Jenny and the Bag of Bones is a short story found when we were emptying Chris’ parent’s house. It was one of the treasures we found in a box of papers. Eric was a gentle Englishman, and sea captain. I shall write about him another day. Here is his story that left us wondering how much was based in his imagination, or was any of it based on reality?
It had been a happy afternoon. We had wandered, hand in hand, through the banks of flowers until we found a quiet bench in a corner of the rose garden, and there we sat, my arm around her shoulders and her head against my cheek. And sometimes we talked, and sometimes we were silent, content to be together, renewing our affinity, recharging our batteries Jenny used to call it. Building up our strength for the months ahead.
Jenny had been my friend since childhood. We had belonged to each other for as long as we could remember and neither of us sought out any other. I was a sailor then, and we met for only a few brief days between long voyages. This was the last day of my leave, before night I must catch the train to London to rejoin my ship. But the next time I came home, at the end of one more voyage, Jenny was to become my wife.
Always, when we were together, we tried to live life to the full, seeking to extract the utmost happiness from the few days granted to us, and trying to forget for a while that soon we must part again. But however hard we tried to forget, the thought was always there, gathering and growing in the background of our minds like a dark thunder-cloud slowly spreading across the sky. And so it was on this day. Beneath all our gaiety and happiness lurked the all-pervading thought that, inevitably, at the end of this perfect afternoon we must face once more the bleak sadness of farewell.
I glanced at my watch. ‘Jenny, dear, I’m afraid it’s time for us to go,’ I said. She stood up and smothered out the wrinkles in her dress, the crisp blue linen dress, which was my favourite. ‘Well, it’s been a gorgeous day, and a perfect afternoon, and I’ve been so happy. Now I feel refreshed and strong.’ She slipped her arm through mine, and slowly we made our way to the gates of the park. Outside, on the Promenade, a rank of open horse-drawn carriages waited for patrons. Jenny, who loved all animals, scanned the horses critically as we strolled along.
At the head of the rank, an old man in a long white coat was polishing already gleaming harness, his horse peacefully munching chaff from a well-filled nose-bag. The old man looked up with a smile as we approached. ‘Lovely day,’ he ventured. ‘Yes, indeed it is,’ Jenny agreed, stepping beside the old man. ‘And that’s a fine looking horse. May I pat him?’
‘Oh yes, Miss, if you want to. He’s very quiet.’ Jenny took off her gloves and stroked the horse’s silky neck and shoulders. ‘What’s his name?’ She asked. ‘Tommy, Miss. All of my horses have been called Tommy.’ Jenny stood in front of the horse, and he lowered his head so that she could reach his forelock and ears. ‘Isn’t he a beauty?’ she said, ‘and what a friendly old fellow.
He likes his ears rubbed, don’t you Tommy?’ But it seemed she had misinterpreted Tommy’s feelings. Without warning, he tossed his head, and gave a great snort which deluged Jenny with a shower of chaff. She took a quick step backwards.
‘Well, I asked for it, didn’t I?’ she laughed, bending down to shake the chaff out of her shining hair. The old man looked up.
‘I’m sorry, Miss, he does that sometimes. I should have told you, he don’t like his ears rubbed that much.’
‘Would you drive us to the station, ‘ I asked.
‘Chapel Street Station? Certainly Sir.’ He put away his polishing rags and opened the door of the carriage, for us to enter.
Jenny turned her blue eyes on the old man. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked in her most charming manner.
‘Me?’ he said. ‘Oh, I’m Tommy too, Miss, Tommy Jones. Most people call me Tommy-the driver, and him, Tommy-the –horse, that’s how they know us.’
‘Well, Tommy, would you let me sit up on the box with you, and perhaps drive a bit of the way?’ I thought Jenny’s charm irresistible, but the old man looked doubtful. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and scratched his nose.
‘Ooh, I dunno about driving, Miss. You’re supposed to be a registered driver.’
