From The Dead

Entry by: Annechen

6th April 2018

One wet day in the middle of a gloomy November, I find myself thumbing through a very old and tattered copy of the King James Bible, and I hear voices coming to me from the dead of more years than I care to number.

They are speaking of Florrie Taylor, whose story was told to me by my parents many years ago. It begins on a day that Florrie will not forget for the rest of her life, and it plays itself out now before my rapt gaze.

It had been her wedding day and she lay, quiet now, on the ruffled sheets and considered Charlie. She couldn’t say he was handsome, but then she was no oil painting herself. She was slightly built and without curves. Her teeth were rather bucked. Her hair, artificially curled for this her special day, was by nature straight, and it was mousey. She felt she resembled nothing so much as a small and timid woodland creature. Charlie, on the other hand, was powerfully built, and the undulating strength in his arms and shoulders had seemed to extend itself into his head and features, giving him a lumpy face, like a rag doll that had been over-squeezed in some places and not enough in others.

When the call had come to defend his country, Charles Edward Gouldthorpe had banded together with other young boys from their small market town just across the River Humber from the city of Hull, and been sent off as a hero to the rat-infested trenches of Northern France. In a quiet moment together he had made a solemn and heartfelt promise to Florrie, before he left, that they would be married when he came back victorious, and he had sealed that promise by shyly, but devotedly and earnestly, placing a very tiny diamond on her ring finger.

The ring had been his mother’s, left to him, as her only child, when she had died of tuberculosis when he was 2 years old. It meant the world to him and was all he had left of her, her wedding ring having been buried along with her. Now the ring would mean the world to his own wonderful girl, beautiful as she was to his eyes.

And so he kissed and took his leave of her.

When four long years later he did come back victorious, as he had promised, it was as though he had been returned to his loved ones from the dead, for he was one of two boys, the only survivors of their original band of fourteen, the others forever lost to parents, friends and future lovers.

Her tiny, precious diamond had been the last thing Florrie had looked at before closing her eyes against every lonely night of those years of separation. There had been letters, but they were very few and far between, and many of the words had been blacked out by some faceless interloper that destroyed their intimacy and rendered them meaningless.

As I watch, she looks at her ring again now and thinks about her wedding day.

It had begun early, and the little pendulum clock in the tiny parlour was chiming six when her mother had woken her with a cup of tea.
“Come on, luv. Up you get. This is the most special day of your life.”
Florrie had sipped the sweet tea as she washed herself in the rose sprigged basin that sat on top of her simple chest of drawers. Usually she would fetch her own water, but on this one day her mother had brought the water for her, as if she were a princess at least for the day.

She sang softly and happily to herself as she slipped into her chemise and then soon enough she heard an eager knock at the back door and there were her two bridesmaids chattering excitedly as they came up the wooden stairs and made an appearance in her bedroom, ready to help her into her dress.

It had been her mother’s own wedding dress, but Florrie had herself painstakingly cut and re-styled it into something rather more suited to the fashion of the day and her diminutive and plain figure. There had been much giggling and skittishness as the girls got themselves dressed, and she wondered aloud how Charlie was faring at his end of things. Would he be nearly ready, or would he be running late as young men often are.

Eventually everyone was ready, her bridesmaids in their matching frocks and mobcap headdresses, her father’s unruly hair plastered down to his scalp with water, which Florrie knew from many Sunday mornings’ experience, would not do the job for long, and her mother in her best Sunday Go To Meeting hat.

I see the excited wedding party as it makes its way along the pretty little road that runs beside the town’s pond. There is no need for any conveyance, as the walk isn’t far. Just far enough for the excitement to give place to a level of anticipation and apprehension. What girl isn’t nervous on her wedding day? What bridesmaid doesn’t wonder whether she is looking her best and might catch a boy of her own to make a husband of? What parent does not feel a certain sadness at the passing of the years that has brought their child to this grown up state.

The little church is full as her father draws back his shoulders and walks his daughter slowly down the aisle, his hair already beginning to fight back, and Florrie is nervous of all the eyes that are on her. And yet she feels proud. She knows she looks her best and she can’t wait to see Charlie in his suit, saved up for and bought new, and at some expense, for this day.

As I watch, I want to reach out and hold her back. I want to warn her; to save her. But I am powerless across the barriers of time that separate us.

