Lest We Forget

trench

I entered this story into an Isle of Wight Library Service short story competition to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. To my huge surprise I won and I share it with you exactly 100 years from the start of The Great War.

Night Watch

Jimmy Cartwright sat smoking a cigarette, whilst the others slept. He relished those quiet times and would always volunteer for the least popular shift in the dead of night. His comrades thought he was strange but didn’t make a fuss as it meant they didn’t have to rouse from their beds at an unearthly hour. He took another drag, inhaling acrid smoke deep into his lungs. Jimmy didn’t care what anyone else thought; he needed this time to think. It was impossible during the day, knee deep in mud and under bombardment from Fritz. Those few dark, silent hours kept him sane.

He thought about all the friends he’d lost, especially Jack who he’d joined up with at the start of the war. He remembered how excited they had been when they went down to the recruiting office, full of vim and vigour, so eager to take the King’s shilling and show the Hun what for. They joined the Salford Pals battalion, alongside fellow workers from the cotton mill and former schoolmates. He had never felt as proud as when they’d marched out, resplendent in their new uniforms, and everyone had cheered them on their way. The generals and majors had thought that serving shoulder to shoulder with men from your home town would increase morale. Instead, it had decimated a generation of young men from industrial towns and cities.

Jack was killed in ’15; not in a heroic act but as he slept. A cowardly chlorine gas attack claimed him and 150 others. Most had died quickly, but Jack and a dozen others lingered for several days. Jimmy was given leave to visit him in the field hospital but instead of his friend who he’d grown up with, he found a pale, blue lipped creature clawing at his throat, unable to draw breath. Jack couldn’t sleep in his gas mask so had stopped wearing it at night and paid the ultimate price. This nightmarish image had replaced that of his lanky friend with the lopsided grin and it was one of Jimmy’s eternal regrets.

Jimmy shook his head as if to clear the morbid thoughts and took another long draw on his cigarette. Instead, he turned his contemplation to Florrie, his beautiful girl who he would one day wed. She wrote to him in her childish script, with cartoons illustrating that week’s news. One showed Father Strong giving one of his interminable sermons while his congregation snoozed and little zeds floated up towards heaven. Another depicted Mr Threlfall, the butcher, chasing a dog out of his shop that had pinched a link of sausages. Her letters were the highlight of his week and he would keep the most recent one in his shirt pocket and read it so many times it would become creased and tattered within days.

They met at Weatherall’s mill where Jimmy was a warehouseman and Florrie worked the bobbin winding machine. Florrie had caught Jimmy’s eye when, as they were leaving one night, she released her curly, dark blonde hair from the confines of the pins that secured it and he watched, mesmerised, as it cascaded down her back. She had smiled at something her friend had said and two dimples formed on her cheeks; from that moment on, Jimmy was smitten.

Jimmy courted Florrie slowly, mainly because her father was a strict disciplinarian and would not allow them to meet unchaperoned. Florrie’s younger sister, Myrtle, followed them like a bad smell and relished reporting any wrongdoing to their father. They were allowed one chaste kiss at the end of each meeting, although they would sometimes hold hands in the picture house when Myrtle was engrossed in the latest Mary Pickford film.

Jimmy loved Florrie with all his heart and he was certain that she felt the same way about him. It was his love for her that had prevented him from proposing before he signed up as he did not want her to feel obliged to marry him if he returned from war an injured man. He imagined them living in a small terraced house with half a dozen tow-headed children, while he would grow vegetables on an allotment and whittle toys for them out of wood. If the war was over by Christmas, as everyone said it would be, they could marry next spring and Florrie could have primroses and daffodils in her bouquet.

Jack’s mother, Mrs Lewis, sometimes wrote to him since she was now on her own. The same year she lost Jack, her husband suffered a stroke and died several months later. Both only children, Jack and Jimmy had grown up as close as brothers so Mrs Lewis considered him one of her own. Jimmy made sure he made no mention of the death, boredom or rats that plagued the trenches but instead kept his letters light-hearted, telling tales of camaraderie amongst his fellow soldiers, so that she wouldn’t worry. Anything else wouldn’t have made it through the censors anyway. He’d heard tell of letters which had arrived at their destination looking like paper doilies, there’d been that many words removed.

Jimmy shifted slightly to make himself more comfortable and lit another cigarette. He was staring at the black velvet sky and noticed that a sliver of moon had risen and the first hint of light could be detected at the horizon. He was so engrossed that he didn’t notice a movement at the end of the trench.

“Jimmy, is that you love?”

“Mam?”

“Of course it’s me love. Who else would it be?”

“What are you doing here, Mam?

“I had to make sure my boy was safe and sound, didn’t I? Come over here, Jimmy, I can’t see you properly.”

Too gobsmacked to argue, Jimmy dropped his cigarette and walked towards the sound of his mother’s voice. As he reached where she had been, Jimmy heard a high pitched whistle and an ear-splitting explosion as a shell landed where he’d been sitting moments before.

Jimmy levered himself out the mud where he’d been thrown and waggled his index fingers in his ears to try and stop the ringing. He moved slowly towards the dugout, avoiding the sharp splinters of wood, some of which were smouldering from the heat of the impact. As he approached, Jimmy realised that no-one could have survived such a direct hit and they’d probably never find their bodies either.

Jimmy came to the conclusion that he must have fallen asleep and dreamt that his mother had appeared, although it hadn’t felt like a dream and he wasn’t prone to sleepwalking. For several days he was concerned that he might face a court martial for dereliction of duty but his CO believed him when he said he’d left his post to relieve himself just before the shell hit.

He wrote to his mother explaining that he’d had a near miss and her reply shook him to the core. His mother wrote that one of her close friends had received a telegram informing her that her son had died so Mrs Cartwright had prayed for Jimmy until the early hours of the morning. When she had finally dozed off, she dreamt that she had visited Jimmy in the trenches, just to make sure he was safe and sound.

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