Authors: Lizzie Lane
‘She’s right, Dad.’
There was an earnest rustle as her eldest son, having once again completed the crossword in record time, waved the stark headlines in front of his father’s face. Henry peered at the paper as though he could understand every word. The truth was that except for a few simple words, he was lost.
Harry, as keen a reader as his mother, was as different from his father as it was possible to be. He’d inherited his father’s colouring, a leaner frame and had an agile mind.
Mary Anne was adamant. ‘Adolf Hitler is an Austrian and also a painter, a house painter so I understand.’
Harry grinned. ‘Front doors and window frames a speciality!’
His mother laughed. ‘Not that kind of house painter. At least, I don’t think so.’
Henry’s clenched fist hit the table. ‘I don’t care who he bloody is or what he bloody well does! The Boche is no match for the British Tommy. We’ll whip them we will! Whip them fast and be home again by Christmas.’
‘That’s what was said last time,’ Mary Anne said quietly, as she dished potatoes onto separate plates. ‘A lot of our boys will meet their maker before this war’s over.’
Henry glowered. ‘Pah! You’re just a bloody woman. What do you know?’
‘Only what I read and hear on the wireless.’
‘Then stop listening and stop reading. It’s nothing to do with women. Get back to yer sink and yer stove.’
Mary Anne slammed the saucepan onto the table. ‘Don’t you dare say that, Henry Randall. Of course it concerns women. It’s women’s sons, sweethearts and husbands who’ll be going off to fight.’
‘That’s right. Women are joining up too,’ said Lizzie, chin resting on her hand, gazing at her mother and thinking how beautiful she looked and how glad she was to look like her. And I’ll look just like her when I’m forty, she thought wistfully.
‘And there’s more than one way of fighting a war,’ added Harry, as he scribbled grids of letters and numbers on a piece of scrap paper. No one quite understood these grids and when asked what they stood for, Harry had tapped his nose and said, ‘Secret.’ ‘I agree with John. I think air power will win the wars of the future.’
His father spat into the fireplace. ‘Pah! Airpower indeed. Never mind that. Joining up will be the making of most of the milksops we’ve got around here! Mark my words!’
‘My John’s not a milksop!’ Daw retorted. ‘He’ll be going. He’s told me so.’
Thinking there was enough war going on in her own family, Mary Anne sighed and turned out the gas under the potatoes. ‘Roger Partridge has joined the navy. His mother told me out back. She seems to be coping. Roger didn’t want to get stuck in trenches like they did in the last war. Can’t say I blame him.’
Harry nodded grimly. ‘They came into the factory and ordered everyone in the Territorials to go home, get their kit and report to the station. Poor sods.’
‘Poor sods, be damned! Now that’s what I call patriotism!’ Henry beamed.
‘That’s what I call bad luck,’ muttered Harry, the strength of his cynicism seeming to light up his face, although at no time did he smile.
Trembling with patriotic fervour, Henry rose to his feet. ‘For King and Country!’ He saluted.
None of them dared laugh no matter how ridiculous he looked with his braces hanging around his hips, the top buttons of his shirt undone and a piece of tobacco trembling on the end of his moustache. War, whatever the circumstances, was a serious matter.
Only Harry made comment. ‘Cannon fodder required. Enquire within.’
Mary Anne adored her eldest son, perhaps more so than her other children though, heaven forbid, she’d never admit such a thing. He looked like his father when he’d been younger, but did not share his unwavering patriotism.
Thankfully, Henry hadn’t heard his son’s last comment. For a while he seemed lost in thought before sighing resignedly. ‘It’s a great pity that I’m too old to serve,’ he said in a muted tone and sighed again, his eyes sparkling with nostalgia. ‘Though I’d love to, of course. I’d really love to. There’s nothing like serving your country in the company of others of like mind – fine young men, all like yerself.’
He looked directly at Harry.
Mary Anne heard the yearning in her husband’s voice and saw the expression in his eyes, totally at odds with that of his son. The army and the adventures of his youth were all gone, but still she could tell how her husband hankered after the chance to live it all over again. So did she, but for different reasons. As for her son …? Fear clutched at her heart as she eyed his dark hair curling towards the nape of his neck, the melting brown eyes … he never blinked, or at least, it seemed that way … now … now she was making a great effort to memorise every single feature, to remember … just in case … but she didn’t see patriotism in her son’s eyes. His eyelids flickered and his dark lashes fluttered over his high cheekbones in
response to his thoughts. Like his speed when doing a crossword, each thought was perused and quickly done with and he was on to the next one, his expression remaining one of unguarded cynicism.
