As part of the 100 objects exhibition this piece of work was inspired by a photograph showing a group of 24 male workers at the Cooperative Wholesale Society boot factory on Rectory Road in Rushden.
The photograph was taken the day before the men enlisted into the army in 1914.
Peace in time
The bicycle tyres hummed over the road surface as Percy free wheeled downhill to work. The surrounding fields blurred to gold around him under the September morning sky. The hedges were high, glowing with the red of hips and haws. Bird song accompanied him and he whistled along with it, feeling happy, at one with the world. This was his favourite time of the day. It was peaceful. He’d left the chaos of his family behind. The cock crowing, the squabbles of his six younger siblings and yell of the baby. And in a moment he would reach the factory and that was another arena of noise.
Gradually the familiar sights of the town came into view. The church spire emerged from the haze; straight and true. Then the tall blocks of factories, chimney stacks and tiled rooves. An ordinary town, with ordinary people in it. Percy breathed in deeply, enjoying the sensation of the breeze rushing past his face.
Today his stomach churned with excitement. This would be his last day in the factory. He was going abroad. Leaving the familiar hills and vales of east Northamptonshire for new horizons. He was eighteen and had never travelled further than the local town. Not even to London, never been on the train. He heard its whistle, saw the steam clouding the town below him. Tomorrow he would be on it.
He parked his bike up with the others and headed into the factory. Immediately there was hammering, clattering and rattle around him. He wouldn’t be sad to leave this constant racket. All his mates had signed up, only a few men, like Mr Harris, the foreman wouldn’t go. They were too old. “Don’t know who’s going to make boots now,” he grumbled to them.
His mum had made sure he’d put on his best shirt for the photograph that would be taken that afternoon. Percy had to keep still whilst the black box took their likenesses. But he couldn’t quite manage it. He had to smile. He was going on an adventure.
It is the seconds between sleep and waking when there is a moment of peace. Percy’s dreams are noisy, disturbing and dark. His head spins because he has difficulty untangling what was dream and what was reality.
Slowly, Percy opens his eyes and the nightmare fades. There is a beam of sunlight twisting from a high window so it lights the foot of his bed. Could he be back at home?
Then a wailing begins. Quiet at first. Gradually rising to the high pitch of constant terror. An alarm that somebody has been caught too long in their nightmare of mud and trenches and pain.
Percy hears the steps of the ward sister and then soft words, “Fred, hush… hush…” Fred’s cry becomes a sob. Then a shout bursts from the other end of the ward. “No! No!” Another of Percy’s comrades fighting an enemy that persists though they are no longer on the battle field.
Like a creeping animal crawling up his body, the pain has returned to Percy’s right arm, it makes him gasp but the sound is lost in the bustle of the ward. Percy tries to move his fingers. They don’t work anymore. Under the bandages he knows the gash runs from his elbow to his wrist. A bayonet sliced through his pale skin exposing and slashing tendons. The wound reminds him of straps of leather and boot laces and machinery. The factory seems a long way off now.
“You were lucky,” the field doctor said. “We can save that.” Percy is not sure he wants the weight of a useless arm as a constant reminder of what he had. Yet he does feel fortunate that he can still see and hear. And better still he has not lost his mind.
Percy walks to the top of the hill on a September morning. He still can’t balance on his bicycle. A bird sings in the hedgerow but sounds alien to Percy. But then, everything is different. Even the church spire looks warped. The view has the same features, but perhaps, Percy thinks, he is seeing it with vision that has been affected by war. His eyes water constantly still irritated from the gas that seeped into him as he lay wounded in the trench.
A train whistles in the distance and Percy starts to shiver. The sound awakes in him a memory of noise and turmoil, explosions and chaos. He starts to cough. The bird that was singing flaps off at the disturbance.
Percy ambles slowly back home. He limps and his right arm hangs useless by his side. Old man’s beard straggles through the hedge. Looking at it, Percy feels a sense of age and bewilderment come over him, as if he has aged tenfold in the last five years.
Still his spirit lightens as he reaches home and pushes open the gate. Later his sister will come home from the factory. She’ll suggest she introduce him to one of her work mates; with a grin that says, ‘Even with a gammy arm you’re still a catch these days.’
So Percy wipes his eyes with his hanky and forces a smile as he enters the house. He knows his mother will look up and smile at him, grateful that he is back when so many of his factory Pals didn’t make it. There is peace in that smile, one he remembers from when he was a little lad and his mum tucked him into bed. He’d say his prayers, and they would be thankful for all that they had.
Stephanie Percival Copyright©StephaniePercival2018