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His Medals

by  madhatter

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2004
Word Count: 2941
Summary: A mother/daughter relationship conflict story. Reflections on memories for both characters and looking forward. Medals are from WW2 belonging to the mother's husband/daughter's father.

What time was it? Eight-forty a.m. Louisa sat in her raised armchair, flicking through the pages of a magazine. Her eyes drifted constantly towards the large wooden clock hanging on the wall above the fireplace. Below, on the mantelpiece stood a photograph of a young man wearing Army Uniform and half a smile, with two medals pinned over his left breast.
Surely the telephone would go any minute? It would be Sue, Louisa’s youngest calling all the way from Australia. Louisa had been up since seven. Waiting. She had made breakfast, tea and toast, which was all she managed since breaking her hip a few months ago. Now she relied on her eldest, Maggie, to help her with the shopping and heavy housework. Eyes drifted towards the clock again and moved down to settle on the photograph. A lump caught in Louisa’s throat. Tomorrow was Remembrance Sunday.

Louisa threw the magazine onto the floor and carefully pushed her hands down onto the arms of her seat. She raised herself stiffly to her feet and grabbed the walking stick resting against the side of the chair. In the dining room was her sideboard. She searched every drawer for her husband’s medals, scratching at the thin lining material with her nails as she did so. She continued until the throbbing dull ache in her hip stabbed and she had to abandon her search and return to the comfort of her chair. Where were they? They should have been in the top drawer. Hadn’t she put them back there herself last year after the Service on T.V.? She had watched it holding Harry’s medals in the palm of her hands. Caressing the rounded points of the Star of Africa and the smooth sides of the service medal that reminded her of an old penny. The cold metal warming gently to her feather light touch

The clock struck the half hour. Nine-thirty already. Why wouldn’t the phone ring? Maggie would arrive soon to take her to the supermarket.

Louisa had always shopped on a Saturday. Even when newly married just before the start of the War, but in those days, especially when the weather was warm, it was mostly daily. There was no fridge, just a larder with a cool shelf.
A large wicker basket swung from Louisa’s arm as she walked, bouncing against the top of her thigh. She hadn’t taken to riding a bicycle and anyway the house she lived in was at the bottom of a steep hill. She would buy a joint and vegetables for the Sunday roast and perhaps some apples for a pie. Even when rationing was introduced and she had the girls, still she made her trips. She pushed against the heavy Silver Cross pram up that hill with baby Sue fast asleep inside. Maggie would be sat on a seat across the pram, dressed in a white woollen hat and coat that Louisa had knitted, chattering scribble talk.

The storekeepers called Louisa by name. Not her first name of course, but Mrs. Edwards. Today however, a person could go a month or more without having to go to a supermarket and nobody gave anybody a second glance.

The loud, high-pitched, ringing of the doorbell startled Louisa. She grabbed her walking stick. Damn this inflexible hip. The doorbell repeatedly beckoned. Brring. Louisa limped down the hallway. Brrring. Didn’t Maggie know she couldn’t rush? She should have used her key. Brrring. Louisa put on her coat. Brrrring. Louisa answered the door and left with Maggie.

* * *
Maggie thumped four carrier bags to the kitchen floor whilst Louisa took off her coat in the hall. She grabbed a bag and threw it onto the work surface, tipping out cans and packets.

On the way out her mother had droned incessantly about not being able to find her father’s medals. Between the carrots and the checkouts the conversation was the same. Then on the way home Maggie had nearly crashed the car.
The cupboards above her head were yanked open and two tins of soup were slapped onto the shelf. As she grabbed two more the hairs on her neck bristled. Her mother was standing in the hallway, observing, with a serious expression. The tins Maggie had just unpacked all had similar labels but were of different variations of tomato and faced any which way. Now she turned each one so that the titles were forward facing and the contents clearly visible. Maggie continued to unpack the remaining shopping with similar care as her mother watched a moment longer before disappearing into her sitting room.

