It was the kind of thing you just didn’t admit, even to yourself, but Jacky was suffering from Poppy Fatigue. She couldn’t even claim to have invented the expression, though she didn’t know who had. She always liked to think that she honoured the fallen, and to her dying day when she was in her nineties, her grandmother had spoken wistfully of her brother John who had been gassed in the trenches. He had survived, but had nightmares, and it had permanently affected his lungs. He died young.
But the whole thing just seemed to go on and on. She agreed on principle that Remembrance shouldn’t just be restricted to a day or even a month in November, and her boss, Tom,who was also one of her best friends, was ex-services (though too young to have even been in the Second World War, though he was an old man now) and one of the officials in the local branch of the Royal British Legion.
The thing was, even he had been heard to say that he thought some kind of rest period might be no bad idea. Was he suffering from Poppy Fatigue, too? It would be a comforting thought, but though they were generally frank with each other, she couldn’t quite bring herself to mention it. There had been four years of commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the various battles of the First World War, and now the commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War had begun. The back of practically every magazine seemed to advertise “Poppy Merchandise”, and half the local population wore a scarf, or a brooch, or a tie, or even a pair of socks with the poppy on them (though if you looked in the small print the charity donation was sometimes eye-wateringly small!). Not to mention the keyrings, the figurines, the cushions, and even the dog coats, though it was true her friend Margaret’s little Yorkie looked very cute in his, even if she (silently) questioned Margaret’s assertion that he knew what it was all about. Tyke was a very smart dog, but no military historian! Jackie herself sometimes wore one of those discreet little enamel pins, but that was as far as it went. And the Remembrance Day Poppies seemed to appear earlier every year. Everyone on the TV apart from the odd reviled (though never, she had noticed, reviled by any veterans) rebel duly wore a poppy for a month or more. Jacky, on principle, never wore one of those poppies until November. She found herself switching the TV off or the channel over when one of those commercials for special commemorative coins came on. To mix up the battles quite (she knew) reprehensibly, the one with a jagged edge to represent a D-Day Landing beach was a bridge too far. Plus they were one of the worst rip-offs of all. She also couldn’t help thinking that the war-themed tearoom that had recently opened where the Post Office used to be and called itself the “Blitz Tearoom” was to put it mildly in questionable taste. After all, you wouldn’t have the 9/11 Tearoom, or the Brighton Bombing Tearoom, would you?
Of course she accepted it with good grace and had no trouble acknowledging it as an honour when Tom asked her if she’d lay the Remembrance Day wreath on behalf of the local charity they worked for. Yet part of her still felt as if she were being a hypocrite. Finally it had to come out, and she told Tom about at least some of her Poppy Fatigue, it all coming out in a rush and ending with, “And if you don’t want me to lay the wreath now, Tom, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Now, pause for breath, Jackie!” he said in his wry way, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Of course I want you to lay the wreath. I can’t think of anyone I’d prefer. And I’ll tell you this, I’m quite glad you’ve come out with it. If you feel bad about it, how do you imagine I do?” So her suspicions were correct. “I almost wonder if it’s one of those things like – not liking hot weather very much, or not thinking that “National Treasure” is particularly endearing or entertaining. Oh, of course it’s more serious and matters more than that, I realise. But if I were a gambling man I swear sometimes I’d lay a bet on the most unlikely poppy-related item that came out next, and I don’t think I’d lose my money!” They laughed, and it made Jackie feel a whole lot better. “It’s nothing at all to be ashamed of, love,” he said, “And I think you’d find a great many other ex-service people feel the same way, underneath. It’s become way too commercialised and – I know it’s hard to get the happy medium between it just being a token thing one day a year and being force-fed it every day, but I’m sure there has to be one. You just be true to yourself, Jackie, and that’s the best tribute you can pay to anyone.”
Not for the first time, his practical kindness helped her get more perspective on things, but she still felt conflicted as she waited for the parade from the church to the War Memorial to begin, in the group that were behind the standard bearers and the band, but in front of the “general public”. She knew most of them, or at least was familiar with the organisations or businesses they represented, but wasn’t quite sure she recognised the young man who wasn’t in military uniform, though he wore a regimental tie and had medals pinned to his chest, who walked just in front of her – he wasn’t exactly marching, but she fancied he would be a neat, undemonstrative marcher. Silence wasn’t enforced on the walk to the memorial, and the lady next to her, Patricia, whom she knew quite well, and who was a lovely lady but had never quite grasped the fact that cupping your hand round your mouth doesn’t make your voice inaudible to anyone but your chosen interlocutor, as if reading her mind, said, “He’s standing in for Barrie from the Forces Benevolent Society – he’s not very well. He’s called Martin and he’s a veteran too.”
She knew Martin had heard – she caught his grin, and realised just how young he was, but although there was a sparkle in his eyes, there was a thoughtfulness too.
Only when she looked more closely did she realise that he was carrying his wreath in a slightly odd way, and at first she couldn’t work out why.
Then she saw that the very young man with his brisk gait and infectious grin and pensive look had an empty sleeve pinned across his jacket.
Suddenly, she no longer had Poppy Fatigue.