Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 1
A Ripping Lark

England, 1914

 

The theme of the sermon was Duty. The vicar’s words were pitched to reach every ear of the congregation, every old stone of All Saints.

‘As we face this great trial, as we stand forth against the powers of darkness reaching cold claws towards us, let this German Kaiser’s heathen hordes know in their black hearts that we stand willing, we stand four-square, we stand ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. We Will Do Our Duty!’

Tolly, taking in the sermon from his seat at the organ, spotted Harry grimacing up at him from the pews. Harry’s sister Ruth – fair Ruth with her flowers, her breath like buttered toast; strong, warm, certain Ruth – caught her brother pulling faces and elbowed him, making him wince. Behave, you. She glared at Tolly. You too. It’s church.

Stirred by the vicar’s words, Tolly fell into fantasy...the tattered union flag streamed bravely but desperately in the air. The troops were almost done in. ‘Onward men!’ he cried. ‘Follow me!’ The Tommies picked themselves up, weary but indomitable. They stumbled into a run, fixing bayonets, finding new strength and courage. They roared as they charged. The enemy wavered, fell back, turned to flee – and the day was won! The scene shifted and Tolly was marching down Salt Street with a gleaming medal on his chest, Garcell’s band playing, crowds cheering. Ruth was running towards him, all legs and glee, blonde hair flying, flowers spilling from her arms…

…Tolly became aware of a silence in the church. He became further aware that he was at the centre of it. Harry was red-faced and quaking with imprisoned laughter; Ruth was flashing urgent eyes up at him. What?

The vicar’s beefy shoulders began to rotate, the oblong head following until querulous eyes locked into Tolly’s. The silence stretched like a cat. What?

The hymn! Tolly crashed into the opening chord. The congregation stood, shuffled and coughed. Ruth sent him an oh-you look.

‘…marching off to war, with the cross of Jeee-sus, going on before…’

           

They chose a spot beneath a clumped alder set back from the canal, split-scars on its grey-brown bark, a canopy of kind round leaves shading the ground below. Streaks of wispy, stretched-out cloud scratched from west to east.

‘Mares’ tails,’ Tolly nodded at the sky. ‘Mackerel skies and mares’ tails make tall ships carry low sails.’ One of the sailor-sayings his father used to have and his mother still quoted.

He had wide and wary hazel eyes, a high forehead corrugated with questions and an unfinished mouth capable of turning cynical one day.

‘Well, rain would be good,’ said Ruth, the sun sheeting fired gold off her hair as she settled like a doe, her full Sunday-best skirt spread all around her, fanning her face with her hat and blowing. ‘The farmers will appreciate it.’

She had a voice of polished wood. One crooked tooth, top left, leaned away from the others like someone getting ready to jump a queue. Tolly tried not to look at a beadlet of sweat trickling into the hollow of her throat. He was conscious of her legs under the long skirt. He caught an intoxicating scent of…he didn’t know what, just her, flowers from the shop and girl-smell and sun-warmed cotton, all mixed up.

‘Huh!’ said Harry, flopping down by his sister, pulling at his collar, boater pushed back from his sweating forehead. ‘The farmers always want what it’s not. Rain they want sunshine; sunshine they want rain.’

Harry was a loose, overgrown imp with bad skin and frank, protuberant eyes. He was seventeen, the same age as Tolly, a year older than Ruth, though people who did not know them usually assumed she was the big sister. His hands were always clean from the bakery.

‘Did you hear Holy Joe?’ he asked. ‘H-h-heathen h-h-hordes…thought he was going to run out of h-h-h-puff!’

‘Not much chance of that,’ said Ruth.

‘He’s right, though,’ said Tolly, who had been following events with a sense of involved, anticipatory excitement. ‘Building up their navy – for what? – and using this Balkan nonsense to throw their weight around, and all the spies, and now this’ –  a phrase he had read in the Morning Post came to him – ‘violating Belgian neutrality, and the terrible things they’re doing to…well, to nuns…and…’

He trailed off, his voice losing its way and his face reddening, to be saying such things in front of Ruth, a girl. She gave him an insouciant, I-know-all-about-it look, tempered by a corner smile to acknowledge his consideration, and looked away across the water.

‘Oh, the Army will put paid to their tricks soon enough,’ said Harry. ‘Our boys will have them running all the way back to Berlin in a few weeks, sorry they ever started. I just wish I could join in the fun!’

‘Fun?’ asked Ruth, darting her head round at her brother.

‘Ripping fun!’ declared Harry. ‘Spank the Kaiser and home for Christmas, the hero’s return and kiss the girls and make’em cry, ey Tolly?’

‘Aye bulldog!’ laughed Tolly, though with guilt about the kiss-the-girls part, shooting Ruth a glance to let her know he was just joining in with his pal. It would be fun though, a ripping lark, especially with Harry.

And a good way to leave home.

