Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Glory Glory

The hall is dark and reeks of horror and pain. The stench of sweat, blood and gangrene is punctuated by rasping coughs and muffled moans. The young man lies on his pallet, eyes staring blindly up into the blackness, his mind and body trembling as he remembers the shot that wrecked his body and removed from him forever the ability to walk. Despair chokes a sob from his dry throat.

A flicker catches his reddened eyes and he slowly turns his head to the right. A soft light is moving through the shadows, growing larger, and he wonders if he is taking the path to eternal glory...

He blinks back tears and the image hardens, shows the light to be a lantern, softly illuminating the compassionate face gazing down at him with infinite kindness, the lambent flicker animating her plain but honest features.

'Rest now, my brave soldier,' comes her calm, serene voice, 'You have done all that could be asked of you. Soon you will go home and be back with the ones you love'

It's the fault of his school, I decide as I guide the car down the M3, cleaving ever deeper into Hampshire. I glance over and smile at my son as he sits in the passenger seat, babbling about Kirby and the bosses he has to fight. I have no idea what he's on about. His idea, this journey... he's been learning about certain Victorians and has even participated in a school play about this particular personality. The school also told him where this Victorian rests now, and - mea culpa - I agreed to make the 130 mile journey with him, so long as we visited other new sites in the area as well.

North of the New Forest, we find ourselves on country roads, passing cottages with placards bearing legends such as 'Eggs - £1. 20 a doz' and 'Honey'. The church, dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch, is remote now from the village it serves but is well signposted. Along a slim lane, and we finally pull up in front of the venerable old building.

Others have been here recently; poppies wreath the small, stumpy war memorial set in the grass before the lychgate. Just over two hours previously, early in our journey, we had tuned in to Radio 4 and observed the two minute silence. It might be the longest I have ever seen my son be quiet. We step into the quiet churchyard and find our target quite easily In a field of grey headstones, it stands tall and gleams white. Inscriptions on two of its sides attest to the presence of her mother and father, a third side remembers her sister. Her own inscription, on the fourth face, is the starkest.

F.N.  1820 - 1910

A faded posy occupies the foot of the monument. I feel slightly uncomfortable. Wreaths have been laid across the nation today, yet nobody has remembered the woman who personifies what the Poppy Appeal stands for - even if she died four years before the Great War broke out.  Lucas and I remove a single poppy from the pile covering the war memorial and place it, anachronistically but reverently, at the foot of the tomb covering the woman dubbed 'Lady With The Lamp' by The Times.

Some time later, we are sitting in a pub called Tudor Rose, in the Cornmarket area of the small and lovely town called Romsey. Its Abbey Church guards over the Georgian and Victorian architecture of the market town. We visited the Abbey before the pub, saw the Mountbatten memorials and the signature of Henry VIII on the deed of sale that granted the Abbey to the people of Romsey, sat in the churchyard and told each other riddles ('We're nowhere near the sea, but I can see a beach. The sky is cloudy but I see a plane. There are no small mammals but I see fur')*

The pub is indeed a Tudor building, small and intimate with a roaring log fire. It is also full of military bandsmen, who have presumably been attending the Remembrance Day service at the Abbey. Their bugles lay on the tables. One bandsman has a pair of drumsticks protruding from his pocket. They are drinking loudly and singing Blood On The Risers to the tune of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic:

The risers swung around his neck, connectors cracked his dome,
Suspension lines were tied in knots around his skinny bones;
The canopy became his shroud; he hurtled to the ground.
He ain't gonna jump no more.

Glory glory what a hell of a way to go
Glory glory what a hell of a way to go
Glory glory what a hell of a way to go
And he ain't gonna jump no more!

Back into Cornmarket, heading toward the Car Park through a light drizzle, mission accomplished. The boy wanted to stand in the presence of Florence Nightingale, and he has. I've wanted to visit Romsey for years, and I have. We've even learned a new song!

And we hum it as we return up the M3, exchanging grins of amusement as we motor into the darkening evening...

* the answer is 'trees'

No comments:

Post a Comment