ALL I HAVE TO GIVE
Low Moor, Bradford, Yorkshire, January 1916
A torn heart
‘You’re not going, our Jimmy. I’m telling you, lad. Get all idea of it out of your head. I couldn’t bear it. I’ve given our Bobby and our Jack to this bloody war. That letter from the King himself said they would ask no more of me. And that me youngest would be exempt.’
Ada clung onto the pot-sink for support and closed her eyes, as the pain of her loss seared through her. She was a woman whose thirty-six years had dealt her many a hard blow, none of which had broken her yet.
As she looked out of the window, the view of the cobbled street with its rows of terraced houses blurred through her tears. Fear caused her stomach to clench tightly. It had seemed as though her world had come to an end when the telegram saying that both her lads had been killed in action had arrived fifteen months ago. But then she’d felt safe in still having her Jimmy. She wouldn’t lose him. The King’s letter, saying that he and the country thanked her for her sacrifice, had assured her they would not ask her third son to enlist.
‘I have to go, Ma. All the lads have joined up. I’d have looked like I was a coward or sommat if I hadn’t done the same. Besides, I have to go for our Bobby and our Jack. I have to honour their memory. I have to kill some of them bastard Germans as killed me brothers.’
She couldn’t find the words to answer him. As she turned towards him, it seemed to her that Jimmy had grown in stature. Whilst he’d always been a small lad – smaller than his brothers had been, something she’d put down to the difficult time she’d had birthing and raising him – he now stood to his full height, his pride in himself evident.
As her third child, Jimmy had also been her last, as the damage his breech-birth had caused her had stopped everything working as it should, and she’d never seen a period since. Though perhaps that was as well in some ways, as her Paddy never left her be and would have knocked a dozen out of her by now, if he could.
Given to swilling the drink down, Paddy spent most of what he earned through one scam or another, or through the odd job that came his way, on drink. And he gave a good bit of what was left to the bookie’s runner. He’d never kept a permanent job. The gasworks, where most men in the area worked, sacked him for poor attendance, and his stint down the mine hadn’t lasted long, either. With his record, he couldn’t even get taken on in the munitions factory, at a time when they were crying out for workers. By, they’d have been made, if he had, for them workers were earning a fortune. If it hadn’t been for her Beryl helping out, they’d have starved by now, as Paddy wouldn’t hear of letting Ada go out to work. It was against his principles, he’d say.
Beryl was her elder sister, and she’d never had any children. It was said that Bill, her husband, didn’t have it in him. He’d been married before and his first wife, who’d died of the typhus, had been childless. Beryl and Bill had doted on Ada’s three. Bobby’s and Jack’s passing had broken their hearts. How they would take this news, Ada didn’t know.
‘Eric’s going, and so is Arthur.’ Jimmy’s voice held a quiver, a nervousness, and she didn’t think this was just because of telling her this news. Perhaps the possible consequences of what he’d done were dawning on him.
‘Oh God, naw! Not them as well. What are their mams going to think? Mabel dotes on her Eric, and Agatha’s only got the one lad.’
‘They were shocked, but also proud of them, and told all the neighbours. I thought you would be proud ’an all, our Mam.’
‘Well, you thought wrong, Jimmy. You’re not going, and that’s an end to the matter!’
‘It’s too late, Ma, I signed . . .’
‘You haven’t, lad! Naw! But how?’
‘A bloke came into the mill. He said he wanted volunteers and would be at the social club all afternoon. He told us that pals like us three – and a few more from around here who’d joined us – were all going together, to support each other and keep each other safe. Aye, and he said that lads like us were dying because there aren’t enough of us, and they need our help and we should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, to fight for freedom.’
‘And you signed up? Well, you can just un-sign, Jimmy; for God’s sake, you’re not yet turned seventeen! Did you tell him your age?’
‘I lied, Mam.’
‘Oh Jimmy, Jimmy . . .’ The weight of her grief, and the unbearable truth that she could do nothing to stop him going, set Ada’s body trembling. Reaching for the fireside chair, she slumped into it. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her head. Her son needed her to be strong for him. ‘Reet, lad, what’s done is done. I’ll see as your stuff’s all sorted. You go round the street and tell them we’re having a send-off party tonight. We’ll see that all the lads that volunteered with you have a good time before they go. Tell everyone to bring what they have in the way of food, and say as I’ll be playing me mam’s piano, so there will be a sing-song.’
