Poppies and Ghosts

by Len Bains
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“No!”

Ernest managed to push away the poppy. It reminded him of a wound, the image came to him again, a face opened like a red flower. Poppies! He’d spent two years in the trenches and never seen one damned poppy. Armistice day again. Another year rolled around, and they’d wheeled them out once more. The survivors. The odds had been bad in the Great War, but every company had at least one survivor. The Kaiser may have taken away Ernest’s friends, but it was Father Time who had wrought the real damage. In the thirties he’d find a man or two from his company at the reunions. By the sixties he was the sole survivor of his company and he sought out men from his battalion. The eighties buried his battalion and he’d sit with the dodderers from his regiment. It had gotten so even those kids from WW II, as they liked to call it, had turned into old men.

The regiment failed him five years back. The Northumberland Light, gone. They were little more than a dozen now. None of them standing on their own two feet. Wheeled out for show and outnumbered by the press. Ernest knew the war wasn’t the story any more. It was them, the old men, too stubborn to die.

Ernest felt his one hundred and three years, each and every one. He felt them as if they were bricks, piled on his back, hanging from his neck. As if time had hollowed him out and filled him with lead so as to make even the lifting of a finger the labour of Hercules. The old ships, the wooden ones, when they’d been at sea too long the weed would hang from their hulls. It’d trail in great streamers, fathoms deep, and the ships would grow sluggish, heavy in the waves, slow to respond. Ernest felt that way trailing his memories.

“Ships, Ernie? What are you on about?” Marge snorted behind him.

“Shush, girl,” he said. Sometimes his thoughts became words without his say so.

Where was he? Oh yes, hollow, but full. “Ernest Jones! I don’t know where you put it. You must have hollow legs.” His mother would say that to him time and again. He’d had an appetite then, before the war. Bread and butter, tripe and dripping, bubble and squeak. He’d been a growing lad. They’d all been growing, only they didn’t know what they’d been growing for. A new crop to be harvested on the fields of the Somme. New wheat to be mown down with a ratta-tat-tat in the Verdun. “Not hollow any more, Mum.” I’m full. I’ve had enough.

“What was that, Ernie?” Marge leaned in behind him, one hand on the push-bar of the wheelchair, one hand holding the umbrella above them.

“Nothing.” Ernest hadn’t realized he’d spoken. That’s the problem with being too old to hold all your marbles, no secrets.

“Secrets? What are you on about Ernie!” Marge laughed and patted his head.

Ernest set his lips in a thin line and held his tongue. He felt his years. His thoughts escaped him in unintended whispers; his bladder sought even less instruction. Young Marge would call him Ernie until the day he died. Never Ernest. Never Mr Jones. She felt easier with his frailties if she could make him ‘Ernie’.

He looked away from the memorial with its wreaths and countless names. The Lord Mayor had the podium and continued with his speech despite the rain. The royals would be along in due course to lay their wreaths with the rest. Ernest watched the trees. Oaks around the edge of the square, London Plain between. The branches stood bare against a steel sky, black like bayonets. Ernest liked the autumn best. November was a cruel month, a winter month. It would have been better to have ended the war in October, early while the leaves were turning. If they’d ended it then, he never would have killed Captain Royal.

The rain beat harder, drumming on Marge’s umbrella, its tempo somewhere between the staccato of a machine gun and the thud of artillery. There’s nothing like rain for remembering. Ernest remembered the rain in 1918. The rain, and the mud.

For a moment he focused on the trees again, then memory took him. It painted leaves back on the branches. Modest ochre with a touch of crimson, profound and somber, the crimson of royal ceremonial gone to rust. They’d left the trenches behind them in September. The Krauts fell back at La Saille. They ran faster than the big guns could follow, and for the first time in two years Ernest had seen trees that weren’t stripped trunks with their branches turned to matchwood by the cordite winter of the barrage. They’d fought a running battle in autumn woods. A cruel fight that remembered childhood games of running and hiding. Peeking through the golden leaves, sneaking, creeping, quiet as a mouse. Bang! Bang! You’re dead. Cold and dead and broken, stinking in your own waste.

“Ernie?”

He blinked and saw Marge, leaning in close, speaking too loudly. He could never convince her that he wasn’t deaf, merely uninterested.

“Ernie, there’s a lady from the BBC. She wants to interview you. Do you feel up to it?” Marge kept the excitement from her voice, but her eyes were round with it.

“A lady from the BBC?” Ernest said. He liked to repeat Marge. It gave him time to think. “When’s his royal whathisname going to do his thing?”

Marge smiled. It gave her wrinkles. A kid like her, not even fifty, and wrinkled already. “He’s been and gone, Ernie. They’ve all gone. It’s finished.”

“And with the going down of the sun we will remember them?” Ernest whispered the words.

“They’ve done all that. They played the last call. Didn’t you hear them?” she asked.

“I must have been somewhere else,” Ernest said.

“The lady, Sue Mottson, will you speak to her? She’d really like to have a word,” Marge said.

“Lady? Oh, yes. Bring her over.” Ernest shivered. The damp made his bones ache.

Marge stood straight and moved behind him. Ernest felt her take the chair push-bar. “We can go in the warm, Ernie. She’s got a mobile studio. They’re making a documentary. It’s in a side street just behind the memorial.” A push and they were moving.

Captain Royal gave me a push in the autumn of 1918. Ernest saw Royal’s face, as close to his as Marge’s had been, shouting even louder. And he didn’t think I was deaf. Captain Royal had a hard little face, clamped tight with a sneer. His face betrayed him. It was a canvas on which nature had chosen to paint all his weakness. His doubt was there, and his fear, and his anger. In fact, if you knew how to read it, you had the whole story there. From A – why he was making you do this, to Z – why he’d kill you if you didn’t do it. Sometimes understanding makes it easier. Sometimes it doesn’t.

“Captain Royal? I though you said he was a Corporal? Corporal Jones?”

Ernest blinked. Somehow a trailer had grown up around him, like a jungle, hung with black vines of electrical cord, lined with television screens. He focused on the woman before him, talking over her shoulder.

“Ernest Jones, pleased to meet you,” he said.

She turned back to him. She had a heart-shaped face, framed by blonde hair in a severe cut. An Oxford cut they’d have called it in his day. A child, a beautiful child.

She favoured him with a dazzlingly white smile. “Mr Jones, so sorry, a technical problem there.” She glanced down at a notebook on her knees, then smiled again, at a point over his left shoulder.

“We have with us Corporal Ernest Whitfield Jones, decorated for valour in the Somme in 1917, invalided from the trenches in the second gas attack of the First World War, only to return three months later and serve his remaining time on the front lines. Tell me Corporal Jones, what are your enduring memories of those days in the trenches? You must have some fascinating stories to tell.” She flashed her smile again from behind crimson lips. Ernest’s mum would have called her a tart. Painted up like the whore of Babylon, she’d have said.

“I’ve got a story for you, young lady,” Ernest said. “If you’ve time, and enough tape in those cameras?”

She smiled and nodded.

Ernest looked over her shoulder, staring into the dark eye of the camera. From the corner of his eye he saw her smile tighten. We’re not supposed to look into the camera. He remembered that from somewhere. It’s supposed to be a cosy conversation. The viewers at home can spy on us over their cocoa. He kept his gaze on the camera lens. We’re not supposed to look into the future. Not supposed to gaze into the abyss lest it gaze into us.

“Most likely when you show this program I’ll be dead,” he said. “Even the men in the Great War had a better life expectancy than a man of a hundred and three.”

He wondered what they’d see, that audience with their cocoa and telephone calls, with their cartoons and remote controls, hopping back and forth, flitting in and out of his remembering, whilst he lay dead at last, ashes on the wind. They’d see a man so old that time had sculpted him into caricature. Nature plays the cruelest jokes. Old men shrink, their joints dry and tighten, their backs bend, they reduce like the shaman’s shrunken heads. But their cartilage never stops growing, ears and nose, growing slowly slowly but never stopping. They’d see a man little more than bones clad in wrinkles, blotched with liver-spots, hair in almost translucent wisps, a skull with rheum-bright eyes, and comical flaps of ears balanced around a hooked blade of a nose.

He looked back at the woman, Sue something? “I was handsome once,” he said. He didn’t feel it to be a boast. That lad stood so many years away, they had little in common save a name.

The woman flashed her smile, this was familiar ground, she’d probably been interviewing senile old men for weeks. “I bet all the girls chased you.”

“The only one who chased me was Captain Royal,” Ernest said. “And I shot him through the back of the head on October 17th 1918, in the forest of Campron, near La Saille. I’m too old to lock up and I’m too old to be ashamed, so if you’ve enough tape in your cameras I’d like to tell you how it happened.”

A peace stole over Ernest. And the truth shall set you free – the thought bubbled to the surface. With the sense of calmness came a clarity he’d not known for many years. As though he’d been a wireless stuck between stations, now tuned to one voice, crisp and clean.

Sue Mottson. The TV presenter’s name came to him. He even remembered her face from the recent series on the Falklands’ War. He watched her for a moment. Her teeth remained on display in a fair facsimile of a smile, but her eyes held a slightly lost look.

