A smile forms in the corner of his mouth as he lies there motionless in the summer sun; the warm air cascading gently across his face and rustling his hair in tender strokes. He is in his favourite place on earth, home. It is the middle of summer and he is in his garden with his back against the oak tree that he has adored since he was a boy. He knows every bump and curve on the tree as he has climbed it almost daily over the past 18 years, often in a game where the tree gave him a lofty advantage over the hapless Indians below, or a safe place to hide when nanny was displeased with him for some misdemeanour or another. Just recently he has taken to just lying at the base of the tree, with his back to the trunk, that cradles him like a nursing mother comforts a child against her bosom. He loves this tree, he always has.
He cannot imagine a more perfect afternoon than this, lying in the garden, on his own in quiet serenity, the only sound being that of his sister’s children playing somewhere out the back. And when he gets hungry, after a few hours that would feel like eternity, he would amble back to the house and enjoy a long and carefree lunch that would send him even deeper into a state of idle relaxation. Not a care in the world; he feels so at peace with the world and with himself.
He breathes in deeply and fills his lungs with warm sweet smelling air. His mother’s orchard is heavily laden with fruit and is ripe for picking. The fruit is casting abroad its aroma inviting everyone to come and take hold of the soft luscious harvest that waits. He can also make out the perfume of the lavender bushes that adorn the border. If he opened his eyes he would see the tall stalks of purple soldiers waving in the breeze like a tranquil sea, gently moving backwards and forward in uniformed harmony.
The children’s voices in the distance are becoming a little too animated for his liking and their childish screaming is enough to disturb his peace. Some voices are louder than others and he chuckles to himself as he pictures his younger brother George getting far too agitated as he bosses whatever game he is part of. Sometimes father would have to intervene and ask George to calm down as he became increasingly frustrated that the house servants were not playing the game in the way that he wanted.
He stretches his legs and turns to get comfortable; he could lie here forever and is determined that nothing will make him get up. Not that he could anyway, tiredness has taken hold of his body and he is a dead-weight; nothing more than another piece of the landscape into which he is melting.
He wishes that George would pipe down now. His loud screeching is beginning to disrupt his slumber. If he has to get up and march over to the house he will be very angry and won’t be afraid to show it. Although he loves George to bits, he can be a most infuriating chap. Once, he ran off to tell a large group of travellers to get off of his father’s land or else he would beat them all severely – he was only eight years old and he was lucky to be found by our grounds man before they taught him some well-deserved manners. Also, the carefree way he skipped to the recruiting office when the Germans started to cause a nuisance in Belgium, even against the advice of our father… George was always ready to step in and say his piece without thinking through the consequences.
After a few more minutes, and another twist and turn to get comfortable against the tree, he realises that his peaceful slumber has indeed been interrupted. He tried to push it to the back of his mind, but the noise has now become intolerable and he is irked by the mindless shouting. Also the refreshing cool breeze has disappeared and he is starting to suffocate in this oppressive heat. The air is no longer clean and fresh, and he coughs as he struggles to gulp down any air. This just won’t do…he needs to get up and head to the house.
“Curse you George” he mutters under his breath, “will you stop that shouting! Enough is enough. “
He opens his eyes…
Instantly the bright sunlight has turned into a thick choking smoke that obscures the natural light, and instead of soft grass he is sitting waist-deep in mud and grease. He thrashes around completely disorientated, looking for the safety of his house but it is not there…where is he? Nothing looks familiar, he is not in his garden at all, he has no recollection of this place.
Then he notices that the shouting is not his brother George in the distance, it is himself. In fact, as he sits upright against the tree, he realises that he is screaming uncontrollably. Why? Why is he screaming? What is wrong? Another explosion sends a cloud of earth and stone against his face and he flinches from it, trying to curl into the loving arms of the stump behind him for protection. The tree is rejecting him. There is no safety here; there is no reassurance, no love. He is frightened and alone as he shakes in terror at what is happening. His ears ring to the point that he cannot focus on anything around him, he shakes his head but his senses are totally disoriented and all he can hear is his own muffled screaming and the loud thud of explosions.
He looks around with glazed eyes unable to focus on anything, until he looks down at his body. He realises that he is soaked to the skin and his strange torn and bloodied clothes are stuck to him. The material looks like wet paper that could easily be rubbed away if you touched it. He adjusts his gaze and continues to look down to his legs and realises that they are not there, instead he sees two mangled stumps where his legs used to be. He screams again, this time it is more fierce and chilling and he vomits onto the ground as the sight of his torn body registers in his brain.
Where is he? What is going on? Where is his family?
Through the fear comes a strong resolution to take control, he needs answers. There…over there, look it’s George. He would recognise George’s blonde curly hair anywhere. It’s as golden as the sun and always looks so beautiful, even against the foul mud that clings to him. He finds he can form words in his throat and manages to shout to his brother…”George? George? What the hell is going on? George!”
His brother is not answering. He is kneeling only a few feet away from him, with his back turned. “Blast him”, he thought, “what is he doing now?” He grasps the earth beneath him and shuffles nearer to his brother…”George, damn you”…he shuffles nearer and nearer, the thick choking air almost making him faint as he moves across the ground.
He grabs his shoulder…”George, what the hell is …” The body of his younger brother falls backwards and sprawls on the earth. The screaming starts again. George’s face is not there. Half of his head is missing and his body is lifeless and limp… “George!!!!” he screams; but no one can hear him.
Another explosion, another cloud of earth sprays against him and fills his eyes and mouth with rancid mud that smells of burning. He is immediately sick and slumps onto his side. What is going on? Why is he not home?
He sees a man running towards him! “help” he whimpers…”help me”. He reaches out his arms to be picked up like a young baby desperately in need of love and comforting. He doesn’t know if it is sweat or tears in his eyes, but he knows that he needs to get out of here.
The man stops in front of him, kneels down, and unfastens something from his belt. ”A drink! Oh yes please,” he mumbles to himself, barely above a whisper. He reaches out to the man in front of him grasping at the buttons on his coat, tenderly entreating him to save him from the unnatural and godless scene that he finds himself part of. But no drink is offered, no warm voice meets his ears, no reassuring hand comforts his own cold and bloodied. And then he sees it. Not the soft rounded edges of a flask, but the cold gleam of a blade. Slowly he looks up with fear raging through his body, and for the first time he is able to make out the face of his ‘rescuer’. The man towering over him is young and rugged, but stares back expressionlessly with cold empty eyes that betray no human emotion. Their faces are inches apart. The stranger has not stopped to offer salvation, he is not reaching out to help him, but with brutal gentleness he slips the blade deep into his chest and twists it as it pierces his heart. His body spasms and immediately his eyes begin to mist over. All around him becomes calm and the only sound he can hear is the soft speech of his companion who is now whispering something in an unfamiliar tongue. Although slipping towards unconsciousness, he feels that he recognises the pattern of words being uttered; confused and afraid, to his disbelief it sounds like the Lord’s Prayer although it has never sounded as empty as it does now. The stranger’s voice quietens to an echo and all else turns silent.
With the knife still protruding from his tunic, he falls back and his eyes finally blacken and he comes to rest with his head touching the golden locks of his brother. Together they gaze heavenwards with unseeing eyes as the mud continues to swallow their bodies and entomb them in a land that is far from home.
Two brothers lost forever in Northern France.