“A friend had phoned that I hadn’t talked to for a long time. He said he was going on to bed. ‘I’ll be up in a while’, I said. When I went up, he was gone. I had put new sheets on the bed that morning, he didn’t get much use from them”.
The comment about the sheets almost prompted laughter, hardly appropriate when discussing with someone the sudden death of her husband while she chatted with a friend. It did highlight the way that the little things, the trivial details, seem of vital relevance at extreme moments. Reading Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ in hot August sunshine, her account of Christmas Day 1915 has that eye for detail. Brittain had arranged leave from the military hospital where she nursed to spend time with her fiancé who was returning for leave after nine months in Flanders.
“When by ten o’clock that night, no news had come, I concluded that the complications of telegraph and telephone on a combined Sunday and Christmas Day had made communication impossible. So, unable to fight sleep any longer after a night and a day o wakefulness I went to bed a little disappointed, but still unperturbed. Roland’s family, at their Keymer cottage, kept an even longer vigil; they sat up until nearly midnight over their Christmas dinner in the hope he would join them, and in their dramatic impulsive fashion, they drank a toast to the Dead.
The next morning I had just finished dressing, and was putting final touches to the pastel-blue crepe-de-Chine blouse, when the expected message came to say that I was wanted on the telephone. Believing that I was at last to hear the voice for which I had waited for twenty-four hours, I dashed joyously into the corridor. But the message was not from Roland but from Clare; it was not to say that he had arrived home that morning, but to tell me he had died of wounds at a Casualty Clearing Station on December 23rd”.
What difference did it make that she was wearing the blouse that she had bought as part of a new wardrobe to spend time with Roland? Would the pain have been any different had she been wearing old clothes or her nurse’s uniform. Perhaps it adds to the poignancy of the moment; perhaps also it points to the importance of all the little things in life, the fact that life is lived not at the level of abstract thought and momentous events, but at the level of the little details and the trivial incidents that are so important to us.