Hamfield, just outside Nottingham, June 1919.
The war was over. That was the main thing. That was all that mattered. Not the lives lost. Nor the devastation. Not the hostile, resentful power struggle throughout Europe. Not even the victory. In the end, all that mattered was that the long years of anguish and despair had come to an end.
Up and down the country, people celebrated the fact that life could now go back to normal. Whatever that was. Women left their war-jobs in the factories in their tens of thousands, and went home to cook, clean and have babies. Men lay aside their rifles and bayonets and took up their hammers and saws once more. They hammered their swords into ploughshares, figuratively if not literally, and tried to forget what they had seen.
Across the nation, there were street parties, tea parties, balls, lunches, drinks evenings, galas and dances to celebrate the return of the heroes and the return of everyday life as it had been years earlier.
Obviously, no one mentioned the dead.
The Member for Hamfield and West Nottingham, the Honourable Peter Maynard, with his charming wife Augustine, hosted one such event at their elegant home in the leafy suburb of Hamfield.
It was a glorious evening. The weather for the first week of an English June was perfect: warm and sunny, with a cloudless blue sky and the merest hint of a breeze ruffling its fingers through the early roses, bringing their fragrance lightly into the house.
The ballroom, a recent and somewhat garish addition when viewed from the outside, inside followed neatly on from the hall, the dining room and the drawing room by the simple expedient of moving back the furniture and flinging back the folding doors that separated the rooms. The result was a vast flowing space where guests could mingle and roam, drink in hand, from the dancefloor to the buffet and back again.
In one corner of the ballroom, on a small, purpose-built raised platform, the little orchestra played a series of popular dance tunes, and couples, young and old, circled the floor just as they had done five years earlier. All around them, people gathered in little groups and laughed and talked then laughed again. Cocktails of all kinds were knocked back in large quantities.
And obviously, no one mentioned the dead.
The war, Richard Dawlish reflected as he sipped his champagne cocktail with great reluctance, might never have happened.
No one mentioned the dead, but he could still see them, their clutching, decaying flesh protruding from muddy dips and hollows, and at night the rats would come out of their hiding places and nibble the naked vulnerable limbs. Richard didn’t even need to close his eyes. The images were always before him. He carried them with him wherever he went, whatever he did, in his head, in his dreams, his mind, his eyes. He began to think they would never leave him. Even when he was an old man, he would still see those corpses, like so many strange species growing in a wasteland of a garden.
Turning, he looked out through the open doors at the long lawn surrounded by blossoming borders. Was this what those millions had died for? A perfect flat green lawn? He took another drink. He couldn’t think of anything else to do, so like the others, he drank.
Behind him in the ballroom, someone tapped a spoon against a glass to get everyone’s attention. The chatter stopped, the laughter faded, and everyone turned to face the Honourable Peter Maynard positioned at the front of the orchestra stage. He embarked upon a long and largely predictable second-hand speech, culminating in, ‘So let us raise our glasses in a toast as we welcome back our heroes, and thank them for their part in keeping England’s green and pleasant land free of tyranny and destruction.’
There were loud shouts of ‘hear, hear’ and ‘just so’, and everyone repeated some rambling form of the toast and drank. Maynard then said, ‘And another toast to celebrate the fine achievements of some very special young men in the field of combat, and who are with us this evening. Please join me on the stage: Captain Algy Compton!’ There was a loud and raucous cheer. Maynard continued, ‘Next, I’m very proud to be able to honour my son, Group Captain Michael Maynard.’ There was a further, louder chorus of cheers and catcalls, then someone at the back shouted, ‘Thinks he can bloody fly, so he does!’ There was general laughter, though some of the ladies tutted at the language. Peter Maynard, smiling proudly, responded with, ‘From what I hear, he can fly!’
‘Showed the bloody Boche a thing or two, let me tell you!’ came another voice from the back. Again, everyone laughed, and Maynard said, his good humour slipping slightly, ‘Indeed. But let’s keep it polite, gentlemen, remember the ladies.’ He looked down at his bit of paper. ‘Er, next on the list, is some young scallywag by the name of Second Lieutenant Gervase Parfitt. A second lieutenant at only nineteen. That’s a sterling achievement, Gerry, my dear boy!’ A lanky youth nodded, and received with blushes the back-slaps and cheers of those around him as he made his way forward.
