Harry comes marching home.
Most of the articles I write come broadly under the heading of opinion pieces. This piece is a bit different. I wrote if for the Broomhill Festival Writing Competition and, although it didn't win a prize, I liked it - so here it is:
Harry didn’t get his muscles in a gym.
He was built like a brick outhouse, a deep chest and thick arms from years manhandling huge reels of electrical cable. If his size didn’t warn you off, there was always the pugnacious thrust of his lower jaw until, many years later, when a skilled dentist corrected his underbite. Vera, Harry’s wife, used to say how another suitor had told her that Harry “looked like a bulldog.” The man had a point.
Harry left school at fourteen, although in truth he and school had parted ways several years earlier. Harry was ‘a good lad’ – strong as an ox, put a shift in, never backed down from a fight. The fights were part aggression, part frustration. Each day questions, thoughts, ideas tumbled around inside his head. The local teachers assumed that all the kids from Harry’s area were thick, and pretty soon all the kids assumed that as well.
One day he heard a group of young men preaching in the street. Their message of how Jesus understood you, even if no-one else did, spoke to Harry. He began attending a bible class, excited by the new horizons opening up. From being barely literate he became an avid reader, and, to his surprise, turned out to be a gifted speaker, with a relaxed and humorous delivery. Life was good.
In 1939 Neville Chamberlain declared that Britain was at war and Harry registered as a conscientious objector. In a small Lancashire town everybody knew. Harry’s family stuck by him despite the abuse. A man in a pub said “Your brother – fookin' coward then.” The fight didn’t cause much damage but Harry’s brother and the man were both banned afterwards.
Harry became a nurse. He moved to London just as the Blitz was starting, to show he wasn’t afraid. After 12 hours shifts, he spent nights up on the hospital roof using sandbags to dislodge any incendiaries that landed. His fellow nurses accepted him, if not the tutor who greeted him with, “Shut up you, you weren’t even willing to fight for your country.”
Harry married Vera and they had two children. He was a good father and a loyal husband, but in the 40’s and 50’s most conversations between men came round to the question “What did you do in the war?”
Conviction and strength of character are finite resources. Harry began to withdraw from situations where questions about the war might arise. Family members were sworn to secrecy. Conversations at work were kept superficial, friends were dropped. After retirement, Harry spoke occasionally, briefly, to his daughter and son but by the end talked only to his wife. Dementia and ill health took their toll until Harry died in June 2013.
In war not all acts of bravery take place on the field of battle and not all the fallen have their names on weathered memorials behind town halls.
I love you dad – be at peace.