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Saturday, September 04, 2010

Cheep at the price

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I struggle with banality. I struggle with reading it; I struggle with writing it. I struggle constantly with how to avoid it so that everything I write is interesting, crisp, original and effective. I fail constantly, I know.

In the week that I became a fully feathered member of Twitter, the challenge is there on a daily basis: how to craft something that short, that fast, and yet be illuminating and important.

In what has been my personal TweetWeek, a story has been going round and round my head.

There was a girl. Strikingly attractive, with strong, clear eyes, she made you turn towards her when she entered a room. Smart and just a bit flirtatious, she was full of panache and sparkle, despite the rigid grip of her corsets and the grab of clips on her long dark hair.

She ‘walked out’ with a man called Joe. He was quite a few years older than her, tall and upstanding. His stiff collar emphasized the ramrod of his back, the restraint of his speech, the frown of his considered manners. Joe was a catch, with ambitions far away, a world to conquer, and he needed a desirable young woman at his side. How could she say no? It would have been a dereliction of duty, of common sense, to say no when it was high time she stepped away from her father’s protection.  A ring was given and accepted.

And then she met his brother. Ten years younger than Joe, Wilfrid was a young doctor – an obstetrician and anaesthetist - who spoke with his hands and smiled with his eyes.  He was so much more . . . like her? Or perhaps just so much more in general. Somehow, in this world of formality, they knew. How could this happen? It was never expected, and it could never be accepted. In trepidation she asked her father – could she change her mind? Could she be with Wilfrid and not Joe? She had made a mistake – surely she would not have to pay with the rest of her life?

Her father, all mutton chops and implacable as an oak, told her straight. ‘Daughter, you gave your word. There is no way out when you’ve plighted your troth.  You are Joe’s, and Joe is yours, until death do you part.’

They married, and war broke out. Wilfrid volunteered immediately and headed to France, now a temporary captain who would lead a team of medics and stretcher bearers into the vilest hell-holes on earth.  Through the Somme, Arras, Messines Ridge, to Passchendaele and Ypres, he toiled in the mud among mangled men with their limbs blown off , corpses impaled like rotting rats in the filth. Wilfrid’s life seemed charmed as he dodged and dived, and he became known as a man of great courage and humanity, even under fire, and he had total dedication to gathering in the wounded who lay gasping in the earsplitting loneliness of night. He was awarded the Military Cross, one of war’s highest honours.
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A few weeks later, on October 1, 1917, at around dusk, Wilfrid set off into No Man’s Land, a sergeant at his side. They were the nearest aid post and men were out there, terribly injured; a few minutes or maybe hours would decide whether they lived or died. Ill-prepared, the two men stumbled in the gathering dark, losing their way – and found themselves much too near an enemy position. Flinging themselves into a shell-hole they pondered what to do. Run like crazy – or wait till nightfall and slip away. Wilfrid as captain was the decider, and he was always going to run rather than wait.

Five steps out of the hole and he was hit, straight in the chest, by a sniper’s bullet. There were no words, no grand ending – just instant death in the dark slop of mud.

The girl was devastated when she heard. She wrote to everyone she could think of to find out what had happened to Wilfrid. Exactly how he died, where he was, what he said, and where his last resting place would be. And answers came back – from his commanding officer, the sergeant who had been there and lived, from the men with whom he served. Wilfrid was someone special and irreplaceable and it was a terrible blow.

The years went by. Joe left the girl, and their three children, for someone much younger. She struggled home alone from India, impecunious, striving to make ends meet in a time when women generally didn’t do things alone. Joe didn’t really honour his commitments, he proved elusive, and the endless shuffle for resources became a defining mark of the passing years.

My grandmother – because that’s whom the girl was – died on Armistice Day in 1985. I often sat and listened to her stories – of two world wars, two men called Joe and Wilfrid, her years in India, the sinking of the Titanic – and so much more.  But I was always fascinated by the decisions she had to make and the life she might have had with her young doctor, if he had lived, if she could have followed her heart and not the cold conventions of her time.

And now I have an envelope of letters – so flimsy and aged I must handle them with the utmost care. Letters from that sergeant who was with Wilfrid when he fell. Cuttings from the newspaper, including a photograph of Wilfrid, looking out at me with his kind, steady eyes.

In 2002, clad in a bright-yellow rain poncho, I squelched through a monsoon up a muddy hillside in Sri Lanka’s northern tea country. After a quest of several weeks, and guided only by one cryptic letter and a cracked sepia photograph, I had tracked down Joe’s grave.  As I stood there, a world away from everything I knew, I felt profoundly moved. I had come so far and in some way had found my grandfather, a man I never knew but who had such a deep effect on my family for so many years. I wanted to know him and understand him – and perhaps thank him, because whatever else he did or didn’t do in life, I wouldn’t have been me without him.

And now, thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I know exactly where Wilfrid lies too, in a small cemetery down a quiet lane in what was Flanders, now Belgium. I know that before too long I am going to find him and tell him I bring love from several generations of our family, including my sons whom I’m certain he would have liked. Wilfrid is not forgotten, we have handed on his story, and to be remembered and talked about three generations after his death is the only and best gift we can ever give him.

This is one of my stories. What are yours and how will you tell them? Because from this texture comes the novels we will write and how we will choose to write them.

So perhaps you can see my problems with Twitter. A few ‘characters’ – 140 - to tell the story?  My lip curls. But I’ll keep trying, so please be gentle. And should you wish to join me in my quest, you can find me here - http://twitter.com/SarahGreenhouse.

(Photographs:  Flower - Meadowlark Gardens, Northern Virginia.  Candles:  The Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.)

