Monday 18 – Tuesday 19 June 2012
‘Tell my mother that I died with dignity,’ his voice faded, eyes closed, and the last breath escaped his body as the mortar shells fell like rain around them. Cradled in his sergeant’s arms, Barnaby Martin, once an enthusiastic and vibrant young man was now just a slab of worthless meat.
‘No, son, I won’t tell her that. I’ll tell her the truth – you died a bloody hero, with honour and with the respect of your troop,’ Sergeant Wilson said.
* * * * *
It was a humble house, set back from the street like every other house in the neighbourhood. The one redeeming feature of the dirty, grey building was the brightly coloured front door. The Martin residence was furnished with a deep green, Georgian door. It was, surprisingly, the only green door in the street, making the Martin house easily recognisable for William Wilson. He limped along the sidewalk, supporting himself with a fine mahogany cane, his gloved hand covering the polished brass wolf head handle.
Pausing momentarily in front of the green door, Wilson briefly reconsidered his excursion. He had never met Jane Martin, and from everything young Barnaby had told the troop, she was a woman with whom it would be dangerous to trifle. He wondered how she would react to his visit. He was about to find out.
The green door slowly opened, and a strikingly beautiful woman stepped from the warmth of the house into the crisp autumn air. Lean and tall, she bore only a passing resemblance to the woman in the photograph that Barnaby always carried upon his person.
‘Mrs. Martin,’ Wilson said, ‘I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?’
She quickly turned to address the man who had spoken.
‘If you’re selling something, I’m most certainly not interested. And presently, I’m rather busy,’ she said curtly.
Wilson faltered, regaining his power of speech only as she passed him on the sidewalk and strode off in the opposite direction from whence he had come.
‘No, no, Mrs. Martin, I’m not selling anything,’ he called after her, ‘this is about your son, Barnaby.’
His name stopped Jane in her tracks. Her long dead son’s name falling from the mouth of a lame stranger would be a source of embarrassment to a woman of Jane’s standing should anyone overhear. She returned to stand in front of Wilson, and looked him over, from head to toe.
‘You stand like a soldier, sir,’ she said.
‘Aye, Mrs. Martin, I was sergeant of your son’s troop. I’ve long since retired though. Not much use these days,’ he lifted his walking stick a little to emphasise his point, ‘for a disabled soldier.’
She pursed her lips and squinted, assessing the level of threat that this man posed to her.
‘You’d better come inside if you’re going to insist on speaking of Barnaby.’
Jane strode ahead of Wilson, unlocking and opening the door. She waited for Wilson. He stopped at the crossover and admired the Georgian door.
‘It’s just like he described. Deep emerald green. Beautiful, indeed,’ Wilson said more to himself than Barnaby’s mother. He thought she sneered at the mention of his name, but couldn’t be sure. The war did strange things to those who survived; played tricks of the mind, and ear on them.
‘The first door to your left, sir. You’ll wait there while I fetch tea. You do drink tea, don’t you? Can’t be sure with you fighting types,’ she called out as she made her way through the hall and into the back kitchen.
‘Tea would be lovely, Mrs. Martin. And the name’s Wilson. William Wilson.’
He looked around the sitting room. It was decorated in pinks and frills.
‘No sign of a man then,’ Wilson whispered to himself as he sat, uncomfortably, on the small fabric sofa. He waited patiently for Barnaby’s mother to return, but was surprised when she did, her stealth catching him off-guard.
She placed the tray holding the teapot and cups and saucers on the small, wooden table in front of Wilson. She did not speak until the cups of tea were poured and she was comfortably positioned in her favourite chair, directly opposite Wilson. He sipped at the tea with as much courtesy as he could muster. Polite society manners were difficult for a man as clumsy as Wilson, and knowing this, he rarely placed himself in the position of having to consume food and beverage in a polite, and well-mannered way.
‘What is it that you wanted to tell me, Sergeant Wilson? And why are you informing me now?’ she asked.
‘If I may start with your second enquiry . . . the war has a funny way of getting in the way of things. It makes it difficult to keep regular schedules when you’re being shot at, or having bombs dropped on you from a great height. And then there’s the fact that many men went through long periods of convalescence, including me.’ Wilson tapped his dicky leg with his walking stick, and Jane sneered. She did not like talk of the war. It had taken everything from her, as it had done to many other women with whom she was acquainted.
‘Barnaby’s dying wish was for me to stop by and speak with you, Mrs. Martin,’ Wilson said almost whispering.
‘Sergeant Wilson, my son made his choice regarding his family the day that he signed up to fight. That’s all there is to know,’ she snarled in response.
‘No, it’s not, Mrs. Martin. Your son died a hero on the battlefield –’
‘My son,’ she interrupted, ‘died, and that’s it. I very much doubt that he was a hero. He was born as the result of some parasite forcing himself upon me, raping me. Barnaby did nothing when he was here. Didn’t achieve a single thing. He was a lazy, good-for-nothing, bane of my existence. I wish he’d never been born at all. And then, after everything that I gave him, he ran away and left this family, left me alone to fend for myself, while he lived the life of Riley in some foreign country. He was nothing,’ she spat out the vitriol.
Shocked by her words, Wilson lowered the cup and saucer, with a shaking hand, to the table. His lips curled into a snarl, and he refused to bite back his response.
‘Madam, I’ll have you know that Private Barnaby Martin saved the lives of many in his troop. He ran the gauntlet of enemy fire every day to ensure that vital messages were passed from the frontline to the commanders who were sending us out to slaughter. He pulled injured men to safety from above the trenches. He raised his head above the trenches to fire upon the enemy. That boy did not stop until he’d tried to save every British soldier that he could. He was a hero. He died a hero. And furthermore, madam, he spoke highly of you every day of his life out there on the battlefield.’
Jane Martin’s mouth repeatedly opened and closed during Wilson’s speech, making her look like an oversized goldfish waiting to be fed. Wilson stood and ambled his way to the front door. She did not follow. As he turned to slam the door behind him, he called out, ‘It is you, Mrs. Martin, who is nothing. It is you who has led a worthless life, save for the one moment when you gave life to Barnaby. You are a bitter and twisted woman who has, it would seem, led an entirely unexamined life of entitlement and assumed privilege in your nice little house with the green Georgian door that Barnaby was so proud of. Your son fought for your right to continue with this pathetic existence. He died for it. Show some respect for the fallen.’
In the sitting room, Jane sat alone, once again, humiliated and embarrassed by the words of a stranger, and lost without the one person who continued to love her in spite of everything she did and said. From a small, cheaply framed photograph on the corner table in the sitting room, Barnaby, eternally nineteen and resplendent in full military uniform, watched his mother weep.