He’s dead, but I don’t know how. I get the why of it, a bit. I got the when off the internet (with some digging), and the where. Someday I’d like to visit. But the how, I’m not so sure.
Bayonets? Gas? Shelling?
Quick or slow?
I don’t know.
He was 15 when he signed the contract accepting the King’s Shilling. 15. Barely anything.
Did they suspect, the recruiting officers in their smart uniforms and dry boots? It was a small village. He looks younger than 18 in the only pictures that remain. Smart and old fashioned in his new get-up, one with some friends, one alone. A photographer’s studio somewhere, with a chair and draped background.
My cousin is very like him. Slender and dark, good looking and intelligent. But she’s very different, too - a mother in her twenties, alive, with long hair.
His was short, but not stubble. But we’ve read of the lice and the vermin, so it may have been stubble, at the end. We’ve read of the water, the sewage, the trenchfoot. Seen the newsreels.
My teacher at primary school told of her father. His boots were laced up around his ankles, keeping them on. Weeks on end they were wet, losing feeling. Still he kept going, until it was over, and someone had won. Then the boots came off. And his feet came off too, soggy in his socks, rotted away to nothing. And he could go home.
But Charlie never came home. Just his postcard, then the telegrammed news of his death.
There’s no writing on his postcard, it’s long cried off.
But there’s still some colour, and this scrap of a century ago remains. I keep it in purple tissue paper in a box.
Something happened to him in the Somme. There’s a small white gravestone over there with his name on it. It looks like a milk tooth.
There are rows and rows of them.
published 4 February 2012