Do we have a right to know where we came from? Even if that knowledge can hurt others close to us?
Or are some family secrets best consigned to the past?
Andy Miller’s Whereof One Cannot Speak seeks answers to these and other questions by following the lives of four generations of one family over a 100-year span. Beginning in 1890, the story follows first the life of Letitia, the second of four children born to George, a blacksmith, and his wife Ivy.
One day in early August, Ivy heard the raised voices of her two daughters whom she had left with Bertram playing in the vegetable garden outside the scullery door.
‘What’s all this ruckus about out here?’ she said, appearing at the door in a faded, plain linen apron with her paring knife and a half-peeled potato in her hand. ‘Bertie doesn’t like all the fuss, girls, he still gets easily upset if he hears you two arguing. It’s still going to be a while yet before he’s his old self again’.
‘Letty’s silly Mama, she thinks rhubarb can think,’ said Maud.
‘I’m not silly, Mama, Maud’s being horrid,’ objected Letitia.
Bertram, whose contribution to any argument between his sisters would once have been to run excitedly from one to the other, barging into them, now sat in a disconsolate fashion turning his head towards each speaker in turn. Maud’s scorn raised a faintly complicit smile from him, Letitia’s protestations a more tearful apprehension.
‘Letty asked me why you put this old bucket and sacking over the rhubarb and – ‘
‘I said – ‘
‘Now now, one of you at once,’ said Ivy ‘what is it you want to know Letty?’
‘She – ‘
‘Let her answer, Maud. Look how your carrying on is upsetting Bertie. You’re supposed to be helping me and looking after him’.
‘I said why do you cover up the rhubarb like this?’ said Letitia in a quiet voice, looking down at her feet.
‘And I said it’s because when the rhubarb comes up out of the ground and it’s all dark it thinks it must still be under the ground and it keeps on growing’.
‘That’s right. Now why is there all this arguing?’
’Cause then she said ‘can rhubarb think then?’ and that’s silly. Rhubarb can’t think. It’s only rhubarb’.
‘Now come along,’ said Ivy attempting to pull them both in to towards her in an embrace. ‘Don’t be so strict, Maud. That’s a very good question, Letty. She isn’t being silly’.
Bertram looked less apprehensive and more reassured as his mother resolved the squabbling between his sisters.
‘Our Letty’s a proper little thinker, she really is,’ said Ivy, giving her back an extra little rub. ‘You all are. What clever children I’ve got’.
In her early twenties, Letitia moves away from the village where she grew up to join her sister Maud by the coast where she obtaIns employment as a clerical assistant on a fish dock. Here she meets her future husband William, a trawler man.
‘You in charge, Miss?’ William shouted up from the deck of the small trawler, its nets discharged and slack over the ship’s starboard side. ‘I’ve got to get these disload papers signed’.
Letitia looked down at the young man, slight of build, wiry rather than skinny, with a smile on his face. It was an open smile, relaxed in the way that a vast stretch of settled open water against a sunset might be thought relaxed. Not contained and calculating like the fixed grins, leers almost, to be experienced more commonly on the cramped and busy dock.
‘We can do that for you. Come up,’ she shouted back.
The gulls, now that the most recent catch had been sealed ready for dispatch, had settled back into the water, their frenzy past. Bouncing on the ripples created by small passing craft, some flicked a wing or tucked back a feather with an automatic movement. Others pecked idly at specks on the surface. It was now much harder to believe that the pulsing agitation that had so recently filled the sky was a mania borne of near starvation and not some grand theatricality performed out of instinct but with regularity and gusto, day in and day out.
The trawler man seemed a little taller when standing beside her tapping a newly-rolled cigarette on his tin. He seemed to be refraining from lighting it in her presence. In his huge oilskin breeches, with the bib like a breastplate covering most of what was left of him, he seemed lost and, like a manikin, not completely in control of his own movements. But, up close, his face provided the animation lacking in the rest of his frame, his eyes bluish grey and looking directly into hers, the weather-scoured lines around his eyes suggesting an ease with play and laughter.
‘You’re new. Bit of an improvement all round on old Rickards’.
‘Shush, don’t say such things. Bring that schedule round to the office. Mr Rickards will sign it for you and make sure the ledger is all up to date’.
‘Sorry. I thought he must have gone. I thought they’d seen sense, put somebody in charge who’d be good for business. What do they call you?’
‘Why should you need to know that? I’m just the clerical support, assistant to Mr Rickards, to make sure the paperwork doesn’t run away with him’.
‘Well I wouldn’t blame the paperwork if it wanted to run away with you,’ he said lightly, his look inviting her to laugh with him at the notion. ‘Come on, aren’t you going to tell me your name? I might need to ask for you in person at some time’.
She knew he wouldn’t need to but she told him anyway. And then asked for his.
