Rob stood in front of the City Arms hotel in York, watching out for his friend Col, feeling very small. Since he got back from the front he had stuck close to his wife Annie and his horses, doing what he knew best, working like he always had, keeping his head down. He didn’t even know whether Col would be coming, but if he did then he would finally be able to speak to him and find out what had gone on. He hadn’t seen him, let alone spoken to him, since the day that he had found his bed at the farm empty. He watched the men filing in from the other side of the road. Some were greeting each other loudly and sharing jokes, others were looking quiet and thoughtful, almost as if they didn’t want to be there. A few were injured. There was a sprinkling of familiar faces, although he sometimes had to look twice before he recognised them out of uniform, and memories came trickling back as he watched them walk in. Some of them raised their arm in greeting and he signalled back without moving. He would make sure he spoke to them later on. Not now. It was all a bit much. He wondered what his own face looked like to those watching. If he looked anything like he way he felt they were probably wondering what was the matter with him. This was going to be a very big do. Not the kind of thing he was used to. He wished that Annie was there to look after him the way she had when she was sorting out his clean shirt and telling him to stop nattering on at her. She would know how to behave. He didn’t want to let himself down. There were going to be all sorts of bigwigs there, MP’s, colonels and all sorts, and the lord mayor as well. Important people. Clever people who would run rings round him if he was lured into a conversation with them. The kind of people who would not usually give him the time of day. Where was Col?
He had never been inside the hotel, but the pillars on either side of the entrance and the carved and painted coat of arms above the door made it fairly obvious that it was not for the likes of him. The building shouted loudly of pride and privilege, daring you to match up to its importance before you walked inside. He searched desperately for some confidence. At least he could tell himself that he had earned the right to be there by two years of hard fighting. He had done as much as any of the men in their expensive coats who were arriving in cars. He’d done enough to be able to hold his head up. He was one of the lucky ones. Plenty of others had earned the right to be here, but they had not survived to sit alongside him tonight. He thought of Harold. If Harold had been there he would have been blinking and polishing his glasses and telling him the history of that coat of arms. He would have known what every bit of it meant. Harold had done as much as anybody. He deserved to be here with them, not left behind under a rough wooden cross in a field in France. The shell that got him could have got any one of the men who were streaming through the door in their best clothes. It could have got Rob. What gave him the right to still be here? He wondered how Harold’s wife Emily was getting on. She would be lost. Harold had shown him a letter once. Annie would have done better at comforting her than he had. He had wanted to write to her, tell her that Harold had died quickly and that he hadn’t suffered, but he had never managed to get around to it. He wasn’t much good with words. Anyway, he wasn’t the war office. He couldn’t lie. Harold had suffered and he had seen it. He needed Annie to help him. She would know what to say. When Harold had talked about Emily she had sounded quick witted and clever, and he didn’t want her thinking he was daft. He hoped that she was all right, and that somebody was looking after her. He wondered how many men would be there. Judging from the numbers making their way through the porch it must be going on for two hundred. He had been amazed when he had opened the invitation. It had come from the Colonel himself. He knew that Colonel Meysey-Thompson had money, but paying out for a do like this was still bloody generous of him.
Where was Col? He couldn’t wait much longer, or he was going to end up going in late and that wouldn’t do. Surely Col wouldn’t stay away? He would know that Rob was bound to be here, and if he was worrying abouot coming he should know that they’d be all right together. Maybe he never got his invitation.
When he finally recognised Col’s familiar loping walk on the other side of the road all of Rob’s doubts disappeared. They were both here now. Surely they could talk to each other after all they’d been through, never mind the rest. If they couldn’t then it was a bad job. They’d got through two years of fighting in France, they could get through this. Easily.
Col looked across as if he had heard a gunshot. Rob waved a hand.
“Wait on. I’ll come in with you.”
Rob crossed the road, alert and on his toes like a hunted animal ready to run. Col’s smile wasn’t enough to reassure him.
“Now Rob. How do?”
“Cheer up. You’re going to get a good feed.”
“This lot won’t want to have owt to do with me.”
“Sod ’em. We can eat their grub.”
“How are you managing? Where the hell have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you.”
Col shrugged. He didn’t like talking about it. He still had no work, he still wasn’t thinking straight and he was relying on his mam’s generosity to get himself fed. It was only at the last minute that he had decided to put his suit on and swallow his pride. She had been that proud when she saw the letter and he had been afraid to tell her that he wasn’t coming.
“I’m stopping at home for now. I’m not doing so bad. I’m getting the use of my arm back, bit by bit.”
Col lifted his arm hesitantly. He managed to get it to waist height and then it dropped back to his side like a stone. The effort that it took remained etched into his face. Rob was shocked, not by the movement- he’d seen the arm when it was worse, before the surgery- but by the look on Col’s face. Just being able to lift it like that was something, however little.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“I’ll never be same as I was, like. I’m still jumpy as hell.”
“You and a lot of others.”
He slapped Col on the back and they walked in through the twin pillars and into the foyer of the hotel together. They were shown through to a large room with a beautifully decorated top table at the far end and other tables, neatly arranged in rows with white tablecloths stretched over them. There were proper place settings with names and a posh printed menu set out in front of each of them. The two men stood there open mouthed. They had never been inside anywhere so fancy. All around the room were handmade scrolls showing the names of the places where the brigade had fought. Rob looked at them in awe. Albert. Thiepval. Bethune. Vermelles. Annanquin. Givenchy. La Bassee. Engelbelmer. Mailly-Maillet. St Quentin. Messines. Nieuport. Ypres. Passchaendale. Avesnes.
“By God Col, we saw some spots. I still can’t get my tongue round some of ‘em, but we saw ‘em.”
Col looked at him sourly.