“Would that be alright, Miss Mottson?” he asked.

Sue Mottson gave the slightest nod, her eyes fixed on Ernest’s as if hypnotized. She’d seated herself with her knees practically touching his, with that unwanted intimacy her generation seemed to wield like a weapon. She looked as though she regretted the move now.

“You see I’ve been carrying Captain Royal with me for eighty-five years now, and it’s time to let him go,” Ernest said.

And he had. Like a monkey on his back, like an albatross around his neck. A whole zoo of cliche couldn’t tell it. Hold a secret too tightly to yourself, and it shapes you. It twists you, it distorts, and you get to depend on it, to forget how it felt not to carry it. You get so you can’t imagine how good it would feel to let go.

“W-why have you waited so long to tell your story, Corporal Jones?” Sue found her voice.

“When I shot him – when I shot the Captain, a pal of mine, Nobby Barnes said, ‘A hundred years from now, who’ll care?” Ernest glanced up at the dark eye of the camera. He returned his gaze to the young woman. “I’m running out of time, dear. I’d like somebody to care.” He patted her knee and winked.

Sue Mottson suppressed her shudder well, but Ernest saw it, and in that moment he knew what it was the young fear most in the old. It’s not their weakness. It’s not that they stand on the very lip of the grave leaning in, nor the visible decay of mind and body. What the young fear in the old, is their youth. Ernest showed Miss Mottson a glimpse of the young man locked inside his century-old shell. She’d come to interrogate half-dead husks to hear the antique horrors of the trenches. Instead she’d found a man, a living man, with blood on his hand, undried by the passage of years.

“We signed up together. Nobby Barnes, Will Brown, and me,” Ernest said.

Nobby with his flat cap. A stupid cap, big ears, and a grin, that was Nobby. And Will, fair and blue-eyed. How the girls chased Will Brown. Ernest let his mouth tell the story. He didn’t see the studio now. He saw Shepherd’s Hill Lane, a steep road lined with narrow houses, terraces marching up the hill, and behind them a blue sky, faded like it’d been left in the sun too long.

“Wait up, lads, I’m out of puff,” Ernest said.

“Kitchener won’t want you if you can’t climb a hill, Ernie,” Nobby said, and grinned.

“No hills in Belgium, Nobby,” Ernest said, sweeping out a hand to show how flat. “Like a pancake.”

“Got to be able to charge at the Hun, Ern.” Nobby took on an air of mock seriousness. “No snot-nosed kid with smokers’ cough is going to charge the Hun in my army!”

“Won’t want no bleedin’ jug-eared get in a cloth cap neither,” Will said. He flipped the offending article from Nobby’s head, and took off up the ‘Lane.

That’s how they’d signed up. Pals, together, at the recruiting office at the top of Shepherd’s Hill. Red-faced still, sweating from their run, they’d signed their names, and the Northumberland Light took them.

They’d lit up cigarettes on the doorstep afterward. Cheap tobacco, rolled in crumpled papers from Will’s shirt pocket, tasted like old onions. Ernie still knew the flavour nearly a century on. Not so much as a puff in forty years now, but there wasn’t much he wouldn’t give for just one drag right now. Just a lungful.

“So I signed up with my pals,” Ernest said. He eyed Sue Mottson, and wondered for a moment how old she might be. Thirty at the most. What would he have made of her in the summer of 1915?

“We were young, kids. None of us over nineteen. We didn’t know anything, not a thing. We thought war would be a fine game. Drums and marching. Cavalry maybe. Heroic charges against the evil Hun, and the girls all over us when we came back.

It wasn’t just kids, mind. Not like the Yanks in that little war of theirs in the jungle. They just sent their children to that. We sent everyone. The first lines we were posted to were full of Newcastle men like us. Kids like me, Nobby, and Will. Family men with a wife and three kids at home. Grandfathers even.

I remember old Morris, a gray-beard who’d fought the Boer-War. He’d had a medal pinned on him by Queen Victoria had old Morris. I was a Victorian by three years. She died two summers after I was born. But Morris, he was a real Victorian, mutton-chop beard, steely eyed, must’ve been sixty if he was a day.” The slightest frown creased Sue Mottson’ perfect brow. “I’m sure you don’t mean to say the Vietnam war-”

“Fifty thousand,” Ernest cut across her. “They lost fifty thousand men in the whole thing. We lost that many in two days at the Somme. Hitler couldn’t kill them that fast in his concentration camps! We buried a generation.” He paused and drew a deep breath. It rattled in his throat. “It’s time,” he said, calmer now. “One death right now, right in front of you, would weigh more than the twenty you read about in that mine collapse last week. And those twenty, as much as the fifty thousand teenagers dead twenty years back in Vietnam, and those as much as the millions killed for king and country in the Great War. Time’s like a telescope. But I was there. I saw it. So don’t talk to me about Vietnam. It’s two days on the Somme to me. And we spent years there in that mud.” Ernest looked at his hands. He spoke so low as to almost whisper. “I never washed it off. Never.”

