tagNon-EroticWidow's Windows

Widow's Windows

bySpencerfiction©

"Mum showed us yer war medals an' the Military Medal for 'gallantry', las' week, Dad," 11-year-old Art says as the pair walk to the next job, "next munf it'll be twenty years since The Great War started in 1914."

"She should've asked me before she dug out my medals, Art. Although," Roger Bird replies, "I'd almost forgotten about them."

"Sorry, Dad, I never meant to upset yer."

"Art, you're old enough now to know about that awful war, it could all happen with Germany again. They're preparing for another war, while we dither."

"The MM medal reads 'for gallantry', Dad. Does that mean bravery?"

Roger shoulders his ladder, carrying his bucket of soapy water.

"Depends on what you call bravery, sometimes you don't have any choice. The citation says I erected a machine gun under enemy fire and gas attack, and therefore helping our advance. I was the only surviving NCO from my section, I was in charge so I get the medal. The Company Captain, William Baird, saw the action from the flank but was helpless to provide covering fire as we were in the way. My lieutenant received the Military Cross, posthumously."

"Post-um-?"

"He died."

Bird recalled the events of September 1915.

[*** I remember the mud, the blood, holding my stricken Lieutenant to my breast.

"I'm dying Roger," he said, coughing up black bile. "Look after Eveline and the boy for me?"

"Yes, sir." I promised.

From that point my worthless life had some purpose. I held on as bullets rocked us. I'd saved his life once, now and foe evermore he was saving mine.***]

Art swings his bucket of clean rinsing water and, clutching his bundle of chamois leathers, follows. His window cleaner father stops, checking his notebook, then crosses the quiet suburban street. Art follows.

"A certain house down here needs cleaning today, son, and we'll talk there."

A large detached house with a glimpse of an orangery loomed ahead. They sparked in the summer sunshine. They didn't look as though they needed doing yet.

"This is it, Art," Bird says.

"Lots o' winders," Art laughs, "an 'arf-a-crowner this one, I bet!"

He'd been learning the ropes since school broke up two weeks ago. He would probably join his Dad's business and take over one of the rounds in a couple of years. In his enthusiasm to hear his Dad's story, he runs ahead and turns up the front path.

A tall, slim young man wearing cricketing whites emerges from the front door, smiling at the eager youngster. "Hallo, son, what's all the hurry?"

"Sorry Sir," Art stutters, looking behind to see where his Dad is. The tip of the ladder can be seen bobbing along behind the tall front hedge. "I'm 'elping' me Dad, he's yer winder-cleaner."

"Of course," the smiling man nods, holding out a hand, "I'm Rodge."

"Arthur Bird, Sir." The boy tentatively shakes hands. Gentlemen do not normally shakes urchins' hands.

"Pleasure to meet you, young man. Are you taking over the round from your father? He's cleaned our windows for as long as I can remember."

"No, Sir, jus' fer the school 'olidays. You playin' cricket today?"

"Yes, we're a game against the Gasworks Offices' team this afternoon. You play cricket, Arthur?"

"Yes Sir, at school, an' I plays up the Rec wiv me mates before tea."

Rodge plucks a shiny red ball from his bag, tossing it to Art, who maintains his grip on his bucket; though releasing the leathers, he neatly catches the ball one-handed.

"Safe hands in the field, Arthur," Rodge laughs, "do you bat or bowl?"

"Bofe! Bowlin's me best though, medium off-breaks. Bin workin' on me speed but we ain't got no nets dahn the Rec."

"Yes, you need nets and plenty of balls too, so you can build up a nice rhythm. Ah, Mr Bird," Rodge addresses the newly-arrived window cleaner, "Arthur's been regaling me with his bowling prowess. I'm considering drafting him into my team."

Bird laughs, "Yes, Mister Roger, Art's pretty useful. He hasn't any proper kit, mind, 'though I have knitted him a cream sweater."

"You did?" Rodge enquired, eyebrows raised.

"Yes, I learned to knit when stationed in India for seven years. Good way of keeping idle hands busy."

"Interesting, Mr Bird, we must talk about your military service some time. I suppose we'll all be in the Army soon. Well, I must be off. I've net practice tomorrow, Art, if you'd like to come along and lob a few balls at me."

Art grins, tossing Rodge's ball back, and looks to his Dad.

Bird nods, "He's free, I'll bring him here, say same time tomorrow?"

"Excellent! Right-oh then, bye, see you both then."

[*** "Why'd you join up, Sergeant?" Lieutenant Arthur Edrich asked, calming down after the shock of facing death and seeing the Oberleutnant drop dead on the end of my bayonet.

