1920's Youth Lost
9th April 1922-
Jack. Blood. Gunfire.
Richard saw the same thing every time he had closed his eyes. Sometimes all he had to do was blink and he’d see Jack.
Jack his best friend. They’d been through everything together, they’d been on the same rugby team at school, they’d joined up for the Pals brigade together is 1916 when they left school. They’d always been together, until the last time he saw Jack.
They were in Ypres Belgium, in the Battle of the Lys, fighting side by side as they had done for nearly two years.
Richard had blacked out, and all he could remember was a week later waking up in a field hospital. A young nurse with blue eyes like stars, and hair like spun gold, had been nursing him, mopping his sweaty brow.
At first, he had thought he was dreaming, what was such a beautiful girl doing in a terrible place like this?
Later, of course, he had realised he wasn’t dreaming. That’s when he started screaming for Jack. Richard’s commanding officer had had to tell Richard that Jack had died. Jack had been dead when they found them.
Jack’s face still haunted Richard to this day, Jack’s face smeared with mud and laughing. Not with mud from the trenches, but from the rugby pitch when they were at school. He had been so happy, so young….
Sometimes though, he wouldn’t be thinking about Jack, but the young nurse. Lucie. Lucie had nursed him back to health with her tender hand and constant care. Lucie who he had never even said goodbye to before he had been shipped home to England to recuperate.
‘Dickie,’ said a soft voice pulling open the curtains on his window and waking him from his fitful sleep.
‘Mhmm,’ mumbled Richard.
‘It’s today dear,’ said Mrs Armstrong gently, bringing her son up a pot of tea.
‘Today?’ muttered Richard confused. What was she talking about?
He checked the calendar on the bedside table, 9th April 1922. Of course, he realised it was the anniversary of that fateful day in only four days.
The reason today was so important, was because today, he was starting the drive back to Belgium, to Ypres, to Jack.
His parents loved him very much, but they were worried about him.
He had come back from the war nearly four years ago, but he was still very ill. Not physically hurt, he had recovered from the bullet wound years ago, he still sometimes got a pain in his chest when it got damp.
But mentally, he still thought about the war and the trenches almost daily, about all the friends he had left behind. And Richard wasn’t the only one affected by this disease, far from it. Shellshock they called it.
His parents had started to think, that maybe it was time for him to settle down and find a wife. Richard had lived at home since he had been let out of the hospital not long after the war ended, and his mother had been more than happy to look after her little boy.
But Richard needed more than that, he needed someone to share his life with, it might even help Richard to feel better in himself and leave the war behind him.
A worry shared is a worry halved as Mr Armstrong always said.
There was also the fact that Richard would eventually need an heir so that his son or daughter could inherit the land, as the Armstrong were wealthy farmers and bred cattle in Devon.
But Richard was starting to think he couldn’t love anymore. He had met lots of lovely young ladies, some from backgrounds similar to his own, but he just didn’t like them. He sometimes joked that when the bullet had shot straight through his chest, it had taken his heart and the capability to love with it.
Then Richard’s psychiatrist had come up with an idea. Go back to Ypres one last time on the anniversary, visit Jack and his gravestone. Lay flowers on his tombstone, say the things that he’s wanted to say to Jack all these years, and then leave all the memories of the war behind with him.
He could then come home, settle down, find a nice young girl to marry and help his father run the farms. It sounded like bliss to Richard right now, and he was willing to try anything.
So, even though going back to Belgium where it had all happened seemed completely absurd, he was going back to Ypres one last time.
He drank his tea propped up in bed, completely ignoring the rack of toast, as Mrs Armstrong rushed around Richard’s room checking that everything in the suitcase was properly folded, and he had everything he needed for the next week. The housemaid should probably have been doing that, but she loved looking after her little boy.
Mrs Armstrong still thought of Richard as her little boy even though Richard was now twenty-four because he was her only child.
‘Mummy,’ laughed Richard, ‘you’ve checked that case five times.’
‘You’re going such a long way darling,’ she muttered refolding a pair of clean pyjamas, ‘and for so long.’
‘Are you sure you’re up for it dear?’
‘Mummy, I’m going to Belgium, not the moon, I’ve been before.’
