The war is over. The war will never be over.
Four years after, walking down the High Street with Maureen on a sunny day, Tom saw Jack Boyle walking towards them, a broad grin of recognition on his face. Tom froze, waiting for Jack to embrace him, clap him on the back, say ‘Where’ve you been Tommy Boy?’ but then it happened, as it always happened.
Jack was struck in the side of his head, pushing him sideways. The flesh and bone that had been a thinking man a moment before smashed and sprayed into the cold mud of the trench, the smile gone, the light gone, Jack gone.
Maureen tugged on Tom’s arm.
‘Are you all right, Love?’ she asked.
He said he was and they walked on, but he could feel the memory of the lice crawling over his skin underneath his uniform. The lice that had made Jack pull off his helmet to scratch at his scalp, exposing his skull to the sniper’s bullet.
Another one gone.
Tom wore his medals today, heavy and meaningless on his chest. They spoke of bravery to others, to him only of survival. He had followed orders, kept his head down, taken cover, been wounded once and got a sweet few months’ reprieve, missing a big, futile, push at the Front. Sent back, stood up straight, went through the motions, survived to the end. Came back to Maureen.
Something came back to Maureen, but not Tom whom she had married. Another presence had moved into the limping shell of his body.
They entered St. Mary’s Church and he and Maureen sat in the front pews with other survivors of the war, and their medals. The vicar made a long sermon out of sacrifice until Tom felt he was being compared to Jesus. He felt more like Lazarus. Pale Lazarus, dragged back to life whether he wanted to come or not.
After the service, the congregation walked in procession down to the park where the draped form of the new memorial stood. The Mayor made a speech. More ‘sacrifice’, ‘will not be forgotten’, ‘corner of a foreign field’, and so on.
Tom could see the dim, smoky forms of the many men, some he’d known since school, aimlessly wandering the paths of the park they had once played in, unnoticed now.
The drapes fell away to reveal a stark white marble statue of a handsome, well-fed, louse-free, but slightly mournful soldier, hands resting on his rifle butt, looking into the far distance. He stood on a rectangular block of marble around which were inlaid in brass the names of all the local men who were lost. The Fallen, they were called now, as if death were just a fainting. No blood, no torn flesh and bone.
Tom and Maureen moved to view the memorial closer, to read the names. He felt her stiffen suddenly and gasp, then try to pull him away. Tom stood firm and looked. There, in shining brass, set in marble, he saw his own name: Corporal Thomas Marsh.
‘It’s a horrible mistake,’ she said. ‘They’ll have to change it.’
He looked for a long time, reading all the other names, too. The crowd around them became transparent, even Maureen clinging to his arm, their voices indistinct. They were all ghosts to him, the living and the dead.
‘No,’ he said, ‘they can leave it.’
Tom was fallen, too.
The war would never be over.