Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 7
Sewing Shirts for Soldiers

               

 

Harry lowered his head and his voice, glanced around the pub, and murmured: ‘They don’t wear drawers you know, the French women.’

‘Give over.’

‘Straight up. Harry Daggett from Inkerman Street – you know, the charge hand at Longhurst’s – he had a letter from his brother Tom – he’s a Regular, Tom, Cheshires – well, they were helping some farm woman over this plank they’d laid across a brook, only she slipped off and went arse over tit, her skirts over her head, and she was bare-arsed underneath!’

‘No!’

‘Not a stitch, I’m telling you. Tom said his eyes nearly popped out of his head, him and the other lads, but the sergeant told him they were all like that, the Frenchies, nothing under their skirts, no drawers, no bloomers, nothing. Naked as a babe!’

‘And the sergeant would know, would he?’

‘Common knowledge, Tom says.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’

‘It does.’

The two fell silent, contemplating inner visions of French girls unencumbered by underwear. The Black Horse was quiet for an early Friday evening, many of its younger clientele having taken themselves at their own word and joined the Ashton Pals in a body as the Black Horse Hussars, not to be outdone by their rivals the Red Lionhearts down the street. The ubiquitous Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers tinkled from the Pianola, punctuated by the clack of dominoes from the back tap.

‘Have you ever…’ Harry hesitated ‘…you know, seen that? What Tom saw?’

‘No,’ said Tolly. ‘You?’

‘No. Well, not properly. I don’t think seeing our Eunice in the tin bath when I was a nipper counts really, does it? Well then. The sooner we get to France the better, ey?’

Even if Tolly had ever seen Ruth…like that, he would not have admitted it to Harry. There were things you did not say to a girl’s brother. But in Tolly’s case it was true. It was starting to worry him. Lads were being killed in France and Belgium – look at the lists in the papers – and women in black were starting to be seen in the streets, looking shadowed and brittle. What if he were to be killed without ever…knowing a woman? Whatever that involved, specifically. He had heard enough coarse talk in camp to know the basics but was hazy on the details. He would be eighteen this year. Old enough. But Ruth was…well, it wasn’t like that with Ruth.

The door swung open and in came Jack Brennan from the battery factory, wearing his habitual look of anger, a peculiar, pop-eyed scowl that sat uncomfortably on the front of his face like a mask. He had too old a head for his restless, awkwardly-adolescent body. He was the big union man at Garcell’s despite being not many years older than Tolly and Harry. He glanced across at them, the scowl intensifying at the sight of khaki. Jack Brennan did not hold with militarism, with the working man being exploited in the bosses’ capitalist-imperialist wars. He crossed in his angrily important way to the bar, shaking the rain from his cap.

‘So what else did Tom have to tell about besides bare-arsed French women?’ Tolly asked.

‘Well they can’t say much, mil-it-ary cen-sor-ship’ – Harry pronounced the phrase with dramatic relish, as being Significant – ‘but he’s well, he says. He was a bit fagged out from all the marching last summer. They had to come a long way down from Mons and those French roads are murder on the feet, by all accounts, but he’s all right now. Reckons he bagged a couple of Huns at some place, Fetch-You-Bert, Fess-You-Bert, something like that.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘Don’t know the name of the place. In the line somewhere.’

‘We’ll probably see him.’

‘Aye, and we’ll find out if he’s telling the truth about those French women.’

Jim Brennan was staring malevolently at them from the bar. Bald Ernie Babb the landlord, an assemblage of gleaming convex surfaces, like bubbles, called across: ‘You all right there, lads? Any word?’

‘Mil-it-ary cen-sor-ship prevents us from telling you about our secret mission to sneak into Berlin and steal the Kaiser’s moustache,’ said Harry. ‘You can put it up behind the bar with the darts cups.’

Ernie laughed, darting a sideways glance at Jack Brennan to see if he would dare say anything. He’d had to shut him sharply once or twice when he’d got going with his blasted Socialist nonsense, causing a ruckus. Unpatriotic it was, with a war on. Hunnish, even. That what’s-his-name, Marx, he was a Hun, wasn’t he? Hunnish name, any road.

