I wrote the following story during my Creative Writing Masters course at Birkbeck College about five years ago. It’s a fictional piece partly based on something that happened in my mother’s family during the Great War, when her brother was wounded in Northern France and sent home to recover, after which he was required to return to France.
Salford, 18th November 1917, 8.30am
Florence was alone in the cold house in Rochester Avenue. Her younger sister and brothers were on their way to school. Her mother Gertrude had left an hour before, giving herself enough time to walk the mile to the button factory. Gertrude was forty-one years old, already life-tired and infirm. She had a weak heart and would need to sit down several times on the way. She would then work on the machines until six o’clock in the evening, with a twenty-minute break in the middle of the day.
Florence had turned fourteen the previous month and was now too old to go to school, so she was waiting for a vacancy at the factory. It was a cold winter and some of the women who worked there would surely fall victim to influenza and be told not to come back even if they recovered. The factory owner would then choose replacements from the girls who were literate enough to write a letter of application.
Having left school and still without a job, Florence spent her days doing housework. She was overwhelmed by the washing and ironing and cleaning and mending, but at least it meant that her mother could stay in bed until half past six and still be at the factory on time. That also meant there was less chance of her losing her temper.
Today she had to wash her mother’s work blouses. She filled the large kettle from the tap outside the back door, put it on the stove in the parlour and lit the gas with a match. She always felt a moment of anxiety before the gas exploded into life, and then stood close to the stove so she could keep warm while the water boiled.
She poured the hot water into a tub in front of the parlour fireplace, which was still full of yesterday’s ashes, and then went out into the back yard and dragged another tub, this one full of icy rainwater, into the house. The tub was difficult to carry over the threshold and she spilled some of the water. It would have been easier for her to fill this second tub from the tap near the door as well, but she was only allowed do this if there had been no rain. She never understood this rule but she knew better than to ask her mother and risk one of her rages.
She plunged the first blouse into the hot water, rubbed soap into it vigorously, and was moving it to the rinsing tub when she heard a knock at the front door. Alone in the house, she was unsure whether she should answer it, so she walked to the window in the front room and peered sideways through the lace curtain.
A soldier was standing outside on the pavement, just a few feet away. His uniform was crumpled, his left arm was in a sling and he had a kitbag on his right shoulder. Florence wondered if he was going from door to door begging for money. He wouldn’t be the first.
The soldier looked directly at her. She closed the curtain quickly, but now that he knew there was someone in the house, there was nothing for it but to find out what he wanted. She opened the heavy wooden door and took a deep breath before she spoke. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“Florrie, it’s me, James,” said the soldier.
“James!” she gasped, and moved towards him.
“Don’t touch me arm!” he shouted, holding the sling away from her.
It was more than two years since Florence had seen her brother. She was twelve years old when James and a hundred other young Salford men boarded a train at Manchester Exchange Station to be transported to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire. After being taught how to march and use a rifle, they were sent to join the Manchester Regiment stationed near Arras in north east France. James was the second of the Watkins family to be conscripted. Thomas, his elder brother, had been called up a year before and was already a lance corporal at the age of twenty.
Florence was shocked at the change in James’s appearance. Two years before, when he left, he was stocky with wiry red hair and bright eyes but now he had lost weight and his hair was thinner and lank. His cheeks, which had been fat and rosy, were grey and gaunt and his eyes were circled in black. He looked much older than nineteen.
He walked slowly into the house and put his kitbag on the floor. “I’ve just walked from Exchange,” he said.
“Why didn’t you take the tram?”
“I haven’t the money for a tram!” He looked at her suspiciously. “I’ve been sent home because I were shot. A bullet went through me arm and into me side.”
Using his right hand, he unbuttoned his uniform and showed a bandage all round his body below his chest.
“Don’t think I’ve absconded, because I haven’t,” he said.
Florence looked bewildered. “Of course I don’t think you’ve abscondered,” she said, mispronouncing the word she had never heard before. James walked into the parlour, sat down next to the tub of warm water, plunged his right hand into it and splashed his face and hair. Then he sat motionless and silent.
Florence found it unsettling to share the room with someone who seemed to be lost in thought. She was anxious to get him to say something. “What happened to you?” she asked.
He looked up and stared at her, as if he’d forgotten she was there.
“One of the lads lost it, climbed out of the trench, started running like a mad bugger. He got shot, and the captain ordered two of us to go and get him. The krauts were at the top of the hill. I went. I had to. Me and another lad. We got to the lad and dragged him back to the trench, but I got shot. I’m lucky I weren’t killed.”
Florence didn’t know what a trench was or who krauts were and wasn’t sure why people were shooting at each other.
