He’d proposed in one of his letters from the Front. She went out and bought Her own ring, placed it on the third finger of Her left hand and wore it around the village. When the war ended, He came home and They got married. They are happy now. Their lives go on, as if there was no war.
Johnny proposed to me before he left. He said the words “Will you marry me?” when we were eye to eye, heart to heart, breathless with love and longing for each other. He’d said it before he’d become a soldier. He’d said it when he was just a village lad, my lad. The next day, he left for France. He’d said that he’d be home for Christmas.
I’d told them all he’d proposed, but with no ring to show for it they were quick to doubt it. They said the rush, excitement, the panic had made him do it! They wondered if without the war he’d have done it at all. “You need a ring to make it proper” they said. But I’d seen it in his eyes. I’d felt it in the insistence of his grasp. I’d felt it in our hearts! I knew he meant it! Without him beside me though, without a ring, as the days went on, I began to doubt him too.
The village wasn’t right without the men. The women ruled now and everywhere I turned they were cackling hens, in the lanes, in the village shop, at the school gates. I talked to him, you see, in my thoughts, to keep him close and I needed some quiet for that. They were too loud and I longed for some silence.
Then, as the telegrams began to arrive the silence I wished for, came all too quickly as the women regarded each other with suspicion now. Who’d had a letter? Whose husband, son, brother was still writing? At the beginning, too many times, the happy news of a letter received had been shared through blind relief with the wrong neighbour: the wife that hadn’t heard for a while, the girlfriend that was beginning to wonder, the mother that feared the next telegram had her boy’s name on it…. So the women became more careful, quieter, secretive, then silent. In not speaking our fears, we hoped we could stop them being realised. As more telegrams and less letters arrived though, so came the never-ending silence: an emptiness that would never be filled with a wink, a smile, a joke, a sigh…..a baby’s cry. Johnny’s mother got a telegram too.
Her telegram never arrived though, that ring kept glinting on Her finger and the letters kept coming and one day when it was all over, He followed. One of the four men that came back. Four. The others: all of them lost. And when Johnny was lost, I was too. Never a wife now, never a mother, not a woman really, not a person of any worth or usefulness.
I wonder if things might have been different, if I’d bought my own ring too? Ha! I never thought of it and I know I never would have done. The timing was all wrong. At the beginning of the war, we still lived properly. What would my mother had said then if I’d gone and bought my own ring? Worn it round the village, like She had done a year later. A year later, He was knee deep in mud and blood and death. There was no living ‘properly’ then. He wrote to Her, He made the engagement and He told Her to buy the ring. But Her boldness to do it, to go to the jewelers without a man beside Her and pick out the ring, buy it and wear it! I’d often slipped a napkin ring from the dresser onto my wedding finger, but I’d removed it as quickly, fearing a curse but not Her. Her determination, Her faith, Her love bought Him back.
All I have are my memories soiled by my doubt and now my terrible guilt.
The war has ended. We are free, though I am left Nothing.
This fictional story was inspired by the First World War account of the experiences of Marjorie Brinkhurst (1887-1970) from War Stories: Voices from the First World War at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.
“She met him when she was 16. And they corresponded and became engaged through letters and so she went out and brought herself a ring.” Beryl Tomaszewski, daughter, 2014.
Marjorie was lucky, her love Leonard returned from the war and they were married in January 1919.
Thoughts of the First World War are always dominated by the terrible and massive loss of so many men, so that as wonderful as Marjorie’s story is, I couldn’t help but wonder about the girls and women whose men never returned…..