He is on his back, his face turned away from me as if he doesn’t want me to see. One arm is outstretched towards me, his glove fallen off, his finger pointing at me.
A swallow swoops over our heads all through the prayers, all through the hymns, flitting from window to window, from the belfry to the altar, looking for some way out. And I know for certain it is Father trying to escape. I know it because he told us more than once that in his next life he’d like to be a bird, so he could fly free wherever he wanted.
Big Jimmy gets it first, and he keeps crying out: “Ow, sir! Ow, sir! Ow, sir!” But when it’s Charlie’s turn, all we hear are the whacks, and then the silences in between. I am so proud of him for that. I have the bravest brother in the world.
He told me once […] that your father was up in Heaven and could still see us easily from where he was. He was pointing upwards, I remember, and I didn’t understand exactly what he was trying to tell me, not at first. I thought he was just pointing up at the sky in a general sort of way, or at the birds maybe. But then he took my hand and made me point with him, to show me. We were pointing up at the church, at the top of the church tower. It sounds silly, but I think Big Joe believes that Heaven is at the top of the church tower.
I was once told in Sunday school that a church tower reaches up skywards because it is a promise of Heaven. Church towers are different in France. It was the first thing I noticed when I came here, when I changed my world of home for my world of war. […] There are not many steeples left now. I have seen the one in Albert, hanging down like a broken promise.
Suddenly someone prodded me hard in the small of my back. It was a toothless old lady pointing at me with her crooked finger. “Go on, son,” she croaked. “You go and fight. It’s every man’s duty to fight when his country calls, that’s what I say. Go on. Y’aint a coward, are you?”
“He wouldn’t do that, Moll. It’s just a threat,” Charlie said. “He can’t do it. He just can’t.”
“He would,” Molly replied, “and he can. You know he can. And when the Colonel gets it into his head to do something, and he’s in the mood to do it, he will. Look what he did to Bertha. He means it, Charlie.”
We had a brew up with our prisoner in the dugout before they came for him. He smoked a cigarette Pete had given him. He’d stopped shaking now, but his eyes still held their fear. We had nothing to say to one another until the moment he got up to leave. “Danke,” he said. “Danke sehr.”
“Funny that,” Nipper said when he’d gone. “Seeing him standing there with not a stitch on. Take off our uniforms and you can hardly tell the difference, can you? Not a bad bloke, for a Fritz that is.”
I feel a surge of triumph welling inside me, not because we have won, but because I have stood with the others. I have not run.
“Y’aint a coward, are you?”
No, old woman, I am not. I am not.
From then on, every waking hour of every day, Hanley was at us. […] By the time we went back up into the line, Hanley snapping at our heels, his voice had become a vicious bark inside each of our heads. Every one of us hated him like poison, a great deal more than we had ever hated Fritz.
I looked up at the church steeple, a dark arrow pointing at the moon and beyond, and tried with all my heart and mind to believe she was up there somewhere in that vast expanse of infinity, up there in Sunday-school Heaven, in Big Joe’s happy Heaven. I couldn’t bring myself to think it. I knew she was lying in the cold earth at my feet. I knelt down and kissed the earth, then left her there.
“The whole court martial took less than an hour, Tommo. That’s all they gave me. An hour for a man’s life. Not a lot, is it? And do you know what the brigadier said, Tommo? He said I was a worthless man. Worthless. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, Tommo, but none of them ever upset me, except that one. I didn’t show it, mind. I wouldn’t have given them the satisfaction.”
It is the moment. I have to do it now. It is my last chance. I tell him about how Father had died, about how it had happened, what I had done, how I should have told him years ago, but had never dared to. He smiles. “I always knew that, Tommo. So did Mother. You’d talk in your sleep. Always having nightmares, always keeping me awake about it, you were. All nonsense. Not your fault. It was the tree that killed Father, Tommo, not you.”
They tell me he walked out with a smile on his face as if he were going for an early-morning stroll. They tell me that he refused the hood, and that they thought he was singing when he died.