THE VILLAGE PALS. ( An entry into the December 2016 TCWG Short Stories competition.)
“Fanny, I’m home!”
Sam Pomphrey closed the street door behind him with his foot and draped his jacket over one of the the pegs on the wall of the narrow passage that formed the entrance to his two-up, two-down terraced house. Stuffing his cap and muffler into one pocket of his well worn jacket, he removed a crumpled bag from the other.
“Where be, Fanny?” he called, as he made his way down the gloomy passage to the door at the far end which led into the small scullery and yard at the rear of the tiny property.
“I’m out here Sam, getting your tea like I always am”, came Fanny’s reply from the scullery, “sit yourself down, I have a treat for your tea, a nice bit of freshly boiled chitterling and mash.”
“And I have a treat for you lass as well … a quarter of liquorice allsorts to go with my bit of news”. Sam turned into the back room, hung his waistcoat over the back of a high backed wooden chair, pulled it to the table, and sat down. Twisting in the chair he pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his trouser pocket and smoothed out the creases, but almost before he realised it Fanny was through the door bearing two plates of still warm chitterling and mash. As Sam quickly folded the paper and sat on it, Fanny reached into a deep fold across the front of her floral pinny and spread an assortment of cutlery on the table between them.
“There you are Sam Pomphrey, fit for a king … though how I manage on the money you give me is nothing short of a miracle.”
“Come off it lass, there’s many around here feeds a family of six on less money than you gets each week”, chuckled Sam mischievously, “but this chitterling looks grand lass … he’s a good butcher is old Alfie, though he’s a bit of a bugger with the women”. For the next ten minutes they ate in silence save for the squeaky scraping of knife on china.
With the plates cleared away, Fanny’s voice came from the outside kitchen …“I’ve some jam and custard tarts Sam, do you want a couple with your cup of tea?”
“Just one perhaps lass, and then I’ll tell you my news while we share a few allsorts”.
Sam reached behind him to his waistcoat pocket and fished out a small tin. Flipping it open he took out a half smoked woodbine and coaxed it into shape. On cue came a voice from the kitchen.
“And I’ll thank you not to smoke at the table Sam Pomphrey … at least not ‘till we’ve finished eating.”
With his wife’s footsteps approaching Sam quickly wedged the cigarette behind his ear and slipped the tin back in his pocket, “Sometimes you be like an old witch Fanny”, he chuckled as she elbowed her way through the door and placed the tea and cakes on the table.
“I’ll thank you not to call me a witch Sam Pomphrey, but I can read you like a book and don’t you ever forget it … now what’s this news you keep on about?”
Fanny snatched the bag of sweets from the table and dropped it into the fold of her pinny … “Cakes and tea with your news Sam, and the sweets later”, she said firmly, “and I hope that you haven’t been laid off again, we’re still paying off debts from the last time!”
With the cakes despatched and on his second cup of tea, Sam withdrew the folded paper from beneath him and placed it ceremoniously in the centre of the table.
“My news Fanny”, he said, jabbing the cutting with his finger …“From the Daily Chronicle today … For King and Country”.
“What about it?”, she said, made apprehensive by the slight catch in his throat as he spoke.
“What about it is this”, said Sam grandly, “ In her hour of need, my country needs me”.
Fanny turned the newspaper cutting until she could read it. “It says your country needs you and there’s a picture of a man with a big moustache”.
“That’s Lord Kitchener lass, an’ he’s calling for volunteers to join the British Expeditionary Force to fight the Germans … and today me and the lads have taken the King’s shilling.”
“I don’t understand” she said, “what has that got to do with us?”
“If you read the newspapers and kept up with what’s been going on in the world lass then you would know … since a fortnight ago we are at war with Germany”.
“Yes, I know that”, said Fanny, “they were talking about it in the butchers today, but it don’t involve you and me, it’s a job for the Army”.
As Sam patiently explained the situation and the impact that the recently declared war was likely to have upon their lives, a cold chill ran down Fanny’s back as she struggled to come to terms with what she was being told.
“But we’ve had wars before”, she protested, “I had an Uncle who went away to fight in the Boer War, but ordinary people didn’t get involved … he was a soldier, an’ fighting was what he did for a living … you’re not a soldier”.
“This is different lass, it’s nearer home and we need many more men if we are to fight Kaiser Bill’s army”, explained Sam, “But if enough of us join together to give him a quick bloody nose we’ll nip it all in the bud and it won’t last five minutes, Fred and Wally an’ all me mates have joined up as well … I can’t not go, it’s me duty”.
“But how will I manage with you away?”
“The same as everyone else lass, you’ll all pull together”.
