Class warfare, 1916
Jackie was pushing his way through the crowds in the Gare du Nord when he heard his name being called.
‘Cable? I knew it was you! Mind if I walk along with you?’
‘No, sir, I’d be pleased to have your company.’ Jackie moved swiftly to a salute as he recognised Lieutenant the Honourable Cedric Marston-Voysey-Herbert, his Commanding Officer, known to the men as Seedy Cedric on account of his large collection of pictures of chorus girls.
‘Thanks, Cable. Didn’t want to walk through all this lot on my own.’ The officer motioned towards the milling crowds with his head. ‘So I saw you and thought you might be feeling the same.’
‘Well, sir, I wasn’t really feeling anything. But I’m always glad to have someone from the Company to chat to.’
‘I know what you mean, Cable. People in civvies don’t seem to understand what it’s like at the Front, do they?’
‘No, sir, I don’t think they do.’ Jackie had to walk fast to keep up with his senior officer’s long-legged strides and this was making him out of breath.
Lieutenant Marston kept steaming ahead as people to his right and left moved out of his path. Seeing Jackie was lagging behind he waited for him to catch up. ‘Oh and by the way, old chap, don’t keep hammering on with all this sir-stuff. I mean, my name’s Cedric, as you know, and your name’s Jack. So there we are. Cedric and Jack.’
Jackie looked up at him. ‘Showing disrespect to an officer is a punishable offence, sir, and...’
‘Look, Jack. In a week’s time we’ll probably both be dead if the offensives keep on as they’re doing now. And calling someone about seven years younger than you sir won’t change things one iota.’
They walked down the platform where the train was waiting to take them back to the Somme. A couple of lower ranks saluted Cedric smartly and he half-heartedly returned their salute.
‘Look, Jack, I see it like this. All this class rigmarole will disappear after the war, although you and I may not be there to see it. Chaps like us will be working side by side to build the old country up again. None of this becoming an officer or a boss automatically because your parents sent you to a public school. No, it’ll be brains that count in the future and I’ve got a darn sight less of them than you have.’ He laughed showing a lot of very pink gum. ‘Is that how you see it too?’
Jackie thought for a moment. ‘I can’t say I’ve given it much thought; the class system, that is. I know that my father wasn’t chosen for promotion once because the other candidate had been to a better school, but as far as I’m concerned, it all seems to have passed me by.’
‘Then you’re damn lucky,’ said Cedric. ‘My family’s obsessed with class. They may own half of Northumberland but all that seems to interest them is what someone’s father owns and where he went to school. Oh yes, and me getting married to the right girl and having an heir.’
‘Well, I’m glad I’m not a member of the aristocracy, then, and I can choose any girl I like.’ Jackie laughed before adding. ‘Sorry, Cedric, don’t think I’m being rude.’
‘Absolutely not, old chap! I envy you, you know that? I don’t know what your home’s like but mine’s a huge great draughty sort-of castle. Impossible to keep warm in the winter and damn cold in the summer too.’
Jackie checked his ticket and saw that he was just outside his compartment. ‘Well, Cedric, this is where I have to sit.’ He nodded towards the carriage with its rows of hard wooden seats. ‘Your place is further on, isn’t it?’
Cedric looked up and down the platform. ‘Don’t see why I shouldn’t sit in here for a while. Can’t bear those other officer-types, you know. They’ll all have hangovers and be boasting about what they did to some poor working-class bit of a girl.’
Jackie grinned. ‘I’m sorry, Cedric, but aren’t you the one with the most pictures of chorus girls in the whole battalion?’
Cedric let out a hoot of laughter. ‘Quite right, quite right, old lad! But they’re only photos and that can’t do any harm. You know, Jack, I’ve never so much as touched a girl, or a woman come to that, in my entire life.' Then he added, with a wink of his sandy eyelashes. ‘Not that I wouldn’t have liked to once or twice!’
‘Well, you’re not going to get an heir that way, Cedric,’ Jackie smiled as he climbed into the carriage and looked around. ‘There’s hardly anyone here, so you’re welcome to join the lower ranks if you wish, your honourable.’
‘Jolly good.’ Cedric clambered aboard and sat next to Jackie on one of the slatted wooden seats and stretched out his long legs. ‘While we’re on the way, Jack, I’ll tell you about the Fabian Society. Then when you get back to wherever it is you live you can apply for membership. You see, they claim that the state has a responsibility to create a minimal provision of social welfare to enable each individual to reach his highest potential. Now, that’s very different from just those with the most money and influence getting to the top of the heap, don’t you think?’
‘Well, yes I suppose it is. But why are you so interested in social welfare, Cedric?’ Jackie tossed his cap up on the rack and stretched his much shorter legs out alongside Cedric's.
‘Good point, old man, and one I get asked a lot. You see, I’m a Socialist. That is, I am an opponent of the evils of capitalism. We Socialists believe that the workers must be in charge of the means of production, otherwise...’
Jackie had to put a hand over his mouth to stop himself yawning. ‘Do you think we could talk about this another time, Cedric? I know it’s frightfully important, but at the moment I’ve got more pressing things to think about.’
‘Oh, sorry, Jack. I do get a bit carried away sometimes. I bet you’re tired because you’ve been wining and dining in the Place Pigalle, while I had to stay the night with my mother’s sixty-year-old cousin who lives in a most dreadful old morgue near the Luxembourg Gardens. I wasn’t let out of her sight the whole time. Good heavens, I might as well have been in Hove!’
‘But you got a rest from the Front, I should say?’
‘Yes, it was very peaceful. Too peaceful, in fact. Pity I didn’t know you were in town or I’d have invited you along to jolly the place up a bit.’
‘That’s good of you, Cedric, but I went to the music hall, in fact.’
‘You did? You lucky old sod! Was it up to scratch?
‘It certainly was. There was a woman throwing live fish to a sea lion.’
‘My goodness, they do have some very rum shows here, don’t they?’
‘The seal was on in the first half. After the interval it was the main act.’
‘Go on, I can’t wait. Who was Top of the Bill then?’
‘Have you ever heard of a gypsy singer called Arlette?'
‘Can’t say I have, old boy, but then I haven’t heard of much in my twenty short years, what with being incarcerated in Northumberland for most of the time.’
'Well, Cedric, I think she's changed my life.'
As the train rattled and puffed its way to the Somme Jackie regaled a very interested Cedric with what had happened to him the previous night, and how it had changed his life.
Extract from my e-book http://www.amazon.co.uk/Entertaining-Angels-Susannah-Greaves-ebook/dp/B00IW8T9OA