British Cemetery by Simon Marsden
On Sunday we remember the centenary of the Armistice of Compiègne, which took place on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11am, on 1918 – a cease to all hostilities between the Allies and Germany that finally marked the end of that bitter, pointless exercise in futility, the First World War, a conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions – a needless slaughter, and one to commemorate not celebrate (which a lot of the relentless cashing-on has risked doing over the last four years). Such events risk glorifying warfare and perpetuating the war machine. Very few seem to have actively interrogated or critique the causes and justification of the so-called Great War, or the very notion of using violence to solve anything. While it is important to remember all victims of war (and that is why I wear a white poppy), we shouldn’t just mindlessly drop in a few coins to ‘help the heroes’, for that just accepts the inevitable cost of war (on the Armed Forces anyway) and makes it normative. The very existence of any weapon designed to destroy life is obscene. The Arms Trade should stop – and our government could choose to set a precedent, rather than doing business with odious regimes (who for example murder journalists with impunity). That is highly unlikely to happen, I know, but we shouldn’t just all bow our heads for the two minutes silence on Sunday without also protesting the ongoing atrocity of all armed conflict.
War casts a long shadow. And ten years before the start of the centenary commemorations, in 2004, I published a novel that fictionalised the impact upon one life, a schoolteacher called Maud Kerne, whose husband, an Observer in the Royal Flying Corp, goes MIA during the opening battle of the ‘War to End All Wars’, the Battle of Mons. My novel is set nine years after then (mainly throughout 1923) and we first meet Maud ‘frozen’ in her grief, emblematic of a traumatized nation turning to the consoling fictions of spiritualism and hedonism as those left to pick up the pieces sought to cope with the telling absence of the Lost Generation.
Here is Chapter One – offered in memory of all those impacted by war.
THE DEAD OF WINTER
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Wilfred Owen
31st December 1922, Paddington Station
Maud Kerne sat down in the waiting room, an hour early as always for the 10.30 a.m. London to Penzance. Like a scratched ‘78’ she took the journey always at the same time of year – the limbo between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Time to kill in the hangover of the twenty-fifth – the glamour of the season faded with the false sentiment, smiles dropped like pine needles on the carpet.
Life roared around her, but it seemed far away.
Like a gas lamp turned low, Maud had withdrawn into herself, and if the others waiting to depart were not so preoccupied or torpid, they might have been unnerved by the sullen statue in their midst. The pariah.
A woman alone.
The sounds of the vast station echoed around her – volume modulated by the opening and closing of the frosted door. Through the window of the waiting room she saw the cathedral-like iron arches that reached overhead like a tree canopy or cage, an iron cage. A wonder of its age they had called it, or perhaps the belly of the whale for all the lost souls on life’s road. But not Maud – oh no, she knew exactly where she was going. She should do: it was a journey she had taken many times before, in honour of her husband – commemorating their first trip to Glastonbury in 1900, when he had proposed to her on the Tor. It was her pilgrimage to him, her way of remembering; not that she had ever forgotten. The events of that summer in 1914 were engraved on her mind like the hot metal of a press.
A man with a walrus moustache rustled a copy of The Times. She snatched a half-read headline: ‘Mussolini cr— his Rubicon … marches to Rome.’ The Tatler gave an office-worker a glamorous face. Another paper veil, another wall of privacy. A poster for the new magazine Good Housekeeping showed a beaming housewife advertising a ‘miraculous’ labour-saving device called a vacuum cleaner. Just what Maud needed – something to cleanse the void inside her. Her empty life. So hollow without her Sam. Like this echo chamber, she thought; Narcissus long vanished, announcements distorted on tannoys, some higher authority issuing incomprehensible dictums, conducting chaos.
She pulled her rabbit fur-trimmed coat around her. Shades of brown, like the rest of her – a study in brown: hair, eyes, shoes, stockings, skirt, jacket, hat. Her skin was wan, its pallor not artificial, like those modern girls all-made up. Bold as brass, a young lady applied lipgloss in the mirror above the waiting room mantelpiece, to the withering looks of the matrons and the admiration of the stiff-collared men. Long legged, a slimness exaggerated by the long tight dress, her hair in waves. ‘Is that a shingle?’ someone wondered. ‘A dead-ringer for Louise Brooks,’ murmured a man to his friend. Thoroughly modern like Maggie, Maud’s would-be flapper friend, whereas Maud tended to blend into the background. Fine. Maud did not want life to notice her any more, but she already felt like a ghost. The phantom of platform five, that’s what they should call her.
