“The Last Poppy”.

Ernest Gray put aside the Sunday newspaper with a sigh and looked abstractedly at his son in the armchair opposite. His eyes took a second or two to focus, dimmed by the passing of eighty-three years of life. Norman peered over the top of his battered spectacles at his father’s pinched face. As he watched Ernest’s awkward effort to stand he made a mental note to have the wheeze in the old man’s chest checked by the doctor.

“Determined to go then Pop?” Norman queried with an air of resignation. For a week now he had gently remonstrated with Ernest concerning the wisdom of attending the Armistice Day ceremony at the local war memorial. It was to no avail. Norman knew only too well that once his father had made a decision then nothing would change his mind. But why, after so many years, did the old man now wish to attend a ceremony he had boycotted for so long?

“Aye, Norman. It’s not as fresh as I’d hoped for…but even so it’s not too cold. A bit misty I know. Damp too… and that. will make my bones ache, ache something chronic…” Ernest tapped his knee tenderly and continued stoically, “…just as long as this forgets the rest of me for a while, I’ll be fine. I know a storm’s forecast…but this time of year it’ll be strange if it’s true.”

The son resigned himself to the father’s dogged obstinacy but felt compelled to offer a further suggestion.

“Tell you what pop…it’s your birthday as well…how about we meet in the local at twelve? We can then come home together.” Norman squinted at his father and waited for a response and then added, “…you know, have a couple of jars and a few nips for many happy returns. What do you say?”

Ernest smiled and nodded. “Aye son, that’ll be just fine.”

“Got your poppy?” Norman asked, as he helped the old man on with his coat and fastened the buttons. Ernest watched with an expression of pained resignation as the scuffed brown leather buttons slipped through the holes. His own gnarled fingers were too arthritic now to enable him to do anything more than fumble. Not that Norman was exceptionally nimble himself. After all he was not far from retirement either. The older man smiled absent-mindedly and amused himself with the knowledge that his son was sixty-one already. Suppressing a laugh with a bronchial wheeze and a watery wink of a creased eyelid, Ernest nodded in answer to his son’s question.

“It’s there…stuck in the button-hole…see?” For a moment his mind sped back to a week before. A woman and her child had come round collecting for ‘Poppy Day’ as she euphemistically called it. Ernest had given fifty pence even though he had been quite unable to place the coin in the narrow slot of the collection tin. How incongruous, Ernest had mused, that the woman’s young son had carried a toy gun. A toy with which he fired imaginary bullets at the sky, the wall, the sparrows and passing strangers. An echo of distant thunder had startled him and he had looked skywards for signs of impending storm. It was, though, just a memory. The day remained bright. Cold, but bright. As the little boy waved goodbye, firing several more rat-a-tat-tatting volleys into the nearby lamp post as he did so, Ernest decided it was time to walk up to the memorial on the eleventh.

The poppy spent the following days forgotten until found by Billy, the chirpy great-grandson, as he innocently and unashamedly rummaged through Ernest’s jacket pockets. Billy did this regularly, searching for ‘treasures’ which he lovingly stored in a veritable work of art Mazzawattee tea tin. Ernest had given the old-fashioned hinged-lid tin with a start-off horde consisting of six marbles (real blood alleys at that), an old medal, a silver threepenny piece, an oid Jim Pike dart shaft, seven old lead soldiers of whom two had their wobbling heads held on with matchsticks, two French coins and a real half-crown with a queen’s head on it, four cigarette cards depicting steam trains, and the eye from a long lost teddy-bear.

Norman had expressed surprise upon its discovery. Billy did not want it for his tin, convinced it would die in the dark, but had asked if he could press it in a book instead. Ernest had not bought a poppy in many a year. The secrecy had both amused and disturbed, but little comment was made at the time. The old man shrugged off the situation with a mumbled aside that he had been too embarrassed to refuse. Norman had accepted the answer with some reservation but decided it would not be to his father’s advantage to pursue the matter. Gradually Ernest’s intentions came to light, were viewed initially as a nostalgic vagary, but were eventually accepted with provisos concerning the weather.

Norman guided his father to the front gate and handed him his knotty old walking stick. With some measure of silent remorse mingled with concern he gently held the frail, nodular elbow that hardly seemed to exist within the heavy overcoat sleeve.

“Sure you don’t want me come with you Pop?” Norman enquired whilst trying not to seem over-concientious or even intrusive.