“I . . .” Sue Mottson held her smile well, Ernest had to give her that. He could see her struggle to recover her momentum. “I . . . There are parallels though? The veterans from Vietnam share the same first-hand taste of war. They share the reluctance to speak about their experiences. So many family members know almost nothing of their loved one’s time in combat. It’s particularly true of the First World War. Many wives were said to learn details of their husband’s time in the trenches after his death, from his private writings, or from comrades at his funeral.

“I spoke recently with Muriel Stonewall, who only discovered that her husband had been recommended for the Victoria Cross when speaking to his commanding officer at his funeral thirty-seven years after the Armistice. A man considered for the highest honour his country has to bestow, and he never mentioned it to his wife. Why is that do you think?”

Ernest kept her eyes, and for the longest time silence held him. His mind raced. The fog that had filled his mind for so long was gone. He knew it to be a gift, like the respite that nurses so often see in terminal patient, who rally for a day or an hour before they die. A fire burned in him, he felt it shining from old bones hung with thin and wrinkled flesh.

“Words.” Ernest hugged his arms around his chest. Marge reached around to pull his blanket up around him. “Words.

” I became a reporter after the war. Oh yes, I know most folks think of us veterans as old men in wheelchairs or boys in the trenches, but we’ve all got a middle to us too.

“I wrote for the Daersbury Gazette, then later for the Mail. I wrote three books in the 40′s. Nothing substantial, just thrillers, but they sold well. So I got to know words, I got to using them. They’re good tools; you can shape an idea with them, and hand it over to somebody else. But some things, they’re just too big for words. I can tell you about the moment I saw old Morris charging across no-man’s land. I can tell you how the wire caught him. I can say how he danced as the bullets hit him. There’s a world of metaphor and simile I could use, but nothing I could say that could truly tell you. Words just aren’t enough. They can’t frame it. All words can do is make it smaller. All they can do is blunt it, make it something less than it was. So we keep quiet. We hold our memories, because to speak them would cheapen what we saw.

I saw an old man die on the wire. I saw everything he ever was or could be turned to a red mist. But I can never put you there. You’ll never know what it was to see him dance on the wire. You’ll never wipe his blood from your face. You’ll never feel the click of the bullets that shredded him, as they punch past you.

So there’s that. There’s the knowing that we have nothing which can show you what we saw. And there’s the floodgates.”

“The floodgates?” Sue’s eyes were wide now. She sat bolt upright, in the grip of something. In the grip of an echo of times long past.

“The floodgates,” Ernest repeated, his voice soft. “We’re worried we won’t be able to stop.

“That American boy with his jungle stories, and the decaying old men they wheel out for Armistice Day, both of them feel it. It’s like those magician’s handkerchiefs. Give a little tug and they just keep coming. You let any of it out and the whole nightmare is going to flood over you. A flood like that is going to wash everything away. So we dam it up.

“What’s left to wash away though? I’m one hundred and three years old. It doesn’t sound real even to me, and I’m the one who lived all those years. Besides. I’m not going to tell you about anything as big and unreasonable as the war. I’m just telling you about a little corner of it. A little murder I want to be rid of. A little death. And at the time, that’s what it was. A sweet release.

“Let me tell you how Will died.”

Ernest opened the floodgates. He let the memories take him.

“We had a few weeks’ training in a camp up by Hexham. This was the autumn of 1915. We lived in barracks of a sort. Meekan huts they’d thrown up that spring. Pig barns they were, like huge oil drums cut in half. We slept there and in the day we’d shoot our rifles and bayonet straw soldiers. We loved it. We’d march into town on the weekend in uniform. The little boys would march behind us, and ask where our guns were. At the King’s Arms on Hedley Street the landlord always stood a soldier his first beer free, and we could feel the lasses watching us.

A train took us to Dover, three hundred men from the Hexham camp. There were nine hundred soldiers on the ferry and we docked at Calais. I remember we stood at the rail, Will and me. Nobby was below deck with the seasickness.

“What are you going to do after the war, Will?” I asked him.

He turned those clear blue eyes of his on me. “I’m going to marry Mary Miles, and have children. Two boys, two girls. And I’ll get us a house up by the pottery. Not one of those factory houses, but a proper place, with a bit of garden.”

