The stories are based on fact, but fictionalised, filtered through my imagination, and through others' memories, as well as documents. So, don't count on them for total historical accuracy.
My own interpretation of the iincident when James ( my great-grandfather) chased Alf ( my grandfather) with a shotgun. I have added details about the bike ride and the hat, and the school scene, based on incidents recounted by Sarah and Alf. When I was in my teens I didn't listen very closely to what my grand-parents told me. The fine detail is all mine.
“Get off my land, you little sod! How many times have I told you to leave my girl alone! She wants nowt to do with your drunken lot!”
James had grabbed the gun he used for shooting rabbits, and was holding it ready to fire.
“Dad, leave him alone!” shouted Sarah, “He’s never done anything to hurt me, or you!”
“Ah, but he will. You know what his lot are like. I’m surprised he found time to come out of the pub to see you.”
He raised the gun, and prepared to take aim. Alf had decided discretion was surely the better part of valour tonight, and didn’t care to argue with a shotgun. Out of the barn and across the yard, out through the gate and on to the track.
James heard his footsteps crunching along the track, and in the darkness he fired a shot in the air.
“Get out of here. And don’t you dare come back. I’ll pepper your skinny backside for you, you young devil. Get on with you, go and sell your fish and chips.”
Sarah ran after her father, pulling at his arm. “Stop it. You don’t even know him.”
“Mebbe not,” replied James, shaking her off, “but I know where he comes from. You’ll not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, lass. You can do better for yourself.”
And he fired another shot in Alf’s direction. “Get back down the pit where you belong. And while you’re at it, tell that money-grabbing aunt of yours she deserves to roast in hell!”
He turned to his daughter. “And you, get back in the house, and don’t let me see you out here again tonight – or any other night.”
“I’d like to see you try to stop me,” she said, under her breath. But she did as she was told.
She went upstairs, taking her candle to her room, and listened to the voices downstairs in the kitchen.
“Look, Em, I didn’t work down the pit for ten years, to get some money so that our two would marry miners. I don’t want our Sarah throwing herself away on one of that crew of good-for-nothings. I did think the vicar was interested.”
“Well, Jim, she seems quite struck on this Alf, and she’s not a daft flibbertigibbet. Do you want her to end up an old maid?”
“You know what his family are like. There’s his uncle George’s lot, we used to live next-door to, they don’t have two ha’pennies to rub together, he spends every penny they earn down the Miners’ Arms. And that Liza Lakin doesn’t have friends, just debtors. And she’s no better than she ought to be, I’ve heard.”
“Come on, Jim, she’s not done a bad job raising the lad. No-one forced her to adopt him when his dad died, you know. She’s got a good heart.”
“She hides it well. And I dare say she had reasons of her own. I do know she always makes damn sure she gets her money back when she’s lent it out.”
“I can’t say as I blame her for that. ‘appen the lad’ll have some sense an’ all.”
“Go on, mother,” thought Sarah, “he’ll take more notice of you than me.”
She heard her father go outside again, having a last look across the fields, shutting the hens in the big shed. He whistled the two house dogs, and gave the guard dog a pat on the head, before making sure he was on the long chain in his kennel. She knew Alf wouldn’t risk coming back tonight – the dogs would be sure to bark and rouse her parents. She thought about creeping out after they’d gone to bed, but it was a good two miles down the lane to Alf’s house. It might not be that easy to find him if she did go – he could be at any of half a dozen of his relatives or friends. She had no desire to make an exhibition of herself. Any road, she knew she’d see him tomorrow.
James was up before six as usual, and let the hens out and milked the house cow. When he came in for his breakfast, Sarah was up, and ready to go out to work at the local infants’ school. Dressed for work, in clothes as fashionable as you could get in Mansfield, her slim upright figure (she was so proud of her eighteen-inch waist) looked out of place in the farm kitchen. She passed her dad a cup of tea, and set off on foot to cover the two miles down the lane.
One of the inspectors was in that day, and testing the six-year-olds on their knowledge of scripture. “Now,” he said, “when one of his fifty sheep was lost the good shepherd spent all day looking for it. He let all the other forty-nine run around, and spent all his time searching for just that lost one. Does any one know why?”
One hand shot up, a scruffy boy, who lived on a farm. “’Appen it were ‘tup,” he said. Sarah smiled. “Good for you, Billy,” she thought. “You know more about it than he does.”
Four o’clock came, and Sarah sat in the schoolroom, tidying up, and writing notes.
At half past, she picked up her bag, and went out, “Goodbye, Mrs Pountney, “she called, “see you tomorrow!”
As she walked along the High Street, a familiar figure caught her up. “Your old man was in a state last night, wasn’t he? I thought I’d have my hindquarters full of buck shot. I’d have stayed, but I couldn’t afford a new pair of trousers.”
“Oh, never mind him! He likes to show us all who’s boss. He thinks he is. My mam can twist him round her little finger, though. Best keep out of his way for a couple of weeks until he’s calmed down.”
