Last week I met a friend in Oxford Street. We try to meet several times a year for therapeutic purposes – the talking and shopping kind. It was sunny. Oxford Street was full of the young, looking, well…young. I felt old and hot in my winter coat and boots. Which was probably why I felt at a disadvantage physically (young people don’t wear much, especially in winter) and psychologically (their skin which was on show, was ridiculously smooth and elastic and surely struggling to keep their organs in). We had a good day but I blame this sense of unease for the fact I was on edge and apologising all the time, once legitimately, to a waiter for forgetting to pay, but mainly to inanimate objects including a lamp post, a bus step and a dummy in Marks and Spencer. And by this I don’t mean an idiotic person. I literally mean a display dummy. It didn’t even have any hair…
The next day was Saturday. I wore my new jumper (the one you can see in the picture. Nice isn’t it?). With husband and daughter out, I did some cleaning, wrote emails and went for a walk. The park was quiet apart from birds and a few doggie people. I found it hard to enjoy though as my mind kept turning over all the school work I had to do and the busy week ahead.
Then it was Sunday. We went to the Remembrance Service in Hampton, It was beautiful. Though it was the 100 anniversary it was the usual modest gathering – a clutch of people, sunshine, poppies. The War Memorial was wreathed in flags and flowers. Our MP, Vincent Cable, was there. Despite the fact I once took Year 6 to meet him at the House of Commons, he didn’t seem to recognise me but it was a few years ago when we were both younger and I’ve cut my hair since then. Us and Vince, we raised our voices to the sky – O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come… Some voices were strong, others trembled. The Last Post quavered a bit, the notes bravely bugled by a young Boys Brigader. It probably sounded better in his bedroom. But it was more powerful like this – thin, vulnerable, the notes sweet like a faltering prayer. Beneath us, leaves crisped stiff like dead men’s hands.
Last week we watched a BBC dramatisation called the Passing Bells – a story of two young men and their families, one British, one German. We followed the characters through separation, fear, shell-shock and desperate hope almost to the end of the war. Their stories filled us with horror and longing, in equal measure. The phrase passing-bells, from the Wilfred Owen poem, apparently means bells tolled to announce that a soul is passing, or has passed, from its body. At the end of the last programme (look away now if you want to watch it), the two men lay dying after stabbing each other. They reach across, hold hands, draw breath. Then they rise, walk away arm in arm, before disappearing between the graves and poppies. It was very moving.
The memorial service ended and we walked home in smoky light past sun-warm brick and berries.
And I’m thinking, it takes only seconds for me to stop feeling sad and grateful and to think of roast pork and lesson plans and the week ahead. So quick. So soon after thin bugling in quiet air, life is all that it is again, all that it ever was. But then this is what they would have wanted perhaps, what they gave their lives for. When you go home, tell them of us and say, “For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Can any of them see us now, standing quiet in their memory, walking through sun to eat pork and mark books, sleeping, driving? Do they stand silent, respectful, watching us grow old or ill? Or stressing over work and shopping? What would they think of us, the ones they gave their days for?
And it was evening and it was morning and we have Monday. Unremarkable mainly, but more remarkable than we realise at the time. And perhaps the gift we are given – old skin and young, calm and troubled, mourning or smiling – is this long road home. We’d do it all better in rehearsal but there is none.
But then, perhaps it’s more beautiful like this – thin, vulnerable, with sweeter notes, like a faltering prayer.