“It’s very sad, but at the same time, to work together, then you fight together and then you die together, there is something poetic about that”.
When Denise started writing a story set in World War I, she couldn’t have anticipated where the journey would take her. There was something intriguing about that particular war that really resonated with her. She then discovered two great cousins and a great uncle had died in World War I. “It was almost like fate or an omen and it made the story more profoundly powerful and personal”. The protagonist in Denise’s novel is killed on the Somme; in real life, one of her great cousins, Clifton, was injured in the Battle of Pozieres in July 1916 and sadly died from his injuries. Clifton’s younger brother Hamilton was 18 at the time of his brother’s death. Two years later the same fate befell on the family, as Hamilton was reported Missing In Action after the Battle of Soissons; his body was never located. When Denise conducted further research, she discovered there was a war memorial in Apsley. It commemorated those who had worked at John Dickinson’s and had died in the war, including her family members. She located the memorial hidden behind the undergrowth on the Paper Trail Trust site and visited it one night, by herself. “I felt scared.. but I thought I am with all these men, with all these brave souls. I didn’t feel alone.”
Shining a light on those who were previously hidden in the darkness.
Not one to forgo a challenge, Denise felt she couldn’t leave the war memorial garden in its neglected condition, so she enlisted numerous volunteers and solicited generous donations of materials from local companies to enable her to restore and landscape the garden around the war memorial. “We had giggles and laughter and blood and sweat and bruises!” Even her mother, who is in her 70’s, helped by bringing sandwiches and drinks for the volunteers. The transformation in 19 days was astonishing and the design has been carefully thought through; a gravel path, a small stone bench and some wonderful small metal sculptures that represent the army, the navy, the air force and the paper mill workers. At night the memorial, and the names of the deceased, are lit up, shining a light on those who were previously hidden in the darkness.
The doctors said when he turned 16, they would be able to give him a new heart.
Denise has more in common with some of the soldiers that survived, and the families whose children died, than I first realised. At the age of five, her older brother, Carl, was diagnosed with a narrow aorta. It was the late 1960’s so initially there wasn’t the technology to perform any surgery that would help. When Carl was around 12, he had an operation to open up his aorta, which gave him more oxygen. “Once he had the operation he shot up, he got taller and could do a lot more things, he had the energy”. As his heart was so stressed, the doctors said when he turned 16, they would be able to give him a new heart. Weeks before his 16th birthday in December, he died. Denise was 14 at the time.
It was an extremely difficult period in her life, “so profoundly painful”. People around her, especially her parents friends, said she should be strong for her mum and dad,. “I felt I couldn’t mourn in front of my parents”. Her only place of solace was her bedroom. “If my mum came in, I would be begrudging her, as it was my isolated domain, that was my time to grieve. I would be wiping away my tears.. I didn’t know how to handle it really”. She could talk to Carl’s friends, and they were supportive, but when they came to the house she felt it was to see how her parents were coping, rather than how she was. She felt her parents grief was overshadowing her own grief.
“I think, is that what they really thought of me?”
She admits that she went off the rails, “I was a horrible teenager, not very nice”. She found her old school reports from the year before, and the year after, Carl’s death. The year before his death, her reports described how well she was progressing, noting how she was focused and keen to learn. The year after Carl’s death, her school reports describe how she was not learning and was being disruptive. In those days there wasn’t the counselling that is available now or the understanding of a student’s behaviour due to their circumstances. She sounds slightly bitter when she thinks of those reports, as it showed the lack of empathy from her teachers. “I think, is that what they really thought of me?” She wonders how different her life would have been if her brother hadn’t died. “It took a lot out of me, psychologically scarred me”. To make up for her lost education, she went back to night school in her late twenties and studied for her English and Maths GCSE’s. She then went on to obtain a degree in Molecular Biology.
It took her twenty years to seek professional counselling. She felt that for the best part of that time she had lost so much of herself. “I needed to close one door..not on my brother. I closed the door on the pain and the confusion”. Like some soldiers who have lost friends in battle, there was also an element of Survivor Syndrome. “You start saying to yourself ‘You were so much brighter, why did you go?’ .. It’s almost like you feel guilty for living”.
“You could I say I am living for my brother, for them (the fallen soldiers), but I am living for myself ultimately.”
She now feels she is catching up on her missed opportunities. “You could I say I am living for my brother, for them (the fallen soldiers), but I am living for myself ultimately.” She recently walked the Three Peaks Challenge, over six days. She tells me this as if I shouldn’t be too impressed, because it wasn’t in the prescribed twenty four hours that climbers normally aim for. I am still impressed. She still walked up (and down) each highest peak in Scotland, England and Wales. And the first two peaks she went to alone. She initially embarked on the challenge to get herself both mentally and physically fit, as she would like to attempt Everest Base Camp. However she decided to do the challenge as a fundraiser for the British Heart Foundation, in memory of Carl. In May she participated in Women V Cancer – Ride the Night, a 62 mile bike ride. The other catalyst for Denise’s change in lifestyle was seeing her parents grow older and suffering from heart disease and diabetes through lifestyle choices. Sometimes parents become our role models in terms of what not to do.
Denise is still writing her WWI novel and I am keen to read it when she has finished. She understands the emotion of losing a loved one in the prime of their life, and a community who are unable to understand the pain that those who are left behind, are going through.
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