“I dunno. I think I should buy you that ring, and then I’ll go and see him. Tell him straight, I want you to marry me.”
“No, Alf, you leave it for a couple of weeks. I can dig my heels in as well as him, and I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Come on in, let’s get a cup of tea. Aunt Eliza’s gone to ‘t shops, so she won’t be there to moan if we walk on her clean floor. And Uncle Charlie’s not back from ‘t pit yet. He’s on back shift today.”
“All right, but I won’t stay more than half an hour.”
They walked past the house where Sarah’s family used to live before they’d moved out to Peppercorn Lane. Sarah still felt this was her home. She was sixteen before her dad had rented the farm, and she missed the mining village. Oh, she liked telling people where she lived, it sounded a cut above the rest, and she liked the countryside for days out, but it was a bit too quiet living there, and a bit mucky for her tastes.
A couple of weeks later, some of the people from the church were going on a Saturday walk in the country, ending up with lunch in Pleasley. Alf said to Sarah, “Hey, Nan, let’s borrow my cousins’ bicycles and meet up with the crowd at the tea-shop.”
They tried the machines out earlier on the week, and after a few tries Sarah could keep upright. They arranged to call round to pick them up on the Saturday morning.
Sarah’s parents were too busy with the farm to go on the walk, and her younger sister was on her honour to keep quiet about it.
Saturday morning was fine and clear. Sarah wore her smart clothes and her new hat, green felt, with purple flowers. They put some sandwiches and a bottle of lemonade in the bike baskets. No-one could ride a heavy bicycle fast in the clothes most women wore before the First World War. They followed a roundabout route, proceeding in a stately manner, walking up the hills, hand in hand with the bicycles on the outside. They stopped often for a breather. Sarah was finding it hard going. “Wheer yo cum frum?” Alf said, putting on a Black Country accent he’d copied from one the miners. “Caw yo roid oop the ’ills? Ain’t they got no’ills in Beerminham? Oi’ll efter tek yo ter Dudley Zoo.”
Going downhill was fun, but Sarah had to tuck her flying skirt in round the saddle to make sure it didn’t catch in the wheel. When they reached the tea-shop, the group of walkers had just arrived. Pots of tea appeared, and plates with sandwiches, scones, teacakes, fruit cakes, sponge cakes, good-sized helpings fit to feed someone who had walked all morning.
On the way back the sky clouded over. It darkened and suddenly Alf could feel the cold drops of rain wetting his face. They sat down to shelter under a tree, but it was less use than the umbrella they had not brought. It took less than five minutes to soak them through. Sarah started to shiver, and then she noticed Alf was laughing. “I really don’t see what’s so funny,” she said. “We’ll catch our deaths of cold.”
Alf still laughed. “Just look at you! And your hat!”
“This hat cost me 10 shillings! It’ll be ruined.”
“But look at your face! What a lovely colour.”
Sarah had a mirror in the handbag she had been carrying in the bike basket all day. She took one look, and suddenly the cost of the hat didn’t matter. The monstrous green and purple face looking back at her made her catch her breath. When she breathed out, she was hooting with laughter too.
Alf put his arms round her. “Never mind, me duck, I love you even more with a green face.” They decided they were going to tell her parents that evening that they were going to get married. “He can like it or lump it,” said Sarah, “I’m over twenty-one, and I’ll marry you, no matter what.”
(When Sarah did marry Alf, in July 1914, her Uncle Joseph gave her away. Her parents were there, they gave the “happy couple” a cheque, and they had the reception at the farm. From a newspaper cutting about the wedding.)
I don’t remember the War. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even conceived. But still it was a malign presence squatting over parts of my childhood. It had destroyed people I should have known. My grandparents displayed some family photographs in their front room. One of them was a pretty two year-old-child, with golden curls, wearing a white dress. I was surprised to learn this was a boy – my Uncle Frank, who had died of meningitis when he was fifteen. Seven years before the War. He was dead. We knew he was dead. He was under the sad little cross in Skegby churchyard.
Another photograph was smaller. A slightly built young man with a cheeky grin, was wearing Air Force uniform, with his cap set at the compulsory jaunty angle. This was my other uncle, Bernard, who had gone to fight in World War Two, and had never come home again.
I used to tell myself stories about him. I imagined that he had been rescued from the sea; he was still in prison somewhere and would escape soon; he had met a beautiful girl in a distant country, she looked after him, nursed him back to health and they were married; he had lost his memory and one day it would come back; he would walk through the door, looking just as he had in the photograph, as if he were coming in for his meal after a day at work. Bernard had been dead for seven years when I was born. Scarcely time to draw breath for his parents, but an age for me. After all “during the War” was before my life-time. It might as well have been the Battle of Hastings.
In 1939, Bernard was seventeen and joined the Air Force – he was glad to have a job. After he left school, he started to work as a mechanic, but during the slump years, his boss had not been able to keep him on at the garage. He was soon in Wiltshire at the RAF training school near Calne.
