SHORT STORY: "Light A Candle and Pray, Boy." - A Fictional tribute to the memory of all who served in the Great War - 1914-1918. Lest We Forget.
Originally written as part of the "10 SHORT OF 31" short story challenge, and based upon the title provided for me by Bo Davies - this story was written just after the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014. Having missed the candle lighting that swept the country - due to work commitments, i wrote this as my candle and tribute. It is among some of my favourite writing.
I am the son, grandson and great-grandson of servicemen, and though it was never something I was never brave or bold enough to do, following them into the forces - I am honoured to remember each of them, and all others who gave their lives so bravely and with such conviction and sacrifice.
Today is the centenary of the armistice, when the guns fell silent, so, it feels right to share this once again in memory of those who fell and never made it home.
“Light a Candle and Pray, Boy”
On top of the hill overlooking the Denby Valley, where the villages of East Frank and West Lothrith met, separated by a thin river that, at its narrowest point, was only three feet wide, Jacob sat.
He was cross legged, with the woollen blanket pulled high over his shoulders, and a warm flask of tea between his crossed legs.
He watched over the valley and the two villages and chewed on his cob of bread, folded with ham and lettuce and a homemade grainy mustard.
He had been watching the stars and the skies, trying to find a moments silence upon the hill, listening to the grasshoppers and sheep and the wind through the back of the Portney Woods, rustling the tree tops and whistling through the narrow brambles, a song for the fields and the hills and the land.
One Jacob enjoyed more than anything else on this Earth.
He watched in wonder as one by one the lights dimmed and died across the valley.
Pinpricks of light blinking and burning out, and a darkness he had never experienced before washed over his home as each house blacked out in silence and stillness.
He wondered what on earth was happening, and wrapping his things in the blanket, he rolled it into a neat parcel, picked up his walking stick, and started the slow trudge down to Lothrith and toward his house.
The closer he got the less light was seen, tiny twinkles of light suddenly extinguished in the night, and a blue inky shadow smeared his vision as he wandered closer to the silent and blackened village.
He looked across the river and saw that East Frank was blinking and dying as well, no lights lasted more than a few seconds before each home was placed in abject darkness.
And then, as he was about to climb the gable fence which separated the Towering field on the hill where the Crimean Monument stood, as he was perched on the gate itself one leg over, straddled to jump off, he was awe struck as tiny, fragile pinpricks of light emerged from each window and each doorstep.
Elegant flames lighting up on candles in windows across the two villages, and for a moment it was like a Fairies council had descended on his beloved home and each fairy was blowing a kiss to each house,
Slithers of wavering, shaking fragile light could be seen burning a deep orange and yellow glow, faint and beautiful in each window.
He could see curtains and nets shiver with movement as they were opened and pulled away, so new candles could be lit.
The valley now alive with these orange flames of light and life.
He carried on over the gate and started to move faster toward the home where his wife and son were, his brother Michael had the house two down from him, a barn that was converted into a farmhouse with a giant cobbled yard, and horses and cows and outhouses that was where their livelihoods were made.
He made it to the door, and his wife was stood in the porch way, sobbing, holding their 18 month old boy, and gently patting his back and bouncing him up and down, in gentle motions, side to side, up and down, he gurgled appreciatively into her shoulder and continued to suck on his thumb, sleeping like babes do.
“Dining Room” is all she said, and Jacob lay a warm and loving kiss on her forehead, and then retreated to the back of the quiet, dark, candle-lit cottage and to the dining room.
A small, stonewalled room, it had a dresser, upon which were crockery and ornaments and kick-knacks, there was a polished mirror with a greening bronze and copper frame, and in the centre of the room a table with three chairs around it.
The fourth chair had been his fathers, and he had since taken it into his shed to keep safe, and sat on it in cool summer evenings when pottering or preparing his fishing lines and his carpentry, no one but himself had sat on it since his father’s passing.
The act of doing so seen as sacrilege.
Sat at the table, cap in hand, and rising as Jacob walked in was the Parish Clerk, Norman Whitehouse, he had a bedraggled look upon his face, sad bags under his eyes, and he squeezed and twisted his cap in forgetful distraction, Jacob offered a hand, and Norman took it and shook briskly and strong, and Jacob beckoned he sit.