‘Sue didn’t call earlier!’ shouted Louisa, from the sitting room. Maggie carried on putting the last of the groceries away. Louisa called out again, ‘I said, Sue didn’t call.’
‘You didn’t expect she would, did you?
‘She always rings. Something must have happened.’
‘No she doesn’t, Mother. She’s probably spent the afternoon at some ‘Barbie’ or golden beach with the little two. It is summer out there, remember.’
‘But she never lets me down,’ Louisa started, tapping her walking stick onto the carpet. ‘Why don’t you do that ring back thing, you know the one?’
‘If it makes you happy.’

Maggie disappeared into the hallway and picked up the phone. She dialled 1471 and waited for the woman’s voice on the other end. The woman reported an unidentified number at 10.20a.m.

‘Well?’ asked Louisa, as Maggie came back into the room.
‘Like I said, she didn’t call.’
‘But she always calls.’
‘Look – I’m sorry Mother but I’ve got to dash.’
‘But you’re supposed to help me have a bath today and I’m not well enough to do it on my own.’

Maggie sighed. Louisa had a childlike expression and looked so bloody small in that chair of hers.

‘Mum,’ began Maggie, ‘Harriet’s baby’s overdue and she’s being started off.’
‘What on a Saturday?’
‘They do these days.’
‘Why can’t she just wait? All this fuss over a second child, it wouldn’t have happened in my day.’
‘I’m sorry Mum – I’ve got to go, I’m looking after Freddy.’
Louisa’s lips narrowed and her eyes shrunk into their sockets. Maggie stared blankly at her mother, then walked out of the room. She had just put on her coat when she heard her mother calling, ‘Maggie dear, you could at least make me a cup of tea and some soup before going?’ Maggie sighed heavily. Hung her coat back up. Then went into the kitchen to prepare Louisa’s lunch.

* * *

The lounge clock chimed twice. Louisa glanced up quickly from her chair as if she were trying to catch the clock out. The T.V. was on for the horse racing but Louisa wasn’t really interested. She hadn’t placed a bet today. Maggie disapproved. The next-door neighbour, who was a regular at the bookies, would usually act as her runner but he was away this weekend.

When Harry was home full-time after the war, each summer they’d go off to Goodwood for the racing. Louisa left the children overnight with her mother so that she and Harry could take a Charabanc. The bus was always full with the same familiar faces of the previous year. Good Times.
The men all brought bottles. Ale for the men and stout for the women, to be drank on the way. It never mattered that the beer was over warm. Songs were sung, and as the beer stocks depleted the lyrics grew louder and more risqué. Then the driver would shout that ladies were present, and a great giggling cackle from the back of the bus would erupt.
When the Charabanc returned, with its party usually the lighter of a few pounds, they piled into the nearest pub for last couple of hours until closing. Someone was always found to play the piano so that the singing could start up again until the bell for: Time Gentlemen please.

The telephone’s ringing lifted Louisa’s spirit. She took to her feet as quickly as her hip allowed. She hobbled down the hallway and put her hand to the receiver, ‘Hello.’
‘Mum, hi. How you doing?’
‘Fine,’ answered Louisa, in clipped tone.
‘Great. We went to the Zoo for Hailey’s birthday.’ There was a slight pause before Sue continued. ‘Mum? You didn’t forget Hailey was six today?’
‘I don’t forget. I suppose that’s why you didn’t call?’
‘Of course I did – oh damn it – sorry, I guess it must have been just after ten.’
Louisa thought a moment before answering, ‘Not to worry, love, anyone can make a mistake.’

* * *

It was half three when Louisa called Maggie. Freddy, who was seven, rushed to pick up the receiver. He thought perhaps his mother had had the baby, even though it was only twenty minutes earlier that his father left him. The light in his face as he lifted the receiver disappeared momentarily when he heard his Great-Grandma’s voice on the other end.
Maggie was not amused by her mother’s demand for an immediate audience. Louisa’s parting words were: ‘Oh and Sue rang.’ She didn’t want to take Freddy with her, even though the boy worshipped her.