‘I know you’ve been before,’ said Mrs Armstrong frantically, ‘don’t remind me! You nearly didn’t come back at all!’
‘Mummy,’ sighed Richard, ‘if I’m not ready now, I never will be. I have to do this.’
Mrs Armstrong looked up at her son with tears filling her eyes.
‘Just promise me you’ll come back, Richard?’
‘I promise,’ chuckled Richard as he finished his pot of tea.
‘What about that toast then?’ asked Mrs Armstrong from the doorway as she left the room.
Richard shook his head and took a piece of toast. Honestly, sometimes his mother babied him like he was a little boy of only five. Then again, he couldn’t exactly blame her.
He ate about half the rack of toast, but that was all he could manage, he just didn’t get hungry like he used to.
He pulled himself out of bed and get dressed in a pair of corduroy trousers and a navy-blue jumper so that he wouldn’t get cold. It was still April, so there was a bit of a chill in the air.
He did up his suitcase and carried it out to his car. It was a bright red two-seater and had been a welcome home present when he’d got back from the war four years ago. The boot was already open, and his parents were standing by the car.
Mrs Armstrong was holding a white cardboard box and a picnic hamper
‘Mummy,’ said Richard shaking his head, ‘France and all Belgium do have food, you don’t have to send me with enough food for a week!’
‘It’s not all food,’ blushed Mrs Armstrong, ‘but you know what you’re like when it comes to eating.’
‘What’s in the box then?’ laughed Richard lifting off the lid, ‘cake?’
But it wasn’t cake, it was a wreath of poppies. It was the wreath for Jack’s grave.
‘Oh,’ said Richard awkwardly.
‘No, she hasn’t packed the cake yet,’ laughed Mr Armstrong, ‘that’s still in the kitchen!’
‘William!’ said Mrs Armstrong jabbing her husband in the ribs, ‘don’t say such things!’
‘Where exactly was the lie in that?’ asked Mr Armstrong.
‘I happen to know that Cook has just finished icing Richard’s favourite chocolate cake.’
‘And how would you know that William?’
‘Because it’s Dad’s favourite too,’ laughed Richard.
‘You keep it Dad, enjoy yourself.’
‘You sure you don’t want me to come with you Dickie?’ asked Mr Armstrong putting a strong arm around him.
‘Sure,’ said Richard, ‘I need to do this on my own.’
‘Good luck old chap, you’ll come back a stronger man.’
‘I’m proud of you for doing this,’ he said putting his hands firmly on Richards’s shoulders.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ beamed Richard pulling himself into the car as Mr Armstrong put the picnic basket on the passenger seat next to him.
‘Bon Voyage!’ called Mr Armstrong.
‘Drive safely!’ called Mrs Armstrong waving and trying not to cry as her little boy drove away and out of her sight.
12th April 1922-
As he had driven closer and closer to Ypres and further into Belgium, it all came flooding back. Not in flashes of images like he usually did, or even the sounds of rifles being fired. But Jack. Just Jack.
Jack seemed to be in the passenger seat next to him, riffling through the picnic basket to see if Richard had left any jam tarts. Jack had always been partial to the Armstrong’s cooks jam tarts.
He could still hear Jack now, when he had got back from leave at home with a large cake tin tucked under his arm.
‘Please tell me there’s some of Mrs C’s jam tarts in that tin!’ begged Jack.
‘Jam tarts don’t travel well,’ Richard had chuckled, ‘you know that!’
‘It doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have tried; please can I just have a peek!’
Richard had known that there were two dozen jam tarts with Mrs C’s homemade blackberry jam in them the whole time.
There had only been enough for two small tarts each when they had shared them out with the whole battalion, but Richard knew that they were Jack’s favourite, and had let Jack have his share.
Richard stopped the car outside a familiar field on the outskirts of a town that he knew all too well. Not four years ago, they had fought in the trenches near this town, and now there was a graveyard where the fallen warriors lay.
He hopped out of the car and got the wreath out of the boot. He had considered wearing his old uniform today, but it didn’t feel right. He wasn’t here to glorify war; he was here to say goodbye to an old friend.
