Where Battles Lie

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: The Imaginarium
Fourth of five short plays about the First World War. Not the usual stories about trench warfare, but more about the lives that were affected at home, and the change in society.

A man is accused of cowardice, but not everything is what it seems.

Submitted: November 03, 2018

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Submitted: November 03, 2018

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An empty railway station with a simple bench on a platform. A man, Albert, walks on, he is dressed in a suit and hat, and is carrying a book with him. He looks at the bench, his watch and then sits down. He opens the book and takes out a photograph of his love which he looks at and smiles. He settles back still looking at the photograph. A woman, Gladys, rushes on after him, she is dressed smart casual, having finished her work as a secretary in an office.

GLADYS

(Accusingly) I thought I saw you sneak off in here to hide.
Albert looks up and around the station. As he swiftly puts the photograph away, he realises that as there is no one else, he must be the target for this stranger.

ALBERT

I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I know you.

GLADYS

No you don’t, but I know you; or I know your kind at least.

ALBERT

I have no idea what you’re talking about.

GLADYS

(Pulling a white feather from her bag and forcefully handing it to Albert) Here, perhaps this will help you to understand.

ALBERT

(Taking the feather) Yes I think I’m beginning to.
Gladys watches as Albert puts the feather in his pocket but he says nothing. This just makes her even more angry, and she stands over him.

GLADYS

Well, are you just going to take it?

ALBERT

I assumed you meant for me to keep it?

GLADYS

Yes, yes I did. 

ALBERT

Very well then.

GLADYS

Is that all you have to say?

ALBERT

I can see I have angered you, and I fear anything I say would make matters worse.

GLADYS

So, you are afraid of me as well as the Germans?

ALBERT

I’m not afraid. I would just rather avoid arguing. It’s a lovely day, and it was pretty tranquil.

GLADYS

Yes well I hope you are enjoying it, while my brother lies buried in France.
The outburst brings Gladys to tears mixed with anger. Albert puts his book down and looks sympathetically at Gladys.

ALBERT

I’m so sorry.

GLADYS

(Bitterly) I don’t want your sympathy; you sitting there in your smart suit, far away from the danger. You should be ashamed of yourself.
Albert looks down and averts the eyes of the angry woman. He has genuine sympathy for her and he does not want to argue with her. Gladys takes this as being a further sign of cowardice and it further fires her anger.

GLADYS

Have you nothing to say at all? Are you just going to sit there?

ALBERT

I don’t know what I could say beyond what I have already said? I’m sorry that you lost your brother.

GLADYS

Oh that makes it all right then does it?

ALBERT

Well no, but I don’t know what would?
Gladys turns her back on him and paces back and forth. Albert picks up his book again, believing the attack to be over. Gladys turns back to him.

GLADYS

Have you even been to France? Have you seen how they are living; how they are dying out there?

ALBERT

(Hangs his head) No, no I haven’t.  (The verbal attacks make him fire back a barbed comment though he still has no real malice.) Have you?

GLADYS

No, but I’m a woman, you are supposed to be a man.

ALBERT

Do you think that only those in the trenches have the right to be called men?

GLADYS

Yes I do. Those who stay at home, who are able to go, put more of a burden on those who do. Those like my brothers; the one who will never come home and the one I still pray for each night. (The thoughts of her brothers, make her tear up again but she does not want to show any weakness in front of the coward, so she turns from him, gets a handkerchief from her bag to wipe her eyes covertly.)
A woman, Marjorie, walks on. She is wearing a railway workers uniform. Albert looks up from his book and doffs his hat. Marjorie smiles in return.

MARJORIE

Is everything all right here?

GLADYS

(Swinging round to face Albert) Oh yes it’s all right here; all safe and sound isn’t that right?

ALBERT

I think I’ll take a little stroll.

MARJORIE

Aren’t you waiting for the train?

ALBERT

Yes the one to the coast.

MARJORIE

Yes there’s plenty of time, but you are welcome to wait here on the platform.
Albert pulls out the white feather from his pocket and shows it to Marjorie.

MARJORIE

Well, whatever your beliefs, all passengers are welcome in this station. You do not have to leave.
Albert puts the feather back in his pocket.

