By 8th April 2009No Comments

My grandson and I were clearing out the attic, making room for the conversion work that would provide extra space, when we found it, an old photograph of Josh. We were moving old steamer trunks full of newspaper cuttings and photo albums and we happened on one that still had my name stencilled crudely on the outside.
Finding the picture brought back all my suppressed memories of the family’s head-gardener. He was the father of my best chum, from many years ago, Zachariah or Zak as we came to call him. I had seen him shot for what the Courts Martial verdict stated was ‘cowardice in the face of the enemy’. He called on me, as the soldier’s friend to defend him but I failed as Zak’s saviour when he needed me most. I felt compelled to give Josh the news, the truth, upon my return from the Front.
Josh died a broken man aged ninety, haunted by the memories of a life that had been changed beyond enduring. The tall bluff character with the booming laugh had grown quiet and introspective and if there remained any innocence in his view of the world it died with the news of Zak. He had been the eldest boy of four sons born to him and Megan his wife and in whom he invested the most time and affection. He could not end his life, by his own hand, but I could see the wish to be released from the torment within him by the changed look in his eyes and the slump in the usually squared back shoulders.
The whole family worked on our small estate. The boys and I often laboured together under Josh’s expert but rigidly enforced guidance, laying out the gardens to the ruin that my parents wished to rebuild before the Great War. Josh tolerated his master’s son as he worked at the physically demanding and menial tasks that he felt were best left to others. He was said to have a sneaking admiration for me although he was much too modest to tell me to my face.
Zak told me and I also heard of him that Josh had to listen, unmoved, as my father instructed him to stop encouraging me in my interest and involvement with estate matters if it meant manual labour of any kind.
Josh was like that. He understood my parent’s concerns but he recognised also the benefit of the master’s son learning how his staff worked and lived. Out of their sight I followed Josh’s example of hard work and also obeyed his instructions.
“Not like that, Master Edward,” he would drawl when I performed a task that did not meet with his approval and in a voice hoarse from smoking. A pipe was never out of his mouth.
The last time I heard him speak in that correcting manner was when we were hedge- laying and he took the bill hook from my clumsy hands and showed me how to do it, just once. He made sure you never forgot the lesson.
Josh came to the estate as a stockman but the cottage he was given soon had the prettiest garden and this did not escape my father’s attention. He was given different employment that allowed him to exercise the full range of his talents and knowledge of the natural world. Only, he took an interest in so many different aspects of estate life that neither my father nor I could stop him.
We all ploughed the heavy clays of the land nearest the house with the teams of horse we had then. Josh made sure we cleaned the harnesses and tended to our animals before we looked to our own needs or turned in exhausted from our efforts. It was the same at harvest time.
To my friends it was an unconventional existence that we led, with me doing Josh’s bidding, or so it seemed to them, and I developed the closest friendship with Zak.
It was a bond that finally took us to war, at the same time.
In the hierarchical, structured world of a junior officer I again conformed, but Zak was worldlier than I was. With hindsight, I suppose, we thought that in the hell that we were pitched into some of our former estate life could be transferred to France and later to Flanders. Josh had brought up his eldest son to respect authority but not to follow blindly or unquestioning.
It was to be Zak’s undoing and brought about his demise on a cold grey morning in October 1916, some time after the main battle on the Somme. We had been mangled. I remained at my post somewhere to the front of our jumping off point. Zak lost nearly the whole of his company, men whom he had trained with and cared for since the day they all joined up. None were left standing or to be led.
“Gone! Gone! All of ‘em, all of my men…my lads!” he had cried as I came to see him. “An’ there I was, alone with me ‘musket’…bloody useless!”
Josh had taught him responsibility and duty to others at the expense of himself. He had failed them by surviving the action and walked back; Josh had failed his son, as he saw it afterwards when I told him. I felt that I had failed them both but could hide conveniently behind my privileged background. We had learnt of iron-willed discipline from our elders and in our contact with military instructors. We were woefully unprepared, so it seemed to me afterwards, for what we faced as soldiers new to modern warfare. Lessons at school and our reading had told us of combat that had been buried with the first casualties of the Great War as those years came to be called.
“Put them away…that’s a good lad,” I heard my self saying as my grandson took out more memorabilia of a long gone age; but it was not forgotten, not in the deepest recesses of my mind.
I had to endure two more years of what seemed, then, mental and physical decline. Yes, all that came after…after the volley of shots that took my friend away from me and from Josh. It had to be ended in that tormenting and grisly way. Men-at-arms like him put an end to his life. Yes, it was simply death for him. There would be no restitution of mind and spirit; that was to be denied to Zak. An example had to be set and due process had to be followed.
“Was he a good man, Gramps?” I was asked, as a gentle tug on my sleeve brought me out of the deepest recollections.
“Hm? Oh yes, yes…he was; they both were.”
Josh and Megan had not been alone in making their sacrifice, but the taking of their son by ‘his own side’ had proved too much to endure. Strictures on discipline had been sorely tried, beyond human endurance it seemed. Josh had come to understand at last the loneliness of the decision that his son had to make. He knew of this for I told him what we had gone through, what we had sustained for so long.
Amidst the noise and heat of the battle Zak had felt alone, abandoned by his God on a shattered sod of earth that he and his dead comrades had once drawn breath on, together.
“Whatever I did, it was never enough…”
To the family Josh remained a dutiful servant but I never spoke of those times to him again. We had succeeded all too briefly in bridging the social divide between us on the estate. We should have listened to our elders and betters instead of questioning authority or custom – even if it killed us.
I put the photo of Josh back into the trunk. We had been too early with our experiment.

Jan Vivian

Author Jan Vivian

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