I was sketching up on the top meadow in the high summer sunshine on the day the world lost its reason.
It was harvest time in these abundant acres and the men of the village, their hands hardened smooth by toil and time, were cutting the wheat. Their keenly honed scythes, ringing and flashing in the sun, sang a slow, rhythmical swish, swish. The stubble crackled beneath their boots as they worked their way through the field and a warm breeze carried the fragrance of the freshly cut straw.
In neighbouring fields men with forks were pitching great sheaves onto haycarts, and children chased each other round the stooks, getting under the feet of the working men but nobody appeared to be at all bothered. The lark’s song in the air above seemed to echo the children’s laughter. It had been like this as long as anyone could remember.
From where I sat, my back pressed against an oak unmoved these three centuries past, I could count the ancient church towers of three parishes across the gently undulating Suffolk lowlands. The narrow lane bordering the meadow ambled its way unhurriedly down to the village, labouring over a slender stream by way of a small stone bridge before trudging wearily back up the slow incline and stumbling into the main Stourbury road. On it’s way, with barely a sideways glance, it passed the anonymous redbrick schoolhouse which was my home, and in which my father, a fine righteous man, taught reading, writing, arithmetic, religious instruction and the history of the British Empire. My mother, a delicate, sensitive lady plucked from the French village of her birth by my father in his younger, wandering days, taught French and art, and nurtured my own youthful dreams of becoming an artist.
A little further the slope levelled and to the right, set in the low wall of the churchyard, was a wooden bench where the old folk might rest awhile and pass the time of day in gentle gossip. Behind them the standing stones of antique graves bearing the family names of generations of village folk lay scattered so randomly amongst the sedges and cornflowers you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d been tossed there carelessly by some mighty hand. As a child I’d skip amongst them stopping here and there to trace with my infant fingers my own family name of Carter etched into a dozen or more of these tablets of soft stone.
Dominant in their midst stood the stern, ivy draped flint walls of the Church of St Lawrence, out of which is delivered solace and piety to the faithful of this parish. It was from within these same walls, on this unlikely day, that the unruly peeling of bells rung out to so rudely snatch me from my amiable reverie.
The men around me stopped working and put down their tools, straightening their backs slowly in a way that lent gravity to the moment. Wiping their necks and holding their hats to shield their eyes from the sun’s harsh light, they looked about them in bewilderment. Then, shouldering scythes and pitchforks, they began the slow, languid drift back to the village to discover what was amiss. Across the gentle valley could be seen the many figures of village folk, their work abandoned unfinished, some running but most just ambling in the common direction of the church. A general foreboding seemed to have filled the collective consciousness of all those around me.
I gathered up my pencils and papers and joined the others in the lane. As I approached the bridge I saw my good friend Ben Fayers step out from behind a hedge a little way ahead of me, a familiar grin about his face. I was pretty sure I caught a glimpse of one of the young village girls getting to her feet and brushing down her pinafore dress.
“What’s all the commotion then, Francis Carter?” he asked, looking back to the hedge as he walked.
“I’m as wise as you on the matter.” I replied. ”But the church bells don’t ring on a Tuesday for no reason.”
“That’s right enough.” he said, and I fell in step with him as we walked along Church Lane.
“Was that Tilly Draper I saw back there?” I asked.
“Where?” he exclaimed, looking about him with apparent amazement, before the broad grin returned to his cheeks.
“No matter.” I said.
When we reached the top of the hill there was already a large gathering in front of the church and spilling into the road. People seemed gripped by an anxious agitation and arguments were breaking out here and there as tempers frayed. Across the churchyard I saw my parents holding each other close, so I pushed my way through the throng to reach them.
“What is it?” I asked, “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said my father ”But I fear it could be bad news from Europe.”
My mother burst into tears and pulled me to her, her body shaking and holding me with all her strength as if she’d determined never to let me go. I could feel her tears on the side of my face as she sobbed, “Mon cher, mon cher,” reverting to her native French as she always did when upset.
