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 REMEMBERED ACTS

By John Lucas

Greenwich Exchange. 256 pages. Ł11.99. ISBN 978-1-910996-37-9

Reviewed by Susan Mitchell

An old man, Tom Goodings, looks back to wartime and just after. Stationed in an army camp near Barnard Castle and, like so many others, awaiting discharge, he was guard duty one night when another soldier took off to see his wife in Middlesbrough. The problem was that the man concerned, Arthur Stockdale, had been confined to barracks after an argument with his commanding officer. Stockdale had applied for special leave because of a letter he’d received, but was turned down when he refused to divulge its contents. He claimed that his wife was sick and as there were two young children he needed to be at home. But when the officer asked to see the letter to verify the situation, Stockdale wouldn’t show it to him.  He’d then rowed with the officer and insulted him.

Later, Stockdale asked Goodings to cover for him while he went home to deal with whatever problem the letter had revealed. Goodings had assumed it was probably a “Dear John” communication, where a wife or sweetheart wrote to tell a soldier that she’d met someone else. They were common enough when men were in the forces and away from home for long periods.

Goodings “turned a blind eye” and Stockdale disappeared. But later that night the police came to the camp with the news that Stockdale had arrived home, murdered his wife, and then committed suicide. It was easy enough for Goodings to insist that he knew nothing about Stockdale’s visit to Middlesbrough. It was, after all, not unusual for men to leave the camp without passing through the main entrance where the guardroom was situated. “Going over the wall” was a common-enough occurrence in the army when soldiers were denied official reasons for leaving camp.

Now retired, living in Devon after a successful business life in London, Goodings broods on what had happened all those years ago. Was he responsible for the deaths because he allowed Stockdale to sneak out of camp unofficially?  And what became of the two young children? Were they handed over to relatives or put into care? Most people might take the view that they can’t be held responsible for someone else’s actions if they weren’t directly involved in them. And they’d consign the memory of what took place to the store where all the other regrets and reminiscences of the past can be found. It could even just make a good story to be told when having a few drinks with friends. But Goodings is different and needs to know, in particular, what happened to the children.

It would be unfair to offer too many details about what comes next. Goodings hires a private detective to dig out some basic facts, and then proceeds to follow his own lines of investigation that lead him North to several encounters that confuse at first. But soon they slowly help to unravel a tangled web of social mishaps and their consequences that affected the individuals involved, and shaped their future behaviour.

What is striking about the novel is that the various characters caught up in Goodings’ search for the truth , and there are more than Goodings who have a part to play, have some substance, They are not simply meant to provide background colour. Goodings has a wife who worries about him. And there is a son who is a journalist and working in television, and a daughter, an actress who has been moderately successful, but has never made the top grade in her profession and is prone to man trouble. They perhaps remind Goodings that his own children have grown up to be reasonable human beings despite any minor problems, and he knows where they are, but that Stockdale’s vanished into a post-war world of austerity, forced emigration for some children, and eventual industrial and social decline.

The decline is well established through the eyes of Goodings as he journeys North and it contrasts with the modest but comfortable life he has led in retirement. Lucas paints deft pictures of Middlesbrough and surrounding areas in the 1940s and later decades. When Goodings finally manages to arrive at a conclusion about what happened to Stockdale’s children he uncovers a disturbing story of mixed tragedy and survival. 

Remembered Acts is a well-constructed novel that establishes its authenticity in a quiet and often moving manner.