BY MARY STEER
Copyright is held by the author.
TO THIS day, I remember my grandfather telling me about when he got it — the magnifying glass he gave me when I was 10 and he was 80. A mate he made friends with during the war had brought it with him to the trenches. At home this fellow had loved to spend hours examining plant and insect life in the meadows near his parents’ farm. Somehow he expected he would use it in his spare time during the war, to look at the plants and insects of Europe, the likes of which he was sure he’d never seen at home in England. How he had never been disabused of this notion of “spare time” before he shipped out, no one understood, but there he was, the only soldier with a magnifying glass in his kit. (Of course the officers had them, for poring over topographical maps, but among His Majesty’s foot soldiers, Grandpa’s mate was the only one.)
Grandpa said that magnifying glass did come in handy. During quieter times, they used it to look at insect life all right — but not the kind the poor chap had ever imagined. His pals in the trenches borrowed it time after time, to search for lice in each other’s hair and clothes and kits. Certainly the horrible little creatures showed up better, and looked much more vile under the lens. The men took turns delousing each other as far as possible, and the magnifying glass always found its way back to Grandpa’s friend.
Then one day, the call came to go over the top. It was early in the Battle of the Somme. Grandpa’s friend did not come back, and Grandpa came back on a stretcher.
Somehow Grandpa got to take his friend’s effects back to Blighty, to deliver to the friend’s parents. It was not a quest he wished to undertake, but he agreed to do it in the hope that it would give the parents some relief to know how well-liked their son had been.
When he got to the small farmhouse in the Lake District after a long convalescence that started in France and continued in London, he found himself hesitating on the doorstep. Of course, his friend’s parents had already heard the worst news, and they knew my grandfather was bringing their son’s effects to them personally; but suddenly he was afraid to talk to these people whose only son had perished. For a long moment he stood before the front door, wondering how even to knock. Then a curtain twitched in a front window and he knew someone had been watching for him and he had been seen, so he raised his knuckles to the door and tapped gently twice.
A pretty girl opened to his knock, holding a piece of knitting in her hand. My grandfather guessed she must be Helen, the sister Arthur had spoken so highly of. He felt unable to utter a word, but she saved him the trouble.
“You must be Edward Jolley,” she said, and she seemed very composed. “Please come in. My parents are in the sitting room.” And she led him through the small farm cottage to a room at the back.
Daisy and Charles Struthers rose as Helen led Edward into the room. They also seemed very composed as they shook hands politely and invited him to sit and have a cup of tea. Helen left the room to put the kettle on and Edward found himself sitting at one end of the settee, clutching the cloth of his trousers over his knees so the legs rode up and showed an inch of skin above his socks. Hastily he let go the fabric and smoothed his palms over the wrinkles. He picked up the small satchel he had brought with him. He had prepared a little speech but now was not sure how good it was. He cleared his throat and began.
“I’m so sorry about Arthur. We all liked him very much. He was so calm and kind and generous, never had a mean word to say about anyone, not even the Hun.” He saw Mrs Struthers’ eyes fill with tears, and hesitated. The clock on the mantel ticked loudly. The tears tipped over the brink of Mrs Struthers’ eyelids and spilled down her cheeks, but still she appeared composed.
“Please go on,” she said. The tremor in her voice gave her away, but what could Edward do? She had asked him to continue.
“He … ah … they tell me they know he didn’t suffer,” he said now. Both of Arthur’s parents nodded.
“They told us as much, too,” said Mr Struthers. “They told us he never would have known what hit him and that he most likely died instantly.”
Edward nodded. “That’s what they told me, too.” He cleared his throat again, a gruff noise he hadn’t intended. “And they asked me to bring you his personal effects.” That sounded too clinical. He tried again. “His…his things.” He hesitated, then opened the satchel. There wasn’t much inside; most items in a regulation issue kit bag were reissued if the owner died, including the kit bag itself. Fortunately, someone, somewhere along the line from the trenches to the evacuation hospital, had recognized the importance of the personal items in Arthur Struthers’ kit bag, and someone, somewhere, had known that Edward and Arthur had been mates.
Now Edward was able to hand back to the Strutherses the items that had meant so much to Arthur, he had carried them all the way to the battlefields of France. Out of the bag he brought the thick, soft pouch that contained the magnifying glass and kept it safe. Out came a sepia-toned photograph of Arthur with his parents and sister. Out came a small packet of letters, half bearing an unfamiliar address and half bearing the return address of the small cottage in which Edward now sat, wishing he were anywhere but here. Out came a penknife, with the engraving, “To our dear boy — Love Mother & Father.” Finally, out came Arthur’s red identity disc on its leather bootlace.
Edward balanced these items on the satchel in his lap, fixing his gaze on them. The clock ticked on. Helen entered the stillness of the room with a carefully balanced tea tray, laden with a teapot in a knitted cozy, four teacups on saucers, and a plate of scones. Edward was touched that these people, expecting a visit from someone who knew their son and was bringing his things home now that he could never bring them himself, had used scarce, precious flour to bake scones in anticipation of his visit. The gesture moved him deeply.