He could see tea was already prepared, and he took a cup and poured from his own flask, and gestured silent salute to Norman and the head of the table where his father would have sat, noisily sipping from his cup.
“How can I help thee Norman?”
His Northern roots were dampened by years working on the train lines with Southerners and Midlanders and tempering his accent to a neutrality to be understood by all, seeing himself as something of a statesman for the English, he was older and wiser and bigger than most of the whelps who struggled on the lines and cables, but he had toiled on and made himself his own man.
Every now and then his accent returned and certain mannerisms were impossible to shake and move, he felt that something inside had held them as medals of honour he was not to play with, and that some things – as is the want of life – had to survive and stay.
Norman looked at him and returned a silent gesture of cheers with his tea, and also to the head of the table, saying under his breath “Arthur”, and sipped down a gulp.
Was all he mustered, before he sipped again, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He looked at his feet and then up at Jacob and the tiredness in his eyes was laid bare, as you could see he had been crying before he arrived.
“War is it?”
“Asquith gave the deadline for midnight, the Commons debated for eight hours about what to do, the chambers were never so full by all accounts, he made it clear that they were to be out of Belgium by Midnight, or War, and they were not.”
Jacob sipped his tea. He looked at the cup, fine china, a wedding gift from the local parish itself, Jacobs’s farm and family had long provided much more and given much to the villages of East Frank and West Lothrith – never asking for anything in return.
Two brothers lost in the Crimea, one to Pneumonia and his Father to the accident two winters past.
Only Michael and Jacob remained, but more decent men you could not hope to meet, still giving milk and crop to the parish whenever asked and often without need to be asked, they held dances in their barns, opened house to village meetings and welcomed the local kids and children to the animals and fields beyond the farm for anyone to use.
They were loved in both villages, and the town beyond, their family had been here six generations and they had never asked for anything in return by the peace of the land and the hello of a neighbour.
So, when anything of this magnitude of importance happened, to Jacob and Michael they went, the voice of the council in the ear of the family that held the attention and love of the land.
Michael the bawdier, louder brother, younger than Jacob by 22 months, bigger, brasher and more in keeping with the locals, drinking as he did in the alehouse in the town, and trading his time gambling when not working the farm or tilling the fields.
Jacob, the elder, the wiser – the spit of his father, held life in more serious and quiet regard, but was a gentle and loving man.
His wife came to the door, and knocked gently on the dining rooms wooden portal.
“Jac. We have more company.”
He nodded at his wife Ann-Marie and he looked at Norman.
“Ann, my love, tell them to meet at Michaels, and then take Harry and yourself and go to the Millard’s, tell Harriet I will come speak to her tomorrow and to send Kevin down here.”
Ann-Marie gave a half smile, and left.
Jacob looked back and just saw the sweet, sleeping face of Harry, his son, as she left the warmth of the orange candles in the dining room.
“Right. Tell me what has happened and what is about to occur.”
And Norman did. In detail, and haste, the news was already 24 hours old and the telegram had not reached them until 8pm, and before anything and anyone else was told, the council had decided, as it often did, that the first to know should be the Langwood’s, as Jacob and Michael Langwood would be the people that the township of East Frank and West Lothrith – separated by a river not three feet wide at its narrowest point, would want to hear this from.
Men of the people, their elders and guides.
Jacob sat and listened and nodded in silence, all the while sipping his cold, milky tea, from his flask. His face an impression of passivity and import.
By the end he asked but one question.
“What are the candles?”
Norman nodded, as if in expectation.
“Across the country, as an act of solidarity, the lights have gone out and the candles have been lit. They have already started to move bodies across the channel, and the army is already being motivated and mobilized.
I tell you Jacob, it is dark, dark days…”
Jacob was not inclined to disagree.
The barn was already throbbing with people, Michael was nowhere to be seen, probably in the town, in which case, he would be well aware of what was happening, probably before Jacob was, and in the excitement and the panic he was more than likely stuck in the town and without mode for home.
Jacob did not worry.
He waited until the final men pushed into the barn, and he looked around at the faces of his neighbours and family, his cousins, and those he was joined to in blood via his union with Ann-Marie, and through the jabbering and muttering and hushed and angry and confused tones of murmurs, he waved a silence over them and he told them what was about to happen.
