FICTION

Two Minutes Silence

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD November 1 1936
FICTION

Two Minutes Silence

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD November 1 1936

Two Minutes Silence

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD

Armistice Day in a munitions factory and the strange behavior of an ex-soldier who couldn't forget

MEN IN uniform met me as I went. Most of them were beardless youths not even bom in 1914; and if the eyes of the oldest of them had looked upon the waving bunting of the 1918 Armistice, or if their ears had heard anything of its din, at best they could have responded only with the detached gaze of babyhood, not knowing what desperate, tragic gaiety it was, nor to how many hearts there came the tolling of solemn bells in the midst of the celebration. Three veterans whom I met returned my own glances variously. One was a bit furtive; one, in mufti, walked by, with a squaring of shoulders and a consciousness of his medals, to the rendezvous; one looked through me to battlefields from which he was separated by many miles and many years.

It was my intention to call for Joe Willmott, who, in the days when I knew him overseas, was a smart-stepping little corporal. Three years ago I had run across him in the Square, and we had stood then, and each year since, in memorial comradeship while the drums rolled and the bugles sounded, remembering together comrades we had known. He lived in a very down-at-the-heel street off the Square, and it had been my custom to call for him there rather than try to find him in the crowds.

An eight-year-old girl playing on the steps had a shy smile for me, and went to call her mother, who came quickly to the door. Clara Willmott was a woman whom suffering could only refine; though they had none too easy a course the last few years, one forbore to interfere easily. But today her face could not conceal anxiety.

“Joe won’t be going with you to the cenotaph,” she said. “Is—anything wrong?” I asked.

SHE GLANCED at the child and nodded to me to follow, ushering me into the small front parlor. I saw over the mantelpiece a picture, in doubtful colors, of Joseph Willmott with his corporal’s stripes; a cheap affair that he must have come by in one of the Tin-towns that sprang up on the outskirts of the English camps. It was autographed, and sent home no doubt with his love, to be framed and honored by the girl he had married two days before leaving for active service. Mrs. Willmott noticed my glance, flinched, then summoned a smile.

“Real handsome Joe was, wasn’t he, sir?” she said. “You’d hardly know him when they brought him back. Would you believe it, sir, I just stood and laughed crazily— hysterical, I guess I was—when I saw his left hand doing just what his right did. If he lit a match and shook it out afterward, his other hand made just the same motions. Shell-shock, you know. He got over that. It did other things to him, too. But he was always the same Joe inside. He didn’t change that way. Always a good man, my Joe was.”

“And is,” I added.

She glanced at me uneasily.

“Something’s happened to Joe,” she said, a catch in her voice. “He’s changed lately—the last few weeks. Something’s got between us, like. He just comes and goes like a stranger.”

“He’s working again, then?” I temporized.

“That’s the queer part of it,” she said. “When we were pretty desperate hard-up, we were happy enough. But now that there’s money coming in, everything’s gone wrong. He won’t even tell me where he’s working. He got proper angry when I said I had a right to know. ‘You forget it,’ he shouted, ‘you leave that end to me. 1 ’m bringing in good

money, ain’t I?’ he said, ‘money that, God knows, we all need bad enough. Well, be content.

Be content, I tell you.’ He almost shouted it at me, and his hands and face were all of a twitch.

I’ve never known him speak like that to me before.”

She broke off, taking a moment for recovery. “I could have followed him mornings, but I’m not that kind of a wife.”

She went over and began unnecessarily to dust a table top with her sleeve. And suddenly her body shook with sobs, instantly controlled but not less distressing to me because of that. Her eyes held a new dignity as she faced me.

“It’s no good not looking at it straight,” she said. “Joe’s either ashamed of his job and don’t want me to know what it is, or else—or else it’s the old trouble coming back on him.”

I asked: “What time did he go out?”

“About seven. But he was up long before. Couldn’t seem to sleep last night, and at dawn I heard him mouching round. He’d got out his old tunic and his medals and all, then he just grabbed them all up and dumped them in a heap into a drawer. I was afraid to let on I’d seen. I heard him go down and brew himself some tea and—I’m ashamed to say it, sir—but I stayed up here, lying shaking all over, and when I did go down, he was gone.”

I tried to reassure her.

“He’ll turn up at the cenotaph,”

I said.

She shook her head.

“I spoke of that last night. He just said, ‘I’ll not be going.’ I said,

‘Why, of course you will, Joe.

You’ve not missed it in years.’

‘I’m not going,’ he said, and didn’t even look at me, but I just kept quiet after he’d spoke that way.”

We stood facing each other and this riddle of Joe’s conduct.

“Now, see here,” I told her.

“I’ll go right on over to the Square and look around for him. He may turn up yet, or perhaps I can get word of him from some of the boys.”

She was immensely grateful. I felt the responsibility of that gratitude as I went a wav.

AS IT happened, it was little wizened-up Doonan who gave me the information. He touched the brim of his hat stiffly, as if there still existed military etiquette to qualify us, and grinned at me through gaps in his yellow teeth. Doonan was never a sensitive soul, but I respected that grin. I’d seen it when he lay suffering

particular tortures in a field hospital in the old

"Yes. sir," he said. “Joe’s working.” Where?”

“Down at the munition works.” His yellow teeth showed again. “They’re almighty busy down there, and taking men on. About the only place they are,” said Doonan.

