death

“Between Ste. Emilie and Villers-Faucon”

IMG_0800

This is where Lloyd died. His date of death is recorded as “22nd March 1918, presumed on or since” in his military record. The two documents below are distinct in our collection of letters for being typed and formal. The first document is not a letter at all; it is account of the battle. Was it given to my Grandfather or did he type it up himself, copied from a newspaper perhaps? The yellowed paper is coarse and friable and initially I assumed it to be of poor quality. I forget that this is a document of considerable age – held  up to my computer screen a watermark shines through, a trade name in Gothic print that I cannot identify. The darkened top half of the paper indicates that it lay exposed to sunlight, or tobacco smoke (or both) for years, with lighter areas revealing the outlines of other discarded documents placed on top.  I fancy the account was not read much, but neither was it thrown into the fire because of the trouble taken to type it all out.

We have no official record of Lloyd’s death but the second letter seems to answer an enquiry of Grandfather’s as to where Private W.J. Lloyd Mabey was laid to rest. Lloyd was  killed on a day when the battalion is recorded as losing 150 soldiers (and 4 officers),  these heavy losses sustained whilst in retreat.

“The efforts and sacrifice of the battalion contributed to the delay in the enemy’s advance, which was one of the main causes of his ultimate failure.”

IMG_0784

IMG_0786

5113 Pte L. Mabey

IMG_0776

This is Lloyd’s second surviving letter and his last. Written in pencil on squared paper torn from an exercise book, words fading on the creases. I wonder how many times Grandfather read the letter, all he had left of his brother. I imagine it neatly folded in his pocketbook, close to his breast. Maybe as the years passed he removed it to his desk for safekeeping but never was it to be discarded. One hundred years later it is my privilege to hold.

It is July 1917, Lloyd is stationed in France with the 13th Royal Sussex Regiment. It’s possible that he has been in France for over a year, as the regiment landed in Le Harve in March 1916. Whatever his duties on those two summer days, there was time given to write a letter home. He imagines John reading it out to the family, to Mah and Pa, and sisters Frad and Ursie. He writes to make them smile, so fills the page with thoughts of jam-making, the “awful animal” (a fox?) and teases Frad about “her Bertie”. Whatever Lloyd has seen of warfare he does not, most likely cannot, tell. He says, with no trace of irony, that their brother Jim is “having a good time”. This was the model of the times, to ‘look on the bright side’, and not concern loved ones with the woeful realities of warfare. Lloyd lived in the midst of battles yet writes as though he is only sojourned in France and it would be nice to have a “month off”.

There are moments when Lloyd lets us into his inner world.  These lines from his jovial letter, “It seems as if I’ve wasted my last 7 years – I hope not – but I’ve really got nothing to show for them have I?”  -they pull at the heartstrings. I imagine the family contradicting this assertion as my Grandfather read the letter. Seated round the kitchen table in the oil-lamplight they shake their heads;  ‘Nothing to show for it? No! Lloyd is serving his country, he is a hero’ and so on.

It may not have been his last letter, I shall never know. There were 8 months left for Lloyd. But I wonder why this one has survived and no others? Perhaps because this letter shows the very essence of him. I hear him, full of humour, considerate of his listener, cognisant of the world he lived in, a young man missing the love and simplicity of home. And after he was gone, I wonder how often did they sigh for Lloyd? Collectively wishing him back, peering out of the window down the long sloping road, hoping that just maybe he would appear.

28/7/17

Dear home

I will now try and reply to yours of the 23rd which it was pleasing to get today. Im glad to say that I am still alive and well in spite of the hot weather & c & c & c. You’re no doubt in your glory as its jam making time. I wish I were home – I’d have a go at the spoon. So you’re really expecting Jim home again are you. I hope in a way that you’ll be disappointed – He’s having a good time. I’m very anxious to know what they will do with him. 29/7/17 – It’s just started raining and jolly hard too – one of our favourite thunderstorms – it won’t last long. I expect the kiddies are looking forward to their summer holidays aren’t they – I hope they will have decent weather. I should like a month off but like you my luck is out. Where does Frad have her evening class and who does she teach? I wonder how she’d like me for a pupil – I think she had enough of me when I was a nipper. I expect Jim G. has seen a thing or two to cause a straight face. – I wonder if the Groves got my letters – Perhaps Jack is on his way to Blighty. I’ll bet Frad is worrying over her Bertie – but supposing he does pay her a surprise visit – then she’ll “Tw….” [illegible]. Fancy Auntie paying Mother visits once in 6 years and only being 200 yds. Apart. That is a shame – I can faintly remember her last visit – I was 19 then wasn’t I? It seems as if I’ve wasted my last 7 years – I hope not – but I’ve really got nothing to show for them have I? I was rather interested in your tale of the awful animal you captured – I believe I caught one up in the yard years ago. I certainly remember having lessons on them at school. I’ve had a paper from Aunt Pollie and read that Cecil B’s exemption was overhauled (in his favour) – who was the farmer trying to give him away – It wouldn’t have been Bob M – ?? I forgot to mention that I noticed that Fred Pidgeon was amongst the missing Rifles. I’m sorry for his people. I’ve been following up the argument over a Mr Frodd of Ryde who has apparently taken a commission. The affair caused some feeling in a recent meeting. Does Dad very often get night duty as a Special Constable. I suppose times are not very exciting on his beat are they? It is now thundering very heavily. I’m afraid I don’t know what else to write about – It is shocking the state of affairs in Russia – just as we thought things well in our favour. That shows the curse of German espionage and the influence of their dirty money. It is pleasing to see that the Rumanians  have kicked off very well. I hope they’ll keep it up. I believe Fritz will have the shock of his life shortly. On giving my kind regards to Uncle and Auntie assure them that the war will be soon over – official. I hope you got my letter enclosing photos & c & c also one later posted 26/7/17. I’m afraid I’ve no more news to say so I’ll wind up – with tons of love & x x x x x x x x x x x x x x’s to all.

