‘Was that nice, Arthur? Did you enjoy it?’
Molly was just being her usual chatty self and didn’t expect an answer. She scraped the remains of Arthur’s half-finished breakfast onto one plate, piling the rest of the plates and cutlery together on the tray that she’d take back to the kitchen later.
It’s a lovely day outside,’ she continued, impervious to Arthur’s stony silence. ‘A lovely day for the parade.’
Molly had worked in care homes for over twenty years, most of her adult life in fact, and was use to making conversation with people who often didn’t respond. She didn’t take it personally. How could you when such silence was often due to old age and mental deterioration?
She hadn’t yet heard Arthur say a word, not once in the three months he’d been at the home. His file said that he’d spent several months in the hospital before joining the happy community of the Fairview Retirement Home, all of them in complete silence. Before that Molly could only assume that he’d lived in his own home and looked after himself. There was no wife mentioned in his notes.
Arthur’s silence was more unusual than most if only because of its length, but it wasn’t uncommon. By the time people found themselves in Fairview they were often pretty close to the end of their lives and most of them had said everything they wanted to say. Anything else would have been merely superfluous or repetitious.
Molly took the tray over to the empty sideboard and left it there ready for when she would take it back to the kitchen. She noticed, not for the first time, the lack of ornaments and pictures that would normally festoon any available space in one of her charges rooms.
Normally, cheap china figures, vases of fake flowers, pictures of children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, the residue of a lifetimes collection of memorabilia and history, were crowded together on every flat surface; the best of a household now gone, all that could be safely ensconced in the small room.
Arthur’s silence seemed to extend even as far as his surroundings. His room was bare, empty, devoid of anything that wasn’t necessary for everyday existence. His ornaments consisted of a commode, a kettle, the television and a bed, the only picture being one that had been left over from the previous occupant.
Molly shook her head sadly, careful not to let Arthur see the movement and went across to the wardrobe on the other side of the room. She pulled out a freshly ironed shirt, blue blazer with gold buttons and grey trousers with a sharp crease down each leg.
She lay each item carefully on the bed, found Arthur’s only tie and plucked a pair of shiny black shoes from the bottom of the wardrobe, placing them at the end of the bed. She had laboured long and hard to get Arthur’s clothes in such immaculate fashion and she looked at her handiwork for a few moments, proud of her efforts.
Today was Remembrance Day, the day of the parade. Arthur was to take his place with the rest of the veteran’s and march, well, be pushed, through the streets to the War Memorial where wreaths of poppies would be laid out and soft words of commemoration would be spoken.
Molly knew how important the parade would be for Arthur and had been determined that he would be turned out for it as best as he could be. He had no one else to do it for him and was incapable of doing it himself, so Molly had taken it upon herself to do what was necessary.
It hadn’t been any effort for her. She enjoyed being helpful.
‘Come on, Arthur,’ Molly said, stepping over to the old man and gently pulling him to his feet, ‘let’s get you dressed.’
Arthur didn’t offer any resistance. He allowed Molly to ease him from his wheelchair and stood, statue-like, in front of her, his face a blank, his eyes far away.
Although he spent the majority of his time in a wheelchair Arthur wasn’t incapable of movement, but he rarely did anything of his own accord anymore. Anything expected of him had to be suggested, as though he needed constant instruction, and even then any response could be sluggish and uncoordinated. The wheelchair saved on a lot of time and Arthur didn’t seem to mind being in it.
Molly stripped Arthur of his pyjamas and dressed him in trousers, shirt and jacket quickly but efficiently. She knew how proud and dignified her charges could be and despite Arthur’s lack of presence she still felt that he would appreciate this particular chore to be dealt with in the most proficient and appropriate manner.
After tying his tie with a neat knot and putting his feet into his shoes Molly stepped back once again, this time to see the full effect of her efforts. She smiled, indulgently, but proudly.
The medals pinned to Arthur’s suit jacket gleamed brightly, setting off the whole ensemble beautifully. Molly had given them an extra special polish only the other day, aware of how important they were on a day such as this. The ribbons had become dull over the years, there was not much she could do about that, but they still stood out against Arthur’s dark jacket, a splash of welcome colour in the dull room.
Molly sat Arthur back down, gave his tie one last adjustment, smoothed his hair down on his bony scalp and then, almost as though unable to stop herself, kissed the tips of her fingers and placed them gently on his forehead.
Then she turned away hurriedly, aware of the impropriety of her gesture, and left the room without a backward glance.
Arthur didn’t see Molly leave the room.
He hadn’t really seen her all the time she’d been with him; hadn’t heard anything she’d said.
Only her kiss had registered with him.
It was a kiss of goodbye given to him by a beautiful woman. She had been stood with so many others, lining the sunny streets as he and his comrades had marched by so confidently, their voices raised in song, their happy faces red and shiny on this glorious day.
And then he was clambering out of the trench again, laden down with equipment and rifle, into a blizzard of withering machine-gun fire. The sun had gone, hidden by a pall of thick, black smoke. All Arthur could see were the men on either side of him, walking steadily towards their fate, their expressions grim but determined.
The rumble of distant gunfire, both from in front and behind, attested to the artillery barrage that was being laid down somewhere far ahead, the same barrage that should have cleared the enemy trenches in front of any form of defence.
That the barrage had failed in its task was evident in the number of men around Arthur who were dropping to the ground, their bodies slack and unresponsive.
Arthur felt the fear in his stomach, but his legs seemed to move of their own accord, ignoring the sickening, instinctive urging from inside to take cover. The mud sucked at his feet, every step threatening to relieve him of his boots, a trivial problem under the circumstances, but one that distracted his mind from what was going on around him.
