IN 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 the company.

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 Flanders.’

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 contains Lucy Walter's memories of the man she last saw in 1917.

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Losing a Brother

Poppy This piece appeared in the Christmas 1994 edition of The Countryman

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Sunday 18 December 2005