"Over a woman, Sir," I laughed.

"Ah." Lieutenant Edrich was thoughtful. He owed me his life and we were alone in his bunker office. "I noticed you ignore the village girls that, er, are available."

"Yes, Sir, a bit too close to home for me."

"Ah, I see. Well, er, I ... joined over a ... man ... a teacher at school ... who abused and confused me."

I'd known men in the Army that had a "certain preference", the worst of them praying on weak men. When discovered, whether they were instigators or victims, their lives became nightmares. It took a leap of bravery ... or innocence, by the Lieutenant, to own up to such abuse to someone like me, a labourer from the ranks.

Trust and honesty, sharing private thoughts; two men, with different experiences, from completely different worlds. There were lines in the sand and they had been crossed.

"My 'woman' nightmare was my mother, Sir. It's a long story." ***]

As they wash the windows, Bird tells Art about Flanders and Loos, where he won his MM, the Military Medal. They can't stop working to talk, it's hot and sunny, perfect weather for cleaning windows.

"Art, there's no glory in war, just mud, blood and pain; death follows hot lead, cold steel, or bare hands if you have to; it's kill or be killed. People die, friends die."

A tear momentarily beads in one eye, which he rubs away with the back of his hand, as private thoughts haunt him.

[*** "Eveline's pregnant!" Edrich spluttered, his face pale, even by the flickering lantern light.

I was in his bunker, reporting on the nightly patrol, when the post arrived. Everything stops when post from home comes. I never got any as no-one knew where I was or even if I was still alive. I'd not been home in the eight years since I left and four more years were to pass before I saw my four sisters again.

Lieutenant Edrich appealed for a break from my report with the eagerness of a puppy dog, as soon as that letter was thrust into his hand. I nodded with a grin and started boiling up a can of water on his stove for a brew while he read his pages, until his exclamation about his wife's condition.

In an earlier conversation he had told me about Eveline. She was four years younger than him, a pretty girl who had always lived next door and long had a crush on him. She begged him that he marry her before he left for the Front and, after he received his Commission, he relented. They were both virgins, with little idea what they were doing in the week before he embarked to Flanders.

"Congratulations, Sir," I said, "Have you got a date when the baby's due?"

"Er ..." he read down further, "First September. Bloody hell, me a father, that's a joke!"

"You'll be fine, Sir," I said, "You're already 'father' to thirty blokes and NCOs."

"So, Sergeant, you saying that you'll come home to help me look after this mewling sprog after the war?"

"Haha, the men with families reckon being a father's easy as fallin' off a log."

"So, why're you not married with a crowd of kids then, Sergeant?" Edrich asked, "I notice whenever we are billeted you steer well clear of the women who make themselves, shall we say ... available. So, do you also have a wife at home?"

"No wife, I can't trust any woman."

"Women-trouble, eh?" Edrich laughed uncertainly, "I remember you mentioning your mother, did she object to your choice of mate?"

"Not exactly, after my old man died, she ... shall we say ... made herself available ... and I found that I was unable to live with that." ***]

"We advanced," Bird continues, "behind enemy lines into open ground approaching Bois Hugo Chalk Pit, which was our particular objective. Along our right flank, protected by trees and uncut wire, several enemy machine guns sprayed us with deadly crossfire. We were hampered by gas in the hollows where we dug shallow trenches for shelter."

"Did many die, Dad?" Art asks.

"Yes, all but three of my platoon, officer, two NCOs and 28 men. My Company were hit first. Our Sergeant fell instantly dead, my Lieutenant Edrich was badly wounded. We dived to the ground but were affected by the gas, which was heavier than air. We were coughing, eyes streaming, while trying to set up our Lewis guns. Bullets flew over, around and between us."

"Must've bin fright'nin', huh, Dad?"

"Terrifying, Art. Fright keeps you alive, though. It's the 'brave', 'scared witless' and plain 'unlucky' that gets killed first; those with a healthy regard for life live longer. You make the most of cover. We had none, so desperately we started digging in."

[*** Lieutenant Edrich rejoined the regiment after a month's compassionate leave, his wife Eveline had given premature birth to their son in early August. I welcomed him at the station with a C Company escort.

He was still the same lean fresh-faced 22-year-old, Lieutenant I had known since he transferred from the 2nd Battalion in January. I was a 35-year-old veteran with ten years' Indian service and 12 months in Flanders under my belt.

