“So, this is where he died then?” Will asked, turning to his father for confirmation.
“Yes,” Charlie “Chip” Shaw answered deliberately, weak eyes peering over the ground that still haunted his dreams. He leaned on his walking stick heavily. It had been a long time since he had been back here. A lifetime, most would day.
Will, with lines creasing his own face, gave a small, perfunctory smile. How could he guess what raced through his father’s mind?
It was so different now, the high summer sun giving rise to rolling green fields and calm skies. Red specks littered the green, like flecks of blood spilled fresh as poppies pocked their heads up. Little white crosses, extraordinary only in their quantity, besieged the road sides. Buses brought reems of school children, who exited their vehicles to gawk cheerily at the monuments risen to those who would never return home. It was here that it all happened. The worst summer of Chip’s life.
It was a rainy summer, wet and muddy. Chip had joined up with his friend Billy, eager to participate with all the other young men of the day. He was a year too young, but they lied, running from home with adventure and a patriotic fever guiding their steps. The war to end all wars, people whispered in excitement, not yet aware of the true tragedy that awaited them.
“Chin up, Chip my lad,” Billy grinned as his friend staggered under the weight of his army pack, struggling to keep up, “You’re growing some muscle already.”
He laughed harder as Chip’s grumbling complaints, offering him a cigarette.
Chip remembered the wet more than anything. How it never seemed to stop, cascading down on their helmets, leaching through their clothes and their boots. He could still feel the squelching between his toes and smell the musty scent of rot and dampness. The trenches were dismal places, worse than being imprisoned. The heavy rain fall and the almost constant barrage of shells and gunfire the only sound throughout it all. Eventually, everything green was gone, destroyed by the brutal games of men The only thing that stubbornly poked its head through the mud, blood and corpses of the fallen was those damn poppies.
No Man’s Land was an apt name, but with one flaw.
There was a man who stalked the perimeter between the lines.
Tall, dark and ever present, Chip watched him take man after man into the grave. He was there with every bullet, every piece of hot shrapnel and every soul drowned in the endless bog beneath the stepping boards.
The first time he saw the man, Chip asked Billy about it.
Billy looked to where he pointed, squinting in the gloom of the evening and shrugged.
“You sure its not a German?” he asked, looking carefully.
“So close to our side?” Chip shook his head, “He’s right there!”
Billy shook his head.
“I don’t see him,” he confirmed, looking to Chip worriedly, “Maybe you need some sleep.”
Chip never tried to tell anyone about the figure again.
But by God, he wished he’d tried harder.
He took Billy a few days later. They’d been sent over, running into the perilous place that few returned from. The blast of the shells sent a ringing in Chip’s ear and he almost dropped his gun as the it made him stumble. The sting of hot metal struck his arm and he cried out, shuddering to a halt mid charge. Billy screamed his name, lights flashed and the man was there, standing behind his friend. Waiting.
Chip raised his head, tears of pain mixing with the muck on his face. Billy reached out to him, brown eyes wide with worry one moment and then robbed of life the next. He slumped to the ground, landing without a sound amongst the din of battle around them. Billy disappeared, taken by the figure, who then stepped towards Chips, just as the world faded from his recollection.
The next summer he spent in a hospital, hand shaking violently when he so much as tried to drink a cup of tea. The images of the battles haunted his dreams as surely as the shadowy man wandered the clean, white halls during his conveyance. He spied him from the corner of his eye and watched him take men left and right. The screaming of the injured, the traumatised and those driven insane echoed in his waking hours.
The only good thing about that summer, hot and clinging where the last had been plagued with rain, was Abigail.
The pretty nurse’s smiles were all the sunshine Chip could ever need in the world and drove away, if only for a short time, even the dark figure who stalked his steps.
The summer after the war was the best of Chip’s life. He took Abigail to the alter, mesmerized by her dressed in white, sunshine smile on full force.
The dark man stayed far away for many summers after that.
Then it all happened again. Chip couldn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it. His hand shook as the memories of that horrible summer visited him full force. War had returned, this time stretching its ugly fingers to the island he called home.
The man returned too.
He lingered amongst the rubble of houses bombed out. He stalked the hospitals and underground, crouched besides Chip’s own children in the air raid shelters. His face was a shadow, obscured even when Chip gathered the courage to look on it, drawing his family away from where the dark man stood. Nobody saw him. Nobody witnessed as he dragged away soul after soul.
Those summers eventually passed, but they were long and filled with uncertainty and fear.
He didn’t see the man often after that, but he was there. He was there the summer Chip’s youngest granddaughter grew ill and sat beside the old man in the hospital waiting area for hours. Chip worried he would never leave. Eventually though, he rose and walked out the door, leaving little Lizzie with her family.
He was sitting on the couch the summer evening Abigail had passed on in her sleep and escorted her out the door.
And now, many summers later, he stood on the green fields, speckled with ruby poppies and watched as Chip showed his eldest son where his namesake had died. Chip wasn’t afraid. He let Will go off to look at one of the monuments and hobbled over to the man, leaning heavily on his walking stick. The man’s face wasn’t so shadowed now and brown eyes looked at him fondly.
“Ready to go, Chip?” Billy asked.
The sun beat down on them, warming Chip’s old bones and making him feel like the boy who had come here one summer all those years ago.
“I’m ready,” he said, walking on beside an old friend.