My Grandad’s old school held an exhibition in remembrance week, focusing on all the old pupils who had fought in the armed conflicts of our country. I...
"REMEMBER LAST NIGHT." A short story.
November 11, 2014
"REMEMBER LAST NIGHT." A short story.
November 11, 2014
My Grandad’s old school held an exhibition in remembrance week, focusing on all the old pupils who had fought in the armed conflicts of our country. It took me by surprise as I didn’t find out about it until late in the day. I was honoured to be invited to the preview of the exhibition and intensely proud to see my Grandad’s photograph, prominently displayed, showing him in the school’s uniform on the eve of war in 1914.
The exhibition brought many emotions to the surface for me, particularly an intense feeling of loss. My Grandad served in the army during WW1 and was wounded in 1918. He made it back, unlike so many hundreds of thousands of young men who didn’t and had a good life and family. Unfortunately, I barely knew him, as he died when I was quite young.
I drove back from the exhibition with my wife and feeling tired she went to bed early. I had bought the book that accompanied the exhibition and settled into my favourite armchair to start to read it.
The book's called. "Emanuel School At War." The book quickly draws you in with it’s incredibly moving and interesting stories. Before I knew it, it was past midnight. I kept reading. I had gone back to read the poignant story of the schools rugby team. Posing in their school photo from 1913. I learned, so heartbreakingly, that eight in that picture of fifteen had perished in WW1. I peered intently at the photograph trying to link the names to the boys and simply remembered them.
‘I knew all of them you know.’
I jumped at the male voice in my ear. Looked to my side where an old man was sitting. He was wearing a dark three-piece suit, narrow tie. Shiny black brogues. He was there but not there, pale and faint. I could see the outline of the sofa we were both sitting on through his body.
I spoke. ‘Well, if it was nearer the date I might think that you are the ghost of Christmas past.’
He looked at me over round spectacles. Smiled. ‘You don’t scare easily do you?’
‘No.’ I said.
‘How old are you now?’
‘I’m fifty-three.’ I replied.
‘Plenty of time left for you then.’
‘That’s reassuring to know. Look, you seem vaguely familiar to me. Do I know you?’
‘You don’t remember.’
I looked at him intently. ‘Not sure.’
‘I held you in my arms when you were only a few days old. I’m your Grandad.’
‘Wow.’ I felt a lump form in my throat, needed a distraction.I looked down at the photograph in the book. You knew these guys?’
‘Some of them. They were a couple of years ahead of me at school. I was still at school when the news of some of their deaths started coming through.’
‘So sad.’ I said.
‘We were proud of them, jingoistic school boys. You don’t feel such a sense of loss when you’re that young. We all wanted to go and fight the Germans.’
I looked back at the picture. ‘Did you play rugby?’
‘Yes, but not very well. I never made the school team. Played in the house team though. Badly.’
‘I smiled. ‘Dad liked his rugby, played a bit. Me too.’
‘Yes. You were a great player, fast and flighty. You had to be, didn’t have much size about you back then. Kicked the ball like a pro.’
I looked back at the picture. ‘Did you play any other sports there?’
‘Cricket. Badly again. I had to wear glasses, even back then, could hardly see a damn thing when I took them off.’
‘Why are you here?’ I said.
‘Laying a few ghosts to rest as they say. You believe in ghosts that’s why you can see me. I wonder. How did that happen?’
‘I was a cop for years.’
‘Saw plenty of things that are inexplicable. You come to accept them. Did some service in Iraq and Afghanistan too. Saw a few things out there that make you wonder.’
‘So, wonder away then son. Only rule is you can’t ask me about anyone living.’
‘Wouldn’t be fair.’
‘I found out the other day that you were wounded.' I said. 'Went to the National Archive at Kew. Saw your war record.’
‘You never told anyone.’
‘I told your Nana. Bit hard to explain a great big hole in your leg.’
‘You didn’t tell anyone else though. Not even my Dad or his brother.’
I paused for a moment. ‘I understand.’
‘Thought you would.’
‘Hard to keep all those feelings bottled up though. Particularly in remembrance week.’
‘You manage to.’
‘A little. I cry a bit too. It’s allowed these days.’
‘Lot of things allowed now that weren’t back then. Not all good either.’
‘Can’t disagree with you.’
‘The crying’s okay though.’
I laughed. ‘Thank goodness for that.’
‘Your children. My great grandchildren are wonderful. You should be proud of them.’
‘I am. Glad we got it right with them.’
‘Wish I had.’
‘My dad and my uncle? They did okay.’
‘So many things we didn’t do right though. Too much stiff upper lip rubbish going on back then. Your Dad’s never told you he loves you has he?’
