The war memorial

This story by DiggoryVenn was first published on the Square pegs (squarepegs.overspillers.net) public fiction section.

October 1917, Passchendaele; the landscape was a bloody, muddy morass. Frank Packham’s thoughts went back to 1914 and how he and all his mates had rushed to join up, to teach the Kaiser a lesson. Now it was all so different. Seconds later, a fusillade of bullets ended Frank’s war, and his life.

March 1945, North West Germany; the landscape was thick forest. Every tree, every bush might be concealing the enemy, and Bert Struthers, cut off from his platoon, was alone. Bert was a brave man; only two weeks earlier he had rescued five comrades pinned down by enemy fire. Bert did not know it, but he had been awarded the Military Medal for that action. But now he was scared, and he wanted to run. He demurred, for he knew that to run away would mark him as a coward; but the feeling of terror was strong. As he stepped out from behind his tree, a sniper’s bullet ended Bert’s war, and his life.

November 2013, in the Cotswold village of Moscombe; it was Remembrance Sunday. Rev. Harry Thompson conducted the service, and reminded the congregation that next year would see the centenary of World War One.

George Day, chairman of the Moscombe branch of the Royal British Legion, laid a poppy wreath at the War Memorial. Janice Struthers, village shopkeeper and local poppy seller, looked on with pride, and laid a small wreath of her own. Her grandfather had been killed in the First World War and her father in the Second. The memorial recorded their sacrifice: Edmund Struthers, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1917, and Herbert Struthers, MM, Royal Norfolk Regiment, 1945. Janice had never married and the shop was her life, along with her work for the RBL.

Joan Rogers, head teacher at the village school, looked on. Joan was the only one who noticed a slim young man, standing a little apart when the congregation moved outside for the two minutes’ silence, as if he were not quite one of them. Although he was formally dressed in a brown suit and tie, there was something odd about his clothes; as if, perhaps, he had been kitted out by one of those retro shops that sold vintage outfits.

After the wreaths had been laid they all went back into church to finish the service. When they came out, Janice exclaimed angrily “Look at that!” The wreaths had been turned around, to face the stone and the list of names. “It’ll be those kids from that new estate!” she grumbled. “I’ll report them to the police when I get home.” Joan was not so ready to accuse anyone without evidence, but she did wonder about that young man; she’d observed that he hadn’t gone back into church with everyone else.

Over the next couple of weeks there were several strange occurrences in the village – trivial in themselves, but seemingly connected. The victims of these pranks had all been at the remembrance service. First, the vicar lost his keys and couldn’t get into the vestry. An hour later, he found them in his blazer pocket. Harry was puzzled, as he felt sure that he’d checked that pocket at least twice. It was as if someone had taken the keys and returned them later.

It was a similar situation concerning George Day’s medals. He had always polished them to a brilliant shine whenever they were on display, particularly on Remembrance Sunday. When he got back after the service he took them off and left them on the sideboard during lunch, but when he went to put them away in their soft wrapper they were as tarnished as if they’d had no attention for twenty years. Like the vicar, George ended up mystified; when he took them out next morning to polish them they were shining again, as if there had never been any problem.

Janice Struthers, too, was affected. First, a light in the shop was switched on, when she was certain she’d switched it off. Then, her signed autobiography of Sir Robert Brown was thrown off her bookcase onto the floor. It was put back by morning, but upside down. Janice had long admired Brown, especially when he had opposed the legislation passed to pardon those soldiers “shot at dawn” in World War One. Even though Brown accepted that their actions had been down to shell-shock rather than cowardice, he’d said in Parliament that the pardon would dishonour those who had fought on, and Janice, with two war heroes in her family, admired that stance immensely.

Later that week, the young man from the remembrance service came into the shop. Janice wouldn’t have known him, but Joan was in the shop and recognised him. At least she thought it was the same man, but maybe not; he looked very similar but there was something not quite right. He was dressed in modern casual clothes, but it was more than that. The young man told them that his name was Tony Wilson, and he was searching for information about Frank Packham, a family member. Frank had enlisted in 1914 aged 17, and had died in action, but Tony had no more information about him.

