There’s a picture in my mind. It’s a brown, portrait photograph, in pride of place in the twilit cottage room. It is of a soldier killed in the 1914-1918 war. Formal pictures like these were a familiar sight in my childhood. I often wonder whether the pictures were taken as a gallant precaution – in the knowledge and controlled dread that one day there would very likely be a need for such a memorial.
Another familiar sight was highly polished, brass shell cases. The rooms which housed them were usually cold, for they were often the best rooms, the ‘front room’, never used except for funeral gatherings and similar serious matters. These rooms were not unloved. They were immaculate but they were empty.
And the chill fabric of their furnishings had a faint smell of age and damp. Often there would be a shining, inlaid, upright piano, its lid down, its candlesticks empty, the instrument long silent.
The man in the photograph with his proud bearing and military moustache was a great uncle. I had never met his widow, who was my grandfather’s sister, but we were visiting this Warwickshire village for a family wedding, more than 60 years ago.
A coal mine provided the main employment there but my great aunt’s cottage was close to some woods.
I found myself, in my imagination, walking in them again, this afternoon, after I went out to post a letter. Young brambles were sprouting in the hedge and I remembered I had a ‘Farmers’ Weekly’ recipe for bramble tip wine (as well as many other country brews).
For no reason I can trace I then saw, in my mind’s eye, those Springtime woods near my great aunt’s house. They were carpeted not with brambles but windflowers (wood anemones). I clearly remember wandering among them: their faint, fresh scent.
And then I was back in the cottage, wondering at the large picture of the dead soldier.
When I returned from the pillar box I got out my grandfather’s medals: the 1914-1915 star and all the others he earned in four years and more in France. In a separate box was his Defence Medal from the 1939-45 war. The ribbon was never attached to the medal. He can’t have got round to wearing it.
He died in 1971 at the age of 88. All her life my grandmother had dreaded the sight of a telegraph boy in the road.