Authors: Anna Gilbert
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Blinds were drawn at all the windows. The shrouded panes â always ruddy with firelight when she came home from school in the winter dusk â were a reminder that the house was empty: she was free to linger in the shade by the side door, remembering those others who had gone in and out.
Skirting a damp patch by the water butt, she came round into the sunshine and walked slowly down to the front gate. The low-leaning pear tree had shed its petals on the path. Soon wild roses, intruders from the lane, would mantle the high garden wall. The old gate with its rustic arch had gone.
The arch had been a rickety affair: a ridiculous thing to have over a gate, her father said, without ever bringing himself to get rid of it. As a child she could look up and see within its curve segments of sky wreathed in a tangle of clematis. The side pieces enclosed a view of the Dene and central to the view, between the trees, the War Memorial.
As she grew taller, the memorial had grown too but with much less ease, its growth impeded by disputes and lack of funds. And yet the long-delayed day of its dedication had marked not only an end but a beginning: it was the day when they all came together for the first time. Margot's smile was wistful. Could it have stolen in already on that first day, the threat of change, bringing an altered mood, a shift of influence imperceptible at first as a hairline crack in porcelain? So soon?
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It was a morning in April 1923: early sunshine promising a bright day; trees turning green; wall-flowers opening; birds singing; every omen favourable.
True, Margot herself had been bothered by a possible awkwardness.
âSuppose they arrive while we're still at the ceremony. There won't be anyone here, not even in the kitchen.'
It would be over in less than an hour, she was told, and the Greys would not arrive before twelve. In any case they would find the front door unlocked and lunch â cold tongue, ham and salads â all ready laid in the dining-room.
âLike that ship. The
They'll think we're all dead.'
âYour friends are not blind, I presume.' Alex swallowed the last of a purloined hard-boiled egg. âOr too short-sighted to see the entire population of Ashlaw, Hope Carr and Fellside assembled at the monument directly opposite our gate.'
âOf course not.'
It was the second time she had come downstairs to join the others in the hall. The first time she had been wearing her white dress. Practically every girl in England had a white dress for special occasions. Even the poorest families had one to be shared among sisters. She had been sent back to change.
âYour navy kilt and blouse.' Her mother was firm. âIt isn't summer or a party.'
It was no use trying to explain; they didn't know Linden. When they saw her, they would realize that her first visit ranked as an experience every bit as special as a party, though in a different way: a more refined and elegant way.
âThis is an occasion for solemnity.' Her brother flicked a yellow speck of yolk from his tie. âStrictly speaking, we should all be in mourning for the Fallen.' He was wearing grey flannels and his dark-green school blazer with the Ist XI cricket badge on the pocket.
âWe'll stand on the east side,' Lance Pelman said. âThen if they do come early, you'll be able to see the taxi turning into Church Lane â and slip away. I reckon it would take less than sixty seconds to scoot back and be waiting at the gate to meet them.'
âThey won't arrive before twelve.' Mrs Humbert buttoned her gloves and led the way.
âThere's just one thing.' Margot reached the door first and faced them desperately. âPlease, don't anyone call me Meg, not in front of Linden. That's all I ask. Promise.'
âWe will use only your baptismal name,' her father said.
âThough it occurs to me,' Alex said, âthat I might not much care for a girl in whose presence I must not call my sister by her familiar name.'
âOh, you'll like her. Honestly. She's marvellous. Phyllis and Freda think so too. We all do.'
There was no more to be said. The authority of the girls at the Elmdon High School was known to be incontrovertible.
In predicting the size of the crowd, Alex had exaggerated. Disputes as to where the memorial should be placed had been heated and long drawn out. Eventually Fellside and Hope Carr had conceded Ashlaw's claim that fourteen names out of the twenty-six on the roll of honour entitled them to choose the site. So far as Fellside and Hope Carr were concerned it also entitled Ashlaw to the most active share in the work and expense involved.
So that it was chiefly Ashlaw folk who stood in a jagged half-circle facing the memorial: a plain column surmounted by a cross, approached by three shallow steps and flanked by two rows of chairs for the official party. The chosen spot was picturesque: level ground at the foot of a green slope with gorse and wild cherry in bloom in the uncultivated stretch of land known as the Dene. Long ago the monks of Langland Priory had hunted deer there: an historic spot, Mr Ashton, the schoolmaster, had said, giving it his vote, though there were dark hints that the Dene was prone to subsidence. Look what happened to the Quaker schoolroom and the old Rectory.
