Authors: Maureen Reynolds
For my grandfather Charles Dwyer, of the Royal Dublin
Fusiliers, who fought at and was gassed at Ypres, 1915
The Somme (Don’t Think)
The officer shouted, ‘Over the top,’
Pick up your heels, run till you drop,
Don’t think about your loving wife,
Or the children who are the light of your life.
Forget the girl who kissed you goodbye,
Who vowed to be true as time went by.
Never mind that your life has been in vain,
That you’ll never see your home again.
Don’t think about the tears and pain
Or lying dead in the pouring rain.
My thanks go to the Archive Department at the University of Dundee for all their help on the Dundee College of Education in the 1920s.
To Bob Thomson for sharing his memories of his Merchant Navy days, when he sailed to the Far East.
A big thank you as usual to my family for all their help with the Internet.
Finally to Karyn for her helpful comments and suggestions, and to all the team at Black & White Publishing.
My mother always loved clocks. As far back as I remember there was always the quiet ticking of our old grandfather clock with its deep, sonorous chimes, and the delightful carriage clock, which sat on the mantelpiece and struck the hours with tinkling, melodic sounds. The alarm clock in the bedroom, which had to be wound up every night and sounded like a screeching parrot, always annoyed my father. Mum, however, always said the clocks were the heartbeat of the home, and Dad would smile fondly at her and nod his head.
As I headed down Cotton Road at the end of my time at Ann Street School, I felt sad that the clocks she so loved were ticking away her life. Slowly but surely, bit by bit,
tick, tick, tick, tick
The cold wind that had blown in from the east slapped against my face, and my hands were freezing in spite of my thick woollen gloves. Polly, one of my colleagues at school, said the wind had come straight from Siberia and I didn’t disagree with her.
I tried to shield the bunch of daffodils that had been my parting gift from my primary three class, but the wind whistled and caught the yellow flower heads, almost pulling them from my grasp. Smoke from the chimneys blew almost horizontally and the rows of houses had a shuttered look, as if no one but myself dared be adrift on such a day. I was crying quietly and hoping that anyone outside on such a bitter day would assume my eyes were watering with the cold. I knew I would miss my teaching job and the schoolchildren very much, but I also knew that I had to look after Mum and be at home to care for her.
I was glad to be almost home, especially as flakes of snow harried by the scouring wind blew straight into my face. If this weather continued, then the Easter holiday would be spent indoors and the children would grow restless, being confined to their houses.
Mum was looking out of the window as I hurried towards 88 Victoria Road. She gave a feeble wave and I smiled up at her. When I entered the sitting room, Mrs Maisie Mulholland, our next-door neighbour, was relaxing by a glowing fire, her head resting on the back of her chair. She was sound asleep. The ball of wool from her knitting had fallen onto the floor and a line of blue wool stretched over the fireside rug. Mum put a finger to her lips, but the draught from the front door had acted as a wake-up call and Mrs Mulholland opened her eyes.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Beth. It must be the heat from the fire.’ She quickly gathered up her wool, winding it slowly and pushing it onto the end of her sharp needles.
I made straight for the miniscule scullery, which was only big enough for a sink and the cooker. ‘I’ll make us some tea and toast.’
Mrs Mulholland said she wouldn’t wait, as she had a meeting later at the church hall. I was so grateful to her for coming in most afternoons and sitting with Mum. I said so as she made for the door.
‘It’s no bother, Lizzie. Beth sleeps most of the afternoon and she’s a great patient.’
I put the daffodils in a vase and carried them along with the teapot to the fireside, placing the flowers on the side table beside the bed. Mum smiled as she looked at them.
‘They’re a present from my class and they all sang a song for me before I left.’ I tried not to cry again, but Mum took hold of my hands.
‘I wish you hadn’t given up your job, Lizzie. I’ll be fine once this tiredness passes.’
I turned away so she wouldn’t see my face. She didn’t know there would be no miracle cure for her, and the clocks, as if in agreement with me, struck five o’clock.
Bong, bong, bong, bong, bong.
She sipped some tea but didn’t eat any toast. She barely ate anything these days except scrambled eggs, which I’m sure she only ate to keep me happy. I had brought her bed into the living room from the bedroom we had shared when we moved in with my late grandmother, as I thought she would enjoy looking out of the window at the pedestrians and traffic.
