With only a few hours until dawn, Jack could bear it no longer. He quietly slipped out of bed and crept out of his room. Warm and inviting as it was, it did not soothe him.
His family garden was as picturesque under moonlight as it was in the afternoon sun. The curving gravel paths were carefully kept, like the picturesque bushes and trees lining them, and one never had to look far for a beautiful place to sit. He’d spied a great spot earlier that day; a bench underneath an ancient oak with heavy branches that nearly kissed the ground. Through the foliage shafts of moonlight dappled the lawn beneath. It gave an air of seclusion in an already isolated village garden.
Then he saw the faint orange glow, shielded by a cupped palm; the faint plume of cigarette smoke rising like dawn mist from the hunched shadow. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised.
Stephen looked around as his brother brushed aside the leaves. He raised a hand in greeting and shuffled over as Jack sat beside him, then waved a hand at the moonlit branches above.
‘Aye,’ Jack replied. Stephen glanced at him and smiled.
‘You too, huh?’
His brother didn’t need to ask. ‘Me too.’
Stephen nodded. ‘Didn’t feel right. I’ve never slept on a proper bed for so long.’
Jack grinned. ‘Too soft, right?’
‘And not lumpy enough!’
They chuckled. After a comfortable silence, Stephen glanced up at the dark windows above. ‘Hope Rosie and Sam are sleeping well.’ He smiled at the image; both children curled up in their soft feather beds and gently snoring into their pillows. Maybe Rosie still had that doll safely clutched in her hands.
Jack hummed in sympathy. He’d had the best sleep he could recall during these past two weeks. No neighbouring private stifling their sobs a few feet away. No distant wail of the Reveille bugle at dawn. No booming echo of howitzers to jolt you awake. He even slept the whole night through now; he called it sleeping in.
‘Moved my blankets to the floor,’ Stephen mumbled. ‘Still can’t sleep without hearing the wind blowing outside. Thought I’d give it a try here, but it’s still too quiet.’
Only the gentle rustling of leaves and a low buzz of insects broke the silence here. Nothing like the roaring of distant guns.
‘And there ain’t enough bodies jostling me around,’ Jack said. ‘Y’know, I’ve never slept alone before. Never without someone an arm’s reach from me.’
‘Yeah, there were always blokes everywhere. What was your bed like?’
‘An old greatcoat, real tatty. You?’
‘Soggy sandbags. Duckboard for a pillow.’
‘All through the war?’
‘Long as I can remember.’
Jack sighed. ‘Sometimes …’ He got up, moved beyond the screen of leaves and gazed up at the cloudy night. ‘Sometimes they’d take someone in the night. Always the weak ones who copped it. Or the cripples. You’d wake up and your neighbour was gone. Or worse … you’d see it happen. Boys screaming for their mums, carted off god-knows-where.’
Stephen placed a paw on his brother’s shoulder. Jack hung his head.
‘The rats were awful,’ Stephen shared in turn. ‘You’d lie awake at night and hear them just outside. Rustling and squeaking … ugh.’ He shuddered. ‘Or else you’d be chatting to a friend, sharing a smoke, and then’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘gone. just like that. Damn snipers.’ He raised another cigarette with trembling fingers.
‘They don’t know what they have,’ Stephen finally whispered. He raised an arm to encompass the slumbering neighbourhood, roof tiles silver in the moonlight. ‘Peace and quiet. They think all this is normal. To sleep on a soft comfortable bed. To not unstick your boots from the mud every morning. To not wake up crawling with lice.’
Jack gave a wry chuckle at that. ‘To be fair, you were never really keen on baths, were you?’
Stephen playfully swatted him. ‘My point stands!’ The silence stretched again, then he sighed. ‘Martin wanted to hear all about the front.’
Jack gaped. ‘What? Uncle Martin?’
Stephen nodded miserably. ‘Wanted to know if I’d ever killed a Hun up close, with my bare hands – Christ, I wanted to smack him!’ He mashed his cigarette into the soil, fuming. ‘And then he said, “terrible business, with the gas and all the rest of it” … how could he even say that?!’
Jack shuddered. Third Company all stiff and blue-faced in death, against the parapet or sprawled in the dugouts, their faces frozen in ghastly screams …
Stephen sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve. ‘I … I miss the lads, now I’m home.’
Jack squeezed his shoulder. He couldn’t help but fondly recall his mates at Ypres. Good old Sergeant Barry, wise and hardbitten, flayed down to flint by the war yet still doling out jokes over breakfast, with a remarkable nose for dirty weather, good food, and soft jobs; Owen Gray, gaunt-cheeked and cheerful, already on his third cigarette of the morning as he scribbled a letter to his Exeter sweetheart; Brian Mills, steadfast and kind, quietly sharing his meagre rations with the younger boys, tucking into his mess-tin of bully beef as if it was a fine Savoy three-course dinner instead of cold jellied spam. All of them sleeping in mud, slime and blood. A foxhole brotherhood to the end.
Jack thought of the days yet to come, when they’d finally be able to call this village home. It was the most peaceful, serene place he’d ever known. Stephen was right; its inhabitants knew nothing of the horrors of war. All they had was the silent list of names on the village memorial. Lest we forget … yet they would never truly understand.
Jack hoped someday he could forgive them for it.
© 2020 | Tom Burton