The towering stone cross atop the war memorial was starkly silhouetted against the pale sky, pointing heavenwards, like a brandished spear stained with the blood of the rising sun. On this cold, bright November morning, nothing stirred except the fallen russet leaves blown along gently by the whispering wind. The stillness was broken only by the sound of uneven footsteps making their slow, laboured way up the gravel path. The small bowed figure of an elderly lady was struggling towards the war memorial leaning heavily on her walking stick. She made slow progress up the steep incline, the pain and effort of each step etched in the lines of her careworn face. She stopped momentarily to catch her breath, which, in the cold morning air, wreathed her head in shimmering mist complementing the silver of her hair and the burnished gold of the rising sunlight reflected in her glasses. After a few moments respite, she set off again on her pilgrimage towards the memorial cross.
When she reached her objective, she scanned the lists of names of those killed during the Second World War, peering through her glasses with myopic eyes. In a few minutes, her eyes alighted upon one particular name. She reached out to trace with her fingertips the engraved letters of the familiar name. As she did so, the expression on her face softened to show less signs of the physical pain caused by her recent effort, more of emotional pain and hurt tempered with an overwhelming sense of love and affection. With shaky hands, she struggled to unpin the poppy she was wearing on her lapel, which she then placed gently on the top step of the memorial. She knew it wouldn’t stay there long. It would be blown away along with the fallen leaves, an ephemeral dash of blood red among the brown of the dead foliage. In any case, when the Remembrance Day service took place later that morning, the whole memorial would be covered with wreaths, her single poppy submerged in the red ocean.
Hettie made her way painfully to the wooden bench at the foot of the memorial. As she sat there, her mind went back some sixty-five years to when she was a young girl of seventeen…. She had first met Corporal John Tracey at the Saturday night dance in the village hall in 1942. There was much excitement among the young girls of the village as several of the young lads who had gone away to fight were home on a week’s leave. As she entered the hall on that warm summer’s evening, she had caught sight of a group of young soldiers in the corner of the room, barely visible through a dense cloud of cigarette smoke. As she sat with her friends at one of the tables surrounding the dance floor, her eyes kept being drawn towards a tall, blonde soldier in the middle of the group. He was chatting animatedly with his comrades, with a lot of laughing and joking. As Hettie glanced across at him, he turned towards her and met her gaze with a smile and a wink. Hettie immediately lowered her eyes in embarrassment, but just a couple of minutes later he was standing towering above her. With a mock bow, he leant down, “May I have the honour of this dance, miss?”
For the next several hours the two of them jived and jitterbugged, laughed and joked together. It was as if they’d known each other all their lives. The war seemed very far away. At the end of the evening, John walked her home. As he left her, he suggested they might go for a walk together the following afternoon in the woods above the village. Hettie readily agreed. As he turned to go home, he leant over and gently kissed her forehead. “See you tomorrow, Hettie,” he whispered, “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, John. It’s been a lovely evening,” replied Hettie. John nodded his agreement, looked at her tenderly and disappeared into the darkness.
She went out walking with John every day that week. Every day they talked and laughed and shared common experiences together. It seemed they were meant for each other. As the days went by, it was clear that they were falling in love. On their last day together before John had to return to his unit, he shared with her his fears about returning to the fighting and how much he hated war. His voice broke with emotion as he shared with her some of the horrendous experiences he had already been through on active service. As his eyes filled with tears, Hettie took him in her arms to comfort him. Through stifled sobs, he murmured, “I love you, Hettie. After the war, I want us to be together.” Hettie pulled him closer indicating that that was her wish too. What happened next seemed the most natural thing in the world. Just as their hearts were already united, so it was only right that their bodies should come together too. They made love gently and tenderly several times there in the woods. It was Hettie’s first time and she could not have wished for a more wonderful way for it to have happened. How she hoped and prayed it would not be the last time with John! As they walked back, hand in hand, towards the village, neither of them spoke, not daring to mention their fears that this wearisome war might separate them forever. As John kissed Hettie goodbye at her door, there were tears in both their eyes. One final embrace and he was gone. Hettie watched him stride away down the road, through a veil of tears. He did not look back. She hoped fervently that this would not be her last blurred glimpse of the man she had come to love so much in so short a time.