About the deadline, about Asquith’s ultimatum, about the intercepted news from Berlin about the Kaiser and the war cabinets decree that France was a target, and that there were feet inside Luxembourg and probably Belgium already.
Jacob said that Soldiers were already en route over the Channel to defend the French, and that soon – regardless of whether it was right or wrong – the soldiers would come knocking, and that the conscriptions would soon begin.
At this the wives and daughters and mothers and sons all set about a busy chirrup of voices and fluster, Jacob waved them silent with a single raised palm, and he said
“It will not be the first time. This village, the village next to us. Our township and our community has seen war before. It is true this is looking to be unlike anything we may have encountered, but rest assured, they will come… They will… And when they do, we men, of age, and of health and of honour - for that is what we are - have no doubt, we will leave.”
The room fell silent and still.
His words hung like the sword of Damocles above the heads of every man of age.
They all stood, caps in hand, sleeves rolled up, and faces of ashen stone, marble and granite. For they knew he was right, and they knew that they would go proudly, as Englishmen do.
Michael sat at the bar, sipping at his pint.
He had never married, he had never had children, and he had never settled down.
His life in West Lothrith was one of coasting and distraction, he loved his family but felt torn by duty and his need for freedom.
His eldest surviving brother Jacob was a hard working honourable man, his shoulders bore many burdens and he absorbed the duty like a sponge absorbs water, never floundering, never shaking.
Michael, however, was inclined to fancies and follies and life less ordinary, less routine, he gambled and fought (not that it ever got back to his brother) he womanized in the most gentlemanly fashions and he was popular for being a devilish and devil-may-care young man,
His arms were big and strong, his face rugged and handsome, always showing the strain of a day or twos growth, but never anything more, his hands were calloused and rough, but always gentle in the way with children and woman that mattered.
He laughed and he joked and he bellowed and he belched and he did everything he could to enjoy each day and it’s morning, noon and night to the fullest, well aware that a person’s flame could be extinguished with little to no care or thought.
All of them a testament to this fact.
So it was that on the 4th August 1914, Michael was sat in the Twenty One Hands public house, in the Town of Aberdale, and he and friends were throwing back ales and playing cards when the door flung open and a white faced police officer came in and called for silence, the news was relayed, and the pub had emptied within five minutes as people ran off to families and homes and loved ones.
Michael sat alone at this table, holding his hand of cards, and drank his ale and lay the cards down in fold, and beckoned the policeman over.
The officer sat down, and Michael offered an abandoned pint to the man.
“I’m on duty.” He dutifully said.
“We are at war…no one will begrudge you this.” Michael smiled.
Already the giant joke was in play, and he smiled and laughed throughout, as was his want and way.
The policeman took the pint, with certain trepidation, he paused, looked around and then saluted Michael, who clinked his ale in return, and the two men downed them together, sighed a wet sigh of refreshing enjoyment, and then wiped mouths with back of hands.
The two men stared at each other for a long second or five, and the Officer said
“My name is Gareth Llewellyn Chalfont, it’s nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Michael Tanner Langwood.” And they clapped hands and thus their bond was borne.
Michael was still in the same bar twenty four hours later.
He had played dominos, darts, cards, skittles and shove ha’penny, he had drank and danced and hollered and passed out and he had repeated this twice more.
He took a pouch from his pocket, his wallet, and he paid the barman handsomely, and then he left and he set about on his way to West Lothrith, to face his brother and his life in reality before the world came knocking.
Jacob never asked where he had been, never troubled the man for answers, nor judged him for his foibles, he just loved unconditionally and he gave him that look as if to say
“Never when Father was here, and thank goodness I am not him”
Michael appreciated and approved of the look, as it grounded him and reminded him of his Father, and reinforced his personal joy the man was no longer around, the youngest of five, he was always judged differently, and felt his burden was his father’s displeasure and distaste and dissatisfaction.
Never angry, never violent, never punishing.
But the look alone, especially as he got older cut through Michael like a warm knife through butter, and he struggled daily with the weight and gravity of his name, and yearned for freedom and independence and for his spirit to be set free.
Jacob allowed this, having always had special love for his younger brother.