Fanny responded with the only response that she could think of right at that moment …“Well you’re not going an’ that’s final, Sam Pomphrey … here, have a liquorice twist”.
The conversation continued for more than half an hour but changed nothing.
Her Sam was going to war and in a matter of weeks Fanny’s life would change forever.
A week had passed, and the ‘news’ had spread throughout the entire village and it had become common knowledge that almost all the younger men-folk had volunteered to form a company of ‘Pals’ that would be part of the East Lancs. Regiment.
Most of the post that had been delivered around the area that week was in official looking brown envelopes. Of course, there were a few that had not volunteered, but they were in the minority and coming under increasing pressure, some from their own women-folk.
One such was Alfie Baker the Butcher, who, although in his early thirties, was deemed to be fit enough if only because he had, at one time or another, cuckolded almost every other man in the village. The conversation in his shop that week had been spiced with invective, mostly from those women who had already been ticked off on his cheekily headed diary page ‘List of things to do’.
“Should be ashamed of yourself Alfie Baker, if fighting was fornicating you’d be off like a shot!” This from Molly Bishop, now fat and forty, and at ‘number three’ on his list well in the past as far as Alfie was concerned.
But Alfie’s skin was thicker than the pork belly that his shop was famous for…
“I dare not go”, he would say, ruffling through his thick ginger hair, “I’d be too much of a target with this mop … and draw Jerry’s fire on the other lads as well”.
At this point his face would break into a leer and he would tap the side of his nose knowingly …“And anyway, you will all need me to supply your bit o’meat while your men’s away over there, won’t you!”
Where sex was concerned, Alfie rarely took any prisoners!
But behind the scenes Alfie was coming under pressure from his long suffering wife who now recognised an opportunity to repay him for the years of humiliation and heartache that his numerous affairs had caused her down the years.
Unlike most of the other women in the village she would be delighted to see the back of her husband, even if it was only for a few short months. The shop still belonged to her father, now retired, and was destined to be hers when her father passed on. Even if it might mean calling upon her father for guidance, she was perfectly capable of running the shop in Alfies absence.
So night after night she nagged, and then this …
Firstly, through the post one morning Alfie received not one but two white feathers, a sure sign that the villagers were not about to forget the abdication of what they saw as his duty.
Then, the very next morning, a brick with a white feather stuck to it was left on his doorstep along with this ominous (though badly misspelt) message attached … ‘Nexed time its threw winders’.
Harriet Baker ( who some said had a hand in both the letters and the brick episode), practically frog-marched him down to the recruitment centre!
Alfie now had some explaining to do to his latest paramour as well. On the afternoon of the following early closing day, he met her as usual in the bar of a small hotel in nearby Ramsbottom, he driving over in his car, she on the bus.
After some initial small talk over a relaxing double whisky and soda and a small port and lemon, Alfie took the hand of his lady love and stroked it as one might sooth a cat …
“I’ve something to tell you that you’re not going to like”, he said.
“Funny that”, she replied tetchily, withdrawing her hand, “I’ve something to tell you as well”.
Alfie seemed not to hear, and adopting a disconsolate pose he dropped his bombshell … “I’ve given up arguing with Harriet and signed up for the Army with the other ‘Pals’ from the village”.
A slight pause, then she exploded … she was not amused. “Not you as well, what’s wrong with all you men?”
“They all made it too hot for me, not just at home but in the shop, and through the bloody post as well”, bleated Alfie tamely.
“Well damn you Alfie Baker, and damn the war as well … when the bullets start to fly perhaps you will all come to your senses!”
They didn’t retire to room 23 that day, neither did she get around to telling him her ‘something’.
As they made their separate ways home, yet another of Alfie’s affairs passed into history.
Fanny would never have dreamed of visiting a doctor to confirm her suspicions a few years previously … it would simply have cost too much. But since the start of the 1911 National Insurance Act, old Doctor Jarvis had become Panel doctor to pretty well half the village and so, as it was now free, Fanny paid him a visit.
After having examined Fanny briefly on the couch, he moved to wash his hands and called to her over his shoulder … “That’s all Mrs. Pomphrey, you can put your lower garments back on now and come and sit down”.
From his seat behind his desk he peered at her over his glasses as she returned to the desk,
“Everything seems to be as it should be Mrs. Pomphrey, I can confirm that you are somewhere between five and eight weeks into the pregnancy, but I believe that you said you thought that to be the case before you came to see me.”
“Yes Doctor, Mrs. Scudamore down in the village is quite knowledgeable about maternity matters and she thought I was pregnant as well”.