The animated excitement around us began to abate and, with some difficulty I released my mothers grip from round my shoulders and looked about me. Reverend Shepherd, straining his neck to see over the heads and shoulders of the crowd, was holding up his hands to restore order. He was flanked by members of the parish council and some of the gentry from the big houses in the village. Joseph Goody, publican at The Fox stood at the vicar’s right arm and next to him were Thomas Meeking the shoemaker, then George Strutt the blacksmith, still in his leather apron. There was also Mr. Farrow the sexton and Mr. Steed the organist.
On the vicar’s left was Mr. Ransom, the solicitor who lived at The Grange and Mrs. Saddington-Baynes from Wren Hall on the edge of the parish. They shared an expression of profound solemnity. Slowly the people fell silent and the vicar began to speak.
“I have had a communication this morning from the bishop. I fear it is grave news from abroad.” He paused for the seriousness of his pronouncement to take effect. “As a result of recent events in the Balkans the tension that has existed between nations has finally reached breaking point. The German army has invaded neutral Belgium and is closing on France.” At this I heard my mother gasp. “The British government’s ultimatum has been ignored by The Kaiser and consequently the King has declared that a state of war now exists between Germany and ourselves.”
Almost immediately pandemonium broke out. Men shook their fists and shouted angrily, women shrieked and wept openly. Confusion was in every heart. Tears filled every eye. My parents held each other tightly, my mother, eyes wide with fear, stared into my father’s face, searching for some kind of reassurance.
Again Reverend Shepherd called for order.
“I understand how concerned you must be feeling on hearing this news.” he continued when the noise had subsided. “The very real worry at the prospect of war touches all our hearts equally. But at the same time should we not be thinking less of ourselves and more of our duty to King and country? The expansionist ambitions of the Kaiser represent a very real threat to the sovereignty of this great country of ours, and I feel it is incumbent upon us all to look deep into our hearts and ask ourselves if there is not something more we can do. Each and every one of us by standing together, shoulder to shoulder, might turn the tide against this monstrous evil. Let our voices ring as one in the clarion call: To Arms! To Arms!”
A murmur went around the crowd in response to his less than rousing battle cry.
“We got no business fighting Germans.” cried one old voice from behind us.
“We got a harvest to fetch in.” cried another.
At this the vicar again spoke. “Gentlemen, please. If you will not listen to me perhaps a word from someone with a more personal concern might sway your hearts and harden your resolve.”
He stood aside as the imposing figure of Mrs. Saddington-Baynes stepped forward clutching her bosom. “Young men of Waldenstead.” she said with an authority that silenced the crowd. “At this very moment my own two dear sons are preparing to rejoin their regiments and sail to France. This very morning I have been obliged to bid them God’s speed as they boarded the London train. They did not shirk from their patriotic duties. Would you have them stand alone against the Hun? Would you have the world see you as cowards? No! You are made of hardier stuff than this. Men from this parish have taken up arms in defence of their country for centuries past and will do so for centuries to come. Defy the aggressor! Repel the foe! Enlist! Enlist! God save the King!”
There followed a long silence until one voice called out from the back of the crowd. “God save the King!” and another, “Death to the Kaiser!” and many others joined in the rallying cry. “Hooray!” they yelled, and threw their hats in the air. A satisfied smile appeared on the face of Reverend Shepherd. I turned to see Ben cheering along and was myself carried away with this tide of jingoism. We looked at each other with a mixture of bewilderment and excitement.
Ben waved his fist. “Here we go!” he cried, and I knew that he had found his big adventure. Worryingly, I also knew that I would follow.
I was sitting in my room later that evening turning over in my mind the tumultuous events of the day, and could hear my mother and father talking earnestly in the next room.
“This family will not be touched by the grotesque obscenity of this war, that much I do know.” said my father firmly. I could hear his boots pacing up and down the wooden floor of their room. “For one thing, I’m too old for active duty. They’re looking for young men. And by the time Francis is of an age it will all be over. You’ll see.”
“Perhaps you’re right. But we must contact my mother and sister,” I heard my mother saying, “I’m so afraid for them. Can they stay here, do you think?”