‘We could be scouts!’ said Harry. ‘Malachi Bone and Martin the Trapper!’

‘Remember the charcoal burners?’

One childhood afternoon one early summer, Tolly and Harry and Ruth had gone exploring up in the woods the other side of the Edge, their heads full of Captain Marryat, further than they had been before among the great straight oaks and blue, distorted beeches. Grandma Oldham said that at night the trees fought for mastery of the forest, which was why the beeches were all twisted and the honest, upright oak was declared King of Trees.

The trio had gone prowling through the hazel and the brambles and the bracken, talking in whispers and treading softly in the immense, cathedral-like hush of the woods. Harry, in the lead, had come to a dead stop as they broke into a clearing, his mouth open.

‘Injuns!’

Tolly, joined by a scared but defiant Ruth, had come up beside him. It was true! Red Indians! There were their wigwams, white smoke curling up. A tall, black-faced Mohican was watching as four or five others built a pile of logs. Before the children could bolt back into the woods the tall Indian had turned to stare at them. His eyes were rimmed with red, a savage and terrifying sight. Sharp teeth flashed in his scarlet mouth as he shouted:

‘Oi! What you little beggars up to?’

The Indians piling the logs had turned, taken in the sight and laughed. For a moment Tolly had wondered where Mohicans had come by corduroy breeches and leather jerkins. Then, scared as they were, the children were disappointed to realise they had stumbled across not injuns but charcoal burners, making charcoal ‘to make gunpowder t’shoot Boo-ers’.

 

 

The canal dozed between willows, a shy south-west breeze rippling cat’s-paws across the water. Small russet butterflies jerked in the air among flag lily and ragged robin.

A traveller family was working a narrow boat up the cut, the father ahead walking the horse: ‘Get on, Bonnie! Get on girl!’ A tanned, handsome slattern of a woman trailed a skein of raggedy children along the towpath. Two angular, rough-haired lurchers patrolled the bankside flank of their little pack. A rich, rank smell rose from the boat: horse muck. Coal or stone or slate shipped down the cut to Manchester, reeking on its plain a few miles to the west, manure from the streets and stables brought back up for the fields.

A fox-faced lad of twelve or thirteen, the eldest son, steered the boat with its high, up-curved tiller. Seeing Ruth he puffed out his bony chest, produced a short black pipe and stuck it in his mouth, the better to look manly in front of the nice blonde girl on the bank. Tolly and Harry instinctively moved closer to her.

‘They’re asking for volunteers for Belgium,’ said Harry. ‘Chunky Woodward’s doing it. He was in Sudan and South Africa.’

Ruth went still, watching the boat. She was not sure about this soon-over talk. Why had Mr Kitchener called for 100,000 men if it was going to be done with in a few weeks, or months? It could be more like a year, even two.

‘What do you say?’ Harry said to Tolly. ‘We’ll have to get in quick. Jimmy Moorhouse, the Donovan boys – Bren and Mick, anyway – and Johnny Babbitt all signed up last week.’

‘Bumfluff Babbitt? In the Army? That squit?’

‘Can you credit it?’

‘Well, there’s a thing, Bumfluff in arms!’

‘So…want to come with me? Drill Hall tomorrow? Can’t let that lot have all the fun.’

Ruth broke in: ‘You have to be nineteen. You’re not old enough.’

‘Pah! We can pass for nineteen,’ retorted Harry. ‘We’re tall enough. Jimmy Moorhouse got in and he’s still only sixteen, and we’re seventeen and bigger than him, ey Tolly?’

The recruiting posters had been going up since the day Millbridge had awoken to the clack-clacking of door knockers as reservists were called up.

‘I’ll have to talk to my mum,’ said Tolly. ‘With dad gone, you know…’

‘She’s got your granddad,’ said Harry.

Tolly’s grandfather. Yes, well.

‘I’d like to,’ said Tolly, ‘you know I would’ – something drooped in Ruth, then went tense – ‘but I’ll have to talk to mum.’

‘That’s the ticket! Talk to her tonight?’

‘Tonight it is. Can’t let Bumfluff win the war, can we? And if we’re in it, we’ll win it!’  The two pals grinned at each other, in cahoots.

The boat family’s lurchers, nosing through the grass of the meadow, startled a hare. It went bounding off, surprisingly long and surprisingly quick, leaping crazily from side to side. The dogs put their ears back and went after it, eyes gleaming, jaws grinning, tongues lolling. The boy on the boat came alert, darted down below and came back hurriedly loading a long, old-type, single-barrelled shotgun. He took aim at the hare as it zigzagged across the meadow, outpacing the galloping lurchers.

‘No!’ shouted the father. ‘Mind the dogs! Not with the dogs!’

