
Ernie panted. ‘What we need is a wheelbarrow.’
‘And I know where to find one. Wait here and be quiet.’ He crept from shadow to shadow between the great trees and made his way to the estate’s walled kitchen garden, his father’s domain, and the rows of barrows. He chose one that didn’t squeak and then ran with it back to Ernie.
Stone Moses was heaved into the barrow, and they took turns to wheel it along the avenue of trees.
‘Where are we going to put it, Bill? Dad’ll kill us if we take it home.’
He hadn’t thought as far as that. Ahead was the lane that led to Grafton. ‘The pond on the corner.’ The lane was deserted and hawthorn shadows fingered across the track. ‘Come on. No bugger’ll know it were us.’ He opened the gate to the field and helped Ernie drag the statue to the pond’s edge.
‘You gonna chuck it in?’
‘Yes… No… It ain’t deep. We’ll stand him in the middle.’ He laughed. ‘His Grace’ll wonder how the hell he got here.’ He removed his boots and stockings and rolled up his trousers while Ern stood watching. ‘You scared of getting your feet wet, Ern?’
Not to be outdone, Ernie took off his boots. ‘This’ll be a tale to tell our grandchildren.’
‘We ain’t got children yet, Ern. Never will have if the duke catches us. He’ll have our guts for garters and our balls for boiling. Hurry up.’ He paused. ‘What are we going to do with the barrow?’
‘Bugger the barrow. Chuck it in a hedge. Someone will find it.’
Holding Stone Moses between them, they waded out into the centre of the small pond where they’d caught tadpoles as nippers. They lowered the statue carefully, set him down, and turned him so his outstretched hand faced the gate.
‘There you go, Moses.’ Ernie patted the statue on the shoulder. ‘Jesus, this water’s cold, Bill. I’m getting off home to get dry. Beat you there.’
‘Oh no, you won’t.’ He waded back to dry land and grabbed his boots before Ernie could throw them into the pond. He thrust his feet into them without his stockings and tugged on the laces. ‘Catch me if you can, Ern.’ Ernie’s feet thudded on the road behind him as he ran. He laughed, knowing his longer legs meant he was the faster of the two. Running was about the only thing he knew he could beat Ernie at. ‘Catch me if you can, little brother.’
There were times when Florrie wished she could run away, and today was one of those days. Ever since George had knocked Father down and given him a black eye, Joe Wesley had been in a foul mood. She had borne the brunt of his ill-humour.
She peeled potatoes with nimble fingers, quartered them, and dropped them into a large enamel saucepan. Where would she go if she left? She had cousins in Buckingham, but they had a houseful already. And she couldn’t leave without taking Arthur and her younger sisters to safety. No, leaving wasn’t an option.
She chopped cabbage on a board with jabbing strokes of a long sharp knife. Sometimes, she wished she were a man and could escape like Harry and Joseph, who now had homes and families of their own.
Peeling onions made tears roll down her cheeks, and she brushed them away with her sleeve revealing a dark bruise above her wrist. She pulled the sleeve down quickly. If George saw it, he’d thump Father again and that would only make things worse.
The vegetables set to cook on a low gas, she picked up yesterday’s newspaper and made for the outside lavvy. Enough light filtered through the holes in the door and over the dogtooth top to allow her to tear the paper into squares ready to string together and hang onto the hook at elbow level. Large print caught her attention.
WAR DECLARED BY AUSTRIA
SEIZURE OF A SERBIAN STEAMER
THE POWERS AND PEACE
HOPES OF LOCALISING HOSTILITIES
Curious, she held the paper to the light and let her eyes adjust to the half-light. The Austrian-Hungarian Government has declared war upon Serbia in order to safeguard her right and interests, which she considers were endangered by the unsatisfactory reply received to her demands for the suppression of the anti-Austrian propaganda, and the punishment of the accomplice of the murderers of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
It had been about a month since she’d read the report of the tragedy, and the papers had carried columns about the growing feelings of unrest ever since. She hadn’t believed it would lead to war. Already, according to this report, there was fighting on the Drina River. A concentration of Montenegrin troops was taking place near Grabovo and Njegeech. The names meant nothing to her: they might as well be the other side of the world, but the bottom of the page read FRANCE PREPARING. She’d torn off the rest of the article and had already used it. Preparing for what? Invasion? War?
A chill fingered down her spine. France was close, only across the English Channel, though she’d never been even as far as the south coast. Suddenly, events that had seemed too far away to concern her, became real and threatening. The Crimean War had been fought almost forty years before she was born, and hundreds of miles away, but her grandfather, English through and through, had fought on foreign soil. Frank and George, her older brothers still at home, would volunteer to fight, if asked, just to escape Father. She scanned the piece of newspaper again. HOPES OF LOCALISING HOSTILITIES. She was worrying over nothing. It wasn’t England’s concern. It was a case of two neighbours shaking dusters at one other over the garden wall, nothing more.
‘Hussars, troop will draw swords. Draw…’
Bill’s sword hand reached over his bridle arm and grasped his sword; turning the hand guard to point to his rear, he revealed six inches of blade.’
The sergeant’s command was met by the slither of blades from scabbards. Thirty swords in a straight row pointed upwards, preparing to guard and glinting in the sun. Copper stamped restlessly, and Bill steadied her with a gentle tweak on the reins. He glanced down the line of mounted horses. Ernie was four horses to his right.
‘Eyes on the marker, Bill Mason, not your brother.’ Gilbert, Sergeant Yeats, had eyes like a privy rat.
‘Yes, Sir.’ He snapped his head back, watching the marker for timing.
‘Troop will slope swords. Slope swords.’ Yeats walked his horse along the row and picked out a man. ‘Demonstrate to these wet-behind-the-ears yeomen the thrust of the 1908 Pattern sword.’ He turned and stopped in front of the man next to Ernie. ‘The 1908 is not intended to be waved around like a flail, Private Sims. It is not a sabre. It is for skewering the foe as you might skewer a rat with a pitchfork. The T-section blade is strong, for thrusting. The blade is sharpened for the last eighteen inches and has a spear point. The grip is configured to be held like a pistol, so that when the arm is outstretched, thus…’ The sergeant straightened his sword arm, ‘…it is in the correct position to be held at a charge. The guard gives good protection to the hand, and the pommel is large to keep the point of balance close to the guard, balancing the full length of the sword.’ He gestured to the man he’d picked out. ‘Demonstrate, please, Private Godwin.’
Private Godwin cantered his horse away from the line, straightened his arm, sword pointed before him, and put his horse into a gallop towards them. It was an unnerving sight, being on the receiving end of a ton of horseflesh and three feet of cold steel. The horse slewed to a halt mere feet from the line of horses.
‘Troop will engage swords. Engage… swords!’ Thirty swords lowered menacingly. Sergeant Yeats paused and glanced along the files. ‘By threes, prepare to form line to the front. Form line to the front. March.’
Copper jumped at the touch of his heels against her flanks, and he neck-reined her into the second row of horses in his file.
