Remembering those who returned from WW1, and its ongoing legacy

MANCHESTER 1935

Ma said maybe she’d shut her eyes, just for a moment, have a sit down in the old armchair by the hearth. Doris patted straight the big cushion that covered the spring that had come through.The moment she was sitting there by the fire Ma fell asleep.

Peter stayed at the table, turning the floppy, soft pages of his and Bill’s old comic, watching over her. No sounds but for the sounds of the Saturday market clearing up in the square outside, the only light came from the lamp in the middle of the table. She woke up with a start.

‘Is he back yet?’ she said. Peter shook his head. She went out the back, looked up and down the alleyway.There were steps running down the passage, but it wasn’t him.

She came inside, white and wheezing. Kitty made her sit back down in the chair, unlaced her shoes and put her feet on a stool in front of the small fire.

‘He’s a disgrace, me dad,’ said Kitty. ‘He’ll be down at the Dog still. How many times have we had to flit because he’s drank the rent? I’m that sick of my dad.’

Ma gave a shake to her feet. She held on to the arms of the old chair and leant forward.‘I won’t hear you speak like that about your own father,Kitty.He does the best he can. A good man in hard times.’

Kitty simmered her anger inside; had her own opinions.

‘I met your dad in a hospital, you know. A bit like the one I’ve been biding in just now.’

Peter wanted a story. He wanted a story of how she had met Dad, back when Dad was a soldier in the war. So she told him again how he’d worked with the planes till the gas had got him. How she’d been nursing him and they’d fallen in love – although at first she’d been that cross with him when she’d caught him sneaking out at night to the kitchens for a bacon sandwich. She’d caught him and his mates coming back down the corridor, a line of three men hobbling back together with their crutches and slings and bandages, sharing out their good arms and legs and eyes between them. She made Peter laugh and he was satisfied. It was a good story.

**

After they’d gone to bed she watched the flame through the bars of the iron range in the hearth, and she thought of that sweet time, unexpected and tender.The children couldn’t really see what she’d seen back then, how their father had set out to be a fine man. But the gas had changed him. 

The last thing Jim had ever seen clearly was the burst of a shell and a sludge of brown liquid spreading out over the snow – the gas attack on Nancy airbase. He told her it looked like sherry, pools of thick Christmas sherry across the snow.A fog was rising up from the sludge, sickly yellow in the flares. And he was already breathing the gas in, coughing, his eyes burning, scrambling for his mask, his fingers numb and thick; but he couldn’t get the strap over his head, the balaclava bunched up and in the way. He’d tried to run to clean air, to cool his lungs down. But he blundered on through the thick fog. Burning his breath. Burning his lungs.The siren sounding too late.

You couldn’t tell how bad you’d got it. Not at first.You just had to lie in your bunk and wait to see how bad it would get.When his blisters had dried, when he could get back into clothes again, they packed him in a troop train with hundreds of others like him to go home. Rusty iron in his mouth each time he spat into a cloth. The bandages still over his eyes. 

She was there on the ward in the Manchester hospital, the assisting nurse, when the doctor had the bandages taken off. Jim told them the room was all misty, shapes that wouldn’t come properly into focus. The doctor said the gas had carried on eating into the surface of his eyes, but given the circumstances he could see fairly well.

Then he showed Jim the grey night-map of his lung X-ray.‘These areas here, they’re the permanent damage. I would say you’ve got half capacity.’

‘You mean the rest won’t come back then?’

‘I’m sorry.You will need to look for less physical employment in future.’

‘Maybe I’ll get meself a job in a bank,’ he said.

But he was still sure he was going to get better. Spring was coming out in swathes of blurred purple and yellow in the hospital gardens. There were nurses to tease and flirt with, and the nurses were game and said,‘Oh Jim, you are a right one.’And how Alf was going to have all the ladies running after him once he got out – as if it never crossed their minds that Jim was half blind, or that Alf had his leg missing. It was a form of kindness really, not taken seriously.

