Norman Edwards was always a sickly child. He had a weak chest; the kind of baby that, when the midwife sees him, she tells the father to go and get the vicar quickly. But he survived, though there was never any danger of him being sent down the mines the way his father had been and all his brothers would be.
His mother knew he would be clever, because nature had a way of compensating. He was pretty good at arithmetic, but what he loved best was grammar, especially composition. His father, not unreasonably, told him to concentrate on the adding up, because there was no money in writing. He was on the point of leaving school and his parents were just thinking how he could get a good job in a bank when the Great War broke out.
They did not read the papers so it came as a bit of a surprise to them. There was no danger of him being called up into the Army but he wanted to do his bit. After some discussion between his father and the school-master and reference to the local magistrates who were acting as a planning committee, a job as a clerk was found for him over the border in Herefordshire at the Rotherwas Munitions Factory.
Having enjoyed school, apart from the other children, he was not looking forward to the world of work, but the result was even worse than he feared. Because of the war, most of the able bodied men had volunteered as a way of getting out of the tedium of the factory. A large number of young women had moved in to take their place, a few local girls, but they had big hands and had no aptitude for factory work. Most were Welsh, like himself, but also a substantial number of Irish girls, attracted by the relatively high pay and not at all worried by the danger.
It was clear from the start that they all looked down on Norman, even the Hereford girls who were fresh out of domestic service and were not used to looking down on anybody. Everyone, even he, knew that a man should be in uniform, fighting for his country. Although they could all see that he did not have the frame for it and was not strictly speaking shirking, still they openly despised him for being such a poor weed of a man.
Although he could spend most of his time in the office, at least a couple of times a day he would have to descend to the factory floor to pick up the latest production figures. All the management wanted from the girls was high production and the girls knew it and they also knew what liberties they could get away with, especially with him, the figurehead of the hated management. So there would be calls of “Cross your legs girls, here comes Norman.” and “Not in the Army yet Norman?” and he would blush as he always did and the girls would scream with success.
He had tried to complain, but his manager had been barely civil. One girl in particular, a red headed Irish girl called Lily MacDonnell, seemed to want to make his life a particular misery. She had a special smile when she saw him that turned his knees to water.
“Hello there Norman, how’s the love life?” It always got a big laugh no matter how many times she said it because everyone knew that, a man surrounded by women, he had none. She once saw him leave his clipboard on a table while he was checking some figures and came along and purposefully spilled some oil onto it. How she apologised to him while the girls around erupted in laughter. He got a telling off from his manager and had to stay late to re-do the figures, so he then got into trouble with his landlady.
For all that trouble he found that he could not help thinking about her. At night, in his little bedroom up against the roof of his landlady’s house, he thought of how, if there was a terrible emergency at the factory and she became trapped, he would rush down, pick her up and carry here to safety. He thought of the weight of her and how grateful she would be. The larking about would stop then. But no accidents happened. The girls, for all their wild ways, were good about safety.
After Easter 1915 he heard the girls gossiping amongst themselves about Lily and how it was going to be her birthday on the 1st May. “A proper May Queen she is.” someone said. They were agreed that they would all put some money into a kitty to buy her something nice. He could not sleep that night. Instead he found words going through his head, so that he had to get up, light his candle and sit at his small table. It was not the first poem he had written, but it was the first one that he was really proud of. But what to do with it? He thought of giving it to her on the factory floor. She would be bound to read it out to all the other girls there and then. How they would laugh. Instead he put it in an envelope and addressed it to her lodgings. He posted it on the Saturday, so that it would arrive on the Sunday, the day of her birthday.
TO THE MAY PRINCESS
The sad thing about being a princess Is that, nowadays,
The king has promised half his kingdom
To the Income Tax instead of
To any poor young peasant
Who can make you laugh.
Most only make you cry.
Princes are all out
Doing good works or marrying beneath them
Or getting killed before they can come back to you.
The ivory tower is subject to rising reality
And dragons are protected by law.
The crowd outside the door
Looks hungrily at you
Instead of cheering
When you get into your coach.
All surprise parcels have to be opened In case they explode your mind
And you have to stop dancing at twelve
Because the band won’t do overtime.
Marble halls can be very lonely places
And wishing only makes the echoes louder.
He did not really want to go into work that Monday, but some terrible imperative made him go. Would she realise it was from him? Would it have arrived on time? Would she realise he was a poet?
At last the time came when he would have to go down to the factory floor. It seemed ominously quieter than usual. Then he saw that the girls were crowding around Lily and she seemed to be crying. Could the poem have had such an effect on her?
Unnoticed he collected his figures and retreated back to the office. He noticed that she was not her usual frightening self for the next couple of days. He knew the Irish had a strong poetic sensibility. Perhaps that was it. He felt she ignored him now when they met and he did not know whether to be sad or pleased, but he was rather displeased that his poem should have had such a negative effect.
One night, at clocking off time, he found himself walking behind her. Normally he would have walked more slowly, let her get away from him, but this time he found himself speeding up until he was behind her.
“Hello.” He said and braced himself for some cutting reply, but she just looked at him, as if surprised.
“Oh, hello.” They walked along in silence for a while.
“Did you have a good birthday?” he wanted to say, but did not dare. They were in a country lane that led to her lodgings. It was not on his way but he did not say anything to her and presumed she did not know or did not care.
Suddenly she stopped. “Look at that.” He looked but could not see what she was pointing at. “There. It’s a white blackbird.” He was going to laugh but then he looked more carefully and saw that there was indeed a male blackbird hopping around the foot of a tree. But, instead of being black it was streaked all over with white feathers, perhaps some kind of albino.
“It must be lucky, that.”
“How do you know?”
“Anything unusual like that always is. We should make a wish.”
She closed her eyes tight and a look of intense concentration came over her face. He realised that he had never seen her with her eyes closed before, it was so intimate and he thought suddenly of all the other parts of her life that he knew nothing about. Looking at her he made a wish as well. She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Did you make a wish?”
“Yes.” For a terrible, wonderful moment he thought she was going to ask him what his wish had been, but instead she just walked off.
When they reached her lodging house she seemed to say goodbye only as an afterthought.
That night he could not sleep again , but, eventually, something came out of it.
THE WHITE BLACKBIRD:
We wished upon a white blackbird
Because you said we must
Because it was lucky.
I don’t know what you wished for
But I wished for you.
If you tell your wish It never comes true.
Is it still alive,
Nature hates oddities
And quickly destroys them.
Or does it still haunt
The place where we two saw it.
Fed by a forlorn lover
On scraps of what might have been?
He decided that he was not going to post this one. He was going to give it her himself and to hell with the consequences. It being a Saturday night he had the whole of Sunday to think about it. He normally did not do too much with his weekends anyway. Whatever he did just seemed to make him feel lonelier. He could go for a tramp into the country and he would feel alone and overpowered. He could have a walk around a deserted city of Hereford looking at the windows of the closed shops and he would feel even more alone.
He thought about what it would be like to have someone to share his Sunday with. Mostly he thought of Lily.
So the Monday morning came and he folded the poem up and put it in his pocket. He had still not completely decided what to do with it. If he could find her on her own perhaps he would give it to her. At the allotted time he went down to the factory floor. Everything appeared as normal, in fact the girls seemed to be knuckling down and getting on with the work more than usual. He could not see Lily.
He waited around a little longer than he needed to but still she did not appear. Some of the girls started looking at him so he walked back to his office before they said anything. Perhaps she was sick. That evening he returned to his room still with the poem in his pocket. He took it out and looked at it again. Perhaps it was not as good as he had originally thought. He left it on the table. He would not give it to her after all. It would be a silly thing to do. He was bound never to hear the end of it. He was stupid to think they had shared anything private.
Each day he went to the factory floor and still she did not appear, until he became quire worried that he had done something really serious. Eventually he picked up the courage to ask his manager, as non-committal as he could, about the Irish girl. “Which one?” “Lily.” “Oh, that one. She got in a fight and we had to let her go.”
“Had a letter from Ireland telling her that her beau had dropped her. Made her go wild. On her birthday too. Those Irishmen, cool customers, eh?”
“She got into a fight with one of those South Wales girls down at the station. Blacked the girl’s eye. Of course, they’re as bad as each other, the Welsh and the Irish…no offence, but you know what I mean.”
Norman agreed that he did. “After that we couldn’t keep her on, could we?”
“I suppose not.”
He should have been pleased. The walk down to the factory floor was much quieter now, especially after a directive came down from the War Office that the factory was producing too many duds that were not exploding on the Germans when fired by the artillery and the supervisors were forced to crack the whip a bit more often. But he wished he could have said goodbye, find out what she thought about him. He wondered if she would write She never did. As far as he knew she never wrote to any of the other girls.
He carried on with the work throughout the war, still writing poems and hoping that, after the war, he could find some way of being a famous poet. The war was just about to finish when the Spanish influenza epidemic came along. An unusual disease, its principal mortality was amongst the young and fit men that had not been killed in the trenches. For some reason it classed Norman as fit, unlike the Army Board and took him without him having to experience the horrors of the Western Front.