The sergeant rode at their side, scanning the riders. ‘We’ll walk before we gallop, Mason. Keep formation, keep the spacing between each horse and each line. We’ve done this without swords, and I don’t want anyone stabbing the arse of the horse in front or chopping off their comrades’ arms. Good. Troop will trot and left wheel. By threes, trot and left wheel… trot!’
The horses gleamed in the morning sun, buckles shone, bits jangled. They trotted in a large circle. Yeats yelled over the thudding of hooves. ‘Troop will right wheel and canter. By threes, right wheel… canter.’ Yeats nudged his horse into a canter and Copper lunged forward, straining at the bit.
This was more like it. The weeks of riding in close formation came into play and he held Copper back, keeping his distance from the horse in front and those to either side, keeping her safe, his heart thudding. Yeats waved his sword once in the air and then repositioned it, arm outstretched. ‘Keep those positions. Keep your sword arms straight! Troop will prepare to charge. Charge!’
Hooves thundered, Copper snorted, and he let her run, guiding her to follow the sergeant and keep his position, blood pumping in his chest and hammering in his head. He was more than a boot-last maker: he was a territorial, and he was charging Copper up Regent Street to thrust his yard of steel in the face of Joe Wesley. He could do this. He could ask for Florrie’s hand. He stood in the stirrups, resisted the urge to wave his sword in the air, and let out a blood-curdling yell.
Bill opened the entry door between Florrie’s home and the house that shared the access to the joined back gardens. His hobnails echoed in the dark passageway and he pushed down a rising tide of panic. He’d passed his week’s trial with Mobbs and Lewis with flying colours and today, Wednesday, August 5th, a date he vowed never to forget, he would ask Florrie to marry him, and if she said yes, he would stay for his tea and tell Joe Wesley his intentions towards his eldest daughter.
Florrie was at the kitchen sink. She smiled and waved to him through the window. The kitchen door stood open so he walked in. Florrie was drying her hands, her sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She raised her head for a gentle kiss and hurriedly pulled down her sleeve but not before he saw the large purple discolouration.
He took her wrist in his hand and pushed the sleeve up again. ‘Is that a bruise? Did your father do that?’
She looked away. ‘It’s nothing. He grabbed my arm, that’s all. I bruise easily.’
He released her wrist. ‘Florrie…’
She pulled down her sleeve and turned away at the clatter of the letterbox in the hall. ‘That’ll be the newspaper. Father likes his paper with his tea when he comes in. He’ll be here soon.’
‘If he doesn’t go down the pub and get drunk.’
‘He hasn’t enough money to get drunk or go down the pub for that matter. I had to buy Nell new shoes. The girl’s growing like a radish in spring.’
He let the subject drop. Florrie obviously didn’t want to talk about it, but he’d be having words with Joe Wesley.’
Florrie’s quick footsteps pattered on the tiled hall floor. He took a deep breath. It was now or never. ‘Florrie, will you…’
Her face was as white as a sheet. ‘Oh, Bill…’ She held out the opened newspaper.
‘What is it? What’s happened?’ He read the bold headline at the top of the column.
ENGLAND DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY
DECISION TAKEN LATE AT NIGHT
DEMAND FOR RESPECT OF BELGIAN NEUTRALITY REFUSED
NAVIES WAITING IN THE NORTH SEA
BRITISH MINE-LAYING VESSEL SUNK BY GERMAN WARSHIPS.
‘War…’ The whole page was taken up with more details than he could take in, but one headline stood out.
YOUR KING AND COUNTRY NEED YOU
A CALL TO ARMS
Bile rose in his throat. ‘Florrie…’ He couldn’t ask her to marry him now. He was a territorial and he was needed. Who knew where this war would take him? He sat down hard in Joe’s chair. He’d suddenly lost his appetite.
A week of speculation ended on the following Tuesday with an official call to arms. The talk was all of war at Mobbs and Lewis. Several of the younger men swore they were going to join up after work that evening. Bill kept his head down and got on with his work. As a territorial, he was training for home duties. The territorials were a reserve force and not intended for fighting abroad, as men had in the Crimea. He didn’t know yet what his role would be. He desperately didn’t want to leave Florrie to her father’s less than tender mercies, but maybe she’d be better as an unmarried woman, dependent on her father, than a widow, maybe with a baby to support.
Mr Mobbs addressed them at knocking-off time. ‘I know some of you men are intending to answer the call to arms, but we make boot lasts, and if this war proceeds, the army will need boots. I shall need you men here.’
Mr Mobbs’ words were a salve to his conscience. He was needed here. He called in on Florrie on his way home, not that it was on his way; he had to make a detour. She was in tears.
‘George and Frank have gone down the Town Hall to volunteer.’ She turned into his arms and sobbed on his chest. ‘Please, Bill. Tell me you’re not going, too.’
‘I’m not going anywhere, Florrie. Mr Mobbs says the army will need boots, and boots need lasts. I’m going to stay here and make them.’
‘I don’t know if it’s a promise I can keep, Florrie, but I don’t want to leave you.’
She looked up at him, eyes bright with tears. ‘I couldn’t bear to lose you, too.’
‘It won’t come to that, Florrie. It’s a storm in a water barrel, that’s all. According to the papers, it’ll be over by Christmas.’
He walked home, hoping he was right about storms and water barrels. The weekend would be soon enough to find out what the role of the territorials would be and whether he’d be caught up in it. Men were needed in farming and all the other industries vital to the nation. He wouldn’t be the only man who didn’t go to war. He opened the front door. The house was silent.
His mother appeared, drying her hands on her apron. She looked anxious. ‘Your father and Ern are across at the church. There’s a meeting.’
‘This damned call to arms.’ It wasn’t like his mother to swear.
‘They’re not going, are they?’
‘Your father’s too old for gallivanting. As for Ern, I don’t know.’
He hurried across the lane to the church. Fresh-faced youths, sturdy farmhands, and old gaffers were assembled, men and boys he’d known all his life. Some of them were in the yeomanry, and had had a taste of the rigours of training, but at least, whatever happened, the pals would be together. Some of the younger men seemed excited at the prospect of volunteering.
The rector called for quiet. ‘As you all know by now, our government has declared war on Germany. I have received a letter from his grace. Field-Marshall Earl Kitchener has issued orders for the expansion of the army. Parliament has sanctioned an increase in army numbers of five hundred thousand. Earl Kitchener is calling for the first hundred thousand volunteers. The terms of service require a man to sign up for general service for three years, or the duration of the war, whichever is the longer.’
‘I heard say it’ll be over by Christmas.’ Eb Toseland, a neighbour, laughed. ‘We’ll soon have them Germans on the run.’
The rector peered over his pince-nez. ‘I hope so, Ebenezer. I pray to God it is so. As I was saying, three years or the duration of the war, whichever is the longer, and the volunteers will agree to being sent to serve anywhere the army needs them. I would suggest at this point, that only single men volunteer, and that those in vital trades stay put.’
Old Pikey, the blacksmith, spoke up. ‘Surely, the army will need men who have trades. There’ll be horses to care for. They’ll need shoeing.’
‘I’m sure you’re right, Mr Pike, but happily you’re past the age of fighting. We need you here.’
Ern pushed his way forward. ‘What about those of us who are in the yeomanry?’
