With grateful thanks to Mirth and Jay as usual - ta guys :D
Any mistooks and speling arrors is mine and mine alone, so keep your mitts off 'em!
Mrs Valerie Lewis pursed her lips together as the two older women next to her immediately started to gossip, expressing their narrow minded views about the young woman they had just served.
It was the same every Friday.
Most of the women in the Oxford Women's League were caring souls but some, like these two did it out of a sense of duty and felt themselves above those they served with their holier than thou attitude. The League provided soup, cake and lashings of tea in the warmth and comfort of the Town Hall to those in the city and surrounding area who were struggling to make ends meet with their husbands, sons and brothers off to war or indeed never to return.
It wasn't much, Valerie conceded, but it saved a few pennies on coal, not having to heat their own homes for an afternoon and sometimes there was donated clothing or some free fruit and vegetables and on rare occasions, eggs and flour.
It was mainly women who attended desperate for some support and comfort, particularly those with young children not yet at school. Their husbands dead, their war widow pension slow in being paid out or had no other family to turn to and no way to take up paid work with their children so young.
Some were in such desperate need, like the young woman the two older volunteers were viciously gossiping about, that their only choice was to turn to prostitution to ensure their children were fed and clothed, knowing it would lead to a lifetime of shame and disapproval, but unable to find an alternative solution.
Val set down a cup with more force than necessary onto its saucer, angry at the gossiping women. They had no idea what it was like both being in their late sixties, their husbands too old for conscription, both childless and no money worries to speak of. Val's son and son-in-law were both in France somewhere and Val, like so many women, was left worrying daily if they were alive, injured or dead. Had they succumbed to a gas attack, or were they laying horribly injured in a hospital with no one to comfort them or were they dead, the dreaded telegram still days away from being delivered.
Val took a deep breath and brushed the lone tear her thoughts had elicited from her cheek with an impatient hand. She was luckier than most, her husband Robbie was a police inspector, and exempt from conscription. As he was home every night, they were able to comfort each other and their daughter Lynn when those chilling fears rose and were all together when letters arrived, able to laugh and cry as they were read aloud. The relief that they still alive to write, warring with the worry that this might be the last letter they received.
Val had just started on another row of cups and saucers when she realised that the old biddy's had set their harpy tongues on another, her head snapping up in surprise as she caught their words.
"Coward! Wonder what 'e did to avoid the call up?"
"Just out of prison by the looks of him, should've sent him straight over there."
Val looked over at their victim, a young man huddled by the fire, coat, gloves, scarf still on, hat removed out of propriety, showing a head of short blond hair. With remarkable restraint Val managed to hold her tongue and not snap at the two older women, it was obvious the man was an ex-solider from the greatcoat he had tightly wrapped around himself alone. Admittedly the coat was grubby and stained, ripped in places but to Val it was still clearly identifiable as an army issue coat. Add in the recent facial scars, vividly red against the pale face and Val would eat her hat if the young man hadn't seen action in this blasted war.
She added milk to one of the cups and poured out a tea from one of the teapots she had left to brew, adding two sugars and lodged a slice of Victoria jam sponge onto the saucer and then made her way to the young man, who was attempting to cough quietly into a rather grimy looking handkerchief.
Men were a rare sight at these gatherings but they did attend from time to time. Mainly the older chaps, widowers, lonely for company and a bit of home baking, sometimes though a younger one would appear, hesitant and uncertain, recently discharged. But the ones that had turned up had one thing in common; they were all noticeably crippled, a missing limb or relying on canes or crutches, the price they had paid for their country clearly visible to the eye.
"Hello there, I'm Mrs Lewis," Val greeted with a warm smile, taking a step backwards as the young man shot to his feet, a look of startled surprise on his face. "Brought you a cup of tea and a bit of cake," she reassured, holding out the items.
"Oh," he uttered, as he took the cup and saucer with an unsteady hand. "Thank you," he added politely, sitting back down only after Val had pulled up a chair and sat down opposite him, he looked at her uncomfortably.
