Friday, 6 November 2015

The Last Day

THE LAST DAY

The house is on top of a hill and from his bedroom you can see for miles, as far as the coast on a good day. This morning is clear, agonisingly clear, and he convinces himself that far away on the blurred horizon he can see the newborn light sparkling on the sea.
He was up with the sunrise – a new habit, that, an Army habit. The carriage clock on the mantelpiece says six o’clock, and he is shaved and dressed already, saying his prayers and thinking about Folkestone, and the jam-packed troopship, and the train from Boulogne to the front. They are always there now, somewhere in his mind, those great brute facts, the inescapable conclusion of the last eight months. Every interlude when he has not been thinking of them has been merely a temporary escape.
Dad’s familiar tread on the landing. A gentle knock. “You awake, David?” he asks. “I made you some tea.” The old comforting ritual. An early start, whatever the occasion, means an early cup of tea, a bacon sandwich and a boiled egg. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
          “Thanks dad,” he calls, picking a stray hair from the shoulder of his jacket. “I’ll be down in a moment.”
They were up before him, of course. In the kitchen, Dad is bustling around, finding things to do and trying not to meet his eye. Mum, by contrast, can’t take her eyes off him. She looks drawn and pale. She hasn’t slept, he suspects.
            “Sounds like you’ll have a good crossing, anyway,” says Dad. “I saw Bob Hartley last night, after you’d gone to bed. He’d been out sea-fishing. Set fair in the Channel for a few days, he reckons.”
            There does not seem to be anything to say to that, so he smiles.
          “It’s a shame you’re not wearing your uniform. You do look smart in it,” Mum manages to say. It is true but not the whole truth. She finds the uniform hateful, because they are taking her son away. “It’s hard to remember when you were a tiny baby wriggling on my knee.” It’s not hard to remember at all, she has thought of little else for days. They have filled her mind, those memories, the miracle boy born when they were both getting too old, long after they had given up hope. She has tried to make each recollection permanent, to engrave it on her heart.
*
They walk to the station together, three abreast in the green-gold lane. The blackthorn hedge is alive with busy insects and the ceaseless movement of small birds, and a song-thrush, more persistent than his fellows, continues the dawn chorus with a piercing solo. Passing the churchyard, with its riot of bluebells, he takes a long look at the church itself, a curious medieval survivor half-renovated by the last vicar, a disciple of Pugin with more ambition than sense. It is not a magnificent building but it is here. It has dignified and ennobled the joys and hopes and sorrows of the village, their ends and their beginnings, their departures and their returns. It is the point on earth where the incomprehensible becomes familiar.
            They are early. No sign of the train. Mr Stubbs the station-master has withdrawn discreetly into his office to allow them some privacy on the empty platform, but they cannot speak. There are too many things to be said and too many horrors that might be conjured into existence by being spoken aloud. Dad has exhausted his store of comforting complaints about the weather and the fortunes of the village cricket team, and is watching a wood pigeon strut along the gable end of the ticket hall. Mum sits with him, David, on a bench, her eyes moist, and looking much older than fifty-nine. Then the whistle sounds, and the train is coming, and all his life with his parents until today seems to be suddenly compressed into these too brief moments.
          Dad says goodbye first. They do not embrace, they have never embraced, but his handshake lingers uncharacteristically. Years of undemonstrative affection are made present for a few seconds.
            “Be careful, lad,” says the older man. “For your mother’s sake.” He manages a brief smile.
            She has no compulsions about embracing or weeping. She holds him close until the train is bustling into the station, steaming and creaking, and Stubbs has emerged with flags and whistle at the ready.
            “Give our love to Catherine,” she says.
No-one leaves the train here at this time of day, and there is only David waiting to board. He mounts the carriage, kitbag held expertly with new-fledged strength, and turns to wave goodbye as the train labours out of the station up a gentle incline. It does not disappear from sight for a long time, and they stand watching until it can no longer be seen, holding hands as they did when they were courting forty years ago.

