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
What did I care what people said? I was above that. I’d
already proven my
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
it even more of a shame.
Their husbands had been friends too and
gone off to the war together. What a glorious day that was. She told me
about it. Many times she told me how she and Mary had gone to see them
though sometimes it was hard to understand what she was saying through
Mary was a tower of strength to her
was always Mary who was the cheerful one, always Mary who helped her
the moments of doubt.
Mary said, “they’re heroes
now. Whether they come back dead or alive, we’re the wives of
And then the war was over and they
come back. I can remember the homecoming parades. I was there too you
what if all my sons are dead now? I can still celebrate the return of
heroes. It still makes me proud after all these years.
Oh, the flags, the crowds, the bands
and the returning heroes marching up the street to the beat of the
falling out one by one as they spotted their wives or families. Just
thought of it brings tears to my eyes.
Not that I knew her at the time, but she
there. Three days she and Mary went, watched and returned home alone.
the fourth day, the bodies came, the fallen heroes, returned to their
Those who had already returned lined the streets, standing to
those who formed the escort for their fallen comrades no longer fell
they saw their families, staying with the heroes until every flag
had been claimed.
On the fifth day, Mary’s
fallen in battle and wrapped in glory and the flag. It was what he had
wanted, said Mary through her tears. Now he was a hero, gone to join
and his brother. She told me it was the proudest day of
Of course it was. I still remember when
eldest came back. I still remember the feelings of pride and sorrow,
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
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
very generous, though she could afford to be with her widow’s
would go out walking most days, Mary in the traditional black of the
with the Widow’s Cross pinned proudly to her chest.
At first, people took her to be
companion, and everyone showed them the proper reverence due to a war
but as time went on, things began to change. One day, while out
passed an old lady who was standing on her doorstep when she made a
her companion that was meant as a whisper, but was just loud enough to
She told me that although she was deeply
shocked and hurt, she had pleaded with Mary to ignore the old lady, but
had had none of it. She rounded on them, insisting that her husband was
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
One morning, she awoke to find the word
scrawled on the walls of her house. She told me that she remembered
very clearly, remembered spending the morning cleaning the outside of
house, ignoring the passers by who stopped at the fence and made
their companions in low voices, judged just loud enough for her to
When she had removed every trace of the
from her house, she went inside and put on her coat and hat. As she
the street, no-one acknowledged her. Men who had marched off arm-in-arm
her husband not so long ago crossed the street to avoid her or turned
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
the Widow’s Cross on her chest, passed her in the street
without even turning her
She always broke down in tears at this
in the story and I never did find out what happened next, save to say
few weeks later she was at my back gate, begging for a corner of the
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
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
her. Mary came to warn me that he was coming, which gave me just enough
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
She was sitting on the straw bed
for herself at the far end of the loft when he came in. I saw the look
surprise on her face, then the look of hope and then she must have seen
look on his face, because the hope gave way to misery. Not that I could
face, you understand, because I couldn’t see him at all, but
I could hear him.
She buried her head in her hands and
“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.
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
She shook her head again.
“Then why didn’t you
wait for me?”
“I couldn’t stand
“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!”
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
got back. But I didn’t. And you know what kept me going? You
She hung her head, dropped her arms to
“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?”
sorry,” she sobbed and she buried her
face in the straw.
I sat there for a long while, wondering
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
“You poor thing,”
said Mary, coming to sit
beside her on the straw.
“Mary? What are you doing
“I’ve come to help.
We’ve both come to help.”
“Oh Mary, what am I going to
“You know what you have to do.
said, handing her a small package. “Take this.”
She opened the package and poured out a
powder into the palm of her hand.
“Will it hurt?” she
“No. It’ll be just
like going to sleep.”
She thought for a long while and then
“Yes? What is it?”
“Look after him for
“Of course I will.”
“And stay with me. Until
I’ve gone to sleep.”
Mary nodded and held her hand while she
the powder into a glass of water and drank it. Then she curled her head
her friend’s lap and quietly went to sleep.
Of course, they left me to deal with the
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
go or asked any questions. Not that they invited me to the wedding
then I can understand that too.
I would have just
reminded them of the shame.
Brian Williams, 2002