The audience, less bored now and enjoying the fun, turned back to Maynard, whose glass was being topped up by a servant. ‘And we mustn’t forget Gervase’s big brother Reggie, better known as Captain Reginald Parfitt,’ Maynard paused to drink his toast, then went on, ‘Then there’s yet another of these overachieving Parfitt brothers, this time it’s none other than Artie, a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s navy, which as we all know, is just some strange, salt-water name for a Captain! Lieutenant Arthur Parfitt, ladies and gentlemen. Then last, but by no means least, my nephew Algy’s comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Richard Dawlish. Richard, my dear fellow, do step up with the others for the photograph. Let’s have some applause for this excellent display of British—er, and colonial, of course—manhood.’
Richard had smiled dutifully and raised his glass for each toast. He had wondered if he would be mentioned and was a little surprised that he was. As a ripple of polite applause went around the room, he made his way forward, embarrassed but smiling. Maynard shook his hand, then the six young men stood together whilst the photographer arrived to capture the moment for posterity. The photographer had some difficulty getting the right light reading and focus, no doubt due to the dozens of dazzling artificial lights in the ballroom coupled with the bright sunlight coming in from outside.
‘Your black face is mucking up his lens, Dickie,’ Reggie laughed. He swayed, clearly fairly tipsy. The others joined in with the joking and laughter. Richard smiled politely and said nothing.
‘Everybody stand perfectly still, please,’ called the photographer.
‘Don’t call him Dickie, he doesn’t like it,’ Gervase said.
‘Oops I forgot! So sorry, Rich-ard,’ Reggie said, slapping Richard’s shoulder. Reggie pronounced the name with the emphasis on the second syllable, in an attempt at mimicking Richard’s strong Jamaican accent. Again everyone laughed, and Richard looked at his feet.
‘Hold still gentlemen, and—smile!’
It seemed to take the photographer forever to get everything how he wanted it and take the wretched photo, but at last they were free to go back to the dancing and drinking.
Richard felt a hand on his arm, and looked round to see Miranda Maynard, smilingly standing on tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek. She kept her arm through his, a show of solidarity it seemed. She, the darling of the ball, and he the outsider with the black skin, united against the rest of them.
Richard couldn’t help but notice one or two ladies shaking their heads in disapproval. These ladies muttered to their gentlemen escorts and together they all turned away. Richard was neither surprised nor offended. The British almost universally despised him for his skin colour. And not only them. Even the enemy soldiers he’d come across had been surprised to observe a Jamaican among the ranks of the British armed forces that had overwhelmed them. Especially a Jamaican who gave orders. In their eyes, his honoured achievements and courage under fire would never rise above his complexion.
Miranda gazed into his eyes. ‘Take no notice, darling. They don’t know you as I do. They can’t help being fearfully ignorant.’
She kissed his cheek again. Richard felt she was in danger of incurring her parents’ wrath. He was about to tell her he wasn’t upset by the cold shoulders around him or the comments, but she carried on speaking.
‘Algy, Michael and the rest of them are planning a little drinks party in the pavilion. They’ve snaffled a couple of crates, Mike said, and I’m going down to join them now. Algy is bringing Dreary Deirdre, but in spite of that it should be laugh. You could come too, it’ll be good to let our hair down away from this stuffy lot. What about it?’
It sounded like a good idea to Richard.
‘And you never know,’ Miranda said softly for his ear alone, ‘you and I might finally get some time alone, if you know what I mean.’ She gave him a wicked smile. He knew exactly what she meant.
‘I don’t know. They didn’t invite me, they might prefer it if I didn’t come along. I was thinking of getting back to my lodgings.’
She slanted an eyebrow at him. ‘Good idea, I could come with you.’
That wasn’t what he had in mind. He hastily added, ‘On the other hand, why not, we deserve to relax a little.’ Miranda gripped his arm and giggled.
Ten minutes later they reached the ‘pavilion’, as the Maynards called it, but which to Richard appeared to be a spacious if somewhat dilapidated summerhouse. Two wide, long steps led up to the door, and the group of young men and girls were sprawled all over the steps, chatting and drinking beer.
‘Hello Dickie-boy!’ Arthur Parfitt called and cackled at his own hilariousness. Like his brother Reggie, he was quite obviously very drunk.
‘Don’t call him that, you know he doesn’t like it, Artie.’ Miranda snapped, folding her long skirt neatly about her and taking a set on the bottom step.
Artie clapped his hand to his heart as if mortally wounded and subsided theatrically onto the step. ‘Oh Miranda! I’m cut to the core by your marvellous jibe! Though actually I refer to be called Artie. It’s better than Arthur any day of the week. Anyway, Dickie knows it’s just a bit of fun, don’t you Dickie-Dick-Dickie?’