In the early months of World War One, men are joining up in the seaside town where Letitia lives. As a fisherman, her husband William has a reserved occupation but, with three small children now born, the social pressure is exerting an increasing strain on their relationship.
William had attended the meeting advertised on the poster. In the market place the crowd was so large that many were left packed into side streets unable to see or even hear the colonel on the platform. The thump and blare of the brass band that played before and after the speech nonetheless carried around the buildings to the furthest away of the assembled people. Strangers had come into town from the surrounding villages, men of all ages, some with their sons. William had been pinned close up in the densest, forward area of the crush, and had been ready after the speeches to join the jostling but good-humoured men and lads queuing to sign up that night. But he had held back remembering his captain’s advice, that the Government needed men to maintain the nation’s food supplies, that they were working particularly hard at plans that would allow people like him to volunteer as soon as everything was sorted out.
‘Reckon we’ll still get our chance, if the pen pushers can get a move on and sort it out,’ William had told Letitia. ‘Captain says they’ll still have a need for the likes of us out there’.
‘I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,’ said Letitia. ‘You sound as if you want to go, as if you would be quite happy to leave me with the children worrying myself sick about you’.
‘Letty, you women have to play your part too. Look at Flo, she’s setting to while her husband’s off doing his bit. Not sitting complaining’.
The fear that had stilled Letitia’s feelings was swept away by a rush of anger and then, as her words and thoughts struggled and failed to converge, her tears broke alongside an unchecked groan.
William hurried to his wife’s side, his embrace accepted and then resisted a number of times as he attempted to hold Letitia close to him. She felt the strength in his arms increasing, was seized by memories of him hauling ropes over pulleys on the docks, grim-faced and steady in concentration as huge loads were lifted in dripping nets from his boat. The more she remembered the strength of her early love for him, the angrier she felt about the inescapability of the war.
‘Letty, Letty, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘What’s the matter? I don’t want to upset you. I wouldn’t upset you for the world’.
Letitia had felt increasingly unsettled in recent days, unsteady in her opinions, as if every perspective was blocked, walled in by sandbags. The night of the meeting, that morning when Flo had raised William’s not having signed up, and now here on the dock with this murderous machine pointing straight at Mary and Lucy. She pushed Carol in her perambulator along the esplanade, wanting to be home before the wet mist turned to heavier rain in the freshening breeze. But Mary and Lucy could only walk so fast and today they were even slower, their attention diverted by activity down on the beach. Men had driven stakes into the sand, criss-crossed like wickerwork, and were tentatively unrolling coils of barbed wire and attempting to string it between the posts. Like terrible Christmas decorations, thought Letitia, out of season, on a windy beach, spiked and cruel.
She was reassured, heartened even at times, by the thought of some murderous invader impaled and captured before he could break through with his rifle and bayonet into streets where children played and neighbours went about their business. But she also struggled with sensations that she deemed unworthy, traitorous. There were times in her thoughts when the metal pricked her own flesh, began to tear her if she made the slightest attempt at escape. The hot, deep pain of the enemy, the increasing intensity of the incisions as he became more entangled in his struggling, became her own, as severe and as terrifying as any real wounds. She feared her own screams would no longer be containable, that they would burst from her into the world. It was unforgiveable.
Letitia and William experience some temporary respite from these anxieties when they return with their family to her home village for the wedding of her younger brother Bertram.
Later, after the tables in the village hall had been cleared away back into the little anteroom and the dishes washed and dried by the three sisters-in-law and other helpers, Letitia and William left with their children to walk the short distance to her Aunt Lily’s house, where they were all to spend the night. The children took a while to settle to sleep after the excitement of the day but eventually Letitia and William were able to retire to the very bed where she and Maud had sometimes stayed overnight all those years ago when they themselves were little girls. She told William about these times, remembering how grown up she had always felt when away from her parents, sleeping with her older sister in the grand bed with the feather mattress.
But what a different world that previous century had seemed.
‘We never thought there could be a war like this, that Maud and I would grow up and marry men who might have to go off and fight. We used to lie here and the worst thing to be frightened of was Farmer Triscott’s geese’.
William turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
‘There’s always been wars Letty, always will be. Sure as eggs are eggs’.
‘When I was little, I always thought that somebody could make it stop though,’ she said, turning now to lie in parallel with William and fix her focus too on the sagging ceiling, like two statues laid out in a mausoleum. Not cold as marble though but warm together under the blankets, on top of the feather mattress and pillows.
‘Only God can stop a war. Who else did you think could when you were small?’ he asked.
‘It sounds silly now, but I thought Father Reeves could if he really wanted to. It was wonderful to see him again today. And when I was really little, I suppose I thought Mama and Father could too’.
‘Oh Letty. You must have been such a funny little child. I had no sense of what a dreamer you were when I first met you,’ he said. ‘You were such a confident, young woman’.