“No son…see you in The Straddled Hen at noon, eh”? Ernest replied in almost a whisper as he turned slowly and stepped out somewhat gingerly onto the damp pavement. The tired watery eyes had silenced Norman with their wistful gaze, so he stood apprehensively watching his father’s slow but determined progress up the road. Every now and then Norman noticed his father stop to take a deep breath, then exhaling a small burst of crystal laden air into the chilly breeze that was beginning to blow across from the allotments nearby.

When Ernest turned the corner and thus beyond his son’s pensive watchfulness, Norman returned to the warmth of their home. Edith, Norman’s wife, chided him for not going with her father-in-law but agreed that the old man should be met in the pub at mid-day. He could use and enjoy a couple of rum tots to lubricate his special day. In addition, a good roast, small as it was, would warm both men and encourage the now traditional, and now inevitable, Sunday afternoon nap.

Ernest sat down heavily on the bench seat near to the war memorial, jarring his knee and sending a shudder of sudden pain up his spine. Fingering the poppy the old man stared across at the assemblage of people knotted around the weathered stone monument. Scouts, Sea Cadets, and blazered British Legion members who by their medals were all Second World war participants. A motley brass band, a small detachment of Territorials, a group of local Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance personnel, formed another fidgety group. A vicar stood nonchalantly off to one side exchanging polite conversation with two sturdy tweed-attired women sporting fearsome brogues, whose tight grey bunned hairstyles glinted like cold gunmetal in the chilly light. Three portly bowler-hatted middle-aged men, with a faded military air about them, made up the entourage as they casually held rolled black umbrellas to their shoulders. Wryly he thought of the leaden remnants of a great-grandads army that lay protected in little Billy’s tin. Ernest could not help thinking cynically to himself `What a poppy show.’

Ernest adjusted his failing vision to the scene and noted sadly that nowhere were there to be seen any really old men. His war had not been forgotten, it was just not represented. That was daft he told himself. He was there. On the sidelines which was obvious, but then he had only come to watch. Ernest did not need to come here once a year to remember. Grief and remembrance was not an annual event. For many a decade he had, like so many others now mostly gone, been unable to forget. The scouts appeared bored, restless, and Ernest wondered if they were simply there on sufferance. He hoped not. They should know. They ought to learn, even if only that there must never come a day when others stood in organised memory of them.

The residual morning mist still hugged the ground of the nearby park and shrouded the surface of the nearby river. Glancing down Ernest a speck of mud on one of his toe-caps. For a second or two he found himself staring at a pair of mud caked boots, half obscured by an odorous green-brown slime. A distant pounding echoed in his ears but the voice of a young girl startled him from his daydream, causing him once again to retreat from no-man’s land. Edging back to reality Ernest looked up at a smiling face whose round brown eyes peered curiously at him. For a moment the face swam and took on the likeness of the young woman on the bridge at Albert. How many years since he had seen her, how many years indeed since he had remembered. The memory from a few days respite faded and the little girl reappeared, smiling shyly.

“Hello mister old man”, her greeting was as innocent as the smile. “You’ve dropped your poppy”, she said, kneeling to retrieve it from between Ernest’s shoes. Dusting it carefully she then gently pressed it back into his hand, as he gratefully nodded and mumbled his thanks. The girl was about nine or ten Ernest surmised and he asked her if she was part of the remembrance service. She nodded and self­-conciously adjusted the tie of her Brownie uniform.

“My mum and dad will be here soon to see me home”, she explained, looking around to find out if her parents had indeed arrived, as well as to check whether she had been missed by her group leader. Ernest grunted and surveyed once again the mist dispersing within the park. In his mind the mist began to swirl and roll towards him, menacing, ominous and yellow, acrid with the smell of cordite and eye searing. He sense the rain of years before, the torrential downpour of Flanders and the grasping treacherous mud of shell shocked fields and trenches. Averting his gaze he once again found himself staring at a pair of sodden and mud spoiled boots and puttees.

Ernest leaned back against the breastwork of the trench, helmeted head bent against the driving rain, watching his feet slowly disappearing beneath the slime and rising water. The duckboards had long since slipped from view. Beside him his two comrades, childhood friends and compatriots in many an escapade, Norman Hardcastle and Billy Tiffin, crouched down trying to keep alive the barely alight remains of their last cigarette. Apart from their sergeant, corporal, and the captain, they were the last remaining of the original company. The three young men were tied by more than the miserableness of their lot in this war and the soaked earthen slit they shared. They had other threads of bonding. Ernest, Norman and Billy had gone to school together, lived within the same streets, knew the same laughing girls, and had been sent to Belgium together. All along the trench other young men with similar memories, memories and backgrounds huddled as they too waited. Waited for the order, the whistle to go over the top. Meanwhile their faces, aged and creased by the horrors of battle, shuddered as their hollow eyes rolled in tune to the continuous barrage that sped overhead towards the other side’s lines. The little girl’s voice penetrated his dreamscape once again with a naivete that rescued him from that shattered world of so long ago.