Richard ignored him, and took a seat on the other side of Miranda. He accepted a bottle from one of the other girls. She must be Margaret, Richard thought. Her errand completed, she turned back to Gervase, who put a possessive arm about her shoulders. Beyond her, Algy and his girlfriend Deirdre were kissing with complete abandon, ignoring the others nearby. Richard hoped things wouldn’t get too out of hand. The fourth girl was Miranda’s little sister Penny, a sweet kid who looked almost as uncomfortably out of place as Richard felt. She was too young to be drinking beer and talking about the kind of things the rest of them were likely to talk about. He’d give it half an hour, walk Penny back to the party, say goodnight to the Maynards, then make his escape.
He sat in the shade of the large and very beautiful copper beech. It was no blue mahoe, and the leaves were smaller but still more or less heart-shaped, like those of the trees from his homeland. He repressed the aching flashes of memory: playing outside his grandfather’s hillside home, of the little village where his family had been schooled for the last three generations.
There was an aged swing hanging from the lowest branch of the beech, and at intervals one or other of the girls went to sit on it, and the men took it in turns to push them, although really it was a contest to see who could get the girl to fall off, perhaps flashing her underwear at the same time.
Miranda was chatting with the other girls, and Richard drank another beer Algy handed him, then found he had another in his hand, and he drank that too without even really thinking about it. After half an hour or so, Miranda took his hand, removed and set down his fourth bottle of beer, and pulling him to his feet, drew him off into the copse of rhodedendrons and azaleas, amid catcalls and jeers.
They were gone for twenty minutes. When they returned to the group, both of them were sullen and silent. Miranda went to sit with Deirdre, Algy, Margaret and Artie. Richard sat for a moment beside Penny before asking if she wanted to go back to the main party. She jumped up, relieved, and they set off back to the house.
‘How any lady can go home just on one shoe and not notice is beyond me,’ George Maynard’s butler remarked. It was early the next morning, and he, the footman and two maids, were surveying the scene of the party with dismay. They had brought boxes into the ballroom to clear away the debris, which consisted of discarded food, drink, crockery, glasses, napkins, items of clothing, cigar and cigarette butts, the lady’s shoe in question, a cigarette case, two pipes and a host of other oddments. The house was a mess, and on inspection it was discovered that the lawn outside was hardly less strewn with rubbish.
George Blake, the footman, was despatched to the pavilion to clear up after the ‘secret’ drinks party enjoyed by some of the young people. He was pleased to go, as it meant he could enjoy a sneaky cigarette and dawdle for a few minutes in the sunshine. He paused to light his cigarette as soon as he rounded the shrubbery which hid him from the house. He stood for a moment, holding the smoke in the back of his throat before raising his head, eyes closed and raised to the sun, then slowly releasing the held breath. It was a perfect morning.
But as he neared the pavilion, something odd on the ground caught his eye. As he came up to it, he saw it was the piece of wood that formed the seat of the swing. He picked it up. Coming slowly closer round the corner of the pavilion, the hair on the back of his neck prickling with caution, he beheld the body of Richard Dawlish, hanging by a rope from the stout lower branch of the copper beech tree. The man’s tie was hanging loosely down, his hands swinging freely by his sides, the feet together and turning as if by their own volition as the body swayed with the breeze, first to the left, then to the right, then a little left again, his boots still smartly polished. George Blake vomited onto the bottom step of the pavilion, then throwing aside his cigarette and wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he ran back to the house, saying over and over to himself, ‘Oh my God, oh my dear God.’
Under the watchful eye of the local police, Richard’s body was cut down and carried into the house, where it was laid upon a table in a back room. Several of the young men were up and about by this time, and stood about the room, eyeing the proceedings and sharing cigarettes. The Honourable Peter Maynard was consulting quietly with the police sergeant. For once, no one felt much like making jokes about Richard’s name.
As the door opened to admit the doctor, Miranda was also there, shocked, her hand to her mouth as she took in the scene. She pushed past the doctor and rushed to Richard’s side, sobbing hysterically, forgetting that she wore only her nightgown and that her negligee was not tied about her. Gervase Parfitt and her brother Michael between them tried to drag her away.
‘Come away, old girl, nothing we can do for the poor fellow now,’ Mike said.
‘You don’t understand!’ she cried, turning to face the lot of them. ‘None of you understand. I loved him! We were going to be married!’
Then she fell down in a dead faint upon the floor.