It seemed strange to be standing on a station platform all alone. Not one of hundreds of men in khaki, crowded together, jostling, sharing smokes. He’d been on plenty of station platforms like that, all over northern France – Arras, Lillers, Cambrai. But here – right here - this had been the first.
It’d be over by Christmas, they’d said. There’d been five Christmases since then.
They’d called themselves the Denswood Pals. Men from his home town and all the countryside around, including his own two brothers. There had been a spirit of grim optimism that day. They knew there was a tough job ahead of them, dealing with the Kaiser, but they were the boys to get it done.
Some of them hadn’t even made it through the first three weeks. His brother Billy had bought it at Marne in the first week of September – a bullet in the throat. At least it had been quick. By then they’d lost at least a dozen on the long retreat from Mons.
After that, over the long months in the thick mud of the trenches, he’d stopped counting. Men who were there in the morning would be gone by nightfall – men he’d known from boyhood, fishing in the trout stream, scrumping for apples in old Ned Turrock’s orchard. All gone.
Some of the lucky ones had caught a blighty one, sent home without a leg or an eye they’d brought with them. The worst were those who got caught by the gas in the spring of ’15 at Wipers.
He’d got his corporal’s stripes, and watched as the men he’d known, the ones he’d trained with and fought alongside as the months turned to years, had been gradually replaced with new volunteers, then conscripts. You’d hear a voice call, ‘Brew’s up,’ and turn round expecting to see Ernie Deakin’s cheery face, and it would be someone you didn’t know, someone whose name you couldn’t even remember.
In the end, they’d all been strangers. Or maybe he was the stranger.
The steam from the engine rolled along the platform. They were all here – his brothers, Billy and Jim. Ernie Deakin, Fred Larkin and Fred Farrell, Chalkie White, Arthur Shoebotham… All standing around on the platform, stamping their feet in the cold, ready to form up and march off…
But with a great sigh the big engine heaved itself forward, and as the carriages chugged past the steam cleared. He was alone.
The ticket collector was watching him, waiting to go back into his warm office. “Afternoon, Corp. So they finally let you go, eh?”
“Yes.” He held out his ticket stub. “Yes, they finally let me go.”
“Kept you hanging around over there long enough, didn’t they? Thought you’d all be home by Christmas.”
The cheerful tone grated, but he tried to smile. “Yes. Yes, they did.”
“Still, bet you didn’t mind. All those Frenchie girls, eh? Mademoiselle from Armentiers?”
“Yes. French girls. Yes.” He thrust his ticket stub forward, desperate for the man to take it from him so he could get away.
“Still, you’ve brought a nice bit of that French sunshine with you,” the ticket collector persisted with a snuggle-toothed grin. “Decent after the perishing weather we’ve been having.”
At last the man seemed to take the hint. “Well, I can’t be standing here gossiping all day,” he said, accepting the stub. “I’d best be getting along. Be seeing you.”
He almost saluted, but remembered in time. Swinging his pack up onto his shoulder he walked on out into the street.
The old town hadn’t changed much. He had thought it was a big town, once, but now he’d seen plenty bigger. It was really not much more than a village. The sturdy brick houses and shops along the High Street were intact. Of course they were – it was just that he’d got so used to seeing buildings demolished, whole rows of rubble with odd walls and chimney-stacks standing up precariously like rotten teeth.
The place looked a bit shabbier than he remembered, perhaps, and there wasn’t much in the shops. But the street lamps were the same – some towns were using electric lights now, but Denswood wouldn’t change. The big black-and-white clock over Brindley’s Chemist’s Shop on the corner told him it was almost three o’clock.
There’d been no cars before, but now he counted three as he trudged up the hill. People passed him - a few glanced at him as if they thought they recognised him, but he kept his head down, avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes.
And would they recognise him anyway? He’d been a boy, just nineteen, when he’d marched away, tall and straight, proud to be with his older brothers and doing his bit. Singing as they’d marched – ‘There’s a Long Long Trail,’ and ‘Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider.’ It was a very long time since he’d felt like singing.
The houses came to an end, and the road became a rough lane between hedgerows and overhanging trees. Beyond, the fields lay green and peaceful in the mild spring sunshine. But it was all wrong – fields were supposed to be muddy brown, deeply scarred with zig-zag trenches, pockmarked by shell-craters, strung with mile upon mile of vicious barbed wire, glinting with death.