But Jim was different around her, serious, noticing everything she did. She wasn’t young, not like a lot of the nurses, and she didn’t know how to flirt with a man.When she took his temperature he stared right into her eyes and held her wrist, said,‘How’s my gorgeous girl?’ She’d try to be haughty then and boss him about, but he’d got her. He saw how she was hopeful in spite of herself, half ashamed of the feelings he stirred up in her.

It was as if he knew her life. Given up on marriage, a sweetheart lost early in the war, the one slice of toast in front of the small gas fire in her small nurse’s room, washing with the jug and pitcher in the cold, hurrying under the sheets and knowing tomorrow would be as it was ordained.The visits home in a best coat to be bullied by her father, the small pot of rouge brought to keep her pretty. For what: the withdrawing into hard work and self-sufficiency?

He said she smelled good, of soap and ironing and books. For the first time in years she was aware of all that she was holding back; the way her arm jumped if he touched it when she smoothed his sheets; the feel of his hand suddenly grasping hers, thanking her, his palm warm and calloused.

It was an imposing institutional building, miles of corridors, entrances and stairwells that were forgotten, deserted at different parts of the day.There were acres of dishevelled parkland where gentry had once taken their evening stroll. A damp, heady spring turning into summer.They worked out ways to meet and she thought, I’m courting. She was giddy with the tender pressure of being wanted so much.

One night she sat alone on her nurse’s bed in her rayon slip, her hand over her mouth, trying not to wake the girl sleeping in the other bed. She’d missed three times.Three times. She was rocking in agitation, and she held her arms round her narrow stomach and let it come to her gladly, this knowledge, this deep root, this baby, already growing inside her. Nothing would part her from this. She looked around the room. How simple and elemental and wonderful this tiny room and her whole life had suddenly become.

They said another couple of weeks and he could leave. She had to tell him. She knew he would finish with her. She would start to show soon, and then she would have to leave too. In disgrace.

Early one morning she came in to a great commotion going on in the ward.The war was over.The patients were dancing around,Alf hopping and waving one crutch, grabbing the nurses, and even Matron let herself be kissed. Jim grabbed Evelyn and said,‘Marry me then.’

He got hold of a brass ring, with a red glass stone; the sort of ring that left a greenish mark on your skin. He said he would do better for her later.When she told him about the baby he was as excited as if the war had ended all over again.

He was twenty-two when they got married. He was war wounded, but had a fire inside him, determined that he could wrest a living for them. But his lungs were eaten away; sometimes she’d find him gasping and panicked, the small amounts of air claustrophobic in his lungs. His eyes stayed blurred over with cataracts from the gas. Each evening he’d ask her to read the paper aloud to him, because she had such a nice voice.

He took what he could in the way of work, but mostly he went back and stood in line in the dole queue. He brought home a pittance to keep them alive – just.They did what they could to manage.And then the babies came, Kitty and John, Doris and Bill, and last of all, Peter.

They did what they could to manage, and he was still sure then that by his will and his bare hands he could wrest a good living for them, refused to take into account any diminishment caused by the war.

You had to wait to see how bad the damage got while the gas was still burning into the flesh, and you had to wait to see how far the bitterness would burn down into a man’s soul.

She got out of the chair to stoke up the coals with the poker and sank back down. Eleven o’clock. She may as well snooze here a little longer in case he was back – unless a lock-in started and he stayed on. He would come home sooner or later, flushed and drunk from holding court in the Irish pubs, half the dole money gone again. A small man in a big suit, bought off a dead man’s widow.Always looking for the man who fitted that suit.

Tomorrow she would take the clock from the front room, and roll up the bedding. Most weeks Peter and Bill would carry it to the shop with the three metal balls above a window filled with boxes of rings and piles of old shoes. On Friday, when Kitty’s and John’s money came in, the clock would be back on the shelf, the bedcover spread on her bed again.