There was a chorus of coughing. Maud’s skin crawled at the thought of all those winter germs and bad habits, the room reeking of pipe tobacco and cough sweets. The air swirled with smoke, highlighted in the shafts of pale winter sunlight. Like the Athena auditorium, Maud thought, or a chambered barrow at midwinter, she could imagine her husband saying. He never liked the pictures. Preferred long walks in the countryside. Preferred his own way in many things. Even death, it seemed.
Maud’s gaze wandered. Plain walls were given a touch of reflected glamour by film-posters advertising the latest releases. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis depicted a woman encased in metal, trapped, like Maud, in the city, in her life, in herself. Yet the pictures offered her escape. She enjoyed the Saturday matinees. After evenings of marking essays she needed to do something less cerebral, although nothing could match a good book – her first and deepest love. A heavy tome awaited her in her hand luggage, a Christmas present, but it could wait. She wanted to savour every page on the train, when it felt like lying in the arms of her Sam, reading in bed, rocked gently to sleep.
She looked at the time on the wall and recalled ‘a pair of glasses and a smile’ Harold Lloyd in Safety Last hanging on to the clock-face, as it buckled under his weight, as if melting in his hands … And, oh, how she would melt into Valentino’s gaze in The Sheik. He would hypnotise her and she would be completely in his power, like Lil Dagover carried away by the spectral somnambulist Conrad in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yet looking around her at the sleepy torpor of bodies, Maud wondered, aren’t they all sleepwalking through life?
And what was this around her except smoke and mirrors?
From the counter in the corner of the room, steam billowed out from a brightly polished silver urn. ‘Tea’s ready,’ said the dumpy maid, and people began to queue up. Like pilgrims for their ointment, thought Maud. Here, in this new temple of modernity – where modern-day pilgrims flock. A Canterbury for iron horses. All around her, relic seekers returned home with their pieces of a saint – Saint Nicholas.
A red-faced porter grumbled into the grate, attempting to stoke some life into the fire. ‘It doesn’t seem to want to get going this morning,’ he said, half to himself.
Nothing does, thought Maud. The world had ground to a halt. Frozen solid. Dead still. Like her life.
She caught her reflection in the mirrored door as an old lady entered – forgetting to shut it, to a tirade of complaints about the draught. Maud looked long-faced and thin-lipped. She had never been ‘beautiful,’ whatever that was (‘You got the brains,’ her pretty sister Constance would joke) – but her summer had turned to autumn all too quickly, and winter was in the wings.
Her life had been whittled away by teaching. The faces changed, but the roles remained: the bully, the swot, the shy one, the troublemaker. Set texts and set in their ways. No room for innovation at the Lewes Grammar School for Girls – where she had commuted to from Eastbourne for the last twenty years.
Time dilated … The faces of the past rose and receded before her, like waves breaking. Where had all her friends gone? They had got on with their own lives, moved away, settled down, had families. All she had was Nubi. Her neighbour was looking after the lurcher for her – her sister would not tolerate him in the house. He must be missing her dreadfully, the great soft oaf. A pang of guilt went out to him. He had been her constant companion through these troubled years – she must take him on a long walk when she got back home.
9.49. The large clock clicked on, relentless. Forward, it seemed to shout. Forward! A speeding locomotive, unstoppable. Forget the past! Think of the future! Look! Look! Yet we exist on a knife-edge, Maud observed with the clarity of an outsider. The split-second that is now.
Maud checked her own pocket watch – a large station-master’s one. A memento of Sam’s – a gift from the railways. The only thing of his she kept with her at all times, though it was too heavy ‘for a lady’. It looked like his compass – yet she had lost true North. It had proven false. No higher authority. No guiding goodness. How could there be, for the Great War to be allowed to happen? For her husband to be ‘killed’ in the first month? To Maud, C of E, it was God who died that day. Mere anarchy was let loose, and she was left on the naked shingles of the world.