“Get away?” I looked for the smile. Will had all the girls after him, and he loved it. “I’ve never seen you look twice at Mary Miles.”

“I’ve looked some. And I’ve been thinking about her more. I mean to ask her when we come back on leave,” he said.

He wasn’t joking. He could see his future clear as that. Like a long straight road leading out ahead. Me, I normally couldn’t see past the weekend, and right then, I couldn’t see past the end of my rifle. The war was a big full stop, sitting there at the end of every sentence.

Our first posting was to the line at Monasse. They tell me it was a sleepy French village before the war. It’s fields now. They never rebuilt it. We arrived on a crisp November morning, after marching ten miles from the station at Le Magre. The sun hadn’t got to the frost yet and the mud had a crackling skin on it. We sang that song, ‘What’s the use of worrying, it never was worthwhile. Pack all your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile boys, smile.’ The whole column sang it, over and over. And each time we stopped, we heard the thump of the shells a little louder.

By the time we reached the service trench though, it’d all fallen silent.

We met Captain Royal that first day. He’d come back to the local HQ to call for reinforcements. The bombardment cut the lines on the field telephones at the front.

Royal made a good impression on us. Tall, dark hair, neat moustache. He looked the part. Young too, twenty-five at the most. That sneer of his, I mentioned it earlier? He didn’t have it then. The relief of getting back from the forward trenches would put a smile on any face.

“You men, you’re joining C-company today,” he said. “Follow me.”

And that was that. Thirty Newcastle men of the Northumberland Light followed Captain Royal out to the front. We followed him into the machine.

We couldn’t see much to tell you the truth. We splashed along through the service trenches, too deep to see out of. We hurried on behind him, breaking the thin ice on the puddles. A stink of sewers and smoke hung in the air. You could still hear the occasional shell, muffled in the distance, and a rattle of machine-guns a long ways off.

Two orderlies passed us at the first turn, with a stretcher between them. A muddy blanket hid the patient. I remember thinking it didn’t look big enough to cover a grown man.

Just before the barracks dugout a shell had excavated a big crater right across the trench. It gave us a little space to muster while Captain Royal gave us his welcome speech. The mud sucked at us like treacle and you had to keep shifting from foot to foot or sink too deep.

“Someone’s left his boot!” Nobby elbowed me and pointed. He bent and heaved it out of the ground. I remember the sound, like pulling a lollipop out of your mouth. Just like that. A happy pop. He held it for a second and the blood drained from his face. When he dropped the boot it fell sideways. Some poor sod’s foot was still inside it.

So that was our welcome.

I could tell you more, but it’s been told so many times, by men who’re better able to tell it than me. So I’ll tell you the part of the war that’s mine, the moments that made my horror different from the next man’s.

We went over the top of course. You’ve heard about that. Attrition they called it.

“Ready men!” Captain Royal barked the words in between the screaming of the shells.

“King and Country!” He had his pistol in his hand. It seemed a silly little gun to be taking out against the Hun.

“Do your duty, by God, do your duty!” He splashed up and down the line with his face beetroot red and the tendons in his neck standing out like cables. I couldn’t understand why he was so angry.

I won’t tell you about the first time we went over. We didn’t know enough to be properly scared. We didn’t really know what was waiting for us out there. We didn’t know enough, but I’ve always been cursed with a vivid imagination, and that rifle shook in my hands.

“Careful with that thing.” Nobby shied back from the trembling point of my bayonet. “You’ll have somebody’s eye out, Ernie!”

That made me laugh. It burst out of me, half a sob, high pitched like my voice never broke. The shells were smashing on the Huns’ lines four hundred yards off and, oh Christ, it sounded like the whole world was breaking. Bullets came over the trench like scatters of rain before a storm. “Have somebody’s eyes out? Christ Nobby.” My guts were churning and I was one shock short of soiling myself.

“READY!” Captain Royal hollered behind me, and I jumped.

“You’ll be alright, Ernie.” Will put his arm round my shoulders as though he could smell the stink of me. He had a smile on him. He put a fag in my mouth, already lit. “Take a drag, Ernie. You’ll be fine. It’s flat out there.” He ran his hand out in front of me to show how flat. “Even a snot-nosed kid with smokers’ cough can make it.” And he squeezed me. “Flat. Like a pancake.”

I loved him in that moment. I can’t tell you how much, or how sweet it was.

So we went over the top. And we saw old Morris dance on the barbed wire, and more besides. I won’t say more. I’ll tell you about the second time.