*

The branch line, a single track, carves an unobtrusive path through sun-blessed open country, running in and out of woodland, where the enchantments of the early morning have yet to be dispelled. Here and there a wildflower meadow or fallow field bursts into view, the mingled colours a painter’s delight. A succession of small stations, sleepy and deserted, and then he has arrived. This too is a small station, but not like the others because she is there, standing well away from the platform edge to avoid the smoke and steam.
She waves to catch his attention – redundantly, for he could have hardly have missed her, yet there is artless joy and excitement in the gesture, and the wholehearted cheerfulness of her smile touches something very deep. Like him, she is dressed for ranging across country, though she has spent time on her hair, he realises with a thrill of masculine pride.
He walks quickly to her, the weight of his pack forgotten. The kiss is brief, almost chaste, but that cannot disguise the layers of meaning and yearning. As they leave the station, she is talking happily of everything she has done since their last meeting many weeks before. There is nothing he has not heard before, in letters and from mutual friends, but it is coming from her lips, in her voice, in new words. He watches her mouth as she speaks, and her eyes, and her hands. 
 She asked him not to wear his uniform today. He must be wearing it when he reaches the depot tonight; he can change en route. It is not that she hates the Army or even the war. In principle she likes the idea of his being a soldier, she admires his bravery and his newfound strength and skill. But today – today there is no war. Today there is only David and Catherine, and now, and England, under a clear sky.
At her home, her widowed father opens the door to them, pumping David’s hand as men do when they are worried that they have too little and nothing of use to say to someone for whom a fearful event is inevitable. He was in the last war, in South Africa, and he did not enjoy it, he hated it, he was afraid and miserable. For the last thirteen years he has been a country solicitor, which he pretends to regard as dull and mundane because that is what everyone expects university-educated men who have ended up as country solicitors to say. He is worried about David, of course, he likes David, but it is a second-hand, abstracted kind of worry, mostly on his daughter’s behalf, and so much of the worrying part of his mind is taken up with his son, the first lieutenant of a destroyer in the Home Fleet.

