Bill Ryan was my eldest brother. He was a popular lad with a ready smile, always up for mischief. At twelve years of age, I looked up to him and adored him, as did my younger brother David and little George who was only three. Our universe was a tiny part of County Meath; our world a small farmstead handed down for generations. Mother worked hard and although she was strict, she was a loving and kind-hearted woman. My father, however, was a hard man. Often aloof, his stern gaze was enough to put the fear of God into you.
When Bill finally plucked up the courage to broach the subject of signing-up, he met with strong resistance. But he persevered. We must defeat the Hun, he said to them, his voice resonating with conviction. As David and I listened from behind the door, my heart sang. How brave he was! But father refused to listen – Bill was needed on the farm and that was the end of the nonsense. Mother pleaded with Bill as only a mother can. But in the end, he presented them with a fait accompli, arriving home one day in uniform.
His cheery words on departure didn’t fool me; I saw the fear in the depths of his hazel eyes. But he had always been stubborn, my brother, and as proud as all the Ryan men before him. As he disappeared down the narrow laneway, it bewildered me. Why did he have to go, I wondered, and not someone else’s brother? He was only eighteen. One last wave and he turned towards the road. The rest of us returned to the house but mother stood still, despite the chill of the early morning, and watched until the twist in the laneway took him out of sight.
For the first few months after he left, Bill’s letters had arrived from the Curragh training camp almost every week. Ironically, father read them out to us, his voice ringing proud. Mother sat white-faced and said not a word, her knitting needles clicking furiously. Even when one letter contained a photograph of Bill in uniform, she could not look at it without her eyes welling up.
But one Saturday morning the dreaded news arrived; Bill’s regiment was off to France. My mother gasped, her hand to her throat. My father glared at her and shook his head. She made for the stairs, her shoulders rigid as if she feared she would splinter into tiny pieces. I watched my father’s face. Would he follow her? But he carefully folded the letter and put it away with the others in the drawer of the dresser. He would not meet my eye but hauled on his heavy coat and slapped his flat cap on his head, his expression grim. I sat at the table, uncertain. Come along, Joe, he said standing in the doorway, there’s work to be done. His attitude confused me because I could hear my mother’s sobs. Why did he not comfort her? David looked at me, the same question in his eyes. Father tapped impatiently on the door frame then grunted. What was I supposed to do? Torn, I could only shrug at David and follow my father out the door.
A year passed and life continued as normal on the farm, but I look back on the winter of 1915, its horrors crystal clear in my mind. I knew the world was at war. What boy in Ireland, or indeed the world, did not? The newspapers featured little else. Every night, my father would read out the reports. Belgium, France and names of places I had never heard before, tripped off his tongue. Marnes. Ypres. Neuve Chapelle. We had no atlas in the house. I pestered my father to explain where these places were. He would shake his head and tell me to ask the schoolmaster in the morning. It was only years later I realised he hadn’t known either. Soon those far-flung places were a part of my vocabulary.
October slid into November and winter’s icy tentacles stole under the door and through the cracks in the ancient window frames, chilling us to the bone. Night-time was the worst. I snuggled up to George in the narrow bed against the wall in the attic, but it made no difference. We shivered in unison under the thin wool blanket. Not that I slept much. Between the scratchy blanket and my anxious thoughts, sleep was elusive. Where was Bill? What was he doing? Each morning we awoke to frost on the bed cover and ice on the inside of the windows. At my mother’s bidding, I broke through the plug of ice in the bucket of water and helped George wash his hands and face. Father grumbled it was the foulest winter he had ever known.
Off to school with you, my mother would say, pushing us older boys out the door each morning. It wasn’t too bad once you got over the initial blast of frigid air, but we had wanted snow not this crackling hoar-frost that made your ears and nose hurt and your eyes water. I had found Bill’s old woollen hat out in the barn and commandeered it. My younger brother David wanted it too and we fought like cats for it. It was worth the thrashing I received from my father when he saw David’s black eye, for that hat smelt of Bill’s tobacco and gave me comfort.
Once in France, Bill’s letters became less frequent and mother’s knitting became more frantic. She used her egg money to pay for the postage on the parcels she sent to him. As she stood at the kitchen table, carefully wrapping the knitted items in brown paper, my father would watch in silence, his expression sour. I wondered if he begrudged Bill those things or was it the expense of the postage. However, I was proud she entrusted me with the trip into town to the post office. Mr O’Connor always smiled at me and ruffled my hair. You’re a good brother, young Joe, he’d say. He always gave me a peppermint cream from one of the glass jars on the shelf behind the counter.
No one believed it was possible the winter could become any colder. But it did. December was soon upon us and with it came the snow storms. The laneway to our house was deep with snow. It was so bad we did not go to school. Each of us dreaded when it was our turn to bring the bucket out to the barn to fill it with turf. Our chilblains and sniffles were nothing compared to what the boys were suffering in the trenches in France, my mother would say. I tried to imagine what it must be like and prayed every night that God would keep Bill safe. Wouldn’t the best Christmas present be him coming home for a few days? But I didn’t dare voice this as I knew my mother was frantic with worry; the permanent frown on her forehead testament to her inner turmoil.
