In the spring of 1946, ex-corporal Sam Richardson returns home from the forgotten war” in Burma to his hometown of Wigton in Cumbria, England, to the joyful relief of his young wife, Ellen. He finds a town in which, seemingly, little has changed: the same twisting alleys, weavers’ cottages, and medieval archways; and the same lack of prospects for an uneducated, working-class man like himself.
Sam, however, has changed. The war has not only left him with traumatic memories, which he tries to suppress, but also given him greater self-confidence and broadened his horizons. From her wartime jobs, Ellen, too, has gained a sense of independence she does not want to give up. And then there’s six-year-old Joe, a baby when Sam volunteered, who can scarcely remember his father. As all three strive to adjust, the bonds of love and loyalty become stretched to the breaking point.
With this absorbing story of one family, Melvyn Bragg conveys the experience of millions in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Soldier’s Return is a taut, profoundly moving novel by a writer at the height of his powers.
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What was he frightened of, she wondered, as he burrowed his knees into her thighs and clutched at her through the cotton nightgown. She had been awake for some time, trying not to cough. In the hollow of the mattress, swaddled in too many blankets, the young woman felt a film of sweat on her brow and on her throat. The child had been uneasy all through the night; twice he had called out and prodded her with small soft fists. She, too, prickled with restlessness.
She tried to shift away from him, needing to stretch, but he held on more fiercely and even moaned a little. Perhaps they had had the same fearful and excited dreams, she thought, as the boy nuzzled his face between her shoulder blades.
Despite herself she began to cough, a barked, repressed sound which shook through her. The boy flung away and rolled over, leaving a narrow channel between them – a sword's width. The young woman turned on to her back, breathed in as deeply as she could and felt relief ripple through her body. Her hands ran down it, as if smoothing it out, making it ready.
After a while she reached across to touch her son and closed her eyes to meet the comforting slow surge of dark colour and swirl of movement, a universe of its own in her mind. She would travel there until it was time to start the big day. What time he would return she had not been told, but the day had been named. After the years, it had come so suddenly she felt breathless.
About two hours later, less than a mile outside the town, the black iron locomotive broke down again and stood inert in the bare Northern landscape. A groan ran through the carriages crammed with soldiers on the last lap of their odyssey. Still more patience demanded, even so near the end.
Sam was next to the window. He looked out and lit up. His batch would be first off. The train was headed for the west coast, calling at all the small towns and villages along the way, decanting soldiers. These men had made the longest journey back from the war.
Beside him were the rest of the solo whist school which had been in continuous session for almost six weeks, since the last sighting of the shores of India. A few miles back, in Carlisle, the regimental city, they had finally put the game to bed. Sam had vowed never again to play solo whist as long as he lived.
After the stop, the men dozed again. They were as practised in catnaps as they were in drill. Only Jackie was wide awake, rarely taking his eyes off Sam. He had not been part of Sam's section in Burma but, on the boat, he had used the fact that they had known each other back in the little town as an excuse to tag along. Sam smiled at him and said I'm browned off with this'. The stopping and queuing and the many unexplained halts had been just about bearable until now. With their town only a few fields away, a rush of frustration strained at his practised tolerance.
'I went mushrooming in a field over there one time,' Jackie said, nervously pointing it out. 'Never seen the like. Thousands. Whiter than white. Stripped the lot. Straight up to "King" Haney's in Water Street for him to get them off to Newcastle on the nine o'clock train. Made a fortune. Took the lot'
Jackie's prattling had aroused a couple of the others and all of them now stared out of the motionless window looking at the dawn light stroking their native fields.
They were home. They really were. They were home. They could let the expectation loose now. Just across those fields, hidden over the hill whose rim was being more and more firmly pencilled by the steel light, was their town. They had made it back.
Sam stared hard. His mother had worked on the farm over there. He had courted Ellen in a lane which twisted down to this railway line from the Carlisle road. Abruptly he yanked the leather strap and let the window fall down. The air was so very sweet, the sounds, the farmyard, hedgerow, a light wind in the wires, just as seductive.
'Let's walk!' It was spoken like an order.
They followed him. It would be for the last time, and they knew it. Ex-corporal (once busted) Samuel Richardson, late of D Company, Ninth Battalion, The Border Regiment, 17th India Division, 14th Army. Late, too, of the war against the Japanese in Burma, and an awesome victory, sometimes fought out hand to hand, ancient warfare in sub-tropical violence against the fanaticism of a cruel warrior race. Now finally he was leading men home.
Kitbags were shouldered, presents, souvenirs and bush hats carried carefully. They set off along the railway line, soon hitting the sleepers, soon in step.
Jackie looked behind and saw others deserting the marooned train. 'All the Wigton lads are with us!' he said. He was fearful of the consequences. 'They'll have kittens up top.'
'We're out of the army now,' Sam soothed him. 'They can't touch us any more, Jackie.'
He led the men towards a long field which would take them to the very edge of the town. Cattle and a few sheep stumbled and scampered out of the way of the half-dozen men who had scaled out and now moved, from deep discipline, in martial order. In that placid Cumbrian field, in the whitening light of first morning, Sam saw lines of the same men, many thousands of miles away, in their dark jungle-green uniforms, bayonets fixed on short Lee Enfield rifles, the vicious Gurkha kukri in their belts, fifty rounds, two grenades apiece, walking steadily into fire, never breaking step. He had felt such a total love for those men, their matter-of-fact heroism and humour in a savage, disregarded war against an enemy barbaric beyond their understanding. It would be hard to beat. For a few moments he was there again and the silhouettes marching between the docile beasts were a dawn patrol swiftly sweeping up the hill to take the town.
Sam grabbed a strand of barbed wire to press it down and the points jabbed into his palm. A terrible image disrupted his mind, pumping through it, straining at his skull so that his mouth opened to cry out. Never to think of that. He had to control that. It had got worse since they had joined the ship in India. He had to learn to blank it out. The past must be buried or it would bury him. He took a deep breath.
'Come on marra!'
Jackie's use of the warm local dialect word for friend helped unlock him. He licked his palm. Pin-pricks.
On top of Howrigg bank, Sam stopped to look across the town, from the mock-Venetian bell-tower on Highmoor on the south side to the tall, grim chimney clearing chemical smoke from the factory on the north, and between those two the huddle and accretion of centuries. Narrow, twisting alleys, weavers' cottages, medieval archways, runnels slit between unsteady houses, Nonconformist sandstone chapels, the church in which his son had been baptised, quaint Victorian shops and hidden strips of land whose lie and use predated the Conquest. The lives of near on five thousand souls, many from families dug in for generations, were penned together in the small fertile bowl less than a mile from the remains of the most remote military road in the Roman Empire.
With the barest of farewells the others hurried past him as the sun rose and warmed their backs. It was the completion of the circle which had plucked them out and taken them halfway across the world to fight in a place and against a people they had scarcely heard of.
Sam hesitated, trying to settle in himself the disturbing confusions of his return. The dreams of home were tinged with dread. The place below could suck him in, the old world close over him. Nothing had changed in the town that he could see. Yet his whole world had changed.
He looked to his left —
'They're building new houses,' he said to Jackie, who had sat down on a low garden wall.
'They won't be for the likes of thee and me, Sam. They've forgot about us.'
Sam looked at Jackie and saw the old terror. But they were back now and he had carried him for long enough.
'Let's move on, Jackie.'
'We're not due 'til breakfast time.'
'C'mon, Jackie. We'll surprise them.'
'Not before I'm due. I'll bide here.'
To emphasise his resolution he took out a cigarette.
Sam paused and then, suddenly, he had not a second more to waste. It was as if he were being reeled in, furiously, down past St Cuthbert's church, over the bridge at Burnfoot, across Market Hill and there, the early sun flat on the whole terrace of tall houses, there at last and for sure would be his wife and son, waiting for him.
There were five steps up to the front door. He took them in two bounds and hammered against the brown painted door with his fist. He stood back, smiling apologetically. That knock could have raised the dead.
What if one of the others answered? He had never imagined that. But it was Ellen who threw back the door, knowing it was him, it had to be him, four years, more than four years, how many letters? The loneliness, the fear, there he was, brown and smart in his demob suit, his arms reaching out the moment he saw her, the strain of wonder and such a smile on his face. She in the plum dressing-gown, no time to get ready, looking so lovely, he thought, how could he have forgotten how lovely? The eyes dark, almost as black as the hair which smothered his face as he closed his eyes though he wanted to see all of her, touch all of her, knowing he would remember for ever the force of those arms flung around his neck. Only this could block out everything bad, the wetness of her few tears, squeezing the life out of each other on top of the five steps with no one to see, thank God, she thought, holding without even murmuring, scarcely breathing, just standing welded as so long ago in their first months when they were not much more than children, but Ellen now such a woman, so much time to mend, absence like a wound.
Joe in his pyjamas scrambled and squirmed among their legs, fighting to part them, wanting his share, straining his neck, his face pivoted up at the double-headed swaying couple locked above him. 'Daddy! Daddy!'
Sam pulled himself away from Ellen, almost dazed from the crush of her body against his. He went back down the steps and held out his arms. 'Jump,' he said. 'Jump!'
Joe looked at his mother, who nodded. He looked at his father, fractionally hesitating.
And then the boy launched himself, arms spread like wings. Sam caught him, a small bundle of boy, under the shoulders, taking the contact gently, and with one easy spring of movement, he flung his son high into the air. The boy's arms and legs splayed out, the pyjamas flowed and he yelled aloud with fearful pleasure and down and once more the strong hands – the feel of them imprinted in memory caught him and hurled him high, so that the boy remembered being suspended for an instant, perfectly still in the sky in the white morning light with his mother waving at the top of the steps and his father looking up, laughing, ready to catch him safely, and the world, at long last, as it should be.
