My War Gone Byby Lee A Jackson / Thrillers & Crime
My War Gone By
Copyright 2017 Lee A Jackson
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Caroline and I stand side by side, she has on her best dress for this occasion. We are 11 years old today and forever shall remain so in the photograph. This image has the precious quality of holding on to time. We look so young. There is a party going on around us in our living room. People are merry, drinks are flowing and on the coffee table, in among the glasses of wine, there is a cake. A small chocolate cake from which protrudes a solitary candle, flickering, dancing the night away. This is our birthday celebration. Never in her life has mother failed to bear gifts for her children. This is another family affair with the added touch of Mother’s home-made wares. We finish another glass of lemonade and she ushers us behind the coffee table. The cake is now in front of us and she orders us with the prettiest smile I have ever seen, to stand together. She tells us to smile like her and aims her camera.
I have returned and yet no-one has noticed.
Life has now stolen away too many of my years and too many have died around me. I have lost fewer of my family than I have done strangers, but I feel more grief when I think of my loved ones than when I do of the hundreds that have lay fallen at my feet.
What is quantity in death?
The wounded, maimed and deceased have a place in our hearts, for the tragedies justifiably allow us empathy. Everyone looks for empathy from compatriots, but the greatest gift that makes the heart pure is actually having that gift and bestowing it upon those set deep within the enemy's minefield.
I have walked back to the end of the pier where years ago the beach below would have been crammed with families and the air would fill with the laughter of children. Caroline and I used to hang over the railings and look down upon the little people below. Today it is grey and overcast, the beach is filled with silence and the air is full of quiescent memories. I limped slowly back here, back along the wooden boards once more to this white bench next to the railings. With my back to the wind coming in off the sea, I ease my tired body down onto the wet frame of the seat. When exactly did the world leave me behind?
Trying to combat the bitter wind from attacking my skull by keeping my grey hair in check, I see a figure in a brown coat approach me. But even though these eyes may be failing me now, my heart knows that it is not one of the people from my life I had hoped to see here.
As the stranger walks by to look over the railings and down into the sea before walking away again, the pier looks bare without Caroline’s mischievous little face and Mother’s beautiful smile.
I remember this pier, these very boards down which I ran as a teenager. There was some ignorance in my youth, and I had no awareness of realities which to impart to my sister Caroline. I didn't know what was going on in town. All we knew was fresh salty air that would rush around us after barreling down the cobbled main street in town and exploding out onto the pier. That was life for us, part of an almost daily routine where we could escape the confines of the house and stuffy schoolrooms to let our childhood flourish. As soon as we were free of the town’s limits we would kick off our soft house shoes and feel the boards beneath us.
There were rules in the town. Rules that permitted us from wearing footwear that would make a noise out in the streets. No heavy boots that would sound like they were crushing the cobbles beneath and no rubbery summer sandals that would squeak underfoot. The inhabitants of the small town had to abide by it all and it pretty much just left room for loafers and house slippers. It was the way it was in the small town, the way things in small towns tend to be.
We knew why. I remember mother sitting us down and telling us that the noise wasn’t allowed on the street because raising a ruckus through noisy footwear would just “raise the dead”. It was something that was drilled into us children in the home and we were often reminded of it as school as well. It was soft-soled shoes in the playground where running was still kept to a minimum. It was out of respect. The townsfolk, they had a lot of respect for the dead.
I never understood at the time how we could awaken the dead with footsteps, but one night Caroline’s youthful inquisitiveness got the better of her and she wanted to find out what would happen. What would happen if the town heard those prohibited sounds? She had a plan. I egged her on and as we talked about it on the end of the pier, kicking our feet out at the empty air. We pictured a horde of self-exhumed bodies crawling and stumbling their way into town from the cemetery on the top of Greenbush Hill. That was the home for the dead; it was a surprise that they could hear squeaky shoes all the way from all the way up there.
I pull another photograph from my wallet. In it, Caroline is sat on this very bench alongside Mother. My sister is holding out her ice-cream for Mother to take a lick of. Always thinking of others, was my sister. She wore her favourite dress, the blue one with the white frilly sleeves. This was her summer 'going out' dress for whenever Mother brought us to the seaside. I remember Caroline crying one day when the dress no longer fitted and she had to wear a substitute. I laughed at her then as brothers do.
I look again at the photograph and wonder if I took this one of Caroline and Mother together. I cannot remember doing so. Come to my age, the memories of life tend to become a jumbled blur between reality and things seen on the television.
This photograph was before the world went crazy. Before the nation urged me into becoming the murderer of my fellow man.
The sea behind them has not changed with time. The bench and the railings are still the same. The wooden planks of the pier are still the same, but when I was small the gaps between them looked big enough to fall through. Not now. Everything remains the same but is so different. The air here is different. It is neither filled with the desperate cries of the dying; nor is it filled with the laughter of cheered holiday-makers on the beach.
The air, like Mother and like Caroline is invisible; but I can feel their presence here despite being unable to see them.
