A thought provoking short story about war, life and humanity.
– Read the full story here –
Published in Boyne Berries 22, October 2017.
He saved my life. That’s why I’m here, waiting patiently to see him, before finally returning home to my wife and child.
Doctors and nurses rush by, shouting to each other as they attend to yet another bloodied soldier. I count my blessings that we got out of there alive. Many remain; their bodies returning home while their ghosts roam the countryside searching for lost comrades. I still see them; piled high, adding to the putrid stench of the trenches while feeding the clamouring rodents. But it’s not just those of us who sign up for battle; with war it never is. We’ve all lost friends and family.
I remember those first days. We were young, naïve, our heads full of hopes and dreams. Kitted out for war, we marched in our smart uniforms, buttons gleaming, boots polished as we set off for a few months to right the wrongs of the world, vowing we’d be home for Christmas.
I shift on the bench, looking at the worn, muck-smeared uniform which has clothed me for the last four years. My darned socks peep from boots that appear to talk as I walk; the sole opening and closing with every footstep. My life now is full of terror. Nightmares have migrated to days where any loud sound can drop me to my knees. I’ll find myself rocking in place with my eyes squeezed tight, hands laced over the back of my head and a cold sweat running down the back of my neck.
My wife, Elsie, has kept me up-to-date with letters from home. She does her best to keep her letters upbeat, but I’m aware of how difficult it has become. Letters are censored, but the truth filters through. Nights tortured with air raid sirens screeching, while bombers fly overhead, indiscriminately dropping their load onto schools and churches. This only serves to push us onward, further into enemy territory, to stop their progression. At times it feels like a losing battle. Yet each small victory strengthens our resolve.
“You wouldn’t recognise our street,” she wrote,” blackened embers and debris smouldering by the side of the road. The remains of the greengrocer’s mother, (old Mrs Cribben), was found buried beneath the rubble. Molly was having kittens so she’d ignored the sirens to stay with her. Only Molly survived. A sorry sight, wailing each night until we took her in.”
I love Elsie and her act of kindness. Surely, that’s what makes this bleak world brighter; a little humanity in this ocean of chaos.
A grim-faced doctor emerges through the doors, a nurse in his wake. I reach for my crutch but her hand stops me.
“A little longer. He’s not yet stable,” she says. “Maybe you come tomorrow?”
“I’ll wait,” I say. “I’ll be heading home but I wanted to see him first.”
She pats my shoulder. Her eyes are bloodshot blue. I watch her slow progress to the end of the corridor where she turns and disappears.
Two hours later she beckons me. I follow, walking past young men who thrash on fragile cribs, screaming in pain. She stops at the bedside of what looks like a mummy doused in red paint. Only the left side of his face and his left hand, draped by rosary beads, are visible. I should never have come.
“Are you sure this is Lieutenant Anthony Conway.” I whisper.
“Yes,” she says. “The chaplain was here earlier. Read to him.” She points to a battered prayer book on the locker. Her eyes telling me everything I need to know.
Looking down at his shattered body, I contemplate turning and walking back the way I have come. But I stay.
In the gloom, his uncovered eye opens and stares at me. He doesn’t say a word. I take the prayer book from the locker and fan the pages. A photo slips to the floor before I can catch it, his eye following its passage. I bend to retrieve it, his voice, hoarse and barely recognisable at my ear.
“That’s my son, Jamie. Four years old. A keen footballer, or so I’ve heard.” He clears his throat and turns away. “We’re both from big families, we planned on having plenty of brothers and sisters for him to …”
The wooden chair scrapes across the worn linoleum as I pull it closer to him and sit. “He’s a good looking lad, alright,” I say, biting my tongue as I look at him. You should be proud,” I continue.
“I am,” he whispers. “Although Sarah is the one who should be proud, she’s the one who’s reared him, while I’ve been hundreds of miles away.”
I follow his gaze across the room. The pretty nurse who brought me to his bedside is doing her best to soothe a patient. Eventually she succeeds, his screams become a mere whimper.
“I’ve never even met him,” says Conway. “Probably never will. We shipped out not long before he arrived into the world.” He smiles, “Dawson managed to scavenge a cigar for me when I heard the news.”
His eye closes and I feel a lump in my throat.
He sighs, his words barely audible, “poor Sarah …”
I lean the photo against his empty water glass so that he can see it without having to move his head too much. “He’s a lucky boy to have you for a father,” I say. “A true hero. It’d be difficult to find a more honourable man in the entire army.”
He turns to me and attempts a smile, a single tear streaming down his cheek. “Maybe you might tell him that, some day?”
“Sure he’ll see that himself when—“
There’s a series of light, tapping sounds. Something catches my eye. Rosary beads spill to the floor scattering in every direction. I bend to retrieve them and my grandfather’s gravelly voice pops into my head.
He, like Conway, had a voracious appetite for books and newspapers. Something the breakout of war hampered greatly. But when I turn to tell him, he is perfectly still. A nurse appears, lifts his hand and checks his pulse. I watch and wait for his chest to rise and fall.
“I’m sorry, monsieur,” she shakes her head.
My knees buckle and I land awkwardly on the edge of the chair. I hear a soft voice in the distance.
“— sign for his belongings, get them back to his family?”
“Of course. Yes,” I reply. “I only came to thank him.”
Her eyebrows rise.
I point to my leg. “I was shot, grenades dropping all around us. Even though he was injured too, he still managed to drag me clear.” I shudder. “He went back, for Hill and Dawson. But they didn’t survive …”
I don’t know which feels worse, the memory of that last day; the unbearable noise of explosions mixed with the wails of their victims or here, now.
The same desperate cries resonate in the gloom. Dust motes rise and settle, like gun smoke on the horizon. The earthy smell mixed with body odour swapped for the clinical smell of disinfectant. It cloys at my nostrils, making it difficult to breathe.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The words float unbidden.
Bending towards me, the nurse drops beads into my hand, closing my fingers around them. “You will take to his family, yes?”
I nod and gather Conway’s belongings; his wash bag containing a silver razor, shaving brush and the dregs of a bar of soap. It smells of him. His watch, the black strap worn and frayed at the edges, still keeps perfect time. Ten minutes past four. I’ll need to hurry if I’m to make the train to begin my journey home.
I pack everything carefully into my rucksack, the prayer book and photo nestled in between my clothes. Finally, the rosary beads. Ten beads had broken away as he took his final breaths: a decade of the rosary. I cup them in my hand, along with the broken chain, the cross staring up at me. The nurse is hovering. No doubt, they need the bed. I shove my hand into my pocket and release them, whisper a thank you into my saviour’s ear and bless myself.
Limping down the corridor, I count my blessings that I had met a man like Lieutenant Anthony Conway.
“Double-wired,” I mutter.
“Sorry?” a soldier stops.
I shake my head and continue, unshed tears clouding my vision. My steps become quicker as freedom and the bosom of my family beckon.
I vow to have the rosary beads repaired, have the single wire replaced. Double-wired to add more strength. Then I’ll return them, with the rest of his belongings to his wife and child. No doubt, they will offer them solace, as they had to Conway in his hours of need.
Pressing a well-worn bead between finger and thumb, my lips start to pray.
“Hail Mary full of grace …”
© Susan Condon