General Alexander Haig decided there’d be no peace at Christmas. We’d heard stories that the Huns came out into no-man’s land that first Christmas of the war, and our lads too, and they’d played football. I couldn’t see it myself, but maybe they did. But our first Christmas in the trenches wasn’t going to be that way. Haig sent orders for a major push. We went over the top on December 11th and four days later, when our numbers had been made up again, when we had new grandfathers, new fathers, new snot-nosed kids, we got orders to go again.

“Ready men!” Captain Royal had started his striding up and down again. He had that closed look on his face, like he didn’t really see us any more.

Nobby caught my arm and nodded toward Will. He’d gone the colour of milk. “You alright, Will lad?” he asked him. “We’ll see it through. Stiff upper lip, what ho?” He put on his lords and ladies accent, the one that would reduce Will to falling down laughter.

Will started to shake. “I can’t go.” He mumbled the words past lips that were almost blue.

“King and Country!” Captain Royal had his pistol out now.

“Will, come on!” I tried to pull him to the ladder, but he was so heavy.

“What’s this?” Captain Royal turned on us – a fox scenting the hen.

“Will!” I was shouting at him, tugging on his jacket.

“By God you’ll do your duty!” Royal didn’t see us. He had his pistol leveled at Will now.

“Will!” Nobby helped me to pull him, but the mud had his legs. We’d have carried him up that ladder but for the mud.

“Morris. I saw him. Mr Morris. In the wire.” That’s the only thing Will said. His eyes looked as blind as Royal’s. He had those blue eyes of his on me, but he didn’t see me. He saw the machine gun cut old Morris into meat.

“We’ll have no cowards in Company-C.” Captain Royal had stopped shouting. That scared me more than the barrel of his pistol against Will’s temple, and his blond curls around the gun-metal.

“Will!” Nobby and I shouted it together. We hauled toward the ladder, but he’d stood in the same place too long. The mud had him.

“I’ll count to three.” Royal whispered it. I don’t know how I heard. Maybe I read his lips. Behind us the lads were climbing the ladders. A round took Michealson in the chest. He hit the opposite wall of the trench and slid down. We barely noticed.

“One,” Royal said.

“You pull that trigger and I’ll fucking do you,” Nobby said. I never heard him say that word before.

“Will!” I had my arms around him. “Will. Come on. It’s flat out there. No problem. Will.”

“Two,” Royal had a sick grin on him. A shell hit close by and the mud rained down on us.

“Will! For Christsake-”

Royal never waited for three. Will’s eyes went suddenly wide, and my neck felt hot and wet.

We looked at him, me and Nobby. I felt Will’s blood trickle down my neck. He slipped from our arms, twitching, like a squashed beetle. I can feel him twitching even now.

“By God you’ll do your duty!” Royal lifted the pistol at me.

I could see the smoke rising from it.”

Earnest remembered the black circle of the barrel. He remembered staring into it. He wiped his eyes, squeezing the tears away, and glanced at the dark eye of the camera lens.

“I looked into that black hole and I couldn’t see a future,” he said, his voice even. “But we went anyway. Will was dead. I think we were in shock. That’s what they’d call it today. They’ve got words for everything today. Post traumatic stress disorder. Grief counselors. Words for everything. We climbed up that ladder, me first, then Nobby. We ran at the Hun, bayonets fixed. By the time we got there, they were all dead. Our lot too. We slid down into their trench over the bodies of our friends, and there wasn’t a soul there. Just pieces of men. We got a medal for that.

That was the Christmas of 1915. Mary Miles lived her life out never knowing Will Brown had loved her. She died in 1950-something, about the time Elvis made it over the ocean.

For the better part of the next three years we fought under Captain Royal, and if it wasn’t for November in the woods outside Le Salle, he might have been sitting here alongside me in his bath-chair.

I’ll tell you the story if you’ve got film in your camera, Sue?”

In the October of 1918 something broke in the German war machine. Their artillery began to stutter. Trenches weren’t reinforced so quickly. The cut wire stayed cut. The Americans were with us by then and the Germans started to crumble under the pressure. Slowly at first, but accelerating all the time, like a dam that admits first a trickle, then a gush, and suddenly a flood.

After three years buried in the long communal grave of the trenches, we emerged into the open, grubby butterflies, or flies from a corpse. Captain Royal came with us, this time. He couldn’t stay in the trench to make sure we didn’t try to skulk back. Not this time. We carried him along in the flood.

For three years we’d shed blood by the gallon to win a few yards of pulverized earth. In the Autumn of 1918 we raced across France so fast the generals couldn’t keep the thin red line level with us on their maps. We progressed in fits and starts. The German retreat wasn’t a complete rout. They fell back by divisions, holding the high points.

They tried to hold the forest of Homnee, and we fought a running battle through the trees.

