Or was it the cold?

Reads: 430  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 2

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The sad story of a war veteran who battles with survival of a different kind.

Submitted: June 01, 2015

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 01, 2015

A A A

A A A


Or was it the cold?

 

Glass shattered, shrieked and spun away.  A curtain twitched from an upstairs window and a dog barked from behind a wall.  Footsteps shuffled away over wet paving before fading along with an amber streetlight which had ceased burning through the darkness.  A watery, distant blue sky grew in the east, chasing the slowly retreating night which lingered reluctantly in the west.  The chilling wind wailed down the runnel and blew discarded litter along the cobbles of the deserted street. 

This was the scene that greeted the old man as he finally managed to free his stuck front door.  He poked his head out and sniffed the air with his decaying nose.  Grey hairs danced like frayed shoelaces on his wrinkled forehead in the blast of wind.  My God it’s cold, he thought.  A bottle of milk was deposited on his doorstep and he noticed the smashed fragments of an empty scattered like crystals of ice across the pavement.  As he stooped down his joints creaked.  He wrestled to close the reluctant door and cursed the dampness; or was it the cold?  He brought the milk inside.

In his tiny rear kitchen, the kettle had finally started to whistle atop an ancient stove of chipped yellow enamel.  With a trembling hand, he poured the spluttering boiled water into a red teapot.  His breath, like the steam, whispered unheard words to his old friend the teapot.

His living room was dark, dingy and bitterly cold.  He switched on the one bar electric fire - for what it was worth.  He could see his breath in the frigid darkness of his room.  He lowered himself carefully down onto the worn cushion of his armchair and rested his head back on the stained antimacassar.  There was no TV to look at, only a Roberts transistor radio, which he’d picked up at a car boot sale, to listen to when the mood took him.  Around him were the memories of his lifetime in the form of framed photographs, artefacts and bric-a-brac displayed in various places in the room.  The mantelpiece formed a dusty shrine of musty memorabilia:  Several black and white photos of lost people and places, a snuff box, a brass artillery shell casing, a stack of old coins and an engraved pewter tankard resided amidst a fine coating of dust.

As he sat, the old man looked upon a portrait of himself.  Who was that good-looking young fellow? he thought.  The picture showed him proud in his uniform, glowing with youthful exuberance unknowing of the horrors that lay before him. Then his eyes fell mournfully upon the picture of his sweetheart.  She was so beautiful, he thought to himself, with her radiant smile, shiny dark hair and pearls.  He remembered that picture being taken – Blackpool’s North Pier, shortly before he joined up.  It was a precious moment never to be re-lived.  His eyes watered; tears for the loss of a loved one.  Was it the influenza that had taken her or was it the cold?

A faded curtain gave away the hint of a draught; a subtle movement of air, a chill breath that swayed the steam rising from the mug in the old man’s unsteady hand.  The mug dropped silently onto the threadbare carpet beside the chair.  The liquid spread before vanishing into a stain.  The old man snored through his decaying nose.

As the blue daylight encroached outside, it filtered through the faded drapes making the room appear grey.  The old man awoke from his brief snooze expecting a mug of tea in his hand but was disappointed.  He checked the time on the antique wall clock – 7.30.  Too late, he thought, seeming a little annoyed with himself. But he had no work to go to; too old, too weak and too cold.  Once he had worked; in the margarine factory after the war, then in the factory where he operated a machine that made press studs.  He had been good at that job, but all good things come to an end. Now here he was in a run-down terrace house in a dismal street in a depressing town.  Scant spoils for a lifetime of graft, he often said.

His knuckles cracked as he drew the curtains apart.  The pale blue light flooded in but it was overcast and grey outside.  He looked across the road to the bare trees which looked twisted and distorted in their rigid winter pose.  The wasteland opposite looked bleak and barren with the abandoned factories beyond stark and serene. 

From somewhere came a sudden, sharp bang – probably an articulated lorry going over a pothole on the main road – which pierced the silence above the wind and jolted the old man into memories of the battlefield: 

There were Germans beyond the ridge; no man’s land between.  Shells fell from the sky and bullets pinged around them.  Endless mud like thick brown porridge heaved around their foxhole as each shell sent thunderous shockwaves through the earth beneath them.  One burst upon the duckboards sending splinters and chards of human flesh and bones flying in all directions.  Mud swamped in.  Men emerged from the smoke in pieces, screaming.  There was carnage; there was death; there was pain and darkness.  They called it Passchendaele.

He was now the sole survivor, the last of the Pals.  Somehow he had survived both wars, but now he faced survival of a different kind. People from Social Services often called to speak to him.  They told him he should move out and go to a care home where he’d be looked after.  But he dug in and stubbornly refused.  What would happen to all his things? he worried; what would happen to his pictures, his red teapot, his medals?  It was in his nature to be independent, he’d always lived alone, and it was his choice.  This is what we fought for, he told them.  But he knew that one day he’d have to surrender and resign himself to inevitable defeat.  He knew that the terrace was crumbling, the roof was leaking, the walls were growing mouldy and the door was sticking.  Like the dust that settled all around him he knew he must find a new home.

