Joe Sharp married my widowed grandmother Jenny when my mother was 12, so he was the man who I knew as my grandfather and we called him Papa Joe. He was a small, strong, shy man, who liked fishing, westerns and the occasional Players No 10. He liked being outside, but that may have been to get away from my gran. He was a coalminer, took part in the General Strike and had fought in the First World War. He didn’t talk about it, though. He just took us to the park in Bannockburn and to visit his friend and fishing companion, Roddy, at his tiny watchmaker’s shop in Stirling.
When he died I went to help Jenny clear out his stuff, taking away pigskin shoes and collarless shirts that I wore for years afterwards. My grandmother, by contrast to her quiet and older husband, would talk to anybody about anything, and she told me what Joe had told her about the war, on the one occasion, before they were married, when he had mentioned it.
He was in the Black Watch fighting, she thought, in France. At the end of a battle an officer from another regiment had ridden up and ordered Joe to collect any valuables from the dead Germans, and to start by cutting the finger off of a body nearby for the ring on it. Joe said no, he would not do that and the officer had said he could be shot for failing to obey an order. Into the middle of this came a Black Watch officer who demanded to know what was happening and Joe told him. This man told the other officer to leave his soldiers alone and he duly rode off.
That’s it – that’s Joe’s story about the war, and Jenny was the only person he told, as far as we know. He carried it inside him, though, his particular little piece of the horror, while he was fishing with Roddy, or out in the park for a quiet cigarette, or pushing us on the swings.