Age Shall Not Weary Them by An­nie Har­ris

They had fought for their home­land and would never be for­got­ten . . .

The People's Friend - - Contents -

JULY 1918. Dear Mother and Fa­ther, thank you for your wel­come let­ter, which reached me through the Red Cross. I was glad to have the news from home, and know that all is well. Af­ter all, that is what we are fight­ing for.

My thoughts seem in­creas­ingly to be go­ing back to home. A cou­ple of days ago, as we were mov­ing to our new po­si­tion, we passed a scrubby patch of land, and where muddy ruts had dried in the sun there were patches of wild scar­let pop­pies.

They re­minded me of our corn fields, where they ap­pear ev­ery year. I picked one and man­aged to press it in my pocket book be­fore the petals fell.

I passed on your mes­sage for Bert about the horses. He wor­ries about “the old un”, as he refers to his grand­fa­ther, brought out of re­tire­ment, and says to make sure they get their bran mash reg­u­larly, and to watch that sore on Beauty’s fet­lock.

I think he dreams of our horses! He longs to be back, as we all do, and soon may be, for I heard that our ad­vance is go­ing steadily for­ward.

We are all well, by God’s grace, and un­harmed, ex­cept for Alan Pot­ter, who man­aged to cut his hand badly open­ing a tin of bully beef. Nor­rie – his twin brother – said if we let him loose on the Boche with that can opener, the war would be over in days.

Lieu­tenant Peter Bret­ton’s pen skid­ded across the pad propped on his knees as a shell whined over­head again af­ter the late af­ter­noon lull.

Around him, his men ducked in­stinc­tively.

“Lor’, sir, that were a bit close for com­fort!” Nor­rie Pot­ter whis­tled.

“Right over our heads,” his brother put in.

“I think it’s dy­ing down – it’s al­most dark. I’ll just have a dekko.”

Peter cau­tiously raised the periscope over the rim of the trench and peered out. Ev­ery­thing was still and all he could see were the stark sil­hou­ettes of skele­tal trees.

Then, through the ring­ing in his ears from the af­ter­noon’s bom­bard­ment, he caught an­other sound.

He shook his head to clear it and, in­cred­i­bly, from amidst the des­o­la­tion he heard a bird singing, a clear, flut­ing song.

He pulled down the periscope.

“Lis­ten. A black­bird.” “He’d bet­ter watch him­self, or he’ll lose a few feath­ers,” Bill Pearce, son of one of the es­tate’s ten­ant farm­ers, mut­tered.

Nor­rie gri­maced and scratched his head.

“These damn lice. They’re enough to drive a man crazy.”

There were grunts of agree­ment and Peter hastily dug out a bar of choco­late from his tu­nic pocket.

“A square each,” he said, break­ing the bar up and pass­ing chunks around. “Thanks, sir.”

Peter looked round af­fec­tion­ately at the group of young men he’d known since child­hood. They’d been through so much, all sent out to France to­gether as vol­un­teers in the County Yeo­manry.

Some­how, mirac­u­lously, they’d sur­vived and stayed to­gether.

Bert Reynolds, his fa­ther’s groom; John Fletcher, their un­der­gar­dener; Stan­ley Tan­ner, only son of the vil­lage black­smith; Vic, Alan and Nor­rie . . .

Peter re­alised he felt a closer bond at that mo­ment with these lads than his fam­ily back home. All that they’d en­dured bound them close for ever.

As the last of the choco­late dis­ap­peared, he hes­i­tated.

“I’ve got some news to cheer you up. I was back at base camp this morn­ing and they’re say­ing it’s nearly over. The en­emy are stag­ing a last-ditch stand but they can’t go on much longer.”

“Huh. That’s what the top brass said back in 1914. All be over by Christ­mas, they said. Begging your par­don, Mr Bret­ton, sir.’

“You’re right, Bill.” Peter nod­ded. “But it seems to be cer­tain this time. Let’s hope so, any­way.”

“Will you go back to univer­sity, sir?”

Peter pulled a face. “I don’t know. I’m a

dif­fer­ent per­son now.”

“Well, sir, we’ll just have to pick our­selves up and start all over again.”

“That’s it, yes. Get on with our lives from where we left off. You never know, they may be right this time, and we’ll be home in time to bring in the har­vest!”

“Even fit in a cricket match against Lower Das­sett.” Nor­rie scowled. “The cheek of it, beat­ing us.” He rubbed his hands to­gether. “Let me at ’em.”

“You and whose army?” His twin poked him in the ribs. “Who was it out for a duck, first ball?”

“It was that um­pire! He were blind as a bat.”

“Too right, Nor­rie.” There was a gen­eral mur­mur of agree­ment.

“Right, chaps. All quiet now, so let’s set­tle down. Get some sleep be­fore our next or­ders come through.” Next or­ders . . .

He chose not to tell them that, back at base, he’d also learned that at first light they were to leave the com­par­a­tive se­cu­rity of the trench and go over the top into No Man’s Land, to drive home the ad­van­tage that he was as­sured they held.

As they shook out their blan­kets and lay down on the trench shelf, Stan­ley Tan­ner, a cheru­bic mem­ber of the church choir be­fore his voice broke, spoke.

“Sir, do you re­mem­ber that prayer Rev­erend New­ton al­ways says at the end of Even­song? That one about ‘lighten our dark­ness’?”

“Yes, Stan­ley, I do.” “Will, you say it, sir, please?”

“Of course.” Peter cleared his throat. “Lighten our dark­ness, we be­seech thee, O Lord. And by thy great mercy de­fend us from all per­ils and dan­gers of this night. For the love of thy only Son, our saviour Je­sus Christ. Amen.”

