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The Shame
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Brian Williams

Historical Fiction


Of course I knew about her past when she came to work for me. I may be old, but I’m not stupid. I know I should have sent her on her way there and then, but you didn’t see her. She was so pathetic, so vulnerable, I couldn’t just turn my back on her. So I let her sleep in the loft above the stables and carry out odd jobs around the yard. What did I care what people said? I was above that. I’d already proven my worth.

Of course, I didn’t know the whole story, but that came out over time. Sometimes if I was out in the yard, she’d tell me her story while she worked, rambling on, not really caring whether or not I was listening. I think she just wanted to talk. Put her side of it. So, over time, I managed to piece it together.

Of course, she’s gone now. She looked so peaceful when it was all over, curled up in the straw. I know you’ll say she should have done it straight away, but at least she did the right thing in the end. It’s easy to criticise, it’s easy to say what she should have done, but we all know that it’s not so easy to actually do it when it comes to the crunch. To be honest, I felt sorry for her. I still do.

I was there when it happened, you know. Mary, her friend, came to warn me. I think they wanted to make sure I’d be out of the way so there’d be no embarrassing scenes for the poor girl. Perhaps I should have gone for a stroll, but I wanted to see how it ended.

I know Mary from her stories. She was her best friend. They’d been friends since childhood, had grown up together, been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Even after all she’d been through, she still spoke of Mary as a friend in our talks in the yard. She was very faithfully, which makes it even more of a shame.

Their husbands had been friends too and they’d gone off to the war together. What a glorious day that was. She told me all about it. Many times she told me how she and Mary had gone to see them off, though sometimes it was hard to understand what she was saying through the tears.

Mary was a tower of strength to her then. It was always Mary who was the cheerful one, always Mary who helped her through the moments of doubt.

“Just remember,” Mary said, “they’re heroes now. Whether they come back dead or alive, we’re the wives of heroes.”

And then the war was over and they started to come back. I can remember the homecoming parades. I was there too you know. So what if all my sons are dead now? I can still celebrate the return of our heroes. It still makes me proud after all these years.

Oh, the flags, the crowds, the bands playing and the returning heroes marching up the street to the beat of the drum, falling out one by one as they spotted their wives or families. Just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes.

Not that I knew her at the time, but she was there. Three days she and Mary went, watched and returned home alone. Then, on the fourth day, the bodies came, the fallen heroes, returned to their families. Those who had already returned lined the streets, standing to attention, and those who formed the escort for their fallen comrades no longer fell out when they saw their families, staying with the heroes until every flag wrapped body had been claimed.

On the fifth day, Mary’s husband returned, fallen in battle and wrapped in glory and the flag. It was what he had always wanted, said Mary through her tears. Now he was a hero, gone to join his father and his brother. She told me it was the proudest day of Mary’s life.

Of course it was. I still remember when my eldest came back. I still remember the feelings of pride and sorrow, but always pride would win out. He was assured of his place, his eternal glory. Now all my boys have joined him. Who wouldn’t be proud?

Of course, she had nothing to be proud of, because her husband didn’t come back, neither amongst the dead or the living. She took to asking the others if they’d seen her husband, if they knew what had happened to him, but they wouldn’t say. She even went to the graveyard to ask Mary’s husband, for they had been friends, who would have fought and died together, but he too was silent.

She spoke warmly of Mary and her actions during those days. Now that her husband was gone, she had no money and Mary was very generous, though she could afford to be with her widow’s pension. They would go out walking most days, Mary in the traditional black of the war widow, with the Widow’s Cross pinned proudly to her chest.

At first, people took her to be Mary’s companion, and everyone showed them the proper reverence due to a war widow, but as time went on, things began to change. One day, while out walking, they passed an old lady who was standing on her doorstep when she made a remark to her companion that was meant as a whisper, but was just loud enough to be heard.

She told me that although she was deeply shocked and hurt, she had pleaded with Mary to ignore the old lady, but Mary had had none of it. She rounded on them, insisting that her husband was a hero, shaming the old lady for her words.

“Hold your head up high,” Mary had said. “Show them your pride in your husband and no-one will doubt him.”

However, that was the last day that Mary walked out in public with her, and, a few days later, the parcels of food stopped arriving.

