We sat alone beside the Tyne,
He on his bench, I on mine.
His shirt was white, top button done,
And starched stiff. His hair was gone.
From time to time he'd jerk his head
For reasons better left unsaid
As gusts of wind brought dry leaves down,
Some on him, some on the ground.
His pants were pressed. I thought 'It suits
His mirror-finish polished boots.'
Perhaps the war had left him cold.
The world moved on and he'd grown old.
The wind was brisk and made him shiver
As he stared beyond the river.
Three young men came walking proud
To stop by him. They laughed aloud,
These sons of sons of soldiers, all,
These legacies of those that fell
Or came home shells of former men
To hand down that imposed on them.
The trio, bent on their tirades,
Spat at him and brandished blades.
The aging man was easy prey
For hoodlum boys such as they.
Each took a drag, then passed their ace
And blew it in the old man's face.
He sat there staring straight ahead.
They goaded him until I said,
"He's a little slow these days
And doesn't hear what anyone says
For when he was about your age
His eardrums burst from hand grenades
In 'forty-two in northern France
When taking orders to advance.
His troupe had dug a muddy trench
In rock and snow, and they were drenched.
To keep his men from breaking down,
He spoke of home, this very town,
And vowed to keep his England free
For future children like you three.
He called as he went o'er the top
Fight for Newburn! Do not stop!
His comrades followed, eight in all,
But one by one he watched them fall.
He heard their screams, felt their pain,
And turned to take them back again.
He carried them, some live, some dead
With bullets whizzing past his head
Until the eight were back below
The ground now soaked with blood and snow.
He stood his place, kept us alive,
This lone man, 'til support arrived.
Of eight brave souls he saved but three.
I know, for one of them was me.
And so I sit nearby, you see,
To him that helped to keep you free,
With pistol loaded in my vest
(I let them glimpse the silver crest)
In hopes that I may one day get
The chance to finally pay my debt."
On seeing the wildness in my eyes
They fell quiet, sheathed their knives,
And though I could not quite detect
If they felt terror or respect,
The end result was just the same.
They shuffled off the way they came.
I stood and walked toward the man
Who seemed to need a helping hand.
He fumbled with his one good arm
As if he thought I'd do him harm
But seeing I was just a friend,
And had a hand that I could lend
He motioned, pointing to his lips
And said 'I badly need a fix'.
'Could you help', he asked of me,
'To free me from my misery?'
I put my hand inside my vest,
His eyes still staring to the west.
I stood between the northern squall
And him to make a shelter wall.
'Wait', he snapped, his hand inserted
In the pocket of his shirt.
He chuckled as he rolled a smoke.
'You're quick', he said. 'An army bloke?'
With striker, flint and finger braced,
I raised the metal to his face.
The second try it finally lit,
And he puffed on his cigarette.