Bernard wrote letters to his family- they arrived with the censor’s blue pencil struck through any details of where he was going and when. His letters were determinedly cheerful, and for a Mansfield lad who had never travelled far, it must have been quite an adventure.
Bernard went out to the Middle East in March 1940. Not by air, though. The men left camp on a Tuesday morning, and crossed the Channel overnight in a boat designed to hold about half the number of passengers it was carrying– 500 of them had to sleep on the floor. After a lengthy wait at a station, they boarded a train. Their train took 35 hours to cross France. Each time it stopped at a station, the young men chatted to the local people, trying out the French they had learned at school not so long ago.
By Saturday they were on a ship heading for Egypt, crossing a choppy Mediterranean, though “up to press I haven’t seen anyone seasick.”
The way he described it, Bernard’s life didn’t sound too bad. “The place is more like a holiday camp than an RAF station – no one ever worries us at all” he wrote. They got up at five, worked from 5.30 to 7.15, had breakfast, paraded at 8.15, worked until noon. Then they were allowed out until 1.30 am. “Nice work –eh!” he said. He shared his tent with “quite a merry crew who don't care what happens as long as they have their beer.”
He visited Cairo – there were only three drawbacks, he said, the language, the money and the cost of living. Egyptian street traders pestered the lads, but you could get hold of things cheaply if you were prepared to bargain. “He tried to sell me a fly-swatter for ten piastres, but I argued with him and eventually I got it for two”. He had seen the pyramids from the air and was looking forward to visiting them. By May the temperature had reached 92 degrees, and there was little chance of it cooling down before November.
The squadron moved out into the desert, and the young men got down to the coast for a swim quite often. “As you probably realise, that is the only way of a bath because we are rationed on fresh water. It is simply marvellous, going into the sea for half an hour and then lying on the beach sunbathing afterwards.”
In July he mentioned that the squadron had lost a few men. “ One of them, a pal of mine, who was an Air Gunner went on a raid and his machine was hit by shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire. The pilot tried to get it back over the border, but failed and they came down in the Mediterranean. The crew were picked up by the Italian Navy. Apparently they are now being held prisoners of war in Libya.”
By September, Bernard had taken an Air Gunnery course, and was looking forward to “going over Libya very shortly to see what I can do behind a gun in action. I have not been given the opportunity as yet but I shall be full out for it when I can go.”
On the 20th September he wrote with the news that he was to be promoted to sergeant, and promised to send photographs as soon as he could. He had some taken, but had torn them up and burnt them, because they were absolutely horrible.“…when I get a spot of leave, I will have some more taken, with the A.G.'s badge, W.Ops badge and stripes on, and shake you - your son a sergeant - absolutely astounding!!”
Bernard’s letters were full of questions about life at home, too, asking them to make sure Pearl wrote to him as promised (“no cracks either please!”). Was his sister Celia working at the Children’s Hospital now? What sort of work was his dad doing with the lorry, now that they had commandeered it for war work? He wanted to see photographs of the new air-raid shelter in the garden; he wished his dad many happy returns. The family wrote back, sent newspapers, handkerchiefs, knitted items and cakes, and hoped the war would finish quickly.
Then, on 3rd October, while Celia was helping her mother with some wall-papering, there was a knock on the door. Sarah looked out of the window. “It’s the telegraph boy. Something’s happened.” She went to open the door, took the flimsy brown envelope and came back inside. “Put the kettle on,” she said, automatically as she tore the telegram open. It stated baldly “Regret inform you your son, 642942 Sergeant Shelton reported missing 1/10 Letter follows.”
A few days later the letter came, giving words of cold comfort, and the tiniest scrap of hope. The plane had failed to return to its base after an operational flight. “This does not necessarily mean that he is killed or injured.”
About six weeks later, another letter arrived from the base in Egypt. “deepest sympathy…..the aircraft…was seen to hit the sea. It is not known whether any of the crew escaped. Sergeant Shelton had proved his worth on many occasions and he is a real loss to the squadron.”
For several months his parents hovered between hope and despair, and finally felt just the numb desire to know for certain. In March 1941, another official letter arrived. “…there can now be no reasonable grounds for believing that he can still be alive. It is now proposed to take official action to presume his death.”
Bernard must be dead, but it was hard to accept without a body.
My grandmother, Sarah, wrote to the parents of the two other airmen who had gone missing in the same plane. She offered sympathy for their “trouble”- “I will not say loss because we hope and pray that all three are somewhere safe and sound." Gradually, they all had to accept that their sons were not coming home.
Sarah kept the telegram and the letters, in an old writing paper box, for the rest of her life. Shut away with these was a thick curl of Frank’s dark blonde hair, lovingly stored in a box of the kind where jewellers keep rings or ear-rings. Fifty-five years later, in 1995, I found the box, in a cupboard at Celia’s house, the morning before her funeral.
I hope to edit this soon - it was one of the first pieces I wrote when I started taking writing more seriously, about five years ago.