‘His grace instructs that you attend your practice as usual this weekend. I’m sure your commanding officer will have had his orders.’
Several of the village lads stepped forward, keen to know how to join up. The village would be a quiet place without them. His heart thumped loud in his ears as the full truth hit him. Some of these lads would leave and not return, and he could be one of them. He looked from face to face, imprinting them on his memory. These villagers, this church, and this quiet peaceful English village were suddenly unbearably precious. Life had changed and it would never be the same again.
Saturday arrived with agonising slowness. Bill and Ernie, having been up and out of bed since first light, jogged across the fields to the horse line beneath the trees in Boughton Park. Copper nickered a soft greeting, and Bill rubbed her ears and gave her a chunk of carrot from the cottage garden.
He fetched her a bucket of fresh water, refilled her hay net, and then set to mucking out the line, shovelling dung into a wheelbarrow that looked suspiciously like the one they’d abandoned in the hedge by the pond. His cheeks flushed warm. While war was brewing overseas, they’d been playing a childish prank with Stone Moses.
He wheeled the barrow back past Copper, and was surprised to see a girl of about twelve stroking the bay’s neck. He removed his cap. ‘Your Ladyship.’
‘Mr Mason.’ Lady Alice Christabel smiled a little sadly. ‘The sergeant told me you’re looking after Copper. I’m glad it’s someone I know. You will bring her home safe, won’t you?’
‘You’re letting her stay with the brigade?’
‘It’s my duty, just as it’s yours, Bill. The army needs horses.’
‘I’ll guard her with my life, Your Ladyship, whatever happens. I promise. I’ve grown to love her, too.’
Lady Alice smiled a little broader. ‘Then the right man has her.’ She patted the mare’s neck and gave her an apple, and then kissed the soft hair on Copper’s muzzle. ‘Be brave. Be true, Greatheart.’ With that Lady Alice squeezed his arm and walked away.
He stared after her, his vision misting. He’d promised, and he was a man who kept his promises. Standing staring wouldn’t get the barrow emptied.
Sergeant Yeats clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Leave that now. The captain wants us all in the hall.’
Weekley village hall was full, the men standing to attention, when the captain arrived. The man cleared his throat and tapped his stick on his boot leg. ‘Men… I know you’re anxious to know what’s happening. I received a telegram yesterday with one word on it. Mobilise. We have one week to make sure this happens. We’re about to intensify our training in readiness for whatever part we’re to play in the coming conflict.’ He held the men at attention as he glanced along the lines. ‘The yeomanry will be forged into a fighting force to be reckoned with. A squadron are mobilising at Buckingham, B squadron at Aylesbury, C squadron at High Wycombe, and D squadron at Chesham. From there you’ll travel to Reading where you’ll be organised into a cohesive regiment, and your training will intensify further before your deployment. You men have all come a long way since you first volunteered, and I’m proud to be your commanding officer. I know every one of us will do our duty and may God go with us. Inform your employers that you will be leaving their employ as of today. This morning, there’ll be a rifle inspection. Lee Enfields are susceptible to jamming if they get grit in them, so it’s essential they’re kept clean. It could be the difference between you being alive or being dead, and you’re no use to your country dead. Say your farewells to your families and report here at six o’clock tomorrow morning. Troop dismissed.’
Florrie stood with her head bowed as the minister led the special mid-week prayers for the safekeeping of British troops in France and a speedy end to the conflict. She added her own private prayer for the safety of Frank and George, who’d volunteered that morning.
At least Bill was safe in Warkton. She took a deep breath and held Nell by the hand as Father pushed past her, the service over. He’d be making for the working men’s club. She and Nell and Mabel had dinner to cook. Jane was poorly in bed and would need nursing. There was no end to the work to be done.
Outside in the bright morning, Father’s bent figure receded into the distance. She turned for home. Nell picked two dandelion seed-heads from the gutter and handed one to her.
‘Blow it, Florrie. You know. He loves me. He loves me not.’
‘What do you know about love, Nell?’
‘I’m not a baby. I see how you moon around after Bill. He hasn’t asked you to marry him.’
So he hadn’t. She smiled at her little sister. She shouldn’t encourage the child in such foolishness, but where was the harm? She blew and seeds puffed into the air and floated along the pavement. ‘He loves me.’ She took a second breath as she walked. ‘He loves me not.’ There were still a few seeds attached. Another breath. ‘He loves…’
She stopped and turned. A figure in an army uniform hurried towards her. ‘Bill?’ Her heartbeat quickened. He was so handsome. She’d never seen him in his uniform before, and he never came on a Sunday. ‘Were you coming to see me?’
‘I had to see you, Florrie.’ He caught at a breath. ‘We’ve had orders. The Hussars – we’ve been posted.’
Her heart lurched. ‘France?’
‘I probably shouldn’t say where, but no, not France. We’re staying in England. Training.’
‘Thank God. Frank and George have volunteered. I couldn’t bear it if you went as well.’
He touched her arm lightly. ‘No news is good news, Florrie. We all have to be brave.’
‘But I’m not brave, Bill. I’m terrified.’
He took her in his arms, seemingly careless of being seen in public. ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I love you.’ Bill’s chest heaved against hers. ‘Florrie, if… when I come back, we’ll get married. If you want to, that is.’
She blinked back tears. ‘Of course, I want to.’
‘Then we’ll do it.’ He smiled and her heart thudded beneath her breasts. ‘If I survive this war, we’ll get married, Florrie. I promise.’
He tilted her face towards him and kissed her lips, softly, gently, and then with a passion she hadn’t known he felt. A tingle thrilled through her body, and she responded, not caring who saw her cavorting in the street with a soldier, in broad daylight, as her neighbours would doubtless accuse. He released her at last, and she took a rapid breath. ‘I love you, Bill. I love you so much.’
‘I love you too, Florrie.’
Her hand still clutched the dandelion seed-head, but it was spent: every seed had blown away. She smiled. He loves me.
Hooves clattered, iron on metalled road, as Bill rode behind Ernie through the streets of Kettering, Copper weighed down by weapons and equipment and he weighed down with responsibility; Copper belonged to Lady Alice. Children followed, a rag tag procession, curious to see these soldiers on horseback. Women in aprons, with babies clutched to their breasts, watched from open front doors. Men crowded on the steps of factories to see the hussars ride by. Some waved, some cheered, and some wept.
Bill swallowed. His and Ernie’s parting from their parents and sister had been painful, but now, riding with his troop, his chest swelled with pride. At Kettering station, the horses were loaded into wagons ready for their journey. He checked Copper over, cleaned stones from her hooves with the pick on his knife, and left her with a pat on her neck and a chunk of carrot.
Harness and equipment stacked in the next wagon, he and Ernie made their way to the troop carriages and found a seat. His heart was thumping wildly, and his collar seemed to squeeze his windpipe. He was leaving home for the first time, even if it was only to High Wycombe.
He pulled down the carriage window to get some air and took a gulp of smoke and steam, the distinctive smell reminding him of Rushton Bridge, not far from home, where the railway ran under the road and smoke had billowed in his face as he’d watched the trains rush beneath him. Would he come back to the village or to the girl he loved? A tremble began deep inside him, refusing to be quieted.
