This story took second place in the Uxbridge Library World War I Short Story Competition
The Uxbridge Lads
Ada Peel watched the crowds from the doorway of the draper’s shop where she worked. A sharp September breeze stirred the impromptu bunting that some shopkeepers had strung across their windows. Uxbridge High Street had taken on a jolly, carnival air. Mr Baxter the greengrocer, with unusual foresight, had made a huge batch of toffee apples and was doing a roaring trade.
The men in khaki had set up a line of four trestle tables across the road. Their stern faces could not hide their bemusement at the size of the throng that faced them. Where Ada stood, the crowd was dense and unruly, eagerly pushing forward towards where the recruiters sat. But as they neared the tables they separated into four more or less orderly lines to take their turn.
Farm lads, who just minutes before were harvesting in the fields, stood in line, mud still sticking to the work boots that they scuffed on the cobbles. Clerks from Uxbridge offices, ink still wet on their fingertips, trying to look nonchalant and sophisticated, queued amongst their peers. Older men, trying to ignore the exuberant antics of the young, walked forward with serious determination.
Ada spotted Danny Reid, ever a Jack the Lad, swaggering in his work clothes as he closed the gap between himself and his friend Johnno. The pair joshed with their neighbours.
‘Can’t wait to get out there, can we boys? Give them Huns a seeing to.’
The wives and girlfriends of the men stood at the sides of the street. Some waved little Union Jacks they had got hold of and yelled encouragement.
‘Go on lads! Well done. Give the Germans what for.’
The lads responded with grins, laughter and jokes, and kisses where a cheek was offered, amidst a roar of approval.
‘King and Country!’ someone cried, ‘Our hearts are with you, brave boys.’
Older men looking on shook their heads and kept serious faces; their wise old features trying to look optimistic, but their eyes gave them away as they filled with tears. They’ve seen all this before, thought Ada.
As few people came into the shop Ada was able to observe the recruitment drive nearly all afternoon. She knew that this wave of enthusiasm had been generated by the bad news from the front at the end of August, after the retreat from Mons. The accusatory pointing finger on the posters had brought them from their homes in droves. Ada watched until the stream of men had dwindled to a trickle and most of the merry crowd had wandered home for tea. The cobbles of the High Street were left littered with leaflets and paper Union Jacks trampled underfoot.
Ada walked home to give Jimmy his tea. Her 17 year old son had recently started work at the tannery and came home tired out each evening. Thomas, Ada’s husband, had died in another war when Jimmy was still a baby and so the two of them were alone.
When Jim, a fine strapping lad, arrived home it was past his usual time and he staggered in, clearly a little drunk.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ he said, ‘me and some of the lads went for a pint to celebrate.’
A pint or two, thought Ada indulgently as she put Jim’s tea on the table.
‘Celebrate, son? What you celebrating?’
‘Joining up,’ said Jim, as he shovelled his tea into his ever-hungry mouth.
‘Don’t be daft. You’re too young. You have to be at least 18.’
‘I told them I was 19,’ he said blithely. ‘They believed me too. Look, I’ve got a piece of paper to show I’m a soldier now.’
He dragged a scrap of officially printed paper from his pocket.
‘I’ll be going with the others for training next week. I can’t wait.’
Jimmy was so full of excitement and hunger, paying attention to satisfying his appetite , that he failed to hear his mother’s cry of pain or see the tears that filled her eyes. Not a word of reproach passed her lips; she adored her Jimmy.
Soon Jimmy went off to train for war. Three weeks at some camp in Norfolk – for a boy who had never been out of Middlesex. Ada gave him everything she could think of that might help – new socks, a thick muffler, gloves. She extracted a promise from him to keep himself safe.
‘Don’t you worry, Mum, I’ll be right as rain.’
The next she heard was a scribbled note on a pre-printed form from the training camp.
We’re off tomorrow. Can’t wait to have a go at the Hun. They say it’ll be over by Christmas – so see you then. Love, Your Jim
The months passed, well beyond Christmas, and Ada heard nothing more. Except, of course, for the little news that leaked through to Uxbridge from the Front. The newspapers were full of how well our side was doing; how our brave lads were holding their own against an implacable foe. But the telegrams had started to arrive. Shattered Bertha Reid had lost her likely lad, and his best friend Johnno was missing in action. Didn’t that mean dead too?
Then the individual telegrams stopped. There were just too many. Lists of casualties were pasted on the wall outside the Post Office. Name after name in a serried, inhuman catalogue of death.
Ada hadn’t heard from Jim for months. The printed notes had ceased to arrive and she lived in a constant state of intolerable anxiety. Then one summer day they were putting up a new list on the bulletin board at the Post Office. Ada, watching events as ever, had a premonition and felt her heart break within her chest. She did not approach the wall but stood behind the crowd that had gathered to read the ghastly inventory of the Uxbridge lads who had perished.
Ada had no need to look. She just knew.