The Box

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I’ve often been told what a good man I am. I’ve had it from friends, less from my family, but most often from strangers. People I’ve just met say I’m a fine human being. It’s happened more times than I can count. I find it quite embarrassing.

I do like to make others feel good. After I got married, but before we had kids, I used to help out the war wounded. I visited elderly people too. They just wanted someone to talk to. Some of them had great stories. I don’t mind listening at all. I don’t like talking about myself.

I found it frightening thinking I’d be old like that one day. You’d at least hope to have your missus with you. Many had only their own thoughts for company. I’d go mad like that. That would really be my idea of hell.

I’m grateful every day for what I’ve had in my life. It’s fashionable now. My daughter told me she practises gratitude for ten minutes every morning. Maybe she takes after her dad. I think I’ve done alright with my children. They turned out alright, and I’m proud and I’m thankful, for them, for my wonderful grandchildren and my beloved wife, who gave them all to me.

It’s gone midnight and my wife’s already asleep next to me. It’s raining outside. Sometimes I go out in the garden and stand in the rain. My wife goes beserk when I do that. She calls me a stupid old man. It makes me smile. She always called me her old man because I’m older than her, but now I really am an old man. She’s in good health, so it’ll be a surprise if I outlive her. I already feel sadness for what she’ll have to go through soon. I wish she didn’t have to suffer that.

When I was a lad I sometimes sneaked into a girl’s boarding school with my friend Dougie, in the evenings. He was a lot more experienced than me and had a girl there. He made me keep watch while they messed around behind the trees. A few times she brought a friend with her. All we did was hold hands. I remember her staring at my mouth. Even if I’d fancied her I wouldn’t have really known what to do. That all came to an end when the groundsman collared us with his dog. We got dragged before the head. My dad pretended he was furious but I think he was tickled by it. After that I was sent off to join the territorial forces. They thought it would keep me out of mischief.

I wasn’t drafted until the last year of the war due to a problem with my back. By then many of my friends were already dead including Dougie. He was killed at the Somme. Because I’d already been in the territorials I was made a sergeant. They sent me to what was later known as the Battle of Amien. By then we knew we were on the winning side.

We all tried not to talk about it much when it was over. There were exceptions though. I remember running into a former schoolmate about eight years after the war at some gathering. He boasted about shooting seven Germans and bayoneting two more at Ypres. Someone told me that was all he ever talked about. I made sure I never crossed paths with him again.

My children asked about it of course, and when they were old enough, my grandchildren too. I told them where I was stationed and how long for, and about some of the friends I made, and about the weapons we had, including the artillery, the big guns and all the rest of it. I didn’t talk too much about actual fighting. My children would tick off my grandkids for asking me, telling them never to ask granddad about the war. I told them to go easy on the little ones. I didn’t mind talking about it, as long as it didn’t involve the box. Anything outside the box was alright.

I met Mary, my wife a year after the war ended. She was a waitress in a café. I knew right away she was the one I wanted to be with. At first I was tongue tied. I thought a girl that pretty had to be married, or was being courted at least. Finally I got fed up with being a coward and asked her out.

Those of us who survived the war were often told we couldn’t let guilt ruin our lives. A lot of men went mad wondering why they’d deserved to come home and others hadn’t. I always thought I was good at that. Keeping the past and the present apart. I never forgot the things that happened, but I tried never to let them affect how I lived and how I was with my family.

I remember when Mary first told me she was pregnant. We were in bed. She’d been getting tired all the time, and even after telling me, she fell asleep. I lay staring into the dark for hours. All I could think about was how amazing it was that the woman I loved was carrying a part of both of us inside her.

I got up as quiet as I could and opened the curtain so I could see the moonlight on her face. A lot of thoughts went through my head. About how I’d be as a dad, wondering whether it would be a boy or a girl. As I looked at her sleeping I realised I’d never been happier in my life. And then I got up, went downstairs, and took out the box.

I remember how tired I felt just before it happened. It was a miracle I saw him before he fired. French artillery had just cleared the area, and there was smoke and the smell of cordite everywhere. I was out in front, about eight men coming up twenty or thirty yards behind me. I wasn’t looking around me. I was watching the pill box at the top of the hill. It looked like a shell had gone right inside it. The slit was half blown open and smoke was pouring out, but I couldn’t be sure it was clear. My plan was to run up and make sure it was secure before the smoke cleared.

As I spotted him he fired his rifle at me. The bullet whistled right past my ear. I shot back with my Webley but missed, and he ran up the hill to the pill box. I threw down my rifle and chased after him with only the revolver. I had to stop him fast. If he got inside he’d start picking off my men from inside the bunker. When I ran round the back of the pill box, I could just about see him through the smoke. I emptied my revolver. When the air cleared, I saw he was sitting with his back against the concrete. His rifle was on the ground and his arms were up over his head. He was surrendering. I’d hit him in the chest, it was too late to save him. I knelt down by him. He grabbed my hand and pulled it onto his chest and held it there. His eyes didn’t leave mine even after he stopped breathing. He looked young, about twenty. A standard infantryman.

The men called from outside. I shouted at them to hold back. I reached into his tunic, just by where I’d shot him, where he’d pulled my hand. There was a thick envelope inside, close to being soaked in blood. I took it.

My wife thought I’d lost my mind when I started learning German. It was the last thing anyone wanted to hear. I said I just wanted to learn another language, and seeing as I’d learned a little bit of it in the war, why not carry on. She saw me reading the dictionary and sometimes overheard me saying German words. What I made sure she never saw was me translating the letters I’d found in that envelope.

There was a photograph too. And the girl in the photograph was the same one the letters were from. One of the letters was his own, an early one she’d sent back to him.

They’d met a few months before he went to war, and were planning to marry as soon as it was over. They talked about names for their children. They wanted three. There was no fear at all. They knew he was being sent to fight, but they didn’t worry he might not come back. They talked about their plans for the future like it was destiny and nothing could stop it.

I took a proper look at the photograph later on in a dugout, after the battle. For the rest of the war, there wasn’t a day I didn’t look at that picture. She was beautiful. If I had to dream up a face I’d want to look at forever, it wasn’t far off. She looked childlike and wise at the same time, like an old soul in a young face. If I’d seen her walking on the other side of the road, I’d have run through traffic to meet her. There’s no other way to say it. I fell in love with that man’s girl.

I should have handed the bundle over to my staff sergeant along with the dead man’s other belongings. That was the rules. You took what you needed, weapons, maps, but personal belongings you gave to your superior, so it could then be sent to the dead’s family. But I decided I’d send it on myself.

After I’d translated all the letters, I posted them back to the sender in Germany. I didn’t add a note. I didn’t know what I could say to her, and I was ashamed for holding onto the letters as long as I did. But I kept the photograph. I put it together with the translations into a small wooden box and I hid it away.

That night while Mary slept upstairs, I opened the box. My hands were trembling. I tried to read parts of the translated letters but I couldn’t. I just looked at the photo. I felt what he would have felt every time he looked at that picture while he sat in a military wagon, in his barracks, in some trench, and I wept. I knew I’d never feel happiness again without pain. Everything I’d been blessed with, I’d taken from another man. I’d taken it from her too. And now as I thought of what was growing inside Mary, I knew I’d taken more than just two lives.

Now I’m old. I haven’t got long to go. I have everything a man at the end of his days could want. I still have the box. It will be buried with me. I know what it means to be grateful. I’ve had a good life.