The rest of August was a whirlwind of activity, and he hadn’t time to feel homesick. He and Ernie only spent five days in High Wycombe before being moved on again, this time to Reading. There they were reorganised and joined by a machine-gun corps, and he’d barely got used to life in Reading, when they had orders to entrain for Bury St Edmunds. Another ten days saw them being moved again, this time to Berkshire for intensive training with other regiments of the 2nd South Midland Mounted Division.
Somehow, this move felt more purposeful, more serious. The train pulled out of Bury St Edmunds station with a hiss of steam and a long piercing whistle, and he settled back in his seat deep in his own thoughts. At various stops along the way, lines of horses waited to be loaded and troops boarded. The stops were frequent and long, the journey slow and longer. It was past dark before they arrived at their destination, a small station with a short siding on a single line in the middle of nowhere. Lanterns threw pools of light along the wide platform and the track. They unloaded the horses, saddled them, and mounted, forming into a tight troop formation. A sign said Churn, and another had arms that pointed in the direction of a slight gradient along the railway track.
The almost full moon threw long shadows of a ghostly cavalry procession as the troop rode out of the station and along a track through open, rolling grassland. There were no buildings close by and few trees. It was a very different landscape from the enclosed pasture and long avenues of trees that surrounded Boughton House and its villages.
It was quiet but for the jangling of harness and the distant hissing of the train. They rode on through the night until the commanding officer called a halt. They’d arrived, wherever it was they were.
He slid down from Copper, glad to have his feet on firm soil again and every muscle aching after a day and night travelling. He stared around him. ‘Where are we supposed to sleep?’
Sergeant Yeats evidently overheard. ‘It seems brigade headquarters haven’t provided for our encampment. ‘Men, look to your horses. Get a picket line up, here, and then bivouac for the night.’ The sergeant looked up at the stars. ‘It’s a fine night. Try to get some sleep. We have rifle practice at first light.’
Ernie unbuckled his bedding roll from Captain’s saddle. ‘Been a while since I slept under the stars. I reckon the last time was when I got drunk at The Star at Geddington and woke up under old Mrs Baker’s front hedge in Grafton Underwood.’
A laugh bubbled up from his stomach. ‘We had some right pranks, didn’t we Ern?’
‘I expect we’ll have a few more yet, Bill.’ Ernie reached out and put a hand on his younger brother’s arm. ‘We’ll be all right, Bill.’
He was leaving his carefree childhood days behind. ‘Yes, Ern… of course we will. We’ll be all right.’
Florrie tore open the letter with shaking fingers. It was addressed to her, and she never received letters. Was it from Bill, or news from Frank? The insignia at the top of the notepaper was of the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars. Their motto ‘Strike Home’ curled around the motif. It was a letter from Bill.
September 7th 1914
My dearest Florrie,
I hope you and your family are well and not too exhausted by this hot weather. We arrived at our training ground about midnight on the thirty-first and found we had nowhere to sleep, not that we got much sleep as troops arrived every couple of hours throughout the night and it was rarely quiet. We spent three nights under the stars before canvas tents were erected. There are now rows and rows of them and horse lines. Also cook tents, mess tents, a chapel, and a small hospital.
We are four to a tent and Ern is one of the four. The two others are boys from Buckingham. They don’t know of your relatives in that town, but they are decent fellows. We’ve been doing manoeuvres with the Berks Yeomanry. Facing a full-on charge was terrifying, but it was all very high spirited and good humoured and no-one was injured. All here is merry and bright. I have Copper with me, and Ern, which is a great comfort. The food is adequate, though I miss Mum’s cooking and Dad’s fresh vegetables. Have you heard anything from them? I’d love to hear from you if you can find time. You can write to me at the above address as we may be here some while.
She glanced at the address at the top of the letter. Churn Camp, near Hungerford. It wasn’t so far away and yet it might as well have been a thousand miles for all the hope she had of getting there.
I meant to tell you that Mr Mobbs has promised me my job back when I come home. I hope it won’t be too long. I am looking forward to a slice of your fruit cake. I miss you, Florrie.
Your loving Bill.
She smiled. She couldn’t visit him, but she could write, and maybe… She put the letter back in its envelope, went upstairs, and placed it in her small box of treasures kept beneath her bed. Downstairs again, she took out a mixing bowl and fetched flour, sugar, margarine, milk, and currants from the pantry. She had no eggs. Baking powder and vinegar would do instead, plus nutmeg and ginger and a spoon of cocoa. She sang to herself as she rubbed in the flour and margarine and mixed the ingredients together. She would find greaseproof paper and a strong box to put the cake in when it was cooked and cooled. The way to a man’s heart was his stomach: every woman knew that, and Father didn’t need to know she was making two cakes and wasting good food, as he’d be sure to put it. Bill was serving his country, away from home comforts, and, though she hadn’t wanted him to go, she was proud of him. He would have his fruit cake.
Two weeks later the long-awaited letter from France arrived. The handwriting on the envelope was definitely Frank’s. Several lines of writing had black ink scribbled through them.
Dear Father. She’d torn it open not realising it was addressed to her father. Now she was in trouble. She might as well be beaten for reading it as opening it. She scanned over the usual felicitations.
We are in France, as you will have gathered. George and I are both well but are quite exhausted. We came up against the German Army and made a good show of ourselves but…
The next bit was scribbled out. She could make out retreated and constant… fire? Jim Baughn bought it. You remember Jim. She did. Bought it? Bought what? We reached the River Marne. The Frenchies’ the next bit was obliterated drew the German forces away, and we slipped through the gap. We thought we’d bought it too, but the French came through for us. We drowned a lot of Germans in the river. We’ve recaptured lost ground and pushed the Germans back to… The place name was a black smudge… where we have dug in. I have good friends among the casualties which they say… numbered? More thick black lines covered missing words. I have lost good friends? The rest of the sentence was illegible, but a long number began with a two. German or French casualties, or British?
We are now stuck in this trench for the foreseeable future while we fire bullets and throw grenades into the German trenches and they bombard ours, but at least it’s stopped raining. Sleep is hard to come by, only about three hours a night, if we’re lucky, and I’ve lost at least a stone in weight. I’ll write again before Christmas, but the postal service may be a bit erratic to put it mildly. George sends his regards, and we hope this letter finds you in good health. Love to Arthur and the girls.
God be with us all.
That last sentence said more about what was happening in France than all the words hidden by heavy lines of black government secrecy. She put down the letter, clasped her hands, and bowed her head. ‘Lord God, who knows our deepest fears and desires, please keep Frank, George, and Bill in your heart. Please bring them all home safe and well, and if you can manage to have them home by Christmas that would be lovely even if we can’t afford a proper Christmas dinner.’
September had brought with it colder nights and a nip to the morning air. October brought the first frost of the autumn and shrouded the early morning downs in mist. Other than false alarms of invasion that had led the brigade to dash to the coast in the middle of the night on several occasions, life had been pretty quiet. Bill filled a bucket with water from the specially laid cast-iron pipe that provided water to the camp. He carried it to Copper and waited while she drank then set to with a brush, leaning into her with long smooth strokes until she shone like a horse chestnut fresh from its shell.
