This is a story I wrote in 2006 when I heard a radio report about the pardoning of the soldiers, mostly very young, unjustly shot for cowardice in the First World War. I sat in the twilight, crying because of the tragedy of the young lives lost – and the plot of this story unravelled backwards in my mind, almost like a ghost story told to me by those lost young people. I want to emphasise, though, that this story is entirely fiction, but it was enhanced by my use of the memories I had of Swansea. I wrote and rewrote it many times, doing a lot of research, as one should!
Listen! Oh listen! A little girl is sitting on the knee of her Auntie Gwladys, who is singing to keep the bombs away.
“There’s a long long trail a-winding,” Auntie sings,
“Into the land of my dreams.”
You have to concentrate on my story, for it covers two lifetimes, two World Wars and 60 years of peace since the second of them. It takes me right up to 2006, when that announcement in the paper brought it all back.
That’s why I’m telling it to you. I think Gwladys would like to have it told, now; a secret can eat into your life and leave it full of wormholes.
I was two years old when the Second World War broke out, but my memories really start when we lived in Swansea; oh I suppose it would be about 1943. I remember little up and down streets and bombed-out houses, already softening under rough grass and fireweed. There were still occasional raids and alerts, all due to a nasty man called Hitler. One night I called for my father,
“Daddy, daddy, I saw Hitler swimming across the bay. He’s coming to get us!”
My father held me tight and said, “Shh, darling. It was just a dream. Look at the little light there – that’s the lightship. It’s full of brave sailors. Hitler will never get past.”
After that, I would lie in bed and watch the star on the horizon until the twinkling closed my eyes in sleep.
I told Auntie Gwladys about the little star. “Auntie Gwladys. Do you know about Hitler?”
“Yes dear, I do.”
“He’s a Very Bad Man, you know, but you don’t need to be frightened ’cause he can’t come here. The lightship won’t let him get past, ever, daddy says!”
“Yes dear, I’m sure your daddy’s right. Now would you like a cup of tea?”
I stayed with her some nights, while my father was out fire-watching and my doctor mother was ‘on-call’. Auntie Gwladys wasn’t a blood relative, just a neighbour, but we called most adults Auntie and Uncle in those days. I loved being offered tea like a proper grown-up lady. It was only ‘milk with a splash,’ but I drank it from a china teacup with rosebuds.
I loved that teacup, almost as much as I loved the silver teaspoon with which I ate a real egg, instead of nasty dried stuff. I loved the frozen piece of rainbow, which Auntie said was a tropical shell, the red strawberry pincushion and the tiny hussive with thimble, needles and bodkin, tucked like a secret into an ivory umbrella, just the size of my hand.
I wasn’t so sure about washing in the echoey bathroom, or the big spare bed. The headboard was like a dark, frowning face over me.
“Sing to me, Auntie, like Mummy does,” I demanded the first time I stayed there. Auntie Gwladys flushed awkwardly and tried to say ‘no’ but I insisted as only a child can.
Hesitantly, clearing her throat, she said, “I can only remember the one song now. I’m not sure… I can’t remember the beginning,” then she began to hum a tune, eventually breaking into words –
…….”Old remembrances are thronging
Thro’ my memory
Till it seems the world is full of dreams
Just to call you back to me”
She seemed to break down in tears for a moment and I watched her in wonder. Then she hugged me – I remember that because it was the first time – smiled and sang more confidently,
“There’s a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams.
Where the nightingales are singing
And a white moon beams….”
My eyes were closing. I held her finger and drifted off, comforted.
When my parents were putting me to bed the next night, I told my mother about it.
“She sang to me, Mummy, like you do, but a bit different.”
My mother seemed to stiffen. She and my father spoke to each other, not to me,
“Surely not? She’s not sung a note for many years!”
I insisted, “Yes she did mummy, it was about a road winding away into the nightingales and the moon and the dreams.”
My mother sang,
“Where the nightingales are singing
And a white moon beams.”
