Everyone was waiting for the silence. They stood in the Square, middle-aged men wearing blue Barbour jackets, and groups of students carrying rucksacks, holding green coffee cups in their hands, as the golden rays of the bleak November sun shimmered over the concrete buildings.
Timothy smiled at seeing all these people stand together. He imagined how a veteran would feel if they were to see this. White sunlight glinted off the corner of his glasses, and he gripped the lapels of his black trench coat.
From the bottom of the Square, kitchen staff came pouring out of the glass double doors in their black catering attire, doffing their chequered hats. And with each minute that passed, another grey slab had someone standing on it, until all Timothy could see were the muted colours of everyone’s coats, the sunlight blazing from everyone’s heads, be it blonde or brown or orangey red. Black skin, white skin, every colour you could think of. They were all standing, in that cold, cold square.
The crowd was buzzing, but at the slightest cough or shout, the hubbub died down slightly, eager as they all were (in a gloomy, bittersweet way) to begin the silence.
And so at 11, the speakers announced the commencement of the two-minute silence, and the fluctuating tones of Big Ben’s chimes soared across the heads of the crowd, switching to and fro, strongly, indecisively, always optimistic, choosing between hope and misery.
Timothy shut his eyes, and the world turned vanilla pink. All he could feel were his feet, nestled within his shoes, planted on the ground, rocking back and forth, as though his legs were no longer supporting anything.
His eyes jumped wide open. Flash of sunlight, and the world lost focus.
There came a grunt from no-man’s-land. A cataclysm of mud. Dirt and debris and piercing shrapnel. A solitary cry, nothing but a whisper against the metallic putututting of Lewis machine guns.
A scream. Nothing before it. The work of a sniper.
Everything was tilted. His insides drooped, deflated but expanding, water behind his eyes fell down into his throat. Rum boiled in his stomach, butter churned in his bowels. He felt his gorge rise. Nothing came out.
‘Company!’ came a shout. ‘One — pace — for-WARD!’
A sound, the chung of a knife blade swipe, blood from a poor man’s face sliced across his cheeks. Those bloody snipers.
The guns. Their heartbeat had stopped.
This time he vomited. Nobody flinched. His eyes streamed tears. Gas is it gas? His breathing went into spasms. He gripped the ladder as if were the neck of a Boche. His throat felt faint. Weak. His eyes, they looked, but they wouldn’t see anything.
‘On the signal, company will — ad-VANCE!’
He whimpered: ‘Mummy. Mummy. Oh please, God. Help me.’
Looked to his left. David’s eyes were undead, fuelled only by revenge, and anger, both growling away in his mind beneath layer upon layer of numbness and fear.
Looked to his right. George stared back at him.
‘Bugger,’ George mouthed.
They both look straight ahead. A black rat scurries up the ladder. Stops halfway. Then hurries back down to the dugout.
There came no screaming. His legs refused to move. He hoisted himself up, and everyone else clambered over, fists clinging onto mud, sludge and shrapnel fireworks stabbing the dirt before them, his arms of dough stretching out to breaking point.
He peeped up over the edge into no-man’s-land.
His heart plunged, abandoning his body, it was no longer safe. No more head. No more heart. Just his whole entire body gone, replaced not even by spirit, but by duty, fear, and vengeance.
Scrambled up over the barbed wire. Plunged straight into the mud. Everyone else trampled past, the mud from their boots blotting his eyes, his nose deep in sludge, his mouth still tasting of sick, warm and wet.
Through the mud he saw water. A golden brown puddle lay before him. And it was reflecting the sepia sky. He saw stars, and sunlight, and clouds breaking apart.
It was beautiful.
He looked up.
‘Mummy,’ he whispered to the light.
He closed his eyes.
‘It’s so beautiful.’
Timothy blinked. The whole Square was silent. People walking by knew immediately what was happening. They all stopped. Closed their eyes. Bowed their heads.
Few remembered. And few were there.
But everyone knew. Because they all stood together.