“Of course they can,” said my father soothingly. “but I’m sure it won’t come to that.” My mother’s fear for her family in France brought her to tears once more.
For my own part I shut out the fear by looking nostalgically through my sketchbooks. Drawings I had done years ago that for some time seemed of no consequence suddenly overflowed with associations. I looked fleetingly through drawings of the village, stopping occasionally when I saw one with merit. Like the one of the Old Forge opposite the schoolhouse with George Strutt standing proudly outside holding the bridle of a huge Suffolk Punch he had just shod. And here was a preparatory sketch for a watercolour of the public beerhouse that I’d sold to Joseph Goody for a shilling. The first picture I ever sold.
As I sifted a small pen and ink drawing slipped out and fell to the floor. I picked it up and held it for several minutes. It showed my home in winter, bleak and sturdy, defiant of the bare tree branches crazing like broken glass against the grey wash of the sky. Beneath that in the pile of papers was a dark watercolour vignette of my parents sitting by the evening fire. My father, sitting upright in a high-backed leather chair, is reading by the light from the flames. My mother is sewing, her head bent over the fine work. She was always working. It was as if she believed that leisure time was in some strange way sinful. I put these two drawings carefully to one side.
Then I found the sketchbook I was looking for, full of portraits of my classmates at school. I picked my way through these pages with great care and fondness. William Spooner was here with his older brother James and his pretty sister Rebecca. There was Josiah Frost who rarely spoke and never smiled, and Dick Cooper the fat boy who was always bottom of the class, and a couple of good drawings of Fanny and Mary Spillings, the grocer’s daughters. I used to be in love with Fanny but she preferred Ben Fayers; but then all the girls in the village loved Ben.
There was Isaac and Thomas Blunden from Park Farm, William Jolly whose mother died of consumption last winter, and Peter Potter who lived with his seven sisters at The Ram, which was considered the rougher of the two beerhouses in the village. Aaron and Amelia King who walked the three miles across the fields from Ostlers Green to school every day, summer and winter, and were never late except for the morning that their grandfather was thrown from a horse and killed.
I had a strange drawing of Charlie Stubbins wearing a ladies hat, but why I can’t say, and a couple of charcoal pictures I was particularly pleased with of George and Arthur Mumford, the twins from up at Bell’s Chase. I had written their names beneath each drawing, and that was the only way to tell the two apart. I turned the page and here was Ben, my best friend. I had drawings of Ben going back ten years or more, from when we were infants together. My favourite was the one I did last year on the day Ben first played for the village cricket team. He’d borrowed a white smock and trousers from George Monger, the Baker from Stourbury, and posed heroically with his bat over his shoulder. He scored twenty runs that day, I remember.
Ben was no scholar. In the classroom he spent his days gazing out of the window and it was accepted that he would never become an academic and for the most part my father left him alone.
The moment his school day ended Ben would run out of the yard and into the fields where he was happiest. I stayed behind in class to help my father clear the room and then prepare for my private studies. But as soon as my work was finished I would run outside and look for Ben to see what adventures he had made for himself.
One summer evening I found him wandering along the lane towards the hay meadow up at Bells Chase.
“I’ve got some tobacco.” he said, ” fancy a smoke?”
“I’ve never tried it.” I said.
“Neither have I,” said Ben “but there’s a first time for everything.”
I fell in step with him and we sauntered along the lane in the early evening glow, then we clambered over a five-bar gate into a field out of view of any houses. He sat down in the shade of a haystack and pulled from his pocket a small clay pipe with a broken stem. He cleaned out the bowl with his finger and then from his other pocket he lifted a small package wrapped in newspaper. From inside he carefully took a plug of tobacco, rubbed it delicately between his fingers and pressed it into the bowl of his pipe.
“I pinched it from me dad.” he said.
I watched fascinated, as he made a small pile of hay, took two flints, and hammered them together until the sparks ignited a faint glow in the hay. A feeble trail of smoke drifted up and Ben gently blew on it until he had a flame, picked up the hay, lit the tobacco and sank back into the haystack with a contented smile. He puffed at the pipe and followed the smoke until it dispersed into the air, and only when he was ready did he finally put out the flame in the hay.
