The 26 October 1914 was not a good day for the 2nd battalion of the Cameronians’ rifle regiment. Two months’ bivouacking backwards and forwards in a state of chronic under-equipment around the Ypres hinterland had already caused them to sustain heavy losses, and it can never be easy to have a good day while wearing tartan trousers in any case. On that day they were bedding in around a little hamlet called Le Cateau, and in so doing, had they but known it, they were sowing the nightmarish seeds of four years’ entrenchment. One officer and thirteen men were picked off by snipers in the course of the day, and one of the men was a private soldier called Percy Mortimer.
It is just my hunch, but I think he was a bit peeved by this. He was by birth an Australian of Anglo-Irish descent so it was hardly his war in the first place. He had already done his bit for the Empire – joined up as a young colonial adventurer in the last years of the nineteenth century, fought in the Boer Wars, dived from the tops of masts into the sea, survived Mafeking with the aid of a tea towel and scouted along the North-West frontier on horseback with a turban wound tightly round his head to stop his red hair flaming like a beacon all the way to Lahore (you have to bear in mind a lot of this is family legend). When his tour of duty was over, Percy didn’t go back to Melbourne. He did what we all have to do from time to time and dossed down on a friend’s floor in Finsbury Park, about a mile from where I’m writing now.
When war was declared in August 1914 Percy was within a few days of coming off the reserve list. He had a brushmaking business in Finsbury Park and he had married his friend’s sister. He had a four-year-old son, and he was thirty two. Of course, even if he hadn’t been called up into that funny little ill-starred British Expeditionary Force he would have gone to France sooner or later anyway, and maybe he wouldn’t have survived the war whatever happened. Still, that was how it happened. And it was a bit of a pisser all round.
And it was with these thoughts very much in her mind that, ninety-three years later to the very day, his great-granddaughter, being your current correspondent, alighted from the tube in the very same Finsbury Park dressed as a dead vampire bride, having been viciously mocked all the way from Bounds Green by the Filthy Hun.
My coy plan was to wait for the the kind darkness of Woodstock Road N4 before posying up in the full shebang of bridal-veil-with-dead-crumbling-roses-circlet, so there was no real indication between the black coat, white dress and black boots that I was actually dressed up. I had however done most of the make-up at home, and so it was with ashy countenance and bloodied lips that I plonked myself onto the Piccadilly line opposite two very blonde, very sleek, very nicely dressed young Hildebrunnas who were agen-flagen-eine-kleine-baden-badening away at each other like a pair of diplomat’s daughters.
I get oddly put out when tourists are confident and relaxed on the tube. Is it not crowded and hot and confusing enough down here for you? I’ll have you know this is the most god-awful transport system of any city this important anywhere in the world! The maps are enigmatic hieroglyphs, the platform names perverse and meaningless (having people choose between “Northbound” and “Westbound”. I ask you), the announcements inaudible and the scrolling electronic updates totally redundant unless you are going all the way to Rayner’s Lane and have a short-term memory problem that requires a reminder of this fact to be displayed to you every ten seconds. And there they sit gabbing away in total unconcern as if they were on holiday or something.
But I digress. The kling-mit-schlagklang-klugenfartening stopped abruptly as Mortimer the Great-Granddaughter enters the carriage. I get a couple of odd looks from people who notice the vampire bite on my neck (red nail varnish actually; worked a treat, especially when it started flaking off and looking like a dark clot) but this is nothing to the mocking, balefully flaxen stares of the Hildebrunnas.
They commence to giggle in German at what they clearly believe is my awful make-up. After a while, as an experiment, I take out my mirror and survey my dead bridal face with immense satisfaction. More giggles. I can sort of see what they mean. If you come from a country where there’s no such thing as (a) a Halloween dressing-up tradition or (b) a joke, you might not tumble to what I am about. I am just using ordinary powders and highlighters and whatnot, not actual facepaint, so I probably just look dramatically overdone to the casual, and humourless, and stupid, onlooker.
I start to play little mind-games with them, carefully adding a dab of Sparkling Ice White Eyeglide here, a top-up of dark-Goth-red Lipfinity there, holding the mirror at arm’s length and pouting at myself. It is not difficult to keep their attention. They are actually trying to catch my eye, the better to laugh at me, and I stare unpleasantly at one of them for an eye-wateringly long term before she looks away. Ha, one-up to the People’s Republic! But this is only the beginning.
By the time we pull into Finsbury Park I am almost chalk-white and my mouth and eyes are as red and black as a roulette wheel, and the Hildabrunnas are almost beside themselves with sniggery rudeness.
It is Time! The Mortimers will have their Revenge!
So I glide from my seat and, ignoring their screams of horror, puncture their jugulars and suck all the blood from their veins before alighting to the platform and moving smoothly towards the Wells Terrace exit with a beatific smile playing across my ghastly features. Take that, jerry.