But the boy let fly a shot and hit the hare square, bowling it over in a flurry of legs and ears and blood. One of the lurchers yelped and rolled, a stray pellet catching its ear, but came back up and running. The boy grinned at his father: see? The dogs reached the hare’s body and seized it, growling, tearing, snapping at each other, shaking the corpse and flinging it up, just a dead thing now. One of the smaller children was despatched to fetch it. He tossed it to his big brother on the tiller, who caught it with a provider’s smirk.

Later, as they walked back, Ruth saw the hare’s blood on the grass.

 

The sun was dropping deep as the three headed back towards Millbridge, the light glowing low and close on the leaves. Fish rose in the canal, touching off questing circles. They took the towpath towards the town, Harry in the lead, his hands stuffed in his pockets, the others following. Ruth carried her hat as she strode alongside Tolly, close but not speaking.

He walked head-down, gazing at the path, wondering what his father might have said about him joining up. He had been five when dad had left on his last voyage. Tolly remembered being taken on the train to Manchester, then on the tram to the new docks at Salford, ships, masts, great bewildering nests of ropes, men shouting, strange smells. One of the sailors on his dad’s ship had given him a carving of a whale with water spouting from its head, on bone or ivory or something. Granddad had taken it, giving him some sweets for it, saying it wasn’t something a little boy should have. Tolly had never seen it again. He supposed granddad must have sold it. He was always selling things.

Tolly’s memory of his father was a blur of long loss. He remembered a massiveness of kind strength and scratchy blue cloth smelling of tar, tobacco and impossibly far-off places. Hard, smooth hands. And deep-down laughter. Laughter as deep as a well, as deep as the sea, laughter that made his mother laugh too and everything all right. It was after Tolly’s father drowned off Nantucket that granddad had come to stay in the new house. Tolly had looked up Nantucket in the school atlas, an island that looked like a swirling fish.

Ruth watched Tolly. She saw the clench in the slight shoulders, the groundwards stare, tension in his neck. She wanted to stroke it into ease again, to have him turn and laugh, see his eyes light up with some silly mischief of Harry’s. Her friends had always joked that Tolly and Harry were more like brothers, and would really become brothers when Tolly married Ruth, a given among the Millbridge girls, a foregone outcome no one questioned, not even Ruth, not that she had thought in any way seriously about it. There had never been a time when they hadn’t known each other. Tolly would teach music in the church school and play the organ on Sundays, and they would be married, with a piano in the parlour. Harry would be there to make them laugh and Tolly would be there for her to put her arms around. What else was there? She wanted to put her arms around him now, to smell his skin, bring him comfort.

‘Penny for’em, Tolly Tolman,’ she said. He had been quiet long enough, gone from her long enough.

‘I was wondering what my dad would say,’ said Tolly. ‘About joining up.’

‘Well?’

‘I don’t know. He went to sea when he was only a lad, so I don’t suppose he’d stand in my way, but…well, you know, my mum…’

It occurred to him that he could use his dad. To persuade his mum. If he had to. He thought of his mother’s eyes, the skin around them netted with lines of weary pain. She would not want him to leave.

‘What about your mum?’ Ruth kept her voice neutral. Just asking.

‘She’ll be dead against it. I know she will. What about you?’

Their eyes met, hazel into grey-blue, and Ruth tried to keep expression out of hers. ‘You must do what you think is right, Tolly,’ she said.

He was hers, of that she was sure, but, somehow, not yet. Something had to happen first. She did not know what. Men had to do things, Grandma Oldham had told her. What things? Things.

‘…though,’ she added, ‘I know how your mum will be feeling.’

Tolly looked back down at the path, warmed by her words – everything about Ruth was warm – but confused. This was suddenly not as simple as just marching off to war with his best pal and coming back a hero to…well, Millbridge, he supposed. Not home-home, not there. Not with granddad.

But how could he not join up with Harry, if Harry was going? Tolly realised there would be forces trying to hold him back, to stop him going, and he found himself unexpectedly pulled two ways.

‘Promise me something if you do go, Tolly,’ said Ruth. ‘Look after Harry for me, won’t you?’

‘Oh, I’ll keep an eye on him,’ said Tolly, relieved to have a ready answer to a simple question and something he could do for Ruth. ‘Never fear.’

They crossed the canal over its crouching stone bridge below the lock, the mill stream by its plank walk-way and the railway line via its two stiles, not bothering to check for trains, this being a Sunday. The path took them through hawthorn bushes to the churchyard. All Saints sat amid its harvest of history, the gravestones leaning this way and that, the squat yellow tower soaking up the last of the sun.

At the lych-gate the three parted, Ruth and Harry to the right, up Salt Street to the bakery, Tolly to the left to the straggle of new brick houses leading out of Millbridge along the Manchester road.

‘Come to the bakery tomorrow, about ten, once we’ve done,’ Harry told Tolly. ‘See what your mum says – you know.’

‘I will,’ promised Tolly. He nodded to Ruth, her face unreadable.

She watched him go up the Manchester road, too thin, a catch in his walk.

 

 

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