Ernie prided himself on keeping a better house than certain others he could mention in Millbridge. At one time he would never have countenanced soldiers in the saloon bar, but that was before. Why, half his regulars were in the Army now, good lads all – well, most of them – and he couldn’t very well turn them away, could he? Anyway, trade had been bad these past few months, with all the lay-offs, though it was starting to pick up with the factories taking on again.

And these Kitchener men weren’t like the old soldiers. Half of the new lot were lads he’d known since they were in knickerbockers. And that wasn’t so long ago with some of them, he reflected, looking at Tolly and Harry. But if they were old enough to wear the King’s uniform they were old enough to have a glass of ale. Sergeant Lomas didn’t mind as long as there was no bother. That was why Ernie wouldn’t have any political talk in the Black Horse, none of that damned Hunnish Socialism, causing arguments on top of beer, so Jack Brennan could just keep it buttoned.

Ernie relaxed as reinforcements arrived in the form of three Black Horse Hussars, who joined Tolly and Harry in a convivial, khaki-clad hubbub of pints, Woodbines and training camp tales. They swapped ever-taller stories of bullying Regular drill sergeants, cock-ups and abysmal rations, the Black Horse lads winning that round with tales of buying porridge through the railings of Heaton Park at 3d a bowl from the local women. They talked about the epidemics of measles, mumps and chicken pox among rural recruits arriving in town billets for the first time in their lives, and laughed at the farm boys’ perplexity at modern urban plumbing. They talked with assumed soldiers’ authority about the Dardanelles bombardment and the Galician front and the new German submarine campaign, sneaky bloody Huns, typical.

They asked each other: ‘Heard anything? About when we go? No?’

The rest of the pub filled up as Friday night got under way. The corner table of soldiers found rounds of drinks coming their way from traders, businessmen and small manufacturers newly prosperous with government contracts for tent cloth, buckles, buttons, belts, pouches and field glasses. Clegg the farmer was in, clunking a pocket full of sovereigns after his collection of broken-down old dobbins had miraculously mutated into a stable of thoroughbreds on the arrival of the Army requisition agent. Florrie Swindells’ market trader father Eddie sent whiskies, having made a killing on the Kaiser Bill pin cushions that had been all the rage as Christmas presents.

‘Good to see old Eddie doing his bit for the war effort,’ muttered Tolly. ‘He’s working nearly as hard as young Florrie.’

‘Aye,’ said Harry. ‘But you have to wonder which side she’s working for.’

Jack Brennan had long departed in disgust by the time Tolly was persuaded to the piano – ‘and none of your bloody hymns!’ shouted the puce-faced hatter, Mad Maurice – for the ritual sing-song. Enthused by the drink, feeling a man among men, popular, Tolly ran through boisterously-received renditions of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Oh You Beautiful Doll, Who’s Your Lady Friend, Ragtime Cowboy Joe, Who Were You With Last Night and the inevitable Sister Susie.

A frown crossed Ernie’s globular face as Harry led the singing on the version of Tipperary that began It’s the Wrong Way to Tickle Mary and put his foot down at a raucous chorus of Oh, We Don’t Give a Fuck  For Old Von Kluck, And All His Fucking Army! ‘Now then, none of that in here, go up the Waggon for that sort of thing.’ Tolly soothed the mood down to the sentimental with Home Sweet Home and finally a beerily maudlin Auld Lang Syne.

It was a good evening. Ernie was well pleased with his takings, a good old sing-song and no trouble.

Tolly was laughing outside the pub with Harry – the rain had stopped, leaving a clear, cool night – when Jack Witham, the South Africa veteran with the crippled arm, emerged unsteadily from the back tap. He stopped and swayed, taking a moment to focus on the two young soldiers. Tolly met the lost eyes. He looked into twin, red-edged tunnels leading into night. Jack blinked, belched wetly and shuffled off down the gaslit street.

 

 

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