I bought my poppy last night from a decorated old soldier in the shop where I bought my cabbage and peppers on the way home from Send, and pinned it to my jacket this morning as I prepared to leave for my walk. The poppy shape seems a little different these days from those I bought as a youth. Then, they were bigger and rounder, with paper green leaves behind the red poppy, and a long stem made of wire that fitted into my lapel buttonholes. The shape is slimmer, a little more abstract now, with just a short plastic stem, a product perhaps of mass manufacture. But no matter ; the significance of the poppy has always been in what it represents, and why we wear it.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of this eleventh month, I stood by my desk, observed the two minutes silence, then set off for a long walk in the November sunshine. The sun is low at this time of year, and cast long shadows as I strode along the road before me. The flickering of shadows through the trees made me think of a picture I have seen recently, and you may have seen too. It is a picture of an old man with a walking stick, standing by a wall at a Remembrance Day service. The old man casts a long shadow on the wall, but it is not his own shadow, it is that of a young soldier in combat gear. It is very cleverly done. The connexion is clear : that soldiery goes on, and we are linked to the past in innumerable ways.
And as I walked, I thought that perhaps every old man of that time casts a shadow, his own piece of the jigsaw of history. Yet it may not be the sunlight that reveals his piece of the jigsaw. His shadow and its story may be revealed in other ways.
I can date it fairly closely. We were living in a little flat in Paisley just after we married and before we took our first little house in Livingston New Town in the summer of 1974, and in the mornings I took the red Paisley bus into Glasgow town centre to the place where I worked. As I got on the bus just after half past eight one morning, I noticed an old man sitting on one of the seats about half way down the bus. He was in his late sixties, short, unkempt, with a flat brown soiled-looking cap, a dirty brown overcoat, and in his hand a brown paper bag crushed at the top. I knew straight away that the brown paper bag camouflaged a bottle, some cheap alcohol or fortified wine. And he was drunk. His eyes were bloodshot and wet, and it seemed he could only focus them with a concentrated effort. I pushed my way down and, like other passengers, sat several seats away from him, leaving him isolated. I looked out of the rear window of the bus, so as not to look at him.
As the journey continued, he could be heard muttering, at first barely audibly, and as the bus rolled on, a little more loudly, yet hardly more distinctly. He seemed to be having a conversation with some invisible person in front of him, and periodically he would jab the air with the bottle in the brown paper bag as if to reinforce some point he was making. Hardly one slurred word in four could be made out, and those that could be made out were crude and vulgar. Yet as the old man muttered and mumbled and swore, there seemed to be some kind of story coming out, as though his words were on pieces of a jigsaw that could be fitted together to make a picture.
This old man wasn’t on a bus at all. He was in a field in northern France. And he wasn’t holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, he was holding a tin can of cold beans that he was eating with a spoon. Beside him, there was no passenger, but an old comrade who was sitting beside him in the trench, also eating from a tin of cold beans.
“See that, fuckin beans, Ah hate they fuckin beans, they’re fuckin cauld.”
He held up the bag a little.
“Ah’m looking roon at Jamesie, and he’s got fuckin beans an’ a’. Jist a tin a fuckin beans.”
The bus rolled on, and most of the passengers tried to avoid making eye contact with the drunk.
“See they fuckin shells? They’re jist wan fuckin thing efter another, feeep feeeep feeeep.” He tried to make whistling noises, and his other hand made slight motions like he was trying to point to traces. “Whistle and bang, whistle and bang. If wan o they things are gonny get ye, it’s jist whistle, thur’s nae bang, if ye hear the bang, it’s nae got ye yet.” And he tried to whistle again, but nothing came save a dull hiss of air.
More words came and, though still nearly all indecipherable, more of the sorry scene came with them.
“Ah’m jist sittin there, ye know? A fuckin whistle, feeep, an Ah turns roon tae Jamesie. Know whit? Jamesie’s no fuckin there. Fuckin shell. Thur’s nothin a Jamesie at a’, he’s no there, but jist that tin a fuckin beans a’ his, no even fell ower, jist sittin there on the grun’.”
As these pieces of a horrid scene emerged from the drunk’s ramblings, I remember the sense of shame I had in my first disgust. This old man, over thirty years on, was still reliving the moments when a shell took his comrade clean from the face of the earth beside him, leaving nothing behind but the can of beans he’d been eating from, sitting upright and intact on the ground.
I have thought of that journey, and that old man, many times. He had his own shadow, and it was a drink fuelled journey on a bus that pieced together the story within its darkness, nightmare memories that no passage of Novembers can erase.
For some, not all remembrance days are in November, and not all remembrances are eased by the lovely and poignant poppies. On this Remembrance Day, I remember him too.