“Hmm! That Mrs Scudamore professes to have more knowledge about ‘maternity’ matters than she should rightly have … I hope you are not thinking about using any of her strictly illegal ‘helpful services’, Mrs. Pomphrey”.
“Oh no doctor, Sam and me really want this baby, but would me being pregnant get him out of going away to war?”
“Ah! So we get to the real reason for this visit then”, said Jarvis wryly.
“Well Mrs. Pomphrey, I’m afraid not … you must understand that these are difficult times and the country needs all the men it can get … even my old University is busy recruiting a company of post graduates to go to the front, though at my age I doubt that they would accept me … have you told Mr. Pomphrey of your condition yet?”
“Not yet doctor, I wanted to be sure”.
“Well then, under all the circumstances perhaps it would be better if you did not tell him about it for the time being. On top of everything else that he may encounter it would be a heavy burden for a man to carry to the front-line”.
“They say it will be all over by Christmas, Doctor”.
“Hmm! Perhaps so, but you can always write to him should the need arise. These are early days, both in the war and in your pregnancy, plenty of time to share our little secret when things have begun to sort themselves out … this is your first pregnancy, and as they say, many a slip b’tween cup and lip”.
Jarvis rose to his feet and gestured to the door …“I think that’s all for now Mrs. Pomphrey, please see me again in a month or two’s time if you feel the need, and on the way out could you ask the next patient to come in, please”.
“Yes Doctor, and thank you”.
“Goodbye Mrs. Pomphrey”.
The next few weeks flew by for the Pomphrey family. By mid-September, Sam, along with the other ‘Pals’, had drifted away with the summer blossom. The village, denuded now of most of its young men, began to brace itself for what was going to be a long winter.
Fanny’s widowed mother had given up her cottage, and along with Fanny’s spinster sister Maud had moved into the ‘two-up two-down’ so as to save the rent. Both Fanny and her sister would be free to seek enough work to replace Sam’s wages, whilst at the same time Fanny’s mother would run the home in their absence. Maud quickly found a job in the munitions factory that opened up in nearby Ramsbottom, but Fanny had found it less easy to find a placement due to her condition with child.
She had confided in Maud about her condition but sworn her to secrecy, and then only because Maud could not understand why Fanny would not work along with her at the munitions factory. Until such time as the pregnancy became obvious to everyone, Fanny did not want it to be a bar to her gaining employment even if only for a few months.
Finally she had to resort to taking in washing from the more affluent homes around the village where the lady of the house was now having to go out to work in order to make ends meet … but it was a poor return for the effort involved.
With Christmas fast approaching, life had taken on a changed routine and any thoughts of the war being over quickly were receding. Letters were beginning to arrive from the front, but they told little of the conditions under which the men were fighting and virtually no information about casualties on either side. But towards the end of October this all changed.
Fanny had taken to reading the newspapers regularly, even though it sometimes meant a choice between a daily paper and a quarter of allsorts. Mons, The Marne, and Solesmes, had become familiar names in the reports from the front, but in late October the first battle of Ypres hit the headlines and rumours of telegrams and ‘killed or wounded in action’ letters began to circulate the village.
It was in early December before a full picture began to emerge, and it was soon evident that the village ‘Pals’ had suffered greatly in the trenches of Ypres. Scores from the village had been killed, wounded, or were simply ‘missing in action’.
Included were Sam Pomphrey. who was shot dead during a bayonet charge and had been buried where he fell, and Alfie Baker the Butcher, who had met his end during a bombardment and was listed as ‘missing presumed dead’. His body was never found.
Within a year Harriet Baker married the young man who she had employed to run the shop following his discharge from the Army after losing a leg in the Ardennes.
In April 1915 Fanny Pomphrey gave birth to a son. She registered him as Samuel Pomphrey, but no one was fooled. Even before he was three months old it was plain to see that he had his father’s red hair and in June of that year she left the village.
In 1916, by then working in a Middlesex Convalescent Home as a ward assistant, Fanny met an Australian infantryman who was recuperating from wounds received on the Somme, wounds that led to him losing an arm and subsequent discharge from the Army.They married in London whilst he was awaiting repatriation, and subsequently set up home in Australia where they went on to raise a family of four, Samuel, two boys, and a girl. Samuel was the only family member with red hair.
Early in 1940 Samuel volunteered to join the Australian Army.
In 1942, 27 year old Sam was captured when Singapore fell to the Japanese. He died in a Burmese POW camp in 1944 following a particularly brutal beating by his Japanese captors. From fellow prisoners who survived the war, Fanny learned that Samuel was often especially harshly treated by the Japanese simply because of the colour of his hair.
Like his father, his body was never found.