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A sharp rap on the door brought Herbert out of his daydream. "Come
on," Frank shouted at the door, impatient to be off, "We've got to get
down to the signing up post- there's already a huge crowd!" Herbert
sat up straight; he had forgotten all about it. He grabbed his cap and
boots on his way to the door where Frank and William, the twins from
next door-but-one, were waiting. He flung open the door and leaned
against the door frame to put his boots on. Frank was itching to get
moving: he'd been waiting far too long to join the army (in his eyes,
not his Ma's), all his older brothers had joined up long before.
William had been apprehensive at first, but he was just as excited now
about the war as everyone else.
Out of the Hamlet where they lived they ran, stopping only to pinch
apples from Farmer Gregory's orchard. They had not taken the short cut
to the village since they were children: after they got older their
mothers would scold them greatly for getting dirty after scrambling up
the steep path home using that route so they took the road home
instead after a time.
"Hey, with us around those ruddy Huns will run right back with their
tails between their legs to the Kaiser!" Frank yelled as they ran
through the fields towards the village. The land around them was
losing its grip on summer, the leaves were turning and the air was
fresher. They loved autumn; it gave them an excuse to act as children
again in the great piles of golden leaves that would accumulate!
At the top of the hill they stopped and looked down onto the unusually
busy village. A great multitude of people was gathered in order to
sign up and assist in the war: men pushed and jostled trying to get
further forward in the throng of people but only to find themselves
further back. Herbert was astounded, he'd had no idea that there were
as many people living in the village.
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he'd been waiting for, longing for: with a whooping cry he darted down
the steep slope followed enthusiastically by Herbert and William.
Frank's brow crinkled in pain and he moaned softly: a gaping wound
marred his side. Herbert and Charlie sat by him, the bed amid many
others. As Herbert looked around, he noticed a particular young man no
older than his nephew, bleeding profusely. A violent convulsion shook
the young soldier's body and all movement stopped. Herbert shuddered
and turned away, only to be faced with more death, pain and ruin.
Struggling to contain his anguish he closed his eyes and breathed
"How are you feeling?" Charlie asked, regretting it even before the
words had escaped his lips.
"What a questionâ€¦better for you two being here with me; I wouldn't
want to end up all alone like that old chap there!" Frank said, waving
his wand to the adjacent bed and chuckling. His eyes crinkled up in
pain and he grunted.
A nurse almost dead with fatigue came to the bed and checked the
wound. She quickly changed the dressing. "It'll do," she stated and
continued on her rounds.
"That's the second time she's said that," mumbled Frank. Charlie and
Herbert were not sure whether he was talking to himself or to them;
they knew exactly what was coming next though. Frank looked from
Herbert to Charlie, then from Charlie to Herbert and said softly, "How
bad is it?"
"It's bad. I'm so sorry Frankâ€¦" Herbert stopped; he didn't know what
"We're sorry that William couldn't be here," Charlie said, "We know
how much you meant to each other."
"Well, I suppose it won't be long until I see him again. Ma always
said we would do everything in pairsâ€¦I didn't know that it was the
same in dying too." A year ago he would have laughed at this, but
there was no laughter in his face, just a tiny hint of a smile because
he would see his dead brother again. "Goodbye old chums."
"Are you coming?" Charlie asked Herbert, placing a hand gently on
Herbert's shoulder. "It's time to go home." Herbert blinked back tears
and looked over the surrounding land.
"Such beauty, such tranquillity; scarred forever and for what? If I
could turn back the clock four years I would be happy, untroubled. I
would be sitting by the hearth with Flora's cat curled up in my lap,"
Herbert whispered top himself. With a heavy heart he turned his back
on the fields of France and boarded the train.
The train was busy, melancholy men bubbling over with pretence of
happiness and glory. Herbert withdrew into himself, trying to collect
his thoughts. In his letters home he had told so many lies. Guilt
spilled out of him as tears, silent and flowing freely. Frank had been
so positive about the war, but his life had been ended horrifically by
the one thing he'd fantasised about. Herbert thought of William,
willing to give up his own sanity for the ties with him and his twin
brother. Herbert smiled as he thought of his beloved friends but
cringed as he remembered that William had been shot for cowardice- he
had lost his mind because of the constant shelling.
"Come on Herbert," Charlie said, sitting down beside him, "It's over
now; we can breathe a sigh of relief." Herbert turned to him, cheeks
streaked with tears, and smiled.