Good and Faithful Servant

by Chris Cottom

Voluntary Aid Detachment
(publishing December 15th)
Holy Matrimony
(publishing December 16th)
(publishing December 17th)
North Atlantic
(publishing December 18th)
(publishing December 19th)

Voluntary Aid Detachment

Rose didn’t discover whether her father had used his influence, but she was relieved not to be sent abroad; the suffering in Taunton Red Cross Hospital was horrific enough. She’d never been inside a hospital before; everyone she knew went to a nursing home if they needed to. Neither had she ever done manual household work, knowing nothing of mops or polish or disinfectant. At home, the servants did all that.

Reverend Lovibond had preached on Mark Chapter 1: the disciples leaving their nets and boats to follow Jesus. He said he was considering serving in the Orient once he had completed his curacy.

‘I’m going to train as a VAD,’ Rose told him afterwards at the door, as each parishioner waited to shake his hand.

‘Marvellous, Miss Willoughby. Your parents must be extremely proud.’

‘I haven’t told them yet. I’ve only just decided.’

‘They can’t make you go to Flanders or somewhere, not after Roland,’ Mama had said. ‘They’ve turned that new school into a war hospital. Your father can have a word with the Superintendent.’

‘Isn’t it my duty to serve wherever I’m needed?’

‘As a volunteer nurse? Certainly not.’

‘I won’t be a proper nurse. VADs help the trained nurses and do the things the men orderlies used to do.’

‘Like what?’

‘I suppose I’ll find out, won’t I?’

On Rose’s first shift after her ten days’ training, the Sister told her to make a pot of tea and bring it to her office. A minute after delivering it she heard her shout down the ward.

‘Nurse Willoughby!’ 

She turned to see the Sister at the door of her office, her face as formidable as her bosom, in front of which she held the tea tray, the cup trembling in its saucer. Rose hurried over and stood to attention, as she’d been trained to do whenever anyone in authority spoke to her.

‘You’re supposed to use boiling water, you stupid girl,’ the Sister said, thrusting the tray at her so the milk slopped onto the doily from its dainty jug.

Rose learned to clean wards, sterilize equipment and bandage wounds. She bathed patients, prepared and applied their poultices, took their temperatures and made their beds. She read to them and wrote their letters to their families and sweethearts.

One day the ambulance train from France brought a young private, wasted to the bone, with both of his eyes shot away. Rose sat next to him to write out his messages for his wife and children.

‘Tell Bonnie to be a good … girl,’ he said, ‘and … I’m sorry Nurse, but I don’t have any more words.’ He put up his hand to try and find Rose’s. ‘Is it a fine day?’ he said. ‘Are the flowers in bloom?’

Rose took his hand and pictured the view through the big window for him: the sycamores in leaf, the blackbirds, the bullfinches and the naughty sparrows. She told him of her walk through the meadows, of the willows and catkins, the ox-eye daisies and giant kingcups.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve still got lots to live for, then.’

She squeezed his hand. ‘Of course you have. What work did you do before? Before you joined up?’

‘I was a gardener.’


‘I hope you are not finding your work too arduous or distressing, Miss Willoughby,’ Reverend Lovibond said on Sunday.

Rose had come to church straight from her night shift, still in her uniform, her starched collar tight and uncomfortable.

I have never felt so alive, she thought.

‘One must do one’s duty,’ she said.

Holy Matrimony

When anyone pressed her, and she tried hard to make sure they did not, Rose told them she’d married in her twenties. The God who’d invented time wouldn’t mind that this wasn’t completely accurate. Anyway He clearly loved her, sparing Edwin from the Orient and calling him instead to Buckinghamshire and the living of St John the Baptist in Little Pulford. Here Rose found herself expected to chair the Flower Guild, the Young Wives Group and even the Mothers’ Union.

‘But I’m not a mother,’ she said, although she hoped to be. On their wedding night, Edwin had explained how he believed priests should reserve the sexual act for procreation, not recreation.

