Many years ago (I worked out 22 so that makes me feel old) I worked in an old Inn called the Carnarvon Arms which, for those of you who are interested, is a stone’s throw away from Highclere Castle which is better known these days as Downton Abbey. It wasn’t a ‘nice’ pub rather a bit of a run-down pub where the local scalley’s used to run small businesses from the payphones in the public bar. It was a large and sprawling 16th Century coaching inn that had lost its way after the building of the new A34; the old A34 being the past major road it sat on. I started work there at 14 after trawling through the yellow pages and calling pubs asking if they needed a waitress as my parents had just spilt and I had no money to buy my father’s birthday present. I cycled the 3 (ish) miles there and back to earn the grand sum of £2.50 an hour.
There were a few staff that worked in the pub; Mel, the larger than life personality who lived in my Village in the little houses attached to the Sandham Memorial Chapel (the war artist Stanley Spencer had painted images of war directly onto the walls) who was married to a concert pianist. Nick, the adult with learning difficulties who had helped to paint his friends car with house paint and a paintbrush. Pam, the older landlady (married to Doug who for fun used to give my wages to the local ‘characters’ and make me go and ask them for it) and a few more besides. The kitchen was a large room that led out to 2 outer rooms which held all the fridges and freezers. This was where I helped to make the desserts as did a lady called Doris.
Doris was an older German lady with short fuzzy hair and a kind heart. She helped me in times of stress to get the orders out quickly but it is for her sweeping up at night that I remember her most. She started with the back room, the furthest of the other rooms, swept and then turned off the light and did this with the other outer room and then the kitchen itself. She would leave the brush outside the gap where a kitchen door had once been, turn off the light leaving the kitchen to be lit by the eerie blue lamp of the fly killer. She’d put on her padded blue coat and go home to come back the next day and do it all again.
Once, when Pam and I were working a particularly slow shift in the evening, the conversation turned to Doris and her past. I was told that she had been over in England during the war and that she was treated well considering she was German. I was told that she had met a chap, got engaged and then war broke out. Her chap went off to fight, but he didn’t come back being killed in action somewhere I can’t remember. My 14 year old self saw Doris in another light after being told this, she was more than the lady who helped my times of stress or the person that turned out the light at night. She was Doris the young woman who had lost her fiancé in the war. I remember having a fleeting conversation with her about her past life and she showed me the simple ring that he had given her and how she hadn’t ever taken it off. I don’t remember the exact design of the ring but I know it wasn’t large, it wasn’t expensive but it was all she had of him. I asked her why she’d never married and she simply said, ‘…because I loved him.’
I don’t know his name, I don’t know I ever did, but I know that Doris had lost her life to the war. She’s lost her hopes for a happy marriage filled with hard times but love. She’d lost her chance of children, of grandchildren and the companionship of old age. The ring on her finger given by a man in love would be the only clue that he had ever been part of her but the single ring that had never been paired with the solid gold band to fulfil a promise was all that was left. Yes she had lived a life but it wasn’t the one she had planned with her fiancé. She had a short time with him before he left and in her mind’s eye he was always that same gorgeous young chap, the love of her life, who never aged as she had. Did she watch him walk away that last time until he was out of sight drinking in every last bit of him or did he leave her sitting at the table twisting the ring nervously around her finger willing him to come back?
How was the news broken to her? Would his family have come to tell her? Would they have passed her the telegram and would she have read ‘…missing in action’. Did she think of him often in the long years without him wondering how he would have aged, what sort of father he would have been. Would they have laughed about the lines appearing on their faces each one a memory? Was she ever angry at him for leaving her..?
Doris will have died now and I believe she will have met him again. He will have run to her and held her in his arms and she will again drink in his whole being, knowing that never again, will they be parted. They may talk about the lost life together but find comfort in their eternity. I like to think that and I have them like this in my mind’s eye…
Remembrance Sunday is about honouring those who have given their lives in all wars past and present and quite right we should remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice so I and those that follow me, can live in a free country. I have bought a poppy this year (I have bought many with 3 boys who lose them 5 mins after they have been bought) and wear it with pride to show that I am grateful to all soldiers who have died. But there is a hidden story that we should remember. Those men had mothers who would never see them again, children who would not remember the deep voice that called their name and the fiancé’s, like Doris, who lost their beloveds to the hideousness of war. But deeper than that women like Doris gave their lives too; the life they thought they would live and for that I will remember them…