Letitia was feeling more and more awake and wondered whether this was the time to talk about what had been on her mind of late. About reconsidering her previous reluctance and encouraging William to think about signing up. To do her bit and be strong so that he could do his, like so many of the others.
But William had turned towards her and brought his knees up, curling into sleep. She wished very much that they could continue their quiet conversation but he had closed his eyes.
‘I thought that Sidney could sometimes and even Maud,’ she whispered.
William mumbled something but it was unintelligible. She was losing him to sleep.
‘I used to have a doll called Miss Ragitty,’ she added, almost involuntarily after lying in silence for some while. But William’s now pronounced and regular breathing indicated that he was already asleep, a turnabout from those earlier times when Maud always seemed awake and available to her in moments of night time anxiety. With the whole household except her asleep, Letitia lay for an hour or more listening to William’s occasional snorts and sighs at her side while a pageant of geese, farmhands, clergymen, newly-weds and their guests, fishermen, sailors and soldiers all paraded through her imagination.
The following morning, Letitia was eager to show William her father’s forge and Ivy and Aunt Lily agreed to mind the youngsters while they did so. After their breakfast, they walked down the lane and then along the cobbled pavement to the place of fire and noise that she remembered so well from her childhood, a building that had entranced and frightened her in equal measure.
‘I used to run along here with lunch for Father and Sidney when I was a young girl,’ she told William. ‘These stones were really slippery when it rained, especially where it starts to slope a bit, but Mama told me not to dawdle. It seemed really important to get their food to them as soon as possible. And what a long way it was then! It’s only a short walk now’.
Letitia was surprised that morning by the force with which these memories still affected her, especially when she saw again at the end of the road the old bench and the tethering post for the horses and the low, wide brick archway smudged with soot that formed the entrance to the darkened interior of the forge. She had been right about William too. He was indeed fascinated by this place of industry, this workplace so different from the nautical expanses that were his lot. Inside, the furnace was fully alight and lines of sweat were already slipping along tracks through the grime on Sidney’s and to a lesser extent, her father’s face. Much remained just as Letitia remembered it, the rows and rows of horseshoes hanging from nails on the high wooden beams, the long metal poles, the huge, heavy forceps and the other mysterious implements, all arranged despite the heavy dust in a neat and easily accessible fashion.
Immediately, however, she was aware of the reversal of the roles of the two men since she was last in this busy workshop. Sidney was now the striker fully in command of the hammer blows while George seemed content with his task of holding with both hands the red, molten metal of a horseshoe in a pair tongs. The two men worked quickly, as if by instinct, the relentless pounding of the one absorbed by the braced shoulders, back and thighs of the other, the rapidly cooling horseshoe turned or readjusted perfectly after each mighty blow in a practised and easy synchrony.
Later, with Mary and Lucy eager to be back on a train for their return journey, the whole family turned out for their departure. Sidney and George came up from the smithy still in their heavy clothes streaked with soot and scorch marks. Edith held Ivy’s arm to steady her while her sons raced each other first to one end of the platform and then the other. Bertram and Martha had come too, standing slightly stiffly and looking a little more like casual acquaintances, Letitia felt, than a couple who had embraced at their wedding only the day before.
When aboard and in their compartment, Mary and Lucy were more interested in establishing, with considerable disagreement between themselves, who was to sit in which actual seat rather than in waving goodbye or having one last exchange with their relatives. William pulled down the window so that he and Letitia could make their parting comments. Letitia noticed how Sidney, taller than all the others, put his arms around the shoulders of both his wife and their mother. As if waiting for his nod of approval or some other gesture, everybody on the platform looked to him and he then swept them forward up to the window of the carriage. Letitia felt that she would retain for a long time the memory of Sidney at the forge that morning, his strong handsome face and torso surrounded by a halo of fire, the echoing cacophony of the hammer against the anvil, and the sparks and specks of ash eddying all about him in the dry heat.
‘Girls, come and say goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa and everybody,’ Letitia urged her daughters.
‘Goodbye!’ shouted Mary from inside the carriage, not turning from her argument with Lucy as they both bounced from one seat to the next as if claiming each place in turn as their own.
‘Girls, come and say goodbye properly,’ added William in a sterner tone of voice.
The twins had finally stopped their energetic antics on the platform and had joined the others at the window, all of them seeming to be held as one by the sense of Sidney’s extended embrace. The apprentice at the smithy who had escorted his younger sister to church on Sunday mornings back when they were both learning to assume their places in the adult world had become a man easy with his own strength and purpose, a man who unified and gave a sense of security to their family as it continued to disperse across the country and, in Maud and Alastair’s case, across the world. As the train pulled away, the huge motive force feeling as much within her own body as in the furnace and the pressurised steam, Letitia trembled at the sight of her loved ones smiling, waving and growing smaller on the platform.