A bugle sounded, drowning the rumble in his stomach. He’d shared Florrie’s latest fruit cake with Ernie and their mates, and now he was wishing he hadn’t. He replaced the soft body brush in his grooming kit and saddled Copper, adjusting the set of the newly cleaned Lee Enfield in its holster. Men were assembling in formation and he hurried to join them. Gun carriages rolled by and took their positions, each one drawn by six horses, one man mounted to each pair. The formation of brigades that made up the 2nd Mounted Division was impressive, as the Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire Yeomanry had ridden up from Newbury for the parade.
Copper stamped a restless hoof and snorted. He calmed her with a sure hand on the reins. Off in the distance, a group of riders approached and halted some way off. The bugle for the advance sounded, and the division moved forward. As the men drew level with the group of horsemen, commands rang out.
‘Division, to the right, salute.’
He counted the timing, eyes to the right, snapping his arm into the correct position. He wasn’t sure which one of the group of horsemen was King George V. The man in the centre on the tall chestnut, presumably. He snapped his arm down again and watched the marker as the horses walked past in tight formation. When the lead horses reached the far end of the Fair Mile, the order for left wheel was given, followed by the bugle sound for the charge. His heart pounded in his chest as he urged Copper forward. Months of practice kept the charge controlled and orderly, the colours of each brigade waving in the wind as they cantered back past the king swords drawn and arms outstretched. Pride stirred his blood to be a part of the marvellous spectacle they must have made for his majesty.
November and fog rolled across the downs making everything wet and sombre. Training had broadened into digging trenches, fire drills, grenade and rifle ranges, and attacking mock-ups of German houses. The war games were beginning to feel all too real. Rumour of the war in France sped around the camp and talk was of the posting expected any day. Another parcel arrived from Florrie. Bill opened it eagerly. Another fruit cake and a welcome taste of home. He opened the enclosed letter.
8th November 1914
My dearest Bill,
It was so good to hear from you last week and know that you are safe and well. Not much has happened here. Arthur has a job at the slaughterhouse, washing down to start with, though with so many men volunteering I expect he’ll soon be promoted to slaughter man. Marge next door got married to her Alf, and we all went to the wedding in the Methodist Chapel. We had a nice wedding tea in the Midland Band Club. Alf says he wishes he was with you, but his leg still pains him after his accident with the Co-op horse. The doctor says the bone has healed though, so he may volunteer for service in time.
I think you are all so brave. Some of the men have been given white feathers by the women of the town. Poor Alf got one, and him still limping. It upset him a lot. He didn’t ask for that horse to kick him and break his leg. Some of the men have since volunteered for the shame of it, but I doubt those men’s lives are on the women’s consciences.
I don’t know if you get a glance at a newspaper, so I’ve sent you one. It’s old, but I kept it because it has a picture of Kettering market, where we met. I hope to see you again very soon, but it doesn’t look as if the war will be over by Christmas. I’ve made our Christmas cake, such as it is, and will send you some when I cut it.
Your ever-loving Florrie.
He delved into the package and removed the newspaper. Marge and Alf’s wedding was in the marriages section, there were adverts for women’s corsets on most pages that didn’t sport hats, and on page five a headline that caught his eye.
MIRACLE OF THE MARNE
FIGHTING RAGES ON A 100-MILE FRONT
PARIS SAVED FROM CAPTURE
Reports have arrived concerning recent action in France. General Maunoury’s 6th Army surprised the Germans, striking the right flank of General von Kluck’s forces near the Marne River. By turning his army to meet the French attack, von Kluck created a thirty-mile breach in the German line through which the French 5th Army and British forces pressed the attack. Bloody fighting raged for three days along a 100-mile front.
The new machine guns and cannons delivered a severe blow on the enemy troops, while a cavalry charge with swords drawn and drummers drumming struck fear into German hearts. Reinforcements rushed from Paris in taxis and, on September 9th, helped push the enemy into retreat north of the Aisne River, where the battle came to a close after a week’s fighting that it is estimated has claimed 100,000 lives on both sides. It seems unlikely, now, that the war will be over by Christmas as some politicians believed at the outbreak.
A hundred thousand dead: sons, brothers, fathers. Ordinary men and lads like him and Ernie. He dropped the newspaper and rushed to the latrines. He only just made it before he vomited. Sick with fear took on a whole new meaning.
After lunch, the brigade was assembled. Their commanding officer surveyed them. ‘Orders have arrived. We are to ready ourselves for service in France. Being a territorial brigade, overseas duty is voluntary. Those not volunteering will continue to serve at home. Volunteers for duty abroad take one step to the front. At his side, Ernie stepped promptly forward. His own feet were stuck to the ground and refused to move. A hundred thousand dead. Why had Florrie sent that damned newspaper? ‘You’re a coward, Billy Mason.’
10th November 1914
I hope this finds you in good health. Your dad is suffering with his lumbago, but apart from that, we are all well. He says to send you his love. Sad news from the big house. His Grace died at his house in Whitehall, and Sir John is now 7th Duke of Buccleuch. We can’t help but wonder what changes it will bring to the village as everyone here depends on the estate for their livings. The village is so quiet without all you young men, and everything seems to be changed. We said prayers for the old duke in church on Sunday, and asked God’s guidance for the young duke, God bless him. I hear his grace is to be buried in Dalkeith.
But what of your news? I hope Ernie is being a good brother to you, and you to him. It comforts me that you are in the same brigade and can look out for each other. Please write soon.
Look after yourself, son
He passed the letter to Ernie. Nothing stayed the same, but somehow, he’d imagined going home and nothing having changed. There would be faces missing when… if he returned.
New instructions saved Bill from further guilt about not volunteering for France, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Orders had been changed, and they were to entrain to Norfolk to man the coastal defences, the east coast ports being closest to Germany and enemy warships patrolling the North Sea. Horses and equipment were loaded onto wagons at Churn station. He and Ernie would still be together as Mum imagined.
At Great Ryburgh station they unloaded the horses and equipment. About four hundred horses were offloaded during the day, and a steady flow of mounts and riders trotted through the main street much to the excitement of the villagers. A large barn had been requisitioned for the troops’ use, and Sergeant Yeats was busy allocating billets for his men in the village and surrounding area.
‘Bill Mason.’ He indicated a low roofed cottage with small windows, much like the cottages in Warkton. ‘You billet here, but see to your horse first.’
Copper fed, watered, and settled on a nearby farm, he walked back to the village and knocked on the door of his billet. A young woman opened the door and smiled.
He smiled back. ‘I’m sorry to put upon you, miss. I’m Private Bill Mason. I was told I was to billet with you.’
She nodded. ‘I was expecting you. We all have to do our bit, Bill. Our own boys are away in France, and the place has been dead without them. You’ll brighten the village up, I’m sure.’ She stopped at the bottom of the narrow stairs. ‘I’m Martha. Martha Beckett. Your room is up here. It used to be my brother, Jim’s, room, but he’s in Kitchener’s Army. Volunteered the very first day, he did.’