“Is your name on that big stone over there?” she enquired. “Were you sleeping mister?” she continued in her friendly and yet concerned tone.

Ernest focussed on her cheerful face and replied, “No lassie, my name’s not there…” as he tried to suppress a laugh. It was a funny question but, had he laughed she may have been embarrassed. Innocence in children was, in his opinion, a short-lived treasure. “No, not sleeping…just dreaming… er um… sort of time travelling”, he grinned as he warmed to the girl’s interest.

How could he tell her that his name was there. The same name was engraved there. Not Ernest Gray the father, no, Ernest Gray the son. They must have known, when they chiselled and carved those stone mnemonics, to leave room for more. Blank faces of granite, marble or cheaper sandstone, even limestone, according to the wealth of each and every grieving community, waiting for the names of the yet unborn. Ernest’s eyes watered as he remembered young Ernest who now lay cold in the hot sand somewhere near Tobruk. In a strange way the old man felt a tinge of guilt because, to his mind’s eye, the son’s name was there because the father’s was not. One Ernest Gray came home one day to raise a son who did not come home one day. Ernest knew, though his eyes could not focus that far, that on the stone were the names Norman Hardcastle and William Tiffin. The fathers not the sons. Ernest bitterly remembered the day, the very instant, when those dreamed and hoped for sons were never to be. There were others too whose names were not there either.

Walter Beattie had come home shell shocked and reduced to spending his free time supping weak ale in the Straddled Hen until the influenza epidemic took off his parents. Admittedly his aunt had then took a more active pity on him and gave him a part-time job and the flat over her tobacconists shop. Sadly, now and again, he would wet himself and hide his head in his hands when a car occasionally back-fired in the street outside. Wally’s wife had left him after a while for the traveller in cigars and cigarettes who regularly came to the shop. Ernest remembered how she said one evening before she left that she preferred to sleep with a man with daydreams rather than one who had nightmares. During the start of the second war Wally went off, at the invitation of his sister, to Camberwell in London. The bombing of the blitz had him transferred to an asylum in Surrey and, when he eventually arrived back home he was admitted to the Hospital for Incurables at Copperdale the other side of the fells. There he sat, staring out of a window, as he listened to news of another far off and incomprehensible war in Korea. Occasionally visited by old friends, the influenza eventually caught him too and he died of pneumonia, his head still resounding to the sound of thunder real and imagined, the only one in the village who came home shattered by two wars.

Sam Cowans had come home a different man too. Ernest, Norman, and Billy, had been with him recuperating in Albert. It was there they met the owner of a tavern whose name they could never pronounce and so were reduced to calling her ‘Madame Shut the Door’. This round and ebullient woman was often seen rolling across the bridge full of brandy and a welcoming bosom for any Tommy with money to spend in her tavern. Sam had been sweet on her daughter and took to sweeping the yard, collecting chickens eggs, baking bread and developing a taste for pale beer and wine. In return he regaled the hosts with his expertise on sheep, dogs, and pulling ticks. Ernest remembered Sam taking some metal in the thigh and the resulting infection had him shipped back home to England. Sam came home and went back up the fells with the sheep despite the fact he was lame. Then one day he never came to see Wally and Ernest in the Straddled Hen and concern was raised when Sam’s collie came down without him. The resulting trek up the fell found only his lunch tin, crook, empty screw-top bottle of stout, whistle, and a letter. No sign of Sam. Just a strange note to say he was fed up with sitting up on higher ground and was off to find somewhere flatter, somewhere where he could tread easier. His wife waited a reasonable while until poor odd Sam was presumed dead and moved her tallyman in with her. Anyway, she said, Sam was off his rocker, even trying to take over her kitchen with his baking and wanting to keep chickens in the back yard. She had been driven mad by his home-made wine efforts and cheese making. Many a nod and a wink passed in the Straddled Hen with old Mrs Spinks, the landlord’s vituperative mother, who sourly declared that ‘…there’s some who’ll get anything on credit’. Ernest and Wally said nothing but shared a memory of ‘Madame Shut the Door’ and her winsome daughter. They had no proof but they secretly hoped Sam was baking bread, raising chickens and keeping out a weather eye over the land where Norman and Billy lay.

