Featured Review on this writing by AdamCarlton

Myrtlesham Halt

Reads: 173  | Likes: 1  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 1

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
REAL LIFE ROMANCE - WARTIME
A tale of love and war, snow and peace

Image: rene rauschenberger on Pixabay

Submitted: March 09, 2019

A A A | A A A

Submitted: March 09, 2019

A A A

A A A


Myrtlesham Halt

It was snowing when the train pulled into Myrtlesham Halt. The station was deserted. As the steam lifted, a young man with a large black metal army trunk alighted from the end carriage. He skidded on the icy platform as far as the ticket hall, then slumped on a bench, exhausted. Once he had caught his breath, the man resumed his solitary trek, slipping and sliding his way up the icy hill to the isolated cottage.

She made up a fresh bed, then lit a roaring fire in the hearth. For the first time since her teens, she prettied herself: putting on her make-up, curling her grey-streaked hair, dressing up in her best floral dress. It had been years since she last entertained a visitor, let alone had a lodger to stay at her picture postcard home.

The modest, pargeted, half-timbered lodge with ‘duck and grouse’ beamed ceilings and creaking floorboards lay on the outskirts of the charming village of Myrtlesham. She looked out of the kitchen window at the rolling landscape: mud-furrowed potato fields daubed in snow, an 18th century post-mill, the spire of the Church of St Andrew. And on the horizon, the control tower at the US airbase, a constant reminder of war.

I should think myself lucky, living in such a lovely place. I hope he enjoys his new life here. I get lonely living here by myself.

A delicious scent of home baking filled the kitchen. She prodded a sultana rock cake made with powdered egg and a pinch of fruit to test that it was cooked, permitted herself a treat - and burnt her mouth.

‘I generally avoid temptation…unless I can’t resist it!’ she laughed, justifying her vanity.

She licked her fingers clean and served two cakes onto a china dish decorated with pink roses. The cups, saucers and milk jug were stacked in the kitchen dresser. She couldn’t find the teapot or sugar bowl. Her mundane existence was this colourless carnival of such trivia, devoid of excitement.

Since the rumours spread about her husband’s death, she seldom went to the village, preferring the life of the hermit. Then the letter arrived out of the blue, from the respectable, hard-working, bandsman in search of board and lodgings with a faded photograph.

She shook her head and pulled herself together. Found a coffee pot for the tea and a Chinese finger bowl embossed with jasmine flowers for the sugar. The grandfather clock in the hall chimed three times. She dashed to the larder, fetched her red tea caddy, and blew off the dust. Unscrewed the lid and inhaled the stale aroma of a classic blend of selected teas she bought at Fortnum’s after dragging herself out of the gutter in the only way she knew.  

She stared at the painting on the caddy: The Garden Bench by Jacques Tissot, an idyllic summer scene: a mother reclining on a garden bench with her three adorable children. She married at the age of nineteen, before the outbreak of war. There were no children.

*****

Whitechapel, September 1914:

Jim and Helen shared a filthy, dark, airless slum with another family. The deprivation they suffered was degrading. They lived from hand-to-mouth in a tiny room with a squalid outside toilet. Street urchins gathered out in the cobbled street, huddles of human hopelessness, vacant faces. Slums were horrible places in which to live, black labyrinths which reeked and swarmed with vermin. No-one dared leave their house after dark, the alleyways crawled with criminals.

The most destitute men, like Jim, stood shame-faced in the shadows, beyond salvation. Helen Cade was a simple, lively lass who doted on her idle husband. Every day she watched the wretched world go by from behind her grimy window.

When she wasn’t cooking, washing, sewing or mending their clothes she stood under the porch with Jim, waiting for the better times that never came. By contrast, Jim was an unassuming man who couldn’t read or write. He had held a variety of jobs: chopping wood, rag and bone man, coalman. Recently, he hadn’t done so much as a hand’s turn.

The night before he went off to fight for King and Country, Jim stood in the street, fists clenched, thrilled by his forthcoming adventure. The rain teemed down in silver strands, glistening in the lamplight. He stared at the heavens, soaked to the skin, exhilarated yet afraid. He heard her calling him:

‘Come in out of the rain before you catch your death.’ 

Helen knelt by the bed in her nightie, willing her man to return from the fighting. ‘Lord, let my sunny Jim come home safely,’ she prayed.

Silently he crept into the room, dripping with rain, listening to her with a heavy heart.

‘What was all that about?’ Jim said, rocking his wife in his arms. She felt soft and warm. How he would miss her tenderness.

Helen sobbed, ‘I’m scared you won’t come back.’  

He cradled her head against his chest. ‘Course I’ll come back. I love you.’

‘Dance with me.’

Jim was startled. ‘Dance? I can’t dance to save my life!’

‘I’ll show you how. Come here!’

Helen laid her hand on her man’s shoulder, pulling his arm sharply round her waist.

‘Now just you sing me a luverly song, like you used to Jim.’

He sang her the song men would sing as they languished in the trenches:

They Didn’t Believe Me.

They danced into the night until she felt he was ready to fight, ready to die for her.

*****

Passchendaele, October 1917:

Jim’s crime was to be found asleep on sentry duty, lying in the sodden mud at the head of the trench. Most of the soldiers endured chronic insomnia and anxiety attacks. The endless death, torrential rain, seeping damp, filth, blood, rat-infested mud and bloated corpses were enough to drive anyone mad. But Jim was different. He suffered from shell-shock. A condition that wasn’t recognized at the time. A condition that was overlooked by the army medical officers.

Jim was granted the right of legal representation at the court martial hearing. He declined. There seemed little point. He was denied right of appeal. The Field Marshall’s decision was absolute. The hearing lasted twenty minutes. Jim Cade was found guilty of falling asleep on duty. The private was duly court-martialled and sentenced to death.

He was held for two weeks in one of two cells in the grounds of the nearby town hall. On the day of his execution Jim was taken out into the courtyard. There they hooked him up on the execution post, tied him securely and left him to hang like dead meat in a butcher’s shop. His eyes were bandaged. The medical officer came forward and pinned a piece of white cloth over the man’s heart. A priest said a few words of blessing for Jim’s short life.

He cried out for the love of his life. ‘Helen! I love you, Helen!’

The officer called the battalion to attention. There were twelve soldiers in the firing squad. One rifle was loaded with a blank so that no one soldier could be sure that he had fired the fatal bullet. A nervous volley of shots rang out.

There was a brief pause as the medical officer examined the victim. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, looked up at the officer and gave an awful sign. The cloth was dyed scarlet but Jim was still alive. His arms outstretched in prayer.

Even the most hardened men in the firing squad were moved to tears. Without a moment’s hesitation, the subaltern strode forward and despatched Jim with a single shot to his temple. The victim’s life finally extinct, the detachment marched back to a hearty breakfast while his company picked up shovels and paid their last tribute at his graveside.

*****

Her heart fluttered when she heard the heavy rap of the iron door knocker.

‘Ah, that will be him!’

She ran out to the hall and threw open the front door. He stood before her freezing cold and shivering, his head, his coat, covered in snow. Her young man! Unscathed! Jim’s double.

‘Mrs Cade?’

‘Helen, please, call me Helen,’ she insisted.  ‘Now, just you come in out of the cold before you catch your death.’

It was snowing when the train pulled into Myrtlesham Halt.

They say a snow year’s a good year.

Filled with the love of those who lie so deep…


© Copyright 2019 HJFURL. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

Comments

avatar

Author
Reply

More Romance Short Stories