"Been back long?" she asked gently, knowing full well that she pushed the boundaries of good manners, but up close it was obvious that this young man, not much older than her own son Mark, had been living rough. Although he had made every effort to appear well groomed, his clothes told the tale of their owners hardship and the fact that a half full kit bag sat at his side, not something you would carry with you if you had somewhere safe to leave it. Added to the fact that he was once again trying to muffle a cough and Val decided that good manners be hanged if it meant helping this man to get back on his feet.
"A while," he answered eventually, lowering his gaze as he picked up the cake from the saucer and devoured half the slice with a large bite avoiding her gaze as if he felt embarrassed by his own hunger. Val's heart ached for the young man and wondered when he had last had a proper cooked meal. She pretended to fuss and straighten her skirt to allow him a measure of privacy to eat. After he had finished the cake in another large bite and taken a sip of tea he placed the cup and saucer on the small table near to him.
"Do you have somewhere to stay?" she asked gently, knowing full well that he would attempt to lie to her; there was such a thing as pride after all, something too many people seemed to have too much of these days, as if it was shameful to ask for help when you needed it
His gazed flickered up to meet hers for a moment, before lowering again. "Yes, yes of course," he assured, muffling a cough.
Val leaned forward and patted his knee, "I don't think that's quite true, is it?" she rebuked gently, struggling to keep the stern expression on her face as the young man's head shot up and stared at her in shock, his face flushing red with embarrassment.
"I…I," he stammered as he looked at her guiltily.
"What regiment were you in?" Val asked with a gentle smile, it was an easy, safe question to change the subject with.
"I'm sorry I lied," he replied instead, "it's just that….." he trailed off as he gave her a small wry smile.
"Nothing to apologise for," Val responded, "it can't be easy, to go through that, to come home… "It was her turn to stop without finishing as thoughts of Mark and Lynn's David crowded her mind.
"Ox and Bucks Light, 2nd Battalion," he said into the silence that had fallen around them.
Val looked at the young man in stunned shock. "Ox and Bucks?" she gasped out, "2nd battalion? That's the same as our Mark's. Did you know him?" she asked in earnest. "Mark Lewis? Corporal Mark Lewis?"
"Yes, I know Mark," he replied in astonishment. "Of course, Valerie Lewis, his mother," he said with a genuine smile
"Oh my," she cried, her hand covering her mouth as she held back a sob of joy. "Yes, I'm his mother, I'm so terrible sorry…" she started to apologise for not introducing herself properly but she was cut off as the man in front of her leant forward and grabbed her hands.
"He's alive? Please, tell me he's alive and well," he begged, pulling back as he started to cough once again.
"Got a letter from him three weeks ago," she told him happily, "they were in reserve when he wrote, aren't due back to the front for another two weeks. Was quite taken with a young French girl he met in a café," she laughed, sharing the joy of the letter with someone who knew what it would have been like to be there. "He's been really worried about one of the officers, always writes about him, got on ever so well they did. Perhaps you know him too, the officer was injured in a….." Gas attack, she finished off silently, all the comments from Mark's letters about the officer falling into place. A gas attack had left the young officer with a three week stay in hospital and weaken lungs, he'd been considered lucky, having only taken in a whiff of the gas, before getting a gas mask on. Mark had described the officer several times, often joking about the man's tall stature compared to Mark's average five foot ten, how the gas had left the man with a seemly permanent cough that had worried all the men in the battalion.
"You're Lieutenant James Hathaway, aren't you?" she all but demanded.
The young man nodded at her. "Just plain James Hathaway now," he said with a huff of self-mocking laughter.
"Oh my dear boy," Val gasped out, it was her turn now to lean forward and grasp his hands, trying not to embarrass them both by pulling him into a hug. "Mark's been so worried about you, you went off to the hospital that last time and you never came back. One of the officers said you were being sent home to convalesce, but another said you had died."
"I did write," he said, "they said I had to write to my commanding officer, not to one of the men," he finished with a frown. "I wrote to Captain Mortmaigne, I didn't know he'd been killed until later," he added.
