English Lane

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English Lane
English Lane


Copyright Oggbashan March 2018

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.


I am walking slowly along the lane. The signs of Spring are clear. The sun is shining through the trees after this morning’s rain. The birds are singing loudly. I can hear them but in my head the chorus of the Ivor Novello song ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ is louder. I can’t stop the tears running down my face.

It’s not ‘an English lane’. It’s a former carriage drive within the extensive grounds of a Stately Home run by the National Trust. But for more than thirty years it has been ‘our’ English lane that we visit several times a year.

A few yards ahead is the bench where we used to sit to look at the view of rolling Kentish hills. I reach it and sit down. I feel like a silly sentimental old fool.

I remember this time last year, like now the first day the property opens after the Winter. I was recovering from my hip operation. John had pushed me in a borrowed wheelchair all the way to this viewpoint. He was swearing under his breath. The path surface was really too uneven for a wheelchair.

Our son Michael had offered to push me. John refused Michael’s help. Michael offered again.

“No, Michael,” I had said. “This is something important to John, and to me.”

“OK,” Michael had said, “but…”

“No buts! I’m doing this,” John had insisted.

He had. We had reached this point in our English lane. He had taken my hand and held it as he did every time we sat at this bench.


Over sixty years ago John had first taken my hand. We had been on a walk organised by the University Rambling club. John and I were talking as we walked. We were at the back of the column of walkers. I had fallen off my bicycle a week earlier. My right leg was bruised. I had thought it was sufficiently healed for this gentle walk. It wasn’t and I was beginning to limp.

John’s left hand reached out and took my right.

I lifted my hand swamped by his.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I want to, Alice.” John said.

He looked scared as if I might reject him. John rarely looked scared of anything or anyone. His action and words were a declaration.

I leant towards him and kissed his cheek.

“Why?” He asked.

“Because I want to, John,” I replied.

John supported me during the rest of the walk. At the end he was almost carrying me.

I didn’t need John’s words to tell me that he loved me. Yes, he told me, often, but the real and repeated sign of his love was his outstretched hand. On our wedding day he held my hand at the altar as he slid the ring on my finger. He lifted my hand to kiss it. We both knew that my hand in his was our declaration of love, more than the words or ceremony.


I look at the worn ring on my finger. The ring has scratches because it is soft gold. A harder gold would have been more practical. Later John had bought me two other harder gold rings for daily wear. This one on my old woman’s hand is the one he slid on my finger at the altar. Nothing could replace it. I touch it gently. It’s not the same as my hand in John’s yet it is a symbol of our love.

I lift my eyes to look at the view again. I wish… I could shut my eyes and imagine John is beside me, holding my hand. He isn’t. He’s gone. I have my memories, our c***dren, our grandc***dren and some great-grandc***dren. Sometimes I can see a younger John in some expressions of our son Michael. John has gone but he has left us so much including his love.


Love? That makes me giggle. Sixty years ago our physical love was so decorous. Even walking hand in hand was a significant statement of commitment. On the steps of our sex-segregated student hall I would give John a goodnight kiss on the lips, the only kiss he would get on a date.

John had to visit my father to ask permission to court me. My father was startled and pleased. John had turned up in his full dress uniform as an Army Officer but without his sword. John was at university studying Civil Engineering on an Army sponsorship. During breaks from university he resumed his duties as a junior officer in a Combat Engineer regiment. My father had been a sergeant during the Second World War. His views on young inexperienced officers were frequently profane, but John impressed him.

John got my father’s consent. Almost as soon as he had left my father’s study John was on his knees in front of me, proposing. He had grabbed both my hands. I pulled them behind me, dragging John’s face against my formal gown. Of course I said yes. I wanted John as much as he wanted me.

From then on I was part of John’s regiment, attending balls and other events. When we married, we married in the garrison church. I approached the church under an archway of swords. The regiment’s band played a slow march as my father and I walked towards the altar. The hymns, sung by a large number of soldiers, accompanied by the brass band and the organ trying to outdo each other, were loud. As we left the church, the band played the regimental march instead of traditional bridal music.

John and I were pleased that so many people had come but what mattered was my hand in his. The wedding was our declaration to the world that John and Alice were together, in love, and partners for the rest of our lives.

