I had intended to enter this into a competition themed around the centenary of armistic day. But I didn’t quite manage it…
by Jason Gibbs
The sun was just starting to rise, like cold fire, with mists obscuring it. Or smoke, was it smoke? Smothering sound, bringing silence, and death. Archie knew he should react, duck, crouch, do something, but, there was no desire. He was grey, like the smoke. There was nothing for him to do but to accept it.
A loud moo sounded in Archie’s ear.
He started. It was mist. He wasn’t in the trenches. He looked at the cow, which was cordially ignoring him, and noticed its tail rise. He stepped back, though he realised it made no difference. Some plopping sounds occurred, and he stared at the gift the cow had made.
Silver is what Father had called it. He could picture the old man pointing proudly at a pile of manure.
“Son, that muck is worth silver to us. We gather it, rot it, and the Parkers’ll pay us good money for it.”
Edward, as always, had looked attentive. He’d be memorising it in his good little farmer’s brain. Being proud about manure was something which would seem natural to Edward.
He wondered where Edward was. At this time of the day surely he should be up with the cows? They needed milking. Maybe Edward was away on a trip, as he thought Mistress Stimpson had done it the night before. It was difficult to keep the days straight.
Mistress Stimpson, he thought she saw him sometimes, but then she turned away and said nothing, so she can’t have. He could remember an argument with her, she was telling him that he was the only one left to look after the farm. That must have been before, when everyone thought Edward was going to sign up. But he’d done it first. He knew Edward would have hated him for it, but he also knew that Edward was better for the farm. And for Father.
Thinking of Father made him think of his other family. His real family. His lost family. The one he’d spent every heartbeat with, crammed into dank cave-like rooms dug out of the earth, sheltering in the muddy trenches, or occasionally drinking in a farm house. He could see them, all of them. Lewis, his easy smile, Thompson, with his hat always at an angle, Peters, with his face cracking open as the shells exploded. He shut his eyes. He must not. They were all gone.
He’d woken briefly in a hospital. Felt such pain as he’d never imagined. Then he’d seen an angel, or thought he had. But he couldn’t have done because, the next thing that he remembered he was here. Drifting around the farm. He couldn’t do anything, and so, he thought he must be… well.
The cows mooed loudly.
He’d seen old man Johns, helping out, too many men lost. Johns had retired back in… well before the war anyway. Father had been sorry to see him go, but the old man had been getting slow. Good with the horses though. Edward must have asked him back, to help.
That must have stung though. Edward had wanted to get a tractor. He’d pestered Father again and again. “Tractors are the future, and horses are the past!” He’d say this and then point at Johns. The old man would just wave back.
Father’s response about the tractors and any other ideas Edward presented had always been to speak to Archie. It was going to be Archie’s farm, and so he needed to make the decision. Edward had been good about it, but Archie had seen it in his eyes, the frustration. They both knew who should run the farm after Father. But it had never seemed possible, until the war came, and the posters. “Join up and be a man!” or some such rot. All he’d wanted was to not be a farmer.
Archie looked around again, the place was falling into ruin. It had been such a good farm. He knew Edward would get it back together again, now that there was peace, things would be better, and the joy would return. Maybe that’s what he was waiting for?
He wondered if he’d see Father. He didn’t know whether to be sad that Father had seen the start of the Great War, or happy that he’d not witnessed the loss of one of his sons. He knew that he hadn’t always lived up to Father’s expectations, but he thought the old man had been proud, of the degree, the first in the family, and of Archie moving into a world Father didn’t, and couldn’t, really know. But he’d also known that he’d go back to the farm, when Father died. The old man had made it clear, and Archie couldn’t argue with him. Even though he had tried so hard to find a way. A new life.
The law. In the trenches he’d often wondered why he’d once thought it was so important.
Maybe Edward was courting? Perhaps that’s why he was’t there. Maybe he was even courting Lillian. Archie had been in love with her since they were… well, forever. He thought his brother had always seen her as an older sister, but perhaps these days? The war might have thrown them together.
His musings were interrupted by Mistress Stimpson calling the cows in to be milked. Rather late, Edward would need to attend to that. Some of the heifers looked a little grumpy.
They used to refer to her as Ugly Stimpson and laugh to themselves. But he looked at her now and realised that she wasn’t ugly, just old, and not even that old. She looked tired though. Worn out.
The cows moved around him, they at least could see him.
He’d almost bounced over to the recruiting station. They’d told him it’d be over by Christmas, and he must have looked crestfallen because they’d then said probably sooner. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He’d wanted Edward to have a year, a year to show Father the truth, and then, war won, he could go back, and leave. Leave the farm and be a lawyer. He’d been good at that, he’d been complimented on his fine arguments, on his grasp of the details which could swing a case. He’d imagined being called to the bar, starting with small clients, and then moving up.
Looking up he noticed that the hay barn roof was sagging in the corner. There’d be water coming in during the next storm, and that would ruin any hay in that part of the barn. Really, Edward should be here. There was so much to do. This place couldn’t survive with just Stimpson and Johns.
Then he heard a car on the track. This must be Edward. He’d give his brother a piece of his mind, even if he wouldn’t hear it. The car stopped and the door opened. He looked up to see a woman, wearing black, the mists coiling around her. She stepped down and he saw that it was Lillian. He couldn’t believe it, she was here, and she was looking at him. At him, as if she’d seen a ghost. Yet, then, her face changed, and she looked angry. She walked up to him, and pulled her hand back for a slap.
She delivered it. He rocked back. That had hurt.
“Edward is dead, and you’re not. For God’s sake man, pull yourself together and live!” she shouted.
Note: I think PTSD is something which is now better understood and those who suffer from it are getting more support than a century ago. However, there is still a way to go. I support Combat Stress (a UK based charity), and I think they do some amazing work.