The house they entered was at one end of a row of six, a cliff-faced block looking east and fronted by the downward slope of Market Hill, which still saw traders and where the fair set up for its last stop of the autumn before wintering in a field beyond the cemetery.
Ellen's Aunt Grace let out rooms, but hers were a distinct cut above the usual. The house had been inherited by Leonard, her husband, and many thought she had married him for it. Ellen had landed there at the age of nine and been something of a maid-of-all-work ever since. Her father, Grace's brother, had disappeared soon after her birth and the scandal was rarely alluded to in Ellen's presence, not even after she married. Her mother had died of tuberculosis. Grace and Leonard had no children.
When Ellen left school and insisted on going to work in the clothing factory which employed more than a hundred town girls, Grace was disappointed. Common work, she thought. She had hoped for better and Ellen was capable of better. Her final school report was clear on that subject – but the girl was pig-headed. Even more disappointing was her refusal to take up with John Eliot, who would certainly inherit his father's shoe shop. Instead she let herself down, as Grace saw it, by preferring Sam Richardson, whose father had nothing and came from nothing. Ellen's willingness to help in the house despite her factory work did not fully compensate for these failings.
Following Joe's birth, Ellen was not allowed to continue to work in the factory. That was the rule. She and Sam had taken rooms in Church Street after their marriage. Sam's departure for war brought her back to Grace's house. When Joe was two, tormented by loneliness and on bare pickings from what Sam sent her, she had found work as a cleaner for two sisters in a fine old house. Once the biggest in town. Soon she was cleaning in three houses and later, when Joe went to school, she also helped out in Eves' the Chemist on market day and Friday from one thirty to five thirty.
She had taken the boy with her on the cleaning jobs, first popping him in the basket in front of her bicycle and then, as he grew, planting him on the back seat. Sadie, who had worked on the bench with her in the factory, now lived in the basement three doors down, and she would always have Joe if Grace was in one of her moods. The house inhabited by Sadie had been broken up into rooms, like all the others in the row except for Grace's, the only one intact in the sense that the owners also lived there.
There were two rooms for commercial travellers – described by Grace as her 'guests' – together with the small back bedroom for Ellen and Joe, and the attic rooms, referred to by Grace as her 'rooms at the top'.
These, once rather scorned, had become her pride. Mr Kneale, senior history master at the grammar school, had taken them three years before, after the death of his wife. It had been a temporary measure, but the two rooms which commanded, as he told Grace, a most splendid view (which he had photographed more than once) and the small cellar which Grace allowed him to use as a dark room, made him reluctant to move on. Grace's cooking was as good as you could expect with the ingredients available, the location was central, and to have his own dark room was a singular luxury. As time went on, the rather lonely, middle-aged widower grew very fond of Ellen in particular and listened out for her and enjoyed the guileless and indiscriminate affection of Joe.
Mr Kneale was Grace's big catch. He had a married sister, she would tell her few friends, down in Chester, whose husband was a bank manager. Mr Kneale would spend a week with them over Christmas, and a fortnight in the summer. Before the war he and his wife had always gone abroad at Easter. He was very particular about his shirts, a clean one on Sundays, then every two days, same with undergarments, and he had offered to pay extra for the added laundry burden. After the first six months he had asked permission to get some of his own furniture out of storage – Grace had agreed, although it was irregular. But, as she told friends, she appreciated its sentimental value to Mr Kneale. Some of his pieces were beyond words, handed down on his wife's side, he'd told her. His manners were out of this world.
The engine room of the house was the semi-basement, full of light in the morning and easy to make cosy when the light moved off the front. Here meals were served, cellars and cubby-holes stored the fuels and utensils necessary for the running of the house, and it was kept warm. Grace's court, for occasional tea in the week and always on Sundays, was the chilly upstairs front room into which she would stray several times a day to admire its high-ceilinged proportions, to look over the heavy expensive furniture Leonard's parents had purchased on their twentieth wedding anniversary and to see what was going on outside. The bay window gave her an expansive field of vision and few of the comings and goings of neighbours or traders on market day or the rare strangers escaped her surveillance. She stored information about their movements as if she were compiling dossiers designed, one day, to bring them to judgement.
It was into this superior room on that first morning, after a little weighing up, that she invited Sam and Ellen and Joe with Leonard for a cup of pre-breakfast tea. The deciding factor was that the kitchen had been laid for breakfast the previous night for Leonard and her two commercial travellers and though she had about half an hour in hand, she feared the family gathering might interfere with the arrangements. Mr Kneale had his breakfast in his rooms: Ellen served that after she had laid the fires and seen to the other guests.
Excerpted from "The Soldier's Return"
Copyright © 2011 Melvyn Bragg.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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