“This is the life.” he said.
On another occasion, early one Sunday morning, I was standing in the yard waiting for my parents as they prepared for Church. Ben came by with George and Arthur Mumford. They carried a pitchfork over their shoulder and an eager smile on their face.
“Where are you off to?” I asked.
“Ratting,” said Ben, “coming?”
“I can’t” I said, “I have to go to Church.”
“Suit yourself,” said Ben, and the three boys strolled off down the lane leaving me looking longingly after them.
“Alright,” I called, “wait for me.”
I followed them up to Miller’s Farm where Charlie Buckle had promised them a penny a score to kill the rats in his hayloft. When we got there the boys set straight to work and I was only a spectator.
Ben immediately took charge and marshalled his assistants. “George, you stand over there, Arthur, over there.” he said, and they began to clear away the hay working into the corner of the loft. Occasionally a rat would try to slip past them but was quickly picked off by one of the boys. They got down to the last couple of bushels when Ben said “Ready?” The twins nodded, and they pulled away the last bales of hay and the slaughter began. A frenzy of screaming rats clambered over each other and up the walls in their attempt to escape the stabbing prongs of the pitchforks. I watched with horror as the three boys, their eyes ablaze, shouting and swearing, stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. In just a few minutes it was over. A few rats had escaped, but most of them lay dead on the loft floor, their blood sprayed up the walls, across the floor and over the boots of the three laughing and exhausted boys.
They threw the bodies in the claypit after cutting off the tails and went up to the house for their money. Three penny pieces for sixty rats. Not bad for ten minutes work.
I was late for Church and in trouble. Not for the first time would I get a beating from my father after taking off on an adventure with Ben Fayers, and not for the last time either.
As often as I could I would go off with Ben to earn a drop of pocket money.
In winter we’d go flinting. It was hard work but we got paid a couple of pennies by the farmer for clearing his field, then maybe another copper or two by Ben’s uncle Rueben for the flints. Rueben was a builder and a mean old bugger. He threw out most of what we brought, saying they weren’t good enough and only paid us for the round ones. As soon as we’d gone he’d go around picking up all those he’d thrown out and put them back. It made no difference to Rueben.
When harvest was over we’d go gleaning; picking up the corn that had been left behind. It was considered women’s work but that didn’t bother Ben. By the end of a day’s work he’d get out the jar of cider he’d brought with him and we’d sit and drink it together, laughing helplessly prostrate with the sharp stubble scoring our backs, looking upwards misty eyed as the sky paled. Then, more often than not, he might just be seen slipping through the hedge with one of the pretty girls from the village.
I wanted these memories. I needed to collect them up and place them into some kind of memorial portfolio in my head, so that they could always be with me, a celebration of an idyllic childhood that I was about to leave behind.
We left early, very soon after dawn. It was chill, misty, still and lovely that morning as we stepped onto the road to town. A fifteen-mile walk it was, so food was taken and our spirits were high.
I had heard Ben’s whistle from my room and looked out to see him standing in the schoolyard with Charlie Stubbins and George and Arthur Mumford. I was all ready to go when they called, so treading quietly I crept down the stairs so as not to wake my parents. I left by the back way to avoid passing my parents’ room, and silently closed the door behind me. I crept round the side of the school building and into the yard to join my friends. We greeted each other noiselessly, suppressing giggles of excitement, and set off through the silent village our boots scrunching on the dirt road. We walked shoulder to shoulder with the low morning sun on our backs casting shadows on the road ahead of us so long that they reached past the church and made giants of each of us.
There were a few cottages with lights showing at this hour but for the most part all was stillness. We watched carefully for any signs of movement as we went, for we were known well enough and any questions asked of us would be difficult to answer. As we passed The Ram old Daniel Potter’s dog, which he had tied to a stick in the yard, started barking and set off two or three others around the village but that raised no alarm so we continued on our way.
When finally we were clear of the last house we clapped each other on the shoulders, and sent out dire warnings to the Kaiser and all his kind to think twice before taking on the likes of us brave boys. If bravado was bullets then the war was as good as won.
