There is a short and moving story, written by Rudyard Kipling called ‘The Gardener.’ First published in 1925, it is the tale of Helen Turrell, a well-off respectable woman of country stock, and Michael. Though Michael is, ostensibly Helen’s nephew, she lets him call her ‘Mummy’ at bedtime, by way of a “pet-name between themselves.” Helen fears that he might reject her, when, aged ten, Michael got the idea that his civil status was “not quite regular,” but instead their bond grows tighter. Michael realises after all that there were plenty of his sort in English history.
Michael was to have gone up to Oxford, and then on to a most promising career, but instead, like so many others of his generation, he goes to war on the Western Front where he is killed by a shell-splinter. Helen hears first that he is missing, and has an agonizing time, hoping desperately that he is still alive, until, after the Armistice, she finds out where Michael is buried and learns the horrible truth. She goes to visit the grave and on the way meets Mrs Scarworth who is visiting neighboring cemeteries on behalf of friends to take photos of graves, but who confides in her – because she must confide in some body – that this is actually a cover to enable her visit the grave of her secret lover, also lost in the war.
Upon, arriving at the cemetery she finds a man planting flowers behind a line of headstones. She tells him that she is looking for “Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”. “Come with me,” he replies, “and I will show you where your son lies.” On leaving the cemetery, she sees him at work again, and like Mary on her visit to the Garden Tomb, “she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.”
The story is compact, complex and enigmatic, its layers of meaning providing much food for thought. To my mind, it is primarily a meditation on grief and on the connection and comparison between those who made the ultimate sacrifice and those who suffered the ultimate loss. It is made all the more poignant for being penned by a man who was himself devastated by the loss his of own dear son in the Battle of Loos, and who regularly encountered the enormity of loss suffered in the First World War through his work with the Imperial War Graves Commission.
Helen, constrained by the social mores of her time, could not publicly admit that Michael is her illegitimate son, despite supporting him most lovingly as he is growing up, and even when visiting his grave. The same thing is happening to Mrs. Scarworth in respect of her secret visit to a lost lover. These social concerns are thrown into sharp perspective by the brutal truth of grief and the scale of the sacrifice, underlined by the allusion to Christ on the cross, and seem trivial in comparison. The man, who is supposed by Helen to be the gardener, but could be anybody, perhaps even an old comrade of Michael’s, sees that matter clearly, and takes her to her son. The cemetery, says the text, is still in the making and “counts twenty-one thousand dead already…. A merciless sea of black crosses.” How many visitors like Helen has he seen before, having to deal with such truths?
In the run up to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice day, we are often given to reflect upon the comparison between life today and the lives for the war dead. Most of us do not now, mercifully experience the kind of grief felt by Helen, and Kipling, but many of us are nonetheless drawn, to visiting the war cemeteries and places of remembrance to visit the memorials of now distant ancestors. How might we compare?
Some years ago, I took a trip to Karasouli Military Cemetery to visit the grave of John Ford, my great grandfather’s half-brother. There is not much to be told about him. The son of Annie and John, he lived in High Blantyre, Glasgow and joined the Royal Scots Regiment in January 1916 and was sent with them to Salonica where he was to remain for two long years. His service record states that he died on 8 September 1918 of wounds received in action at the 40th casualty clearing station Macedonia, aged 24. It gives no further details.
I had no living connection with John, no relationship to sort out in the way that Helen had with her ‘nephew’ Michael, but like Helen I did bring with me the cares and troubles of my era, about work, life, and all the rest of it, and like Helen’s – at least as I read the story – they seem so small by comparison with the fate of the war dead. John Ford was a grocer by trade and without the war he would probably have lived and died as a regular unassuming working man, and I most likely would never have even heard of him, but who knows? He didn’t have the chance. Instead he had spent two prime years of his life on a far-flung front, one where disease was as great a foe as the enemy, never to make it back when hostilities finally came to an end. The brutality of such a fate, his and so many others, throws puts all our day-to-day problems in perspective.