“Oh aye. We saw ‘em all right. Saw ‘em and blew ‘em to smithereens.”
On the top table, in pride of place, were two cartridge cases captured by the brigade, and a large inscribed cup. It had been given to the 161st brigade in thanks by the General in command of the 96th infantry brigade. He had given it to honour the help they had given the 96th infantry in the Houthulst forest raids. It might have been given to honour the whole brigade, but as far as Rob was concerned it only belonged to one person, and that was his friend Harold. He looked at it with a mixture of pride and hopelessness.
“Won’t bring him back will it,” he said quietly.
Col shook his head. Rob didn’t need to explain who he meant. As he looked at it he saw Harold’s shattered face reflected in the shining curve of the silver and he began to shake. Col put his hand on his shoulder and guided him away.
“It’s a grand cup, but it’s not much in return for a life.”
They sat down in their seats and studied the menus. Mushroom soup, followed by roast shoulder of lamb with mint sauce and new potatoes, carrots and peas. A small army of staff began to serve out the food with practised efficiency. Nothing was spoiled and nothing went cold. Rob and Col ate large helpings of everything and pronounced the gravy “bloody good.” In between setting the world to rights with regard to the top table, especially Colonel Meysey-Thompson, they found out what had been happening to those around them since their return from France. Some of the men had managed to pick up the threads of their old lives, some had not. All of them had been changed. It was strange to see the battalion smartly dressed, eating a huge amount of good food, and on their best behaviour. They all agreed that they were a long way from France. Not a mess tin in sight.
Although they hadn’t seen much of Colonel Meysey-Thompson they had heard a lot about him. He had raised the brigade, and the largest scroll right behind his head showed the brigade motto. “Ubique.” “Quo fas et Gloria ducunt.” Rob and Col couldn’t read Latin, but they didn’t need to. They had been taught what it meant and also to believe in the honour and glory it talked about.
Rob told those around him very firmly that Colonel Meysey-Thompson was a hero.
“Horse man you see. What he doesn’t know about racing and horse flesh isn’t worth knowing. Clever bloke an’ all, he’s written books about it. Fought in the Ashanti campaign wi’ Baden Powell. He’s a big man in London now. An M.P.”
Nobody disagreed with him. They all knew about Colonel Meysey-Thompson already, of course, but they didn’t mind hearing it again. It reminded them that they were in important company.
Finally, when the plates were being taken away Col asked after Annie, and Rob was able to tell him his news. He had been carrying it around with him for over a week, like a warm hip flask which he could take a nip out of any time he felt fed up. He shouldn’t be saying anything yet, it was too early, but what the hell.
“There’s a little un on the way.”
After a moments pause Col raised his glass of beer.
“She’s a lass in a million Rob, you must be over t’moon. Take care of her.”
Rob picked his own glass up and treated himself to a long satisfying slurp.
“Course I will. You can come and see for yourself you know. We’ve our own little cottage now. A proper little palace.”
Col looked down.
“I doubt I can cope with that just yet, anyway a man with a gammy arm’s no bloody use on a farm.”
“Manor farm’s your home. There’s no need to stop away.”
“I don’t know. Mr Pattison might not let me anywhere near since I ran off.”
Rob had been talking to Bill Pattison and he knew better.
“He’d have you back Col. I know he would. He knows you’ve not been right, and he knows why. Tonight of all nights you should let yourself feel a bit proud of yoursen, surely?”
Col stared down a his empty plate. Proud? He could think of a lot of words to describe how he felt but not that one. All the same Rob needed to hear it. He didn’t want to spoil his night.
“I am proud,” he told him firmly. “I’m proud of all of us.”
As he looked round at the familiar faces and remembered what they had done it seemed disloyal to feel anything else.
After the meal, when the toasts were made, everybody was in high spirits. The men were full of good food and drink, among friends, and ready to cheer anything. When Sir John Butcher gave his opinion that there could be no better place to try the ex-Kaiser than London, the centre of empire and the home of the ancient liberties of this land, there was a round of applause so loud that you could have heard it out in the street. When he added that he hoped that those present would make sure that Britain was worthy of the great victory which had been gained the assembled company almost burst with pride, clapping seriously and murmuring their agreement. Of course they would. They would see to it. Who better? The loudest cheers came for their commander Colonel Cotton who had led them through the war, and for Colonel Meysey-Thomson’s final speech. He told them that they had thrown themselves into the breach and upheld at a word the honour of old England. That sounded like a very fine thing to have done, whatever it was. They might not have felt much like heroes at the time, but that didn’t stop them cheering what they wanted to believe, and when Colonel Meysey-Thompson said that he wanted no greater honour than that which they had thus accorded him the noise of their pride almost blew the roof off.
It was only afterwards, while the men listened to the Ebor Quartette party give the entertainment that Rob was able to hear himself think. As the sound of the two interweaving violins, a viola and a mournful cello drifted over the tables his mind slipped away, back to the devastation on the western front. He closed his eyes and found himself standing on the ridge of a vast shell hole, kicking rocks down into the empty chasm and looking out across blackened tree stumps towards the shattered remains of a small village. Now he was back home in the selfsame spot, just as if it had never happened. That couldn’t be right. There had been a lot of talk tonight about winning and honour and justice but he hadn’t seen much of those in France. Not that this was the place to say so. Of course he had cheered along with everybody else, and given the chance he would cheer all over again, he had cheered as loudly as any of them, but surely somebody somewhere, somebody a damn sight cleverer than him, had to try to make some sense of it all? Otherwise what was the point? What had the men and horses he had seen blown to bits been left dead for? Too many to have all their names remembered. Too many to bring home. No, he had no objection to cheering, but he did think they should have put one more place name up there among the scrolls decorating the walls. Just one more, because he had only been to one place as far as he could make out, and that was hell.
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.