Historical Competition - Winner

Dominic Bell

Those That Remain
Historical Competition


Dominic Bell is a former oil rig worker from Hull, East Yorkshire, and writes as a break from either computer programming and attending to the needs of his teenage children.. His main writing project is endlessly editing a series of First World War novels, the number of which increase by one annually due to NaNoWriMo. He tries to enter almost all the WM short story competitions to diversify his writing and have the satisfaction of actually finishing something. Winning or being shortlisted is always a major morale boost!


Those That Remain By Dominic Bell

‘There you are!’ said Colonel Haughton as his daughter came in to the railway station restaurant.
‘So sorry I’m late!’
‘Well, sit down, sit down.’
She looked tired, he thought, tired and older with little lines at the corners of her eyes a twenty year-old should not have. He thought of her coming out, cancelled by the war like so much else.
Visiting country houses and attending balls. The life she should have led.
‘So how’s being a VAD?’
‘Hard work,’ Julie said, ‘but you get a lot of appreciation.’
She too was watching him, evaluating. Dark marks under his eyes suggested the wound was still giving him trouble sleeping.
He nodded. ‘I expect you do.’ He glanced around. There were several men appreciating her. She did not even seem to notice. He supposed when you worked in wards of wounded men you soon became immune to their attentions.
‘Shall we order?’ she said. ‘I want eggs and bacon, with plenty of tea to wash it down.’
He blinked slightly. This was not the pre-war girl he had known, living on toast and marmalade.
‘Good choice.’ He gave the order to a smartly dressed waitress.
‘So, how do you feel, father?’
‘On the mend, dear, on the mend. But are you sure I will not get in the way? I can go to the Beeches.’
There was nothing at the country house but memories and dust, the servants mostly gone to the war. Even before it had been too big for the two of them.
‘No, you must stay at the flat, so Lucy and I can fuss over you.’
She saw his eyes glisten. She watched him compose himself, make a gruff reply.
‘Well if you’re quite sure -’
‘Father, it is your flat, as much your home as is the Beeches.’
The food came and he watched her eat wolfishly. She glanced up at him and smiled.
‘Sorry father. My shift overran, rather, and I barely had time to clean myself up before coming here.’
‘You did warn me.’ He smiled.
They ate their food and she looked at her watch.
‘Lucy should be decent by now. She is on lates, you know. Don’t see much of each other, but it does mean we don’t fight over the bath too much.’
‘One of the Braithwaite girls, isn’t she?’
‘Yes, that’s right. We were on the same training course and I suggested she shared with me rather than slumming it. Her family’s place in town has been taken over by a ministry or something.’
He paid the waitress, and stood carefully, pushing himself up with his stick. She moved to help him, but he held up a hand.
‘My dear, I must do this myself.’
She bowed her head in acquiescence, instead picking up his small suitcase. She wished he was not going back so soon. He had fought for two years, almost without a break. Surely he had done enough, could hold up his head if they gave him some training job.
A taxi took them to the flat, a single floor of an old Georgian town house. Julie led the way to the door, hesitated.
‘It’s rather a mess, father. We tried to clean up the worst last night, but it is only us you know.’
It was not a mess, of course. They had probably stayed up hours cleaning. A room had been readied for him, clean fresh sheets, flowers in a vase. Julie set his suitcase down.
‘Shall I unpack for you?’
‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I’m not that helpless.’
The place was little changed from how he remembered, just a few alien things that Julia or Lucy must have bought. And a lot more pictures. He looked round at them, all of young men in uniform, each with a name under it. Most were in plain wood frames, but a small table had two with the frames swathed in black cloth.
‘The boys we treat are always giving us pictures and asking us to write,’ Julia said in explanation. ‘And then of course there are the boys we knew from before.’
He smiled. ‘And you give them pictures to take to France, hey?’
She blushed slightly. ‘We do, I am afraid. Maybe it is not ladylike, but it makes them happy. I do wish there were not quite so many though. They write so often and of course we have to write back.’
She opened a cupboard. It was half full of small bundles of letters. ‘It does not sound at all nice in the trenches, and I am quite sure they do not tell us all of it.’
‘No,’ said her father softly. He gestured at the black swathed pictures. ‘I suppose those two -’
‘They don’t write any more.’ she said quietly. ‘That one is Algy Fitzwilliams, if you remember him. He was killed in April.’
He nodded. Half the families he knew had lost a son, some leading their men on trench raids as if they were still dormitory raiding back at their schools. There would be more lost, and soon, he knew. He pushed the thought away. ‘And the other?’
‘A boy from the hospital who went back to the Front. One of his friends wrote to tell us he died, but neither of us can really remember him.’
‘The memories soon blur,’ he said quietly. ‘There are so many, and they are so alike in their uniforms. But it’s a sunny day. Let’s stroll in the Park.’
She nodded. ‘Good idea.’
It was not far to the Park, and Julie felt a burst of pride as other soldiers saluted her limping father, him returning the salute with a smile each time.
She took his arm. ‘Do lean on me, father.’
‘You make me feel like a Chelsea pensioner!’
She was about to speak, when her face changed. ‘What’s that?’
He was already listening to it, a distant mutter, like far off waves booming against cliffs, an uneasy palpitation that had everyone slowing their walk, looking uncertainly at each other.
‘My God,’ he said, ‘I did not think it possible we would hear it in London. It is the artillery barrage in France.’
‘For the offensive?’ she said.
He looked away for a second. ‘I rather fancy an ice cream, don’t you?’
‘Oh yes,’ she said, smiling.
But they ate them silently, listening to the rumbling of the guns.
The barrage went on for three days, sometimes louder, sometimes not heard at all as the winds changed direction. Julie found her father looking out of the open window early one morning, the noise and smells of the street coming in.
‘The guns are silent now,’ he said, a sadness on his face, and she leaned out and listened, found he was right.
‘So they’re attacking,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ and she saw that his eyes were wet. ‘I should be there. There are green rolling chalk hills there with little villages, you know, very like our own Downs. When we first went there we rather liked it, thought it was rather English. It is – was - a quiet spot of the front. The Somme, they call it.’
She nodded. ‘Some of my friends have written of such a place.’
He was staring somewhere far away she could not see.
‘But now the land is scarred with trenches and the fertile earth will be churned by shellfire to slick mud and the villages to burnt ruins. And the smell -’ He stopped.
She was appalled by the look in his eyes, a look as if he was staring at something so hideous it was beyond description. She said nothing, thinking of the wounded who screamed in their sleep, the boys who wept endlessly.
When they went out they saw special editions of the papers had been rushed out, exulting over the great attack. Later editions spoke of hard fighting and limited gains, that the commanders were still confident of breaking the German lines, were pushing fresh regiments forward, committing the reserves.
Two days later that the first casualty lists were published. Death notices filled the papers, page after page. He watched his daughter scan them, saw a tear run down her cheek.
‘Is there someone -’ He spoke quietly, for Lucy was still asleep.
‘It is just that there are so many.’
He would not look, he thought, would wait until he returned to the front, would hear the names from those who had known them, those with who he could toast the dead.
Julie turned another page. ‘Oh,’ she said, and he saw her face had gone pale. He moved towards her, but she waved him away as she read on. After a while she took the newspaper into Lucy’s room and he heard her voice, as gentle as a mother’s, heard a single sob from Lucy.
It was a while before they emerged. He watched them fetch black crepe, and together they stitched a black surround and fitted it to one of the photographs. He bowed his head as they put it on the table with the other two black-swathed pictures. He wanted to say something, but he knew he had no hope to give them, no way of stopping this endless culling, no way of atoning for the love affairs and marriages that would never be, the children that would never be born. He could only sit in silence as they covered another photograph, then another, and then two more until the little table was quite crowded with the dead.
Julie turned to him when they had finished.
‘We should go out now, walk in the park, then have some lunch.’
‘Yes,’ said Lucy, her eyes still red. ‘They would not want us crying would they?’
‘And we must not seem upset before the patients.’
Her father looked at her. It was not only soldiers who were brave, he thought.

