Memories of Better Days

A short story about a soldier reliving his life in his final moments. Written for a school project.

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1. Memories of Better Days

Memories of Better Days

 

 

 

 

The ringing in his ears subsided abruptly, as if someone had switched off the tired old radio his mother listened to in the evenings, as she sat knitting in her armchair. Sometimes, if the trenches were calm enough, August could still hear her singing along to her favourite songs, tapping her foot on the ground, emanating happiness and youth. Of course, those were aged memories, from his childhood. In more recent recollections she sat in silence, a constant look of worry on her face, which aged her considerably. However, back in brighter times his father would return from his job at Mr Barnett’s Carpentry Workshop at around six every afternoon and bend over to kiss her as she sang, his eyes gleaming. Her laughter echoed in August’s memory for a second, then quickly faded.

 

He felt nothing at all, which confirmed his worst suspicions. He knew that if a wound was dire enough, the body would shut off all pain to enable the victim to function and provide a solution. If nothing was done about the injury, the shock would eventually wear off and by that time the victim would have lost far too much blood for any chance of survival. Paralysis was another matter. As he considered his options, August glanced down at his chest.

 

He groaned in frustration as he saw the three puncture points in his torso. His dark, hot blood oozed out into a puddle of red on the dirt surrounding him. He knew he was a goner – there was no chance that he would survive a trio of bullets buried into his vital organs. Nonetheless, he tried desperately to hold on, gripping his skin to stop the constant flow of blood. He prayed to God as images of his loved ones swam through his mind. He didn’t know how long he lay there, stranded on the Somme, fellow soldiers laying dead by his side. He had no memory of the past few hours. All he could see were faded figures, their features blurred after many long months of distance from his hungry eyes. Oh how he longed to see them again; his younger brother, his parents, his best friend. But they were merely shadows. Only one silhouette shone brightly among the rest.

 

Edith Miller. He focused on her face, longing to touch her cheek, to feel her striking blue eyes fixated on him with passion. As he gasped for air, he could almost smell the soap she used to wash her clothes, and the sweet scent of flowers she sold at the market every Saturday morning. It made him sad as he found that he could no longer remember the exact pitch and tone of her voice, or the length of her nails, or even the exact number of moles on her arms. He thought he had her body memorised, every inch of her burned into his mind until he was certain he would never forget. But as months went by he forgot certain details. He tried desperately to regain them now.

 

August thought about the last time he had seen her, before he had gone to war. He had taken Edith bicycling through the countryside, and they both enjoyed the outing immensely. Her short, chocolate brown curls swept behind her in the wind as she rode, reflecting golden rays from the sun, her smile dazzling him more than ever. She radiated beauty as if it were nothing, as if it were easy for her to look so stunning. They rode past many crumbling farm houses until they came to an orchard, full of young apple trees, their fruits ripe and gleaming. She somehow managed to stray off the path and fall straight into a pile of raked leaves, giggling uncontrollably. He went to pull her out, but she swatted his hand away, pleading “Oh come, August, lie down with me. It is my final request of you.” He stared at her, wondering if she was mad, then decided that he didn’t care, dropping onto the assortment of green, yellow and red. “You are quite the tough lady,” he mocked. “Are you sure you aren’t really a man in disguise?” “If I were a man you would not love me, silly!” she replied. And it was true; he loved her with all his heart. There was no doubt about it – he wanted to propose to her there and then, but of course he couldn’t. He had to leave to fight. And as he gripped his bloody chest, he realised he would never have the chance to ask.

 

If tears found their way down his cheeks, August didn’t feel them. His fingers were colder than ice, cooling the warm blood spurting from him like a fountain. He found it harder to think now. His thoughts were groggy, clouded by the low supply of oxygen he could deliver. He tried to yell out “Help! Someone, please,” but his brittle cries were drowned by the steady bangs of machine guns and sudden, ruthless grenade explosions. Besides, he thought. There’s no-one who could help me anyway. It was sad but true. Every man for himself.