‘My fault. I never told him. You just didn’t. Just assumed he knew.’
‘You need to tell people Grandad, leave them in no doubt.’
‘I know that now.’ I saw a tear dribble down his too pale cheek.
‘Can you appear to Dad. He’s eighty-three you know, struggling a bit with the age thing now. Tell him?’
‘Can’t speak about the living. Remember? And No, I can’t appear to him. He’s my son. Different rules.’
‘Ghosts have rules?’
‘So many rules.’
‘You and me?’
‘This is a one-time deal son.’
‘Tell me about your war service. What you felt.’
He seemed to become more solid in the chair. ‘I’ve never spoken to anyone about this.’
‘Well, it’s about time you did then. One-time deal?’
He sighed. ‘I was fifteen when war broke out in 1914. Tried to sign up there and then. Went to a recruiting station and lied about my age.’
‘No. I looked younger than I was. Recruiting sergeant took me home to my father. He went nuts. Made me swear on the family bible that I would never try and do the same again until I was at least eighteen.’
‘Try to sign up again? Many times. Same result always. I think my Father knew people, had my picture circulated.’
‘We’d all do the same.’
‘I know. But I just wanted to get out there and fight. In 1914 everyone was led to believe that it was going to be a short war, and we didn’t want to miss it.’
‘Everyone and I mean every boy I knew, wanted to fight for their country. There was no coercion. Whatever you might be told now.’
‘How quickly did you know about the casualties? So many.’
‘Quite quickly. The press always tried to put a good spin on it. But at the school we knew. News came through all the time of old boys who had lost their lives. Then, of course, came The Somme in 1916. There was no hiding that. Nineteen thousand British killed on the first day of battle.’
‘It was. But when you hear all the arguments that have gone on since then. Industrial scale killing and the like. Sometimes people miss the main point.’
‘It was a world war. We had to win it. The Somme was the beginning of the end for the German army. The German army was exhausted in 1916, had a loss of morale and the cumulative effects of attrition and frequent defeats, caused its collapse in 1918, a process that began on the Somme. The Somme led to the defeat of the Germans in 1918. Never forget that.’
‘So when did you join?’
‘1917. The day before my eighteenth birthday. The 4th Hallamshire Battalion.’
I looked up surprised. ‘A Northern regiment? How so?’
‘They set up a recruitment tent on Wandsworth Common that day. So I signed up with them.’
“As simple as that?’
‘I took my birth certificate with me. The next day I said goodbye to my parents and was on a train towards eleven months of square bashing. By the time I joined up, the powers that be, had realized that they needed to send properly trained soldiers to war. Give them a chance of survival and of winning.’
‘Were you ready?’
‘More than ready. We just wanted to get out of training and see some action. I arrived in France in April 1918. Caught German measles pretty quickly. That laid me low for a month. Then off we went across France, into Belgium. Nieuwpoort to be exact.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘You’ve heard of the battle of Ypres or Flanders?’
‘That’s where it was. We went back there. At the first battle, the townspeople had opened the flood gates of the town to flood the low lying ground and stop the German advance. It worked. That was probably the last mobile warfare of the time. The beginning of trench warfare. We went back there in 1917 to help re-secure it. The Germans used mustard gas on us.’
‘Did it affect you?’
‘Affected us all. Killed a few; two hundred and eighty-eight casualties in our Battalion.’
I shook my head. Wow.’
‘We used it on them as well later on. They’d used it first. We felt righteous about it.’
‘We kicked their butts out of Belgium. Then I caught the flu in the September. Put me in hospital for nearly a month.’
‘Killed more people in Europe than the war that year and that’s going some.’
‘What was the hospital like?’
‘It was just tents away from the frontlines. It was more about having a bed to sleep in than how bad the flu was.’
‘Then the battalion was moved towards Germany. Ever heard of the battle of Selle?’
He smiled. ‘I doubt if many have. The river Selle and its approaches were supposedly undefended on its western bank. We advanced through tiny villages and open ground without artillery support to find strongly defended enemy positions. We fought hand to hand at times. It was messy. I was walking into a village when a German sniper got me. Left leg, just above the ankle. That was the end of my war. I was one of the lucky ones.’
‘I was taken out of the front lines. Four days later I was sitting in a warm bed in a hospital in Cardiff. A month and a half in the hospital and then I was back home with my family. It was just a nick really. That sniper who aimed low probably saved my life.’
‘The Battalion achieved their objective at Selle but with only four officers and two hundred and forty men left of the twenty officers and six hundred men who had started the advance.’