There had been time for the post-war tide of grief and thanksgiving to ebb a little; yet now that the moment had come there arose in the quiet gathering of shabby folk a mood to match the hour. Most of them were women. Men coming off work at Hope Carr had a mile and a half to walk and could hardly come in their pit dirt. But others on night shift had turned up, as well as farm-workers and some of the unemployed.
Standing between her brother and Lance and facing west, Margot was thankful for the correctness of her kilt. The white dress would have stood out like a sore thumb. Besides there might just be time to change before the Greys came. For a few minutes she contrived to forget them. Every day, for ages it seemed, she had seen the memorial taking shape but she had never been interested in whatever it was the thing stood for or shared the thoughts she now vaguely imagined the other people were thinking. And how ignorant she had been, not knowing east from west!
Heads turned as between the trees bordering Church Lane gleamed the black and silver of a motor car. Her heart sank; the worst had happened: the Greys had come too soon.
âKeep calm,' Lance said. âIt isn't a taxi.'
It was the Daimler from Bainrigg House. She breathed again. The Rilstons and their grandson descended and approached. Amid a general hush, attentive rather than respectful, they shook hands with the rector, several councillors, Father (representing the Coal Company) and Mother (wearing the clerical grey coat and skirt she had worn when opening the hospital bazaar).
âO God our help in ages past.â¦'
Overpowered by the Hope Brass Band, voices were thin in the open air. Margot's attention wandered from the white cherry blossom on the green slope to the smaller schoolchildren pretending to read from their hymn books; to Mrs Dobie, black-clad and red-faced and, as Alex said, seeming to breathe fire; to Rob and Emily Judd, dark-browed and scowling; to Katie Judd. With disapproval she saw that Katie's stockings were coming down. Really it was too bad. People had tried to do something with, as well as for, Katie. She stood in her usual attitude, sideways with one foot turned in, shoulders hunched, eyes staring as if from fear. The fear was genuine; Katie was always afraid. But the stockings! Something must be done. Suspenders? It would probably have to be garters, though according to Miss Peters they caused varicose veins.
But wait. The rector was reading out the names inscribed on the column. Joseph Judd. That was Katie's father. Poor Katie!
Stony-faced at Katie's side, Mrs Judd heard without a tear. She was past weeping. The bitter years since the Battle of the Somme had drained her of tears. From under the dark brim of her sateen-trimmed hat she stared sombrely into space, no longer able to see in it a vision of Jo, his face crumpled in his derisive smile; no longer caring about anything except how to feed and clothe her family, all now at ages when they ate like wolves. They were all present, she had seen to that, although Ewan had arrived, hot and panting, and had to be nudged to take his cap off. His face above his white muffler was sullen.
â“He maketh wars to cease in all the world”.' The rector read with exasperating slowness. â“He breaketh the bow and knappeth the spear in sunder and burneth the chariots in the fire. Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of lifeâ¦”.'
And suddenly, as at the crack of doom, the mild morning exploded in disarray.
âCrowns?' Mrs Dobie elbowed her way to the front, ignored the rector, glared at the memorial. âWe don't none of us want crowns.' Her voice was rough and loud, her face redder than ever before. Like a fiery prophet she raised her bare right fist. âWe want them lads back, that's what we want. Every one of them lads should be here now, I'm telling you.'
They listened, appalled. The rector lost his place on the page. She stood upright, a solid black shape, in the deep-crowned hat and long coat she had worn since the day of Queen Victoria's funeral and would wear until a few days before her own; her black buttoned boots firm on the ground, her feet firm inside them.
âI'm telling you, they've all been cast away for nothing, them lads have. It's been a wicked waste of living flesh and blood. And now you're trying to bring God into it. It's too late to bring God into it. He had nought to do with it, hadn't God. And He's got nought to do with yon monument either.'
Her outburst ended in a few muttered words. She pushed through the people behind her and walked heavily away, not to the village but towards the river, along a path between ancient oaks that had not even been acorns when the monks hunted deer there. Somehow she seemed to belong to their long past; somehow it was she, Mrs Dobie, who had brought God into it as she raised her eyes â and her fist â to the sky.
Not one of those present ever forgot her. In the unwritten annals of Ashlaw she had achieved as lasting a place as if her name, too, had been inscribed in stone. To look at the memorial was to remember her â with discomfort â and only after that to remember the men who had died. Indeed the memory of Mrs Dobie outlasted the memorial. Threatened as it was from the outset by subsidence owing to mine workings below, it was already obsolescent, a trifle forlorn. Lifeless, it could not compete with so formidable an embodiment of active wrath as Mrs Dobie.
They watched her, all the blacker for the sunlight between branches, until she had trudged out of sight. Only then, as with a communal sigh, did they begin to recover.
âShe's right,' Lance muttered.