Joseph Herbert Kirkby – Battle of the Somme – 10^th^ July 1916
Joseph Herbert Kirkby – Battle of the Somme – 10th July 1916
Published by Joanne Surridge at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Joanne Surridge
‘Don’t do that, Les, I am warning you for the last time…’ the woman, her face red and clammy, shouted at her son who was thwacking a ball against the wall. He hesitated as she put her hand to her mouth, desperately trying to stem tears that now came all of a sudden, for any reason at all.
‘Sorry mum.’ He put the ball down, and shuffled over to her side, where he wrapped his arms around her waist.
She dripped sweat onto the blond head of her youngest son, the image of his father. A rough hug, and then she pushed him away. She smoothed back her untidy greying hair, and said ‘Get off, you little sod, you better go and find the others. See if your brothers are coming back with any money, and tell Lily to get the baby changed.’ She sniffed, and turned back to the boiling pan of water.
As he disappeared, she slumped against the scullery wall, and the tears flowed without effort. Her slight frame had, at first, struggled to manage the bags she had gathered from her long walks around the town asking at doors and establishments for any washing. Now, she heaved the load from the copper easily, and readied it to go through the mangle.
‘Joseph Herbert Kirkby, how could you? How could you go and get yourself bloody killed, you stupid man,’ she said as she thumped the soaking items down.
‘Lil, are you there?’ a voice came over the back fence. She wiped her hands on her pinny and stepped out into the small yard. The atmosphere was thick with sooty residue, the sun barely making it through. The smouldering smoke from the chimneys of the vinegar factory, mixed with the smell of the processing made the air seem pickled and bitter.
‘Alright Vi?’ she said.
They stood for a moment, resting against the fence between them, their faces turned up to the weak sun. Lil pulled a packet of cigarettes from her pocket, and handed one over the fence.
‘Any news?’ Vi said her plump face scrunching up as she puffed to get the cigarette burning.
Lil shrugged. ‘Nothing yet. Pension people seem to move extremely slowly.’
‘Well,’ said Vi, ‘They have got a lot of pensions to sort out. On account of so many buggers getting killed.’ She deadpanned a look over the fence, and Lil couldn’t help but laugh.
‘Don’t, Vi. I am getting desperate now. That thirteen bob a week and what I’ll get for the kids won’t make up for what Joe earned but at least I won’t have to take in washing.
‘Look at my hands,’ she held them out for her friend to see. Red and cracked, the nails were soft and peeling and she winced as she bent her fingers up. ‘Bloody agony it is.’
‘I got a bit of Vaseline, I’ll get it for you,’ Vi said, puffing out a stream of smoke, the cigarette never leaving her lips as she rested her arms on the fence and slumped over them.
They stood for a while, silence and stillness the joy of their companionship at that moment, and then Lil sighed.
‘If I don’t get sorted I might have to move. The boys are working, bless them, but it is pennies really. Queenie is at least in a good situation, and Lily looks after Ivy for me. Les is too little to really do anything. If I don’t get something soon, we might end up in rooms.’
‘Got anything to sell?’ Vi asked, handing over a reciprocal cigarette.
Lil considered as she lit the little tab.
‘Joe’s candlesticks from his mother. They will be worth a few bob. I wanted to keep them to hand on.’
Vi looked sideways at her, waggling her dark eyebrows like a music hall comic. ‘No good having ‘hairlooms’ if you all die from starvation in the meantime,’ she pulled a face, ‘But your choice.’
Lil poked her tongue out. ‘Alright Mrs Know-it-all.’ She put her hand into the pocket of her pinny, grasping the two rings she had put there for safekeeping that morning when she started boiling the water up.
She pulled them out, and held them up to the light. The gold band was bright, and the engagement ring managed to sparkle even in the sooty light.
‘And these.’ She chinked them together in her palm. His mother’s rings, looked after since she passed away when he was a boy. Along with the silver candlesticks, proudly displayed on the sideboard, they were the last connection he had held to a well to do family. His father had sunk without his wife, and had lost all but these small trappings of their former wealth. When he asked her to marry him, he had proudly given them all to her, a demonstration of his intentions to be a good provider.
‘He was a good husband, was Joe,’ she said, the tears starting again.
‘I know love. He was a nice man. But all you need now is a brass ring. A respectable widow, that’s what you need to be.’
‘Bloody France. Bloody war.’ Lil wiped her eyes, and pocketed the rings again. ‘He was thirty-nine, Vi. Eight kids, a good job. Now, nothing.’ She shook her head, and raised her hands up to the sky, ‘For what?’
Vi didn’t respond. She knew there was no answer.
‘I’ll get that Vaseline, love. Wait there,’ she said.
As Lil waited, her fingers slipped back into her pocket and felt the gold and diamond symbols of the life she had once taken for granted.
Vi came back with a small tub, and as she handed it over she held out something in her other hand.
‘Here, in case you need it.’
A brass curtain ring sat in her palm.
Lil blinked away more tears, and squared her shoulders.
She heard the sounds of her older children coming in, the shouts and bawling of the younger ones as they were chased and chivvied around the house. She heard the baby crying, and the call for tea and proud exclamations of how much they had brought back from their enterprises that day.
‘Ta. That’ll do me,’ she said, slipping the ring onto her finger.
She grabbed Vi’s hand.
‘See you later love,’ she said.
On July 10th 1916 my great- Grandad, Joseph Herbert Kirkby went into battle on the Somme. He was a machine gunner, serving with the 38th Welsh Fusiliers, in the Battle of Mametz Wood and that was his last day on earth. I know he was thirty-nine years old, and that he had eight children. My great –Gran was back in Walthamstow.
She died when I was six- so I never got a chance to ask her how she coped with this dreadful thing that had flung her life into chaos.
I wanted to mark the centenary of his death, and I wanted to also mark the achievement of Lillian and the millions like her who had to just get on with it.
This is an imagining of my great-Gran and the decisions and tribulations she might have faced after her husband was blown up in the Battle of the Somme.
Thanks to Carcharoth for the use of the cover image;
Like millions of women, Lillian Kirkby has been left a widow after the brutal Battle of the Somme. She has held on to her home, and the things that symbolised her marriage as long as she can. Now, as she waits to receive her Widow’s pension, she has taken in washing to make ends meet. A brief respite as she stands and shares a cigarette with her practical and forthright neighbour leads to a decision about how she is going to carry on.