He was very much his father’s son, but never once his father.
Much to Michael’s admiration.
So it was that when he returned this time, in two-day-old clothes, his stumble longer than usual, and his scent one of beer and smoke, Jacob simply held him in embrace, and Michael, not Jacob, said
“So war then. Nothing will be the same, will it?”
And Jacob shook his head in agreement.
And the brothers hugged again.
* * *
In the middle of September of 1914 the word had spread of the Pals Battalion being called in Aberdale, Michael received a telegram from Gareth that he was taking the call to arms and would be joining the line to sign up for action, that the town was full of men, many of which Michael had drank and fought, played cards and wrestled with, laughed and joked and spent time long into the night talking and sharing and spending his cherished and happiest times with.
Gareth asked the question, and Michael answered yes.
He would join the effort, and he would sign up as well.
Nothing was in his life now but the old farm his brother ran anyway, the farmhouse he could not wait to leave and the river and the hill, the memories of his family dead and forgotten.
Jacob the only reason he stayed in the village, and the main reason he was wanting to leave, forever in the man’s shadow, and forever trying to find his way and lot in life.
Should that be in a bunker or ditch in the mud strewn fields of Flanders, or the Main promenade of Berlin when the English marched in victory, he did not care.
He simply saw the door and opened it and stepped out.
Jacob never said whether he was happy or sad or approving or not, he simply held his brother and told him that he was the bravest man he knew, and that he loved him, and he would always be in their hearts and minds forefront in their thoughts.
On the 19th February, 1915 – Michael was on the ship to France.
Beside him were ten men from West Lothrith, five from East Frank and a dozen from Aberdale. Gareth Llewellyn Chalfont stood by his side, always by his side.
They were named the Aberdale Battalion, and they laughed and joked and played cards, and dominos and they shared tales and stories and truths and lies and histories on train and boat and marching on roads and across fields.
27 men from the town and villages.
A family of strangers.
* * *
The mud had been churned and kicked and ploughed by the hundred men who pushed on into the rain, and the sleet.
The weather now as much a villain and an enemy as the Germans were.
French voices called out from the weary, battle torn hell that was No Man’s Land, as bodies twisted and caught on barbed wire and convulsed and broken by the mortar and shelling, died slow and agonizing deaths.
Gareth had been unwell for several days, truth be told he was unwell for weeks, the hollow wheeze and dry cough from his chest was a constant source of chagrin amongst his battalion and his trench mates.
Nine of the pals from Aberdale battalion had died along the way, and their bodies had seen things no man ought to.
Blood had run on the hands of every man from the villages of West Lothrith, East Frank and town of Aberdale, and Gareth had seen men die in honour and in puddle of their own waste and fluid, wasted and wanton, and lacking the romance and dignity he envisioned upon signing up.
He was cold and he was tired, and he ached and pained all over.
His hand made horrendous noise when he clenched them, like the bones were broken and the skin was dry, sun drenched papyrus, creaking under duress.
That evening they called for men to go over the top and help the stranded French under cover of night, eight or nine men had been seen ensconced in a small trench and foxhole, 1500 metres out into the devastated field, Gareth raised his hand.
He knew if he was to die then he wanted it to be in glory and not of pneumonia in the trench, no further advanced than eight months ago when they arrived in the fields bordering Ypres.
Michael, of course, volunteered.
Always side-by-side through thick and thin.
Through sheer strength of the man’s conviction alone had Gareth survived this long.
And so through the blaze of gunfire as cover, and shells for distraction, six men climbed the wall of the trench and ran for the French encampment, with rifle and grenade and pistol.
No sooner had they got within ten feet of the trench than the air became thick with an evil, sickening fug.
Mortars and shells exploded around, and the dread planes flew over the field and plain of Ypres, and the smoke filled the Land between trenches, gun fire died out in weak and sickening rattles, and the lungs of each man filled with the tang of hatred and bile as the poison gas filled them and choked them one by one.
Gareth tried to run and escape, found his foot entangled in the half submerged barbed wire, and falling, slowly drowned in his own lungs in a slowly sucking pool of mud, and the poison gas that the Germans had unleashed, his last thought being his attempt at heroism to escape choking to death in his own trench…
The irony and the cruel taunt of fate.