“Amen” qui­etly echoed along the trench.

****

July 2018.

“Sorry I’m late, ev­ery­one.” Jan­ice Rogers, the young head­mistress of Up­per Das­sett Pri­mary School, slipped into one of the cir­cle of chairs in the vil­lage hall. “I couldn’t tear my­self away from the pop­pies.”

“They’re beau­ti­ful, aren’t they?” Janet Comp­ton, who kept the vil­lage shop, said. “They’re like a scar­let river flow­ing through the vil­lage from the school gates, along the verges of the lane and the stream right up to the church door.”

“That was what the chil­dren were aim­ing for when they planted the seeds last year.”

David Han­cox, the el­derly vicar, smiled.

“I re­mem­ber see­ing them, all very se­ri­ous as they worked. Any­way, let’s make a start.

“There’s one item on the agenda – fi­nal­is­ing our plans to com­mem­o­rate the Great War and to re­mem­ber the seven men from our vil­lage who went off to France to­gether, re­mained to­gether and then, with the end in sight, died to­gether.”

He broke off for a mo­ment, then went on.

“We shall have a Re­mem­brance Ser­vice in church, in­clud­ing the two-minute si­lence. At our last meet­ing we agreed that, as well as the memo­rial in the church­yard and the chil­dren’s pop­pies, we want a more per­ma­nent re­minder of the war. Any ideas?

“Yes, Mr Bret­ton?” he asked as a grey-haired man raised his hand.

“I’d like to do­nate that land ad­join­ing Can­n­away Wood. You know, that lit­tle meadow slop­ing down to the stream.”

“That’s very gen­er­ous of you, sir.” The vicar beamed at him but the squire shook his head.

“Not re­ally,” he said. “It isn’t good land. I’d like to hand it over in mem­ory of my great-un­cle Peter. It was his favourite part of the es­tate.

“My fa­ther said he re­mem­bered tod­dling af­ter his big brother when he played there, build­ing dams and fish­ing for tid­dlers.”

“We could turn it into a na­ture re­serve,” Jan­ice sug­gested. “I know there are cowslips there by the stream, and some blue­bells have strayed from the wood. It would be an ideal spot for my chil­dren to study in­sect life, but­ter­flies and so on.”

“This is ex­actly what the lads were fight­ing for.” Jamie Clark was a jour­nal­ist on the lo­cal pa­per. “I was read­ing about Ed­ward Thomas, the poet. He was over age, but he vol­un­teered and was killed at Ar­ras.

“Some­one asked him why he was go­ing to fight and he sim­ply picked up a hand­ful of earth. ‘For this,’ he said.”

The vicar nod­ded then con­sulted his notes.

“Mr Mansell has of­fered to play the Last Post at the be­gin­ning of the si­lence. He was a bu­gler in the Boys’ Brigade.’”

There was a snort of laugh­ter from Paul John­son, the church­war­den.

“That’ll be be­fore Jack started knock­ing back the cider in the Seven Bells.”

“Well, he as­sures me he’s prac­tis­ing ev­ery day and he par­tic­u­larly wants to do it as his grand­mother was sis­ter to the Pot­ter twins.”

There was a mur­mur of agree­ment.

“So un­less there is any other busi­ness, I think that will do for this evening.”

“Jan­ice – Miss Rogers – and I would like to stay be­hind for a mo­ment.”

Nick Simp­son, the newly ap­pointed head of sixth form at the lo­cal high school, had spent the meet­ing al­ter­nately scrib­bling notes and ad­mir­ing his fel­low teacher from un­der his eye­lashes.

“As well as the pop­pies, our pupils are anx­ious to play their part in the com­mem­o­ra­tion and we have an idea that we’d first like to put to you, vicar.”

****

The church was full, the en­tire vil­lage present.

There was a low hum of con­ver­sa­tion. A baby cried and was hushed.

On this grey Novem­ber Sun­day morn­ing, the church was lit only by can­dles, those on the al­tar il­lu­mi­nat­ing two vases of tall scar­let silk pop­pies.

The or­gan be­gan play­ing softly, then the vicar and choir took their places.

The clock in the church tower be­gan to strike the hour and from up in the gallery came the notes of the Last Post.

The two min­utes of ut­ter si­lence ended and a rous­ing reveille rang out. In the quiet that fell again, feet could be heard crunch­ing on the path out­side, march­ing in time.

The heavy doors swung open and seven young men in World War I uni­form – six pri­vates and an of­fi­cer – marched down the aisle to gasps of shock from some of the con­gre­ga­tion.

At the chan­cel steps they swung round and stood fac­ing down the aisle, their young faces solemn un­der the peaks of their caps, while at the same mo­ment a group of ju­niors in their navy school uni­form filed out of one of the pews.

They looked across at Jan­ice, who smiled en­cour­ag­ingly, and as she lifted her hand, they be­gan.

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years con­demn.

“At the go­ing down of the sun, and in the morn­ing, “We will re­mem­ber them.” Their young voices died away. The seven lads, at a nod from their teacher, saluted smartly and marched away un­til the shad­ows at the far end of the church em­braced them. Nick turned to Jan­ice. “Well done, your kids.” “And your boys were bril­liant.” She looked up at him, tears in her eyes.

“A stroke of luck that the lo­cal theatre group had uni­forms from their pro­duc­tion of that World War One play.”

The vicar cleared his throat. His voice was un­steady when he spoke.

“Thank you to our boys and girls, who did so well. It was, af­ter all, for them and many like them that the supreme sac­ri­fice we are here to re­mem­ber was made.” ■

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