Set in the twenties and the last in the ‘Frost in May’ series, Antonia White’s semi-autobiographical account of a young woman’s descent into madness after an intense love affair with a soldier too swiftly follows a failed marriage includes the following haunting scene appropriate for this poignant Sunday. During High Mass, requiem is being sung for those who had died in the First World War, and a catafalque is guarded by four young men in uniform, in front of the altar:
As soon as Clara saw this, she realised it was not mere impulse that had decided her to go to Mass a second time. She had been intended to come to this soldiers’ Requiem. The catafalque reminded her how easily Richard might have been one of those who had been killed. Along with her immense gratitude came (a) sense of remorse. How lightly she had taken the deaths of all those young men. When had she thought of the ones she had personally known, however slightly, beyond an occasional, perfunctory prayer? The fact she had been a schoolgirl when the war broke out was no excuse for her having shut it out of her mind. She had done worse: she had not merely refused to experience it, she had turned it into a game. When she was Charles Cressett’s governess, she had invented for him and acted with him that toy warfare that mocked the cruel reality…She was utterly unworthy to be a soldier’s wife.
Suddenly, beyond the four bowed figures guarding the catafalque she saw a crowd of young men in torn and blood -stained uniforms. Their haggard faces were all turned reproachfully on her. She buried her own in her hands to shut them out, praying in utter abasement: ‘Forgive me…forgive me. Give me a chance to make up for my neglect. Put me to some test. Give me some share in your suffering. All my life I have been a coward.’ When, at last, she raised her head, the space in front of the altar was empty except for the catafalque and the four living men.
The eleventh hour is usually my fifteenth-month-old son’s nap time. As Rufus (finally) fell asleep in my arms, the only tribute I could pay to those poor boys whose blood seeps across European soil was to remember that all of them, whether English, French, German or otherwise, had once been baby boys struggling against sleep until their mother’s touch soothed them. I considered how much those mothers, upon hearing of their sons’ deaths, would have wished to travel back to those precious innocent days when they rocked their boys to sleep, feeling the magic of toddler eyelashes fluttering on nuzzled-in-to necks. I thought of all the young men who would never become fathers and feel the warm body of a child falling asleep on their chest. Of all the ‘surplus women‘ who would never know the pure joy of seeing their own baby in perfect repose, cheeks slightly flushed, breathing softly, little toes fidgeting in dreamland. All the heirs remaining unborn.
Some people question why we still mark this day after 100 years. I think it’s simply because the grief borne from this cataclysmic First World War in particular was such that we are actually still processing it. The ghosts of those lost boys still haunt us, just as they haunt Clara in this scene. And so they should. Lest we forget.