In her rounded and softly moulded features, Mother’s eyes were deeply seated and of a soft gentle grey. The way she dressed was reminiscent of the turn of the century. Her bodice, fashioned with small white buttons, she wore high to the neck. On her breast she sported a porcelain brooch, a present from Father that she had worn since they were married more than forty years ago. Her hair was pulled tightly back from her forehead and worn in a bun. I had never seen her hair loose. Like her relationship with my father, that was something she kept.
“Be home before dark John” she said. And there was no mistaking the anxiety in her voice while she adjusted the scarf about my neck, the scarf she had knitted for my brother Edward the previous winter.
When mother’s eyes strayed towards my father seated in his high backed chair by the fire, he turned slowly, the glance exchanged, though heaven knows how for my father was totally blind. In spite of his blindness theintonation lay between them all the same. I suppose that’s what happens when a man and a woman have been married as long as they have or have had as many children.
I was the youngest of ten; five brothers and four sisters, or I would have been if my six year old nephew Lenny hadn’t joined us. Lenny was my sister’s illegitimate child, not that I fully understood what had happened to bring a return of my sister Kate to our humble cottage, sporting a swollen belly and two swollen eyes to match. Kate had once been a pretty girl before she met and married the man she called ‘the major’. Lenny wasn’t the major’s child. The major had taken her in but Lenny got frightened when he major hit his mother. When Mother spoke about the major she hinted that he wasn’t really a major; that he hadn’t even fought in any war and when she said it the familiar trace of bitterness punctuated her words. I knew it wasn’t because of my sister’s predicament. I had three brothers, Albert, Arthur and George fighting the war in Belgium in a town calledYpres. Arthur had left behind a wife and a six month old infant son.
Laying my bike against the hedge beside the rail tracks I sat down on the grass, opened up my lunch box and began to tuck in to cheese sandwiches made with mother’s home baked bread, to find that the bread was still warm. The disused railway sidings were my usual Saturday afternoon haunt, the tracks abandoned now; something to do with the relocation of the railway closer to town. The deserted old sidings brought a return of the sadness I’d experienced on waking this morning. The sadness was so overwhelming it almost made me cry, but fifteen year old boys don’t cry. There was no reason for the sadness but I just couldn’t help it. I would be sixteen next April and I knew in my heart that if this war went on any longer I would be sent to the Front too. I heard from Edward they were taking lads as young as sixteen and seventeen as soldiers. ‘But whatever you do John, please don’t tell Mother. It would break her heart if you went as well’ Edward had warned. Mother wouldn’t stand in my way of course. We were at war. We were also British and it was expected that every young man in our village should wish to fight for his country.
It was late September. Warmed by the unaccustomed afternoon sunshine, my belly filled with hot sweet tea and my mother’s bread, I suppose I must have dozed, for coming abruptly awake I realised that it was already dark. In the distance I heard the screech of a night owl – the only sound to penetrate the stillness. I had no watch so I had no idea of the time. I could only guess how late it was and Mother’s words ‘be home before dark John’ slipped into my head once more. Dark! It was already dark. Jumping up, brushing off my trousers and grabbing the bike, I leaped onto the saddle and pedaled as fast as I possibly could in the direction of the village. I knew I had to make it home before Mother discovered that her youngest son was absent from supper.
The coldness of pale moonlight, a halo of steely silver, danced amidst the hedgerow and lent the road not only a sense of eeriness, but also of loneliness and desolation. Mother would certainly be worried by now. Why? I didn’t know, after all I was old enough and strong enough to take care of myself. The depression of earlier suddenly hit me again as I approached the village and the two white walled thatched cottages huddled closely together at the side of the road. The feeling of sadness was so strong now that the tears filling my eyes blinded me a little and I was forced to swipe an impatient hand across my face. What did I have to cry about anyway? I was almost a grown man and grown men don’t usually cry about missing supper. The light from the cottage window, illuminated by the flicker of the oil lamps, was a welcoming sight.
Suddenly and without warning I saw ahead of me what appeared to be a gigantic glowing light, but no kind of light that I had ever seen before. Hanging suspended in the air it must have been at least six feet tall and about three to four feet wide. It was also opaque; solid so that I was unable to see either the road or the surrounding area through it. Cylindrical in shape it appeared to shimmer like a heat haze on a hot summer day.
