Jacky Fowler's Stuff

July 11, 2010

Letters Home

Filed under: Short Stories — jackyfowler @ 12:41 pm
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On 11 November 1918 the Armistice was signed between the Allied and German armies, ending the First World War – a global war that lasted four years, extinguishing millions of lives. This is a story I wrote to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.

She was in the garden. “Pottering” Johnnie called it; “putting things to rights” she would have said. The latch on the gate clicked and she looked up to see the postie coming towards her, a single letter in his hand. She rose, rather more slowly than she would have liked these days, but smoothing down the apron she wore to protect her skirt, she managed a smile.

“Good morning, Mrs Gordon. I’ve something for you from France. I hope it’s good news!”

It was as much as she could do not to snatch the letter from him, but she managed to hold out her hand quite steadily and wait until he passed it over.

“Thank you, Archie” she said, turning to go back into the house, the letter clutched close to her. The usual chit chat was beyond her.

Once inside, she stood and stared at the envelope for a while, unable to open it just yet.

“Don’t be silly” she said aloud, went to the desk in the corner of the room and picked up the letter opener. Quickly slitting open the envelope, she took out the wafer thin paper inside and started reading.

Dearest Ma

Well, here I am at last, writing to you from the Front for the first time. We’re in a reserve trench just now, but will be moving forward soon I think.

Tell Da we left our kilts behind a few miles. Our dress now is trousers cut short above the knees and I’ve a steel helmet (which is a great life saver against shrapnel we’re told). That is one thing I do not like – shells – their noise and the whining through the air. They can’t whistle a decent tune for toffee!

I got your last letter and paper. A paper here is very much appreciated – “luxuries” like hard to come by here. We get cigarettes and tobacco sent out to us (as well as a drink of rum every night) so you see we don’t do so badly (the thick socks were a blessing though, ta very much).

Give my love to Da and the brothers and sisters. I often picture you all gathered for dinner of a Sunday – keep my place warm. Chin up Ma, and you’ll see me probably sooner than you think.

Well you will have to wait until I come home for more news, these letters are censored you know and I don’t want to say anything that I should not.

Your loving son,

Johnnie

A huge sigh escaped her and she realised she’d almost been holding her breath as she read. Shaking her head to clear away the emotions that had engulfed her, she read the letter over again, relieved beyond words. He was safe – for now.

****** 

He was in his workshop, but the tools of his trade were all neatly lined up and unused this morning, as he took the letter out of his pocket and looked intently at it.

He was pretty sure he had the contents almost by heart, but read it through one more time.

Dear Da

I do not really know how to start this letter, as the circumstances are not that different from those under which I’ve written before. I will not post it yet but will leave it in my pocket. If anything happens to me someone will perhaps post it for me – or if I get back safe I’ll post it myself. You see, we are going over the top again this evening and only the Good Lord God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive.  

I do not want you to think that I am depressed or fearful – on the contrary, I am very cheerful. But out here, in odd moments the realisation does come to me of how close death is to us all. 

I say this to you because I know you understand, from your own experience as a soldier, the possibility of the like happening to myself. I feel very glad that I can look the fact in the face without fear or misgiving – thanks to your example. Much as I hope to live through it all for the sake of you and Ma and the boys in particular, I am quite prepared to give my life as so many have done before me – if I have to. All I can do is put myself in God’s hands for him to decide, and I know you and dearest Ma will be praying for me.

It seems years and years since I tried to get myself drowned in the burn, now I’m awash in a sea of mud. Isn’t life strange?  

Your loving son

Johnnie

PS As you see, I am still alive and well, and as usual enjoying life out here to the full.

The tears collected in the corners of his eyes and ran slowly down the deep creases in his face, creases that had deepened with worry over the last ten months. But through the tears was a smile – he was proud, damned proud, of his son. And he was safe – for now.

 ******

Mary Gordon put her feet up on the bed and sighed long and loud. She was pretty used to the long hard hours of nursing she had to put in by now, but it was still blissful to untie her shoes, take them off and wriggle her toes in freedom after a lengthy shift.