They ate tripe and vinegar; bruised fruit sold cheap at the market, cracked eggs from Seymour’s the grocer’s. She’d had a grammar school education. She was a clever girl.They didn’t go hungry. Sometimes their dad came home with unlikely things from the pub; rabbit meat that came from no one knew where; once, three gorgeous pheasants that needed plucking of all their gold feathers. 

 

The secret history hidden in the Selkie story

The historical novel THE SEA HOUSE ( published as SECRETS OF THE SEA HOUSE in the UK) was inspired by a real letter to the Times newspaper in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a Scots schoolmaster. There are many strange legends about sea people in the Hebrides.

            The legend of the Selkie is told along the Western coast of Scotland and as far down as Ireland. Selkies are seals in the water, but once on land, they take off their skins and become human. If an ordinary mortal sees a Selkie in human form, they will inevitably fall in love. The Selkie legend has several variations but never ends happily. The husband or wife of a Selkie may hide away their seal skins, but once their hiding place is discovered the Selkie is powerless to resist the call of the sea. He slides back into his skins and departs, leaving behind any children.

            It’s a sad and spine tingling legend that I first heard while on holiday in the Outer Hebrides with my children. But as I read and researched the history of the islands, I began to realise that the Selkie story was much more than just a fairy story.

            In his book on the seal people, Gaelic historian John MacAulay puts forward an interesting theory, that the Selkie stories are actually a very old form of oral history. He suggests that for thousands of years, Eskimo type kayakers in sealskin canoes have been travelling down to Scotland from remote Arctic Norway. The Sea Sami, now extinct, were a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers that used Eskimo kayaks and technology to hunt and fish.

            Now imagine how such a kayaker must have looked to someone who had never seen a kayaker before. A sealskin kayak becomes waterlogged after eight hours and so lies just below the surface of the water. All you would see from the shore would be the top half of a man and below the water, the shape of a long tail wavering in the refracted light. It must have looked remarkably like a creature that was half man, half seal. And imagine the islander’s shock if that creature came ashore, took off its sealskins and became entirely human.

            There are several families from the Outer Hebrides who came claim direct descent from sea people. The famous poet MacOdrum was said to be one of the seal people and to get his skill in song writing from the seal’s gift of singing.

            I was amazed to find that there were also many sightings of mermaids around Scotland’s shores, recorded by highly respectable people, among them, a letter to the London Times in 1809 reporting a mermaid sighting by a schoolmaster in Sanday. There was even a record of a funeral held in 1830 for a mermaid whose body was washed up on the shore of Benbecula in the Hebrides.

            It could well be that such mermaid sightings were describing sightings of the same kayakers from Norway. The Times mermaid was seen seated on a rock inaccessible to any human, combing its long hair. It’s interesting to note that a seal skin kayak has to haul out onto a rock every so often to dry out the kayak. A female kayaker would no doubt take the chance to comb out her hair. As soon as it saw it was observed, the long-tailed creature launched back into the water, as a kayak would from a rock.

            The Sea Sami tribe that once lived in Norway has now disappeared. Almost none of their fragile artefacts or kayaks have survived to prove that they ever visited Scotland. Two hundred years ago, under intense pressure to assimilate into the mainstream culture, the Sea Sami way of life disappeared. The last recorded mermaid sighting was also two hundred years ago – both mermaids and Sea Sami disappeared at exactly the same time.

             

            The Selkie stories are probably the clearest evidence we have that Sea Sami ever visited the islands of the North Scotland.

            Most of the island families that claim to be descended from Selkies are now in Canada or America following the mid Victorian clearances in Scotland, when entire communities of Gaelic crofters were evicted to make way for the landlord’s sheep. In Secrets of the Sea House, Moira’s struggle with eviction in 1860 reflects that sad time. In a strange parallel, it seems that the mermaid and Selkie sightings stopped because the Sea Sami culture was banned in Norway, just as the Gaelic culture of the Outer Isles was once supressed for many years. Secrets of the Sea House is a mystery story, but it is also a way to celebrate and hold on to and celebrate some of the history of the Western seaboard of Scotland, and in particular the magical Selkie stories.