“I’ve been travelling for days,” said James. “I were in a lorry in France, then a boat, then the train…” He looked up and his voice tailed off. He seemed to be confused by his surroundings. “Is there anything to eat? I’m starving.”
The larder was the coldest place in the house, a small area next to the back door that led to the yard. There was a wooden box full of root vegetables, some canned fruit, a large bag of flour and not much else for Florence to choose from. She took a lump of bread and a jar of fish paste and put them on the table. “I’ll make you a sandwich,” she said.
“Why aren’t you at school?” asked James.
“I’ve left. I were fourteen last month. I’m waiting to work at the factory with me mam. What will you do now you’ve come home?”
“I’m not home for good,” he said. “I have to go back.” He turned away from her. His shoulders started shaking and he began to sob.
Florence had never seen a man crying before, it wasn’t what men did, and she had no idea how to deal with it. She put her hand on his shoulder and held the fish paste sandwich in front of his face.
“Eat this,” she said. “And I’ll make some tea.”
An hour later, James was asleep on the settee in the front room. Normally, Florence made the fire in the parlour when her brothers and sister came home from school, but she decided to risk her mother’s wrath by making it earlier. She carefully placed some newspaper pages and six pieces of chopped wood in the grate, struck a match and, when the paper and wood started to burn, she added two lumps of coal. She had made fires for about a month now, and despite nearly setting fire to her dress early on, she was becoming an expert at it.
Sitting in front of the glowing flames was her one calm moment in the day, but with James in the next room, she felt a sense of unease. What would her mother say when she discovered that he was home? Would she be pleased? She was always too tired to listen to her children or play with them. And James was another mouth to feed.
There were three rooms upstairs, but only two were big enough to be bedrooms. Since the death of their father, Florence and her sister Amy had slept in in the larger bedroom with their mother. In the other room, there were two mattresses, one on the floor and one on an uneven wooden base that her father had made. He had no carpentry skills and the base creaked and rocked from side to side if the sleeping occupant moved. Florence’s younger brothers Freddie and Gordon slept in this room. They would have to share one mattress from now on.
Florence continued washing clothes in the parlour while James slept in the front room. When she finished, she went and sat next to him on the settee. He was dead to the world, and his breathing barely made his shoulders move. She placed her hand gently on his neck and was relieved that he felt warm.
At four o’clock there was a loud knocking on the door, which meant her three younger siblings were home from school. She opened the door and put her fingers to her lips.
“What’s up?” asked Amy.
“Your brother James is here,” said Florence.
“Who?” asked Gordon, in a very loud voice. The three children ran into the house and stopped to look at the young man sprawled on the settee.
“Is he dead?” asked Freddie.
Without waiting for an answer, they ran into the parlour, opened the back door into the yard and then ran into the alley behind the house yelling and laughing. Florence closed the back door and went back into the front room. She lit the oil lamp on the wall over the empty grate. The lamp and the fire in the parlour gave the house a ghostly feel, but at least it was getting warm.
At seven o’clock, a key rattled in the door, then it fell to the ground and there was a loud curse. Florence opened the door and saw her mother on her hands and knees on the pavement. A string bag containing sausages and a loaf of bread was lying on the ground next to her. Florence picked up the key and helped Gertrude to her feet. Then she picked up the string bag.
James woke up when he heard the commotion but his mother rushed past him into the parlour and out into the yard, heading for the toilet next to the back gate. When she came back into the house, she lit the gas lamp next to the stove, took some vegetables from the box in the larder and started peeling them in the sink.
Florence walked into the parlour. “Mam?” she began.
“Did you wash me blouses?” asked Gertrude.
“Yes, they’re drying in front of the fire,” replied Florence. “Mam, James is here.”
“James is here. He’s in the front room.”
Gertrude dropped the carrot she was peeling and walked into the front room. With her poor eyesight, she could barely make out the young man standing in the semi-darkness.
“Hello, mam,” said James.
“What happened to you?”
“I got shot. Bullet went through me arm and into me side.”
“Mother of heaven.” She walked over and stood in front of him. “Does it hurt?” she asked.
“It isn’t too bad. But I can’t pick anything up,” he replied. “And I can’t fire a gun.”
“Why not? It’s your left arm,” said his mother.
“I’m left-handed,” he reminded her.
“Oh right, so you are.”
The family ate a supper of sausages, turnips and carrots. When it was time for bed, Florence took James up to the boys’ bedroom, made Freddie and Gordon share the mattress on the floor and installed James into the rickety wooden bed.
