Like Father Like Son Parts six to eight

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Like Father Like Son

Part Six

February 1920 Bethan and Peter

“Of course it’s the war, it changed everything.”

William Welford Barnes looked up from the newspaper and gazed at his wife.

“What do you mean, my dear, precisely?”

“It’s Bethan and Peter, of course. They want to get married. At least, Peter does. I’m not quite so sure about Bethan.”

“Good God! When did this happen?”

“Oh, William, have you been blind these last months? Ever since Peter came out of the Air Force, or whatever they call it these days, he’s been hanging around here like a lovesick puppy. I’ll not deny that it’s been good for Bethan but I really don’t know. I’m not at all sure how I feel.”

“I’ll have a word with him. Tell him to lay off, or something.”

“My dearest husband, you can be obtuse at times. That is not what I said. They want to get married. I’m terribly afraid we shall soon lose little Michael. Oh, I don’t blame Bethan; she’s still a girl, really. One can’t expect her to wear widow’s weeds for the rest of her life. And I don’t exactly blame Peter. I know he’s a good man and he was Phillip’s closest friend…”

Beatrice broke off, her voice choking. William, as always when confronted by his wife’s tears, was utterly discomfited. He sighed, put down his paper and rose to place his arms about her.

“Come on, old girl, that’s enough of that. Chin up, now. You know we said that we wouldn’t remember Phillip with weeping and wailing. He wouldn’t want that, now, would he?”


She shook her head but still the tears came. Why did it have to be him? But she knew the answer. It was the War. In many ways Phillip had been fortunate to survive as long as he did. A year in the trenches and then eighteen months in the Royal Flying Corps, much of it spent at the front. How much worse had it been for those mothers whose sons had lasted only a day or two? Or even worse, for those who had almost seen it through, those who had died in November 1918. She shook her head. It didn’t actually matter. Dead was dead and the ‘when’ of it didn’t come into the equation. She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes.

“I’m sorry, William. It’s silly of me, I know. Peter must marry Bethan. We’ll just have to make the most of our grandson when they visit.”

“Why can’t they live here?”

“No. That wouldn’t do at all and Peter, quite rightly, wouldn’t stand for it.”

“Why ever not? The place will go to Michael once I’m gone. I’ve put it all in trust for him. Bethan is quite entitled to live here with the heir to the estate.”

“Yes, my dear, but Peter is not. And I would think less of him he proposed such a thing. And so would you, once you think about it.”

“Would I? If you say so, my dear, I probably should. You’re usually right about such things. Where shall they live, then?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought it right to raise the subject until they did.”

“Well, we’ll just have to ask ‘em, won’t we?”

Peter Riley was deep in thought. The last thing he’d ever expected when he promised Phillip that he would look after Bethan and the boy was that he would fall in love. It had happened, though. Not quickly. Peter was a far more worldly individual than Phillip had ever been. Somehow or other, Bethan had crept up on him. Not literally, of course. She hadn’t meant to do it. They had been thrust into each other’s company. Peter was the boy’s Godfather, an office he took very seriously, not out of any great religious conviction; the War had shattered such faith as he possessed; it was more a sense of duty to Phillip’s memory. Peter often wondered why he had been lucky enough to survive without so much as a scratch from enemy action. His only injury had come in a crash. Better men than he had perished. It left him with a lingering sense of guilt that no application of his strongly rational nature could quite overcome. 

Now he had asked Bethan to marry him and she had accepted. It was strange. They had never been intimate on any level, had never even kissed. He knew that he loved her, desired her; that went without saying. She was a very beautiful young woman. Motherhood suited her. He loved the way her body moved, the round curves and mane of thick, dark hair. He wasn’t sure whether she loved him or was simply seeking a less cloistered life than that allowed by convention to a widow. He also suspected that she found the atmosphere at Pitton House oppressive since the child had been born. She had had to give up her work as a nurse, of course. Beatrice had insisted on hiring a Nanny for the child and had then thrown herself into the role of doting grandmother. As a result, Bethan had little to do and her own maternal instincts were often frustrated by the arrangements Beatrice had imposed.

Peter supposed it would have been different had Phillip lived. They would have built their house on the hilltop where Phillip’s grave now lay. He didn’t doubt Phillip would have been master in his own home and that Bethan would have enjoyed considerably more freedom that she did at present. Thereby lay the problem. He could see that Bethan might be viewing a marriage to him as a means of escape. He wanted more than that. 

Peter had left the new Royal Air Force the previous summer. He had been asked to stay in; thought about it briefly and then rejected the idea. He was an engineer by profession. He’d abandoned his studies at the outbreak of war in 1914 and been commissioned into the Royal Engineers. The transfer to the Flying Corps had been almost an accident. In a strange way he enjoyed the war. The expectation of being killed at any moment had somehow liberated him. He felt no sense of responsibility to anybody but himself. Everyone dealt with fear in his own way. Peter’s way was to indulge himself at every opportunity. Now it was over. Like many of his contemporaries, he felt a great sense of restlessness; of something unfulfilled. He watched the peace process at Versailles with horror. The French were indulging in a petty sort of revanchism. Europe, the old Europe of certainties, had been stood on its head. Russia had dissolved in bloody revolution. The maps had been redrawn; entire new countries had sprung into uneasy existence. It boded nothing but trouble. 