Helen poured the tea, and the quiet burble of liquid into cups made a welcome respite from the tick-tock silence. Edward thanked her as she passed him a cup and held out the plate of scones for him to take one. When she had served her parents and chosen for herself, she sat on the other end of the settee to Edward, and she spoke.
“Arthur’s things,” she said, looking at the collection in his lap. “May I have them?” She put her cup and saucer down on the little table at her elbow and held out her hands. The gesture was supplicant, yet somehow dignified. Edward wordlessly passed her the satchel with its precious cargo balanced on top, and she took it into her own lap.
“Look,” she said to her parents as she held up the sepia photograph. “This can go back in the frame, now.” And Edward noticed that there was, indeed, an empty picture frame on the mantelpiece behind where the parents sat in their armchairs next to the empty fireplace. How surprising that they had only one copy of this precious photograph, and how remarkable that they knew it was most important to the one who had to go away, and gave it up to him to keep, to remind him of home.
Now Helen held up Arthur’s identity disc and regarded it for a long moment.
“Shall we give this to Maisie?” she finally asked. Her voice was very quiet and gentle as she said this. Her mother sighed and pressed a hand to her eyes. Her father sat very still for a moment, then nodded briefly.
“I think it’s only right, don’t you?” said Helen. “She loves him too, whether or not you approve.” Both her parents nodded, reluctantly, or so it seemed to Edward.
The packet of letters came next. Helen gave a quick convulsive shudder when she picked them up, as if a sudden chill had blown across her.
“We will keep ours, of course,” she said, “and Maisie can have hers. We won’t look at hers. It’s only right. We must think of what Arthur would have wanted.” Her voice caught slightly on her brother’s name, and she quickly turned to the little table where her cup of tea was.
After a moment or two, she turned back to the objects in her lap and picked up the engraved pocketknife. She looked at it, consideringly.
“I’d like…,” she began, and then paused for what seemed to be a long time. The clock, impartial and unmoved, filled the silence. Edward, who had sipped some of his tea, now longed for a nibble of scone, but somehow felt he must be very quiet and not move.
“I’d like to save this, for…” Helen trailed off again, but this time the pause was short. “For any children I have,” she finished. “I would like to save this for your grandchildren,” she added, as if her parents needed it spelled out for them. This time they both nodded, without hesitation.
At last, she picked up the soft pouch. She smiled and drew in a draught of air through her nose in a shuddering sigh. Her eyes were bright and then they spilled over just as her mother’s had done. Gently she worked open the drawstring and slipped the magnifying glass out.
“Arthur’s looking glass,” she said in a voice that trembled. Her parents were both crying silently now too, but at this phrase they smiled through their tears and her father gave a short huff that might have been a quickly stifled laugh. Helen turned to Edward.
“We used to call it that,” she explained. “We know it isn’t really a mirror. It’s just, he spent so much time looking through this and marvelling at all the things he saw, we couldn’t resist teasing him a little. Sometimes we called him Arthur Through the Looking Glass….”
She trailed off and the clock reigned once more. Edward no longer wished for a bite of scone. Instead, he wished to get out of that little cottage, away from all these sad things that reminded him of his friend, and that his friend was dead, and that these good, kind people would never again see their beloved son and brother.
But Helen was now holding the magnifying glass and the pouch out to him.
“I think we would like you to have it,” she said. “Wouldn’t we?” she added, glancing at her parents.
They were both nodding again. Edward was taken aback. He had never imagined that he would be given anything of Arthur’s, but perhaps if anyone had put the idea into his head, he would have thought of the penknife. Certainly not the magnifying glass, through which he had been accustomed to looking at revolting headlice, day after endless day.
He reached out and took the magnifying glass and its case from her.
“Thank you,” he said, humbly. “I will keep it safe.”
“Oh, please use it,” said Helen quickly. “Arthur would have wanted whoever had it to see the world through it as he did. To see how marvellous things can be, when we really look closely at them.”
Afterwards, Edward could never explain why he did this, but in the moment it seemed perfectly right to hold the magnifying glass up, between himself and Helen, and look at her through it. The hand holding it trembled a little, but his voice did not when he spoke.
“Yes, I see,” said Edward, looking at Helen’s magnified smile, which somehow managed to be teary and incandescent at the same time. “I quite see what he means.”
Then the four of them were laughing and crying at the same time, in the way that sometimes happens when you need a good laugh after a sad thing.
My grandfather didn’t have to go back to that war, or to the next one. His left leg had been too badly injured and was always shorter than his right after that, enough that he always limped and used a cane. This never mattered to Granny Helen in the slightest.
Of course, I treasure the pocket knife, too, but my father gave me that, having had it from his mother first. The magnifying glass somehow seems to matter so much more — perhaps because Grandpa was the one to give it to me; perhaps because of the story that goes with it, that I will tell my first grandchild, when I pass it on. And my Great-Uncle Arthur was absolutely right: How marvellous things can be, when we really look closely at them.