Unable to read his son’s expression and swelling with pride, Henry slapped his namesake on the back. ‘So off to war, eh, me boy? And never fear, I shall be proud of you.’
Harry’s eyes met those of his mother. She saw the contempt, the bristling indignation and in that moment she knew exactly what he was going to do. The knowledge sent a shiver down her back. He was clasping his hands tightly together, his knuckles looking fit to burst through his skin. He clenched his jaw while avoiding his father’s flushed gaze.
‘I’m not enlisting,’ he said in a quiet voice.
His father’s jaw dropped to his chest, his eyes staring in disbelief. ‘What? What was that you said?’
Silence fell around those eating, Lizzie’s fork pausing halfway to her mouth. Mary Anne sat with her hands folded in her lap, her attention fixed on husband and son. Only Daw, immersed in her own thoughts, continued to eat.
‘I’m not enlisting,’ Harry said again in a firm, even tone. His chin jutted forwards, his look as challenging as throwing a gauntlet between them.
Mary Anne sucked in her breath and, although she said a silent thanks to God that her son would not rush to fight, she knew her husband would not be pleased.
The look in his eyes hardened.
The room fell to silence.
Henry Randall clenched his fists, causing the hairs on his arms to stand on end. He looked at his son as though he wasn’t sure he was his.
‘What are you talking about? You have to enlist!’
Harry shook his head. ‘No. No, I don’t. If they call me up
to fight for my country, I’ll go. I will have to or go to prison, or worse … But I will not wilfully march to kill. Someone will have to make me. Besides, there’s more than one way to fight a war.’
Henry didn’t seem to take in the last few words. Refusing to fight was enough to send him mad.
‘Make you?’ His voice screeched to the ceiling and his face turned puce. ‘Make you? This is your country we’re talking about here, Harry. And what about Poland? That bloke Hitler walked in there as though he owned the place.’
Harry kept his eyes fixed on his hands. ‘He does now. Anyway, as I said, I’m not rushing to do anything. I’m going to see how things turn out and do what suits me.’
‘So we leave the French to build the trenches?’ said Henry Senior, pounding the table with his clenched fist in order to emphasise the point.
Harry almost laughed. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Dad. There won’t be any trenches. Not this time. Even the civilians will be in the front line, just like they were in Spain a few years back. They’ll be bombing us, Dad, and no amount of trench-building by blokes armed with only a Lee Enfield is going to save us. That’s all of a bygone age! As I said, I will not go blowing trumpets and beating drums. I don’t think modern warfare is in any way glorious. In fact, I don’t think war ever was, though it’s always been a money spinner – for some, that is.’
‘I’ll disown you! I swear I’ll disown you if you don’t do your duty!’
Mary Anne pushed her two daughters through the door, ordering them to start washing the pots. Harry’s raised voice followed them out.
‘I’ve never seen Dad so angry,’ said Lizzie.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll calm him down.’
Mary Anne went back into the kitchen, hovering over the table.
Father and son held each other’s gaze, immovable objects on either side of the table.
Mary Anne bustled between them, snatching up the bread knife like a housewife whose world was confined to her home and knew nothing of the wider world. Inside, she cursed men for their crass stupidity, but she was there for a purpose. She made an attempt to calm the situation.
‘Well, you can’t go yourself, Henry Randall. The days when you and Lewis Allen went over the top are long gone. It’s time for a new set of brave young men.’
Henry’s glower flickered, his eyes switching to the collection of photographs on the mantelpiece, and one in particular of Henry and his pal, Lewis Allen.
‘Aye,’ he said, sighing deeply. ‘Me and Lewis would ’ave showed ’em. Give us a sharp bayonet and we’d ’ave pig-sticked the lot of ’em!’
The thought of anyone pig-sticking any other human being, enemy or ally, filled her with disgust and a powerful urge to back her son, to do anything to stop him going to war. She lived for her children. It was all that kept her going and made life worth living. She didn’t want him to go. She didn’t want him to die.
She turned to Harry. ‘I think you’re right, Harry. This war will be different and there’ll be more than one way to fight it.’
