As it’s Remembrance Day, here’s a little story in small tribute. Hope you like.
All The Pretty Poppies
I bought the poppy a day before Remembrance Sunday. People had been wearing them for a while before that; they just seemed to appear like they do every year. I’d been planning on getting one at work during the week but didn’t get around to it until the Saturday.
Julie and I had taken the kids for the monthly shop to Sainsbury’s; we’d gone early to beat the crowds. Trouble was, a lot of other people had that idea and with Christmas only being five weeks away, crowds filled the place. Being four and six, Natalie and Ella had enough after forty minutes of going up and down the aisles and I couldn’t blame them. We decided to just pay for what we had and pick up the last few bits during the week. Getting through the checkout took another fifteen minutes so all of us were glad to get out and away from the noise of the weekend shoppers. We wheeled the trolley to the busy carpark, Natalie in the little seat and me carrying Ella. She played with the thinning hair at the back of my head and kissed my cheek with cold lips which made me happy. That happiness went a few minutes later: we only had half of the shopping in the boot while the wind whipped around us to numb any inch of exposed flesh; the girls were messing about in the car and I remembered my cigarettes. As much as we all know we should quit (especially after turning thirty-two and having a habit for almost twenty years), I’d only made it down to six a day. Four of those at lunchtime if that day’s teaching was a bad one.
Anyway, I had none. Not one bloody fag on me or in the house. Julie saw me slapping my coat pockets and frowning; she knew immediately what was wrong.
I told her it didn’t matter, that I could get some from the corner shop a few minutes from the house. As I spoke, the wind gusted especially hard and cold around the carpark and a couple of drops of rain hit the ground close to us. Although the early morning had been mild, a change in the weather was obvious. The sharp taste of cold lived in that wind; it said frost after dark and probably a long one at that. The shop was only a six minute walk from the house but six minutes is a long time when November gets ugly.
Julie told me to go back to the supermarket and be quick. I kissed her cheek, waved to the girls and trotted back to Sainsbury’s, moving as if I wasn’t quite running for a bus. Several people were trying to leave the supermarket at the same time; none of them gave way for the others so a crowd formed quickly. I squeezed into it. Nobody made eye contact although a few people muttered annoyed comments to the air in an English way. The poppy seller did register with me but not fully; he was just there like the trollies and the people in my way.
It took a few minutes to get my fags and I hurried back to the doors, aware Julie’s patience would be running out. The area around the doors was clear and the older gent selling poppies was by himself. He obviously saw me coming but his steady gaze to the automatic doors and gentle dignity didn’t change. Feeling guilty that I’d left it so late to buy a poppy, I slowed to check my pockets and thankfully found a two pound coin. The old boy said good afternoon when I slid the coin in his pot. We made a few seconds of small talk about the increasing cold and the crowds and he handed me a poppy and a pin. I thanked him, unzipped my coat halfway and attached the poppy to my shirt as I walked to the doors. Julie was in the car, facing me and she didn’t look happy. The kids were in the back seat, clearly making a lot of noise. I smiled apologetically and waved. Movement downwards caught my eye as the poppy slipped. I swore and tried to fix it to my shirt again. The pin pricked my finger. I swore again and saw a drop of blood on the poppy, red and red together.
The supermarket was still right behind me, the doors no more than six steps back; my family was directly in front, waiting for me. Everything looked normal but nothing was. It had all slowed down to let me see and hear every single little thing. I gazed at the poppy and my blood and the steady beat of my heart whispered in my ears, pushed back and forth with my breathing. My head tried to move, to look from the bloody poppy to my family, but it was a piece of frozen meat on my neck. I was stuck in a dying place, stuck between the world behind me and whatever was next.
Move, I told myself and did nothing. All I had was the sound of my heart and the knowledge it was slowing towards a final stop. I had lost everything. Or everything had been taken from me. The result was the same. I was over; my life was over.
Pain exploded in my left side in two places; it was unlike anything I’d ever known before. Fire lanced through my body, an invading agony filling every part of me, made so much worse from knowing what it meant.
I was dying. Every part of my past and every part of any future I may have had were gone, and I was gone with them.
Shot. Jesus Christ. I’ve been shot.
Crashing in from all sides but still slow as if I was underwater, came screams and shouts; men screaming, men dying. They were all around me, voices and shouts thick and heavy as they reached my ears in the horribly cold air. Then the stink of blood, of mud and fire. Explosions shook the world; mud and earth blew up around me, scattering down into the ruined bodies of the dead men.
The pain swallowed my stomach and chest, blood that wasn’t mine flowed in my throat and gushed out of the wounds in my side. I couldn’t breathe. There was nothing to breathe. The pain ate me alive.
I was nothing and everything I’d known – family, friends, my life – was all gone.
Things began moving again.
Julie was still looking at me; the expression on her face hadn’t changed. Natalie and Ella shouted and sang in the back seat, and my blood remained on the poppy.
The screaming men had gone. The pain had gone, too. Although I had no idea what it felt like to be shot, I knew that’s what had happened just as I knew the phantom bullets had gone back to whomever they belonged.
I wrapped a piece of tissue around my bleeding finger and walked towards my family.
That was almost a year ago. The eleventh of the eleventh is coming again; it’ll be with us in two weeks. The poppy sellers have been out for a little while. I haven’t bought one and I won’t. Not this year. Or next. I still have the poppy from last year. It’s hidden where Julie won’t find it. I haven’t looked at it since I put it away last year but I’d bet my life my drops of blood are still on the petal, fresh and red as if I cut myself seconds ago.
There’s no need for me to wear one, anyway, not while I have my poppy, not while it’s safely hidden and the solider who really did feel those bullets and really did know he had lost everything is asleep in those petals.
There’s no need for me wear one now I know what loss is.