I’d noticed that Charlie had fallen silent for a while and as we approached the end of the lane he slowed to a halt.
“Hold up,” he said, hesitantly, “I’ve forgot somethin’.”
“What’s that then, Charlie?” I asked.
“Er, m’drink.” he said. “I’ve forgot m’drink. You lot go on. I’ll catch you up.”
“You sure about this, Charlie Stubbins?” said Ben, quizzically.
“Aye.” Said Charlie. ”I’ll be right behind you.” And he ran back towards the village.
“Don’t reckon we’ll be seein’ Charlie shootin’ too many Germans.” said Arthur, and roared with laughter at his own joke.
We came to a stop after a half a mile where the lane ran into the main Stourbury to Larksbridge road. If we turned left a five mile walk would take us into Stourbury where there was to be a recruiting sergeant, today being market day. But Ben said it might be his Uncle Joel and he would know we were underage, so we turned right and set off northwards to Larksbridge.
We’d walked a full three hours but hadn’t made much progress as we’d spent a good deal of time fooling around fighting, or stealing into gardens and scrumping fruit. George had torn his trousers clambering over a wall after he’d been spotted helping himself to some raspberries and chased off by a big woman with a red face and a stick.
“My old chap’s goin’ to be good an’ angry when he sees the state of my corduroys.” he said, holding the fabric together hoping the tear didn’t show.
“Don’t you worry about that,” said Ben, “You’ll be wearing a smart new pair of army issue khaki in a day or two.”
The sun was getting up now and swinging round to the south, bearing down on our unprotected necks. We were beginning to tire and the talk was about taking a break soon. So we walked on a while looking for a suitable place to rest. Ahead of us where the road straightened was a small grove of trees at the end of a low flint wall and we made for that. Our pace increased to a trot as we approached the trees and then we found ourselves racing each other, pushing and tripping and laughing. With Arthur declaring himself the winner the four of us tumbled into a giggling heap at the side of the road and lay there breathless in the cool shade of a group of sycamores.
George was the first to sit up and see the girl. He touched me on the arm. “Look ‘ere.” he said, and we three sat up following his gaze.
She was approaching us from the direction of Larksbridge on the other side of the road. A farm girl we thought from her rough calico smock, rude wooden clogs, and her plump flesh all pink and shiny like a crisp rosy apple. Probably no more than fifteen.
“There’s a big ol’ thing.” George said softly.
As she neared, conscious of being stared at, her pace faltered and her eyes lowered. Ben suddenly jumped up and stepped smartly across the road, took off his hat and walked a few paces by her side, just looking into her eyes and she struggling not to return his smile.
“You’re a pink ‘un.” said Ben brightly.
She lowered her eyes again and looked away shyly, clearly flattered by the attention she was receiving. Ben led her over to where we sat, slipping his arm around her waist.
“We’re goin’ soldierin.” he said, sitting her down on the grass by the wall. “Me an’ my mates ‘ere,” he held out a hand in our direction just in case she hadn’t noticed us, “we’re goin’ to fight the Germans.” She looked around at us and we nodded proudly.
“You don’t look no more’n boys.” she said.
“We’re men, alright.” said Ben, and we all grinned. Then we three boys reached into our sacks and pulled out some bread and cheese and a few assorted vegetables, while Ben fetched out a jar of cider. We passed the food around tearing off chunks of bread and eating hungrily. George offered the girl an onion, which she declined, although I suspect that was much to his relief as he only had one. The cider jar went from hand to hand and the Adam’s apple in each boy’s throat bobbed up and down as he gulped down the rough brew. Arthur finished drinking and wiped his mouth on his sleeve letting out a huge sigh of pleasure and a belch, then fell back spilling cider on his waistcoat.
“Take it easy.” shouted Ben snatching the jar from Arthur’s hand, “that’s got to last us all day.”
He then undid his neckerchief and wiped the rim of the jar before passing it to the pink girl. “Go on,” he said gently, “it won’t harm you.” And we all watched as she sipped apprehensively from the neck.
