Tell A Tale in 500 Words

Nothing good about these times By Sophie petit-zeman

It’s the worst of times, with you at war. A dead soldier’s mother once told me she never imagined anything would happen to him. I never imagine anything else.

Where’s Harry Patch when we need him? Man of memories who survived longer than any from the trenches. We gave him medals; he said war is organised murder. We took him as our hero; he said war isn’t worth one life. He banned guns from his funeral; we flanked his coffin with soldiers. Betrayed him. He, whose wisdom could have made the space between the dust and grit of Helmand and my boy, and now he’s gone.

My gorgeous boy. We love you, cherish you, sold you life as fun. And because, poor foolish darling, you trusted us, are you dying on a Sangin street with a look of bemused betrayal on your handsome face?

Decades hence, will we still be wearing poppies for our fallen heroes, or learning that fallen heroes don’t bring peace? Will we still be praying for our soldiers’ safety in the same religions that tell us to fight is wrong, or learning how to forge swords into ploughshares?

Forgive me, darling Jewish friends. I care so much that you were saved, but millions weren’t. Did Hitler go on longer, stronger, because we took up arms?

When I said at supper (with kind friends who try to ease my days until you’re home) that we should stop fighting, they asked “What’s the alternative?” As if ripping up families (and I whisper this, but the “enemies” have mothers too) is the only thing to do.

So I asked if they knew about Spock, the guru who said the only thing to do was lay babies to sleep face down? For so long, no-one realised it was killing them.

Knowing how to stop the killing is killing me, but I’m scared saying nothing may kill you.

I always put you down so carefully - on your back - in soft white jersey cotton. Then stroked your warm, pink cheek as you drifted into sleep. I can still smell the sweet mix of milk and baby, see the tiny swirl of mousey-coloured hair on your scalp.

But now, I fear, your face is streaked with blood and dirt, a smell of battle hangs in the air and you’re cradled in a colleague’s arms.

Footsteps outside while we have lunch. A knock on the door, handshakes, dutiful solemnity. A bullet they didn’t try to take out of your throat. We’ll have details in time, but for now, perhaps, it will help us to know that a man lived because you got him out first.

Draped with a flag, topped with your beret, the coffin slides from the plane as we stand alongside. And all I can think is that you’re back. Back in a box. I know the difference that will make to us. But to others, I’m less sure.

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