Henry looked as though he was about to burst a blood vessel, but she knew he would keep his temper – at least for now. Her expression was as stern as that of her husband. ‘If you men stop playing at soldiers, I can refill this cruet set and put some fresh bread on the board.’
Her heart beat like a drum. Already she could see the anger smouldering in Henry’s eyes. No doubt she’d pay for it later, but even if it meant a slap or two, she would do all she could to keep her son from being sent away to fight. After snatching up
the necessary utensils, she retreated back to the scullery where the two girls were whispering together.
Lizzie eyed her over the top of a saucepan she was wiping. ‘Is Dad still angry?’
Mary Anne didn’t want to discuss the matter. She gave orders instead. ‘Being busy will keep our minds off things. Lizzie, go scrub the pig’s head.’
Daw was trembling. ‘Ma! I’ve got something to tell you.’
‘What’s that then?’
A deep flush rushed over Daw’s cheeks. ‘It’s something to ask you really – seeing as I’m not twenty-one yet.’
Mary Anne had been about to open the outside larder where the dairy products and eggs were kept. She paused, fear clutching her heart. She thought she knew what was coming. She could see the intensity on Daw’s face; the fear of what she presently had being wiped out before she could really enjoy it. Hadn’t she been there herself over twenty years ago?
‘John and I … well … seeing as there’s going to be a war and it’s pretty sure that he’ll be called up … we want … he’s asked me—’
Lizzie interrupted. ‘For goodness sake, Daw. Don’t blush about it. It’s perfectly normal.’ She turned to her mother. ‘They want to get married, Ma. Just in case …’
Mary Anne finished her sentence. ‘…just in case he doesn’t come back.’ She knew the words well. She’d known them years ago in the days before Henry, before Edward had gone marching to war. He’d asked, she’d accepted, but her parents hadn’t allowed it. ‘You’re too young. You’re both too young.’ He hadn’t been too young to fight. Off he’d marched and never came back. There was a hole in her heart that had never been filled, even by the young, dashing Henry who’d been flattered, surprised in fact, when she’d agreed to marry him. It was only
later he found out the reason why, and had turned on her like an animal caught in a trap.
Mary Anne turned the tap, the water dribbling over the pale meat. ‘You’re not twenty-one. You’ll need your father’s permission.’
Daw bit her lip. ‘He will say yes, won’t he, Ma?’
The sound of arguing still filtered out from the other room.
Lizzie put her arm around her sister. Her eyes stayed fixed on her mother. ‘Of course he will,’ she said, shaking her sister’s shoulders as she hugged her. ‘Of course he will. Won’t he, Ma?’
‘You’re under twenty-one. There’s a form to be signed.’
‘Should she ask him now?’ pressed Lizzie.
‘Oh, no!’ Daw looked fit to faint at the prospect.
Mary Anne pushed her hair back from her face and half closed her eyes. ‘Get the paperwork. We’ll wait for the right moment.’
‘Will you sign it, Ma?’
Mary Anne thought of Edward and nodded. ‘Yes. I will.’ She shrugged. ‘Unfortunately, it’s not up to me. It’s your father that has to sign. You know that.’
Daw exchanged a nervous look with her sister.
‘Never mind, Daw,’ said Lizzie. ‘Go and get yourself ready to meet John. You can borrow that nice new red scarf of mine if you like. I’ll help you tie it into a turban once I’ve helped Ma clear the dishes.’
Once Daw was gone, Lizzie silently piled the last of the dishes on the draining board.
Mary Anne sensed she had something to say.
The silence was pregnant with questions. Mary Anne waited, wondering what was on Lizzie’s mind.
‘What was it like? The Great War.’
‘Did Dad enjoy it? It sounds as though he did.’
‘Why don’t you ask him?’
‘Because you’re easier to talk to. Besides, I don’t want to know about big battles, I’m more interested how it affected people’s lives. Nothing was ever the same afterwards, was it?’
Mary Anne shook her head and looked at her daughter with interest. She certainly had hidden depths, and her looks … well, it was almost like looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection of herself twenty years ago. She touched her daughter’s face with her wet fingers. ‘You look so much like me, or rather how I used to look.’
Lizzie laughed, catching her mother’s fingers with her own. ‘You said it right first time. You don’t look that much older than me. You look more like my sister than my mother.’