‘He’s a brave lad, Martha. You must be very proud of him.’
‘I’m sure you’ll get your chance to be brave, Bill.’ Her eyes crinkled with a smile, the way Florrie’s so rarely did. ‘I dare say there’ll be plenty of chances before this war is over.’
His heart constricted. Part of him longed for something to happen, so he had a chance to prove to himself and Ernie that he wasn’t a coward: part of him dreaded receiving the orders that would send him to France. ‘Sometimes, it’s the waiting, the not knowing, that’s the hardest to bear, Martha.’
‘It is, Bill. Truly, it is. ’She looked up at him, blue eyes sparkling with tears, her fair hair framing a delicate face. ‘David, my fiancé, is out in France. I don’t know where, he’s not allowed to say, but he writes when he can.’ She looked away as if to avoid his pity.
He’d been so busy being terrified for his own skin, he hadn’t really thought of war from the viewpoint of those waiting at home until now. ‘Yes, I suppose that must be hard.’
The room was small and low-ceilinged. Martha plumped a feather pillow and smoothed an already smooth floral counterpane. ‘The privy is out the back. Bath night is Friday. There’s a towel and a jug and basin, of course. Just shout when you need hot water. Now, I expect you could drink a cup of tea?’
‘If it’s no trouble.’
‘Mum will be home soon, so I was making one anyway.’
‘Thank you. I can do some jobs for you when I’m not on duty. I don’t want to be a burden.’
‘Burden? We’ve been living in fear of our lives. The German Navy shelled Yarmouth only a fortnight ago.’
Yarmouth was too close for comfort. ‘Was there much damage?’
‘No, most of the shells landed on the beach, but they sank a British submarine, apparently. No, you’re no burden, Bill. While David and our other menfolk are fighting in France, you soldiers are here to protect the coast and that means us.’
He found her a smile; he hated the thought of fighting, but it was people like her that made it worthwhile, necessary. People like her and Florrie and his family back in Northamptonshire. He straightened. ‘Then I shall try my best to do just that.’
Martha danced with a light step and a sway to her hips. Bill held her in his arms but not so close he could feel her heart beating or she his. The hussars had been welcomed with open hearts and what home comforts the villagers of Great Ryburgh could provide.
To sleep in a bed, to eat at a proper table, and to have a family life, were comforts Bill hadn’t realised he’d missed, and it gave an air of normality to counteract the continued training and the patrols, both daytime and night time, along the coast; the army, he’d discovered, was not a respecter of a man’s sleep. Martha and her parents included him in their lives. Last week, the troops had given the villagers a concert, and tonight he and the rest of the men billeted in the village had been invited to a dance.
He had two left feet, unlike Florrie, who danced like an angel, and Martha. Martha steered him around the floor, laughing. ‘You step on my best shoes, Bill Mason, and you’ll not eat for a week.’
He risked looking up from his feet long enough to see the teasing smile in her eyes. ‘Not eating your cooking would be a reward, not a punishment.’
‘Bill Mason, I – I…’
‘You – you… what, Martha?’
‘I’ll give you double rations, then, so you’re so fat no other girl will look at you.’
He laughed. ‘I don’t want other girls to look at me.’ Martha blushed as red as an apple. What had made him say that? Now look what he’d done. ‘Martha. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. David’s a lucky man.’
‘It’s me who’s lucky, Bill.’ She changed the subject away from one that obviously hurt. ‘What about you? You’ve told us very little about yourself. Do you have a girl waiting for you, somewhere?’
‘Her name’s Florrie.’
‘No.’ He smiled. ‘You’d like Florrie. She’s dances as well as you do. She wanted to be a dancer before her mother died.’
‘Will she wait for you?’
‘I hope so. I don’t know. She looks after the family, now.’
Martha’s smile faded. She looked away and then back at him. ‘Bill, we don’t know what’s going to happen, what the future holds.’ She painted on a broad smile again. ‘We should grab this this little slice of happiness while we can. I really like you, Bill.’
‘I promised her we’d get married if I survived this war, Martha.’
‘You didn’t promise not to dance with another girl.’
He laughed and whirled her around, narrowly missing her toes. ‘So I didn’t.’
The music stopped, and he led her back to the seats at the side of the hall. Her hand was warm and soft in his. He really liked Martha, too. He loved Florrie. This was different; his feelings for Martha were more urgent, more fleeting, and more precious. ‘I don’t know how long we’ll be here, Martha. We could get orders to move at any time.’
‘All the more reason not to waste a minute we have together mooning over those who can’t be with us. They’d want us to be happy, wouldn’t they?’
‘I suppose.’ Martha was only flirting, but she needed to know he was serious about Florrie. ‘I don’t make promises I don’t intend to keep.’
She laughed, brushing aside his concern as if he’d misinterpreted her words. ‘I don’t need your promises. I have David. Just let’s enjoy each other’s company, today, tomorrow, however long we have.’
He leant forward on impulse to kiss her cheek, but at that moment, she turned her head, and their lips brushed briefly. He breathed in the scent of lavender as she drew away blushing. He tried to ignore the tightness of his collar and the stirring in his groin. ‘For however long we have, Martha.’
January 4th 1915
Willow Tree Cottage,
I hope you are well. Thank you for the slices of Christmas cake. I shared them with the Becketts, the family with whom I’m billeted. They’ve welcomed me into their home and treat me like another son. Their daughter, Martha, has become like a younger sister. You’d like Martha, Florrie. Have you had news of your brothers yet? We had a scare before Christmas. Scarborough and other ports up the East coast were attacked with quite a lot of civilian lives lost, and we’ve been on high alert for several weeks, especially at night. Feelings are running high against Germany for attacking civilians and against the Royal Navy for failing to prevent the raid. Apart from that, life here is quite comfortable. We play cards most nights, and there are concerts and dances. Martha’s teaching me how to dance.
Florrie frowned and put the letter back in its envelope. She’d read it several times since it had arrived in January, but now she read it with different eyes. Exactly what was Martha to Bill? She reread the letter that had just dropped onto the door mat. It was dated March 25th
I hope all is well with you in Kettering. We’ve received orders to be ready to mobilise, and there’s much excitement among the lads. It seems we’re to be sent abroad. I’ll write again as soon as I’m able, but don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while as letters are bound to take longer to get to England. It’s going to be a wrench to leave Ryburgh. I’ve made some good friends here. Poor Martha was in tears at the news. She’ll lose her dancing partner, and there’ll be few enough men in the village once we leave.
A dancing partner? She doubted that was all Martha saw in him. Bill was a good-looking young man, especially dashing in his hussars’ uniform, and Martha wouldn’t be the only young woman in Ryburgh looking for a beau.
She put the letter down and walked across to the mirror that hung over the mantelshelf. Tidying a stray lock of hair, she examined herself. What did Bill see in her? She was plain, round-faced with dull brown hair, and had dark rings around her eyes from lack of sleep worrying about Bill and her brothers and trying to keep the rest of the family fed and clothed.
