“Covered in shit, not in glory, that was the reality. The trenches … well, you can’t imagine the stench of them, and wet – water everywhere. They never seemed to dry out, even in summer. Then they’d stink even worse, like a toilet with piss all over the floor.
“Our boots would be soaked and the socks our mums had insisted on giving us – in bagfuls – would be wet through too. We’d laughed at them – ‘why are you giving me all these bloody socks? I do know how to wash socks, you know!’ – but you know what, when push came to shove, dry socks were like bloody gold dust out there.
“And then Fritz would start shelling us. We’d be huddled down in the mud whilst the sky lit up, just like fireworks. Every now and then you’d hear a scream and you knew some poor sod had just bought it.
“One time, I was with Charlie Fellowes, my best mate there. It was all quiet, no shelling for hours. Suddenly there was a stupendous bang, as if a gas boiler had just exploded in a room next door, and there was Chas with half his face missing. He didn’t die but he’d never know another woman. Had to wear a special mask they moulded from an old photo of his face ….”
Suzanne turned to me, “Christ, what’s the point of going over something that happened so long ago?”
I looked at the old soldier, holding forth to a dwindling audience in a corner of the Coach and Horses. “I suppose it’s hard to forget about something like that.”
“Well, he couldn’t even have been alive in the First World War, it finished a hundred years ago, for God’s sake!”
I took a mouthful of Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout, savouring the gently roasted chocolate malt and cocoa, closing my eyes and letting it roll around my tongue. The First World War seemed a million years ago and, to be honest, I just wasn’t interested. Things had moved on. It was fifty megaton nuclear bombs now, that would wipe out a city and kill and maim millions. Having half your face blown off would be a luxury.
I was in a field with a bunch of red poppies at my feet. I bent down and caressed the velvety redness of the petals, feeling the texture, like soft crêpe paper, and stroking the fur-like stems.
I became aware I wasn’t alone and stood up, looking around at a circle of men, surrounding me. They were dressed in uniform. Rough brown cloth and olive knapsacks, modern camouflage fatigues, dark blue air force jackets and trousers. There were some stripes here and there, a few medals, but mainly non-commissioned ranks, as far as I could see. The ‘grunts,’ in modern parlance.
More came in, and more, until I was surrounded by hundreds of them, then more than I could count, stretching to the horizon in all directions. Their faces were mainly young – eager, bright-eyed, happy and smiling. Some were smoking cigarettes whilst others held pipes in their mouths.
“Who are you?” I asked.
A young man, perhaps twenty-five, with brown hair and a large moustache, answered. He was dressed in the blue of the Royal Air Force. He had a couple of stripes. I didn’t know what that meant, maybe a captain or whatever?
“Who do you think we are?”
“I dunno, people who died in the war?”
He smiled. “Got it in one!”
“Why are you here?”
“It’s Remembrance Sunday. It’s what we do on Remembrance Sunday. Put our uniforms on and come back, to remind you. We don’t want to, but you … expect it.”
“You make a big deal out of it.”
“What we went through wasn’t so bad. For those of us who died, I mean. For those left behind, our families, friends, they were the ones who went through hell. We’d visit, try to console them, send healing, but sometimes their grief put up a barrier.”
“But aren’t you proud of what you did, fighting for our country?”
“We weren’t fighting for our country, we were fighting for politicians, those safely ensconced in nice warm houses, back in Blighty.”
“Look, we didn’t want to fight. We were told to fight, we had no choice. We weren’t heroes or anything like that. We were mugs, more like.”
I felt deflated. Surely war heroes were just that, heroes?
“Look, when you’re … up here, if you like, you realise you were just fighting yourself. We’re all brothers … in spirit.”
“Will there ever be an end to war?” I asked, intrigued.
He gave a wistful smile. “In a word, no. It’s the nature of mankind to fight. If there were no men, only women, then yes, but then there’d be no human race left to fight.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He shook my hand. It was dry and warm and his eyes shone with friendship. “It’s Arthur, Arthur Hinchcliffe.”
I awoke and found my eyes were wet. I looked at the clock. It was half past six in the morning. I got up and made some tea and a decision. I was going to go and listen to the old chap in the pub. I’d give him ten minutes, anyway, and, if he wanted, I’d even buy him a bottle of Samuel Smith’s Organic Chocolate Stout.
To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2018 in paperback, Kindle eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.
If you are interested in joining a fortnightly 500 word story group please contact me and I’ll send details.
Don’t forget to check out some of the other stories on the blog. There are over 250!