‘But you’d be sitting beside me, Tommy.’
I was just a silent spectator, and I could see the old chap melting. In his place I should have done the same.
‘Well, alright, Miss. But we better take it steady for a bit. Just till you get the feel of it .’
The nosebag was taken off Tommy-the –horse, and Tommy –the –driver dusted the high box seat, and helped Jenny to climb up. I took my place, in solitary grandeur, in the open carriage. When all was ready, Jenny turned and looked down at me with a triumphant grin, ‘Are you quite comfortable down there, Sir? Chapel Street, wasn’t it?’ I lounged back in the comfortable seat, my arms behind my head, and looked up at her laughing face.
‘Jenny,’ I said, ‘I’m seeing you from a completely new angle. A kind of worm’s eye view, which is most revealing. Do you know, you’re getting fat? And that straw in your hair looks very like confetti? Look to your driving, madam.’ She made a face at me, and taking up the reins, she turned to the old man beside her. ‘How do I get him to start?’ she asked.
‘Oh, he’ll start when he’s ready, Miss. Just shake the reins and click your tongue, like this, ‘”Tsck, Tsck,” and say “Giddup”. Keep the reins slack, Miss, he don’t like to feel the bitt.’ ‘And when I want him to stop? Do I shout ‘Whoa?’ ‘Oh, no, Miss!’ The old man sounded shocked. ‘Don’t rattle him. He’ll stop when we get there. ’‘But how will he know?’ she asked. ‘Oh, he knows where we’re going, Miss. I whispered “Chapel Street” in his ear when I took his nose-bag off.’
‘But…’ Jenny looked at the old man doubtfully. ‘Do you mean to tell me that he goes on his own? That he knows the way? What does the driver do?’ ‘Oh, yes, Miss, he knows the way alright, better than I do. You don’t have to worry about that, it’s up to him, he’ll get us there.’
Jenny glanced back at me. ‘Madam, ‘ I said, ‘in years to come I’ll tell your childrenabout this day. They will gather round my knee while you darn socks in the background, Andrew, and Susan, and James….’ ‘And Kate,’ she said. ‘Ah yes,’ I agreed, ‘and little Katie.’
‘Go on she said, ‘I’m listening.’ But she wasn’t, she had turned back to the old man. ‘Right, well off we go,’ she said briskly. She gave the reins a shake, and clicked her tongue, ‘Tsck, Tsck,’ and called ‘Giddyup,’ in commanding tones. Tommy-the –horse turned his head and looked carefully up and down the Promenade, then he leaned forward in the shafts, and we were off, at a leisurely, ambling walk.
‘How can I get him to go faster?’ Jenny asked. ‘Should I use the whip?’ The old man ‘s face froze in horror. ‘Oh no, Miss. Not the whip. We only use that for flicking the flies off. No, not the whip, oh, no.’ He was clearly shocked and upset, and Jenny had the grace to blink.
‘I’m sorry,’ she began. ‘I thought…’ The old man looked at her patiently. ‘You see, Miss, it’s like this, he’s a stubborn old devil, is Tommy, and he won’t go any faster unless he wants to. But sometimes you can sort of encourage him a bit if you shout “Giddup yer lazy old bag of bones.” Sometimes it moves him along a bit, if he’s in the mood.’
Jenny looked a bit surprised at this advice, but nevertheless, in a stern and confident voice, she called out loudly, ‘giddup yer lazy old bag of bones,’ and to her obvious amazement it had the desired effect. Tommy-the –horse snorted with disgust, but immediately broke into a gentle trot. Jenny turned around and looked down at me, her eyes sparkling with excitement and delight.