We'd formed a bond of friendship, eight months earlier, on our first patrol, when Edrich encountered a lone Enemy officer in No Man's Land. The German Oberleutnant must've been lost in the mist. The enemy drew his Luger first, before I bayonetted him up through the chin, killing him instantly.

As his Sergeant, Edrich and I spoke often during our time served, becoming friends, as far as officers and men could be, separated by class, rank and education. As an accountant in his father's firm, he taught me bookkeeping to help my business, coached my penmanship, and gifted me his dictionary, improving my civilian options at war end.

Lieutenant Edrich stepped down from his Premiere Classe carriage. I noticed his extra shoulder pip, promoted to First Lieutenant.

"Hallo, Sergeant-" he started.

I pointed to the single stripe on my sleeve.

"Ah, Lance-Corporal Bird," Edrich laughed, "Fighting? Drinking?"

"Never touch a drop, Sir," I said, shielding my grin from the escort, "Simply relaxin' a few mouthy insomniacs; can't beat the advantages of catching forty winks during these nightlong bombardments."

"'Insomniacs' eh? Long word for a busted Corporal," Edrich said, lifting one eyebrow.

"Been readin' yer dictshunry, Sir."

"Clearly," he laughed, "well, lead off ... Corporal." ***]

"Weeks before the battle, Art, we left the front line in the dark, bivouacking in tumbledown houses in Vermelles. We moved further from the Front, rested and drilled, before collecting Lieutenant Edrich plus new troops to bring us back up to Battalion strength. After Sunday service the Bartonshire Regiment march-"

"That's the regiment name on your cap badge," Art interrupts.

"Yes, the 1st Battalion arrived in France on August 13th 1914, just nine days after war was declared, and only weeks at home after spending seven years in India. A year later, in September 1915 we were billeted at Burbure, before marching through the night in heavy rain for six hours to bivouac in railway cuttings at two in the morning. We spent the next day practicing attacks.

"The weather forecast was fine with little wind, favourable for gas attack on the German lines. The overnight and early morning shell bombardment hardly touched the defensive redoubts and failed to cut the barbed wire.

"Supporting our advance were the Rifles and Sussex on either side of us, with the Lancashires in reserve. There were 10 battalions in our section of the attack.

"The gas was turned on before 6, with shelling switched to the enemy's rear trenches. Because of the light wind, though, the gas hung around our own lines, the Rifles and our A Company were badly gassed."

"We gassed our own soldiers?" Art was incredulous.

"Yes, it didn't blow towards the enemy as intended, it just hung about in our front trenches. The gas delayed the advance of us and the Rifles for about three hours, although the Sussex were able to move forward alone. When we reached the wire, we found it was uncut by the shelling and was difficult to get through. The Enemy had plenty of time to get ready for our push. We were caught like fish in a barrel."

"Didn't you have no wire-cutters, Dad?"

"Each Company had a couple o' sets. C Company were caught in open ground under heavy machine gun fire, with yards of wire between us and the Enemy. Unable to go forward we took heavy casualties. Lieutenant Edrich was mortally wounded and, with the Sarge dead and the Corporal gut-shot and out of it, I was the NCO in charge. We couldn't survive long enough out in the open to cut the wire, so we dug in under withering fire, for over two hours. The Sussex were also tied down but were well dug in as they got there before the Enemy. Once our Lewis guns were set up, though, we were able to return fire and eventually drove the enemy off."

[*** "I visited your mother," Edrich coughed, his face pale but bubbles of blood on his lips, "while on leave."

"I know, you left her my new name and BFPO address. My sister wrote to me."

"Your mother wouldn't talk to me, but Eveline persuaded her to open up; taking the baby along with us broke the ice. She desperately wanted to see you, but she's dying, consumption."

"Hetty explained to me," I said, "that Mum was a workin' prostitute when she first met me Dad. Me Grandfather encouraged Aunt Rose an' Mum to help the family income, they were a large poor family. Dad was well aware of what she was and he took her away from that part of her life. Tragically, the three young children she bore out of wedlock, had already died of typhus in the Workhouse. She was a good wife an' Mum to me four sisters and me until Dad died, worn out by a lifetime of hard work, then Mum relapsed to her old habits. That was before they started payin' out the national pensions. I couldn't live with the life I thought she was leading, so I left home, joined up."

"I dreaded coming back here," Edrich coughed again, "wondering what my men would say of me, Captain Baird made it clear before I left that he had friends that knew of me and Mr Carruthers at my old school."