Hettie did see John again. A little over a year later, she was out in the garden of her grandmother’s cottage at the far end of the village, picking raspberries. Night was beginning to fall, when she suddenly became aware of voices coming down the lane past the cottage, heading towards the centre of the village. She looked up and there he was! She would have recognized that tall, blond figure anywhere. She wanted to run out into the lane to meet him, but immediately checked herself when she saw he was not alone. Hanging onto his arm, smiling and laughing up into that face so familiar from Hettie’s frequent dreams over the past year, was a young brunette. John was clearly quite enjoying the young lady’s attentions. They were so wrapped up in each other that they didn’t notice Hettie standing there in the failing light. She wanted to call out, but thought better of it. The handsome couple walked on down the lane, oblivious to her presence and to her pain.
It was not much more than a month later that Hettie heard that John’s parents had received the dreaded telegram: “… missing presumed dead.” His name was engraved on the war memorial after the war along with that of scores of other young men from the village. For Hettie, it was the only tangible trace of that blissful week so many years ago.
Hettie’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of footsteps trudging up the gravel path towards the memorial. A woman of indeterminate age was heading to the monument, a small spray of poppies in her hand. Her once-blonde hair was flecked with streaks of grey, and the eyes showed traces of laughter lines at the corners, but her gait was sprightly enough and she bent without signs of stiffness to lay the flowers on the top step of the memorial alongside Hettie’s single poppy tribute. As Hettie watched, the woman straightened up and noticed her sitting there. She came across to the bench and sat down beside her.
“Who are the poppies for?” asked Hettie.
“My father,” replied the younger woman, “Corporal John Tracey.”
Hettie tried to stifle an involuntary gasp as the woman spoke the name of the man she had loved and lost. Fortunately, the stranger didn’t seem to notice Hettie’s discomfiture, as she continued, “I never knew him. He was killed in action just a few weeks after I was conceived. Apparently, I was the result of a one-night stand! I only found out the details of the circumstances of my birth a few months ago. I knew my father had been killed in the war, but that was all. However, my mother became very ill following a stroke about a year ago and decided she wanted me to know the truth. She died a couple of weeks ago – so here I am! For the first time, I am here to pay my respects to the father I never knew…” The younger woman broke off. “Oh, but you don’t want to hear all this.”
“No, do go on,” urged Hettie, trying not to sound overly inquisitive, “I’d like to hear your story.”
“Well, my mum told me that she met this chap who was on home leave in September 1943. She said he was really handsome, tall and blond! Actually, my mum was rather a flirt, I think. ‘Cos he was actually after another young girl he’d met when on leave the previous summer. He’d gone to ask her out – this other girl – but her parents had told him she was staying at her grandmother’s helping out with some chores. He didn’t know where her grandmother lived, and didn’t feel he could ask, as her mother was already eyeing him with suspicion. So my mum met him when he was just wandering back towards the village wondering how to spend his last evening before going back to the fighting. My mum always knew how to give someone a good time and she took pity on him. Although she said he was a bit of a pain at times, because he kept on and on about this girl, kept saying he should go and find her. Now, what was the girl’s name? Hester? Helen? No, that wasn’t it… Hettie! That was it! Anyway, I think my mum seduced him in the end. As I say, I think my mum was a bit wild in her young years.”
The woman stopped speaking and turned towards the older woman, with an expression that was suddenly painfully familiar to Hettie.
“Who did you come here for?” she asked.
Hettie smiled, “ Corporal John Tracey.” The woman’s mouth dropped open in astonishment, “Really! What a coincidence! Who are you then?”
“My name’s Henrietta,” she paused, “but everybody calls me Hettie.”