She held the watch and imagined her husband near. Imagined him setting off to work. The lines he surveyed for all of these people to travel on … like his namesake, Brunel. He had followed in the footsteps of that great man – and now she followed in his. Yet so many branch-lines had become dead-ends, failed attempts. But in his explorations he found older routes … Renegotiating the conversion of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s safer, smoother broad-gauge to Stevenson’s narrow wasn’t Sam’s magnum opus, his research into ancient alignments was to be …
But we are all tram-lined in one way or another, thought Maud bitterly. What choices had she been offered? As a woman she had few; as a widow even less. Yet she would never regret having chosen Sam – one thing in her life she had got right.
Maud caressed the watch’s smooth silvery surface like a talisman. She traced her kid-glove fingers over the lovingly polished copperplate engraving on the back:
To Isambard Kerne, surveyor for the G.W.R.
For excellence in performance of duties.
It should have been given to Isambard when he retired – but he’d never reached retirement age. The Great War saw to that. The surveyor’s skills were needed in the skies above Belgium where, she’d remembered reading once, the average lifespan of an airman was seventeen-and-a-half hours – a little bit of trivia masking so vast a tragedy. And so it had been given to his widow as a keepsake.
As if it could ever compensate for the lost time.
The bells broke her reverie. At the ten o’clock chimes, Maud rose, smoothing her skirt. Time to make her way to the platform edge. A middle-aged veteran in a medalled red jacket opened the door for her, puffing out his chest like a rooster. She smiled weakly and passed.
Outside the waiting room, life swarmed like the restless pigeons – trapped inside the iron cage like the rest of them. One of the bedraggled grey birds hobbled on a rotten leg. As she strode by they rose into the air with a bustling indignation, like WI members being told to move their meeting. To the staccato of her heels, the rustle of her fur and false silk, Maud passed through the crowds, the luggage trains, in a dream, in a daze.
Omnibuses pulled up, disgorging their contents. All stations were desolate places, Maud thought. Everybody wanting to be somewhere else.
She recalled holding her husband’s hand – shy smiles, the excitement of that first trip – their first time away, she still a student of English literature in her final year at Somerville College, Oxford. The innocence of the new century awaited them. Anything was possible. That was nearly twenty five years ago. Since then the century had been steeped in too much blood. It seemed tainted beyond redemption.
Around Maud, daily life continued as if ‘The War to End All Wars’ had never happened – soldiers and flower-sellers, gentlemen and their sweethearts, dowagers with tiny dogs, businessman in bowler hats, salesmen with carpet-bags, families saying farewell or being greeted, children being told off. The hue and cry was deafening – shrieks of steam, slammings of carriage doors, blowings of whistles, trundling trolleys, puffing porters. The hustle and bustle was like a tea dance to which Maud had not been invited, the dance unknown, the music provided by a drunken orchestra.
Beneath a banner of ‘Blood and Fire’, a Salvation Army band were playing Christmas hymns on a collection of brass wind instruments. They had just launched into a dour rendition of ‘Silent Night.’ A black-uniformed woman rattled a tin at onlookers. Then a squeaking made Maud look down: on a make-shift cart a man with no legs, dressed in a soiled threadbare uniform, but with a medal on his chest, wheeled his way in front of the crowd, wielding an empty tin cup in his teeth. He dropped it in his lap and caught her eye. ‘Spare a penny, missus?’ Most tried to ignore him, but an enraged gentleman, whose wife was in tears, asked the guard for the beggar to be removed. Maud dropped in a ha’penny to scowls and carried on. ‘God bless you, lady.’ She did not look back.
Feedback pierced the hall, then a metallic voice on the tannoy announced, ‘The 10.30 Penzance Express is now boarding, platform 5.’ There was a sudden movement of people – but she was already there, at the head of the queue forming behind her. Maud flashed her pass at the ticket inspector. He smiled, knowing she was ‘one of them’ as a staff dependant. She bridled at his knowingness – she detested all forms of familiarity. Indignantly, she passed through the gate on to the platform.
Porter’s trolleys rattled passed. Her luggage had already been sent in advance – a trunk sewn into canvas. All she had with her was her hand luggage. So efficient, these thoroughly modern times, as Maggie kept reminding her. Everything moving faster and faster – to where? Where did that sacred cow Progress get them? Mechanised warfare. The wholesale slaughter of a generation.
The flower girl shivered by her dried blooms.