“Put that fag out”, hissed Corporal Higgins as he pushed his way along the trench, “…you’ll give our position away.”

“What Corp?” queried Norman with a grin. “We’ve only been ‘ere a week, the Bosch were ‘ere months before us.”

Billy looked up and chimed in with, “It’s those stripes doing that. Got to say somethin’. Know what I mean? Same at school ‘e was when they made ‘im ink monitor. A great future that man ‘as.”

“Can you imagine it? Back in Blighty I mean…someone comes along, walking up the street shouting ‘put that light out’. They wouldn’t stand for it” Ernest added as Higgins pushed onwards. “Runs in his family. Remember the airs his uncle put on when he got the potman’s job in the Straddled Hen? Everlasting shouting ‘…’haven’t you got no ‘omes to go to?’ and ‘…I want to put the lights out.’ ”

“Keep it quiet” Higgins shouted back from the entrance to the dugout.

“Watch it Iggy…Bosch’ll not only see you coming, they’ll hear you”, quipped Norman. “Familiarity breeds contempt so they’ll shoot you first”. Muffled laughter rippled rapidly down the line as Higgins disappeared into the dugout.

After the barrage ceased an eerie silence fell over the muddy terrain. No birds sang, only the machine gun patter of the rain on helmets, capes and stinking earth reminded the men that they were not dead yet. The commotion began as officers and NCO’s hustled and bustled their charges into readiness to attack. Ernest looked wanly at Norman and Billy. They grinned sheepishly as they all shook hands and joked away the nauseating fear of what was to come. Within seconds of the odour they scrambled over the parapet and stumbled, slipped and staggered, towards no-man’s land. The downpour was mingled with another rain, a hard rain of shrapnel and bullets. The three men, a few among thousands, could not help but wonder why all over again, they were walking into a man-made nightmare. Despite the barrage the German machine-gun nests were unscathed as they still managed a raking, scything fire at the increasingly ragged but still advancing khaki figures. Within yards men slid, dead and wounded, into water filled shell holes, or lay writhing or motionless, fallen where they had been shot. Ernest glanced right and left to ensure Norman and Billy were still with him. The explosions, screams and whining bullets deafened him, but still he heard a cry behind him. A quick look struck horror into Ernest’s very being as he watched dumbfounded. A stricken torso lay in a pool of gore, its hands scraping futilely at the ground in one last desperate attempt to reach safety. The legs and waist took a final faltering step towards him and then tottered over. The lights had finally gone out for Corporal Higgins as Ernest began to run forward looking wildly towards Norman and Billy who appeared dimly within the swirling smoke ahead of him.

An object thudded into Norman’s helmet and Ernest winced as his friend deftly wiped away the scalp and brains from his shoulder and sleeve. Ernest in his haste trod the shattered head into the mire as he stumbled forward, bitter bile trying

to force its unwelcome way between his clenched teeth. There was no time to step aside. Ernest wondered how far they had come. With a pang of grief he saw Norman twist and turn awkwardly and suddenly as his hands went to hold his abdomen. The man fell face forward as Ernest threw himself to his friend’s stricken side. With hot tears coursing down his cheeks, his mouth as dry as stone, Ernest turned Norman over as a mass of entrails billowed out onto the ground. Norman grimaced and died. Ernest stared, terror struck, at his friend’s ribs protruding through a mass of blood, shirt, buttons and webbing.

To find Billy now became Ernest’s over-riding concern. Running forward through the smoke and chaos he slipped head over heels into a shell hole. Cries of anguish and screams of agony, well laced with foul epithets, greeted him from the wounded soldiers sheltering from the metal hail storm that periodically screeched across the crater’s rim. A brief rest and Ernest clambered up, out, and plodded blindly on. Where was Billy? Their company captain lay face down to the left, his cane still firmly clenched in one hand, an unused revolver in the other. The whistle, lodged between his teeth, was surrounded by mute bubbles in a muddy pool. A last breath gone to earth, an unheard exaltation to follow him onward into the fray. The officer lay motionless as water seeped into his pockets and soaked the recently written letters, which he had forgotten to send behind the lines, to soon to mourn mothers, fathers, wives and sweethearts of the men he had led across the wire a week before. A dead rat lay awkwardly twisted nearby and for a rueful moment Ernest could not help wonder if it was one of ours or one of theirs. But then, it was a Belgian rodent that had died surrounded by foreign soldiers, not having known or cared whose side they were on with a belly full of leather knawed from some anonymous booted foot, lost like it was in a landscape it could no longer recognise as home. A blast lifted him bodily and he was hurled into another cordite reeking depression. Ernest lay aching, bleeding and disorientated for several minutes and then, after what seemed to be hours, looked about him. Billy lay nearby. His eyes were open, fixed and staring, and on his face was a look of complete surprise. Half his chest and both his hands were missing. Ernest roared in uncontrolled rage as he lurched towards Billy, an agonising pain searing through his knee, splashing in the recent mud pool and even newer blood pool.