The regiment was our family. It was also the reason why we parted so often as John was sent to various parts of the world on army duties. Sometimes I could go with him. Often I couldn’t. Before and after every period of parting we would go for a walk, hand in hand, down an ‘English lane’. It had been a series of English lanes close to wherever we were living at the time. When John retired from the Army this English lane became the preferred one. Unlike others there was no speeding traffic, no crumbling muddy edges to jump on to as a vehicle went past. This lane remained tranquil and perfect for us to renew our love.


Love? As an engaged couple we went further than the goodnight kiss. I could and did sit on John’s knees as I kissed him. I had to encourage him to respond. Almost all our time together I had to take the lead. John would never do anything that I didn’t want him to do. He treated me as a lady he honoured and adored. One evening when I was very pleased with him I took his hand and pushed it up under my top to my bra. His eyes opened wide. He might have protested. My lips stifled what he might have said.

A week later I lifted my top and pulled John’s head into my cleavage. I felt him shudder and then groan. I had made him come into his underpants. I was delighted that I had so much impact on John. Weeks later his face met my bare breasts. His lips demonstrated just how much he appreciated them.

On our wedding night we almost had an argument. We had left a low-powered light on. We wanted to see each other. John wanted to ride me in the traditional missionary position. I objected that his weight would flatten me. He said he would support himself with his knees and arms. I persuaded him to let me ride him first. I was wearing a baby doll nightdress but I took it off and threw it across the room. I pulled John’s hands to my breasts as I straddled his chest. My hands clasped over his, encouraging him to squeeze and cradle as my cleft slid up and down his body. Eventually I slumped on to him before pushing myself downwards to accept his erection. It fitted as if it had been made just for me. I lifted myself again by pushing my hands on John’s chest. More of him slid into me before I started slowly bouncing up and down.

John’s eyes opened wide as I engulfed more and more of him. Had he expected to penetrate the hymen of a virgin bride? Technically I was a virgin in that John, on our wedding night, was the first man I had ever had inside me. Hymen? What was that? I had been riding horses since early c***dhood. More significantly I had been using a dildo for several months. I wanted to make sure I could take all of John inside me, even though I knew from the bulge in his clothing I could inspire that his erection was impressive.

At the time I don’t think John knew what a dildo was or even that they existed. He was the son of an Army officer. He had spent his early years in married quarters before being sent to a succession of single sex boarding schools and Sandhurst. He was innocent about women. I had to teach him, slowly and carefully. He trusted me completely. I trusted him too.

Don’t think John was the perfect husband. He wasn’t. His duty to his regiment came even before me – always. He would go where he was sent. He was the sort of officer who led from the front. ‘Follow me, do what I do’ was his style of leadership. That meant he was often the first to come under fire, the first to be shot or blown up. I spent many months of our marriage patching up or nursing the wounded hero again. His medal ribbons were the obvious sign of the scars hidden under his uniform.

There was no point in me asking him to be more careful. John was careful of his troops and himself but often in the most dangerous places where his care could only reduce the risk, not eliminate it.


Our c***dren didn’t really understand what their father did, or what it really meant to be a front line soldier. An incident when Michael was eleven and Helen was nine changed their minds. We had been to a c***dren’s movie as a family. We were walking across the dark car park when three muggers ran at us waving large knives. John ran towards them. In seconds there were three broken men screaming on the ground.

“Go to the car!” John ordered in the officer’s voice he rarely used to me or the c***dren. We went.

The police arrived shortly afterwards. They had been trying to find the three men after several previous attacks in the town centre. I had to drive the c***dren home. John arrived a couple of hours later by taxi from the police station.

Over breakfast Michael asked:

“Dad, how did you do that last night?”

John’s response was typically terse.

“They were amateurs. I’m a professional.”

“Professional what?” Helen asked.

“I’m a professional killer, Helen. That’s what being a soldier means. I’m paid and trained to kill people who threaten us.”

That’s all he ever said to the c***dren about his role as an Army officer. But what he said had an impact. They knew their amiable father could be very dangerous.

At the muggers’ trial their defence argued that John’s actions had been disproportionate and excessive because John was a professional soldier trained in unarmed combat. He should have asked them to desist.

John laughed at the lawyer, earning a glare from the judge.