Then she said to my father,
“Yes Reggie, that’s one she used to sing. It was his favourite, but she told me she could never sing it without breaking down,”
My mother sang again,
“Nights are growing very lonely
Days are very long’….. Poor Gwladys!”
My father sat down beside me and said, gently,
“It’s a sad story, Ellie, and a grown-up one. Auntie Gwladys had a sweetheart when she was young, but he went to be a soldier in the war before this one; the one we call the ‘First World War’. He was killed in action and she never married. They used to sing duets. She had a lovely voice. She used to sing in chapel and festivals, but she couldn’t sing after he died.”
My mother said, “I’m glad she could sing for you, Ellie, but don’t pester her if she doesn’t want to.”
To my father she added, “I think Ellie’s a comfort to her; perhaps like the little girl she never had.”
Smiling at my father she sang again,
“…I forget that you’re not with me yet
When I think I see you smile,”
but I was already almost asleep.
After that, it became a little ritual when I stayed with Auntie Gwladys that I would sing ‘Baa baa, black sheep’ and other rhymes and she would sing children’s songs, some in Welsh. Always she would finish, because I asked her, with ‘the one about the nightingales’, and always her voice would be different, tearful even. She never refused and I would hold her finger and go to sleep. Her sorrow somehow eased for me the atmosphere of fear, never spoken of, that clouded our lives in those days.
Time passed. Before the end of the war we went back to Croydon, but we used to visit Wales most summers, going on holiday to the Gower. We would call on Auntie Gwladys for tea. She always gave me the same china cup with the rosebuds, but we never sang.
I married and moved several times and Auntie Gwladys became hardly even a memory. In the 1960s my parents died, within a week of each other, and Auntie Gwladys wrote me a particularly moving letter about how much my mother had meant to her, so after that, we exchanged a few words in a card each year. I sent her my address when I moved to Cardiff in the early 70s, promising to visit sometime, but you know how it is; I never did.
Then, in the late 70s, I had a phone call out of the blue.
“Hello,” said an unknown woman. “You don’t know me, and this may seem a little strange, but – could I ask – was your mother’s name ‘Dorothy’… I mean, are you Dorothy’s daughter?”
When I said yes she introduced herself as Sister Phyllis, a nursing nun in charge of a hospice.
“We are looking after Gwladys Jones. I’m sorry to tell you that she is seriously ill.”
“She’s my Auntie Gwladys,” I said, “not a relative; a family friend.”
“The thing is,” continued Sister Phyllis, “she has no relatives or visitors at all. Since she realised she wouldn’t get better, she’s become very troubled; she has something on her mind. ‘I should have told Dorothy’ she keeps saying. ‘I must tell the truth. Dorothy’s daughter will know what to do’ and then she cries a lot. We looked in her address book and found your number with ‘Dorothy’s daughter’ beside it. Would it be possible – is it too much to ask – could you visit?”
Sister Phyllis let me in. I thought I was prepared for the changes of illness and age, but I was shocked. I couldn’t recognise Gwladys in this shrunken wraith in the bed, but she knew me. Or did she?
“Dorothy, Dorothy!” she said, “Oh thank you for coming!”
“I’m so pleased to be here,” I said gently, “But I’m not Dorothy you know; I’m her daughter, Elinor. Ellie, you used to call me.”
Gwladys took no notice, “I must talk to you, Dorothy”, she continued, “I should have told you… I so often wanted to tell you, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell anyone. You were so kind to me; you and Reggie. I couldn’t bear for anyone to know…”
The words were tumbling out and I sat down and took her hand in both mine. I suddenly remembered the fragility of the needlecase umbrella and the shell and the rosebud cup. It seemed for a moment as if I held her life and my childhood in my hands too; how we are all so breakable and yet so tough.
“What is it, Gwladys?” I said gently. “It’s fine to tell me anything you want now.”
Gwladys was sobbing. “It was Jonnie… my fiance… I never told anyone. It killed his parents. It would have killed mine. Nobody must ever know. Forgive me, Dorothy. You were my doctor; you did so much for me, but nobody must ever know”.