“That’s quite nice.” She said, passing the jar back to Ben, and we nudged each other.
“Have some more,” said Ben, “it’s good for you.” We all sat around watching, tingling with excitement, our mouths hanging open.
“I daresn’t,” she said, “you’ll be getting’ me into trouble.” But Ben was holding the jar up to her lovely full pink mouth and willing her to take another sip. And so she did and another after that.
“I’ve gone quite dizzy.” She said, chuckling, and we shifted forward, each of us elbowing another and grinning lewdly.
Then Ben lifted the jar quietly from the girl’s hands and stood slowly up, holding out his hand to her.
“Come along with me,” he said, “I’ve got something to show you.”
The pink girl giggled and took Ben’s hand as he helped her to her feet and led her through a gate in the wall. We three just sat and watched as they dropped behind the wall and out of our sight, then looked from one to the other, eyes bulging, mouths open, not one amongst us daring to make a sound.
We listened intently. There followed some rustling sounds and some suppressed giggling, then after a few short moments of grunting noises Ben stood up, opened the gate and strode past us, head held high, hitching his trousers as he walked.
“That were definitely nice.” he proclaimed loudly.
We scrambled to our feet, hurriedly gathering up our sacks, and chased Ben along the road. I looked back over my shoulder as I ran but there was no sign of the girl.
“Did you do it?” asked Arthur eagerly.
“Course I did.” said Ben, “I give ‘er a right good seein’ to.”
We gave a whoop of delight. We were certainly men now, we thought as we marched off to town bathing in the reflected glory of the moment.
With about another four or five miles behind us since the incident with the pink girl the sun was getting higher in the sky and hotter on our shoulders, and our pace slackened. Ben alone still had a spring in his step but I was tiring and the twins were a good way behind me. The cider was gone now and Ben had thrown the jar into a field, but its effect was still with me making my legs heavy. I was ambling now looking down at the road, my hands thrust in my pockets. I was tired and I was hot and I was miserable and already feeling the first pangs of regret. What on earth did I think I was up to? I’m no soldier. I’ve never even had what you’d call a proper fight. It was alright for Ben, he was a real scrapper. He always knew how to look after himself, even as a small boy. I remember noticing when we were little kids together that he had such big hands and arms. Not like my skinny little things.
“Hold up,” said George, “I’ve got something in my boot.” And we all gratefully snatched up the opportunity for a rest. We tumbled into a heap at the side of the road and immediately fell into a bout of wrestling, rolling and heaving and shouting until finally collapsing onto our backs, laughing breathlessly, our spirits restored. It was then that, from around the bend in the road behind us, came the familiar old horse drawn cart driven by Joshua Mumford, the twin’s father. The horse, Moses, a great chestnut stallion with doleful eyes, we knew well enough, his big old head hung down as usual and his enormous hooves clopping lazily on the road. The cart groaned and squealed behind him as Joshua drove the horse up to where we sat and reined him in.
“You boys was up early this morning.” he said, addressing his sons.
“We’re going for soldiers.” said Arthur, keenly.
“We’re going to fight the Germans.” said George, miming the actions of shooting a rifle. They looked at each other grinning, then at their father.
“You got no business fighting no Germans.” said Joshua, “There’s cows need milkin’ and there’s still a field o’ wheat needs fetchin’ in. Now get you up ‘ere and don’t be so foolish. There’s work to be done.” The twins looked at Ben and me, then with a weak smile of resignation they climbed up onto the cart. Joshua said nothing more, but turned the cart around in the road and drove back the way he had come. The twins raised a hand in a farewell gesture and were soon gone from sight.
So Ben and I threw our sacks over our shoulders and continued our journey to town.
We came over the brow of the hill and there before us were the dark buildings of Larksbridge, smoking like embers. The road for some time had been getting noticeably busier with every manner of transport vying for space. Large creaking carts complaining loudly beneath their burden of corn or livestock mingled with lightly trotting gigs and carriages and a rare motor car hooting impatiently, unable to pass the slower vehicles on this congested winding dirt road.
