Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 12
Are We Downhearted?



Tolly could hear guns in the east, a boiling rumble that reminded him of the copper boiler in the backyard wash house. He had always been frightened of it as a child, afraid it was going to explode. His mother had told him not to be so daft.

She had not come to see him off, his mother. She remembered the last time she had gone to the station to see someone off. She had placed three half-sovereigns in his hand, produced from some secret, Leafy-proof hoard, folded Tolly’s fingers over them and pressed his hand between both of hers with desperate strength, her face pale.

She had blinked and shaken her head in a compulsive, twitching movement, as if trying to rid it of some wasp-buzzing thought. She would not look him in the eye, keeping her taut face down. She hardly said anything, for once. Tolly had been guiltily relieved to get away from the house.

It seemed as if the whole town had turned out. The soldiers formed up a thousand strong in their battalion, the Ninth North Cheshires, in the market square in warm May sunshine under the command of none other than the irascible Chunky Woodward, proudly back on active service and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He thought the lads had shaped up well, considering.

Garcell’s band played Jerusalem, Abide With Me and the inevitable Auld Lang Syne. The mayor and lady mayoress wished them God speed. Holy Joe urged mercy and magnanimity in their inevitable glorious victory. The Irish priest from St Theresa’s cautioned them against temptation in foreign parts. ‘I wouldn’t mind getting tempted by some foreign parts,’ Harry muttered. Both clerics led the men in the Soldier’s Prayer:

 

‘Almighty and Everlasting God, by Whose grace Thy servants are enabled to fight the good fight of faith and ever prove victorious: We humbly beseech Thee so to inspire us, that we may yield our hearts to Thine obedience and exercise our wills on Thy behalf. Help us to think wisely: to speak rightly: to resolve bravely: to act kindly: to live purely. Whether at home or abroad may we ever seek the extension of Thy Kingdom. Let the assurance of Thy Presence save us from sinning: support us in life, and comfort us in death. O Lord our God accept this prayer for Jesus Christ’s Sake. Amen.’

 

The silence following the prayer was filled with the twittering of sparrows flitting in and out of the park. The band struck up with Rule Britannia. The troops posed for photographs and then paid off in fours to march to the station, each man slung with the white linen bag of rations that was the tell-tale of the Tommy leaving for the Front.

The band was playing. He was going to France. Tolly marched taller for following in the footsteps of the Lancashires, doing his bit, finally on his way and not watching from the pavement.

Harry was by his side, grinning at girls, his cap initially at an angle that brought a snapped rebuke from Bumfluff – now Corporal – Babbitt. He had been in the Army a whole week longer than Tolly and Harry and never failed to remind them of it, challenging them with stubborn, slitty eyes. He had a snoutish and preoccupied look, like a badger. None of the lads liked him.

The two elder Donovan boys, the St Anne’s football team and most of the first to join up were in the ranks marching through Millbridge at the regulation 120 steps a minute, with the exception of Jimmy Moorhouse. He had been invalided out with a double hernia, the result of a bet with sandbags, and become apprenticed as a compositor at the Manchester Guardian.

The station was a mêlée, with relations and friends and sweethearts and assorted well-wishers crowding to say their last goodbyes, to see the Boys off. The hubbub was intense. A sash-sporting delegation of Cream Tea Kitcheners under the watchful direction of Miranda Lockwood served teas and Lafford’s Victory Fancies provided by Ruth and Harry’s beaming father. Eddie Swindells had set up a stall selling paper-printed union flags. His daughter Florrie, cat’s eyes smouldering, was seen to give special, lingering goodbyes to at least four of the North Cheshires including Harry.

Trog Ward, the ethereal and rarely-seen Mrs Cunningham in his smoke-billowing wake, went around presenting all the Millbridge Day School old boys, which was most of them, with compact, blue-bound editions of the Oxford Book of English Verse – ‘I commend Jonson’s The Noble Balm, my boy,’ he said to Tolly – with what they could have sworn was a trembling hand.

Garcell’s band commenced an ambitious if chaotic version of The Aba Daba Honeymoon.

And there was Ruth. For the first time that day Tolly’s heart gave way and he wished he was staying.

She wore a long dove-grey dress that set off her eyes. Her hair, blonder at the first touch of the year’s sunshine, was gathered in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. She had never seemed so beautiful, so precious; so uniquely, exquisitely female.

They had been back to Grandma Oldham’s on several evenings during Tolly’s final embarkation leave, the old woman considerately taking a series of early nights. They had added taste and touch and sight to their repertoire of each other, storing memories and knowledge, seeking to please, to be pleased. It was like learning to dance.

There was not much to say today. A sense of dread already separated them. Ruth gave Tolly a photograph she’d had done, pensively posed with one elbow on a neo-classical pillar, her chin on her hand. He put it in Trog’s book of poems. He felt hollow.

‘We’ll wed, won’t we?’ he said. ‘When I come back – when the job’s done?’

‘Yes Tolly, we’ll wed. God keep you and bring you home to me.’

There had never been any doubt since that night. Tolly had an image of them together in a house full of flowers and music, the war done and won, his duty fulfilled, Ruth filling his senses day and night, warm and strong and certain by his side.

Ruth wondered about children. Could it be? A family? A real family?

He looked so impossibly brave in his uniform now he was actually leaving. She knew he was torn about going – she was torn to see him go – but better this than he should stay for her sake and be shamed and miserable. He was going with Harry, with his pals.

His hands felt hard in hers. They stared into each other’s eyes as if preparing to be starved of sight, taking in every detail. There were no tears but there was a brimming fervour, an intensity of stretched and echoing time.

Miranda Lockwood noticed them. She had known, she had spotted it straight away – men and women who’d wed without being churched were different together – but in this moment her stone-built heart softened. George, his name had been…she looked away.

The locomotive exhaled a rush of steam and the NCOs were shouting: ‘Come on, get moving!’

Tolly and Ruth exchanged a last fathomless look, a clumsy kiss – tears were close now – and Tolly turned away.

He found Harry in the crush and prised him away from the clinging Florrie Swindells – ‘You haven’t?’ – ‘I bloody have!’ Ruth hauled her brother to herself for a final embrace before Harry and Tolly shouldered their way into the carriage through the press of heaving, bantering khaki. They leaned out of a window. The train jerked, starting to move.

The colourful crowd – their whole world, shouting and waving – began to slip past. Garcell’s band broke into Tipperary. The locomotive whistled.

Tolly could feel the motion of the train through his boots. Its vibration ran through him as, helpless, he watched Ruth recede into an unreachable, tiny, stock-still grey doll that seemed to crumple as he lost sight of her. The train rounded a bend and Millbridge was gone.

‘Well,’ Harry said. ‘We’re off.’

‘We are that.’

‘Are we downhearted?’

‘No-o-o!’

‘Well…we bloody soon will be!’

You had to laugh.

 

 

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