A strange thing happened. As I sat stroking her hand I heard the distant boom of heavy guns. The sound swelled around me, but I knew it was inside my head.
A man was shouting. “I’ve got him, Sarge. Bleeding coward. He’s in the chicken coop.” I heard the absurd clucking of disturbed poultry and a terrified young voice, almost that of a boy rising hysterically, not funny at all.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…. I can’t…. I can’t go back!”
The first voice said gruffly, “You’ll have something to scream about in the morning!”
Then the young man again, “Oh God, no. Oh God, no, no, no, no!”
I held my hands to my head, so terrifying was the experience, but I couldn’t stop it. There was the sound of boots marching and a cultured voice gabbling a prayer. I spoke quickly then to block out the click of rifles being cocked and took her hand again.
“It’s all right, Gwladys. It’s all over now.”
“Will it ever be alright?” Gwladys sobbed, “My Jonnie, my lovely Jonnie; he let his country down. What would anyone have thought of me if they’d known? He… he wasn’t killed in action. Shot at dawn, they said, a disgrace to his country, they said!”
Somehow I understood the story even before Gwladys poured it out. They had both been so young. Her sweetheart Jonnie, a farm boy from the Swansea Valley who had lied about his age to enlist. Like so many, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for and cracked very quickly under the strain. So many boys, so much courage, so much bravado, such an unmentionable obscenity of waste and grief and shame. Such poison for the whole of someone’s life.
I held Gwladys until she quietened.
“Please sing to me,” she said and the song flowed between us effortlessly as I sang –
“All night long I hear you calling,
Calling sweet and low;
Seem to hear your footsteps falling,
Everywhere I go.”
Gwladys was asleep, holding my hand like the trusting child I had once been to her. I stayed long enough to be sure she would sleep for a while, then went to find Sister Phyllis.
I told her what had happened but not the details.
“I’m just a bit worried, though,” I said. “She desperately wanted to tell me her story, but she thought I was my mother. She couldn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t. Was I right to let her tell me, even so?”
Sister Phyllis gave my question the dignity of reflection, rather than instant reassurance.
Then she said, “I’m sure you were right. Gwladys has been very, very troubled by whatever her secret was. These things are seldom as bad as they seem when they come out. She needed to tell someone.”
Two days after I got home the phone rang. Sister Phyllis’s voice, “I promised I’d tell you when… Gwladys passed away last night.”
“Oh, oh yes. Thank you for letting me know,” I said.
She added, “I thought you’d like to know how much your visit helped her. After you left she was very peaceful. She just faded away gently. Oh, and I thought – because of what you asked – that you’d like to know that yesterday morning when I went into her room she said, ‘Dorothy’s daughter came to see me. She’s a doctor, just like her mother.’ I thought you’d like to know that she was aware of who you were in the end.”
I sat for a while, crying quietly for Gwladys and Jonnie and other lives destroyed and damaged by all the wars. I cried a little for the loss of my parents and for myself and for life generally. Then I put it all behind me again and went on living.
Many years have gone by and I almost forgot about it till now. Till that piece on the radio. Till you asked me why I was sitting in the dark, holding a newspaper.
So now I’ve told you and I’m going to show you the paper.
August 16th, 2006. ‘Soldiers shot for cowardice in First World War pardoned’, says the headline. They knew that youngsters like Jonnie should never have been shot, even in war, but it’s taken 88 years to say it. Much, much too late for Gwladys and her Jonnie.
How strange! I can hear a voice singing,
“Though the road between us stretches
Many a weary mile….”
Listen! Is it a radio?… No; it’s Gwladys. Can’t you hear her? The voice is joyful, but it’s definitely her.
“There’s a long, long night of waiting
Till my dreams all come true”
Now there’s another voice joining hers. A tenor with a valleys’ accent, sweet and true,
“Till the day when I’ll be going down
That long, long trail with you.”
….Listen! Oh listen!….