The previous vicar and his wife had retired to a bungalow in Hastings. Accordingly, Rose took immediate charge of two henhouses and their dozen or so residents, a pond on which four white ducks held their daily business meetings, and an irascible nanny goat called Proserpina. To these, she and Edwin added a ginger tomcat called Ptolemy and a cocker spaniel puppy they named Zillah. Edwin soon barred the latter from his study after she gnawed the spine of the ancient leather-bound Book of Common Prayer, so large it would fit only on the bottom shelf of his enormous bookcase.

One morning, after they’d been at Little Pulford for six months, Rose collected five warm brown eggs from under her hens. I’ll have time to milk Proserpina and lay the fire in the dining room before the service, she thought, happy that today she and Edwin would have the vicarage to themselves, without their daily woman, the daunting Mrs Harrop, chattering as she clomped around doing the heavy cleaning. Rose wondered what her severe and remote papa would think of her new life, wedded as he’d always been to a full complement of servants, indoors and out.

As she turned back towards the house, she saw Edwin walking through the garden towards the church for Matins. The mist hung low and, in his long black cassock, he appeared to be floating across the lawn. When he disappeared through the yew trees into the churchyard, the sexton began tolling the single bell high in the flinty tower to summon the faithful. In that moment Rose felt washed with a sense of peace, understanding that this was the life to which her heavenly father had called her, to serve Him here alongside Edwin in this draughty Victorian vicarage. It was too bad if her earthly father had never countenanced his daughter’s delicate fingers being chafed winter-raw through tugging the teats of a recalcitrant nanny goat before breakfast. Although right now she’d be thankful if God could see his way to the minor miracle of healing her chilblains.

Rose taught the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed to the grubby-kneed boys and smock-frocked girls of the Sunday School. She visited the poor with a basket on her arm, dispensing eggs and kindness, rhubarb from the kitchen garden, and tracts from Scripture. She lifted broth to the lips of the infirm, and made chasubles, altar frontals, and a Girls’ Brigade banner with golden tassels. In the evenings she embroidered hassocks and repaired surplices. She ferried cups of tea to Edwin and his visitors in his study and, before they’d celebrated their first wedding anniversary, presented him with a son, after a labour in which she feared she’d screamed loud enough to waken the churchyard dead. They named the boy Roland, after Rose’s eldest brother, lost at Gallipoli, the uncle the child would never know.


Rose put down her hairbrush and waited as Edwin yanked his nightgown over his head, dropped it on the rug and ran down the passage. She knew what was coming.

‘Moses!’ he shouted as he jumped into his bath.

While she took strength from her husband’s staunch faith and regular devotions, Rose was less convinced about his ablutions. Almost as firmly as he believed in the infallibility of Scripture, Reverend Lovibond believed in the efficacy of a daily cold bath. He would wash vigorously and dunk his head before leaping out, careless of the water cascading onto the cracked linoleum from his six foot one inch frame. Fortunately, the bathroom’s distance from the nursery meant Roland in his cot would usually remain undisturbed by his father’s morning routine.

When Edwin returned, a towel around his waist, Rose paused from pinning her hair at her dressing table in the bay window and watched three Edwins in the triple mirror: Edwin the husband, Edwin the father and Edwin the priest. After rubbing his hair with his towel he crossed the bedroom, pulled back the curtains and stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders, evidently heedless of the hoarfrost tracing every twig in the garden, beyond which the church tower stood sharp against the dawn sky.

‘Another day shepherding the flock,’ he said.

‘Amen to that,’ she said, leaning back against the firm bare stomach of Edwin the husband. She took a deep breath of his clean soapy smell and wondered if he thought hot water was sinful. In which case why had God given them a boiler? This monster’s voracious appetite for scuttles of coke meant they’d dubbed it The Bunter. ‘I’ll just feed The Bunter,’ she would say, before she got their own breakfast and before they climbed the stairs to bed.

‘Is it symbolic, the cold bath?’ she said. ‘Like baptising yourself again?’

‘You can’t really baptise yourself. That’s why Jesus needed John.’

‘So why–’

‘I’m just waking myself up, that’s all.’

North Atlantic

Edwin still liked Rose to bang the gong in the hall to announce luncheon, even when it was only the two of them. Roland was twenty and serving, most worryingly, in the Royal Navy, while Binkie boarded at school in St Albans.