There wasn’t much money coming in now that the boys were in France. Father was still drinking, and she was having to take in washing to help pay the rent. Mabel and Jane worked extra shifts, Mabel at the box factory in Dryden Street and Jane in the corset factory in Rutland Street, but they were paid a pittance compared to what the boys had earned. Arthur, too, earned very little. Even Nell helped her with the washing before and after school. In another couple of years, Nell would be eleven; she’d leave school and they could maybe take in more washing. That would help if the war dragged on that long.
The thought was too awful to contemplate. No, the war would be over soon, it had to be, and Bill would come home and marry her. Bill loved her and he’d promised.
She turned her attention to the other letter that had arrived. The handwriting looked like Frank’s but rather wobbly.
London March 26th
Frank was in London?
As you can see, I’m back in England. I took a bullet in my thigh and was sent back on a hospital ship a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been quite out of it, and I shall be here for another week, but I’m hoping I may have home leave while I recover. It would be good to see you again. I can’t begin to tell you what life has been like the past few months. I am quite a wreck, but I know you’ll look after me like a mother if I come home, as you always have,
A bullet wound? A wreck? That didn’t sound like happy-go-lucky Frank. Her frown deepened. It would mean another mouth to feed, more washing to do, and an invalid to nurse. She straightened. At least Frank was alive. And he and Father needed her, which was more than Bill appeared to.
A cold March wind blew across the open fields from the North Sea, chilling Bill to the bone and wafting his pipe smoke across his face. He’d be glad when spring came but dreaded what April might bring. France was further south, so at least it should be warmer there.
Mr Beckett, puffing on a Woodbine, picked up on his mood. ‘We none of us know what the future will bring, Bill. We’ll miss you. Martha’s taken quite a shine to you, you know.’
‘She’s a lovely girl, Mr Beckett.’ He kept pace with the older man. Mrs Beckett didn’t like the smell of tobacco smoke in the house, so the two of them had come outside for a smoke and walking was warmer than standing still. ‘I’ve taken quite a shine to her as well. If it weren’t for David and Florrie, we could have been more than friends, I think.’
Mr Beckett nodded. ‘David’s a good lad. He’ll see her right. She misses him something awful though, and you’ve helped take her mind off worrying about him.’
‘She’s kept my mind off things as well – France…’
‘It’s all right to be afraid, Bill. It isn’t the men who are fearless that have courage.’
He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he could have done with a large spoonful of courage right then.
‘The missus’ll miss you as well.’ Mr Beckett tapped the side of his nose. ‘She loves having you to mollycoddle now James has gone. Broke his mother’s heart, volunteering like that. It’s helped, having you here.’
‘I’m glad. I didn’t want to be a burden to you. It’s hard worrying about your loved ones and not being able to do anything to help them.’
‘The missus writes every week. James says it helps to hear from home. He says it reminds him what he’s fighting for.’
‘His letters must be a comfort to you all.’
‘They are, son. They are. You hear all sorts of news and rumour, but it’s only them that’s out there who know the truth. I’d have gladly gone instead of him, but you young uns… Always up for a lark.’ He sighed. ‘I’m too old, anyway, son.’
‘A lark?’ He drew smoke into his lungs and then tapped out his pipe on the heel of his boot. He breathed out the smoke and a hint of a smoke ring was carried away by the wind. ‘It’s damned cold. I’m going to head back.’
Mr Beckett held the stub of his cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, smoking all but the last half inch, and ground it out on a fence post. ‘It’ll be suppertime, anyway.’
The front door of the cottage stood open. A sound of sobbing came from the kitchen. Mr Beckett pushed past him. ‘What is it? What’s happened?’
Mrs Beckett had an arm around Martha who was sobbing uncontrollably. ‘It’s our Martha’s David. He’s been killed in action. His mum’s just been around. Had the telegram a couple of hours ago.’ Mrs Beckett’s face was wet with tears. ‘There now, Martha. You let it all out, sweetheart. Let it all out.’
Mr Beckett moved to hold his wife and daughter in his arms. ‘My poor baby.’
He felt he intruded. He left them to their grief and climbed the stairs with leaden feet. Poor Martha. All her dreams had been shattered. He sat on his bed, Jim’s bed, and held his head in his hands. He’d been right not to marry Florrie. He’d write and tell her not to wait for him. He might never come home from war: she had to live her life, with or without him.
April came too soon, heralded by drooping hazel catkins, pale primroses, swooping swallows, and the cheerful chatter of sparrows and blue tits nesting in the holes in the cottage walls. Bill packed his army knife, fork, and spoon into his canteen and secured the lid. This small attic room had become home, the Becketts like a second family, and Martha a dearly loved friend. He hated leaving her so soon after David’s death.
His equipment and clothing packed, he hefted the pack over his shoulder, turned down the wick on the oil lamp, blew out the flame, and thudded down the dark stairs.
Mrs Beckett gave him a hug. ‘Look after yourself, son. You will write, won’t you? And write to Martha. She needs a friend right now.’
‘Of course I will.’
They went out into the night. Mr Beckett pushed two packets of Woodbines into his hand. ‘Thought these might be hard to come by in France.’ Mr Beckett’s voice was gruff and his eyes shone. ‘God’s speed, Bill. It’s been a pleasure having you here.’
‘Thank you, Mr Beckett.’ He slipped the cigarettes into his breast pocket and shook Mr Beckett by the hand. ‘I can’t thank you enough for making me so welcome. I shall miss you all.’
Martha took a step forward. ‘I’ll walk with you a way.’
‘Just a short way.’ He smiled. ‘I’d like that.’ It was three days off full moon and dark shadows fingered across the road.
Martha broke the taut silence. ‘You will write. You promise?’
‘I promise, and I keep my promises.’ He’d made Florrie a promise. ‘I shall look forward to your letters, Martha. Look, it’s dark away from the cottage windows. I don’t like the idea of you walking back home alone. We’ll say our goodbyes here.’
Moonlight shone on tears in Martha’s eyes. ‘You will be careful, won’t you, Bill. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you, too.’
He blinked back his own. ‘You’ll be in my thoughts always, Martha.’
‘And you’ll be in my prayers.’
His chest hurt with the thought of parting. ‘I love you, Martha. You know that don’t you? If I’d met you in another life… If it hadn’t been for David and Florrie…’
She wiped away a tear. ‘I love you too, Bill.’ She put a finger to his lips. ‘No promises, remember. You can’t make promises in wartime. Who knows? You may pass this way again.’
Martha didn’t know he hadn’t volunteered for overseas service. She didn’t need to know now. Going to fight in a foreign land had been a spur of the moment decision: something he now had to do, for her, for Florrie, for David, and for himself. ‘If I do…’
Her lips were soft and firm on his and tasted of salt; he held her while she cried, for David, for him. She pulled away at last. ‘No promises, Bill.’ With that she turned and ran back to the cottage.
It was almost midnight and they marched within the hour. He cast his vow to the night air. ‘If I do, I’ll look you up, Martha. I promise.’
‘We are here. We are here. We are here.’ A hundred voices, raised in song, caused lights to come on in windows and front doors to spring open as C squadron marched through Great Ryburgh at midnight for the last time. Friends waved from open doors and bedroom windows, wishing them safe journey and safe return. They’d all made firm friends here, some of the men had met their sweethearts, and some had married local girls. Many would not be coming back.