A gentle rain began tapping on the window pane leaving tiny drops to stream down the cracked glass to the rotting sill.  The old man listened to the dripping from his armchair as the morning passed by.  Seldom did he venture out these days.  Perhaps once or twice a week he’d hobble down to the corner shop to buy teabags and tins of soup, or to the chemist for his medication.  He hated walking past the chip shop where gangs of intimidating youths hung out.  Sometimes they would block his way and shout abuse at him. 

I fought in two world wars for them, he’d think, I was in the trenches at their age.

The sun was lost to the clouds again today.  People occasionally heeled their way along the pavement outside; their faces lost to the rain.  He snoozed once again, snoring through his decaying nose; his dreams lost to the past.

When he awoke, he made his weary way to the tiny kitchen and made himself a bowl of soup for lunch which he ate at a small table beneath the rear window overlooking the weeds in his tiny back yard.  Afterwards, he brewed himself another cup of tea, once again exchanging a whispered conversation with his trusty red teapot.  He retired again to his armchair and picked up the paper.  He perused over the headlines – he couldn’t read the small print; he’d lost his glasses long ago.  Shivering, he pulled a blanket over himself it was so cold.  It was far worse in the trenches, he kept telling himself.  Reaching out a quivering hand he turned on the radio which hissed before an unfamiliar tune spilled forth.  He closed his eyes and remembered listening to Marlene Dietrich singing Lili Marlene on his father’s gramophone.  He nodded off yet again and for the remainder of that afternoon he drifted in and out of slumber.  Each time he woke, he could see that the daylight outside was fading.  The streetlight blinked on sending its harsh red glow into his living room.  He drifted off again before another sudden bang jolted him into semi-wakefulness.  Instantly, he was back on the Somme and reaching for his rifle but his hand grasped at thin air.  Another harsh bang shook him from his stupor as it seemed to be closer.  A louder crash and shattering of glass followed.  He sat bolt upright as he realised it was coming from inside the house.  His frail heart thumped with the onset of fear that something bad was happening.  Was it the people from Social Services come to demolish the house? he questioned himself.  Then two dark figures appeared in the living room, illuminated only by the diffuse orange glow from the streetlamp through the window.  He was terrified and shouted at the intruders to leave.  But they stood and mocked him, “Sit down old man,” they said.  He recognised their voices as those of the youths who hung outside the chippy.

“What do you want?” he pleaded.

“Shut up and tell us where you stash your cash,” they demanded menacingly.  He shook his head in defiance.  One youth dove into the cupboards and drawers and began ransacking through them.  The old man tried to stand to stop him but the other intruder pushed him forcibly back into the armchair.  The youth yanked the plug of the radio from the socket then turned to face the fireplace.  He looked for a second at the old man’s precious pictures and trinkets before violently sweeping them off the mantelpiece sending them crashing to the floor in clouds of dust.  On seeing the portrait of his beloved tumble to oblivion on the hearth, the old man heard a whistling in his head and a voice shouting over the top.  Whereupon he sprang up from his armchair and lunged at the youth from behind with all the strength he could muster. “I fought for you; my friends died for you,” he shouted.  But the youth hardly flinched and turned around swinging his fist squarely into the old man’s face knocking him off his feet.  Stunned, he fell to the floor, his face flat on the threadbare carpet watching the two youths continue to search clumsily through his things.  One of the youths found an old Strepsils tin and opened it.  No not my medals, despaired the old man.  A youth pulled out one of the old man’s medals and held it up to the dim light.

“These must be worth a few bob,” he proclaimed, taunting the old man who lay motionless on the floor.

The two thugs left then, taking the medals with them.  The old man could not move.  He closed his eyes and mud came swamping in.  There was pain, there was darkness.

 

Dawn the next day broke colder and bleaker than ever before.  When the old man woke he could see his lost glasses under the armchair and a pair of shiny black shoes next to him.  The feet wearing them belonged to a police constable who leaned over him and covered him with a blanket.

“It’s alright old fella,” comforted the policeman, “Ambulance is on its way, you’re going to be okay.”

Soon, blue flashing lights reflected off the mouldy ceiling as the ambulance pulled up outside.  There were muffled voices and he heard them mention shock and hypothermia.  He felt pressure beneath his knees as they lifted him onto a stretcher.  As they carried him out they paused to wrestle with the sticking front door.  As they did so he happened to glimpse the forlorn red fragments of his loyal teapot lying in smithereens on the kitchen floor.  The despondence in his frozen heart overwhelmed him.  The icy chill of outside air enveloped like a shroud around his body as he was carried to the ambulance.  A pint of milk was deposited on his doorstep.  A neighbour’s curtain twitched from an upstairs window.  A dog barked from someone’s back yard.  A gust of wind bowled a chip paper along the gutter.

Is this what it’s come to, he thought; is this what I fought for?

Inside the ambulance, unheard words whispered around him.  He felt tears bulging in his eyes which then streamed down and dripped from the end of his decaying nose.  Then he closed his eyes and quietly died of a broken heart.  Or was it the cold?


© Copyright 2019 Mark William Hurst. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

Comments

avatar

Author
Reply

More Literary Fiction Short Stories