We had a hot summer that year. When the leaves turned, they turned to gold and flame, lighting the forest with the fires of autumn. We had no plan but to advance, no orders save those of our junior officers, no support other than the waves of infantry hurrying up behind.

When you moved in that forest, the dry crunch of leaves would broadcast your advance to anyone with ears to hear. When you stayed still, the undergrowth made you invisible. To be seen was to be dead. The bushes offered no protection, none at all. A bullet would slice through them and take you.

And what did all those hard facts do to a man? They paralysed him.

“See anything, Ernie?” Nobby lay beside me under the holly bush, a foot or so back from the rise, a dark smear of earth along both cheekbones, under wide eyes.

I shook my head gently, hearing the scratch of holly on my helmet. The ground fell away before us to a tiny stream, then rose to brambled banks. Oaks and elms strode both sides of the little valley, so crowded as to allow only miserly scraps of light to reach us.

I inched forward. The dry rustle of leaves beneath my chest sounded like a deafening shout. I held my breath and the sweat ran along my neck despite the chill. Directly opposite us a scrubby laurel reached down toward the stream. My eyes hunted its complex depths for some familiar shape. I could pattern a rifle here, a shoulder there . . .

“Move on, Corporal Jones!” Royal’s voice ripped through the silence, and we both started up, ready to bolt.

“Do your duty, Jones! No room for cowards in the ‘Light!” He must have been a hundred yards back. I couldn’t even see him. The man knew how to shout and no mistake. Being a captain in the trenches will do that for you.

We’d lost any chance of taking the enemy by surprise. I couldn’t see Royal, but I knew he’d have his service revolver in hand, and a crimson fury on him.

“C’mon.” I broke cover and charged across the stream, Nobby at my heels. Further upstream Sergeant Wallace took his cue and advanced with a dozen or so of the lads. We couldn’t have been much more than fifty men in C-Company by then, half of us scattered and lost in the forest.

If the laurels ever held a German they were long gone.

Royal drove us on, mile after mile. In one place we found nine men, from the Black Watch by their insignia, every one of them shot through the head.

“Sniper,” Nobby said.

“A good one.” The undergrowth seemed to press on me from every side.

We followed another stream for a while, a bigger stream that chuckled along a pebble bed. We passed a dead Hun every thirty yards, sprawled in the water, hanging in the bushes, some spread wide as if reaching for salvation, others curled about their wounds, like little boys with stomach-ache.

I splashed along in that stream until it joined another, still bigger, a little river you might call it, though I never found it on any map. We all stopped then, Sergeant Wallace, Nobby, every one of us, even Captain Royal bringing up the rear. It sounds like a bad scene from one of those thrillers I wrote two decades later, but it really was too quiet. An expectancy hung on the air. I could feel it prickling at my neck.

“Corp-” Sergeant Wallace never got any further than that. With anything. A German machine gun opened up from the other side of the river. I could see the line of the gun as they swung it, left to right on a rising arc, scything through the shrubs. I saw a sapling hit and its truck explode in a shower of splinters. It fell with comical slowness, like those cartoon characters who don’t fall until they look down. The bullets caught Wallace in the shoulder, upper chest, and neck. The rest of them must have passed just over my head.

We ran in all directions. Well, every direction except forward. I got fifty yards, saw Nobby legging it the other way, and veered after him. I must have been the last target for that gunner. I guess his sights were off.

So we ran. Ran like mad things in that forest. Crunching through the leaves, splashing through the streams, tearing through the brambles. Poor man’s wire – that’s what Nobby called the brambles. Always had a joke did Nobby.

We didn’t stop until we hadn’t the breath to go on. I remember leaning against a tree, my forehead on the bark, just trying to get air.

“Where’re we at, Ernie?” Nobby got the words out one at a time, bent over, hands on his thighs.

“Damned if I know,” I said.

“Damned if you don’t.” He grinned.

A shot rang out close at hand. That wiped the grin off him. A rifle shot.

We both went down on our bellies and rolled into the undergrowth. More shots.

“Someone’s in trouble.” Nobby kept his voice to a murmur.

The firing came on all sides now. For a moment it sounded like somebody had set off one of those Chinese firecrackers. A few yards to my right the tree I’d been leaning against spat out a handful of bark as a bullet ricocheted from it.

“Shit,” Nobby said, “It’s us.”

“Over there.” I pointed to where most of the shooting was going on. Our escape lay in the opposite direction.

Then I saw him. A soldier, covered in dirt and leaves, but clearly one of his Majesty’s Own. He’d hunkered down behind a fallen log and they had him pinned. Another loose volley rang out and splinters flew up from the log.

