Remembrance – Excerpt from The Law of Kindness

by Maria on November 11, 2020

I posted this a few days ago and took it down, but I’m giving it another go because it’s 11/11 and nonfiction doesn’t really get at my feelings about Remembrance and what it’s used for. Below is an excerpt from my novel in progress, The Law of Kindness.

It’s about an Irish woman who’s married a British army officer and can also write letters back through time to her younger selves. She’s probably a bit cattier than I am about the whole thing, and she’s writing this diary entry while ill and sometimes confused, but it gets at some of the complexity of feeling about Remembrance and its uses that people may feel when they have particular and very recent soldiers in mind who ‘shall not grow old’.

Wiltshire, November 2011

Robert’s back three weeks from Afghanistan and he can still hardly look at me. It’s all ‘babes’ and soft touches on the back of the hand, but will he look me in the eye or kiss me on the lips? He will not.

Christ, it’s all death around here all the time. Remembrance Sunday. I’d forgotten how brutal they are. Or is it like mercury. It builds up over time till you’re poisoned for life? We’d a nice few years of just hanging around, squashed into a pen within range of the Cenotaph and chatting to whoever was nearby, waiting for Robert to go past. When he’d find us afterwards, he’d be pink-cheeked with cold and glowing with this odd swirl of pride and the sweeter kinds of sorrow. He’d quickly squeeze the baby, give me one of those kisses that’s more like a question and peel off for an afternoon drinking with the boys. Back when we were in London, semi-detached from the army. And last year we were here, but pre- not post-tour, so I didn’t know any of this battalion’s injured or dead, and the bereaved parents only come for the first year or two, after. And with all my appointments and tests and all the rest of it, I barely paid attention, anyway.

But this one. Fuck me but it nearly did for us. Only a week after the post-tour medals parade. Whose idea was that? The wheelchair parade, more like. What a wretched, wretched tour. I’d kept up with the deaths, just a couple, thank God, but I’d no idea there’d been so many life-changing injuries. I don’t know why Robert barely mentioned them, or Angela. At least I had a chair and a blanket for the first parade, the medals one. Angela and me, sitting up like queens. And Camilla even came, so that made three. She sent her attendant off twice to refill my hot water bottle. God be with the days of having three nervous wees before meeting her and phoning Dad to tell him and tease his can’t-help-himself pride. Irish people and the royal family. Honest to God. Angela and me giggling as we go over the cleaning lady’s work in the CO’s downstairs loo, then seal it off three days before Camilla comes because royalty can’t possibly relieve themselves where we mortals have recently been. But she couldn’t do enough for the families during this tour and she was lovely to me at medals parade, commanding mugs of tea and asking was it the proper Irish one. Builder’s tea, she says, like it’s an ironic joke. I’d to tell her to stop being so nice or she’d make me cry.

And no one face-planted, no guardsman’s jaw. The usual only half-joking remarks there should be a wives’ medal. General on a mission to talk for five minutes to each of the injured. Two and a half hours. Six degrees Celsius. Children keening with boredom and cold, but the littlest ones in the warmth of the welfare at least, looked after by the 2 Fusiliers wives. Cake after, and fizz in the Mess, not that I could touch it. Robert wanted me to skip medals parade altogether. He was afraid I’d get pneumonia. Weird how ‘you’ll get pneumonia’ goes being a mad thing people say when it’s cold to something that could actually happen. ‘It’s an invitation, not a summons’. Sounds like something he read. But people will feel sorry for him in a not-good way if he doesn’t have a wife in a smart coat looking admiring then oblivious as the men mess up an overly complicated drill, never a strong point, forget about post-tour, a couple of stragglers losing the run of it, then a whole section gone the wrong way altogether, the RSM’s voice cracking into a strangled squeak as he sorts them out and us three queens in our big leather chairs brought out from the mess, trying to lighten the moment but not giggle too obviously. But I said that already.

I can hear my voice as I write and I don’t like her. Who is she? Brittle, selfish little madam. But when I try to change it I can’t. It’s far from this I was born. Armchairs on tarmac and us under rugs as everyone else huddles and shushes the kids. I don’t know why they did such a complicated drill. Well, I do. It’s make-work till they’re fit to be sent off with us on post-tour leave. They’re not exactly known for their drill, are they, Fast and Bold, not polishing kit and posing for tourists. Anyway, medals parade. Last week. This week was the other one.

Remembrance Sunday. What’s it all for. Politicians wrapped in the Union Jack on a nice sentimental holiday into our lives, then straight back to Monday morning’s tough choices and selling our homes from under us. Anyone with something to remember, with actual people in mind at the going down of the sun, they don’t want to remember, do they. Not in public, not in front of their colleagues, risking more than the acceptable crack in their voice or a glint of something truly metallic in the eye. Mad to think the bloody royals get it more than that shower of users ever will.

I know Robert’s seen and done things. Of course he has. He doesn’t talk to me about them. The odd comment but no details and I don’t ask for them, either. He needs me to be what he comes home to. For Róisín and me to be what it’s all for. So we don’t let it into the house. Ever. He has his brother officers for that, just not his chain of command. And it’s not as bad as people think. Not like the Americans with their mega-long tours and Jesus and wife-beating. Well, there’s a bit of the last one, I suppose. But we’ve only known two or three full-blown PTSDs. Managed out, all but one. From Robert’s intake back in the day, but not a close friend. I won’t say his name. He acted so cold, like he was an inanimate object, this weird kind of model soldier, but then it would flare up into these. Well anyway. Something happened on exercise, his risk awareness completely out of whack. A couple of his guys could have died. They didn’t, but still. Investigation. Career flatline. Marriage over. But it’s not an epidemic. More like a bad cold doing the rounds, everyone sneezing and feeling sorry for themselves but basically fine, and just the odd poor bastard gets meningitis and cops it. There but for the grace of God. Neither the day nor the hour.

And we’ve been at this a long time. Iraq and Afghanistan.Ten years of constant tours. No surprise people get a bit messy around the edges, forget where the edges even are, a decade in. That’s just life, isn’t it. Especially if there’s drink involved which with the army there generally is.

Not Robert, though. He’s gotten religious about not drinking since the week after he got back. Not religious, thank God. Just obsessive. That and the running. Ten or twelve miles a day, the more hills the better, on top of PT. Fifteen years older than most soldiers in the battalion but in the top ten every morning. First man ever to lose weight after he came home. It clears his head, he says. Buttoned up. Locked down. Straight home after Remembrance, no, the other one. Medals parade. Not a drop of fizz taken.



John Quiggin 11.11.20 at 10:38 pm

Beautiful and sad. Thanks for this.


Ray Vinmad 11.12.20 at 9:21 pm

This resonates. I feel both angry and melancholy reading it! I hope that’s what you were going for! If not, apologies. It’s so perfect for this moment –but maybe in general when it comes to war given that seem so often stuck with war.

I look forward to the novel. Very 2020–the raw mood one may have about everything where one must operate normally under the specter of separation and suffering and death. Not a vet, never in the military no one in my family in the army but the layers in the moment here are great–having to do this and that and everything so ordinary but so much is behind you, and a lot may be bearing down. Perfect for 2020 for sure.

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