 

It reminded him of the games he used to play with his younger brother in their garden, and suddenly he was there again, a young child about the age of six or seven, the day in the month before his father trimmed the grass short. Those were the best days, as then weeds and ferns grew wildly, creating the perfect environment for exploration. He and his brother were companions on many adventures, most often as cousins, but sometimes as friends, or even foes. Some days they were pirates, battling dangerous sea monsters from their mighty ship. Other days they were brave knights, fighting troops for their king. The games always ended the same way – the younger and weaker Andrew would perish (although he did not quite always agree with his fate) and August would triumph against his enemies. It was one of the reasons he decided to join the army on his seventeenth birthday, despite it being illegal. Men were only allowed to join after nineteen, but August felt that he had to experience a true adventure before the war was over. He wanted to set a good example for Andrew, to show him that he was brave and loyal to his country. He also wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and prove to him that he was a worthy son. Of course, he quickly realised that his childish fantasies were far from the reality of fighting as a soldier.

 

His best friend was supposed to be fighting beside him as well, but August hadn’t seen him anywhere that day. He could have already been dead for all he knew. His only friend, Howard, who always kept him company in the trenches, when nobody else would. They knew each other since training, but only talked for the first time a month later on a freezing cold night, shivering as they sat in their dug-out tunnel. They had been placed together coincidentally. “Want a cigarette?” Howard asked, grinning as his teeth chattered. “Some folk believe they make you die faster.” August smiled back as he took one, and they were inseparable since.

 

He looked around, wondering if any of the bodies surrounding him were his, but he could hardly tell, as half of them had been grotesquely deformed with the help of poison gas and explosives.

 

He was dying, and he knew it. “Curse you! Damn you,” he wailed with his remaining breath. “I have a family! I have a future! You can’t take this from me … You won’t …”

He inhaled and exhaled sharply, shifting his position to allow as much circulation around his body as possible. The pain was starting to return in sharp blows, pulsing in his chest, travelling through his limbs. It was agony, beyond any ache he had ever experienced. He almost wanted for it to all be over, but he remembered those at home awaiting his return, reading every letter he wrote to them. He couldn’t leave them to mourn, he couldn’t make them suffer.

 

The next memory that caught his attention was more recent. It was a Thursday, he remembered. The day his father left. He too had gone to fight, and at the time August did not realise that there was a high chance he wouldn’t return. Nobody did. The war was supposed to be short and sweet, and yet it dragged out for so much longer than intended, showing no intention of stopping anytime soon. August closed his eyes, then opened them again. He was sitting by the table of his dining room, along with Andrew, his mother and his father, who was assuring them that it would not be a long trip. “I’ll be fine Maudie,” he said to her. “I know, I’m just worried, love. It is a risky responsibility,” she replied. August glanced at his mother’s nails, which, usually long and shaped, were badly bitten and raw. At the time he did not understand her worry. He did not know how much the war would truly affect them. He wanted to touch her as he remembered, to embrace her tightly and tell her it was going to be alright, but he could not move, or change the events of that evening in any way. After all, he couldn’t change the past.

 

He reflected with sadness on the many times he sat and wrote to Edith, assuring her that he was fine; that he enjoyed being a part of the war. He was never allowed to enclose his true opinions, so instead he wrote her poetry about their time together, and she would send back long, detailed descriptions about life back home, and tell him that she missed him every day. He thought about how she signed every letter with a kiss, and the promise that she would wait for him, even if it took all of eternity.

 

He couldn’t breathe. His lungs were on fire, his throat burned. He spluttered droplets of blood, coughing violently. He was drowning, drowning under a sea of crimson desperate to consume him. His terror kept him conscious and aware, aware of every organ in his body beginning to shut down. Disturbingly, he relished in it. How ironic, he thought. Ironic that for a death advertised by Lord Kitchener to be so heroic, there was nothing heroic or brave about it. Nothing brave about being shot multiple times, lying in a pool of his own blood and begging for it all to be over; for his brain to finally shut down.

 

And as he felt the world begin to spin, he heard a voice. “Let go, August. Hold my hand. You don’t have to fight it any more,” Edith whispered. Her gentle tone soothed him, and he held his arms out, ready to embrace her. As his body collided with hers he felt his suffering evaporate into the air, and the world around him dissolved into mist, spinning like a hurricane. His body abandoned him and fell into the storm around him, lifting a heavy load from his conscience. At last, he was free.

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