“He’s dead, Ernie,” Nobby said, moving to go. He didn’t say it with any conviction but I could buy into a lie like that. He might have been dead.

“Shit,” I said. The soldier drew his legs in tighter. We both saw it.

I could see the Germans too, picked out by their muzzle flashes in the gloom between the trees. Ten of them. Maybe more. Some leaning out around the trunks of larger trees, some lying prone, others kneeling in the bushes.

I looked at Nobby. He looked back, his face mirroring my conflict. He had tears in his eyes. “Ern. We gotta go . . .”

The shots that punctuated our conversation suddenly ended it. Nobby jolted, like he’d been slapped on the back. A dark hole stood in the hollow between his shoulder and his neck, neat and circular. The tension left his face and he slumped forward. I could see the exit wound just below his shoulder-blade, the blood spreading in a dark wide stain, bubbling up crimson through his jacket as he let out a sigh.

A chill took me, ice up my spine. My cheeks tingled with it.

“No.”

I lifted to my knees, swung my rifle up, and shot one of the men in the bushes. I wouldn’t make that shot one time in ten if I took the time to aim. He went down clean.

A roaring filled my ears, each breath sounded so loud.

“No.”

I stood up and started walking toward them. Somehow none of them saw me until I fired the second shot. I took the other man in the bushes. I saw his helmet fly off.

They saw that! Seven or eight guns swung my way. They fired too quickly, but they should have hit me even so. I shot again and another German died. I felt as though I was floating. My fingers felt numb, but I didn’t fumble chambering the next round.

The bullets buzzed past me.

“No.”

I fired as a German leaned out to shoot me from behind a tree. I can’t explain it, but I couldn’t miss. The side of his head exploded. I was never a good shot.

Something bit me in the side. It swung me around a little but I didn’t let it stop me reloading.

I guess they thought I knew something they didn’t. I guess they thought I had friends coming. Or maybe they sensed whatever had its hand on me. I don’t know. All I know is that they ran. One of them even threw his rifle down.

I’d reached the soldier and his log. He uncurled at my feet. He was bare headed and his dark hair had been parted courtesy of the Kaiser. A red line along his scalp where a bullet had creased him, following that razor thin line which divides life from death in such matters. He looked up. I’d saved Captain Royal.

For the longest moment neither of us spoke.

“Come on!” I broke the silence, and made to follow the Germans. “We can catch them.”

He looked at me as if I were mad. To give him his due, I suppose I was.

“Do your duty, Captain!” The words came out as a shout.

He started to his feet, white-faced. That was odd, seeing the crimson captain with the colour gone from him.

“No cowards in C-Company,” I barked.

Captain Royal backed away, then he turned, then, without a word, he ran.

“By GOD you will do your duty!”

I watched him sprint through the trees. I lifted my rifle. It felt so heavy, but I held it anyhow and watched him in my sights as he stumbled through the poor man’s wire. I lost him as he went into a dip, then found him again, twenty yards on.

I didn’t fire until the very last moment. He was a dot, a blur in the distance, the trees had swallowed him a dozen times, but they gave me a last glance.

I can’t say I didn’t want to hit him. I did. But I knew I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Not firing from a stand. Not at that range.

I squeezed the trigger and leaned into the kick as the bullet left me. I couldn’t miss that day.

Nobby was still alive when I reached him. He’d managed to prop himself up. His face was whiter than even Royal’s had been. It made the blood running over his teeth, down his chin, down his neck, look so much more red.

“You . . . you were magic out there, Ern.” He coughed and the blood spilled from him.

“God . . . Nobby. Are you . . .?”

“I’ll be fine, Ernie.” He sounded so calm.

“I shot him. Royal. I think he’s dead.” I started crying. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And I was. For all of it.

Nobby tried to put an arm up to me, but couldn’t. He just held my eyes. “A hundred years from now, Ern, who’ll care?”

And he left.

And I’m still here. Too old for the world. Waiting for the call.

Still wondering why it didn’t end when I stood up in forest of Homnee so very many years ago.

I’m sorry I killed him. David Royal, that was his name. He was just scared. He was a child. We all were. Even old Morris. I’ve grandchildren that are sixty now. I can’t look at anyone now and not see a child grown big, wearing grown-up clothes, looking the part, but we none of us know what we’re doing, or quite why we do it. So that was my war. A story of children held in the teeth of something monstrous, a thing too big to understand, too cruel to countenance, too foolish to repeat.

2 Responses to “Poppies and Ghosts”

  1. M.R. says:

    This is a riveting account of a war experience.

  2. stephanie says:

    Good story. Well told.

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