ALBERT

Thank you, in that case I shall confine my stroll to take me only as far as the men’s room. I would like to freshen up a bit.
Albert doffs his hat to both women as he leaves the platform. Marjorie nods. Both women watch him leave. Once they are both sure he has gone, Gladys turns to Marjorie.

GLADYS

You see that? He doesn’t even care.

MARJORIE

He seems a decent enough man though.

GLADYS

Oh come on, if he was a decent man he would have signed up by now.

MARJORIE

Perhaps he can’t, we need people here too you know. Aren’t there men where you work?

GLADYS

Some, but they are either too old or not fit.

MARJORIE

How do you know he’s fit to serve?

GLADYS

He didn’t say he was unfit. He didn’t give any reason why he hadn’t served.

MARJORIE

Why should he? What business is it of ours whether he signs up and goes to war?

GLADYS

Because we need to make every effort. The Kaiser will not treat us well if he wins you know?

MARJORIE

Of course; why else would I be here keeping the railways running?

GLADYS

For half what the men were paid.

MARJORIE

Half is good enough for me at the moment. It’s not fair I know, but it is better than nothing at all.

GLADYS

I wouldn’t think so.

MARJORIE

Well you don’t know me, just as you don’t know why that man has not signed up; he could have all kinds of reasons.

GLADYS

And I gave him every opportunity to say what they were, but he was too scared even to answer back to a woman.

MARJORIE

That’s what you want is it? You want him to stand and shout at you; would you like him to beat you as well? That would make him a man in your eyes would it?

GLADYS

No of course not, but if he won’t stand up to me it’s no wonder he won’t enlist.

MARJORIE

And if he did, what good would he be if he was on the front line?

GLADYS

The army would toughen him up and make him fight.

MARJORIE

If he doesn’t want to fight, he is not going to be much good in the trenches. He can fight the war just as well from here.

GLADYS

It sounds to me as though you are a conchie.

MARJORIE

Well I haven’t had to face the choice, thank God. It is enough that I have to wait at home, wondering every day whether I’m going to get a letter saying that my son is missing, or not coming home.

GLADYS

(Concerned) Your son is out there; in the trenches?

MARJORIE

Yes; like many other a young man who has given his life out there. For what?

GLADYS

For our country.

MARJORIE

Yes and how much of the country will there be by the time this war is finished? There is hardly a village in Britain not touched by the loss, and still it rages on. When all the young men have gone, what then? The older men; the young women? What country will we have left when all our people have died for it?

GLADYS

What country will we have if we give up and let the Kaiser have it?

MARJORIE

That’s what my son said when he signed up.

GLADYS

So now you see why I give these feathers?

MARJORIE

No I don’t. It is for men to see into their own hearts and make choices, not for others to tell them when they should lay down their lives.

GLADYS

But as Kitchener said our country needs them.

MARJORIE

Then let the country take better care of them. I need my son; I need him to come home.

GLADYS

The best way for that to happen is if we send all the men we can, and get this war won.

MARJORIE

We need to do our jobs as well.

GLADYS

I have finished my paid work and now I’m doing my own work, searching out conchies.
Albert comes back onto the platform.

ALBERT

Do you think I am a conscientious objector?

GLADYS

Yes I do.
Albert sits down again on the bench. Again he tries to hide the stiffness as he sits.

GLADYS

Well are you?

ALBERT

I don’t mind if people call me that.

GLADYS

(Turning to face Marjorie) You see I knew he was.

MARJORIE

Yes well whether he is or not, I can’t let you harass passengers while they are on my platform so I’m going to have to ask you to leave if you won’t leave him alone.

GLADYS

Don’t worry, I have no wish to stay here in the company of a coward.
Albert ignores the remark that was clearly aimed at him. Gladys storms off. Marjorie and Albert watch her go.

MARJORIE

I’m sure she didn’t mean it.

ALBERT

Oh I’ll bet she did, but I don’t blame her. There has been many a lost relative and it is never easy.
Albert hangs his head and looks away as he remembers his lost love.

