Remembering

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Seeing the quiet French field it was strange to think it had once been so different. The black and white photos in my little book were prove of that though. Once there was only disturbed mud and bodies, the green landscape lost forever. And of course, it hadn’t been quiet; the air had shook with deafening gunfire, shouting and the moans of the dying.

Sitting in the wheelchair which had now become my life, I clutched my book and the woollen blanket in my lap. I shut my eyes and was back there straight away, walking through the smoke. The trench was slick with running mud and rain was tumbling from a dark grey sky. I stepped over a body, a twisted mangle shape that had once been a living man. He seemed half sunk into the mud, face down. I carried on, so use to the sight it just seemed normal now.

My feet were leading the way as the rest of me was numb. I entered one of the shelters and sunk down into a damp camp bed. I didn’t know if this was my place but it didn’t matter. I think there was someone else in the bed above me, sleeping. Without taking anything off, I lay down and feel asleep.

My wish was never to wake up again but each time I did.

Opening my wet eyes, those imagines stayed with me. Bad shakes racked through my body. Someone was saying something but in that moment I had forgotten there were other people with me. None of them had been there, so they’d never understand what it was truly like.

Least We Forget

Bill travelled back to France not knowing what he’d find or what memories would return. Sitting in his granddaughter Bethany’s bright purple car he looked out over the almost familiar countryside, trying to remember. The land had healed and changed since the First World War and Bill’s last visit in the mid-sixties with his wife and five children. He turned to his granddaughter and tried to tell her this, but his mouth was dry and wordless.

There were bottles of water in the carry bag by his feet. He lent forward and dug around for one with great difficult.

‘Are you okay, Granddad? Do you want me to stop?’ Bethany shouted, slowly and clear.

He turned his head, aware she was speaking but not quite catching her words.

She repeated what she had said, but Bill shook his head as his useless fingers finally found a plastic bottle. He pulled it out, showed it to her as explanation then tried to open the lid. He could barely feel the blue top under his fingertips and couldn’t get any grip at all. He shook the bottle in vain and embarrassed turned to Bethany.

She gave a single nod, indicated and pulled smoothly over. She took the bottle from him, easily opened it and handed it back, keeping the lid in her hand.

Bill gratefully drank from the bottle.

‘We’ve not got much further to go to the cemetery now,’ Beth spoke into his ear, ‘does any of this look familiar to you?’

Bill swallowed and looked around. His lips formed a few words, but his throat didn’t give sound to them. He tried again then shook his head and drank some more water.

‘What did we do with the cards?’ Beth asked and began digging around in the footwell at Bill’s feet.

She pulled out a plastic wallet full of large picture cards, ‘here there are. Okay, Granddad. Put your glasses on.’

Bill frowned and lend down, waiting for her repeat the instructions.

Beth picked up his glasses that were resting on the dashboard and helped Bill put them on. She took the bottle of water from him, screwing the cap back on and putting it down. She pulled out the cards and looked through them with Bill watching over her shoulder. She found the new ones she was looking for and passed him one that showed a picture of France. Bill looked at it closely and nodded, not sure what Beth meant as he knew where they were.

She put another one into his hands; a war cemetery. He nodded again as he looked at her. That was their destination. Beth shuffled the cards and found one that had two clock faces on it. She changed the first set of hands to show the time now and the second clock to show their time of arrival. She gave it to her granddad and received a nod from him after a few moments.

‘Do you really understand?’ she shouted.

‘Yes,’ he forced out in a stuttered whispery voice.

Beth held her hand out and he gave her the cards back. She put them away again then drove off. Bill stared at the French countryside, barely recalling marching through it with his unit. He tried to remember the faces and names, but it was too difficult now with the photographs and writings. Strangely, he could see the horses though and thought about trying to tell Beth about them, but it was too much effort.

The sign of the cemetery appeared and Beth pointed it out to him. She then turned in and parked up amongst lots of other cars. She got out and went to the boot. Bill watched her getting his wheelchair and bringing it over to him. Beth opened the door, undid his seatbelt and helped him into the chair.

She then wheeled him forward, so she could grab the cards and hand them to Bill. Closing and locking the car door, she wheeled him away as Bill quickly looked through the cards.

‘What is it, Granddad?’ she asked loudly.

He held up one of the new cards which showed a photo of a poppy wreath lying beside a white headstone. Bill felt Beth’s breath in his bald head and heard her cry a few faint, ‘oh!’ sound before she hurried back to the car. He turned and could just make out, his granddaughter opening the passenger door and leaning over to the back seats. She pulled out the wreath and brought it back to him.

‘There, Granddad,’ she said.

He nodded and they set off again. The cemetery was crowded with people waiting for the ceremony and it took them a good few minutes to get to where they needed to be. Beth placed Bill right at the front with the other wheelchair uses. He looked down the line and saw a handful of men in similar clothing to himself. The man who he was sat next to, Bill didn’t recognise, but Bill gave him a nod anyway.

He felt Beth’s hand on his shoulder and reached up to hold her fingers. Bill looked up at the massive wall of names before them and felt tears come into his eyes.

Trench

 

Dear Mama and Papa,

 

Alfie paused and rested his head against the wooden pole. The pencil was shaking in his hand and the scrap of paper he had found to write on had dried blood splatter across it. Glancing at his scrawling handwriting and wondering what to open with, he had the sudden urge to pour his thoughts across the page and tell the horrendous tales of the last month. He pushed his other hand through his badly cut and dirty hair, before letting his eyes drop to the candle next to him.

Around him a handful of men were curled into crude wooden bunk beds. Many were shivering under woollen blankets and damp clothes. A couple were moaning softly and the words they sometimes whispered reflected those on everyone’s mind. In the distance outside, Alfie could hear gun fire. It was the sound he lived his life by now and he was also sure that it would follow him to his grave. He turned back to the letter and putting the pencil down again, wrote the next lines with careful words.

Sorry it has been awhile since I last wrote. Supplies are coming harder to find. I am well and hoping you are too. How is everyone else holding up? I hope they are well too. The weather has gotten colder and it’s become difficult to keep things dry. It feels like winter might come early this year, but perhaps it’ll bring me home.

 Alfie stopped and re-read that. The pencil twitched over the last word and he thought about crossing it out. A loud squeaking came from a beam above his head. Looking up, he saw a rat’s tail dangling down. The idea of catching it and eating it flashed in his mind, but he was too tried to move. He knew right now he should be trying to sleep like the other men were, however slumber now eluded him. It had been a long time since he had been able to sleep peacefully. Every time he closed his eyes the nightmares came.

In an odd way the bad dreams had become his companions. He had gotten use to the strange and too realistic battlefields that back dropped the scenes. The sky was always black or red or burning and the ground matched it. Sometimes there was sound – the gun fire, the bombs, flares, screaming-and other times silence, which wasn’t actually a blessing and also added to his fear. The bodies were the worse part though. Alfie shook his head, trying hard to clear his thoughts and get back to the letter. Continuing, he wrote,

I miss and love you all. I hope to see you soon. Pray for the war to end and my safe return. I must go now, it is almost dawn and I’m due to go over the top later. I shall write again as soon as I am able. I look forward to receiving your reply. The letters have been a great comfort.

You beloved son, Alfie.