The woods of Northern Europe 1944
Hold thou thy light before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earths vain shadows flee
In life, in death, O Lord abide with me
– Abide with me, English Hymn – Trad.
The landscape seemed like something out of Dante’s inferno. Grey leaden winter skies blew cold and silent. Dead and partially destroyed trees lined the mud roads, watchful of the soldiers’ progress through deserted villages that smelt of charred wood and ruined lives. Progress was slow, but it was progress. They’d been out on their own for nine days now. A ghost company, they were trained for covert missions using specific skills that no other units possessed. This was their fifth special operations tour of duty and until today lady luck had doggedly followed across half of Europe.
“Jesus Christ, keep down. Get your bloody head down” the Sergeant shouted “I don’t give a toss if you get your own bloody head blown off but you’re risking of all of us. Get down, dig in and stay down or I’ll shoot you my bloody self. Do you hear me?”
“I said. Do you hear me?”
“Yes Sir. Sorry Sir”
The big Sergeant could see the young lad was finished as a soldier, probably finished as a man as well. His eyes filled with tears, the young private’s nerves were shattered. His whole body shook and shivered as each enemy shell whistled overhead. Having left the safety of a deserted barn a day and a half ago, the company had come across enemy skirmishers in greater numbers than expected and were now dug into foxholes waiting for re-inforcement to arrive. Things were becoming desperate and the burly dark-haired Yorkshire man felt a fatherly responsibility for the frightened young men under his command. His heavy set features and dark complexion belied his North of England roots making him appear more like a Romany prize fighter than the son of a Huddersfield tailor. They’d been cut off from the main force and now, under constant fire and isolated, they were tired, hungry and taking casualties. There were twenty three of them left, only nineteen or so fighting fit and fully able.
And the dog, of course. Always there, always brave.
The company was sent out with explosives trained sniffer dogs to clear spoilt ground, to root out and destroy the mines and any other high explosive surprises left by the retreating German army.
With the unusually blue eyed labrador at his side, the desperate young sergeant followed the dog’s gaze skywards as a new hope fell from the swollen grey heavens. Heavy snow had just started to fall.
“Thank God! Cover, lads. Cover, at last! “
Northern England 1999
As the old man slept, he smiled. Over the years his face had weathered to the golden brown of burnt English oak. Upon the rose-patterned pillow, below his unkempt white thatch his face beamed with a childlike peacefulness. The pale spring sunshine stole in through the uncurtained windows with the promise of warmer days, carrying with it the renewed hope that always seem to blow in on the wings of a fresh spring morning.
The relief of sleep deserted him as a spirit leaves the earthly body of the dying. In an instant he aged to all of his 79 years.
As Jack awoke, he called out, “Elsie, love!”
Disappointment immediately masked his face as he reached across to the cold empty space beside him. This was the space that had been filled every morning by his wife and soul mate. Never a day apart in 49 golden years. Until the cancer took her.
“I’ll see you soon, love.” A dull ache filled Jack’s chest and a tear formed in the corner of his eye. Five years, it’d be this time.
“It’ll get easier with time”, his daughter had said. It didn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, he thought, just didn’t understand. Second bloody husband already, some “financial adviser” with a flash car and flash ideas. Thirty grand car, kids in private school, fancy restaurants and not a penny in the bank. What kind of adviser was that? Always rowing n’all, like cat and dog. God knows what she saw in him. They didn’t visit any more, not since Jack had threatened him, on his bloody mobile phone, at the funeral, for God’s sake. Phone call at Christmas and birthdays from the grandkids and a card and jumper in the post. No, she just didn’t understand and that was that.
A quiet whine echoed from the foot of the bed. There, a watchful four year old black labrador sat, patiently smiling, with its head propped on the patchwork quilt waiting for permission to slink up and console his lonely master. When caught unawares or when the coals grew low in the dark watches of the late evening Jack sometimes noticed the dog’s eyes flittered with a baby blue incandescent glow that for some unknown reason brought Jack close to tears.
“Big soft apeth” he thought to himself. Tears were close too often nowadays. The glimmer was often there like a distant memory. One that he couldn’t quite grasp from the edges of his mind. Then in an instant it was gone. Disappearing like a snowflake that melted in the palm of your hand.
“Come on up then! Come on, Miner!” the old man called, gently smoothing down his hair into what passed nowadays as presentable. Jack didn’t bother much now Elsie was gone. No point really. Miner slunk up in one gentle almost cat movement. Creeping forward on his belly using only his front legs. With his back legs splayed out behind him at full stretch his rudder like tail thrashed determinedly behind him. Gently creeping up next to his master he peered into the old man’s face. His soulful eyes inferred a knowing and sense of intelligence that belied his lowly canine status. He licked the tear from the old man’s face and nuzzled his white whiskered cheek.