Tony’s great-grandmother was Frank’s sister Nellie. Tony had recently become interested in genealogy and had had a lot of information about Nellie and her six siblings, with the sole exception of Frank. All that family folklore could tell him about Frank was that he had been killed in the war; nothing else. Tony had come to Moscombe because the family had been living there at the time of the 1911 census and he had hoped to find Frank’s name on the war memorial there – but no.

Janice listened to this story attentively; with her knowledge of military matters she knew that the absence of a memorial, combined with family silence, often meant a dark secret. “I’m afraid I can’t help you, young man” she said, and turned to serve another customer. Joan stayed in the shop until Tony and the other customer had left. She was curious about Janice’s dismissive attitude. Joan asked Janice outright; they were close friends and she had no inhibitions about doing so.

“It’s simple” said Janice “the obvious explanation is that his ancestor was a coward and was shot at dawn. I’m not going to help him find that out; when he does he will want the name put on our war memorial”. She put heavy emphasis on the word our. “Not next to my Dad and my Grandad, no, never!”

Joan was thoughtful; then she said “You know, don’t you? You’re not just speculating, you know that he was executed!” Janice admitted it. Her father had told her, before he went to war.

Meanwhile, Tony had gone to the Golden Cross for lunch, and had got into conversation with some locals. He asked them the inevitable question – did they know anything about Frank? One of them did; his tongue loosened by the beer, he told the story. “Yes lad,” said the old chap “my Grandad was his mate and they went to war together. Frank suffered from shell-shock and ran away, and they shot him for a coward. My father told me – and he told me, too, that I must never tell anyone what I know. I’ve kept true to that, but you’re his relative and you deserve to know the truth.”

The strange happenings were the talk of the village. People were beginning to ascribe them to a mischievous ghost, and were eagerly anticipating its next bit of naughtiness. But then things got more serious. Janice found Brown’s book torn to shreds as she went to bed. As she slept, a figure entered her bedroom. It was a young soldier, his eyes covered by a strip of cloth around his head and, in contrast to his muddy uniform, a white handkerchief was roughly pinned to his chest. It was blood-stained, and bore five small holes.

She turned her face away, and tried to sleep, but was continually drawn back to the figure. Each time it was still there, but said nothing. Then, several hours later, it spoke.

“Please do right by me, Janice” the figure said; and vanished.

Later the same night, Joan too was visited by the same ghost; she recognised it as the young man in the old-fashioned suit at the church.

“Please help Janice to put things right, Joan” the figure said; and was gone.

Next morning, the two ladies conferred. Joan tried to persuade Janice that it was her opposition to Tony Wilson’s quest that was causing all the trouble, but she was adamant. She wouldn’t go back on her principles.

The following night, another ghost came to Janice’s room. It was her father, and he told her of his terror in the moments before he died.

“I was about to run, Jan, when Jerry got me” he said. “But for that bullet I’d have been branded a coward. People who’ve never been on a battlefield talk glibly about courage and cowardice. But if you’ve been under fire, you know there’s not so much difference between them; you just act by instinct at the time. Young Frank, he wasn’t to blame. He was just sickened by all the killing and maiming”.

Now Janice knew what she had to do. Tony Wilson had been to see George Day with the story he’d heard from the old man in the pub. When George rang Janice to tell her that he was putting forward Frank’s name for a pardon, she surprised him by offering her support. By January, Frank’s name was on the war memorial and it would be read out at the service in November.

Frank’s ghost was satisfied; but it had one last bit of fun. In Janice’s stockroom, a box of outdated tins of soup had languished for ages at the back of the top shelf, just out of her reach. Next morning, the cardboard box, neatly cut up, was in the recycling bin outside the shop, and the tins were in the rubbish bin.

Next to them was a ragged, mud-stained khaki uniform; and with it a blood-stained handkerchief.