Novel – Chapter Four

Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.



They were dressed in their Sunday best – Bill’s black suit hung loosely off his frame and a black hat sat straight upon Grace’s head. A hearse was waiting downstairs in the street to take them to the church and then on to Nunhead Cemetery.

The family was crammed into the front room. Bill’s parents William and Emma Dawkins sat on the under-stuffed sofa – its blue cover slouched at the edges while the arms sloped sadly towards the floor with a sigh. Looking smart in his dark suit and tie, William gripped Emma’s hand – she seemed uncomfortable and stiff in her formal mourning dress and held a black, lacy handkerchief in her hand.

Bill stood behind the sofa with his brother Albert. Bill stared out of the window draped in faded curtains. The windowpanes misted up with condensation. He gazed at the oak boughs as they waved at him. A magpie flew onto a branch, spread its black tipped wings, and dived off towards the ground.

Fred and Issy sat in wooden chairs by the fire. A black ribbon held Fred’s jacket up at the elbow of his missing arm. He bent his head close to Issy as she whispered to him. The rim of her new hat, adorned with black silk, was big enough to cover the both of them as they chatted.

Ray and Arthur sat in the corner of the room by the door to the bedroom. Arthur’s knee-high socks were already round his ankles but Ray looked the perfect child with his white collar and both socks rigid. Bill noticed them eyeing the wooden box holding Arthur’s toys that was wedged in the corner of the room underneath the window. A tin plane poked its blue nose out from a mound of square bricks. Each brick sang out a letter from the alphabet. Two red racing cars sat on top of the bricks.

Bill had spoken to them earlier and both boys were sensitive to the fact that this was not the time to get the tin cars out of the box and drive them round the room. It was with pride that he saw them follow their elders’ example as they spoke to each other in hushed tones.

On the bookcase next to the bedroom door, was a detailed replica of a barge. William had built it during his apprenticeship. Bill had learned his carpentry skills alongside his father growing up and always admired the model. A few years back, having seen his son finally settle down, William had given it to him as a birthday present.

Beige tiles covered the fireplace from the mantel to the hearth, curving around the grate where a fire burned to keep the winter chill from the room. Upon the mantelpiece, were photos of the family and, in the middle, was a picture of Grace and Bill. In the picture, Grace stood behind him with her hand on his shoulder. Bill still remembered the day it was taken. It had been cold and he was going back to his ship the next day. He had wanted to get as much time with her as possible and late that night she had sat on his lap while he told her stories of the sea.

Between the fire and the sofa was the family dining table. Bill and Grace had spent many hours at that table attending to chores and eating meals. Now, Lenny’s tiny casket sat on its wooden frame – a prime spot where all could view him.

Grace leaned over the coffin and cut a small lock of Lenny’s hair. She kissed Lenny’s forehead. Blinking, she brought her handkerchief up to her nose. Bill placed the lid on the coffin and began to hammer the nails into place. Arthur joined Bill at the table, picked up another hammer from his dad’s toolbox and pretended to help by knocking on the wood. Grace turned to Daisy and her shoulders started to shake. Daisy held her as she sobbed.

‘First mum – now Lenny,’ she choked. ‘Please no more. I cannot take any more.’

Bill could not stand hearing her talk like that. Death was a constant. Was there any point in having babies and building families? Death would take them and sooner than anyone wanted. He continued hammering – it felt like he was sealing his own coffin, and he wished he was.

A breeze picked up and cold air chilled their ears as the family walked slowly out of the estate and towards the hearse. Bill and his brother Albert carried Lenny’s coffin over to the back of the vehicle. The coffin was light enough for one of them, but Bill liked the support of his brother. The plane trees in the road swayed with the wind and covered the crowd standing by to watch Lenny’s departure. The men held their flat caps respectfully in their folded hands while some women held handkerchiefs ready to catch their tears as if they knew that one day this could be their child.

The journey to the church was in the opposite direction to the one that Bill had dashed down the night he tried to save his son’s life. Bill held Grace’s hand during the drive and watched as they passed slowly by the railway arches, shop fronts, and office buildings.

At the church, Bill placed Lenny’s coffin in front of the altar, then sat down in the front pew. Staring at the church rafters, high above his head, Bill tried to concentrate on the vicar’s words.

‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

He looked around at the congregation and tried not to fidget in his seat. The church smelt of damp and wood polish. The pews were full of family, friends, and neighbours. The morning sun shone through the stained glass windows, making patterns on the stone-flagged floor.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’

He didn’t feel very blessed – rather aggravated and lonely. Even in the midst of Grace’s large family, he felt alone and vulnerable. There were times when Bill enjoyed them all, but there were times, like today, when he felt crowded out by them.

‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

The words felt empty – falling to the ground as broken hearts. As Bill sighed, his mother patted his hand gently. Grace sat beside him – her head bowed low and silent tears tumbling onto her coat. Arthur sat next to Grace – even at his young age he seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion. Bill could tell that Arthur had recently begun to realize that Lenny was not coming back.

‘When is Lenny going to wake up?’ he would ask and then appeared sad at Bill’s answer.

‘Lenny’s in heaven, Arthur, he’s not going to wake up.’

As the service ended, Bill and Albert carried Lenny’s coffin down the aisle and out to the car.

It was a short drive to the graveyard. They travelled through the cemetery gates and Bill held Grace closer to him. As they drove the long avenue towards the gothic chapel, the winter landscape mimicked his heart. The tall trees were black against the white sky. Gravestones sat in rows designating the final resting places of human existence. Shrubs and monuments marked the countdown to the end. Along with his grief for Lenny, Bill felt sorrow for all losses. There had been many. Years had passed since the Great War ended, but it felt like yesterday. He could feel the losses in his body. The screams of dying men whirled in his mind. He’d been on high alert and without sleep for days. That continual vigil had been his state for many years and still lived within him.

Suddenly, his vision became bizarre and he felt breathless. As he groped at his neck, he felt like he could not breathe. He needed air. He was drowning and needed air fast. His heart raced.

‘Bill?’ He heard Grace cry as his shaking hand reached for the door. ‘Bill – stop!’

He looked blindly around and pulled down on the car handle.

‘Stop the car!’ Grace shouted. Bill opened the car door and stumbled as he hit the ground. Rolling over, he bounced back up and ran like a haunted man.

He heard Grace call his name but ran on.

He could not breathe. He felt strong thin hands around his throat. Men cried out for their mothers. It was dark. He felt water around his ankles. Through the cemetery he fled. The sound of explosions rang in his head. He ducked and kept running. The ship was going down. He had to find his way to the top. The ladder was on fire. The galley was blazing too. ‘Help me, Bill,’ shouted his friend. He kept running. The passageway went on forever. He was going down with the ship. He was dying. He jumped into a boat as it went down the side of the ship and sat there breathing hard.

His breath slowed as he found himself sitting on a wooden bench under a large oak tree. Sharp pine scents mixed with wet grass. Ahead, gravestones marched in straight lines like soldiers. Picking out the odd name here and there, Bill shuddered – Thomas Gaines died 20 August 1915 – John Morris died 15 July 1916. The Great War had taken them all.

A woman ambled by and looked at him. He was sweating, confused and lost. What’s wrong with me? Maybe Grace is right. I should see the doctor. But they will put me in the nuthouse.Thoughts merged with feelings. He heard Albert calling his name, but he didn’t want to go back. He pulled his coat round his front and jerked at his scarf. He breathed in the cold air and started to hike.

High railings reached up to spikes on top of the red brick wall of the cemetery. Bill passed through iron gates and crossed the road. Opposite the cemetery wall were two-storey, terraced houses leading the way down to the end of the road. A woman in hobnail boots and apron scrubbed her stone steps. She shouted to her children playing hopscotch in the street. One child stood with her tongue between her lips contemplating the grid on the road before leaping off into space and crashing down on the next square.

At the end of the road, Bill passed under a railway bridge. Smoke came at him from the train that trundled noisily above – green moss sat where water rivulets trickled down the brickwork. A chimney sweep was walking towards him carrying her brushes over her shoulder. Her thin features were covered in soot and pulled forward over her forehead was a brown, cotton cap. She averted her eyes as she passed him by.

Wandering was good. He could get his head together when he wandered. He felt berated by Grace and didn’t want to rush home. She didn’t mean it. She was only thinking of him – wasn’t she? She wanted him to go to the doctor. She wanted him to hold down a good job. She wanted him to be an example to their children… child… She wanted him to tell her where he was going. She wanted him to stay at home. She didn’t want him to sleep rough.

Panic grew within him and he felt like he was facing an abyss. He stopped in the road, put his hands on his knees, and bent over. He breathed heavily and felt like his lungs were closing off. Wanting to break free from this feeling, he turned one way and then back, and then chased off down the road – running fleeing, escaping.

Stopping at a church, he dropped down onto a wooden bench and let out a huge sigh. The church steeple scraped the clouds that sat thunderous above his head. Throwing down rays through the gaps in the clouds, the sun was not warming his soul. Bill stood. He climbed the worn stone steps, opened the ornate wooden door and entered the church.