She reached for the letter on her bedside table. It had come just before her shift started and she’d been unable to put it from her mind ever since, even though her duties should have taken all her attention.

Dear Mary

Now barring accidents you will know all about what’s happening. I know you will have a big surprise when you get this letter – I hope it reaches you without mishap (and it will mean a pal is back in Blighty – one way or another). If anybody in authority was to see it I’d be for it!

I can’t write any of this stuff to Ma or even to Da, but I know you’re dealing with the consequences of the actions out here each and every day, so you’ll likely know what is really going on.

Of course you’ll have guessed by now where I’ve been for the last few weeks? Yes, it was the Ypres salient. Oh it was a lovely ‘baptism of fire’ that first night. We had to dig ourselves in and early the next morning Fritz started strafing like crazy.

For the first time out here I was afraid – almost frightened to death. It was strange, I’ve been in the front line before, but this was different – Ypres is truly hell on earth. One of my Section took shell shock when a big ‘un dropped a couple of yards off the parapet and then the instinct of the soldier Da always told me about came to me and I was as cool as ice and steady as a rock. There were twelve men with me when we went in, I came out with three others. Mary, it was awful.

Perhaps you would like to know something of the spirit of the men still out here now. Well the truth is (and I’d be shot if anyone important got his hands on this letter) every man Jack is fed up almost past bearing, and not a single one has an ounce of what you’d call patriotism left in him. No one cares tuppence whether Germany has Alsace, Belgium, France or even the Moon for that matter. All we want now is to get done with it and go home. There, that’s the honest truth, and any man who has been out within the last few months will tell you the same thing.

I have lost pretty much all the keenness I had too, it is just the thought of you all back home, knowing you love and trust me to do my share of the job that will keep you safe and free. That is all that keeps me going and enables me to ‘stick it’.

God bless you Mary for what you’re doing for all those who come back broken and suffering – I hope if my time comes then I’ll have as good a nurse as I know you are.

But don’t worry sister dear, I’ll take good care and I shall carry on to the end be it bitter or sweet, with Ma and Da and you and the others I love and who love me as my inspiration.

Your loving brother

Johnnie

Mary sighed. Of course, she’d heard about the kind of horrors Johnnie had been undergoing, but it was different, nursing the strangers who came onto her ward, even knowing that they were probably someone else’s brother. Still, he was safe – for now.

******

Sister Jennie Murray sat in the small pool of light cast by the carefully shaded lamp on her desk. Otherwise the ward was dark, and reasonably quiet, most of the men having settled down to sleep for the night. The odd moan came from some of the beds, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Reaching up to relieve the pressure of her heavy, starched white headdress, Jennie sighed. She’d like nothing more than to put her head down on the desk and go to sleep herself. But that wasn’t possible, and she’d need to do another round of the ward to check on some of the worst cases soon. Still she’d probably just have time to carry out another of her many duties. So she picked up the pen and started to write.

No 4 Casualty Clearing Station

France

Dear Mr & Mrs Gordon

Your son Pte J Gordon of 1 Seaforth Highlanders was admitted to this Hospital on the 11th of this month suffering from a shell wound in the thigh. He has been rather ill since admission on account of the injury to the bone. Today he is slightly better and we believe him to be over the worst. He has been a splendid patient and very anxious to get on too and we shall do everything we can to help.

If he continues to improve in this way, he will shortly be sent home.

Yrs truly

J Murray

(Sister Hut 3)

There, it was done. Jennie was used to writing so many of these letters now, but she still felt a thrill of happiness each time she was able to send home good news rather than bad to the families waiting so anxiously to hear of their loved ones.

She picked up the lamp and carried it carefully over to where Johnnie Gordon lay. He was sleeping, a lock of dark, unruly hair flopping over his face, covering some of the lines on his forehead – so deep for one so young. But he was safe – for now.