It was a simple wreath of poppies like many of the others, but it was slightly different. It had a black and white photograph of them both in rugby kit pinned onto it.
He pulled on his coat slightly tighter, it was slightly cold even for April. At least it wasn’t raining, there was a bright sun shining down from a cloudless sky.
There were thousands of graves in this huge graveyard, some of them didn’t even names as they couldn’t be recognised. Jack spent half the day trawling the graves trying to find the right one.
Eventually just as it was reaching early evening, Richard had a feeling in his chest that had nothing to do with his bullet wound.
There was a white marble tombstone. Corporal Jack Roberts. June 18th, 1898- April 12th, 1918.
Richard smiled softly and knelt down to lay the wreath down on Jack’s gravestone. He stayed kneeling down in the grass by the grave to talk to Jack.
‘Hello old chap,’ said Richard, ‘it’s Dickie, Dickie Armstrong.’
‘We won the war in case you didn’t know,’ he chuckled softly.
‘It’s really weird to keep going without you,’ he sighed, ‘we did everything together. Everything from Primers to Pals brigade.’
‘Do you remember that rugby match against Bournemouth Boys Grammar when we were in Upper Sixth? We were nearly at the end of the match, and down by two points. I chucked you the ball and you belted it across the try line. Then you got the conversion kick and we won by three points!’
Richard had tears running down his cheeks as he remembered simpler times from six years ago before they’d both signed up for that bloody war.
‘I see your Mum and Dad sometimes,’ muttered Richard, ‘they still sometimes come round for tea. I usually stay out of the way, but your Dad’s come up to talk to me a few times.’
‘They miss you,’ said Richard smiling slightly, ‘and your twin sister Mary misses you too. When I first came home, she gave me the biggest hug, she said that she knew when you had died, a part of her died with you.’
‘I know how she feels,’ he said.
‘Did you know she’s married? Got married last year William Bond, you know that guy who was always mooning after her. They had a son a few months back. She called him Jack.’
Richard stammered for a moment. He had caught Jack up on all the important news and caught up on old times. Now it was time to talk about the real reason he was here.
‘I don’t know how to go on without you sometimes Jack,’ he sobbed hysterically, ‘there are days, sometimes weeks when I won’t get out of bed, I miss you so much!’
‘It should have been me!’ Richard almost screamed through the tears.
‘I should have died, and you should have lived!’
‘I lived and I’ve spent the last four years a bag of nerves.’
‘The first year being home I was scared to leave my own home,’ he sobbed calming down ‘wouldn’t get out of bed for months. Mummy and Dad were treading on eggshells trying not to upset me. They still do half the time…..’
‘You should have lived,’ sighed Richard as he finally stopped crying, ‘you were always stronger, always braver.’
‘I miss you, even now’ he muttered.
‘And I’m going to pull myself together and start living for both of us.’
‘Just to think,’ he chuckled softly, ‘in five years or so, I might come back with the wife and kids.’
‘Anyway,’ sighed Richard, ‘that’s all for now. Goodbye Jack.’
As Richard started to get up from the kneeling position, he realised that somebody had been watching him for the last five minutes.
Somebody had been watching him sob hysterically and talk and shout to a person who wasn’t even there. They probably thought he was crazy.
She had blue eyes shining like stars and soft golden hair in a page boy haircut.
Richard had to do a double-take. Surely, he was seeing things. Maybe it was a ghost? It couldn’t be.
‘Lucie?’ he whispered.
‘Richard,’ she said smiling softly at him in a way that only she ever could.
‘Lucie!’ exclaimed Richard getting up properly and doing what he had wanted to do for four years.
He took her in his arms as dusk fell and kissed her thoroughly. Nothing had ever felt so right.
‘But what are you doing here?’ they both asked as they finally stopped kissing.
‘I live in Ypres,’ laughed Lucie, ‘I just felt drawn to the graveyard today. To you.’
‘Jack,’ said Richard nodding towards the grave.
She nodded in understanding.
They understood each other wordlessly.
They walked out of the graveyard hand in hand, and whenever Richard had a nightmare ever again, his Lucie, his wonderful perfect Lucie was there to soothe him back to sleep and tell him everything would be alright. And it was.