‘You see,’ she said, ‘there’s nothing to it, is there? Are you quite comfortable, down there?’I waved a languid arm to the puzzled occupants of a passing carriage. ‘Please look to your front, driver,’ I begged. We were now bowling merrily along the Promenade, with traffic passing in both directions. Tommy-the-horse seemed to be fully in control, and I sincerely hoped he was, because the two occupants of the box seat, high above me, were engaged in an animated conversation of which I could only hear occasional snatches above the clip clop of the hooves, and the quiet whirr of the wheels on the wooden paved roadway. Tommy-the –driver was laughing heartily at something Jenny had said. She was sitting up, slim and straight backed and lovely, her fair hair shining in the sun, and the reins held loosely in her white gloved fingers. I thought she looked adorable.
‘Oh yes, we do sometimes, Miss.’ I heard him say. ‘I put his rosettes on, and ribbons in his mane and on his headband, and the wife decorates the coach with white ribbons, and bows and flowers and things. It looks real classy, Miss. I hope it’s a cool day….. the livery’s hot….. top boots, top hat and ribbons… I used to be a coachman for Lord Derby once…. Tommy-the –horse is from his stable too…..You reckon about Easter, Miss? ….How many?’ ‘Oh, I could get a few of me mates if you need them…. Yes, Miss, I’ll write out the address for you…. We went to one a while back…. They poured champagne in his nosebag… he was snorting and coughing all the way to the station….’
While this one-sided conversation was going on, Tommy-the-horse had come to a halt and seemed to be waiting to make a right-hand turn. Tommy-the-driver was scrawling something on a scrap of paper with a stub of pencil, and my lovely Jenny was making a close study of the roofs of the nearby buildings, oblivious to the curious and astonished stares of the many onlookers.
As soon as the road was clear, she clicked her tongue, “Tsck, Tsck.” shook the reins, and called loudly in her clear voice, ‘Giddup yer lazy old bag of bones.’ All along the street heads turned towards us, and I waved politely to those nearest. However, the response from Tommy-the-horse was somewhat grudging. He looked carefully up and down the street, and, satisfied the way was clear, he set off at a slow and dispirited walk, his head hanging dejectedly.
Tommy-the –driver finished his writing and handed the scrap of paper to Jenny, who slipped it into her glove. ‘He’s a bit upset now, Miss,’ the old man said sadly. ‘You did the wrong thing back there, I should have told you. I always lets him make up his own mind at a crossing, and it don’t do to give him the “bag of bones” bit until he’s under way. Best to let him go his own gait now, Miss, he’ll pick up when he’s ready. It don’t do to upset him, he’ll sulk on me all day.’ ‘He’s a remarkable horse, isn’t he?’ Jenny said apologetically, ‘I hope I haven’t upset him too much.’ Oh, he’ll be alright after a while, Miss. I’ll give him a peppermint when we get to the station, he likes them, they cheer him up. He’ll do anything for a peppermint.
We were turning into Lord Street now, the main shopping street of the town. It was a very wide street, with gardens on one side and shops on the other, and it was thronged with tramcars and traffic and summer visitors. Perhaps encouraged by the noise and bustle around him, Tommy-the-horse shook off his ill-humour and broke into a smart trot, his head held high and his nostrils flaring. I held my breath as we weaved in and out among the taxis and trams and carriages, but Tommy-the –driver appeared to be unconcerned, only interrupting his conversation with Jenny to wave to the drivers of passing cabs and buses.
‘You’ll let us know about the flowers? I overheard. ‘We’ve got silver vases that go in the corners, you see these holders, there… and there.’ They both swung round while he pointed out the fixtures in the corners of the carriage, ignoring me, sprawled comfortably in the back seat, outwardly nonchalant, but inwardly transfixed with fear, expecting annihilation at any moment by a passing tram or bus.
And still Tommy-the-horse trotted on, undisturbed by human interference. He turned to the right, watching his chance in the crossing traffic; then right again, Into Chapel Street, then left, into the station yard where he pulled up smartly beside the curb. Thankfully, I leapt out of the carriage and fell on my knees to kiss the footpath, while Jenny, uncaring, climbed slowly down from the box, still talking to Tommy-the-driver.
