Amelia Brooke slowly awoke, opening one eye, then the other and then both. She sat up painfully from her pillows and stretched her old arthritic limbs. Outside she could hear children laughing and playing on their way to school across the village green. She smiled thinking of the days when it had been her scurrying around playing with her schoolfellows, but that was long ago now and her memories of her childhood were faded and blurred – just like her vision. Still, her life was a reasonably happy one, full of bake sales and fundraisers for the local WI.
Now, at length she swung her legs round and slipped her veined feet into her worn-out slippers. She heaved herself up and shuffled around getting dressed and hobbled down the stairs. The sun shone through the foggy window panes and into her familiar little cottage. It cast light into the gloomy, cobwebbed corners where she couldn’t reach and lit up the little picture frames containing the pictures of her late husband and of their son Thomas who was away in France, which stood on her mantelpiece above the fire.
Last night’s dinner plates sat unwashed in the sink and gave off a not entirely unpleasant odour, which reminded her of visits to her grandmother’s when she was a child. She slowly made herself a pot of tea and settled herself in her favourite tatty old armchair which had once belonged to her father who had long since departed. She put her head back, closed her eyes and began to dream. As she dozed, she dreamt of her family, of her brothers and sisters most of whom were no more. She slipped gently in and out of consciousness when she became aware of a siren going off somewhere in the distance.
A host of Heinkels flew overhead, dropping bombs on the village and the other neighbouring villages as it went. She woke with a sudden start and, after listening for a minute to the chaos from the skies, gave a cry of horror. She hauled herself up painfully from the chair and started as fast as she could towards the back door, but stopped after less than a metre clutching her side in unbearable pain. She turned and looked at the mantelpiece, locking eyes with her beaming son in his crisp uniform, shining grey eyes and neat, brill-creamed hair.
With renewed determination, she reached out, clutched the picture in her hand, and turned towards the door again. But as she did so she heard a loud whistle and the sound of people screaming and then all of a sudden, she heard nothing. She saw nothing. The metallic taste of blood stung her lips and tongue as she lay in the debris, which had only a minute ago been her cosy little cottage, was now transformed into dust and rubble. Still she saw and felt nothing, but somewhere she heard the faint squeal of shells and explosion after explosion after explosion.
She heard nothing more, and her mutilated, bloody hand closed painfully around a still smiling Thomas. The shells whistled overhead, deafening explosions sounded all around and the endless rain poured down unrelentingly. A young man, about twenty-one sat on a bed in the corner. His hair was unkempt and his face dirty with blood and earth. He sat staring across the wet, muddy trench at a boy who lay on a damp blanket in a tight ball, muttering to himself. The man’s forehead creased into a frown, he felt as though something inside of him was missing, something that was so important that without it he no longer felt human.
Presently, an elderly man, a sergeant, approached him. “Sir? ” Nothing. “Sir? ” Still nothing. “Lieutenant Brooke, Sir?! ” The man started, “Hmm? Yes, report! ” he surveyed the old man with unblinking grey eyes. “Sir the second battalion’s almost been wiped out. The men are frightened and that damn kid over there is doing nought to add to their confidence. ” The elder man glared over at the shaking teenager. Then, taking a seat next to his lieutenant, added in a mutter: “What’s wrong with the lad?
We’re just as bad off as he is sir, why can’t he just learn to take it like a man?! ” “Because he isn’t one! ” yelled Brooke jumping up and towering over his second in command. The other men in the trench all stopped what they had been doing and stared at the two men, the young boy continued to whimper pathetically. Brooke glared around at his battalion and continued in a far quieter voice, his tone venomous. “Can’t you see what’s going on here, you fool?! That boy is scared out of his mind at the mere thought of going over the top! And do you know why? Hmm?
It is because as soon as we do go over the top every man and boy here will either be shot or blown to smithereens, and if any man tries to stop it, he’ll be court-marshalled and bally-well shot! So if you can take that for what it is and still keep a stiff upper lip about you then you are a braver man than I and than any man I’ve ever met before. ” With that, Brooke took one final glance around the trench and stormed out into the night. The men, who had in fact been listening intently to everything their commanding officer had said, now sat in complete misery staring at the dank walls of the trench.