Caroline and I had planned a night of raising the dead in town. Part of initiating the plan was out of disbelief that it would actually happen. Neither of us wanted to feel naive or gullible enough to expect the outcome of our night run to actually have consequences other than us just getting into trouble. We didn't actually expect the dead to rise. We were willing to risk it all. Caroline's initial plan had been to go and place a pair of flip-flops outside of every front door that was one the main cobbled thoroughfare which led down to the pier. We thought that sounded hilarious, as we pictured everyone stepping out of their houses and into them, making all the noise that the town didn't want to hear. But we weren’t in a position of getting our hands on that many pairs of forbidden footwear.
However, I did have my heavy boots that were only used for hiking in the back fields and Caroline had her sandals for the beach, so the plan changed. We stood at the very top of the hill, the cobbled road stretched out down ahead of us. We could just about make out the pier at the bottom, but the sea at that time of the evening was already just looking like a massive black blanket, the only difference between that and the sky being the stars in the canvas above. We could hear the waves, smell the air down there awaiting us and we planned to find safe harbour behind the bench at the end of the pier, just in case the undead did come.
We ran. Fleet-footed we charged down the street. The echoes of my heavy boots rattled around in the twilight’s air, bouncing off the buildings around us and amplifying. Caroline’s flip flops made far more noise than my boots did, squeaking their way in resistance against the stones beneath her and the plastic slapping against the soles of her feet setting a steady beat as we headed towards the pier. Neither of us was brave enough to look behind us back up the hill, partly because we didn’t want to see the dead we were raising if that was, against our better judgement happening, and partly because we didn’t want to lose our balance charging down the hill.
We hurtled on, with our loud footwear onto the pier, barely able to keep ourselves upright, having to curtail our adrenaline-fuelled laughter because of our burning lungs. We scrunched down behind the bench at the end of the pier and waited. We waited for any noise following us down from the town, we waited to see any shadows emerging. We waited. Our breaths steadied. We looked back up the town to see lights on in houses that had been in darkness on our run, but no-one emerged. Not a living soul came out on the street. Not a dead one either. We removed our shoes and with heads hanging in disappointment at getting no reaction, we trudged back up the hill towards home.
I long to see the day when I can hold aloft my head and say my war has gone by. The chaotic scenes of senselessness that war put before me has yet to depart and sadly all I have left of my previous life are these pictures in my wallet. I came back to try and find the pieces of my lost memories.
Alas, the pier is empty.
The wind tugs at my hair.
The people in the photographs are like imaginary friends.
The photograph lies to me. Caroline and Mother aren’t here. I only wanted to see them one more time. Like the dead being raised on that night, I knew they wouldn't come, but a part of me had still hoped for something.
Where has my life gone?
We thought that night that our actions that night had been for nothing. However, as Caroline and I stepped out of the door for school the next morning, everyone we passed on the street was dressed in black, holding their heads in despair and sorrow. They were all just shuffling around aimlessly, not acknowledging that anyone else was even present. It was a sobering sight, the town stricken with what Caroline and I came to realise was grief. Mother appeared behind us in the threshold. She was strong, I knew, but her face was sullen and sunken, life drained from her. She laid a gentle hand on each of our shoulders. She was wearing black.
I asked her what everyone was doing? Mother said that someone had run through the town the previous night, breaking the rules by making noise with their feet. She told us that the dead had been raised, not people, but memories, dormant memories. Torturous memories of the day that the army from the north had marched through the town, the deafening noise of the marching troops on the cobblestones had been awakened. Recollections of what it had ultimately led to, the loss of so many of the men in the town, including our own father had all been brought to the surface by the noise. The noise Caroline and I had made. It had triggered many of the elders to collectively remember the day that tore the fabric of the town apart, that day when the women were marched down the beach and forced down on their knees after having already seen loved ones fall. The noise of the heavy footsteps from that day haunted the town still and it was one they tried to avoid hearing again at all cost, long after rebuilding.
Mother explained that she had survived that because of the twins she carried inside of her. Who knew that one day, years later after standing on that threshold with Caroline and Mother, that I would be in a position when I would have people’s lives in my hands.
I used to know who I was. It may not have been to everyone’s liking, especially to those who I tortured by raising their dead memories. It certainly may not have been to everyone’s advantage me being myself, especially those who would later die by my hand in the war. I used to know who I was and now I just want to forget so much, yet at the same time I can’t remember all the things that I want to.
As I look at the photograph of my sister and me together on our birthday, I have trouble putting the person to the face of the small boy smiling with innocence in it.
The wind scurries across the deserted pier, blowing more memories from my head.
We all have our private battles that resound across the killing fields of our minds. From within, the dark warriors came to me. Ignited by the fires of circumstance they were, and fuelled by the poison tendrils of allies, my fellow man who turned upon me with masks of pernicious intent and who died by my hand to leave myself lonely.
All I have is loneliness and memories that won't die.
Mother is gone.
Caroline is gone.
I thought my war had gone by.
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About the author:
I began writing in my mid to late teens, sequestered away in my bedroom in rural south west England. The writing was borne out of a need to express myself and to communicate with the world, something I was not good at doing verbally. It became an outlet for me and my writing grew with me through the years.
Other titles by Lee A Jackson
A Cerberus Jaw
Only Watching North
Dreaming Falling Down