‘Could I give him the peppermint, Tommy? I feel I owe him an apology.’ The old man produced a dusty peppermint from some inner pocket and handed it to her. Tommy-the-driver looked round expectantly as Jenny took off her gloves. She held out her hand and the soft leathery lips nuzzled her palm until they closed on the tiny peppermint. ‘I’m sorry if I upset you, Tommy,’ she said gently stroking his neck. ‘Are we friends again now?’ The horse just leered at her, hungrily. ‘Here, give him another, Miss, and you’ll be friends for life,’ his master said.
While Jenny fraternized with the horse, I asked Tommy-the-driver how much I owed him. He took off his hat and rubbed his head while he considered his reply.
‘Well,’ he said, at last, ‘by rights I don’t think I should charge you anything, ‘cos the young lady did the driving, but I’ve got to think of the wife and the horse. Would half-a-crown be alright? She’s a lovely young lady, sir. Looked a picture on the box, I thought. Gentle on the reins, too. I hope you’ll be very happy.’
Jenny took his hand. ‘Thank you, Tommy, for letting me drive, it was a wonderful experience. I’ll be in touch with you in good time about the other thing.’
Thank you, Miss, it’s been a pleasure. You just let me know what you want and I’ll attend to it. We can put the top up if it’s a wet day.’ He climbed up to his box and looked down at her with a grin. ‘Will you be wanting to drive yourself that day too, Miss?’
She laughed. ‘I don’t know Tommy, perhaps I shall. I’ll bring some peppermints, anyway.’ The old man shook the reins. Jenny called ‘Tsck, Tsck,’ Giddup’. Tommy-the horse looked up and down, confirming for himself that all was clear, and they moved off with a parting wave from the box.
‘What a lovely old man,’ Jenny said, grasping my arm. ‘Why are you trembling?’ ‘Whew,’ I said, ‘I was petrified in all that traffic. Have you ever driven a horse before?’ ‘No, certainly not one like that,’ she laughed. ‘I hope he wasn’t too upset, he’s going to drive us to our wedding.’
I collected my bag from the luggage office, and we went to the platform where the London train was waiting. I found my seat, then went and stood on the platform with Jenny. And now, with only a few minutes left to us, her mood had changed.
She clung to my arm. ‘A part of me dies each time we say goodbye, David,’ she whispered. ‘When you are my husband I’ll never let you go.’
I held her to me, with nothing to say. ‘I’m not going to cry,’ she said, ‘but if I do, it’s because I’m so lucky to have someone I love so much that I want to cry when we say goodbye.’ I smiled down at her, ‘Jenny, dear, what does all that mean? I asked. She didn’t answer, just buried her face in my shoulder.
The guard waved his flag, and whistles blew. One last hug and a quick kiss. ‘David, take care, and come back to me soon, I’ll be waiting for you.’ ‘I will, Jenny, dear. You take care, too.’
I watched her standing on the platform, waving, until she was out of sight, and that was the last time I saw Jenny. It was 1939, and within a few months Hitler’s war had started and the world turned upside down. It was more than two years before I got back home, and by then Jenny had already been dead for a year, killed in one of the first raids.
I took her some of her favourite roses, and knelt in the rain beside a little wartime stone, which said, ‘Jenny Martin, killed 20th July, 1940, Aged 22 years.’ I stayed there for a long time, kneeling by her stone, and felt her had against my shoulder and her soft hair against my wet cheek, and I knew she was waiting for me, as she had promised. When my batteries were fully charged I left the roses on her stone, and went away.
That was in 1941, a long, long time ago. A long time to be without Jenny. But now I think we shall meet again, quite soon. And there will be sunshine again, and roses, and Jenny’s soft shining hair against my cheek. And there will not be many silences because we will have so much to say. And I think the children will be there, Andrew, and Susan and James and little Katie, the shadowy dream children that we never had. And I’ll gather them around, and together we’ll tell them the story of Jenny and the bag of bones. And we will laugh again together. And there will be no more partings – ever.