A little chill, a premonitory thing, for my wits only vaguely worked on this, ran down my spine. I passed along the gravel path, bisecting the roped-oft area, beyond which the Square was becoming black with people. A woman ducked under the rope, evaded a challenging ixfficeman, and placed a small, cheap wreath at the foot of the cenotaph ; her eyes were very bright and her movements timidly determined. I thought that, however much others might cover or dwarf her offering, they could not deny its validity. Words carved on the stone became alive for me: “. . . Who Died That Men Might Be Free, And That Peace Might Not Pass From The Earth” and, a bit blindly, in the pale sunlight, I hurried on.

Behind huge gates the buildings I was ’ seeking sprawled. Stacks belched smoke into the November sky, rimming the eye of the sun with red. The throb and hum of machinery, the blinding glare of forges, the rattle of carriers, confused me. They numbed the senses.

The office received me politely, dispatching me under the escort of a boy to the department where records could be looked up.

"Willmott?” repeated a girl at the desk, clamping her jaws down on her chewing gum. “Willmott, Joseph. Oh, yeah.” She wrote something

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Two Minutes Silence

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on a card and handed it to the boy. “Take him there.” she said. Her jaws worked vigorously again.

I was led off. I saw near by a time-clock, and its hands startled me with a reminder of passing minutes. I had been longer than I supposed. It lacked now only three minutes to the hour. I had a blank feeling, quite indescribable, thinking of the crowds in the Square, the taut lines of soldiery, the buglers alertly waiting. The boy shouted words in my ear. but I could not hear them for the din of manufacture. He stopped a foreman and showed the card. The man glanced at me, motioned me to stand out of the way of a truck loaded high with explosives crated for shipment, then nodded, pointed, and we started on.

An instant later I was startled by a shrieking lament that filled the Works. But it was only the ceasing of the machinery, the stopping of belts and cogs and contrivances. Somewhere in the distance a hissing forge served to emphasize and enforce the following stillness. Everywhere men downed tools. I could see, along a corridor and behind glass, offices where clerks had halted in their communications with a feverishly rearming world and their reckonings of profit and loss. The foreman leaned toward me and spoke hoarsely out of the comer of his mouth.

“The two minutes silence,” he explained.

I stared at him.

“Yes, of course,” I murmured. “The two minutes silence.”

I felt him to be patronizing this sentimental gesture of the management. My own feelings were less direct. The blood beat up suffocatingly to my brain. I felt as if a thunderbolt were overdue, but knew there would be no such rebuke for blasphemy. Yet still I waited with an expectancy that I could not account for, and that was even then about to be rewarded.

Suddenly across that silent place, filled roof-high with potential engines of destruction, was flung a cry so weird that I still wake sometimes on the edge of nightmare and hear it again. It was laughter, loud, unrestrained, terrible— but it was infinitely more than that.

I SAW the foreman look, and then run forward. Intuitively understanding, I ran with him to the seat of trouble. The pounding of our feet on concrete could not compete with the importance of that derisive defiance of the internal silence. Two workmen were holding a third by the arms. It was Joe Willmott. The foreman began to curse under his breath. He was properly angry. Orders had been disobeyed. The word of authority had been flouted. I saw someone issue wrathfully from the office and come toward us. But my eyes now had only one focus. Joe Willmott’s body was almost rigid, his head uplifted. A hand was against his mouth as if to stifle those horrid emanations from his throat. This was no calculated laughter. Its derisiveness was born of no casual or ordinary defiance.

It was Olympian humor, strained through a shaking, sobbing human body, and the sight of it and the sound of it might well have struck dumb every employee; might almost, one fancied, have condemned the very plant to a silence less to order than the other.

From Joe Willmott, the foreman glanced at the frightened faces of the men and girls who crowded round, then turned to me.

I had no help for him.

But one of the workmen had a word.

“Joe was shell-shocked in the war,” he muttered. “It’s come back on him.”

Joe must have heard this. It halted his laughter like the descent of a knife. He shook loose from his captors and staggered back. His hands, reaching as if for support, came to rest against shelves piled high with cases ready to be filled with the stuff of death.

“Shell-shock!” repeated Joe. and his fingers moved against the metal. His mouth twitched, and I think we all shrank instinctively from a repetition of that Olympian laughter. Then I felt his eyes on me. I became apparently real to him. His face, ghastly white, slowly flushed. His hands ruffled his thinning, grizzled hair. Then he began with an odd deliberation to take off the overalls—that bluegrey identity-denying uniform which the company had supplied to him. They fell in a heap at his feet. The foreman seemed to feel that authority was at stake, and was uncomfortably aware of the presence of a large expansive person from the office.

“What do you think you’re trying to do?” demanded the foreman.

“I’m going home!” said Joe. He appealed to me: “She’d rather starve,

w-ouldn’t she?”

“Yes, Joe,” I said. “She’d rather starve.”

I saw their eyes upon me; the troubled ones of the workpeople, the uneasily angry ones of the foreman, the suavely ingratiating ones of the man from the office. He took my arm gently, but I shook loose and faced him. The sign and seal of opulence stamped his condescension.

“He prefers starvation,” I said.

He started to edge me out, as one might seek to get rid of a dangerous interloper, but his order to the foreman was jittery: “Well, get things going again, can’t you? The two minutes are up!” He took my arm persuasively. “Very distressing,” he said. “Very distressing. The poor chap was shell-shocked in the war, they tell me. Can’t pay any attention to him. Not rational, of course. Distinctly not rational.”

I scarcely heard him. Everywhere again the machines had taken hold: everywhere, as I waited to take Joe Willmott home to his wife, was the feverish whine of munitions in process. Just about now, I thought, the bugles at the cenotaph would be shrilling the triumphant lament of the Last Post.