Bill and the rest of the Royal Buckinghamshire Hussars left the village behind, en route for Avonmouth, Bristol. Orders had come for them to embark, not for France but for Egypt. Again, men and horses were loaded onto trains for the long, slow journey across the breadth of England. Eventually, he nodded into sleep to the monotonous rhythm of wheels on tracks.
He was woken by a jolt, a hiss of steam, and a thump on his shoulder.
‘Everybody out. Get your horses.’ The voice faded as it went from carriage to carriage along the train. ‘Everybody out. On the double. Get your horses unloaded.’
Ernie peered out of the window into the soft dawn light. ‘Looks like this is it, Bill. Grab your stuff.’
He shook himself awake and reached for his kit bag. The early morning sun sparkled on water. Hurrying to catch up with Ernie, he almost tumbled from the carriage onto the platform. The horses were in the goods wagons at the end of the train. He caught up with Ernie and fell into step beside him.
Copper greeted him with a soft whinny. ‘I’ve got nothing for you, girl. I’m sorry.’ He rubbed her ears and led her out.
Sergeant Yeats strode alongside them. ‘Horses to HMS Menominee.’ He pointed to a vessel with one funnel and four masts, tied up at the quayside near tall cranes. ‘Form a line, wait your turn, and keep your horses calm.’
Copper snorted as the train hissed steam. ‘It’s all right, girl. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you. I promised, remember?’
A dock worker beckoned him forward and fixed a wide belt around Copper’s middle. ‘Hold her steady, Private.’
Before he could ask what the belt was for, the man had clipped it to a hook on a crane and Copper was dangling in mid-air, her legs galloping wildly. ‘Jesus Christ. Steady girl.’
‘Let go, you fool, unless you want to be hoisted up there with her.’
He let go of her bridle, and Copper swung up and across the dockside and over the hold of the ship. Head down, and legs stiff, her reins dangling, she was lowered out of sight.
‘Bloody hell.’ He wiped sweat from his forehead. ‘Poor bloody animal.’
The hoist came back empty, and another horse was swung onto the ship. He boarded the vessel and went in search of his four-legged friend. Making sure she was uninjured and comfortable was the least he could do after breaking his promise to look after her. Nothing bad? She must have been terrified.
It was dark in the hold, but for the open hatch, and he was in the way. He stole a handful of grain from a torn sack to give her in cupped hands, checked her over quickly, and left her to the care of the sailors. A man pushed her closer to the side of the ship and tethered another horse close beside her. They’d travel better if they didn’t have too much room to fall over, and these men would have loaded hundreds of horses. He looked back to find her staring at him accusingly. There was nothing he could do, so he went to find Ernie and his quarters. And breakfast. He was finally going to war, and he wasn’t about to do it on an empty stomach.
Loaded with stores for the voyage, Menominee slipped into the sea lock, and then out into open water. The waves of the Bristol Channel were choppy and didn’t promise a smooth voyage. Seventeen hundred men and six hundred horses were packed into the ship. It would be an uncomfortable journey for all of them.
His stomach revolted before he was through the Bristol Channel. Bunks and hammocks contained human misery on a scale he’d never witnessed. The air stank of vomit and rot. Below them, in the hold, the horses must be terrified. So much for his promise to Copper and Lady Alice, and he was taking Copper into worse than this.
Once across the Bay of Biscay, he was allowed his turn on deck. He’d never seen the sea until he went to Norfolk, but this, water all around him and the shore a distant misty haze, was entirely different. Warkton Brook and the pond where he’d gone tadpoling shrank into insignificance. The longing for home almost unmanned him.
Ernie was upbeat. ‘Never thought I’d get to travel the world, Bill.’
‘Me neither, Ern. How long so you think this voyage will last?’
‘As long as it takes, brother. Enjoy it.’
The sound of a winch handle being cranked made him turn and stare. The hatch doors opened and a rope was lowered from an overhead pulley on an arm, much like on the upper floor of a hay barn but the arm was longer and hinged.
‘Don’t tell me they bring the horses up for exercise?’
This horse wouldn’t need exercise. It dangled by its neck, its belly bloated and its legs sticking stiffly out. The arm swung across the deck, the body was lowered and released, and the horse splashed into the waves, resurfaced, and floated away. Horses were valuable and well cared for. Perhaps it had been an older horse or had been unwell before they’d sailed.
It wasn’t Copper. That was all that mattered to him at that moment. It wasn’t Copper.
As his stomach adjusted to the movement of Menominee, he began to enjoy being on deck during the day, but the nights were hell. Cooped up in pitch darkness, as no lights were allowed because of patrolling U-boats, waiting for a torpedo to punch a hole in the side of the ship, and not being able to swim, didn’t make for easy sleep or pleasant dreams.
Ahead, the land drew together until a narrow passage beckoned them on like rats into a trap. To his north a huge sheer-sided rock stood proud above flat land, wide sandy beaches, and calm waters. Gibraltar. The ship dropped anchor, but they weren’t allowed ashore. Beyond the Straights of Gibraltar, lay the calm blue waters of the Mediterranean. It had become hotter the farther south they’d travelled, and they’d lost another horse to pneumonia, crammed into the hot, humid hold with little air. Its body floated behind them.
A crewman leant on the gunnel beside him and pointed. ‘See that?’
A black triangle broke the surface of the water and disappeared again. ‘What is it?’
‘Shark. They’ve learnt to follow the horse boats. They feed on the carcasses we throw overboard.’ The man put a restraining hand on his shoulder as he leant forward for a better view. ‘Don’t go falling in. They like man-meat too.’
Another fin appeared and then another. Soon the water boiled in a scarlet frenzy. He gulped. Copper and the other horses hadn’t volunteered for this.
Sharks and U-boats. Which was worse? At least the sharks showed themselves. He glanced around. Somewhere beneath these pleasant waters death stalked them.
Malta in the April sun was a sight to behold. Ancient buildings glowed gold against the blue-green of the sea. He hadn’t dreamt such beautiful places existed. Gradually, the low line of land became a wide sandy bay crowded with pale stone buildings. Above the buildings towered a stone fortress and a tall tower. Steam ships and sailing ships of all sizes plied these waters. One had a red cross painted on the side, others were troopships, and some were cargo ships. Fishing boats negotiated between the larger vessels giving the whole an air of confusion. Menominee sailed on across the blue waters of the Mediterranean, and another horse fed the sharks.
The ship slowed and turned into a port. He rubbed his arm, still sore from his cholera injection three days previously and addressed no-one in particular. ‘Is this Egypt?’
‘It is.’ Sergeant Yeats walked among them. ‘Nile Delta. Alexandria. Pack your kit bags and get ready to receive your horses on the dock.’
After twelve days at sea, Menominee shuddered to a halt, and the throb of her engines stilled. The gangplank was lowered, and he followed Ernie onto the quayside and waited. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, and his shaved head was wet around the band of his cap. It was April 19th, and it was already hotter than August in Warkton. By August, it would surely be hotter than hell itself.
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Other books by Rebecca Bryn