“Oh Norman…Oh Billy…” Ernest screamed hysterically as he collapsed on top of his friend, welcoming the oblivion that enveloped him as he went down, believing he too had arrived at his own end. Ernest was cajoled back from the landscape of nightmare by a persevering little voice.

“My dad’s grandfather has his name there…” the little girl offered, as if trying to share something beyond her imagination with him, “…and my great-uncle. Went down in a warship. It was something to do with a tin fish…all I remember…what they told me…” she finished quickly, as she gestured towards the memorial.

“What’s your name little lassie?” he enquired, his curiosity aroused. “Mine’s Ernest Gray”, he offered almost as an afterthought.

“Rosie”, she replied proudly, “Rosie Tiffin”. A brief silence ensued between them. “It’s not a big stone really. Are they all buried under there?”, she continued on her previous train of thought.

Ernest’s heart skipped a beat and left a nagging pain in his chest. He had seen a second Tiffin, a George Tiffin, on the memorial and dated nineteen forty. Only one Hardcastle though. Still, Norman had been an only son. Norman Hardcastle who had eventually outranked ‘Inkwell’ Higgins if only alphabetically, etched in stone. Ernest knew Billy had a brother, but he had moved to a village over the fells in nineteen twelve. Same family, must be, Ernest mused. There were a few Tiffin’s over there. The Hardcastle’s he had known were all gone now.

“Billy’s nephew down in the sea. Damn them”, he murmured. “He’s a greedy git is the grim reaper”, Ernest continued, his voice raising its tone. “Had to come back for his pound of flesh then?”, he half enquired of Rosie Tiffin.

“Ooh…” Rosie gasped, “I’ve seen him in a cartoon on the telly…’orrible he was. A skull and a long black cloak, riding on a dead horse skeleton across the clouds. Ooh…he was frightening, scary too.” She declared emphatically with her eyes wide at the description. “Have you seen him too?”

“No…never actually saw him…saw his handiwork…felt him breathing coldly over my shoulder and down my neck many times, many years ago. He must have been elsewhere when the stretcher bearers came for me…perhaps they frightened him off”. Ernest chuckled in reply. At that moment he felt a chill breeze, a breath of icy air, passing across his shoulder as another echo of distant rumbling thunder seemed to ripple down from the distant and overcast fells. “Oh not again…is there to be no peace?” he mumbled, almost inaudibly, to himself. His hands and feet were becoming increasingly cold as he once again noticed the mud begrimed boots fading from his view. A gasp of warm air rattled from his slightly parted lips as Rosie, half turning, saw her parents beckoning to her.

“Must go now…goodbye Ernest Gray…I must leave you…see you next year. I’ll look for your name next time…promise”, she said as she skipped off towards her mother and father. Rosie reached them just as they were joined by Norman who had decided, after all, to seek out his father.

“I was talking to that nice old man over there”, she said, pointing towards Ernest. “He talks when he dreams…on about his friends he was, but I don’t think they could come today”. Rosie looked up at her mother and father and Norman. “He was glad I turned up instead”, she continued, as again she looked back at Ernest. “Funny, he’s dropped his poppy again…must be having more of his dreams”.

Norman saw his father’s chin sink to his chest as the poppy settled between his shoes. Norman started to run, calling,

“Oh no, no…Pop…pop…popp…poppy”.

Although written a while ago this story is now dedicated to the memory of my first cousin twice removed, Percy Howorth Edwards (b. 1880), who I have learned of since, lieutenant in the 5th Battalion (Territorial) of the Northumberland Fusiliers killed in Belgium 24th of May, 1915, of no known grave.

PH Edwards Casualty Details

Eric W. Edwards.  Oxford, June 16th, 2000.

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