Maud walked through the station like a ghost. No one could hear her in this dumb show, which had become like a silent motion picture to her, flickering in black and white. The train hurtled towards her. The damsel on the tracks. No one to rescue her. Her husband had been tied to his job, and she to him. Yet the Suffragettes on the railings had not wanted rescuing. Had all their efforts been in vain? Now she had to pay her own way, or it was the poorhouse for her. Her parents were gone, and she was too proud to ask for her sister’s charity. She could imagine the smugness of Constance – it was bad enough that she gave Maud her cast-offs. How skew-whiff, for the oldest sister to be living off hand-me-downs! Yet, she had been living in someone else’s skin all her life.
Maud could feel a migraine coming on. The scene diminished as if she looked at it from the wrong end of a telescope. She saw the newly-deads alighting, or queuing up for their next life. The carriages brought fresh arrivals, singly or in pairs from disease, assaults or traffic accidents, to whole villages from massacres and disasters. Confused and lost, with questions on their brows – ‘There’s been a mistake on my ticket …’ ‘I got on the wrong train …’ ‘How do I get home?’ ‘Where’s Mummy?’ An old lady called out for her husband – on a different train. The guard could not stop the train, would not let her get on; panicking, forgetting decorum, she ran along, crying, until she fell, sobbing. Her husband placed a hand against the window, his breath misting the glass. Maud’s mind whirled. She steadied herself against a girder.
‘Dear me. I have to sit down,’ she sighed to herself, ‘– just for a moment.’
There – on a pile of cases. A gang of grubby children hung about there. They danced around in a circle, singing over and over again:
In Fleet Street, in Fleet Street,
The people are so fleet;
They barely touch the cobble stones,
With their nimble feet.
The lads run like a windy day,
The lasses run like rain,
From Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill,
And then run back again.
Recovering a little, and concerned that people would notice, she pushed passed them, irritated. Maud hated to be late. To have to rush. She had got there in good time. Had it all planned to perfection. Life ran like clockwork until people got in the way.
From unheated Third Class blue-faced passengers stepped from the open carriages. Everyone knew their place on God’s Wonderful Railway. It was a cast-iron caste system.
On billboards, pastel seaside posters for the ‘Holiday Line’ promoted the golden delights of the Cornish Riviera. Yet the colour was drained from the land, and from the people beginning to feel the pinch of hard times. Thin-shaped women; thin faces; thin lives. It was a threadbare world. From a dog-eared and mouldy poster, Lord Kitchener challenged with his pointing finger: ‘Your Country Needs You!’
Disgusted with its lies, she hurried away and bumped into a tall smartly-dressed man. The impact made Maud drop her purse. It fell at the feet of the stranger.
‘I’m terribly sorry! Here, let me help you.’ Immediately, he leant down to pick it up.
Flustered, Maud snatched back the purse, all composure gone. She offered a polite but icy ‘Thank you’ and, before the man could speak, she scuttled on. The shock of intimacy had unsettled her more than the accident. He had looked right at her!
Ever since her husband’s vanishing, she had been twitchy around men. She lived her life half-expecting one to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Maud, darling, it’s me – your Sam. I’m back!’ So jumpy had she become of the opposite sex, she had acquired a reputation in her small social circle as something of a Suffragette.
Maud tried to regain her composure as she approached the platform. The gleaming engine was resplendent in the GWR livery.
She had to get on that train before any more unexpected encounters!
There was a scurry of movement towards the carriage – its doors gaped open, ready to eat. As the throng swarmed down platform 5, there seemed to be a commotion holding everybody up. First the purse, now this – it was one of those mornings! Cursing under her breath, Maud pushed past – and then she saw what gripped the bystanders’ ghoulish attention
A young man was having a turn. He was dressed smartly enough, Maud thought – he couldn’t be a derelict. It looked as though he was having some kind of fit – twisting, frothing at the mouth, holding his head, staring wild-eyed at the people around him.
Then he screamed: ‘Heads down! Heads down, lads! Heads down! Hunhunhunnn. Nuhnuhnnunnnn.’
Bystanders stared at him like at a freak show, or an exhibit in a medical museum, talking about him as if he wasn’t there or was some kind of dumb animal.
‘One of those shellshock nutters, by the looks of things―’
‘The noise must have triggered it off―’
‘Shouldn’t be allowed in public―’
‘Cowardice – that’s what it is. Not a real man. Should take it on the chin. My Albert did―’
‘It’s just an act―’
‘Why isn’t he in a home?’
