Hazel McHaffie

Missing presumed dead

Thiepval. The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. ‘A massive, brick-arched statement of our collective conscience.’ Bearing the names of 73,412 men without a grave, ranked and filed for war.

My uncle’s name is etched into that stone: NEVARD HP. I never knew him, of course; neither did his youngest sister, my mother; he was killed, in the week of his 21st birthday, in 1916, before she was even born. I have a rose in my garden called Somme, planted to mark the centenary of his death; it’s in flower right now.

So, the name Thiepval has a special resonance for me, and that drew me to In Pale Batallions, a novel by one of my favourite authors, Robert Goddard. Thiepval forms the starting point for a mystery in the family of Leonora Galloway.

When we first meet her, she’s a recent widow, visiting the site for the first time, accompanied by her daughter, Penelope. Together they look at her father’s name commemorated on the massive stone monument, and check the records inside:
HALLOWS, Captain the Hon John, son of Edward, Lord Powerstock … aged 29 years.

But … the date of Captain John’s presumed death is recorded as 30 April 1916 … Leonora wasn’t born until 14 March 1917 … Penelope immediately suspects a simple wartime romance and illegitimate birth. Could this be the cause of the rift between them and her mother’s aristocratic heritage? But no, her mother, says, she has always known John was not her real father; Olivia, the second Lady Powerstock, made sure of that! But only now that her husband is dead, does Leonora feel free to confide in her daughter, tell her who she really is, and what she has discovered about her history.

Part 1 it told through the voice of Leonora. Hers was a lonely unloved childhood. The Powerstock title having ended with John’s death on the Somme, her mother, Miriam, having died of smallpox when Leonora is only a few days old, she is brought up by her paternal grandparents though neither money nor title ever finds its way to her. When her grandfather dies, his second wife, Olivia, becomes Leonora’s sole guardian, a vicious woman who loses no opportunity to taunt Leonora with her mother’s sullied reputation and her own illegitimacy, turning Leonora into an unpaid domestic servant in her own home, isolated from the world outside, timid, reclusive and introspective. Until, that is, the war happens, and soldiers are billeted at the family home. Captain Tony Galloway brings love and trust into her impoverished life, and when the war ended, they marry.

Two children later, Leonora is in the kitchen alone when a tall, sombre, rather shabbily dressed man appears at the door. ‘It’s about your father’, he says. Now that the second Lady Powerstock is dead, this man, Lieutenant Tom Franklin, John’s fellow officer in the Great War, who had actually met her mother and her grandparents, is free to tell her the truth about her family, about what happened thirty-seven years ago. And it’s this key witness who takes up the story in Part 2.

Feeling acutely the loss of his friend, John, Franklin jumps at the chance to convalesce in the Powerstock ancestral home, but nothing there fits with expectation. Everyone seems awash with carefully guarded secrets: John’s father hiding himself from the world in self-imposed exile in his study; his stepmother behaving with abandonment and contempt of Lord Powerstock; his beautiful wife pregnant by another man. The whole edifice of ancient British honour, and what John was fighting for, seem a sham. And yet images of John, the rightful heir to this place, seem to haunt Tom everywhere, awake or asleep.

Then the murder of a thoroughly unlikeable American guest of Lady Powerstock precipitates Tom into the role of prime suspect. But the police, under pressure from powerful sources, choose instead to brand an innocent convalescing officer who has taken his own life, as the murderer. Officially case closed, but Tom needs to know the truth – besmirching a reputation, even posthumously, goes totally against the grain. What he finds is intrigue and deception beyond his wildest imaginings; truths the family simply can’t afford to have unearthed.

Leonora takes back the narrative in Part 3. Now in possession of the facts behind her existence from this surviving witness, she has questions of her own to pursue. How did she end up in the care of the Powerstocks?  Who really was the murderer of the odious American guest? What other secrets are still to be revealed? The Powerstock’s family solicitor refuses to give her answers. Tom Franklin has vanished without trace … until, that is, she receives an eerie posthumous message from him fifteen years later.

Leonora’s husband … then Olivia, Lady Powerstock, add their evidence … then the murderer himself …. and a scruffy painter in Cornwall! Each time, just as you feel you are grasping the truth, another witness snatches it away, takes you down a different path. Immensely clever plotting and elegant writing. Indeed, its the kind of devilishly convoluted plot that makes you want to go back, with the benefit of hindsight, and read it again just to marvel at its cleverness and see the clues you missed. But at nearly 400 pages of densely packed text that’s a rather daunting prospect.

For me, personally, reading In Pale Batallions, there was something more than exquisite writerly skill on display. It’s many many years since I first discovered Robert Goddard’s Past Caring, which has remained top of my 100 favourite books. He is a past master at taking the reader deep into a story that just keeps on unravelling. But this time I entered more profoundly into my uncle’s death on the Somme than I ever have before. With his death only ‘presumed’, my mother used to dream of one day seeing him walking down the street. In Captain John Hallows it felt as if he was walking off the page.  And it seemed so very appropriate to be feeling this precisely 1006 years later.

Not only so, but curiously enough the story also takes Leonora to the Isle of Wight, where my father’s family come from, as well as the West Country, where I grew up, and Goddard’s hauntingly familiar descriptions of those quaint houses and narrow streets transported me there too. Bewitching.

 

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