One morning, she awoke to find the word “Coward” scrawled on the walls of her house. She told me that she remembered that day very clearly, remembered spending the morning cleaning the outside of her house, ignoring the passers by who stopped at the fence and made comments to their companions in low voices, judged just loud enough for her to hear.

When she had removed every trace of the words from her house, she went inside and put on her coat and hat. As she walked down the street, no-one acknowledged her. Men who had marched off arm-in-arm with her husband not so long ago crossed the street to avoid her or turned their backs as she passed.

Hold your head up high, she told me. My husband is a hero. Let them see my pride.

Then, Mary, still dressed in black and wearing the Widow’s Cross on her chest, passed her in the street without even turning her head.

She always broke down in tears at this point in the story and I never did find out what happened next, save to say that a few weeks later she was at my back gate, begging for a corner of the yard to sleep in.

By then I’d heard about her. Who hadn’t? She’d had a few jobs, the maid at a house, even a shop girl, but always her past had caught up with her and she’d had to move on. I know I shouldn’t have, but I took her in.

And here she stayed until her husband found her. Mary came to warn me that he was coming, which gave me just enough time. You see, there’s a place in the house where there’s a door to the loft of the stables. If you sit there, quietly, you can hear everything that’s said and if you look through the keyhole, you’d be surprised at what you can see.

She was sitting on the straw bed she’d made for herself at the far end of the loft when he came in. I saw the look of surprise on her face, then the look of hope and then she must have seen the look on his face, because the hope gave way to misery. Not that I could see his face, you understand, because I couldn’t see him at all, but I could hear him.

She buried her head in her hands and started to cry.

“Well?” he asked, after a long while.

“I waited,” she said. “I waited for so long, but you never came back. Everyone said you were a, were a...”

“Go on,” he said. “Say it.”

She shook her head, not even looking up.

“Then I’ll say it. A coward. That’s what you thought, didn’t you? That your husband was a coward.”

She shook her head again.

“Then why didn’t you wait for me?”

“I couldn’t stand the shame!”

“The shame!” he roared. “You couldn’t stand the shame? What about me?”

“I didn’t believe... I always thought...”

“Thought what? That I’d come back? Is that why you’re here then? If you thought I’d come back, you’d still be waiting for me!”

“I’m so sorry,” she cried, holding out her arms to him.

“So am I,” he said, his voice breaking and taking his anger away with it. “You don’t know what it was like. We were trapped, cut off. I could have died a hundred times and word would never have got back. But I didn’t. And you know what kept me going? You did.”

She hung her head, dropped her arms to her sides.

“The thought of you, waiting for me. Knowing you’d be there for me, believing in me. That’s what kept me going. I could have died a hundred times, an anonymous, coward’s death, but I kept going for you, to spare you the shame.”

“I still believe,” she protested. “Now you’re back, we can show them. I can hold my head up again.”

“Please,” he said, and I swear that I heard tears in his voice. “Don’t do this. You know it’s too late. How can I be seen with you again? Everyone knows. Everyone knows you didn’t stand by me. How can you still be my wife?”

“I’m so sorry,” she sobbed and she buried her face in the straw.

I sat there for a long while, wondering what would happen next. I don’t think she heard him leave, or heard Mary take his place, because she seemed surprised when she eventually looked up and saw her standing there.

“You poor thing,” said Mary, coming to sit beside her on the straw.

“Mary? What are you doing here?”

“I’ve come to help. We’ve both come to help.”

“Oh Mary, what am I going to do?”

“You know what you have to do. Here,” she said, handing her a small package. “Take this.”

She opened the package and poured out a white powder into the palm of her hand.

“Will it hurt?” she asked.

“No. It’ll be just like going to sleep.”

She thought for a long while and then looked up.

“Mary. Promise me something.”

“Yes? What is it?”

“Look after him for me.”

“Of course I will.”

“And stay with me. Until I’ve gone to sleep.”

Mary nodded and held her hand while she put the powder into a glass of water and drank it. Then she curled her head into her friend’s lap and quietly went to sleep.

Of course, they left me to deal with the body, but at least they were generous, enough to pay off the various officials and to pay for a proper yard boy to do her work. Not that anyone was sorry to see her go or asked any questions. Not that they invited me to the wedding either, but then I can understand that too.

I would have just reminded them of the shame.

© Brian Williams, 2002

©, 2010