He pressed on, adrenalin and nervous energy keeping him going through the cloying mud and buzzing bullets, half-expecting to be cut down at any second. He no longer saw anyone on either side of him and for a moment considered whether he was the only one left alive.
Then he noticed a small knot of khaki-coloured figures ahead of him and away to his right, moving forward, slowly but surely. Then a few more individual figures, half hidden against the dirty brown ground, presented themselves against the skyline for just a moment.
Despite the odds, despite all the men who had fallen, there were some who remained and they were working their way forward, oblivious to the many variations of death ranged against them.
Arthur urged himself forward, feeling that safety lay in numbers. If he could join one of the small groups he might be able to get to his objective and get himself into some kind of cover. He aimed for one of the larger groups, encouraged by their cries and shouts of encouragement to each other.
‘Come on, quick, quick, keep close.’
Bombs went off around him as he covered the last dozen or so yards of sodden, sticky ground. Bits of mud and stones flew up past his face and pinged off his helmet. The explosions buffeted him, the earth shaking beneath his feet, but at last he caught up with the group he’d been making for.
They looked as scared and as weary as he was, but at least now he wasn’t alone.
Just then an uncanny silence fell over the battlefield as the British barrage lifted away from the German front-line and moved on to its next target. By some strange coincidence the German guns too had fallen silent at the exact same time.
Suddenly the day was bright once more, the early morning sun shining out of a cloudless sky and Arthur heard the light song of a bird. The men in the group looked from one to another, their faces wondering and concerned, their thoughts unknown but no doubt running along the same lines as Arthur’s: Was that it? Had the barrage worked? Was this going to be a walkover after all?
Then, above the sound of the singing bird a bugle sounded, harsh and sharp against the silence. There was movement ahead of them in the German trench line, helmeted heads bobbing just above the top of the decimated trenches.
And then the enemy machine-guns opened fire.
And this time the fire was not just terrible: it was murderous.
As the guns opened up the small knot of men struggled forwards for a few yards, but it was useless. They were in the midst of a storm of machine-gun bullets they could not avoid and Arthur watched helplessly as the men in front of him twirled round and fell as they were hit, their bodies falling into grotesque parodies of the human form.
Arthur knew any advance was pointless. He stumbled down the side of a shell crater, his feet sliding out from under him, the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him downwards.
Bullets buzzed over the top of the crater like angry bees. Above the noise of the swarm Arthur could hear men’s raised voices. He looked up from his prone position to see who was there, only to find a disembodied head, it’s eyes still open, staring back at him from the lip of the crater.
Arthur buried his head back in the mud trying to block out the noise of the bullets, the shouts, the yells, the screams, the dull thump of explosions, his own hoarse cries of fear and horror.
And there he lay, face down in the cloying mud, for the next few hours with only dead men for company, listening to the machine-guns still playing occasionally, their fire slowly slackening as time went on and targets became less available.
Gradually, the machine-guns stopped completely, their methodical knocking replaced by the cries of the wounded scattered over the battlefield. But even this didn’t last as the day slowly darkened, the summer sky turning blood red over Arthur’s head before the last flicker of light left the sky and the dark velvet of the night covered the wounded earth.
Dazed and deafened, Arthur slowly crawled up the side of the crater until he reached the top. He lay there a while, not sure which way led to safety, which led to the enemy trenches. Above him Very lights lit up the sky. In their eerie light he saw a strange, but somehow comforting, sight.
No Man’s Land was alive with movement as thousands of British soldiers clambered out of the shell craters and holes in the ground that had been their refuge all day. They limped, crawled and tripped their way over ground littered with discarded equipment and dead bodies.
Eventually, Arthur joined them, staggering to his feet, passing crater after crater, just like his own, each filled with the dead and dying. As he stumbled over the uneven ground he walked past an old German pillbox. Behind it a group of wounded British soldiers huddled waiting for the stretcher-bearers to find them.
Arthur could do nothing for them. Maybe no one could.
Wearily, he finally stumbled across a British trench, almost falling into it in his haste and tiredness. He collapsed onto the fire-step, suddenly aware that he’d left his rifle back in the shell hole. He sat there for a moment his thoughts focussed on what kind of punishment he could expect for such a blatant lack of respect for military-issue equipment.
And that’s where the stretcher-bearer found him, sitting quietly on the fire-step, his head in his hands. He had no obvious wounds but the stretcher-bearer had seen many similar sights in the last few hours and he gently took Arthur’s arm and led him to the rear.
The doctors at the Dressing Station were kindly and let him stay there until there was enough room in an ambulance for him. He hadn’t spoken to anyone. Hadn’t really wanted to. But nobody seemed to mind his silence. And nobody seemed intent on making him talk.
As the ambulance pulled away from the Dressing Station Arthur gazed out at the grim faced wounded and rows of silent dead he was leaving behind.
Whatever he had to say was too expressive for words and so he sat, quietly, and thought again of everything that had happened, unable to stop the images infecting his head.
Then Arthur felt the kiss of goodbye given to him by a beautiful woman. She had been stood with so many others, lining the sunny streets as he and his comrades had marched by so confidently, their voices raised in song, their happy faces red and shiny on this glorious day.
And then he was clambering out of the trench again . . .
Arthur sat in his wheelchair, his eyes blank and unseeing, the film of his memories playing vividly inside his head.
He didn’t need a parade to remind him. He would never forget.
Every day was Remembrance Day for Arthur.