|Letters From The Front||
A stormy sky. Patches of blue with threatening rain clouds. The bruised sky darkens. A clap of thunder and the heavens open.
1915, suburban Bristol, England. Summer. The west country rain pours down on the roof tops and on busy streets. Horses, carts and cabs clatter past. Horns, shouts and market calls.Vehicles splutter along the roadway; vans, lorries and open cars. People are drenched. A sun bar casts a livid light across the street which is seal-skin tight and dark with rain.
Civilian and military matters seem to be taking part cheek by jowl in this frenetic street. Military capes jostle for space and position with umbrella-bearing men and women. On the pavements, children hang off the skirts of mothers, trying to keep dry under the small round umbrellas they carry. Bicycles weave in and out of the crowds.
A news vendor rescues his papers and posters from the rain. War progress headlines are prominent. Adjacent to the poster boards and hoardings is an Army recruitment office. A queue of young working men in high spirits, despite the rain, spills out through the door and across the pavement. Pedestrians have to force a way through. A couple of young women seem to enjoy this process and join in with the banter of the lads in the queue.
A newly accepted recruit (Rackstraw) comes out of the office and makes his way up the road. He enters a house through the servants' door. The house is the manse attaching to a church. Church and manse stand sombre in the rain.
Inside the house it is like a refuge. Below stairs, the new recruit dries out by the range. Cook and maids are busy and bustle round him. They are clearly proud of him. A young Army officer (Jimmy) enters the kitchens. The new recruit and the officer shake hands. They are about the same age and seem to be close. The officer congratulates the new recruit then turns and makes his way out of the kitchen. The recruit calls out after him, "Good luck, Mr Jimmy!" but the other is away and moving off through the house.
In the hallway as he passes, a grandfather clock clicks on imperiously in counterpoint to the gurgling of water in the gutters which seems to permeate the whole house. The time is just after twelve. He passes the drawing room door. It is open enough to reveal his mother (Margaret) and his younger sister (Babs) sitting together. The sister is in her early twenties.
The sister is comforting the mother who is reading a document. It appears to be an Army Commission. Unseen by the mother, he pauses a moment at the door and exchanges a look with his sister. She nods him away as if giving him an order "to get on with it". He smiles and shrugs as if resigned to a task ahead of him.
He moves on down the hall until he is finally standing almost to attention at the top of a stairway that leads down to his father's study. He is feeling very self-conscious in his newly acquired uniform. He takes one step down then hesitates. A feeling of anxiety gnaws at him. He is about to turn back but, if he is to break the news then this is the time to do it. He has made a decision and intends to stick to it no matter what his pious, overbearing and invariably irascible church-ministering father might have to say about it.
The scented smell of Turkish tobacco drifts up to him. It is a signal that his father has finished writing the weekly sermon and is relaxing with the newspaper. It has to be now or he'll have to leave without so much as a farewell. This latter is tempting but unthinkable. He straightens his tie, feeling the collar of his khaki shirt. It is damnably itchy. Then, running his fingers quickly through his hair for want of a comb, he takes a deep breath and descends the short spiral staircase that leads to the study door. He knocks. A voice bids him enter.
The study is dark and dingy. Heavy curtains all but cover the window space. The father (Somerset) looks up from his newspaper as the son enters. For a moment shock registers on the man's face. The shock translates to anger. He roars as his fist thumps down on the newspaper and the whole table rocks. A massive clap of thunder takes over from the cry of anger and drowns anything else that is said in the short moment afterwards. The lights flicker, dangerously close to cutting out.
A second, more powerful, burst of thunder. Darkness.
Flickering pinpoints of light close by. The striking of flints. The sound of pumping. A spirit lamp fades into life. Still the sound of rain. The light gradually reveals a small improvised dugout shelter containing several soldiers. The atmosphere is steamy, heavy with breath, cigarette smoke and flickering light. The young recruit from the manse kitchen is amongst them.
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