His mouth gasping open and close like a fish, his lungs blacked and charred with the chlorine gas, and the liquid mud seeping down his throat toward his lungs.
His last vision Michael, pulling French soldiers from the trench, and pushing them screaming and choking toward the English line.
Michael trying so hard and so valiantly to save the men.
Cut down in his attempts by a hail of German fire.
His hands on his throat as he fell, and his eyes wild with the history of his life.
How much Gareth admired the man.
How strongly he had fought.
How quickly he was snuffed out, bullet strewn and gassed, his eyes a red mess from the gas. The French soldiers escaped and making the line and trench because of him.
The poor farmer’s son died face down in the fields of Ypres.
* * *
Jacob never saw his brother again.
At 39 he was just old enough to be signed up when Conscription came about.
He had run the farm and had been exempt and free from the front until the Somme came calling and the final push after the battle of Verdun, Jacob had seen his choices limited.
One by one the men of the town fell and died in the fire, the seas, the air and the ground. His village, and the village of East Frank – separated as they were by a river, no more than three feet at its narrowest divide – saw the landscape brown and fall to ruin as man after man died upon the soil in Belgium, France and Gallipoli.
Jacob no longer had anywhere to hide when the conscription came calling, and he was hoisted off to war, and in his mind, almost certain death.
By the summer of 1917 he had already seen action in Passchendaele, and though he had never seen his brother again, he saw the field upon which he so bravely died, cut down by machine gun fire, and gas.
He had seen the graves and the memorials, had touched a picture of the Aberdale Battalion of Pals, and his brothers giant wide devil-may-care smile, and he shared a brief smile in return, tears welling in his eyes.
Jacob saw bloodshed and bullet fire at Ypres, saw men cut down and gag and die on poison from the enemy lines, and he had carried dead and dying to the trenches and from the field, he had killed and he had saved in equal measure, and he would sit in the trench at night and dream of his hilltop and his blanket and his flask of tea and his villages, and the narrow river.
Of his wife and his son, and of the future he knew he would never see.
Jacob died from friendly fire, as a young lieutenant fell under shelling and released a single round from his pistol.
The bullet creased Jacobs skull as he scrambled for shelter from the incoming enemy fire, and he fell hard and cold and dead, as if someone had switched off a light and darkness had swathed his body.
This was in Marne.
It was July of 1918, and the end of the war was only four months away.
The fates cut his line short, and he fell as had his brother and his friends, on those fields of battle, under friendly means.
He never saw the bullet coming, nor heard the retort of the pistol and his death was so sudden and so instant, he was long gone before his body slumped on the ground in the mud and the debris.
* * *
Today there are two memorials upon the hill in West Lothrith.
The second is of a farmer, in his hand a gun, and his hand covering his eyes from sunshine he overlooks the two villages of East Frank and West Lothrith, of the narrow river, and into the town of Aberdale, not ten miles away, linked by electricity pylon monoliths standing astride the countryside connecting the world beyond.
The statute is awash every August 4th by town people and villagers alike, silent prayers held and muttered, poems and mantras and amens to the memory of the remembered farmer, of his brothers named on the memorial next to it and of the brave 21 men of the Aberdale Pals.
Every day the farmers great-grandson, and his great-great-grandson, Philip Anthony Longwood and Michael Jacob Llewellyn Langwood make the walk to the statute, and they share a flask of milky tea, and they sit under blanket come rain or shine, leaning against the statute of their kin, and they watch the sun go down over the villages and the town beyond.
They share jokes and memories and stories and secrets, and they light a candle and then they leave to do it all again the next day and the day after that.
The candle burns and burns and burns…
Never ending, flame incandescent and forever.
Even when the wick and the fire is gone, there are two people who can still see and feel the warmth of the tiny flame.
As Philip and his son walk down the hill toward the house and farm they still own, still so important to the whole community, so beautiful and old and perfect, the ghosts of Michael and of Jacob both watch them leave, they sip from the flask that Jacob always has at his side, and they smile and they joke and they share secrets and laughs.
Two brothers united in battle and blood and death and sadness and war.
Realising that no matter the sacrifice and the bloodshed and the terrible deaths they endured, they are remembered and they will always be.
They are remembered and they always will be…
As will they all.