“You can’t have it both ways, sir,” he told the barrister. “Yes I am trained. But my training is to kill, not disable. If I had followed my training, your clients would be dead, not standing trial.”

The muggers were convicted and sentenced to several years jail time. Outside the court John and I were confronted by some of the muggers’ family members.

“Watch your back,” one older man said. “We don’t forgive.”

“Watch yours, chummy,” a voice came from the crowd behind them. “This is a garrison town. You attack him and you’ll have a regiment to deal with…”


Mentioning the c***dren reminded me of Michael’s birth. I wanted John with me. He agreed IF his regimental duties allowed. He was there, holding my hand. Was he reassuring me, expressing his love? Or was I reassuring him? He looked so scared and petrified during the whole process that I was more worried about John than the birth.

As a father he adored our c***dren. They loved him. He was always there, so calm, so solid, so supportive. He could be firm with them but always fair. Even as teenagers they took John’s refusals as final decisions. They knew that if he said ‘No’, that he meant it. No tears, pleading or tantrums could change their father’s ruling. Pleas to Mum didn’t work either. John and I had agreed even before we had c***dren that if one of us said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a c***d that was it. There was to be no appeal from one to the other. We might delay a decision until both of us had discussed it, but would not overrule our partner.


John was delighted when Michael became an officer in our regiment. He was startled but pleased when Helen became an officer in the Women’s Royal Army Corps.

Much later he was astonished but ecstatic when Sarah, our oldest grandc***d, also became an officer in the regiment. Sarah was the fourth generation of our family to be an officer in the regiment.

Long before Sarah joined John had retired from the Army. We didn’t lose contact with the regiment. We attended annual mess dinners as guests and several other events a year.

John took a position with a civil engineering company, initially as a project consultant and eventually as a senior project manager. He could live at home most of the time or at worst get home at weekends. Best of all from my point of view was that no one was shooting at my husband, or throwing bombs at him. When he went off for a day’s work I could expect him back in one piece.

We loved each other. John still worshipped me. He would do anything for a fleeting kiss but most of all he wanted to walk in the countryside holding my hand. We didn’t have to say anything. Holding hands expressed the love we had for each other. We never stopped making love in bed and with age were more adventurous. John became an expert at cunnilingus. While the c***dren were still living with us I had to stifle my squeals with a pillow corner in my mouth. When the c***dren were away at sleepovers or at camp, I could yell loudly for ‘More!’.

Once the two c***dren were at university John might drop to the floor in front of me, even in the kitchen, lift my skirt, burrow underneath and kiss. Inside the house I haven’t worn slacks or panties for decades. I might have worn both for a winter walk but I’d change to a flared skirt as soon as I was home so that John had instant access. The John I had married hadn’t known what cunnilingus was.

Whenever I looked down at John’s head under my skirt I didn’t think that he was surrendering to me or demeaning himself by being literally at my feet. He was my husband doing something he knew I enjoyed – because he loved me. His verbal expressions of love might be infrequent but his tongue showed his love eloquently.

Even when we became grandparents John still worshipped me on his knees several times a week. When my hip became painful before the operation to fit a replacement we would go to bed before he started licking. After I had learned to use my new hip despite our advanced ages John would be on his knees again. Even on this bench, as I looked out over the view, if the weather was warm enough for me to wear a skirt, John might have been on his knees with his head between my legs. Sometimes I might have had to stop him if someone else walked into view.


Now there is no John beside me, no John between my legs under my skirt. I am an old woman sitting alone with my memories. We knew we hadn’t got much longer together but the end was very sudden.


Six months ago, shortly after our last walk that year down our English lane to this bench, we had the telephone call we had been expecting. Please would John make an appointment to see the doctor to discuss the results from the hospital. John insisted this time that I came with him ‘to hold his hand’. I knew what he meant. He expected bad news and wanted us to be together.

It was bad news, the worst. John had inoperable cancer that had spread. So far it had been virtually symptomless. That wouldn’t last. The consultant’s guess was that John might have at most three to four months to live. But for John’s remarkable fitness for his age he would have been dead weeks ago. Even if the diagnosis had been made six months earlier the result would have been the same.

Holding John’s hand as we heard the news made it less stark. We would have some time together before the inevitable end.