Jack smiled “Come on then let’s get you some breakfast.”
Keeping the same vest he slept in, Jack dressed quickly into his fleece and neatly pressed trousers. He’d never worn the jeans Elsie bought him. Like the clothes she’d left behind they still hung unworn in the wardrobe. He didn’t have the heart to throw them out. A memoriam to happier days. He knew everyone wore them but they reminded him too much of the overalls from the engineering shop where he’d spent all forty years of his working life.
As usual, Jack started the day with a large pot of tea, white, and two sugars. The only time he’d tried coffee was when he was stationed in France in the army. He quickly cooked up Miners chicken livers, which the dog wolfed down with an unconcealed zeal. Drinking his tea and feeling the warmth of the morning sun on his face, Jack smoked his first cigarette of the day gazing at his garden from the front doorstep. It was a habit he’d maintained out respect even though Elsie was gone. Never allowed smoking in the house she hadn’t. He supposed he could now if he wanted to but it just didn’t seem right. Coughing as he inhaled his last few puffs he noticed the daffodils were ready to flower next to the nearly spent yellow crocuses of his small but well tended cottage garden. Daffs were always her favorite, he thought sadly. Always gave her something to look forward to in the long winter days. Tears were near again.
“Bloody Hell.” Jack said quietly to himself.
Vigorous lapping and a loud sneeze broke his reverie as Miner drank noisily from his brown Mason earthenware bowl.
“Ready, are we?” Jack asked, smiling at the enthusiasm with which his companion seized each new day. Such was the intelligence in those eyes that Jack wouldn’t be surprised if he received an answer. Jack wondered if Miner would have a Yorkshire accent.
“’Course you would” he told the watchful dog “It’s not likely to be bloody Rastafarian is it. True Yorkshireman aren’t you lad?” Smiling he stroked the dogs ears admiring his silken coat, black as Whitby jet. Miner the fifth he thought. He’d always had black labs ever since he’d left the army.
Locking the door behind him they set off at a brisk pace up the lane on their regular morning walk. Jack said good morning to the sullen balaclava clad paper boy who had already stopped to pet Miner. Miner nuzzled the lad’s pockets for the biscuity treat that he knew was concealed within. He was a good lad, young James. Not like some of the other local yobs from the estate. Ruffians with nowt to do and even less brains to go with it. Called him Uncle Albert behind his back, shouting at him while hidden behind the church wall. Tried to intimidate him once, mistaking him for an old biddy. Soon changed their minds a thick ear and a bloody nose later, although Miner’s bared teeth were the deciding factor. One of the fathers, a right layabout, all tattoos and earrings had the cheek to confront him when he was having a quiet game of dominos in the Crown but Winston soon swore him off. Good lad was Winston, like a nephew. He’d known him all his all his life. Jack had befriended his father Cleston when he moved into the new estate after emigrating from Trinidad to work on the buses in the early sixties. “Aye good lad Winston, better than the ‘bloody financial adviser’.” Jack said aloud to himself.
As Jack passed the last of the lane’s cottages, large flakes of snow started fall. As he always did when it snowed, Jack looked skywards, up through the millions of flakes. They danced and drifted slowly with an almost dreamlike quality. Some seemed never to land, dipping then climbing upwards before disappearing into the swirling grey throng. Miner had stopped and sat down. Staring up through the heavy flurries, he whined, looking back towards the cottage.
“Come on, Miner. What’s the matter lad? Tell Old Jack what you see”
Jack shivered, a little spooked by Miner’s reaction to the snow. Perhaps it was the memories as well. Memories of a young sergeant and a dog in a far away field where, by rights, so many should have died. Some days it felt as if memories were all he had left. Memories and time.
“Come on, lad. Come on”
Miner offered a whine of protest as he stood and then padded on at Jack’s side.
* * * * *
Sergeant Jack Walker shivered as the snow fell. It wasn’t just the cold that made him shake but the fear, fear of choosing the wrong moment. If he got the timing right he could lead his shattered men across the open ground and back to the safety of the main regiment. Trace flares burst overhead, lighting up the night sky, turning the soldiers to colourless white ghosts. If this snowfall kept up another hour, it would be deep enough to offer them cover. Cover to get back. The long hour came and went. Now was the time. Time to move.
“Keep low and move quickly. Stay flat, and keep your bloody heads down. The dog goes first, then I’ll follow. Follow my lead and you’ll be all right”
The sergeant held the dog’s face in both hands. As he spoke to the dog, he thought he noticed a blue light flicker deep in its eyes.