Behind the house, a small gate lets out from the garden into a field, sloping gently down from Halfhouse Wood about three hundred yards away. It is knee-high in glowing wheat and a narrow path leads up one side. The two of them follow the path, holding hands eagerly and awkwardly, like children mimicking adult gestures whose meaning they do not fully understand.
Today has been long-planned, long-anticipated, relished in advance in half a dozen letters. Tonight, the ship from Folkestone. This morning and this afternoon, the hunt for the honey buzzard. He is a rare pilgrim to these shores, Pernis apivorus, preferring for his summer haunts the vast forests of the Continent, those great unbroken oceans stretching from France and Germany through the wildernesses of central Europe on and on into the distant expanse of Russia. Just occasionally does he cross the Channel, to spend the warm months in the quietly enchanted forests of southern England.
 Nevertheless, a honey buzzard has been sighted here. It was only a local rumour at first, until old Kemp, the village authority, saw him and confirmed the identification. The sightings have all been in the Home Farm Wood, which lies on a long low hill two miles north. That is where the walk will take them, eventually, after some meandering along the river.
They reach the eaves of Halfhouse, where the wheat gives way to a chaotic natural hedge of brambles and nettles. As they pass they disturb two sparrows bickering over an unripe blackberry, and out of reach and out of sight in the high boughs the irregular hard staccato of a woodpecker punctuates the softer sounds of birdsong. Further along the field’s edge a crow picks half-heartedly at some shapeless carrion; if either of them see it they give no sign of having done so.
Catherine adores this unremarkable place. There is nothing, on the face of it, to distinguish Halfhouse from a thousand similar woods all over England. Unexceptional squirrels dash along the branches of commonplace trees and scrabble in familiar undergrowth. However, long acquaintance has made her used to its subtle glories. When she first came this way it was clutching her mother’s hand, devouring the sensations of the wild as only a child can. Later it was a playground, and later still a refuge, and her sharing it with David has been a kind of consecration.
He takes a boyish delight in the woods, still there despite the Army making him serious and old. She wonders what the countryside is like at the front, what he will make of it. She has known him watch a single skylark for a quarter of an hour, to be entranced by a single leaf transfigured by late autumn sunlight. 
They have spoken little thus far, oddly for them, although Catherine realises that David’s grip on her hand seems to have become firmer and more certain since they entered the wood.
“Do you think there’s any chance we’ll see him here?” he asks abruptly. “Has anyone seen him here?”
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I suppose it’s always possible though.”
She has the impression that he asked the question in an attempt to break the silence, to say something rather than nothing. She wonders whether she ought to try and keep conversation going, or whether it would be better to allow him the company of his thoughts.           On the other side of the woods the path emerges on to a narrow lane. It is still early and a vast warm stillness lies over all. The silence between them has become awkward rather than companionable.     
“James Bennington says he might go over to Rome,” she says.
“Why?”
“Oh, the usual. We Anglicans are too soft and compromised. We’ve been tamed by Caesar. I expect he’s been reading John Newman and overwrought poetry. I don’t think it helps that the Vicar at St Peter’s leaves Labour Party pamphlets in the vestry and opposes the war.”
This was intended to be a safe, bland conversational gambit, to banish the silence gently, but there it is, the forbidden subject, hidden beneath the surface of everything. Even to avoid it is to acknowledge its presence. Perhaps it must be tackled head on. She asks the question.
“Are you very afraid, darling?”
“Yes, I am,” he says. “I’m afraid of being gone before I’ve even arrived, if you see what I mean. Did you see the sapling back there? I’m afraid of not watching it become a tall tree, and seeing my son climb it. I’m afraid of my parents reading a grim telegram from the War Office all by themselves in that wretched old Vicarage, getting old and lonely and Dad having to stand up in a pulpit and say with a straight face that the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, Blessed be the name of the Lord. I’m afraid of you meeting some charming doctor from the next village and having a wonderful life with him and five beautiful children.”
She is not sure what to make of that, and looks up at his face, and sees something glistening at the corner of his eye. She feels that the tear is an intrusion, an aberration, not something to be dwelt upon. So she squeezes his hand and they continue walking. The great looming horrible possibility cannot be fought, or dispelled, or laughed at, or reasoned out of existence. It is simply there. Anything she says will be trite or false or both.
For his part, he appreciates her forbearance from comforting platitudes. What he needs above all is her presence, her accompaniment on this holiday from – no, not from reality, that is too much of a concession to the war’s insistence on being all-consuming, all-encompassing. This is reality, he thinks, a peaceful summer morning in a field in England, just as much as the ludicrous violence of the war is reality.
Two miles further on, the lane brings them to a small church. A bell is tolling modestly for the morning Communion. The vicar knows them both and smiles warmly as they take a pew a little way from the front. There is, thankfully, no high-flown cant about the nobility of the present struggle, only the familiar poetic rhythms of the Prayer Book.
            After the service they walk to the river, and pick up the towpath. The earlier restraint has passed, and they talk of old friends and old times. Eventually it is time to turn aside from the river on the long path back towards Home Farm Wood. In the shade of a willow, they consult the book that they have brought with them, a small red hardback entitled The Honey Buzzard – Some Notes On Behaviour & Habitats. She notices the name of the author: Dr Hermann Neustadt, Professor of Biology at the University of Munich, formerly a lecturer at Balliol College of the University of Oxford.
         They approach Home Farm Wood from the northwest, climbing up through a wildflower meadow. It was this side of the wood that Kemp saw the buzzard, and where two more sightings have been noted. If they are to see it at all, this may be their best chance. They approach with subdued eagerness. He feels a vaguely superstitious reluctance to be too hopeful.
            Inside the woods, about twenty yards from the treeline, a small stream emerges from a south-facing grassy bank. They sit and eat their packed lunches, then lie back, his hand on hers, and stare up at the treetops, eyes scanning the high branches for any sign of the honey buzzard, while all around them the denizens of an English wood continue on their lawful occasions.
They have talked before of how, in summer, these places take on the atmosphere of a fairy tale. At the edge of a clearing, out of the corner of an eye, in a sound half-heard, is a deep, old world. The raucous modern civilisation of steel and speed and machine guns is very distant. Sleep comes easily and before too long both have closed their eyes and abandoned their watch.
            He stirs first, stranded for just a moment in that uncanny netherworld between sleep and waking. He glances at his watch. Three o’clock. They have been dozing for over an hour. By four he must be at the station for the London train. Soon they must start back. Unwillingly he nudges her awake.
As she sits up there is a noise in the canopy above them, a sustained, heavy rustling like a dog moving through bushes. Their eyes race upwards, squinting against the sun. Something is moving through the treetops, something large and brown and graceful, heading for the edge of the trees. As one, they race down the grassy bank, glancing up as often as they dare to make sure they keep it in sight. Ahead is a field, an open space in the trees which the buzzard, if it is the buzzard, will have to cross to continue on its present heading. They scramble over a rotten stile in time for it to emerge, wings barely moving, and of course it is the honey buzzard, she insists, pointing excitedly at the head thrust forward on a long neck, and the stiffly held wings. A male, she says, from the light brown coat and the small size. For a few brief moments they stand together, transfixed, but the buzzard has turned west and is already shrinking in the sky, a vanishing dot against the unbroken blue, and the moment has passed.  

