Traumatic moments often seem also to be moments when there is a heightened awareness of all that is around, when colours and details and sounds and scents are vivid and memorable, when the trivial can become infused with a previously unnoticed significance.
Today is the 105th anniversary of the death of Roland Leighton, the fiancé of Vera Brittain. In Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain gives an account of Christmas Day 1915 which is filled with 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 of 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? Whatever the reason, the blouse is described with exactness.
Perhaps the detail adds to the poignancy of the moment. Perhaps, also, it points to the importance of all the little things in life, it points to 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.