Unknown to Peter, Bethan was thinking along similar lines. She had accepted his proposal instantly; maybe a little too quickly, she felt now. She didn’t know how she felt about the tall, gangly man who had been Phillip’s closest friend. She was attracted to him; she couldn’t deny it. What gave her pause was whether this was simply because he was the only eligible male she had seen since Phillip died. She was also worried that she had agreed simply to escape from the overbearing affections of Beatrice. Even thinking this made her feel guilty. Beatrice had been a rock; had comforted her and provided for both her and her son. Thinking of Michael made her smile. He was two, now and, like all two-year-olds, a proper handful. Sometimes she thought the only word her little boy knew was ‘no!’ 

Of course, she could back out of it. Peter would be disappointed, possibly heartbroken. Yet he was too much the gentleman to hold it against her. Part of her wanted to do just that but another part, a more seductive part, wanted the comfort of a man of her own again. The lack of any intimacy to date didn’t bother her. She could tell by the way he looked at her that Peter desired her. No. She had made up her mind. Marry Peter she would. It only now remained to break the news to Beatrice and William. She got to her feet, her back straight, emphasising the thrust of her bosom. She would go and find Peter right this minute. Together they would confront Phillip’s parents. 

“I really don’t know quite how to tell you this, and I do sincerely hope that you won’t be mortally offended but, you see, I have asked Bethan to be my wife and she has agreed.”

To Peter’s ears, the silence seemed to stretch out for ever. He saw William’s eyes slide towards Beatrice, looking for a cue to follow, and then back. Beatrice sat very erect, her face devoid of any expression. He felt, rather than saw, Bethan wince beside him and he responded to the pressure of her hand in his with a gentle squeeze of reassurance.

William roused himself and cleared his throat.

“Congratulations, old man. I must say this isn’t entirely unexpected, at least to Beatrice, what? Um, we will need to talk about the boy, of course. He is now the only heir to this place and we would both hate to lose touch, if you see my point.”

“Of course, William. Bethan and I discussed this very point. I intend to take a house in the village, or, at least, close by. I have been fortunate enough to inherit a modest amount of capital. It seems the war was good for business and I am now in the position to start a firm of my own.”

“Oh? What sort of thing do you have in mind, if you don’t mind my inquiring?”

“Not at all, it’s only right that you should know. Motorcars, they’re the coming thing. I’m considering premises in Dorchester.”

“Motorcars? Well, if you say so. I don’t think they are much more than a novelty, myself, but I expect you know best.”

“I think the novelty days are long gone. Without motor transport, I believe we would have lost the war. One day, every family in the land will have a motorcar. I want to be on hand to sell them, repair them and all the rest. I’m an engineer. Things mechanical are what I understand. I’d be hopeless at farming and there is really nothing else I know.”

“So be it, old chap, so be it. I say, I imagine this calls for a celebration. I think we still have a few bottles of the ‘widow’ about in the cellar.”

They toasted the engagement with Veuve Clicquot from the 1908 vintage but it was no more than a formality. Conversation was stilted and there were heavy silences. The impression was more that of a wake than a joyful celebration. Peter and Bethan were glad to slip away after an hour or so.

“My God! Wasn’t that excruciating? Beatrice looked like a Hanging Judge and William gave a fair impression of the condemned man. I’m sorry they’re taking it so hard.”

“I didn’t expect any different, Peter, did I? They’ll come round. Anyway, it’s only Michael that they’re really concerned with, isn’t it?”

“I suppose you’re right, my love. Still, I thought they might have put a better face on it.”

“It’s Phillip, see. Beatrice still can’t really accept that he’s gone.”

“And what about you?”

“I know he’s dead, Peter, and there’s sad I am because of it. I loved him very much but he’s beyond anyone’s reach now. You mustn’t be jealous of the dead, you know. I will always love Phillip but that won’t prevent me from loving you, too. It will be… different, that’s all.”

“I’m not jealous of Phillip. Really, I’m not. How can one envy a friend like that? I never realised how fond I was of the old thing myself until he was gone. I don’t mind your talking about him either. Of course you must always love him. As long as there is a little room in your heart for me, I’ll be perfectly satisfied, I promise.”

Bethan and Peter married in a quiet civil ceremony at Caxton Hall in Westminster. They honeymooned in Italy. As the train sped down through France they couldn’t help but notice the fields of neat white crosses that marked the graves of the fallen. Both found it a sobering experience.

“I never realised there were so many, Peter. How does anyone find their loved ones?”

“I think they are setting up a register. One can enquire and they will tell you which cemetery, which row and which plot. Of course, there are tens of thousands who simply disappeared, vanished in the mud or literally blown to bits. It doesn’t bear thinking about, really.”

“I’m so glad Phillip isn’t somewhere like that, aren’t you?”

“I’m told they are very special places with a great air of tranquillity about them. I don’t suppose they care, one way or the other, but I’m glad Phillip is where he would have wanted to be. Can we talk about something else, please?”

Bethan saw the look of bitterness on Peter’s face. He had explained to her his feelings of guilt at having survived when so many others had perished. Now, seeing the sheer scale of the Imperial War Graves Commission’s cemeteries, she began to understand. 

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