Judges Comments

Given the times we live in, Those That Remain by Dominic Bell, the winning story in WM"s Historical Fiction competition, has a particular resonance. Set more than a century ago, during the First World War, it encapsulates the loss and horror of war with a restraint and dignity that seems an entirely appropriate way to honour the lost lives.

LIke many a successful short story, Those That Remain amplifies a particular moment – a significant fragment of a life, or lives – in such a way that the reader is drawn into a whole world of story. Very skilfully, Dominic Bell, using two characters – Julie and her father – has created a wartime world of courage, change, family bonds, and inevitably, tragedy. Small details make us understand the immense impact the war has had. As an example, Julie's choice of eggs and bacon rather than toast show us that her previous ladylike existence is no more; that nursing is hard, and makes demands on her; that she will do what it takes to be the nurse she needs to do.

The terrible events of the Somme are rendered at a distance, in terms of the impact on Julie, her father and the flatmate. The understated delivery somehow heightens the impact of the story Dominic is telling. Rather than upping the drama, Dominic goes for glimpses - pitch-perfect details like the black crepe swathed round the photographs; snippets of dialogue – all of which have been carefully chosen to suggest the much bigger picture, too terrible to be put into words.



Runner up and shortlisted Runner up: PJ Stephenson, Crassier, Switzerland. Read the story at www.writers-online.co.uk/writingcompetitions/showcase
Also shortlisted in WM’s Historical Short Story Competition were: Lee Childlow, Coleraine, Co Derry; Christine Williams, Church Streeton, Shropshire; Patricia Minson, Falmouth; Sally Miles, Leamington Spa; Sarah Peacey, London; Karen Warne, Clacton on Sea, Essex.