‘Aw, Mam, naw . . .’
‘Never mind about “Naw”, our Jimmy. You’re off to war, and you’re not going without a send-off. Bobby and Jack went amidst a lot of tears, and that’s not going to happen for you. I want you to remember your send-off and how proud we were of you. Go on, lad, I’ve got cakes to bake.’ His grin tugged at her heart strings as he ran out of the door.
Swallowing hard, Ada took her bag down from the hook on the back of the door where it always hung and rummaged through it for her purse. Her hands felt the soft felt wallet that she’d made, which was blue, with a neat blanket-stich around the edges; she had embroidered her sons’ names, Jack and Bobby, in scroll-like writing on the front of it. Tom Garrinton, the grocer along the road, had written it out for her. She’d always admired the lovely signs he’d made for his shop and had asked him to make the names look special.
Using what he’d written as a template, she’d lovingly stitched each name in a golden silk thread and then set them in entwining hearts. Pulling it out, she opened the wallet and looked on the smiling faces of Jack and Bobby: both in uniform, both with a likeness to Jimmy. Holding their pictures to her breast, she prayed to them: Look after Jimmy for me, me lads.
Wiping her tears with her pinny, she tucked the wallet back into her bag and took out her purse. It felt lighter than it should and the clasp was open. As she emptied it onto the table, the few coppers that rolled out spun with an empty, rattling sound before settling. Staring at them brought a feeling of anger and frustration to her. Paddy had been at her bag again – she’d swing for him yet! She’d had five bob in there, money built up over time from the odd copper here and there that she’d squirrelled away for a rainy day. She’d thought to use it to buy a few jugs of beer to help things along tonight, but now she’d be lucky to get a quarter of a jug, and that wouldn’t be any use.
Weary of it all, she hung the bag back on the hook, catching sight of herself in the mirror that hung next to it. The curls she’d never been able to tame had dampened into ringlets. A deep auburn colour, her hair had been what had attracted Paddy to her in the first place. He’d said it reminded him of a flaming fire. And he’d loved her freckled face and huge brown eyes. It surprised her to see that same young girl looking back at her now. She’d aged well. Not that she was a grand age, but she’d had a lot to cope with over the years, and that should have taken more of a toll on her than it had. But then her mam had been youthful looking, too, right up until her death three years ago: at fifty-five, she’d only looked forty.
The suddenness of the door swinging open catapulted Ada out of her reminiscing. She stepped back just in time to save herself from being knocked off her pins, and landed with her back to the table. Paddy stood in the open doorway with a face like thunder. Still handsome and, aye, still sought-after by many a lass, he glared at her. The door framed his tall, strong body.
Her husband of twenty years, she’d met him when she’d been just a lass of fifteen. His Irish charm, coupled with his dark good looks and twinkling blue eyes, had taken her heart. It hadn’t been long, though, before he’d taken much more, and she’d found herself pregnant with their Bobby.
‘Is it right, what I hear? Have they signed up me young Jimmy?’
‘Aye, it’s reet, Paddy. Come on in – I’ve a pot on the go.’
‘It’s not tea I’m after wanting. How can you stand there and offer such a thing, when our son has signed his own death-warrant? There’s something cold about you, Ada. Something that makes you hard against these things and stops them affecting you. I put this all down to you and your ways.’
His movement towards her wasn’t one of a loving husband about to comfort his wife. His hand was raised. Cringing away from him, Ada twisted her body and managed to dodge the blow he would have landed across her face.
Skipping over to the fireplace, she picked up the poker. ‘Just you try it, Paddy, and I’ll beat the life out of you with this!’
‘Ha, me red-headed devil, you would an’ all. Come here!’
His tone and stance had changed in a flash. Now his eyes smouldered with a burning desire. That was her Paddy. He only had two reactions to bad situations: anger and lust. And either emotion could trigger the other. Well, she preferred his lust. Putting the poker down, she went into his arms. There was a comfort in his holding her, and she could sense his need to find some for himself. Pulling his head away from her neck, he motioned towards the steps that led to the shelf-like loft.
This tiny house stood in a row of back-to-back cottages, all with one large scullery-cum-living room downstairs and a loft space under the roof that was reached by a ladder. This was where she and Paddy had their bed. A large trunk, holding their own and their sons’ clothes and what linen they had, was the only other piece of furniture up there. Jimmy slept on a shake-me-down – a soft, horsehair mattress that could be rolled up in the daytime. He put this on the floor and, with a blanket to cover him, was kept warm by the embers glowing in the fire grate. The sound of the lock clicking into place as she went towards the ladder increased the feeling of anticipation in her belly.