"Mark will be thrilled to hear you are all right and in Oxford as well," Val smiled, clasping his hands tightly for a moment, smiling even wider as James turned red with self-conscious embarrassment, before letting go and standing up. "Be right back," she said, grabbing the now cold cup of tea as she made her way quickly to the kitchen to get her coat.
In the three years Mark had been away at war, he had written as regularly he could to his parents. Letters full of almost childish excitement at the beginning that had turned to dark doubt and introspective ramblings. The lads Mark served with featured heavily and Val and Robbie had come to know these young men through Mark's descriptive words, mourning with their son when they were injured or died. They had gotten to know 2nd Lieutenant James Hathaway well through Mark's letters, by all accounts a lonely man at the start, fitting in with neither the officers nor welcomed by the enlisted men. Mark had quickly warmed to him though, writing how the man would inspire them as they waited for orders to go over the top, giving them faith and courage. Hathaway had saved Mark's life at least twice and Mark had done the same, both of them bonding over having been shot twice in the exact same places.
Mark would write of the stories and tales the Lieutenant would tell from Sophocles to Shakespeare, how he would recite poems to the men as they huddled together, taking their minds from the shells exploding around them.
The letter Mark wrote when Hathaway had succumbed to the mustard gas attack had been filled with worry and frustration at the lack of information about his friends condition, not knowing the extent of Hathaway's injuries or whether he still lived. But the same letter was filled with awe at how the Lieutenant had given his gas mask to a private who in panic had dropped his own mask in the shin deep mud. The Lieutenant managing to find the dropped mask just as the first tentacles of the heinous gas reached them.
Over the course of a year Hathaway was hospitalised six more times with chest infections, bronchitis and then pneumonia, brought on by the rain or the cold. Mark and the rest of the men greeting him back with good natured jokes and relieved smiles, until the time he did not return and Mark's letters became filled with apprehension and disquiet over the fate of his friend.
Val pulled on her coat and settled her hat on her head as she delighted in informing the two older volunteers that the young man was a friend and officer from Mark's regiment who had been injured in saving one of his men.
She walked across to James as she pulled on her gloves, smiling at the puzzled look on his face. "Come along then," she said, "the potatoes won't peel themselves and I'll need to warm the pie," her comments making James frown in confusion at her as he stood.
"Potatoes?" he queried in bafflement.
"For tea," she explained. "You can peel them as I write to Mark, let him know you're safe and sound and will be staying with us for a bit."
"What!" James exclaimed, watching in astonishment as Val bent down and picked up his kit bag, taking it automatically as she handed it to him and then wrapped her arm around his elbow.
"Don't forget your hat," she prompted, "it's cold out today."
"Mrs Lewis, I can't… you can't… I'm a stranger to you, you…." He stopped as Val turned to face him and put her hands on his shoulders.
"Mr Hathaway," she stated, "you are my son's friend and you are in need. Mark isn't here to offer his help, so it falls to me and Mr Lewis to do so," she gave his shoulders a squeeze before dropping her hands and wrapping an arm around his elbow again. "I know you have fallen on hard times and that you are a proud man, but I offer you nothing that you have not already paid for by looking out for our Mark, for keeping him safe. Whatever you accept from us we will still be in your debt to the end of our days." A smile softening her words as she looked up at him in gratitude.
"Mrs Lewis, you hold me in far greater regard than I deserve," James said quietly, as he looked down at her sadly, "I cannot burden you or your husband with my problems…"
Val returned his gaze and smiled as she patted his arm. "They're ours now too," she replied in soft determination, allowing no further argument as she took a step forward, James following her out of politeness rather than intent. "It's time for a new beginning, Mr Hathaway. A man of your character and experience will soon find the right opportunity and Mr Lewis and I will ensure that you find it," she promised with a gentle smile.
James gazed down at her for a moment, and nodded his acceptance as he followed her out of the hall,little knowing in his battered soul how right Valerie Lewis would be.
Title taken from Wilfred Gibson poem:
They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.