MARJORIE

You’ve lost someone, haven’t you; someone very close?
Albert nods his head. He opens the book and shows Marjorie the picture.

ALBERT

Miriam, was her name. She was the very essence of life itself. She was always a one to grab an opportunity as it passed. That proved to be her undoing. ‘I’ll be able to earn enough for a wedding dress,’ she said. I can still see her smiling at me as she walked onto that ship. Unsinkable they said.
Marjorie is slightly shocked and doesn’t know what to say so she sits on the bench next to Albert. They sit in silence for a moment.

ALBERT

I met her on this platform you know. That’s why I came back here. It’s a lovely station, though I am biased I suppose.

MARJORIE

As am I, for this is my station; at least for now. Sometimes it makes me feel guilty that I want to keep it. That could only happen if the Station Master did not return.

ALBERT

There should be no guilt in hoping. He might want a different job when he returns, so you could still get to stay.

MARJORIE

That wish is not the one I would most want to be fulfilled. My first would be for my son; he left from this station and he is out there now.

ALBERT

Oh – I’m sorry.

MARJORIE

I’m only one of the many mothers who prays every night for her son’s safe return.

ALBERT

I hope your prayers are answered.

MARJORIE

I do too, but I see the papers, and it seems that nobody is returning from this war. I fear I will never see him again.

ALBERT

Don’t give up hope, some of us do return.

MARJORIE

But I thought…

ALBERT

Most people do. I have served, like many others, but I was one of the lucky ones. I was sent home with an honourable discharge.

MARJORIE

Why didn’t you say? Why did you take the feather?

ALBERT

Because I have seen the true face of bravery from a man who would have been called a coward by many. Gordon was his name. On the boat heading to the Dardanelles we spoke of the need to fight and kill. He did not share my willingness to kill the enemy, yet he did share the desire to stop the Kaiser, and so he had joined the medical service. Once we had landed, we would see each other most days, as he took my wounded men from the field. He was always near the front, but where I had a gun for protection, all he had was a red cross and his faith in his fellow man. (Hangs his head – telling the story is painful but he feels duty bound to do it.) I was always pushing forward and I welcomed any chance to be at the front of the action. I was eager to join Miriam, and I nearly got my wish. We pushed up the ridge, but we had no chance. The Ottomans were too well dug in. I don’t remember how far we got, or how I was hit. I was just aware of Gordon looking down on me and giving me words of reassurance. He looked in his bag, and then at my leg. The last thing I remember is him saying I would be all right as he reached for his upper arm.

MARJORIE

He was right; here you are to prove it.

ALBERT

Oh yes, I woke up in hospital. I had lost a lot of blood but I’d pulled through, thanks to a hastily applied strap putting pressure on the bleeding. (Instinctively rubs his upper leg where the wound had been.) The armband he had unwound from his arm was so awash with my blood that the cross was no longer visible, but it held back enough for me to be able to talk to you today.

MARJORIE

In some ways it was a blessing; you are now away from all that. You should speak up for yourself, no-one would call you a coward after what you went through.

ALBERT

Indeed not, they called me a hero and gave me a medal to prove it. I was no hero; I did not fear death; I looked for it. I went through no more than Gordon, and yet they did not call him a hero. My charge was futile and I did not achieve what I set out to, but Gordon did; he saved my life and many others. On my return I spoke up for him but it all seemed to fall on deaf ears.

MARJORIE

What did he tell them?

ALBERT

He was not able to tell them anything. In the dim light of the battlefield he was a lone shape travelling between one wounded man and another. A sniper saw him and, seeing no red cross on his arm, took him for a common soldier. With one shot the life of a good person was ended.

MARJORIE

Oh Lord.

ALBERT

I was told that he would have felt nothing, and that he would not have known anything about it. Which is something at least; many out there were not so lucky.

MARJORIE

Yes my son tells me of the conditions in France.
The phrase stops Albert in his tracks. He pauses.

ALBERT

Please forgive me. Here I am telling you about my battles which are now over, while his are still around him.
Marjorie does her best to smile, though she does not really feel like it.

MARJORIE

You give me hope that he will return one day.