******

Good Lord, but he was tired. The session he’d just endured in the orthopaedic rehabilitation room had been painful, but rewarding. He still couldn’t walk without leaning heavily on his stick, and his left leg still dragged, but he could walk. When he’d first reached the hospital in Edinburgh he’d had little or no hope of being able to set one foot in front of the other ever again. Days and nights of rattling along on one train after another, then the ship, then more trains, left him exhausted and he’d wanted nothing more than to sleep.

Sitting at the desk in the day room, he pulled paper and pen towards him and began to write.

Dearest Ma and Da

It was wonderful to see you on Sunday, I wasn’t expecting a visit from you at all, so it was a great surprise and it did me a power of good.

I’m still working my way through your seedcake Ma, despite having had to share it with several of the other lads in my ward – Will said it was the best cake he’d ever tasted Ma, and I’d say he’s not wrong.

I’ve just come back from rehabilitation – they’re real slave drivers and keep me hard at it for hours on end, until I’m fairly ready to scream at them. But I know it’s doing me good and each day I can go a little farther. And you’ll never guess what the bigwig surgeon said today when he saw me – he says it may be a long slow haul, but he thinks I’ll be able to walk without a stick eventually. Not in a few weeks, but perhaps a few months if I stick at it. How’s that for good news, eh?

It’s been good to be able to get out into the sunshine for a while today, I’d almost forgotten what a Scottish summer’s day can be like. I sat on a bench in the garden with Davie (you remember the lad in the bed next to mine? Missing an arm poor fellow, but he’s as cheerful as anything all the time now he knows he’ll be going home in the next week or so).

Anyway, it will soon be time for dinner, so I’d better get this into the post.

My love to all of you and hoping to see you again soon.

Your loving son

Johnnie

He put down the pen and sat back in the chair. Rubbing his left thigh, he stretched the leg, trying to ease the cramping pain that throbbed through it. He’d thought he was going to lose it that first night in the casualty clearing station, but the surgeon had fought hard and he’d woken up to find the leg still there. It still hurt like hell most of the time, but it was worth it – it told him he was still alive. But it was bad enough to mean that he wouldn’t have to go back to face the same horrors anytime soon. He was safe – for now.

 ******

The knocking on the front door was loud. Grace was a little put out by the disruption. Her eldest granddaughter was on her lap as she tried to untangle the knots in her hair as gently as possible.

“Up you get Jessie, please, I’ll have to get the door before I finish this.”

Opening the door, she saw the postie standing there, a brown envelope in his hand.

“I thought you’d want this straightaway,” he said, “it’s from the hospital. It’s likely notice of Johnnie’s comin’ hame.”

Grace took the letter and smiled her thanks. Having shut the door, she tore open the envelope, eager to find out for sure the news they’d been expecting almost daily – her boy was coming home at last.

1st Scottish General Hospital

Edinburgh

Dear Mr and Mrs Gordon

I regret very much having to tell you that your son, who has been here for several months now, died at 4am on the 19th of this month as a result of influenza. He fought very hard to get better and you may be sure we did all in our power to help him. I feel very, very sorry for you all, in your sad trouble. But you know that your son fought bravely for his country – what better could a Mother and Father wish! His belongings will be sent along soon. With my sincere sympathy.

Yours truly

Lucy MacKenzie

(Sister Ward 4)

She sank to her knees there in the hall, the letter clutched to her chest with shaking fingers, tears streaming down her face, her body racked with heart-wrenching sobs. Johnnie was safe – forever.

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3 Comments »

  1. Very moving story, Jacky. To go through the war only to be felled by flu – the tragedy of so many in WW1.

    I really enjoyed the format of this story. Using letters can be difficult as you only see one side of the story, but by using letters from several characters you get around that nicely.

    Nice one.

    Nx

    Comment by nettiewriter — July 11, 2010 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  2. Brilliant! ( it made me cry). The characters were real! Several short stories in one!

    Comment by Susan Spence — July 30, 2010 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

    • Thanks. It was part of a project based at Library. Wanted to try a new format in the letters and flesh it out from there. Jacky

      Comment by jackyfowler — July 30, 2010 @ 4:06 pm | Reply


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