The muscles that had tightened with Paddy’s kissing and nipping of her neck clenched even harder, causing her to feel sensations that needed sating. So much so that she shunned the self-disgust that niggled at her, making her ask herself how she could give in to such feelings at such a time? She knew how: it was all they had – emotions; all they could tap into, to help them cope. Aye, it could mean feeling anger, or cause tears and wails because of the sadness of her situation, but more often than not, for her and Paddy, it meant satisfying the need they both had in them.
Willingly giving herself to Paddy’s skilful love-making blotted out all that she had to face. His caressing of every part of her made her feel beautiful. The sensation of his lips brushing her nipples, before taking them gently – one at a time – into his mouth, and at the same time stroking the heart of her womanhood left her begging him to enter her. When he did, she felt every part of her clench onto him, as spasm after spasm rippled through her. With this release, her body betrayed her, wrenching deep sobs from her that left her limp beneath him.
Paddy connected to this unburdening of her soul by coming deep into her, then slumping beside her. His sobs gave her strength. His need created in her a place that could give him comfort and so soothe her own pain. Taking him in her arms, she whispered, ‘It’ll be reet, Paddy, love. The King promised us. I’ll go and see the authorities and explain. They’ll have to release our Jimmy. I’ll take the letter with me. They can’t deny what our own King has said.’
‘No.’ His hand found her discarded pinny. Using it to wipe his face, he lifted himself on his elbow and gently wiped hers, too. ‘’Tis as Jimmy is his own man. He’s made his decision. We have to stand by him on that, so we do.’
‘You’re reet, Paddy. We do. Come on, we’ve a “do” to arrange. We have to give our lad a good send-off.’ Grabbing her clothes, Ada began to dress, but she felt a trickle of worry at Paddy’s protest, as the sound of his voice showed that his anger was returning.
‘That’s taking things too far for me. I see it as a mockery, and it’s what made me angry more than anything. How is it that you, his mammy, could rejoice at Jimmy’s going? It makes me sick to me stomach.’
Ada hadn’t meant to make him angry again. She’d wanted to hold onto the love they had just shared. ‘It’s not a celebration, Paddy. It’s to say we are proud of him. Aye, and to help our Beryl, and them lasses in the street that are sending their lads off, too. And Betsy – young Betsy is in love with our Jimmy, and she will miss him more than anyone. Us having a bit of a do will help them all take their minds off the fear of it, at least for a couple of hours. Mind, it’ll be a dry do, because you’ve had me nest-egg again, Paddy. Eeh, how you can take from your own wife, like you do, beggars belief. You can be a pig at times, Paddy O’Flynn!’
‘A pig, is it? And haven’t I just given you the loving of your life, bringing you more joy than is known to man, and you call me a pig!’ He’d risen and was pulling on his trousers. Normally such talk would put a fear into her. Paddy lived a fine balance between being the man every woman desired and a monster who would knock nine bells out of her. But his tone didn’t hold anger. He spoke with a curious insinuation that he knew something she didn’t. ‘If it is a party you want, and the spirit of it is as you say, then take a look at this. Won’t some of that get you a party to tell of, eh?’ Paddy produced ten one-pound notes from the pocket of his trousers.
‘Oh my God, Paddy, what have you done? Have you robbed a bank?’
‘Ha, no. It is the horses that came in for me. I bet a double and a treble, and they came romping in. This is what I did with the four bob I took from your purse. I went forth and multiplied, just as the good Lord said we should.’
‘Ha! Is it a pig you think I am now?’
She laughed at him, as she hit him with the pinny she’d picked up, then snatched the three one-pound notes that he held out towards her. ‘A generous pig, but a pig all the same!’
As he went to grab her, she wriggled out of his reach and clambered for the ladder. She needed to busy herself because, party or no party, she had to face the reality of their Jimmy going to war.
I HOPE YOU ENJOYED THIS EXCERPT. IF YOU WANT TO READ MORE, CLICK ON THE BOOK COVER ON THIS PAGE AND IT WILL TAKE TO TO AMAZON WHERE YOU CAN DOWNLOAD THE EBOOK VERSION OR BUY A PAPERBACK. ALTERNATIVELY, PAPERBACKS ARE AVAILABLE AT WH SMITH.