The next morning, James came downstairs wearing an old black suit of his father’s. Under it, he was wearing a string vest, with the bandage round his body visible and his arm still in the sling. He had to visit an army doctor in Manchester to have his wound checked and his dressing changed.
He visited the doctor twice a week for the next two weeks. One afternoon when he returned, his arm was still bandaged but he wasn’t wearing the sling.
“What did the doctor say?” asked Florence.
“He says there’s nowt wrong with me now and I have to go back,” he said. He leaned back on the settee and closed his eyes and turned away from her.
At about five o’clock the next morning, Florence woke up when she heard a low keening sound, which sounded like cats mating in the alley. It was coming from the other bedroom. She sat up, walked to the door, opened it quietly and went out onto the tiny landing and opened the door to the other bedroom.
In the early morning light, she saw James asleep on the makeshift bed, his face screwed up in pain, mouthing silent words. Then the low moaning sound started again. Florence knelt on the floor and felt his hot forehead, then she lay on the bed and put her arms round him. When James opened his eyes and saw her, he recoiled in shock. He sat up straight and yelled “No!”
Florence heard her mother get out of bed in the other room and walk across the narrow hallway. When Gertrude walked in, her foot hit Florence’s face. She yelped in pain.
“Florence?” yelled her mother. “What the flaming ‘ell are you doing in here? Get back to bed!” Florence crawled past her mother and into the other room. Gertrude looked down at her son, who was shaking uncontrollably. “The sooner you go back to the army, the better,” she said.
A few hours later, Gertrude went to the factory and the children went to school, as if nothing had happened. There was no sign of James, so Florence presumed he was still in bed. When he hadn’t appeared by midday, she went upstairs and tapped on the door. Hearing no response, she opened the door. The bedroom was empty.
There was a loud knocking on the front door and she ran downstairs to open it. Two soldiers were standing there, one about James’s age and the other older and larger. On the breast pocket of the older soldier’s uniform was a tag with the name CHALLINOR in capital letters. The younger man’s tag read FLOCKTON.
“Does James Watkins live here?” asked Challinor.
“Yes,” said Florence.
“Is he here?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Without invitation, the two men walked into the house.
“Have a look upstairs,” said Challinor, and then walked into the pantry and out into the back yard. Florence heard him pushing the latch off the toilet door. When they had established that James wasn’t anywhere in the house, they confronted Florence.
“Are you related to Watkins?” asked Challinor.
“Yes, I’m his sister,” she replied.
“Where is he?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Me mum’s at the factory, me dad’s dead.”
Challinor seemed uncertain what to do. Flockton sat down on the settee and motioned for Florence to sit next to him. When he spoke, his voice was friendlier.
“Look,” he said. “Your brother was supposed to be at Exchange Station at eight o’clock this morning. He should be on a train to Dover now. There’s another one this evening, so there’s still time for him to turn up. Just tell us where he is.”
“I told you, I’ve no idea,” said Florence. “I thought he were still in bed.”
“I don’t think you realise how serious this is,” said Challinor. “If your brother doesn’t turn up for duty, he will be court-martialled. Then there’s every chance— “
“Perhaps better not tell her that, sir,” said Flockton. His interruption drew a sharp stare from his superior officer.
There was another knock at the door and another soldier walked into the house and saluted Challinor, who saluted back.
“We’ve found him, sir. He was walking along the canal.”
“Was he wearing his uniform?”
“Flockton, find his uniform.”
Challinor and the other soldier left the house. Flockton went upstairs and Florence heard him walking through both the bedrooms. When he came back downstairs, he was holding James’s kitbag in his hands.
“What’s going to happen to our James?” asked Florence.
Flockton paused before replying. “Just tell your mother … tell her that he’s in custody,” he said. And he too left the house.
A week later, a letter arrived at the house. Addressed to Family Private J Watkins 44093 Manchester Regiment, it read:
To whom it may concern.
On 10th April 1917, Private Watkins J 44093, Manchester Regiment, faced a court martial for desertion and was found guilty, for which punishment is execution. However, after a medical report, Watkins was reprieved on the grounds of temporary mental instability and is now serving a period of custody, during which his mental condition will be reviewed.
Five weeks later, another letter arrived informing them that Private Watkins J 44093 Manchester Regiment had been declared fit to return to his battalion in France. Regrettably, on the ninth of February, during a confrontation with the enemy at Vimy Ridge, Watkins left his trench without permission and was shot dead by a German sniper.
Florence found the letter behind the door when she arrived home after her first day working at the button factory. She sat on the settee and read it to her mother. They both sat in silence for a moment.
“He were a lovely lad, James,” said her mother. “I just wish I’d told him such.”