The town contained its own distractions. Our senses were being assailed by so many new sounds and smells and sights conjured up by a bewildering variety of shops and merchants, offering for sale all a young man’s heart desired for the passing of a few coins. Fine straw hats banded with coloured silk and stout leather boots in a gentleman’s outfitters. Across the road shotguns with warm shining stocks stood in smart regimental rows in the window of a sporting goods dealer, and next door a piano glistened. There were butchers and grocers and cutlers and any number of beerhouses, loud, dark, smoky and forbidding.
The streets rung and rattled with horse drawn omnibuses pasted over with boldly printed advertisements bellowing the names of bootmakers and theatres and patent medicines. Handcarts pushed and bicycles pedalled through the bustle of this lively market town.
The recruiting station was situated in the temperance hall, opposite the corn exchange. Spilling across the road between the two buildings a knot of people manoeuvred their agitated way through and around this space. The town band played stirring marching tunes and the street was being hung with red white and blue bunting and flags.
Our bodies tired from the walk and our heads dulled as the effects of this morning’s cider wore off we pushed our way through the crowd towards the temperance hall, and realized as we went that everybody else was pushing in the opposite direction, making for the corn exchange.
“Course they are,” shouted Ben, “Its harvest time.”
When we finally reached the other side we strode, with the best swagger we could muster, up to the soldier standing by the door. “We want to join the army.”
“Well boys,” he said, “You’ve come to the right place. Just step inside and join the queue.”
It was the quiet that struck me first as my eyes became accustomed to the dim light inside. Our boots thumped on the wooden floorboards as we stepped nervously towards the row of trestle tables at the far end of the room. A small group of men huddled at the side of the high ceilinged room, some talking to recruiting officers, some just standing in silence, looking about them uneasily.
There was no queue.
A sudden doubt nipped at my resolve and stopped me in my tracks. Ben bumped into me from behind and I turned to speak, wrestling with my nerves and trying to appear as though I was just passing the time of day. But I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I turned back and walked over to the sergeant sitting at a desk in front of me.
“I’ve come to enlist.” I said.
The sergeant had a kindly face, and looked at me for a few moments. “You’re of an age then, are you boy?” He asked, looking hard into my eyes.
“And you can write your name then, can you boy?” he asked.
Again I nodded.
“Write your name there then boy.” He said, pointing to a space at the bottom of a sheet of paper lying on the desk in front of him. He handed me a pen and pushed an inkwell towards me. I dipped the pen into the ink and jerkily wrote my name.
He took the paper and turned it round to read. “Right then, Francis Carter.” He said, “I can see you’ll make a good soldier. Just step over to that curtain for your medical. Next!”
I found myself to be a private soldier in the third battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. The paper confirming this was neatly folded and tucked into my waistcoat pocket, and the sergeant’s shilling in the pocket of my trousers. Ben and I stood on the pavement looking around us wondering what to do next. We’d been sent home for a week and told to report to the town barracks next Monday to begin training, but we felt an urgent need to start behaving like soldiers so we made for a nearby beerhouse.
I stepped inside nervously. It was dark but for shafts of light coming in through the windows picking out the swirling clouds of pipe smoke, and smells of tobacco, bees-wax and beer assaulted my nostrils. Voices were raised in debate and demand and raucous laughter. Ben strode smartly past me and up to the counter, slamming his shiny shilling down onto the wooden surface.
“Two pints of stout for a couple of thirsty soldiers over here.” he called.
The dark foaming beer was brought and the change collected. We took a deep swallow and then looked around the room for a seat. A continuous wooden settle ran round the wall with an occasional bare polished table here and there so we made for one of these.
“Room for a couple of soldiers?” asked Ben of the two women occupying the settle nearest us. He was clearly enjoying the army life. The women were perhaps in their early twenties and nudged each other as we took our seats.
“You look a bit young for soldiers.” said the older of the two.
“If you’re big enough you’re old enough.” said Ben, wiping the beer froth from the thin wisp of moustache on his lip, “and who are you lovely ladies to be having such fine opinions on soldierin’?”
