If you walk down this street, you can feel them, nearly see them. Boys and girls, some lounging against the stone steps of their schools, laughing, flirting, skirts spinning, pin curls unravelling, pocket combs falling unnoticed to the ground. Some sit on the rickety wooden porches, their noses in comic books, their hands busy with knitting or peeling, always talking, their voices carrying in the wind almost to my ears today.
I can feel them in the earth beneath my feet, their warmth in the stones that surround me. They stare out the windows during particularly boring math classes, dreaming of a world away, a uniform, a pistol, the hero under ticker tape. They sigh and it floats down like petals until I can catch it in my hands.
These almost men and women. I see them as if it were only yesterday.
The sorrow hits you around the corner, when you brush a tree that would have been young then, planted by their hands perhaps, the soil cradled by soft fingers and watered by arms that struggled to carry the tin can. You stare into the open doorway of a house, the old woodwork glowing, and see where they would have received the telegram, the 25 odd words of your fate. You can almost make out the sobs of a mother, clutching her womb as her phantom son kicks no longer.
Some came home. Some came home to these houses, school in a life you cannot teach. Some found wives there, in that land that seemed so magical once. They brought them home, promised them riches and children, made a life, created a family. Worked a job so ordinary and different from the life they once held, the lives they ended, that they couldn’t believe their luck, to be on the pedestrian side of victory.
Some never came home, and instead lay cold in dirt, tucked away in a foreign land, the earth given up to them, but still not for them, their families never allowed that one last good-bye, only the howl of a piece of paper as the officer walks away.
Harder still are the lives, broken, that you can feel, at the foot of the legion, the men, the women trapped within themselves, within bombs that will never stop, blitz’s they can’t hide from, the shy eyes of a young boy on the wrong side, dying from their bullet. People who carried their sorrow for years, unable to escape, perhaps unwanting. They hover, superimposed upon before, here, where so many would have cast their lot into the wind and ran off to join the great war. The broken carries with him the man before, the sly fox with slick hair and a sweet car, a girl on his arm.
I walk past and they whisper to me, all of their stories. The worlds they’ve touched, the smell of a rifle in the morning fog, the sounds of the young dying, their tears quieted, but their eyes scared and alone as they cry for their fathers. The mother’s who let go their only sons, their precious daughters, duty at odds with the heart that beat in their chest, slowing down as they realized that the back of their child might be the last they ever see of them.
They whisper as I walk, whole and safe and free, and I know that this, THIS is the cost of their sacrifice. This is what must be paid, their scattered words in my mouth, the tears unbidden, the full knowledge of what it cost these children, these parents, to one day have their babies flirting on the steps, and the next, full uniform in a trench in France, or tending the wounded in a field camp in London. My charity, my fee to them, is the ache and sorrow this street holds, laughter and tears, love and ache.
Walk with me there. Let their song play.