Maggie’s daughter, Harriet, was an only child. Maggie was unable to have more children. Something she regretted. She had always wanted a son to name after her father. When Freddy was born, a few months after Harry’s death, Maggie had called Louisa from the hospital to announce his arrival. Maggie could hear the excitement in her mother’s voice when she asked: ‘And of course Harriet will want to call him Harry.’

‘No,’ she replied, ‘Harriet’s decided on Freddy.’
Louisa had made a loud noise, a bit like a wounded animal. Then mumbled, ‘But he’s your first…your father always…tradition...’ Then she hung up. Maggie had stood shaking in the cold hospital corridor, with the receiver still in her hand. A tear pricked an eye, threatening to spoil her make-up. She dabbed at it with a forefinger and forced a smile. Then firmly replaced the handset.

A compromise was made however: Harriet and her husband called him Frederick Thomas Harry.

* * *

Maggie took the key from her handbag and let Freddy and herself into Louisa’s house. Freddy ran down the long Victorian hallway to the back sitting room, where Louisa was sat reading.

‘I’m here!’ he announced, bouncing into the room, before gently leaning over the arm of Louisa’s chair to kiss her cheek. Louisa hugged Freddy closely, kissed him on the forehead and loosened her arms. She looked at Maggie who was now stood behind Freddy.

‘You lied to me,’ Louisa stated tersely.
‘What are you talking about, Mother?’
‘Sue. She rang just after ten.’
‘Look I didn’t know it was her.’
‘Didn’t you?’

Both women stared at each other, eye to eye, whilst Freddy watched. It was he who broke the silence, ‘Great-Grandma can I have a drink?’ The two women momentarily held their position until Louisa turned and smiled, ‘Of course you can Harry,’
‘Great-Grandma – you’re being silly again,’
Maggie sighed heavily, ‘Don’t be rude Freddy, Great-Grandma’s just old.’ Louisa’s shoulders stiffened, she looked straight at Maggie, but before she could speak Freddy had grabbed the photo of Harry from the mantelpiece.
‘Tell me about Great-Granddad’s medals. Pleeeease?’
The old woman’s shoulders relaxed and she nodded as the boy thrust the photo into her hands. Maggie said, ‘Well, shall I prepare your dinner then, Mother?’ The old woman looked sideways at her daughter and shrugged.
‘Well….’ she began and started to recount her tale.
The boy knelt on the floor. Both elbows rested on the arm of Louisa’s chair so that he could prop his chin up on his fists. He listened wide-eyed, and with a cheeky lop-sided grinned expression, as his Great-Grandmother talked of the bronzed fit young soldiers. The entertainment they had watching RAF aircraft heading towards the enemy for a dogfight. The British Spitfires climbing into the sunlight and crossing the sky in great swoops down towards the German fighters. The rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat of the guns as the men cheered. Thick plumes of black smoke billowing out from the enemy tails as they crashed into the desert.
Then she talked of invented new games and football matches in the desert.

Harry helped defeat the ‘Desert Fox’. It was just prior to the fight for Al Alamein that he had seen – The Golden Khaki clad figure of – General Montgomery. Harry stood to the full extent of his 6 feet two inches physique to raise him a salute. His eyes met Monty’s and as time stood momentarily still – Monty returned the tribute.

On his return to Blighty, for many years, the story was retold. Harry sat of an evening in his chair by the fireplace with a whisky glass in hand. Maggie sat kneeling by his chair, listening intently. When her father reached the climax of his tale, off she went to fetch his medals. She would pin them to his chest as he stood to salute, with Maggie clapping her hands and squealing with laughter.
It was Louisa, and then later Sue who joined in with the teasing. It was gentle, no harm meant of course. Just the odd comment: ‘Not that old chestnut.’ ‘Oh Dad!’ ‘ Boring.’ ‘Harry Maggie’s a girl.’ Then when Maggie left home to marry the stories stopped. In the years that preceded Harry’s death Maggie always visited on November 11th. As the clock struck the eleventh hour she pinned Harry’s medals to his chest and as he silently took the salute she kissed him on his cheek.