After Edwin said grace, Rose served him some cold mutton, quartered tomatoes, and new potatoes. Then she passed him a letter.

‘This is addressed to both of us,’ he said. ‘It’s from Roland.’

‘I know.’

‘Didn’t you want to open it?’

‘Of course. But it’s Thursday: I didn’t want to interrupt you writing your sermon.’ And, she thought, because I wanted you beside me in case he’s been wounded.

Edwin didn’t go to his study to fetch his brass letter opener, but used his table knife instead.

‘I know he’s not allowed to tell us,’ Rose said, as Edwin unfolded the coarse cream paper with its familiar handwriting. ‘But I do so wish we knew where he was.’

Edwin started reading aloud: ‘HMS Lancaster, care of GPO London (at sea). Dear Mater and Pater. You’ll never guess who I’ve seen: Grandmama’s old head gardener, Jabez.’

‘I knew it! He’s ill and feverish,’ Rose said. ‘Old Jabez has been dead these past five years.’


An hour later Rose strode along the corridor, her hands floury from her baking. She knocked on the study door and went in without waiting. God would forgive her if she disturbed Edwin at prayer.

‘It’s Jabez’s surname he means,’ she said.

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Snow. Jabez Snow. It’s Roland’s way of telling us where he is.’

‘You mean­–’

‘He’s telling us he’s seen snow. He’s on the convoys, the North Atlantic convoys.’


Rose had great plans for her daughter’s wedding. The only problem was the groom.

There wasn’t one.

From time to time Binkie would bring some man or other down from London for Sunday lunch. ‘This is my friend Eric,’ she’d say, or ‘I’d like to introduce my colleague Maurice.’

The Erics and Maurices were invariably polite and good-humoured, indulging Edwin when he’d quiz them about the London churches where he assumed they worshipped regularly.

‘All these friends but never a boyfriend,’ Rose told her sister on one of their weekly Monday evening telephone chats. ‘I think she’s frightened of tying the knot.’

‘Maybe she wants to be a career girl.’

‘Oh I do hope not.’

‘Excuse me!’ Jessie said. ‘You’re forgetting I had a career. Until I got married.’

‘And she’s already twenty-six.’

‘That’s hardly old! Compared to me. Or even you.’

‘I think they’re decoys, nice young men to throw us off the scent. I hope she isn’t involved with someone unsuitable.’

‘You mean someone married, do you?’

‘Well, yes I suppose that is what I mean.’

‘Why don’t you ask her?

‘Don’t be silly. I couldn’t do that. I don’t want to interfere.’


Binkie rang to say she’d like to come home for the weekend. ‘And I’d like to bring someone,’ she said. ‘Someone special.’

‘And does your someone special have a name?’ Rose said.

‘Kenneth. He’s called Kenneth.’

Rose arranged to meet Binkie and Kenneth at the station on Saturday morning. She went straight to the study to tell Edwin.

‘It’s the first time she’s brought a man to stay. It must be serious. I’ll get the blue counterpane out for him. Pink won’t be suitable for a man.’

She planned the Sunday roast and made a plum cake and some brandysnaps. She decided to wear the black and green dress she’d made, the one with the lace bodice and scallop skirt.


Rose got to the railway station early so she parked the car and waited on the platform. As the train puffed in, Binkie was leaning out of the window, waving. Rose opened the carriage door and Binkie bustled out with her case. Behind her stood a handsome young man, fair-haired and clean-shaven, holding a boxy wicker case. He smiled at Rose as he handed it down to Binkie. Rose was about to ask her daughter if she thought they were going for a picnic when the porter started slamming doors.

Binkie put the wicker case on the platform with her other one and bent to unfasten its lid.

As the guard blew his whistle Rose realised that the young man had sat down again and was looking out at them through the grubby window.

‘But … what about your friend?’ she said, as the porter shut the door.

The train pulled away and Binkie straightened up, clutching a little silky-haired cocker spaniel puppy.

‘Mummy,’ she said. ‘I’d like you to meet Kenneth.’

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