Bill had been absent so long now I was finding it hard to remember his face or the sound of his voice. This distressed me; it felt like betrayal. When it became unbearable, I’d sneak up to the attic and hold his hat in my hands and try hard to remember. I’d picture happier times, mucking about in the fields or proudly working by his side at harvest time. It helped a little.
Whenever there was a break in the weather, I trudged to the post office, mother’s parcel tucked under my arm. God forgive me, but all I thought of was that peppermint cream. Two weeks passed and no letters came, then three. My mother anxiously waited for my return and scanned my hands as I’d come in the door. No post, young man, she’d ask, her voice cracking. Guiltily, I’d shrug and shake my head. I’d slip off to do my chores, uncomfortable to be around her. But dread is contagious. We all fell victim to it as the atmosphere in the house deteriorated. The silence from France continued.
The next week as I entered the post office there was a huddle of people at the counter, deep in conversation. Someone coughed and Mr O’Connor looked over his glasses at me. The customers fell silent. Ah, young Joe, is it, he asked. I thought that was a strange thing to say. Did he not know me well? He shifted on his feet, glancing at the other customers who were still watching me in silence. My stomach flipped over as I wracked my brains. Had I done something wrong? Had someone snitched on us for stealing those apples last autumn?
Mr O’Connor cleared his throat. I put the parcel up on the counter as usual but he didn’t take it. He winced and turned away for a brief moment. Pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, he let out a slow breath. Then he handed me a small envelope. Take this telegram to your parents, son, he said at last. I gazed at his Adam’s apple, as it jumped up and down in his throat. I wondered what ailed him. My eyes strayed to the jar on the shelf behind him, but he didn’t take the hint. Disappointed, I knew there would be no treat today and cursed my bad luck. As I closed the door behind me, I heard the customers’ voices rise. I hurried home, out of temper, the telegram rammed into my jacket pocket.
Wimereux, France, 1955
My wife June consulted the map as our hire car slowly rounded the bend in the road. It should be up ahead, she said, tapping the map with a finger. I hadn’t been sure about dragging her along on this trip, but of course I should never have doubted her. My rock.
The little Citroën spluttered as I changed gear, my nerves jangling. Beside me, June stiffened, but I kept my eyes on the road ahead. Driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’ was testing my mettle. I’d already had a run-in with an irate farmer and his tractor. The small town was much like every other we had passed through during the trip. A seaside town, it was off-season now and the streets were almost deserted. With a shaking hand, I wound down the window. The tangy scent of salt-laden air flooded into the car. The sea was close but not visible. I wondered if Bill had liked it here; did he have time to paddle in the water? Silently, I berated myself – of course he didn’t. It was a bloody war!
All of a sudden, I was overcome with dread. What had possessed me to come here? David and George had thought it a strange thing to do. But, their memories of Bill were not as vivid as mine. I ground the gears again and cursed under my breath. Where was this blasted place? I knew my French was far too basic to ask directions. Keep going, June said, when I voiced this thought. What a sensible woman she was – I took a few deep breaths and relaxed.
Around another bend and all of a sudden we came upon it. The cemetery wall was high but you could make out the tops of crosses and monuments. I parked up. For several moments I sat unmoving and concentrated on my breathing. At last I was here. Easing my grip on the steering wheel, I turned to my wife. Do you mind if I do this alone, I asked her. She smiled and nodded.
I paused at the gateway, a trifle confused. This looked like an ordinary French cemetery, not a military one. It was then I realised there was another cemetery directly behind it. Through an archway and a little gate was the War Graves Commission cemetery. It was stark but strangely beautiful with row upon row of flat headstones lying flush with neatly mown lawn. As I walked along counting the rows, I realised my face was wet with tears. So many graves! Had all of these men been Bill’s comrades? But as I stopped and read some of the inscriptions, I realised they were from many different regiments and countries. The only link was where they had died; the field hospital at the edge of the town.
Bill’s grave was right at the back under the shadow of a high wall. I’m not sure how long I stood there as images of the day we learned of his death flooded my mind. My mother had collapsed shaking into a chair when I attempted to hand her the telegram. I had not realised what it was, but she knew immediately. Panicking, I had yelled at David to fetch our father and he almost tripped out the door in his haste. Little George had clung to my mother’s skirts, staring up at her in horror and fear. Father had come bustling in from the barn then stopped dead when he saw my mother struggling to breathe. His chin wobbled and his hand snaked out and snatched the telegram from my hand. Take your brothers to your aunt’s house, he’d said in a strangled voice. I knew it was serious, for he disliked my Aunt Lily intensely.
Forty years have not dulled the pain of that day; it is a watermark engraved on my life’s page.
I caught movement from the corner of my eye and looked up to see June strolling towards me. As our eyes met she hesitated, but I gestured to her it was all right. Thankfully, she didn’t say a word but came up close and smiled her encouragement. I took a deep breath and pulled the woollen hat out of my pocket. It no longer smelled of tobacco. It no longer smelled of Bill.
But I placed it on the headstone and said a silent prayer for my long-lost brother.
©Pam Lecky 2021