Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 4
Such Fine Boys

 

Miranda Lockwood’s teashop was the hub of the Millbridge rumour mill, and Miranda Lockwood its pintle.

She was a short, burly woman of compact density and unflappable credibility, her mouth a down-turned, adamant, lipless line that brooked no contradiction. She sat enthroned at her till amid the teashop’s rattle and clatter and jabber, her flat, frog-like eyes missing nothing and her ears attuned to every overlapping conversation.

In her forty years in the tea shop, since helping her father as a much flirted-with chit of a girl, Miranda Lockwood had developed keen, directional hearing that enabled her to pick up whispered confidences in every far corner of the café. No one had ever seen her ears, tucked behind sweeps of coarse, once-chestnut hair, but they were as sharp and sensitive as an owl’s.

People told her things, those items of intelligence they wished to display as salesmen display their wares, to demonstrate their awareness, to show they were as informed as she. No one was.

No, Miranda Lockwood valued more highly the things people did not tell her, that they murmured to each other offstage, believing them to be confidential. Mill girls could lip read, of course, a facility developed among the crashing bedlam of the looms, and fondly thought it their secret skill, but Miranda Lockwood could read lips as well as they, and had been doing it for longer.

She knew who was walking out with whom, and precisely how far the relationship had progressed, and all the peccadilloes, proclivities and vast sexual inexperience of the protagonists. She knew daft Ernie Pickstone was carrying on with Martha Yates from the milliners, her and her preaching, and the pair of them married. She had known about Tolly Tolman and Ruth Lafford before they had known themselves – lovely girl; not sure about the lad, he carried troubles with him – and she knew more about Tolly’s grandfather, that…that drunkard, Leafy Branch, than either Tolly or his mother did, poor widow woman, with that old Methodist watching her like Albert Brierley’s dog watching a pound of best brisket.

She knew the business dealings, above and below board, of all Millbridge, including Billy Bardsley’s troubles, and more fool him for being too trusting of folk. No tick book in Lockwood’s. She knew which of the women, these moderns – smoking cigarettes in the street, some of them! – held Suffragette sympathies. She knew why that vicar, that Holy Joe, had left Ancoats in such a hurry, and just let him try any of that in Millbridge.

Now all the talk was about these Russians. Everybody was going on about these closed trains of fierce, black-bearded men rolling through the night from Leith and Aberdeen and Inverness, having landed from Archangel, tens of thousands of them, on their way to France to join the Front holding back the Germans in Belgium, poor little Belgium. They were coming through Britain instead of sailing direct to France because their artillery was arriving in a separate ship and would rendezvous with them in Southampton, they said, massive Russian guns with all their teams of horses – dozens of huge Polish shire horses to every gun – and all their forage, and all their shells, and all their crews.

Miranda’s stock-in-trade was rumour and gossip, and Miranda was not sure. It did not feel right. Nobody had actually seen these mysterious Russians, and Mafeking Wilson at the station was saying nowt. Snow on their boots? In this weather?

Now all these young men joining up…they’d been coming into the teashop all morning, laughing and joking and full of themselves. God preserve them. This German Kaiser, curse him, she hoped…well, leave that kind of talk to the market girls, to that wicked little Florrie Swindells and her crowd. Them and their lipstick. There’d be soldiers enough even for them now.

 

Tolly and Harry walked taller out of the Drill Hall as recruits in a ‘Service’ battalion unnamed, unnumbered and unattached, never mind uniformed or armed. They hoped it would be the Cheshires, but the Cheshires were down in – well, down south. But it was the Army, the bally Army.  They swaggered through the crowd of men still waiting outside, through all these clamouring civilians. Civilians! Not them! No one could call them boys now. This was ripping, just ripping.

They crossed to Lockwood’s for tea. At the door it was: ‘After you, colonel’ – ‘No, after you, general.’ They walked in like heroes and there was Ruth at a table, expecting them. Miranda Lockwood glanced up from her till, her throne, taking it all in.

Ruth wore her shop pinafore with her hair done up in a bun. Her hands were red from work. She had never joined the family business because her father said her hands were too warm for baking, so she was training as a florist at Threlfall’s. It suited her. A green scent hung about her.

‘I haven’t got long, I was over at Saint Michael’s doing the harvest festival,’ she said as they sat down. ‘Well?’

‘Private Soldier Lafford, Harold, at your service,’ said Harry, attempting a half-remembered Lads Brigade salute.

‘And Private Soldier Tolman, Bartholomew,’ added Tolly, not attempting a salute.

‘Just like that? You’ve joined the Army just like that?’

‘Just like that,’ said Harry. ‘And very pleased they were to have two such fine examples of Millbridge manhood. Exceeding grateful, as a matter of fact. The war’s as good as won, they said, better telegraph the Kaiser, give him a chance to throw in the towel now. Our medals and promotions are in the post, special delivery.’

‘I saw the crowd,’ said Ruth.

‘Pooh, just making up the numbers,’ sniffed Harry. ‘They don’t want to make it look too easy. Is there any tea for a pair of conquering heroes?’

‘And custards, let’s have custards,’ said Tolly.

‘You have custards,’ said Harry. ‘I see enough of’em.’

‘It’ll be bully beef soon enough. Let’s enjoy the home comforts while we can.’

Ruth poured tea. ‘So what happens now?’ she asked.

‘We are “to be informed”,’ said Harry. ‘We go home and await our country’s call, though we have our shillings – look! – and our soldier’s pay. Old Chunky looked a bit put out, said there was nowhere to put us. I don’t think he expected half of Millbridge. The whole St Anne’s football team was there, in a bunch, joining up together, Ted Tanner, even Foxy Latham! Let’s hope they’re better at shooting Germans than they are at shooting goals. No uniforms, no rifles, no nothing. Still, early days I suppose.’

‘The Belgians are putting up a terrific fight,’ said Tolly. ‘Stopped the Kaiser in his tracks, they have. And once Sir John arrives with the Army he’ll chase the Germans all the way back to Berlin.’

‘Once we’re there to help him,’ said Harry.

‘Once we’re there to help him, once we’ve got our rifles. Bang!’ – Tolly mimed a shot – ‘look out, Wilhelm!’

Ruth smiled. Daft pair. If women had the vote it would never have come to this, but it wasn’t the time to say so. And Tolly, dear Tolly, looked happy, as if he had a purpose, something he needed to do. Things were awful for him at home, with that terrible old man. Perhaps it was for the best. Perhaps it really would be over before they went into danger. Surely the Germans would see it was hopeless with all the Empire troops to come, Australia and Canada and South Africa and the brave Sikhs in India and, well, all of them, never mind the French and the Belgians and the Tsar – everyone, all the world. They couldn’t fight the whole Empire, the whole world, could they?

That reminded her –

‘The police took Mr Schumacher away this morning,’ she said. ‘Just knocked on his door and took him away, arrested him, German national.’

‘Schultzy Schumacher?’ said Harry. ‘But he’s always been here! His wife’s from Ashton!’

‘Well, German nationals, they’re arresting them all, regardless.’

‘I think that’s right,’ said Tolly. He had that hard, unforgiving side to him, Ruth reflected. All right, he had had to be tough. But Mr Schumacher, with his silly hat and his rabbits?

‘This is a fight for England and everything that means,’ Tolly went on. ‘Imagine if you had been living in Germany, even for a long time. You would still be English, wouldn’t you? You would still want to help England no matter what, wouldn’t you? Make some mischief if you could. That’s why the Territorials have been ordered to guard the railways. I saw the soldiers this morning.’

‘Oh aye, and I can just see old Schultzy Schumacher blowing up Millbridge Station with a big black bomb like an anarchist,’ snorted Harry, ‘and Dorrie hanging on to his coat shouting, “No Herman! What would mother say?”’

Tolly laughed too but persisted: ‘It’s not that so much, it’s what he can see and hear and report to Berlin. What if he’d seen the crowd at the Drill Hall today?’

‘Let him,’ said Harry. ‘They’ll know we mean business.’

‘It’s because we mean business they’re arresting him and all the others,’ said Tolly. ‘This is war, Harry.’

‘I thought it was a ripping lark for Malachi Bone and Martin the Trapper,’ said Ruth, giving him a look.

‘Oh…’ Tolly was part crestfallen, part irritated. His elated mood of the morning drained away.

She wasn’t taking him seriously, wasn’t taking all this seriously. Yes it was a ripping lark, of course, but it was serious as well. They must win. And if that meant Schultzy Schumacher being hauled off to gaol, well, so be it.

Tolly found himself defending a position he had private reservations about – Schultzy Schumacher a spy, honestly – and being cast as the villain for doing so. All right, perhaps the old man was not exactly a threat to the Empire; perhaps it was hard on him. But it had to be done, surely?

He wished things could be simpler. He wished he could be as sure about things as Ruth, as sure about things as Harry, to whom this whole business was a ripping lark and nothing else. He wanted to get away from home – well, from granddad – and he wanted adventure. And this looked like a great adventure. More than an adventure. It was fighting for England, good old England, best country in the world. What had it said in the paper? ‘Britain will win because her noble values will rise to the surface.’ Had Mr Asquith said that? Something like that.

Of course in all probability it would be deadly, bitter fight against a powerful foe. The Germans were a proper modern army, not the spear-brandishing tribesmen of the Boys’ Own. He knew that well enough. Perhaps they would prove a worthy adversary, a true test.

That the Huns were godless, Tolly was sure. Their actions demonstrated that they operated out of some unholy, pagan bloodlust – look at Belgium – and must be stopped. If Tolly could help to do that, and return to Millbridge in glory, a man to be respected and not a boy to be bullied – let granddad try to shove him around then – then this war was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to prove himself, to fight for his country, to protect Ruth and his mother and…oh, everything.

He did not want complications; he wanted simple certainties. His dad would have understood. It was suddenly all so much, this leaving home, leaving Ruth, going off with Harry. The reasons for going might clash with each other but in the end amounted to one compelling voice: he must go. How could he not? He felt sure he was right. He relied on feeling sure he was right.

There was a certainty about Ruth that disconcerted him. There was bedrock. She observed the world from a centre, a point of view that could be influenced but not essentially changed. She had curiosity but it proceeded from a solid base. Tolly wished he had one.

 

Miranda Lockwood, sensitive to the slightest change in her domain’s atmosphere, came alert. The clatter of the room faltered as customers became conscious of a new sound from outside, growing in volume, a sound to still conversations and make people shush each other: listen. Can you hear that?  A questioning realisation ran around the steamy, smoke-filled room, running like electricity from person to person and table to table.

People stood to peer out of the misted windows, rubbing gaps in the condensation, their heads twisting this way and that. A first few went to the door followed by others. The door was opened and the sound strode in – a band playing the British Grenadier, underpinned by the tramp-tramp-tramp of soldiers, a stirring martial crash of boots on cobbles. Men marching.

Tolly, Harry and Ruth exchanged a swift triangular look of excitement and bustled for the door as the rest of the tearoom surged into the street around them.

‘It’s the Lancashires!’ an excited voice shouted. ‘Hurrah! Hurrah for the Lancashires!’

Up and down Salt Street people were spilling out of shops and houses and offices and pubs, crowding on to the pavements, talking, hurrying, pointing, calling to others to come and see. A gang of disreputables came out of the Red Lion opposite Lockwood’s, still clutching their pint pots, taking up the band’s refrain – ‘With a tow-row-row-row-row-row-ROW!’ – and the whole street joined in as the band came around the corner, followed by a stern and stiff officer on a black horse, earning a special beery cheer from a rival pot-carrying crowd emerging from the Black Horse further down, showing that bloody Red Lion lot who was master – ‘Ey up it’s the black horse, we are the Black Horse Hussars, hurrah!’

The soldiers came in fours, in gallant khaki, rifles at their shoulders, grinning as cheers swelled around them. Rank after rank of Major Woodward’s admired Regulars passed down the street, brass insignia gleaming, caps straight and level, boots polished to perfection, handsome and brave and off to fight the foe via Millbridge, Crewe and Willesden Junction.

‘Hurrah! Hurrah for the Lancashires! Go to, the Lancashires!’ Tolly found himself shouting. Harry alongside him was shouting too, even Ruth, everyone, as the troops marched past.

The Tommies grinned and glanced from side to side, winking at girls in the crowd, who blew kisses and giggled, pointing out to each other certain especially dashing fellows – ‘look at that one – ooh, and that one!’  Children ran yelling over the cobbles. Ronnie Mather came out of his shop with packets of Gold Flake and went among the troops, handing them out. No one could remember him ever emerging from behind his counter before, though some of the older ones later claimed to have seen him come out on Mafeking night. The Red Lion crowd, unsure of all the words to the British Grenadier, were slurring over and over: ‘Of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare…

From the ranks one Tommy shouted: ‘Goodbye, Aunt Eliza!’ Heads swivelled and there was Aunt Eliza, a tall, well-shaped woman in an otter toque hat and a long blue dress, waving a handkerchief. The Tommy’s mates on either side of him shouted ‘Goodbye, Aunt Eliza!’ and the rank behind them took it up, and the rank behind that, turning and looking and shouting ‘Goodbye, Aunt Eliza!’ until every soldier that went by shouted ‘Goodbye, Aunt Eliza!’ for rank after rank, company after marching company, and Aunt Eliza cried and laughed and waved her increasingly-sodden handkerchief as the Lancashires, her nephew and his pals and every last one of them – fine boys, such fine boys – marched to war shouting: ‘Goodbye, Aunt Eliza!’

‘God bless you boys!’ she called. ‘Come home safe!’

 

 

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