“Home Lad. Home. Take us home”
At a crawl, the dog set off eastwards. Eastwards and towards safety. Commanding the dog to stay in a crawl the soldiers then followed in the furrow left by their canine guide. Another trace flared overhead making both the soldiers and the dog freeze deathly still. The dog whined quietly, then, as darkness once again returned, they all crept onwards. Each minute out there in the open felt like an age. Each painfully slow yard felt like a mile. Onwards they crawled. Slowly onwards. Ninety yards ahead the sergeant could see the small wooded copse and the safety beyond. It might well have been ninety miles. He just hoped their retreat would remain undetected long enough to take them out of the enemy’s range. Hope was all they had left.
“Wait up, Miner! Wait up!” the sergeant hissed in a low whisper.
The dog had strayed too far ahead and the soldiers who were dragging their packs as well as the injured were struggling to keep up. Just at that moment, the dog’s ears pricked up and he glanced skywards with a look of panic. The tell tale whistle of an incoming shell sprung the dog to action. He turned full flight towards the crawling soldiers, eyes wild, steam pouring from his open mouth as he tried to make up the ground. Uncharacteristically, as he neared the regiment he didn’t slow, didn’t check his pace, his brave heart pounding for that one last effort. The sergeant mistakenly thought that the dog driven mad with panic was bolting for cover. As the dog drew level with the soldiers he leapt to his right. In the same instant Jack heard the shell explode. Strangely, he also heard what he thought sounded like the rapid fluttering of huge wings.
Just before he closed his eyes against the falling snow, for what he thought was the last time, he could have sworn he saw feathers. Huge white wings and the glow of a pale blue light. Far away in the distance Jack could hear the familiar melody of a brass band floating gently on a summer breeze. A hymn that he couldn’t seem to recall. The sound of home. Then, in an instant it was gone. Just darkness. The dark cold of death touched the Sergeant. His last thought as he left his failing body was Elsie. Elsie, his life. His love. Elsie. Down and down again through the darkness he could feel himself falling. As he thought of Elsie, he saw a pale blue light. The light seemed to call to him in a thousand whispers. As he looked upon it, he cried but didn’t know why. He cried not with sadness, but an unfathomable joy and a new hope.
* * * * *
The old man blew as he tackled the steep hillside. It seemed steeper than normal today, he thought to himself as he struck out towards the hill top. The snow was thicker up here. Nearly a foot ‘n half already.
“No point in turning back now, lad. Come on!” The dog stayed unusually close at his side, Miner’s normally open and smiling aspect seemed to have been replaced with a knowing worried frown.
“Not far now.” Jack said, more to himself than the dog.
Jack stopped. Something was wrong. His breath felt like fire in his lungs as his chest tightened under the pressure of an invisible weight. He staggered towards the shelter of a leafless old oak tree collapsing with his back against the trunk. Sitting there, Jack felt the dogs’ warmth beside him. His vision fading he saw a distant pale blue light. Thinking of Elsie he closed his eyes and muttered “Not long now love”
With ehe pale blue light flowing around him Miner came close and with the dog laid at his side, Jack smiled his last smile. Somewhere in the distance he heard the faint flutter of wings beating steadily in time with the sound of a lonely trumpeters solo.
* * * * *
Regaining consciousness in the field hospital Sergeant Jack Walker felt as if a dozen invisible tormentors were pinning him to the bed with razor stilettos. He looked down in a panic. Relief flooded over him as he saw all four limbs present and correct, thank god! But the pain, the pain was unbearable.
“Ah, Sergeant Walker back in the land of the living, I see” The buxom matron with the well- to- do accent had shoulders as wide as Corporal Adams’ and forearms twice the size. “Take this. It’ll ease the pain. You’re a very lucky man. All of you were very lucky, varying degrees of injury but nothing that won’t mend. You got the worst, of course, being nearest. Twelve shrapnel wounds but the dog seems to have saved all of you. Quite a miracle. Saved all twenty three souls. Smothered the shell and took the blast. Blown to smithereens the poor thing. Seems almost as if it completely disappeared.”
“All the lads all right. Unbelievable.”
“Yes, God knows how he knew but he was a very special dog. Seems as if you all had a guardian angel with you out there yesterday.”
* * * * *
As the old man came round he heard voices. Children’s voices.
“Mum, he’s waking up. Quick! Look!”
The room span and as his head cleared Jack realised he was in a hospital bed.
A pair of blond pixies peered at him, giggling, from the foot of the bed.
Then from his left side, his daughter spoke. “Hiya Dad. We thought we’d lost you for a while.”
Turning to his daughter, Jack smiled. “I thought I’d lost you love, five years ago.”
“I know, Dad.