‘Jesus.’ I exclaimed.
‘He wasn’t there.’
‘I guess not.’
‘That’s it. I was discharged from the army on medical grounds because of the leg injury. February 1919.’
‘So if it wasn’t for a German sniper who’s aim wasn’t that good. I wouldn’t even be here.’
‘Possibly. We all did it.’
He looked at me, raised an eyebrow. ‘Aim low and hopefully stop someone without killing them. Both sides did it constantly. Your kids ever ask you what you were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan with a gun?’
‘What do you tell them?’
‘Not a lot.’
‘War rules.’ He looked at me. We said in unison. ‘What happens at war stays at war.’
We sat in silence for a while.
‘What happened to your medals?’ I said.
‘I never claimed them.’
‘Just wanted to forget it all, get back to a normal life.’
‘You should have claimed them, no matter what.’
‘So that people like me and my children and my grandchildren don’t forget the sacrifice.’
‘You can still get them I think.’
‘They’re yours, with my blessing.’
‘Pleasure. Keep ‘em polished.’
‘Where do you keep your medals?’
I smiled ruefully. Knew what he was getting at. ‘I gave them to my youngest daughter. I think they’re in her toy box.’
‘She’s a bonny kid.’
‘You’ve seen her?’
‘Yes. She has that beautiful thick dark hair. Gets it from her Nana.’
I looked at him saw the sofa through his body still. My turn to raise an eyebrow.
‘From a distance.’ He said. ‘Not in a spooky ghost type way.’
‘More like a guardian angel way?’
‘You could say that. My turn will be over soon.’
‘Your Dad’s not getting any younger.’
‘What. You mean Grandads’ are guardian angels?’
‘If they want to be.’
‘What about Grannys?’
‘No. They go straight over. They give birth. That’s their side of the deal done.’
‘So when you’re done as a guardian angel. You can go over. See Nana again?
‘I’ve waited a long time.’
‘You said. ‘If they want to be.’ So what if my Dad doesn’t want to?’
‘Then he doesn’t have to.’
‘I don’t think he will.’
‘Because he’s bone-weary. Kind of defeated. Had the soul sucked out of him.’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘Then I’ll have to wait.’
‘You to take it on.’
‘You’ll have a long wait if I have my way.’
‘That’s fine. I enjoy it. Enjoy seeing your children grow. Going over is forever when it happens. That’s a long time.’
‘In the meantime, you keep an eye on us.’
‘Yes. Nearly got caught by your middle daughter.’
‘You did? Wait, I remember. A few years ago, when she was seventeen, she swore that a ghost was in the house, especially if we went away for the weekend. Said she heard things in the house. Saw a perfume bottle move along her dressing table once.’
My Grandad looked sheepish. ‘Sorry.’
‘That was you?’
‘I was playing. Not meant to. It was only the once.’
I laughed out loud. ‘Brilliant.’
‘She’s a feisty little thing.’
‘I know. She’d probably punch you if she knew.’
I looked sharply at him. ‘I’ve missed you and don’t even know you.’ I said. ‘I hardly remember you in life.’
‘Shouldn’t be that way. Everyone needs a Grandad.’ He replied.
‘Grandparents should be there so you can ask them the questions you don’t want to ask your parents.’ I said.
‘I’ve worked most of them out for myself.’ I said. ‘Made a few almighty cockups along the way.’
‘You’re still standing. Have a wonderful family.’
‘I am, and I do.’ I said.
‘What more can you ask for?’
‘Not much.’ I said. I paused regarded him for a moment. ‘You died quite young Grandad.’
‘On the toilet.’
I chuckled. ‘I’d heard that, didn’t know if it was true.’
‘Smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper.’
‘Great way to go.’ I laughed out loud.
‘Not so great for your Nana.’
‘Heart attack. I think all the years, the illnesses and the wounds caught up with me. Wish I’d had a bit longer.’
My wife called from upstairs. ‘Darling who are you talking to?’
I looked at my Grandad, walked to the door, called gently up the stairs. ‘I was just talking to myself. A lot of ghosts come with this book.’
‘Come to bed.’
I looked at my watch; it was close to 3a.m. Time travels slower at night. Still too fast for me though. I turned to my Grandad. He seemed to be fading. He whispered. ‘Time for me to go.’
‘One-time deal?’ I whispered back.
I tried to stop my tears. ‘Can I have a hug?’
He stood up, pulled me close. I felt him squeeze. His arms go around me. Solid and real, and real, and real, and real. Seconds. I closed my eyes. Smiled. Opened my eyes. He was gone.
I gently closed the book. Turned out the lights and went to bed.