And the air should be filled with the smell of cordite, sweat and shit, not fresh with the early promise of spring. There should be shouting, the bellow of heavy guns, the sharp crack of rifle fire.
He didn’t belong here. He belonged back there. But there was no “there” any more. It was all over, the grass was growing on the graves of the dead, the people of those shattered towns were trickling back to find out if there was anything left of their old lives beneath the charred rubble.
Others had talked of it, but not him. He’d never let himself even think about it. Superstition, perhaps. And it was superstition that had stopped him from coming home when he’d had leave. It had always seemed like those who most eagerly awaited those few precious days would catch one in the last week before they left the trenches, or in the week they got back.
That was what had happened to Jim. He’d been writing to Alice – he’d promised he’d write to her too, but he never had. Superstition again. So Jim had had a clear run with her, and he’d come back from that last leave to announce that they were engaged. Three days later a mortar had hit his trench smack on. There’d been nothing left to dig out.
So now he was coming home for the first time in over four years. But how could he be coming home? Home was sitting round the big table in the kitchen that Ma always kept scrubbed spotless, eating his dinner and being teased by his older brothers. Home was helping his sister Betty collect eggs from the hen-house – but Betty had gone off to join the VAD, and married some bloke from Norfolk.
That just left Ma and Pa, struggling to keep the farm going. They probably needed him. But the thought of sitting down to eat off a proper china plate instead of a battered mess-tin, of sleeping in his old comfortable bed instead of on a pile of lice-ridden blankets in a narrow dug-out just above the freezing Flanders mud…
No, he didn’t belong here, any more than he belonged back there. He was lost in No Man’s Land, and he didn’t know how to get back to his own lines.
Putting his hand in his pocket, he pulled out his old leather tobacco pouch, and sat down on a piece of tumbled wall to roll himself a smoke. What did you do when you didn’t belong anywhere in this world anymore? Maybe he should just keep tramping on up the road, past the track just up ahead which led up to their old cottage. Tramping on for ever, with the old ghosts tramping beside him, until he came to the end of the world and stepped over the edge…
Suddenly a streak of grey and white came hurtling around the corner and threw itself right at him, almost knocking him backwards off the wall. A hot, wet tongue smothered his face in doggy kisses between ecstatic yips and yelps. He fell to his knees, wrapping the warm furry body in his arms as it clambered all over him, the wild tail wagging so hard it knocked his cap into the ditch.
“Bobby? Is that really you? You remember me after all this time?” The dampness on his cheeks wasn’t just due to the dog’s enthusiastic welcome. “Oh Bobby, I missed you – I missed you so much...” He buried his face in the dog’s neck, breathing in the old familiar scent of musty blankets and well-chewed bones. “Oh Bobby…”
Footsteps came running from the lane, someone panting, out of breath. “Oh, I’m so sorry. He’s normally very good, but he’s had a burr in him all day today, and then he just raced out of the kitchen before I could stop him. I hope he hasn’t…’ She halted abruptly. “Jack…? Oh my goodness, Jack, is that you?”
“Alice?” He rose to his feet, raising a hand to doff his cap – but his cap was in the ditch, and it could stay there. Instead he brushed his hand back through his hair, and surreptitiously wiped the tears from his cheeks. ‘Yes, it’s me… I suppose,’ he responded diffidently.
“We were waiting… We hoped it might be soon.” Obviously she was still out of breath from running after the dog, her cheeks flushed from the exertion. “I’d popped round to fetch your Ma some of the late apples from last year – she wanted to make some chutney, and maybe an apple pie. And we were looking at the new rhubarb stalks to see if there’s going to be… Oh, I’m sorry, here I am nattering on like a fool…”
“No… No, not at all. It’s lovely to see you. Really, I…” Without even thinking about it, he had put his hand out as if to touch her – maybe to be sure that she was real. She reached out too, and their fingers brushed together – just briefly, before they both drew sharply back. The old collie was dancing around them both, its silly tongue lolling with happiness.
“I expect you could do with…”
“I suppose it’s…”
They had both started to speak at once, then stopped, laughing.
“No, you,” Jack insisted, still aware of the lingering memory of her soft touch against his fingertips.
“I was just going to say you could probably do with a cup of tea?” she suggested, her pretty mouth curving into a shy smile.
“Yes.” He drew in one long, deep breath. “Yes, I’d love a cup of tea.”