‘Electric shocks – that’s what he needs―’
‘Walk in the country―’
‘A good woman―’
The soldier looked at Maud. Stared into her soul. She blanched.
Don’t. Stop. His eyes implored.
Then, bursting into speech, he addressed her. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary. Got a light, mate. Got a light?’
Maud’s eyes widened. She was transfixed, as if her deepest desire or terror was displayed before her.
‘I – I don’t smoke,’ she said.
‘Light?’ he pleaded.
‘Sorry – I’m so sorry.’
He noticed her response. She was not mocking or shouting at him.
Sensing some rapport, the man walked quickly to her, stumbled on to his knees, reached out, whining, drooling. Maud flinched, horrified.
Children screeched with laughed, teasing, dancing around him, singing:
The lads run like a windy day,
The lasses run like rain.
To their terror and delight he joined in, slathering, swaying, clapping hands out of time.
The station clock read 10.27. Out of time! Maud had to get on that train, but the onlookers blocked the platform.
‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses … We all fall down, we all fall down … All the king’s horses, all the king’s men … Couldn’t put Humpty together again … He marched them up to the top of the hill … All fall down … Jack fell down and broke his crown … And Jill came tumbling after. And Jill came tumbling after …’
Maud recoiled, distraught. She had to get away. She had to get on that train!
And scared Miss Muffet away.
With a final effort she stumbled onto the carriage, heart pounding.
And Jill came tumbling after.
Men grabbed him, but he pulled free, and lunged at window, screaming. You’re different, he seemed to say with his eyes: you understand.
Steam screamed from vents like ghosts in the machine. Shafts and pistons shifted, spat. The juggernaut groaned to life. A whistle blew. A police constable had been called over.
‘C’mon, laddy. Straighten up. You’re upsetting the ladies. Pull yourself together.’
‘Pack up your troubles in the old kit bag,’ he sang.
An attempt was made to grab him. There was a scuffle. The constable’s hat was knocked off. The crowd watched on, amused. Faces leered from the carriage windows.
‘Mummy, why is that man silly?’
‘Because he was in the war, Berty.’
‘Right, I am arresting you. Name?’ said the red-faced policeman. ‘Name?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’s the Unknown Warrior,’ someone joked – but it died.
The guard blew his whistle, then jumped into the brake van. The engine let out a burst of steam. There was a shunt, as all the carriages fell in line – then slowly, ponderously, inexorably, they moved off. Well-wishers waved at the departing, or blew kisses, determined to play out their own script regardless of disruption, deliver their rehearsed lines, against a backdrop of hecklings.
Suddenly, the man broke free and lunged at the window, pressing his face against the glass. Bloodshot eyes fixed Maud in the corridor of the carriage. He could be my lover, wishing me goodbye. My Sam.
Then he was grabbed by policemen and dragged away.
Shaking, Maud reached for her watch. It always reassured her in times of stress. She stared at the frozen filigree hands. In a stupor, she checked the time again: 10.01.
Panicking, she tapped it. Shook it. Listened for its tick. It could not fail – it was her only anchor! She had only wound it that morning, as always taking meticulous care not to overwind.
With sickening realisation, she knew: it must have been the collision with that gentleman.
She held the watch tightly, pressing its cold metal against her skull as the train creaked west.
‘Tickets please.’ A sallow-faced ticket inspector opened the carriage door and asked where she was going with a West Country twang to his voice.
Where was she going, indeed?
‘To Glastonbury,’ she curtly replied. To Avalon, she thought, remembering her husband’s fey comment when they had first made that trip, the Isle of the Dead.
Maud wanted to cry but nothing came. She had not been able to cry since her husband had vanished. People thought her callous. But every grey hair upon her head spoke of the tears she had not shed. She hid her face behind her hands as the rain began to fall.
The face of the soldier haunted her mind. She could still see him, pressed against the window screen, like a portrait of anguish – The Cry of Munch made flesh. And in the rhythm of the carriage and the rain’s drumming, she heard the taunting echo of the children’s song:
The lads run like a windy day,
The lasses run like rain.
Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2004
The Long Woman by Kevan Manwaring, the first in the series of The Windsmith Elegy, is available from Awen Publications
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