Losing a Brother
||This piece appeared in
the Christmas 1994 edition of The Countryman
Peace of Mind
by John Williams
Drawing by Jonicus
THE CITY OF WORCESTER, where one of the battles of the Civil War was
fought, there is a park dedicated to the remembrance of the battle of
Gheluvelt, in the Ypres salient in 1914. There the Worcestershire Regiment
fought with distinction, and suffered many casualties.
Outside the city, the
countryside — at least before it was cleft by a motorway — was beautiful
and interesting: full of
orchards and half-timbered Elizabethan houses, including Huddington Court,
near Crowle Green, where the gunpowder plot was hatched. It was in this area
that I came to know Ben and Mary Beddoes.
They lived in a cottage, secluded
alongside a lane not far from the Lenches. They were childless, and by then
past their best. Ben had spent all his life on the land, and his interests
were gardening and taking his wife in the side-car of the motor-cycle
combination to the canal to fish. Mary would sit in her folding chair,
knitting or preparing the picnic, while Ben stood on the bank, whipping the
dirty water and throwing most of his catch back into it. They took me once
or twice, and I had ample opportunity to pick up the art, but I’ve never
possessed the patience.
Apart from looking after her home
and keeping it gleaming, Mary, like many women in that locality, used to ‘do
the gloving’ as it was called. A representative from Dents the glovers
would call weekly with a quantity of backs and palms and gussets, and she
would stitch them all together with a machine that had a horizontal needle
and which was hired from
I much admired her industry and
her cottage, which was full of heirlooms in the form of old furniture and
brassware and photographs occupying the tops of sideboards and every
available square space of wall: parents and grandfathers, cousins and aunts,
several women who had been with her in service. She enjoyed telling me who
all those people were, or had been, although naturally they meant very
little to me.
There was one large
head-and-shoulders photograph, however, framed and hanging in the front
room, that I noticed she was not very partial to enlarge about. It was the
likeness of a good-looking young soldier, hardly out of adolescence I should
have thought. And when she caught me looking one day, all she said was:
‘That’s my brother. He’s in
the abbey, you know.’
The mystery that surrounded that
picture aroused my curiosity more and more, but the social code of that
community did not encourage direct questioning about his story; that arrived
eventually, like soot into soup, quite unexpectedly in Gheluvelt Park one
warm afternoon in July.
I’d gone to the city with Ben
on the combination on some errand or other and, after we had attended to
that, we went and sat in the park for a while before setting off home, and
we began to talk of battles and wars in general, and about the significance
of that park particularly.
‘It wur at Gheluvelt that the
owd Mussus’ brother wur killed, you know,’ said Ben all of a sudden.
‘Was it?’ I said.
‘Er — not the one in the photograph in...?,
‘In the front room. Yes, that’s
him, Bert. ‘E wur at school with me. ‘E didn’t ‘ave to go and fight
you know. But thur wur no use persuadin’ ‘im. Off ‘e ‘ad to go.’
‘Losing a brother must have
been a very hard blow for Mary,’ I said then, for lack of anything more
intelligent to say.
‘Wuss fer ‘er you see. Thai
wur twins: thought the world of each other. ‘Er wouldn’t wear it, you
know. You could never get ‘er to believe that ‘e wur dead.’
‘Was there any certainty?’
‘Yes and no. You knows how it
be with wars, ‘avin’ been in wun yersel’. ‘E wur what thai used to
call "mis-sin’ believed killed". But it be more bike ‘e wur
blewed up, you see, to bits, bike ‘undreds of others wur. 0’ course, Oi’d
never ‘ave let on to ‘er would Oi?’
‘No, no, of course. She
would never have accepted
it, I suppose.’
‘Not ‘er. ‘Er
never even locked the door, night nor day, since the very first toime we wur
married. ‘Er wur allus expectin’ ‘im you see — home.’
I didn’t ask any more
questions. I thought that was the end of the matter. Yet, at the back of my
mind, I kept remembering that Mary had said some-thing about the abbey.
We sat quietly then for a while,
and I thought Ben had his mind on setting for home, but just then he went on
in a voice that was pitched slightly higher than was his wont, as if he was
reading the lesson by the lectern.
‘That is,’ he said, ‘until
1920 when they brought the Unknown Soldier to Westminster Abbey from
Then he said how he remembered
people going from all parts of the country to London to see the ceremony of
burying the Unknown Soldier, and among them were many convinced that he was
their lost relative — father or sweetheart, husband or brother — and
among them was Mary Beddoes.
She had kept by her
gloving money to go; and, in spite of the fact that she knew very well that
many of the others present were all so certain that the soldier was their
own man, and that they in turn knew of her certainty of the same fact, they
were all absolutely sure of a much more important truth — that each and
the other was mistaken.
And, in that certainty, according
to Ben, they returned to their homes, and found peace of mind. After that,
apparently, Mary locked the door.
In Losing a fiancé
Vera Brittain recalls visiting the grave of Roland Leighton while Losing a father
Walter's memories of the man she last saw in 1917.