As the little wedding party makes its progress, Florrie hears “oohs” and “aahs”, but she knows there will also be some disgruntled murmurings and waggings of heads from one or two aunts whose own daughters have not been so fortunate as to find a chap as lovely as her Charlie, or indeed any chap at all. For, unsuspected by those hopeful bridesmaids, future maiden aunts were being created in those post war days. So many young men had never returned from the dead as Charlie had. True, he had been quiet, withdrawn and occasionally out of temper since coming home to her from the War, but time and Florrie’s ministrations would put him back together again soon enough. She does not doubt it for a single moment.

And then she is there at the altar and he is beside her.

“Truly beloved,” begins the Vicar, “we are gathered here today…..” but he gets no further, and I hold my breath as Florrie looks up at his shocked face. She wonders why he has hesitated, and then she turns to Charlie and sees that his bumpy face has gone deathly white, and even in the seriousness of the moment Florrie cannot help the thought that it resembles a bag of flour that has sat too long on the pantry shelf and has got the damp in it.

She would smile at the thought, because this is a face she has loved for so long. But Charlie is speaking, and his words chase away all thoughts of smiling.
“I’m sorry,” he is saying, and I hear him stumble on his words. “I’m so very sorry, I just can’t,” and he is turning, running down the aisle and fleeing from the church, watched from their pews by the astounded wedding congregation.

The next Florrie knows she is being hurried back down the aisle and away from the church, where the “oohs” and “aahs” and waggings have now turned into whisperings, tuttings and shakings of heads. She is led, dazed, up the street, where there is no sign of Charlie, and, as her legs fail her, she is carried up the stairs to her bedroom and laid gently on the bed, where she tears at and wrings the sheets and sobs until dusk falls and her mother, who has never left her side and has sat there, still in her best hat, finally lights a candle to bring some light and warmth to the room.

Exhausted and crushed, Florrie picks up, considers and lovingly strokes the one photograph she has of Charlie, which his fond father proudly had taken of him before he had joined up. No, he wasn’t handsome, but he had been hers over four years now. Her own Charlie. She could not and would not understand why he, one of so few who had returned from the war to their loved ones, had now left her so cruelly. She would never now be Florrie Gouldthorpe, as she had imagined herself, but always plain Florrie Taylor; for as she recalls to her mind the image of Charlie’s desperate face as he fled the church, she knows, as I, now silently watching, have always known, that he will never be hers; that they will never have a life together.

It is this Florrie Taylor whose well-thumbed and clearly well-loved Bible my parents and I find in her lonely, sparse council flat, 60 years later after we, as her last known relatives, are contacted by the Coroner’s Office, upon her death. She has been lost to us for almost 40 years. Now it is as though, like Charlie before her, she has, in her way, returned from the dead to her own loved ones.

And so the characters in my story are swallowed up by time, and my own parents have since followed Florrie into whatever afterlife awaits us.

The Bible now rests in my hands, opened at random. An old fashioned pendulum clock hangs in my hall and chimes the quarter hour. Over the years it has clearly been the focus of Florrie’s ministrations with clock oil and lavender polish. And a rose-sprigged china basin graces the chest of drawers in my bedroom. These are her only remaining possessions.

I am told my father’s cousin Florrie never left her bed for 20 years after that day, other than for the call of nature, presumably. She was clearly much loved and much pitied by her parents, who brought up her meals to her and who lived through a time when nothing was known of depression nor of trauma.

Of Charlie, I know no more of his life after his flight from church on his wedding day that never was. I can guess that he was as much walled up in a prison of mental torment as was his would-be bride.

You will see I will take one last look at Charlie, but in my imagination only, as he can make no further active appearance in my story, as he himself found he could not in Florrie’s.

When the first bombs landed on Hull in March 1941, I am told that Florrie left her bed and came back to her parents in their small back kitchen – a miracle return from a self-imposed death. I think she was afraid to die in an air-raid, alone in her room. And so it was that Hitler, who took so many lives, had given back to Florrie a life, of sorts.

I do not imagine Charlie’s life was ever given back to him. No, for Charlie, so many years ago, there can have been only one return from the dead. If he did indeed return at all.

And so I close the tattered Bible, I close my eyes and I give thanks for the sacrifice made all those many years ago. More lives lost than we can count. Lives lost by the living as much as by the dead.