A Prisoner of Wars

1938 and darkness approaches again.  Heavenly Father, I will never forget my past sins, and Herr Hitler bringing the whole world to war again cleaves open the scars of my memories from all those years ago with a slashing sharpness. There is nothing I can do, just like the first time. I lie awake as I have done every night for over 20 years as the horror and the guilt never leave me. Now, as war insidiously creeps towards us again the days seem somehow just as they were in 1913 as I must relive those pernicious times, somehow now physically as well as mentally.

I married Bill in May 1914, when the world was grey and was relentlessly sliding towards the black of war. I hated him even then. I had been 17 and knew nothing at all about ‘life’ when I became the focus of his attention- a travelling salesman who visited Papa’s shop where I worked. He was ten years older than me and we met once a week when he visited the shop in Walthamstow, selling his wares.  He would charm me with his smooth talk. This was all new to me, and I fell for his flattery, gelled side-parting and twinkling smile. Then one week he persuaded me to promenade with him on the Wanstead Flats after I had closed the shop. To my eternal shame and damnation I told Papa I was going to church as I knew he would never allow us to meet.  With good reason, as it turned out, for a way into our walk I found myself having to resist Bill’s attempts to kiss me. He kept trying, telling me that it was what I wanted, that there was a war coming and it might be our only chance, but I refused again and again in a growing state of panic. He turned angry and attacked me, calling me every foul name, then forced me down among the gorse bushes where he committed a grossly evil act upon me. After, he stood looking down, smiling as I lay disheveled on the ground in fear for my life, then he just turned and left. I ran home crying and shaking madly but of course could not tell a soul.

For weeks, I scrubbed and scrubbed, but the dirt and shame was on the inside.  Then Doctor Epps told me I was with child.  I had to tell Papa, and he became so angry with me that I thought he might burst his very heart.  Papa’s rage was centered entirely on me, in his mind it had been I who committed the crime, and so I had; telling lies for my own selfish purpose.  I had been raised by the Catholic Church to forgive others, but I could not find the strength to forgive Bill. I found out later he’d told Papa I had acted wantonly, as if he were the injured party. Over the following weeks I had to suffer the fury of Papa’s rage with lectures so long and severe that I hoped I might die, but then I was carrying an innocent child into this dreadful world, who no matter how despicable his parents, deserved the chance of God’s love.

Papa insisted Bill and I were married to conceal the disgrace of my actions, and I accepted this even though the thought sickened me more than the nausea from carrying the baby. Later Bill gloated at how he has at first refused Papa’s demands, until Papa offered him £50 and an endowment of £10 per year to prevent  ‘his whore of a daughter giving birth to a bastard’.  Bill negotiated this up to £75, then accepted it greedily.  As much as this appalled me, the depth of my shame prevented me ever confronting Papa in his lifetime about how he sold his own family in this way.

In the nights  that followed, I lay awake in my bed, pleading to God for some kind of divine solution to this earthly mess, whilst within my womb I felt the kicks and movements of the child grow ever stronger.

Bill and I were married at St Mary’s, Walthamstow. As the service progressed I looked up at the stained wooden ceiling and prayed that God might ordain it to collapse and crush me to my death.  He didn’t, and now I had committed the sin of marrying a man I did not love, in fact despised, in God’s own house.

So Graham was born in wedlock a few days before war was announced and was the greatest bundle of joy I could imagine. Papa, his pride now restored, disowned us, and Bill rented us a filthy room for three shillings per week and treated me with disgust and violence. This I could accept within holy matrimony, but it was his disregard for his own son, that I could not bear and I wished Bill dead. I was so ashamed to feel this way. I went to church often to pray for forgiveness and mercy on my soul for nurturing such evil in my mind. I could not ask the Almighty to fulfill my wish for Bill of course, but no matter how much and how often I prayed my despicable thoughts would not stop.

Graham was the one shining light in my world, a world now thrown fully into war. He was such a beautiful little boy, a true gift from God, sent to give me some peace in this time of internal and external conflict. Though only a baby, it was his smiles and joy that got me through, and how I loved him, my darling cherub.

With news from the war bearing more and more anxiety for the nation, I hoped that Bill would volunteer for the army like so many good, brave men. The British retreat following the Battle of Mons led to an upsurge in young men enlisting, but he still didn’t: he was too much of a coward and selfish.  I thought that his defending the country on the Front Line may ease my hatred, and that in his absence somehow God may teach me to love Bill, or at least accept his courage, but he would not sign. My hopes rose when in 1915 the National Registration Act was passed, requiring all men to register their names and whereabouts, with details of those aged 19 to 41 passed to the military authorities for conscription purposes, but Bill laughed as he told me that married men were exempted from mandatory enrollment.

Graham was the only thing that kept me going through those long months of squalor and abuse.  I had begun to question my faith:  How my God could let this happen? How was it if I murdered Bill I would suffer an eternity in hell no less dreadful than that already put aside for me for lying? But as Cowper’s poem says:  God moves in mysterious way, his wonders to perform.  On 17th August  1915 a Zeppelin led a night time bombing raid over London and mistook the Lea Valley reservoir for the Thames, and so dropped its bombs and incendiaries over Walthamstow and Leytonstone believing they were floating over the city centre.  That night Bill had not come home but was found crushed  the next day as they cleared the rubble of a bombed house in Mayville Road, along with a woman known to be a local prostitute They called these huge silent destroyers ‘baby killers’, but on that night it felt that an L-10 Zeppelin, whilst killing eight other people, was my guardian angel.

Graham, bless him, was too young to understand of course, and Papa at least had the dignity to want to console me, but the tears I allowed to roll at the funeral were of relief and for months after I wept from the sheer beauty of God’s benevolence. I was so thankful to the Almighty for delivering us from Bill but I also prayed for my soul which was surely beyond redemption and as black as the vilest of Germans.

Then four months later Graham fell ill. His cough continued to worsen as winter deepened and never a robust child, he lost more and more weight. Though he kept his smile, he was obviously pained and neither the doctors nor I could do anything to ease his discomfort. A fortnight later he was diagnosed with the dreaded consumption, probably brought on by our damp living conditions, and I spent more and more time praying at his cot-side, not for my soul this time, but for Graham’s return to health. God heard, I know he did, but nine months to the day after Bill was killed, the Good Lord chose to take Graham back from me as he lay in my arms. God had made me pay from my own sinfulness with the death of my child.

Papa expressed his relief that he’d been spared from paying an annual stipend to a rogue as well having an unwanted grandchild and. I was appalled that anyone could be so callous towards their own flesh and blood.  Even so, I moved back to live with Papa, I had no choice financially. I would have killed myself gladly, in the most painful way possible, but this would have been another sin and I had already committed more than my conscience could allow. Then in 1917 I was accepted into the Convent of the Sacred Hearts and my life has been devoted to the love of God to the well-being of others for over twenty years. I know that my stained soul will be cast into an eternity of hell when I die: I am prepared for this. Twenty one years on and the dark clouds of war are building again and among my prayers that war and suffering can be avoided, I pray for God’s strength to any young ladies who find themselves in the position I was in and to ask His forgiveness for any sinful thoughts they may have.

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