Louisa neglected to tell Freddy of the other stories. The ones he shared on long winter nights when the children were in bed. Several more whiskies sunk. How the searing heat of day exhausted the body, whilst the nights left you frozen. Voracious black swarms of flies that infested every naked crevice in search of moisture, and of eating during the night so that the maggots writhing in the food couldn’t be seen. She had listened to them all.

‘Wowwwww,’ said Freddy exhaling slowly, ‘Great-granddad was a hero.’ Louisa looked into his beaming face.
‘Great-Grandma – you’re crying,’
It was true. Several tears were falling down Louisa’s cheeks. Maggie came in from the kitchen, ‘Freddy I’ve told you Great-Granddad’s stories a thousand times. Don’t you ever tire of them?’

Silently, Louisa looked from Freddy’s smiling little face to Maggie’s thin-lipped expression. ‘Tomorrow’s the 11th of November,’ she said.
‘What of it?’ Maggie asked.
‘Your Dad’s medals – I can’t find them.’
‘Don’t start on that again, Mother.’
‘They’re not in their box. Someone has taken them.’
‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’ said Maggie, folding her arms and sighing heavily. ‘I’ve told you I haven’t seen them.’
Freddy jumped up from the floor and ran behind the sofa.
Louisa shouted, ‘Your Father’s medals, you must’ve taken them.’
‘What for?’ asked Maggie, her voice rising in volume.
‘To stop me from remembering your father.’
Maggie looked at Louisa open-mouthed. She shook her head, ‘Don’t be so bloody ridiculous Mother. ‘
‘Those precious medals, it was like you and he were both in the 8th Regiment together.’
‘Well,’ spat Maggie, ‘you and Sue were the ones who wouldn’t listen. You still didn’t when he said he was ill. She didn’t even come home until after the funeral. I was with him at the end, remember?’

Louisa spat back with equal venom in her voice, ‘That wasn’t my fault and you know it. Those medals are all I have left and you’ve taken that from me too.’

Maggie closed her eyes and stood catatonic. It seemed to her almost as if an hour had passed in that living room before she spoke. ‘Come on Freddy we’re going.’
Freddy stayed put. Maggie spoke again, ‘Freddy – we’re going.’ Freddy dug into his position, ‘No.’ Maggie threatened. Louisa tried bribery. It was no use, the boy was staying put. There was an awkward silence before Maggie smelt burning coming from the kitchen. She muttered some expletive before running out to try and salvage what was left of the mince boiling in the saucepan.

Louisa sat silently in her chair, looking at the old sofa. She remembered Maggie hiding behind it as a child.
‘You know,’ began Louisa, ‘if I really liked something I’d ask before I took it, and, I bet if I asked nicely, the answer would be yes.’

Freddy crawled out from his position of defence. His eyes were red and he wiped his nose on his sleeve as he walked over towards Louisa.

‘Well Freddy, I’m right aren’t I?’ asked Louisa quietly. Freddy said nothing but stood with his chin drooping slightly, staring blankly at the wall.

‘Where are they, Freddy?’ Louisa asked again softly.

It took a moment before Freddy answered, ‘At School...our history project…is about The War.’ Louisa smiled. ‘Come here,' she said holding out her arms to embrace him, ‘Who needs medals when I have you, eh?’
Maggie was now standing in the doorway. ‘Mum, I’m sorry...’
‘It’s O.K., love, I think I understand.’ Louisa released her arms from around Freddy and cupped his face in both hands. ‘How would you like to have your Great-Granddad’s medals?’
‘To keep?’ asked Freddy excitedly. Louisa nodded. Again he asked, ‘To keep at my house – for ever and ever?’ Louisa smiled, ‘Yes, for always.’

Maggie interjected, ‘Mum, are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ Louisa replied as she looked at Freddy’s beaming face. It was funny, to her at any rate, how Freddy’s lips never managed more than half a smile.

Word Count 2,932