A novel about the Great War
“At the Going Down of the Sun is a book that follows three men – Percy Campbell, Albert Phipps, Lionel Edens – from their homes in North Oxford to the First World War battlefields in northern France. Their backgrounds are quite different, but none of their backgrounds prepared them for the reality of war in the trenches. The three men are commemorated on a war memorial in St Margaret’s parish, north Oxford. (here)
Preface to the book
The Beginning and the End
It’s like this every time.
I start down the street, down the middle so it’s not clear which side I’m going to, and slowly the doors begin to open. I see them out of the corner of my eye.
The women are sidling out, on to their doorsteps. Some of them take a step or two to their neighbour’s door, and put an arm round each other. They are waiting. I’ve heard talk of a sixth sense but never seen it in action till now.
They’re wearing white aprons over their dresses, except those who’ve already lost a father or a husband or a boy. Their aprons are black.
I know where I’m going but, only at the last moment, do I turn, solemnly, to the door I want. There is a deathly silence behind me, and then someone begins to weep. With relief maybe. I knock, not too hard. Almost always the woman is there, waiting behind the door, making one last prayer that the postman will trudge past. I wish to God I could.
I take off my cap out of respect. Her face is a sick white. I say, ‘I’m very sorry Ma’am,’ and hold the telegram out to her. It is thin and yellow and bends as it passes from my hand to hers.
I bow my head, turn away, putting my cap back on as I carry on up the road. I never go back the way I’ve come. Too many stricken faces.
But I can’t blot out the first shriek of pain from the woman on the doorstep. I look back, and she is on the ground, a dozen women around her as the agony begins. Like childbirth, it is no place for a man.
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