"Nothing would have been said, Sir, the lessons in Company 'tolerance' cost me two stripes for 'self-inflicted injuries', while the Captain didn't have the same requirement to make muster, he could declare himself sick without reporting to sick bay." ***]

"Elsewhere Loos and Hulluch were captured, taking 300 prisoners. With the Gloucestershires now on our right flank, Companies A and B moved up with us, leaving D Company in support. We made it over the Loos-Hulluch road, up to the chalk pit without further opposition as night fell. We dug in at Bois Hugo, our advance being 2 miles in 15 hours. We had a very wet night and, without our greatcoats, suffered hardship in cold wet mud, no hot food or drink, with continuous shelling and sniping."

"Didn't you have your greatcoats with you, Dad?"

"Can't charge in greatcoats, Art, and the forecast had been for fine summer weather, but they were wrong. At first light we repulsed an Enemy attack, before being relieved by the Lancashires, who occupied and improved our shallow trenches. We suffered more casualties under fire as we retired. Later we heard the news that Buis Hugo, the chalk pit and Hill 70 were lost to a counterattack. The Bartonshires lost 10 of our 24 officers and nearly 300 of 1000 other ranks, over a third of the Battalion, all for nothing."

Art went as pale as a brand-new chamois leather.

[*** Only three men advanced from those shallow trenches, to join up with the rest of C Company, under Captain Baird. I saw that two injured men were stretchered back to First Aid, but neither made it, I found out later.

I stripped the Lieutenant of his few personal effects, to be returned to his family. I still had my duty to do, and left his body behind, as he would have expected. ***]

"Lieutenant Edrich and my friends were never found, Art. They have no known grave, buried in the mud where they fell, or maybe dragged off by the Enemy and dropped into a mass grave somewhere. We lost 60,000 men in those two days and a third of 'em still have no known grave. That officer, my friend, taught me bookkeeping, to read poetry, and gave me his dictionary. All that's left of his is a name on a war memorial. At the end, before he slipped away, we both declared our undying love for the women in our lives. For me, I regretted leaving my mother in anger, the grandmother you never knew and I never saw again, because she died during that winter; while the Lieutenant realised he really loved his reluctant wife, Eveline, and the boy they had together."

[*** "If you distrust women so much" Edrich smiled, having folded his wife's letter, "you'll have to marry a saint or maybe a nun!"

"Per'aps I will, Sir." I grinned back. ***]

"Blimey, Dad, was you wounded as well?"

"No, Art, that day I never had a scratch on me, other than the burning to my lungs from the gas. We had gas masks but they were useless and you couldn't run and draw breath at the same time in them. We couldn't put them on until after we had dug in and set up the Lewis guns, by that time there were only three of us left unscathed and you need two men to fire each gun."

"It must have been horrific, Dad."

"It was a nightmare, Art. We were up to our knees in mud, stained red with the blood from people we had talked to for years in some cases, or merely days in the newcomers. All were men we had eaten with, slept next to, trained and fought the enemy side by side. And we still have to live with those memories. Not just on those two days but all the way through that terrible war. The whole four years we would march a day or two to get to the Front, spend five days or a week fighting the Enemy or sheltering from shellfire. Then relieved, we would march one or two days away to somewhere quiet and spend a week drilling, drafting in new troops to make up the numbers, then back to the Front."

"Still, you survived, Dad," Art says, "but you never saw your Mum, my grandma, again?"

"No, but your Aunt Hetty wrote and told me that Mrs Edrich had kindly helped make my Mum comfortable during her last few days-"

From the back door an elegant, attractive woman emerges, carrying a tray of tea and a glass of lemonade, "Refreshments gentlemen, you both deserve a break. It's so hot out here today."

"Gosh, thanks, Missus!" Art says.

"I didn't realise you were at home, Ma'am." Bird says quietly, "I hope you didn't hear too much of my nons-"

"I did, Mr Bird, but not to concern yourself. I believe ... I now realise that I am in your debt."

"No, Ma'am, just the usual shilling for the windows."

"Here, young Art, I have a tip for you," she says to the boy, "don't spend it all at once on sweets."

"Gosh, Ma'am, 'arf a crown!" the boy cries, biting the coin, as he had seen others do, before stuffing it into his pocket. Then he was rubbing his leather on some imaginary stain on the French windows before helping himself to lemonade and a biscuit.

She turns and presses a bob into Bird's palm.

"My late husband left me well provided for, so I can afford to pay you for what the job's really worth, Mr Bird, and I am sure now that it should be a lot more than 'just a shilling'," she says, a tear escaping to run down her cheek. She continues, dropping her voice to a whisper. "Arthur was a wonderful man, who I loved very much, still love with all my heart, Mr Bird ... may I call you Roger?"

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