An organ boomed through the empty nave. The tall ceilings disappeared above dark, wooden beams, and light reflected the hues from the stained-glass windows onto the pews.

Bill bowed his head for a while in prayer. He prayed but his mind continued to scold. I do not deserve her. Her Bill has been a bad boy. How can she ever forgive and trust me? I try to be everything she wants me to be, but I’ve been awful. I’ve been selfish. Everything just makes me want to give up. I want to be happy. I want my girlie to be happy. She tells me about my flaws and how I need to change again and again. And now Lenny is dead. If I had been around more, he might still be alive. I’m just so scared. This isn’t how I pictured my life. This isn’t fair. I’m so scared. I’m losing my mind and going insane.

Bill jumped up from the pew and ran out into the rain. The water felt good against his hot skin and burning mind. He ran through the neighbourhood towards the main road ahead.

As he turned onto the Old Kent Road, the quiet residential streets suddenly changed to honking automobiles, the clopping of hooves, and people spewing forth from the gasworks as the whistle blew for lunchtime. The smell of horse manure and straw hit his nostrils.

‘You getting on, luv?’ A young lady called out to him. Bill realized he was standing in front of a bus stop and the conductress was calling to him from the wooden platform of a double-decker bus. Her hat tipped at an angle and her hands rested on her ticket holder.

‘Cheer up, dearie,’ she said as she smiled at him.

It was a number 36 bus and would take him close to home. He climbed onto the platform and up the stairs. Sitting down on the red and gold cushioned seat, he traced the grid pattern with his large fingers.

Bill noticed the landscape was changing as the bus continued towards the city. It passed a piebald horse attached to a cartload of timber with his driver standing patiently in the rain waiting to offload his cargo. It passed awnings reaching down to the pavement – advertising their proprietor and his wares. It passed the World Turned Upside Down – a pub Bill had frequented a few times – its tear-drop lamp, taking up a third of its façade, hanging amid ornate swirls and twists of iron work.

As he got closer to home, he realized he wasn’t ready to face Grace, so he sloped off the bus at Elephant and Castle’s busy intersection where horse carts fought for space with motorcars, buses, and pedestrians, and crept with hunched shoulders and heavy heart into a pub.


Grace’s family had left by the time he arrived home. Bill could tell she’d been cooking by the lingering smell of cabbage. She looked up from sewing as he drifted into the flat.

‘Where have you been, Bill? I have been worried,’ she said as she smoothed down the front of her faded, floral pinafore.

‘I walked,’ he said looking at his feet.

‘Walked where? You missed the burial. You weren’t there. My mum was not there. I needed you to be strong.’ She didn’t raise her voice. ‘You need to go see the doctor, Bill. This is not right. This is not right at all.’

Bill walked around the table and sat down. He looked out of the window at the darkening skies and pulled out his folded hankie. Slowly blowing his nose, he told her, ‘I’m not seeing no doctor.’

Grace pulled a chair up next to him. ‘You have to, Bill.’ She said. ‘You cannot keep doing this. It is getting worse and I can’t take it anymore. I need to know you are going to stay. I need to know where you are. Me and Arthur need to know where you are.’

‘They’ll send me to the nuthouse.’ Bill’s voice broke and he pushed the chair back from the table. He walked over to the window and stared out while slowly kicking at the skirting board.

Grace sighed. ‘You don’t know that, Bill. You do not know that at all. Fred went and they did not send him to the nuthouse. He went to see the doctor about his dreams and he says they are getting better. He went. Why can’t you go?’

‘Fred lost his arm.’ Bill rubbed his forehead as he tried to explain.

‘So? What has that got to do with anything? He had bad dreams and he says they are not so bad now. You have got to go to the doctor, Bill, you just do.’

‘I didn’t lose an arm.’ Bill tried again as his head started to pound.

‘I know you did not lose your arm. I know that. Don’t you know that I know that?’ Grace’s voice was rising. ‘I am not talking about you losing your arm. Go to the doctor, Bill. Go to the doctor.’

‘My head hurts. I don’t like it when you get upset.’

‘My heart hurts, Bill. I am only human. I am going to get upset. You don’t like it when I get upset. I didn’t like it that you ran away from your child’s funeral… our child’s funeral.’

‘I’m sorry, Grace, I’m sorry. I’ve got to go.’ Bill knew it was time to leave. He turned and marched out of the flat, ran down the stairs, and walked off into the night.

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