ALBERT

I’m sure he will; he has a good mother to come home to. 
Marjorie turns away and wipes tears from her eyes. Albert looks on concerned, but he does not know what to say, or what has upset Marjorie. Eventually Marjorie turns back.

MARJORIE

You must think me silly after all that you have been through.

ALBERT

Not at all, I am just concerned that I have said something to cause you upset.

MARJORIE

No you didn’t, it was just that I was the reason my son did not enlist straight away. He was always in trouble, a true tearaway. I knew what people said about him, though they seldom said anything to me. They always thought I was protecting him. They didn’t know that he was protecting me, and had been since he was old enough to walk.

ALBERT

What was he protecting you from?

MARJORIE

His Father.
Marjorie looks down and collects her thoughts. Albert looks on. He thinks he knows what she means but he is expecting more from her. Marjorie does not disappoint him; she looks up again and continues. 
 
My husband was a changed man when he’d been drinking, and he would take his anger out on me. That was until he had a misbehaving child to be the attention of his temper. When our son was small he used to do something wrong and that would get his father’s attention. Then I would be left while the new target was attacked. At first I thought it was coincidence, but then I noticed the calculating look in my son’s eyes as he attracted his Father’s fury. (Looks at Albert with pleading in her eyes.) I didn’t want him to, God knows I didn’t.
Albert wants to comfort her. He wants to reach out and hug her but he feels awkward and thinks it would not be right.

ALBERT

You do not need to justify yourself. No one should be beaten in their own home.
Marjorie nods.

MARJORIE

As he got older he could tell when his father was building up to attack us. He started playing up and taking more of the punishment. More and more he did it away from the home so that I would not even see it. People used to tell me that I had an unruly son that was very disrespectful to his father. I suppose they were right; my son had no respect for his father, and he learned to fight back. I wanted to tell them why he did those things but I was too ashamed. I thought they would think it was my fault, and that I was a bad mother. Sometimes I still feel that way. 

ALBERT

You shouldn’t; it seems certain to me that your son does not think so.

MARJORIE

No, but he does not know how much I prayed for a chance to get out of that house, to go somewhere and take him with me. When they asked for women to work so that men could be freed for the war, my prayers were answered. I had the money to move out, and I met people who supported me.

ALBERT

Then I am glad that something good has come of this war.

MARJORIE

Yes but my son has once again paid the price. As soon as he knew I was safe he went straight down and enlisted. (PAUSE) You see he is still paying the price for my freedom.

ALBERT

You are paying the price too, just as you were before. If he chooses to fight for your freedom, then let him make his choice while he still can. Soon I fear there will need to be more men than are prepared to go willingly.
They both pause at that thought. Marjorie gathers herself, she has a job to do and she has indulged herself far too long burdening herself on this stranger.

MARJORIE

(Getting up to leave) I’m afraid I must get back to my duties, and I don’t suppose you want to listen to me going on.

ALBERT

You were good enough to listen to my battle abroad, so why should I not listen to your battle at home?

MARJORIE

Thank you for being so easy to talk to. I’ve never spoken of that to anyone before.

ALBERT

I’m honoured that you shared those thoughts with me.

MARJORIE

Well perhaps it’s because you have some connection to my son. (Getting a white feather from her pocket) You have both been wrongly labelled.

ALBERT

Would you tell me your son’s name; that I may also pray for his safe return?

MARJORIE

Yes of course; it’s Michael. 

ALBERT

Thank you.
Marjorie smiles and leaves. Albert takes out the photograph once again and talks to it.

ALBERT

Well, I miss you even more now that I’m here. (Touching the pocket in which he put the feather) I will carry this white feather in honour of Michael, and of Gordon. For all those who have their own battles and whose bravery is overlooked. It shall be as much an honour to own as the medal I was given. I don’t deserve a medal, but then I didn’t deserve you. Please forgive me; I can’t join you today as I said I would. I think I can still make a difference, and I know now I have to try. I love you, but as you said, we won’t be apart forever. 
Albert kisses his finger, then touches it to the photograph and closes the book.
End


© Copyright 2018 Kevin Broughton. All rights reserved.

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