Love in the Lanes

— A Norfolk Life

George James

 

An original paperback

first published in 1998 by Gazebo, the local interest imprint of Fern House

19 High Street, Haddenham, Ely, Cambs CB6 3XA

01353 741229

 

© Copyright George J Harding 1998

All rights reserved

 

ISBN 0 9524897 7 5

 

 

1

Farewell to Henry

 

This is the story of Henry and Mary Greenfield. On the day our story begins Charles Sutton, a lifelong friend, was one of many who were paying their last respects to a valued member of the community. An unusually large congregation had gathered in St Mary’s for Henry’s funeral; certainly the resident minister would have been delighted to have so many folk from the village and its surrounding area at his regular Sunday morning services, and would have enjoyed the opportunity to expound the many virtues of the Gospel to them.

On hearing of Henry’s passing, Charles had been instinctively committed to attend the service to pay his personal tribute. Henry had been a stalwart of the village and a truly reliable old friend who, over the years, had in many respects become almost a blood brother. As Charles sat quietly waiting for the service to begin he reflected how lucky we are that we cannot foresee oncoming tragedy. Thoughts continued to flicker through his mind. Throughout his life, Henry had been a very generous, kind and understanding character, always ready to help anyone in need, whether by word or deed. In many ways he could be readily described as a light that led the way for others to follow.

 

Even after some sixty odd years, Charles’s memory was as sharp as ever, and as he sat contemplating the service his thoughts drifted back to childhood days. He was only a couple of years older than Henry. Their parents had been respected members of the village community and the youngsters had been brought up to respect their elders. They had received their only education at the village church school where together they had progressed class by class.

As well as attending school on weekdays, the lads were required to be present at the Sunday school for Scripture lessons. Regular attendance ensured that they would be eligible for treats — the annual summer outing to the seaside, and the annual children’s Christmas party which was always held in the main room of the village school.

Charles reflected that Henry had been blessed with the love and guidance of his mother alone for most of his young life. Like many children of the period, he had lost his father at an early age. The Second World War was in its last year — in fact, nearing its last month. Henry’s father had survived the mud, pain, discomfort and slaughter with his fellow comrades on the beaches of Normandy and in the battlefields of France only to be killed in one of the final encounters with the enemy.

Charles could still remember the day the news had been passed to Henry’s mother, for it was a special day in the activities of the Church. It was Anniversary time and a special mid-week evening service was being held. The Sunday School children had all prepared themselves for their individual efforts. Henry’s contribution was to tell, in verse, of a soldier who was lying mortally wounded; a soldier at the bottom of a shell-hole on the battle field, suffering great pain as a result of wounds received during a heavy barrage of enemy gunfire. Henry’s voice was loud and unfaltering as, verse by verse, he unfolded the dramatic scene which had been cleverly portrayed by the writer and thoughtfully designed to include verses from a well-loved hymn.

As the sweet innocent sound of Henry’s young voice delivered the words ‘Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom’ there were tears in the eyes of many of the congregation who had already heard the sad news. Henry, not yet aware of his father’s death continued: ‘The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on.’ Only in the last verse of the poem was it revealed that the wounded soldier was no longer in any pain.

In those days it was not customary for the congregation to applaud, but Henry had been pleased to hear a loud murmur of approval which he took as an indication that his effort had been well received. But glancing in the direction of his mother he was concerned to see that she was distressed. He wondered why she was crying and his first reaction was to rush to her side. However, as he made a move to go to her he was gently ushered towards the front pews where all the participating juniors were assembled.

That very morning the postman had called at Henry’s home to deliver a buff-coloured envelope. Henry had actually seen it fall to the floor in the hallway of the cottage as it had been pushed through the letterbox. He had not seen an envelope like this before: it was very distinctly marked ‘OHMS’ in bold print. His mother had been busy, and had not immediately responded to its arrival, except to say: ‘Put it on the dresser, I’ll read it later.’

So Henry had not been there to witness the reaction of his mother when she eventually withdrew the sheet of paper from the official envelope. For some time she sat just staring blankly at the printed words. In disbelief she screamed silently to herself: ‘No, no, this cannot be true.’

Refusing to believe the message, she read the words, over and over again . . .

 

It is with the deepest regret that I have to inform

you that it has been confirmed that your husband William Henry Greenfield was killed in action while

on active service on the eighth day of March.

The terse words with seemingly little feeling, ended:

 

On behalf of His Majesty King George the Sixth,

I extend my sincere sympathy,

signed . . .

Minister of War.

 

The name precisely typed under the almost indecipherable scrawl of a signature was of no importance. Through her tears, Maggie was unable to decide who had put pen to this terrible news. Henry had left for school and she was alone, seated by the uncleared breakfast table. Her tears continued to well up from her reddening eyes as she fell into an uncontrollable fit of sobbing and the printed words, as well as the scrawl of the signature, quickly became a blur. She was alone with her sorrow — sorrow which she was bravely to conceal from her young son for the remainder of the day. The story which Henry was to recite to all gathered at the Church Anniversary had become so tragically applicable to him — he had not known, as he proudly said his anniversary piece, that he would never see his father again.

 

It was an odd time to reminisce, but Charles was reminded of the competitive element of Sunday School attendance. The presence — or absence — of each child was meticulously recorded in the register. It seemed as only yesterday that Henry had gained top marks for his attendance and had been awarded a special prize — a new silver florin in a velvet-lined presentation case. Charles had been rather jealous, for Henry had gained only one more attendance mark than he had. And although Charles had been presented with a copy of John Bunyan’s immortal book Pilgrim’s Progress (which he still treasured), he remembered that he had felt very envious of Henry’s mint condition silver florin as he had proudly displayed it in its case for all to see.

Charles was abruptly brought back to the present. The shuffling footsteps of the immediate mourners could now be distinctly heard as they walked slowly up the gravelled path toward the west door of the Church. The intoning words of the vicar as he loudly pronounced: ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions. . .’ came closer. His words were now echoing round the church as, at the same moment, rays of bright sunlight streamed in and became infused into an almost heavenly light of rainbow quality, penetrating and merging with the many wonderful colours of the richly stained glass windows of St Mary’s — a characteristically beautiful gothic arched building. The vicar’s voice continued loud and clear and the congregation’s reverently observed pre-service silence was gently broken by the rustle of movement. As one body, they rose from their seats in the time-worn pews as the cortège slowly made its way along the centre aisle.

 

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