We didn’t make a bucket list of things to do. We would have liked John to survive to the opening day of the stately home for one last walk down our country lane. He would have liked to see his next great-grandc***d due early April. We knew that both were unlikely.

What John did do was consult our solicitors to make some minor adjustments to his will now we knew which of us would die first. They were insignificant but tax-efficient. That dreadful day we visited the solicitor’s office in the town centre. John signed the codicils. We left to walk to a coffee shop before going home.


Remembering the next part is always hard even though I have been over and over it again and again, including at the Coroner’s Inquest.

John and I were crossing the busy High Street at a staggered Zebra crossing that is controlled by traffic lights. We were waiting to cross the second part standing next to a young black woman who was obviously pregnant. The lights changed and the three of us started to cross.

Suddenly there was a crash and squeal of tortured metal. On the other side of the road a vehicle had come out of a side turning to hit a van broadside on. That impact had deflected the van straight towards us.

John wrapped an arm around me and the black woman and threw us to the far side of the crossing. We were caught by a group of people who had just reached the side of the road.

John took the full impact of the van and was sent flying. His body hit the back of a parked van with a heavy thud. I turned and rushed towards him as everything around me seemed to have switched to slow motion.

He opened his eyes to look straight into mine. He held out a bloodied hand. I held it.

“I love you, Alice,” he said.

“I love you, John,” I replied.

His eyes glazed over. I could hear him humming the chorus of ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’. A few seconds later the humming stopped and his hand went limp. I finished the hummed chorus at the end of the third line:

“We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an English lane
Until our hearts have learned to sing again…”

John had died as he had lived. A hero. My hero.


At the inquest the multiple CCTV recordings showed that John’s reaction had been incredibly fast. It would have been amazing for a man in his twenties. For a man in his early nineties it was miraculous. The vehicle that had come out of the side street didn’t have a driver. It had been parked with the engine running when it was hit by a runaway supermarket cage. The driver of the van had no possibility of avoiding the impact or of stopping before hitting us. The impact with John had been a seven tonne van at twenty two miles an hour.

John was awarded a posthumous bravery medal. He was made a Freeman of the town. I attended both ceremonies to accept the awards but I was numb inside. I had lost my John. I knew I would have lost him within weeks, but to lose him in seconds was hard.

We couldn’t arrange a funeral until the Inquest had ended. The regiment held a memorial service for John. I was the principal mourner surrounded by John’s extended family. That family now included Elaine, the young black woman John had saved. Her husband Louis was a corporal in John’s regiment. Elaine and Louis sat beside me in the garrison church.

The family funeral had been a week ago. Elaine and Louis had wanted to be there but couldn’t be. Elaine had gone into labour during the night.

Today, the First of April, is the first day that the National Trust open the stately home for the year. I had wanted to come, to walk alone down ‘our’ English lane, and say my private farewell to my John, my husband, my lover and my hero. Now I have. I have sat here, looked at the view, remembered John, and I have hummed ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’.

I can hear someone coming, just as I used to listen out when John had his head buried under my skirt. I turn my head, reach for a handkerchief, wipe my tears away and stand up.

It is Sarah, my granddaughter, waddling up the lane holding her pregnant belly. I know that she would have insisted on coming by herself. As she had said frequently ‘I’m pregnant, not an invalid’.I walk to meet her.

“I’m a silly old fool, Sarah,” I say, “a silly, romantic, old April Fool.”

“No, you’re not, Granny. You loved him. We loved him. We will never forget him. Come now to have lunch. Elaine has brought her new baby to show us. She’s gorgeous.”

She was. Her tiny hand gripped my finger.

“Alice,” Elaine said, “We have called her Cecily after her grandmother, and Joan for your John. Cecily Joan will be christened on Wednesday. We want you to be one of her godmothers. Your daughter Helen has already agreed. Will you be a godmother too, Alice, please?”

“Of course I will, Elaine. Where?”

“In the garrison church of course,” Louis replied. “Cecily Joan, like all of us, is part of the regimental family.”

And she is. A few weeks later the family was increased by Sarah’s son John, John’s namesake and great-grandson. Louis and Elaine became John’s godparents. Baby John is one more in the regimental family.

That family includes me and my hero John.

“We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an English lane
Until our hearts have learned to sing again…”

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