*

It is five minutes before four when they step on to the platform. A little further down a man in naval uniform is pacing nervously, glancing at his watch. She sees him and at once a sort of panic sets in. Every minute of silence today seems somehow wasted, and yet talking has become unbearable. It feels like a kind of sacrilege to speak of the war in these last few moments before the war consumes him. But to talk of anything else is trivial and absurd. In resolution of the paradox, he leans down to embrace her, kissing her hair with an urgency that is both unusual and somehow entirely in character.
            David’s mind is filling with the thoughts that the buzzard hunt was supposed to keep at bay, the mechanical military details of the next few hours. Deadlines, paperwork, schedules, orders. Over the next two hours he will cease to be a man, whole and entire and existing as an end in himself, and become a part of a vast machinery of war, a part that is eminently and necessarily replaceable if it becomes too damaged to function. There is nobility in that transition; but there is loss.
            A slight breeze has come up in the last hour, and it carries into the station the faint sound of a train clanking heavily over points. It cannot be time already, they think, but when they look up at the clock the minute hand has advanced to within two minutes of the hour. He pulls her closer, stroking her hair with his free hand.
The sailor has heard the noise too, and moves to the platform edge, craning his neck to see around a bend in the track. Steam is visible above the trees away to the south and the unmistakeable tang of coal smoke is in the air. Twenty more seconds, thinks David. On cue, the engine itself appears, an iron giant emerging into bright sunlight from the shadows of the cutting. In less than a minute the train is at the platform. The guard has jumped down and is loudly announcing the stops.
            What a way to part, thinks Catherine, with a railwayman bawling in the background about where to change for trains to the North. It is a matter of mere seconds now. Very unwillingly they break the embrace and he hitches the kitbag on his back. For just a second or two she wishes, for reasons that she does not understand, that he had worn his uniform. Too late though. Too late for everything, except one last kiss and the three words that alone make sense of the day, and yet seem so very inadequate.
He climbs aboard, stowing his gear and then turning back to meet her eyes. A flash of green from the guard and a blast on the whistle, and the train is on the move. While they are still at walking pace he leans out for a last kiss, a last precious touch of hands, but the acceleration builds quickly and in seconds his carriage is beyond the end of the platform. 


            Before long he has vanished from sight.     

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