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Illingworth House: 27 - Growing Hatred

Joe Gibson is about to leave for the war front when he has a confrontation with Abe Illingworth.

John Waddington-Feather continues his novel which is set in a Yorkshire mill town.

By the end of 1917 the war had reached stalemate, and the two armies faced each other across a dead salient. For some months, mindless generals well behind the lines ordered men to take a few yards of ground at the cost of thousands of lives.

Then Haig decided to make the big push. Shells raked the land and turned it into a quagmire of water-filled holes and decaying corpses. Woodland and farmland simply disappeared, and all that were left were blackened ruins and the stubs of trees mottling the landscape like rotten teeth. Everywhere waterlogged trenches were infested with rats that fed on the dead.

Rolls of barbed wire snagged across No-man's Land between the trenches, holding up attacks by the infantry just long enough for them to be mowed down by the machine-gunners.

And into this hell Joe Gibson was drafted as soon as he'd finished his training at the Coldstream Guards depot.

He came home briefly on leave before his unit embarked for Belgium for the final Battle of Ypres. He looked splendid in his uniform, and Mary was proud to walk out with him.

The army had stiffened him up. He had a ramrod bearing and his old rolling gait had turned into a brisk march. He was leaner and fitter, but he had changed. There was a hardness about his gentle features, which wasn't there before. He had been taught to kill, and his face became even grimmer as the war progressed.

The day before he went back off leave, he and Mary visited his hen-pen. She was looking after it while he was away and it proved a great boon, for food was short and she supplemented her rations from the allotment and hens. When they had finished feeding the hens, they sat for a time in the old railway carriage Joe had for a store.

They talked about Helen. Mary had asked her parents more than once who Helen's parents were, but had got nowhere. They said they didn't know, and she believed them. Joe was more sceptical.

He said his father-in-law was being well paid to take on the child and keep his mouth shut. "But t' truth ‘ll come out one day," he said. "She'll be the bairn o' one o' t'mill-masters, that's for sure. When she grows up an’ her face is set, we'll 'appen know who." He lit his pipe and spat into the fire.

Mary put more wood on the stove, for it was growing cold. Outside the sun was beginning to set, but she had brought a lantern and the walk back wasn't far. She relished every moment with Joe and held his hand as they sat in silence looking into the fire. Helen would be the only child they would have, and they both knew it.

Joe pulled her close and she snuggled into him, holding him tight, knowing that he might never return once he had gone to the front. "Ah'll be glad when this war is over an’ we can get back to living ahr lives again, Joe," she whispered.

Joe said nothing but held her closer and they stayed a while cuddled together, drinking in each other's company, till they made their way home hand in hand.

It was a brilliant sunset, firing the whole sky to the west of the town and silhouetting the mill chimneys and factory roofs about them. Smoke trailed from the chimneys and a clammy mist followed them from the river, creeping steadily up Garlic Lane into the town as the temperature fell.

Mary never forgot that night, nor the leave-taking she dreaded the next morning.
Joe wouldn’t let Mary come with him to see him off at the station but said his goodbye at home. It was there Mary shed her tears and said her prayers when he had left, trudging with heavy heart through Albert Park and up Bradford Road to the station to catch his train.

There he met other soldiers who were returning from leave, huddling together in the waiting room round a tiny fire, smoking to kill the time as they awaited the train from Skiproyd.

When it drew in, a handful of schoolboys and office workers got off, then two military policemen with Abe Illingworth, who was sitting on the bench that day dealing with another deserter. Joe and the others left the waiting room and were about to board the train when Illingworth walked past.

They saluted him, but when he had gone on a few paces, someone blew a raspberry and bawled out, "You bastard, Illingworth!"

Abe Illingworth turned on his heel glaring at Joe. He was quite sure it was he who had yelled and ordered one of the policemen to march him over. He was surprised to see Joe in a Guardsman's uniform, but looked at him contemptuously. As Joe came to attention before him he barked, "What did you say, Gibson?"

Joe glared back. "Nowt, sir," he replied.

Illingworth turned to one of the MPs. "Did you hear what he said?" he asked.
The redcap came to attention and said he had heard something, but it wasn't from Joe. He was quite sure of that.

"So somebody did yell at me. You must have heard it, too, Gibson."

"Ah said nowt, sir. An' if Ah did know who'd done it, I wouldn't tell thee... sir."

Illingworth was livid and turned to the policeman next to Joe. "Take this soldier's name, number and unit, and report him to his company commander for insolence to a superior officer," he snarled, then turned on his heel and strode off.

Joe's unit embarked for Belgium the day after he returned and when his O.C. heard what had happened he let him off with a caution. There were more important things to worry about than raspberries being blown at officers. But Joe never forgave Abe Illingworth and the incident inflamed more the hatred between them.

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