I remain,

Your loving frere

Lloyd

P.S.  Re Mah’s note 25/7/17 I trust she has got mine now – and hope she’ll save some of that jelly for me. I will answer Ursie’s letter next post. X

IMG_0778

So there is no more of Lloyd. I have papers relating to his death which I will publish in following posts, but this is the last of Lloyd’s voice. He, like brother Patrick and sister Vera, leave no trace upon the earth, never having lived long enough to have children. There are none now living who knew them.

 

Grandmother 

IMG_0584There are no memories of my Grandmother; all my life an absence of recollection. In those two years before her death in 1965 I know she would have held me, countless times. I know she must have murmured over my tiny form, held my steady, infant gaze, kissed my forehead and felt my tiny fingers wrap round hers. And I imagine that she would bless me before handing me back to her daughter, and I would have made her glad, hopeful – in the miraculous way that babies do.

In the box there was this torn page, ripped from an album. No explanatory notes on the back. Why it was kept with the bundles of letters is unknowable. Nor do I know who took this photograph, with its careful label of ‘Mother’. It is not my own mother’s hand and Albert was killed two years previously. I have concluded that my grandfather titled his wife thus, for the family album. Here May Mabey stands, patient and steady in Spring sunshine. Is that cherry blossom in the back garden in Bitterne, Southampton? The war is over. The men have come home and her eldest son is not amongst them. All the letters that Albert would ever write are already in store.

Grandmother’s voice does not survive, for there is not a single letter from her hand. There is one birthday card, for Mum’s 21st, “from your loving Mother and Father”, that was written by my grandfather. When my mother moved to Sheffield in 1951, my father wrote, intermittently, for a period of three years.  Mum faithfully kept her love letters  but none from her parents.  I don’t suggest this was a deliberate act; I know Mum was living in Sheerness during the flood of 1953 and her lodgings were ruined. So perhaps those letters were washed away, sluiced off by the cold North sea.

Mum said that I reminded her of her own mother. I remember she would say our eyes were alike, “the shape of them, and the colour”, a shadowed green of still water and dark woods. I understand now the importance of naming those similarities, the subtle edges of inheritance, for recognition somehow hints that not everything has passed. I carried the echo of May Mabey whenever I looked up slowly, distracted from my absorption in drawing or reading (my usual occupations as a child), and Mum would say “You look a bit like my Mum you know.” Her voice was casual, mild, careful not to betray the sorrow felt – of this I am certain – at her sudden, unexpected death. My younger sister was barely two months old. My mother was 34.

IMG_0584 - Version 2

Mother

Jean, my Mother painted by my Father.

One year ago today my Mother died. She breathed her last at 7:52 in the evening. Born on a Wednesday, died on a Wednesday. Later we commented on the neatness of that. “Wednesday’s child is full of woe”, was that so for my Mum? I choose not to think so.

I crave these moments of stillness – now when a bird is singing in the still, damp evening. Outside the leaves are loosening and the sky is grey and unfathomable. In this last year I have not fought against grief nor tried to stay on the surface of life without looking into the sorrow in my heart. But this year is turning now, drawing to its sad end. Something else will begin now, something to do with the letters left to me.

She asked me to find her red book, for there were things she had written that best not be discovered. It was in the cupboard she said. I looked where I could, but no, I could not find it. Mum closed her eyes and gave her little shrug. Her mouth moved, wordless yet I understood, ‘It did not matter’. She was leaving me, letting go, breath by shallow breath. Hour after hour I watched her face, stroked her hand, placed my palm upon her still warm head. And then she was gone.

We found the letters at the bottom of the coffer. The cardboard box labelled with her neat handwriting. There must be over a hundred letters there, spanning (I know this much) over 100 years. All my life that box lay somewhere in the house, filled with the voices of long-passed relatives and I never knew.

My intention is, letter by letter, to write about those who wrote and those who received, every Wednesday until the box is empty.

%d bloggers like this: