Her eyes gazed directly at his downturned face. She felt herself smile as his cheeks reddened and his words began to form, halting and at first imperceptible. “I did that”, she thought triumphantly to herself. Made this man blush and stammer, showed him up for what he is in front of all these people. Out here, on this corner.
But he’s not really a man is he? If he were a man, he wouldn’t be here. He would be away, with a regiment, fighting for me. For all women. Like the recruiting posters said, if he neglects his duty to his country, one day he will neglect YOU. He’s not a real man. Rather, a coward. The white feather she had just thrust towards him had drifted to the ground. Harmless, gentle. Yet able to wound like an arrow straight to the heart.
Which is exactly what it is, she thought. The weapon of her righteousness, her just cause. Her confidence was rising with every passing moment, drawing its strength from the weakness of the man before her. I can’t fight but this man can. My voice is silent where it matters most. I can’t make things happen, I can’t stop the enemies. But he can. So why isn’t he?
“Women of Britain say ‘go’”-that’s what the other poster said. He must have ignored that as he’s ignoring me. And I’m one of those women. Well, nearly. Old enough to be out of school but only just. She drew her shoulders back further, tilted her chin. She suddenly wanted to look older than her years, more sophisticated. More of the world. A woman. Take on this coward of a man, that’s what a real woman should do.
“So why are you not in khaki?”. She tried her best to sound strident. A warrior. One without the voice which counted but with righteousness on her side.
He could give her so many reasons. How he’d got to Mons. How adding a year to his age had got him to Ypres. Places whose names he could not pronounce, his education had finished 3 years before he reached those sodden, filthy trenches and the likes of him didn’t need to be told about the world. His sort didn’t need to know about the power struggles, the colonies, the war machine. Just about numbers and letters and God. Until the men who run the country decided it was his duty to serve it, in that dismal ground, far away. In hell. No sign of God there, though heaven knows, he’d implored Him enough.
He went in with the lads and retreated with them. Lay on a blood-stained blanket as his fever rose and fell. Go home lad, they said. You’ve done your part now. Your ma will be pleased to have you back.
The man who had seen so much and the woman who did not see, no matter how much she looked. Both voiceless and powerless, she the woman and he the working man. Doing as they had been bidden by the men who run the country. Who led them from behind to the fiery pit.
The feather rested, as neither of them could.