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Posted by greenhouse

Comments (13)

That is an amazing story, I so hoped Wilfrid and the young woman would get together. What you have there is a treasure.
We don’t here much about WWI but the 100th anniversay will soon be here. I also have letters from this time, my grandparents’ love letters. My grandfather was a chaplain and was on a ship to France when the flu epidemic hit. His descriptions of giving two to three funerals each day are incredible. “a dull splish, a dismal splash, twelve souls have departed this earth...”
Thanks for sharing such a personal story.
-Nancy

Posted by Nancy Parish  on  09/04  at  04:17 PM

Not banal but moving.
The particular and the precise details affect the reader more than the generalities of history - and then reveal the deeper, wider resonance of such a story.
I do not think ‘enjoy’ is the right word but I did appreciate this post.
Thank you.

Posted by Philippa  on  09/04  at  04:49 PM

Thanks so much for sharing this, Sarah. Some things are not meant to be shared in 140 characters! I’m glad Wilfrid is not forgotten.

Posted by Rose  on  09/04  at  07:18 PM

Took so long to write my previous comment am not sure I wasn’t “timed out” - thanks for this, really made me think x

Posted by Kathryn Evans  on  09/04  at  08:57 PM

Beautiful, both the story and the storytelling. Wow.

Posted by Michelle Schusterman  on  09/04  at  09:15 PM

This story left me speechless. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. And I agree with Philippa--not banal at all. This is beautiful.

Posted by Jessica Byam  on  09/04  at  09:25 PM

I have a handful of letters. They shouldn’t really be mine.
They tell a story of a young sailor who went to a party and met a girl. She was with some else, engaged to someone else no less, but the softness of her smile and her easy laugh lit a fire in the young man’s heart and he knew she was the woman he was destined to marry.
His feigned confidence and dimpled cheeks charmed her and she took his offered hand and followed him outside. In the quiet night, the crooning of Elvis a shadow behind the party doors, they talked.
He persuaded her to swap addresses and, after they parted, he wrote to her. 
He wrote again and again.
“Break it off with him, we’re meant to be together.”
“You want to be with me, deep down you know it.”
“You know you’re going to marry me one day, you may as well say yes now.”
“I love you”. 
“I love you” and “I love you” and “I love you.”
It took two weeks.
When they married, he wore his uniform and she, a high neck dress of daisy strewn lace. She carried a yellow roses and he, a look of disbelieving pride.  They went to live in Singapore and had a daughter and a son. Postcards were sent home, telling of markets and tiger balm, ship dinners and swimming parties. And headaches.
Terrible headaches.
Then, in 1972, a typhoon struck Kuala Lumpur. The Navy were mobilised to help with the rescue and the sailor was ordered on board. The young woman had a headache, she didn’t want to be left alone.  He had to go, he said, people needed help. He left and she put their chattering 3 year old girl and sleepy baby boy, to bed. Then she lay down to sleep off the worsening headache.
The following morning, the little girl pushed open the door to her parent’s room. She was hungry, she wanted breakfast. She trotted across the room, dragging her scruffy teddy behind her and called for her mother. She pulled at her mother’s cold hands, but something was wrong, her mother was too still and o amount of crying would wake her. Eventually, the little girl’s cries were heard by a neighbour. They broke into the house and found the little girl, sitting next to the body of her mother. The sailor’s wife, the woman he was destined to be with forever, had suffered a catastrophic brain hemorrhage.
The dimple cheeked sailor brought his children back to England.  He couldn’t bear to look at the letters they had shared.  He had to start a new life, pull himself together, get on with bringing up his motherless children.  He closed off his heart to that chapter in his life and turned away from anything that might stir up the pain of losing his beloved wife, my mother. That’s why I have the letters, and the daisy strewn wedding dress.
I thought, for a long time, they were all I had left of her.  I was wrong. She was always with me, but, until I had children, I didn’t know how to find her.  I see her now, all the time, in the soft smile of my son, in the echoes of my daughter’s easy laugh.

Posted by Kathryn Evans  on  09/05  at  11:12 AM

Wow. That is an incredible story. My grandfather has taken to writing down stories from the past--about war, about love, about a different time. They’re riveting. I think you’re right; we weave these stories into our own writing. I’m always finding little pieces of the past here and there in my novels.

Are you following Melvin Burgess on Twitter? He sometimes does Twitter stories. They’re quite entertaining!

Posted by Jill Wheeler  on  09/05  at  12:39 PM

Thank you for your story, Kathryn. Both interesting and very touching.

Posted by Sarah Davies  on  09/05  at  12:41 PM

How lovely that you are able to hold those letters in your hands, feel the time, the love, the tears that must have saturated them.
Thank you for a beautiful story.

Posted by Michele Corriel  on  09/05  at  03:46 PM

What an incredibly haertbreaking and beautiful story.While reading it, my mind kept wandering back to my sassy southern grandma and her own stories of hardship,happiness and lost loves. Grandma passed away two years ago, but I will never foget her stories.Thank you for sharing.

Posted by  on  09/13  at  02:02 PM

Many times I’ve nearly left comments saying what a truly beautiful blog this is. Not just a blog that’s loaded (or overloaded) with advice and snark, but one that is really genuine and inspiring. This time I had to actually leave the comment. What a fantastic post.

Posted by kendare blake  on  09/15  at  08:30 PM

I’ve read this entry several times now, and I just can’t get this story out of my head.  It’s incredible.  I’m starting a memoir project about my grandmother for my graduate thesis, and this is such an inspiring example of an amazing family history.  Thanks so much for sharing it.

Posted by Betsy Cornwell  on  10/05  at  02:09 PM
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