The cemetery was rather quiet on my annual visit. As I approached with hesitation, the symmetrical gravestones glistened from the freshly fallen rain and the petrichor was the only scent in a vast oval of cut flowers. With each step I took, I could feel the sinking of the earth underneath my feet and the moist squelch of the mud reminding me of the damage being done to my shoes. The space greeted me with a sense of unease. There was a gradual drip of water falling from the overgrown grass that couldn’t be mown around the headstone. Regretfully I made my way forward to his.
Here lies Xavier Jackson, beloved friend, and son, 1927 – 1944. It read like a lie, or maybe it was my inability to believe it. Each visit my heart grew a little weaker. I knew that so many had family members misplaced, and with so many underage soldiers, they hardly could have expected anything less.
A soft tap lands atop my head. Reaching up to feel it I brush past what has long exceeded stubble, lining my face and feel the top of my head. Rough hair complemented by split ends. Time was beginning to show within me. I can only picture the worthless husk of a man who remains within this vessel. Off in the distance, I hear a snap, jolting me back into reality. Spinning my head around to see a woman encased from head to toe in black, shielded from the drizzle of rain by a navy-blue umbrella. Her hand secured a poppy. I resume contemplation of the grave, my lack of sense of truth dawned me.
It was as though the rain was washing away my sins. Abruptly a shelter came over me and the shower which was soaking through my uniform stopped, only to reveal the emotions I had flowing down my face. Looking around I could see the woman standing right next to me, holding out the umbrella like an offering. A smile masking despair on her face. I felt her emptiness channel onto me.
I watched as she collapsed in the mud next to the headstone. This woman looked familiar. I felt as if pain and sorrow within her were similar to my own. As she reached to place the poppy on the stone I watched her arms shake.
She looked up, strong brown eyes staring straight at me. The same lack of worth. As her eyes looked up at me, endless streams of rain and emotion flowing down, my mind was thrown back to the battlefield…
Gunfire blowing through, grenades sending dozens flying. Finally, it was brought to a halt, my men and I stood to move across the plain. Stumbling I fell to the ground only to face a soldier. British I believe, I recognised him from behind the eyepiece of my rifle. He was a man I killed. Blood dripped from the side of his mouth and there was a gaping hole in his chest left from my gun. I saw in his hand a small piece of paper, plucking, left me with a picture. It was a small trinket, about the same size as a playing card, the corners were bent and the image was coated in a thick layer of dust. Though as my thumb whipped away the grime it gradually revealed an image. It was a photo of this soldier with his arm around a young vibrant woman, strong brown eyes and a wide smile across her face, the gloss that coated it reflected the sun back into my line of sight. Reluctantly I gave into the urge to turn it around, only to see the names Xavier and Clover inscribed on the back in a curled cursive. The simple perfection, this sweet young couple. The reality of it all came to life. Though the now pelting rain broke my epiphany. I saw the same strength in this girl who was before me. The remnants of something that was once there, now lost.
I didn’t have the nerve to make a connection with her or the ability as my English was poor, regardless of the fact that I knew she deserved an explanation I couldn’t give it to her. I stood up, continuing to shelter her with the umbrella. She looked at me desperately puzzled as I pulled out a small piece of paper.
In my greatest efforts i handed this card sized paper to her and only said ‘I am sorry, I believe this is yours Clover’ in my strong German accent and broken English. Slowly I placed the umbrella down by her side, and walked forward. Headed towards the exit.
I turned back, and as expected I saw her hunched over the photograph. She glanced up to see me, summoning the strength within her she pulled herself up. First using the headstone as a support but as her legs wobbled and her arms wavered she managed to compose herself. There she stood a woman, dressed in all black, staring directly at me. As she spoke the words echoed through the graveyard the harshness dimmed and she was heard. The words she spoke were simple but everything. He forgives you. The sun just starting to crawl out from behind the clouds glistened off the puddles. The light dancing off the grass droplets and the reflections being shone back at me through her eyes. Innocent a pure, the darkness still there but subtle.
The warmth of the sun turned my sodden uniform into a blanket, and the cemetery perfectly ordinary in its imperfections. The reality of everything gradually sinking in. The men back home, me, we were all following orders. The events of that war were catastrophic, I know that he probably didn’t forgive me for taking him away from the future he might have had. Yet I could finally feel an undeniable sense of relief.