‘I saw a poor horse today, Lizzie. It was pulling a cart with big bales of jute and it looked so downtrodden I almost opened the window and shouted at the driver.’
‘Oh, I hope you didn’t do that, Mum. You would freeze in this weather.’
She laughed, but even that small gesture tired her out and she lay back on the mound of pillows. ‘No, I couldn’t open the window and Mrs Mulholland wouldn’t help me. She said she had to finish her little jumper for the poor families’ fund at the church.’
I had to smile. Mrs Mulholland wouldn’t put her knitting before helping Mum with anything, but she knew it was too cold for open windows and she was forthright enough to tell her patient. I suspected that Mum had invented the story of the little jumper.
‘Tell me how your last day at school went,’ she said, trying to sit up and pulling her blue bed jacket closer round her thin white neck. Her delicate watch hung loosely from her wrist, as did her gold bangle.
I couldn’t betray my emotions at her condition so I went to refill my cup and leant against the sink, smiling and trying to keep calm. I found myself stirring my tea over and over and had to make a conscious effort to keep my hands still.
After a few minutes I made my way back to the bedside, a wide smile plastered on my face. Where had I read of someone being described as wearing a smile while her heart was breaking?
‘The children all said their goodbyes and some of them were crying.’ I stopped and laughed. ‘At least some of the girls were. The boys were more interested in where I was going.’ I didn’t mention that Charlie had asked, ‘Are ye ga’en tae anither skale, Miss Flint?’ and that I had answered, ‘No, I’m leaving to look after my mother,’ and that Charlie, the class clown, then piped up, ‘Meh mither looks efter me and meh three wee sisters. Does your mither no look efter you, Miss?’
I took out the lovely brooch that had been presented to me from the staff. It was a plain circle with a seed pearl in the centre. Mum took the box and gazed at it for ages.
‘It’s lovely, Lizzie. They must think a lot of you.’
‘Yes, we all got on very well, and even though I haven’t been there for long it was a happy place to work. Polly and Jane are going hiking during the holiday and plan to stay in the youth hostels, but Polly did say if this cold weather keeps up they might change their plans. The headmaster, Mr Drummond, is hoping to go away with his wife for a week in their caravan to Arbroath.’
‘That’s the worst of Easter,’ said Mum. ‘Often it’s colder at this time of the year than at Christmas.’
That was true, I thought, and as I pulled the curtains to shut out the darkening skies I saw the snow was lying on the pavements, gleaming white in the light from the street lamps.
After tea, during which she left more food on the plate than she ate, Mum picked up her book, but within ten minutes she had fallen asleep, so I quietly removed her glasses and made sure the fire was well banked up.
I brought the blankets and quilt through from the bedroom and lay down on the couch. I wanted to make sure I would hear her if she woke up during the night. She looked so beautiful and peaceful lying there that I felt a tightness in my throat at the unfairness of her illness and the fact I wouldn’t have her for very long.
To take my mind off the worry about the future, I decided to reread one of my childhood books,
. It had been a favourite of mine and I was soon immersed in the adventures of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. I especially liked the bit about his parrot, Captain Flint, and as a child I had been impressed that our family name was in print, albeit as the name of a bird. I smiled as I recalled my childish dreams of adventure and how I had wanted to be a pirate. It was strange how life turned out.
‘What are you smiling at, Lizzie?’
I looked up to see Mum propped against her pillows.
‘Oh, I hope I didn’t wake you,’ I said. ‘It’s just the memory of this book. Do you remember how I wanted to be a pirate? And Granny almost choked on her tea?’
Mum laughed. ‘She wasn’t the only one. I got a shock as well, if my memory serves me right.’
I put the book down. ‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter any more. Now I’m teaching young children to look to the future and immersing myself in their dreams.’
Mum looked keenly at me. ‘There’s still time for an adventurous life, Lizzie. Once I’m better and back working in the hat shop.’
We both laughed at that and recalled how shocked Granny had been when I called it that. She couldn’t imagine anyone calling the millinery department in DM Brown’s anything as common as a hat shop.
The weather didn’t get any better. More snow blew in with a bitter northerly wind, and apart from going out to the nearest shop for food, I stayed indoors. Mum became tired looking out at the wintry scene and I got a bit edgy being cooped up in the house.