I had already dismounted. Only the cold grip of the bike’s handlebars beneath my clutching fingers indicated that I was awake and not dreaming, although my boots seemed to be fixed as if secured by nails to the road. My heart banged so loudly in my chest I thought I would faint. I stood there for what seemed a lifetime, rooted to the spot while the cylinder shaped light continued to pulse as if endowed with a life of its own. I only managed to tear my gaze away from the thing with the realisation that the hour was late and I visualised Mother regarding the clock uneasily when I had not returned.
Thinking about Mother made me realise that I could move again. The light had given me quite a shock at first but no light, as strange as it was, was going to prevent me from getting home. Bravado fuelling me, I guided the bike forward. It was obvious the light had no intention of letting me pass so I thought to outwit it by steering the bike off to the left of it. Intercepting my actions as if we were playing some odd game of chess, it moved in the same direction. When I attempted to veer to the right, the light definitely and defiantly had a mind of its own, for it also moved in that direction. I was beginning to grow really afraid now as my bravado of earlier evaporated. Nonetheless, when my mother’s anxious face rose up before me in my mind’s eye I knew what I had to do. I had no alternative but to pass straight through the light. Closing my eyes tightly I gripped the handlebars until my knuckles were white. Muttering a half remembered prayer I’d heard in church, I marched deliberately and with determination head on into the light. As I did so it exploded with such a deafening ferocity it almost shattered my ear drums and thundered through my head like a hundred stampeding horses.
Not daring to glance behind at the outcome of the explosion I jumped back onto the bike and as if all the legions of hell were after me I raced toward home. I wasn’t about to hang around to discover if anyone else had heard the noise, though of course they must have done. An explosion of that magnitude had to have been heard for miles around. Tomorrow I would find out. Tonight I was much too afraid to even think about it.
When I finally reached home I found Mother, Father and my brother Edward already seated at the supper table. “John, whatever’s the matter?” Mother exclaimed, rising from her chair and glancing at the clock anxiously.
Wiping his moustache and lips on his napkin Edward said “We were getting worried John. It’s late, and not like you to miss your supper.”
Still panting and breathless from my wild ride, I enquired if any of them had heard the terrible explosion tonight. Oddly all three shook their heads. It was Edward who asked what explosion I was talking about. But they must have heard it. My ears were still ringing. Guiltily I stole a glance at the old grandfather clock in the corner of the room. It was ten minutes to ten. No wonder they were all so concerned.
The following day I made it my mission to enquire in the village if anyone had heard the explosion, particularly at the two old cottages along the road where the light had shattered when my bicycle collided with it. Strangely no one had.
It was a week later that Edward and I returned from working on the farm to find my mother slumped in her favourite armchair, my father’s glaucoma-ridden eyes stained with an unaccustomed wetness. I saw that the hand he rested on mother’s shoulders was trembling badly. Kate was there too. She held chubby little Lenny in her arms, tears running unashamedly down her cheeks. A black edged letter I recognised as a telegram was clutched in her other hand. She passed it to Edward. I had never seen such a letter before but young as I was I knew exactly what it meant.
“It’s Arthur. He… He’s been killed in Belgium” my sister blurted out, cuddling her son to her bosom protectively.
“What happened?” I heard Edward ask, a thickness in his voice.
“There was an explosion in the trenches” Mother said.
“What time did it happen?” Edward asked and I felt his arm slip around my shoulders.
“About nine thirty, ten o’clock, last Saturday night.” Kate’s words ended on another broken sob. I froze. The exact time I had seen the light and heard the explosion that no one else seemed to have heard…
Eighteen months later I was sent to the Front as a boy soldier.
In March 1918, badly wounded in the leg, I was honourably discharged from the Army. I was almost nineteen years old.
The image above is of my uncle, Albert Smith, and comrade who served with him in the Royal Berkshire Regiment in the 1914/18 War. My uncle was one of the first to be called up, and was known as an Old Contemptible. He had spent his first Christmas behind enemy lines, just after the recent First battle of Ypres. Queen Mary had dispatched some Christmas goodies, mostly consisting of tobacco, to the troops.
My uncle spoke of a sighting of the Angel of Mons, which is now believed to have been nothing more than a peculiar cloud formation. However, as feelings ran high during that time, the soldiers believed that it was a sign from God.