“I’m Florence,” said the younger, “and this is my friend Polly.”
“Private Benjamin Fayers at your service,” said Ben with a flourish, “and my companion-in-arms Private Francis Carter.”
We all said “Pleased to meet you.” and shook hands.
“We’re market girls,” said Florence, leaning across to me, “we sell pegs, pinafores, brooms, carpet beaters, that kind of thing. What about you? How long have you been a soldier?”
“About ten minutes.” I said, and they laughed screechingly.
“Well the Kaiser had better watch his step, eh!” said Polly. Something made me think she might be Irish but there was no accent. She had black hair held in place by a brightly coloured headscarf and green eyes that flashed mischievously at every joke that Ben made. Florence had brown hair and a full red mouth that revealed beautiful white teeth when she smiled, which was often. She shifted in her seat constantly and sensuously, stroking her arms or her hair and all the time looking about her as if she might suddenly see someone she knew.
Ben and I drank our pints thirstily and I stood to get another. “Can I buy you two ladies a drink?” I asked.
“We drink gin.” said Polly, and I went to the counter. The drinks came to sixpence, which only left me with another sixpence for the rest of the day, but I was in a celebratory mood and feeling reckless. I took the drinks back to the table where Ben had changed seats and was sitting next to Polly on the settle. His arm was on its familiar way round her shoulder and he was nestling up close. I sat back opposite Florence, gazing foolishly into her deep dark eyes.
“So what do you girls do when you’re not working in the market?” asked Ben.
“We come here.” said Polly.
“Or sometimes we go dancing or to the music hall.” said Florence.
“The music hall?” I said, “I’ve never been there.”
“You’d love it,” said Polly, “it’s a scream.”
“Maybe we might go for a bit of a dance after we’ve had a drink.” said Ben, by now leaning so far over Polly he was almost wearing her clothes. He winked at me swallowing his beer greedily.
We learned a little of the ladies’ history. They told us that they lived in the same street not far from where we were sitting. They went to the same school and shared the same friends. We offered our histories without being asked, Ben naturally embellishing his. We were a couple of gentlemen farmers and sportsmen feeling compelled to do our bit for King and country.
The time passed unnoticed in this amiable way, Ben and I journeying to and from the bar, making new friends and getting louder until our pockets emptied.
“Well, this won’t buy the baby a bonnet,” said Florence suddenly when our lack of funds became apparent, “drink up, Polly.”
“Yeah, its time we went back to work,” said Polly, standing and reaching for her shawl, “a girl’s got to earn a living. Nice to meet you.”
“Thanks for the drinks.” Said Florence. And they left.
I felt utterly crushed. My beer addled brain believed that I had found true love at last and it had been cruelly snatched from my grasp. I wanted to cry. Ben laughed out loud and threw his arm around my shoulder as we stumbled drunkenly out of the beerhouse into the blazing sunlight of the afternoon street.
Our progress back through the crowd was slower as Ben raised his hat to every passing lady and regaled every stranger with the news that he was going to fight the Germans. So in this blundering manner, each with an arm around the other’s shoulder, we made our meandering way singing through the town.
“Oh Polly love oh Polly the rout is now begun
And we must march away at the beating of the drum…”
We waded through a flock of sheep and dodged a brewer’s dray; I staggered into a display of buckets outside an ironmonger’s shop and brought them crashing into the road, collecting a scornful frown from a constable. It was to the great relief of ourselves and the good folk of Larksbridge that we finally left the town behind us and were again on the open road.
“Go dress yourself in all your best and go along with me
I’ll take you to the cruel wars in High Germany”
The amber sun sat low in the sky as we dragged our heavy legs along the grit road into the village. The journey back had seemed as though it would never end. Our heads were down and we were no longer singing. We passed The Ram with no money and some regret knowing that one more pint might just for a while relieve the pain in our heads.
Ben turned into his front yard and immediately tumbled through the usual heap of buckets and tubs left lying around after a day’s work.
Many of the neighbours heard my mother’s hysterical cries after I arrived home that evening and broke the news to my parents of the day’s events.
© Bill Philpot 2014