I stared intently into his eyes, trying to find some meaning within the flickering pupils. Their faded black clouded his face, hiding whatever it was that had kept him ticking away inside the vacancy of his expression for so long. As I watched, a juddering cigarette rose to his lips and released a puff of faltering smoke. Wisps seeped from his chapped mouth and shifted across his face, dragging jewels down his cheeks. He shook the embers, gazing into the nothingness inside the glowing stick. His voice, almost imperceptible, seemed to haunt the quiet café.
“I… I was in the 308th Battalion. 77th Division. I thought – ”
He dropped his head and I started, knocking my pen to the floor. As I picked it up, I saw the tremors that gripped him, knocking his knees together. I felt guilty for looking, as if I had invaded something he wasn’t quite ready for me to see. As we locked eyes once more, I felt unthinkably cruel. But he deserved to be heard.
“Could you tell me about your childhood?”
He took a shuddering breath.
“I was born in 1900. I came from a long line of farmers and was expected to take over from my father, but I always wanted more. He never listened when I told him I wanted thrill and adversity. He said I’d grow out of it. But the countryside was unutterably dull, and my happiest days were the brief excursions into city life. Sad really, isn’t it?”
A wistful half-smile played on his lips. I nodded encouragingly and he continued, his voice slightly stronger in his throat.
“When I was 14, we went to war. It was unexpected to our community; living isolated from society, the only news we got was rumour, so we were shocked when we heard. It didn’t mean much – everyone was convinced it was just ‘city news’ and would be over before it affected us. But posters appeared all over the village. They promised a glowing, undictated future and the chance to be a part of the imminent victory. No more pretending to be something I wasn’t. The fantasy took root. I was too young but I’d always been tall; I knew I could pass. I’m many things, but I’m not a coward. I could sign up to fight.
A few days later, my... my father died suddenly. Heart attack. I booked the next train, and… there was no turning back. They called us the Champions of Britain.”
He trailed off and something like a whisper darkened his eyes. It were as if his next words were intangible. Suddenly he gave a throaty chuckle.
“In the face of pain there are no heroes.”
“Orwell. You study him at school?”
“Yeah, we did Animal Farm. Why?”
“Nothing… he understood a lot. God knows we need that, now and then.”
Afraid of the sudden stillness in his body, I moved on.
“So, what was your first mission like?”
“It was a strange day – sunny and sharp. Too bright. Johnny Briggs was dancing in his sodden clothes, throwing his face up to the light and laughing like a maniac. We laughed too, at first. Then the Sergeant came over, in a puffed-up fury. Told us we were due to march that day and called Johnny a ruddy fool. But he kept dancing. Wouldn’t be commanded.
He was the first to go up that morning. Sergeant said he needed to scout. We went soon after, yesterday’s blood swirling round our feet. We thought nothing of it – it was all so exciting. I looked back and saw the mud already leaking into our footprints, washing them away. Then Johnny gave a terrible scream.”
I was writing furiously and glanced up as he stopped, wiping his eyes with an angry hand.
“It was a gas attack. The ones you always hear about: gas that chokes you, fills your mouth, your nose. Your life flashing before you as you drown. But it wasn’t like that: I pulled on my mask quickly. It was only those at the front who didn’t have time, poor Johnny and the others. There was nothing we could do – we were safe and utterly helpless. I couldn’t fathom that in that moment, as their being drained to dust, they were still alive. Their hearts thudded in their chests, their skin grew and all they had ever done still flew around their fragile minds. I only then saw the immense futility of it. A whole life could just… vanish. Old, young, rich, poor, it was all the same. Hands pointing to heaven, beloved pictures laying forgotten in the mud – what are they to an unforgiving sky? We learned not to see it. But you don’t forget the first. Johnny was only 13.”
His words hung in the dusty air. I was cowed, and it felt an age before I could speak.
“Thank you. That... that’s all.”
I turned away, a familiar hotness behind my eyeballs. The air was sticky and suffocating. Then a comforting hand found my shoulder.
“It’s not for you to feel. This memory’s been recalled and succumbed to more times than I dare remember, and it’ll destroy you if you let it. But it’s just a memory. Among so many others, it’s insignificant. I’ve allowed it to haunt me but you can’t – dwelling in the past can do nothing except make the present unlivable. The world marches forwards.”