Back in November 2017 – a few days after Remembrance Sunday – I recall reading a particularly harrowing article about a Falklands veteran. I grew up close to a military town so the plight of former services personnel is particularly relevant to me; our town has a large number of elderly Gurkha veterans who always look like they’d rather be back home in Nepal. With all of this in mind, I was moved enough to pen a short story which I’d like to share…
The Anniversary Trip
By Keith A Pearson
His old bones creaked as he climbed from the bed. Harry steadied himself before stretching the worst of the stiffness from his limbs. After taking three unsteady steps towards the window, he reached for the curtain and tugged it open. A cloudless blue sky greeted him.
He smiled to himself. “Perfect.”
Harry had been planning this day for months. The weather was the one thing beyond his control, but in the grand scheme of things it mattered not. It would take more than a few spots of rain to deter him from taking the trip. Nevertheless, a sunny sky was a blessing.
He slipped his dressing gown on and hobbled down the hallway of his compact bungalow. The gentle hum of the fridge greeted him in the otherwise silent kitchen. He filled the kettle with enough water for a single cup and switched it on. Harry then gazed out of the window as it rumbled away. The view of the garden, once his pride and joy, offered little of either these days.
Task completed, the kettle switch clicked. Harry poured himself a cup of tea and shuffled over to a chair at the kitchen table. Careful not to spill his morning brew, he slowly eased himself down. On any other day he’d breakfast on buttered toast but a mixture of excitement and apprehension had quashed his appetite today.
Harry knew it would take precisely six minutes to finish his tea. With so much time on his hands, he’d become adept at calculating ways to waste it. In reality, that meant long hours in his armchair, reminiscing over a life which had passed by in a heartbeat. Now, the slow passing of time was a constant torment.
Still, planning the trip had given him something meaningful to focus on.
On cue, Harry gulped back the last dregs of tea and padded over to the sink. For as long as he could remember, Joyce had nagged him for leaving his unwashed cups in the sink. He allowed himself a wry smile as he rinsed the cup and placed it on the drainer.
Bolstered by the injection of caffeine, Harry shuffled back along the hallway to the bathroom. Everything he needed was already prepared on the shelf above the sink: a razor, his trusty old shaving brush, a bar of coal tar soap, and a jar of his favourite pomade. He filled the sink with hot water and set about his ablutions.
Fifteen minutes later, with stubble shaved and hair coiffed, Harry opened the bathroom cabinet. He reached for a near-empty bottle of aftershave and pulled out the stopper. The warm scent of musk and sandalwood escaped, triggering a hundred memories. He emptied the last splash of amber liquid into his palm and patted his cheeks; an act that once drew a wince. Pain is relative, he thought.
He returned to the bedroom and opened the wardrobe door.
Much like Harry, the navy blue suit was old and tired. Unlike Harry, it still served a purpose. He slipped into a starched cotton shirt and put the suit on. Leather brogues and his regimental tie completed the ensemble. Harry was almost ready, bar one final addition to his attire. He reached up and pulled a shoe box from a shelf in the wardrobe. Taking a seat on the edge of the bed, he opened the lid.
Amongst the letters and certificates lay a trinket box containing seven silver discs, each attached to a piece of coloured ribbon. Although worthy of pride, the medals were scant consolation for the horrors he’d witnessed during tours he’d tried hard to forget.
He took the medals out one by one and fixed them to his jacket.
His final task completed, Harry inspected the barely recognisable figure looking back at him from the mirror. Life had given him everything he asked for, but time and God’s will had taken it all away, leaving behind a sad husk of a man. No more a soldier. No more a husband. No more a father. Harry had fought too many battles and suffered too many wounds. Most, he knew, would never heal.
He raised a frail hand to his temple in salute.
Harry allowed himself a few seconds of quiet reflection before taking a final glance in the mirror.
“All set my old mate?” he whispered.
A faint nod returned, he steeled himself and made his way to the front door. A quick check to ensure he had everything for his trip and Harry said goodbye to his little bungalow.
May was a fine month — never too hot, never too cold — and this day in May was as good as he could have wished for. With the sun on his back, Harry forced his weary legs to march on. After navigating his way along a quiet lane, the train station came into sight. He checked his watch.
The young man behind the counter processed his request with polite efficiency. Ticket acquired, Harry made his way to the platform. Another check of his watch — two minutes until the 10:16 to Paddington arrived.
Harry glanced up and down the empty platform. The semi-rural station was only ever busy when commuters bustled to and from work. He didn’t envy their daily pilgrimage in crowded carriages.
Dragged from his thoughts, he heard the 10:16 to Paddington before he saw it. Turning to his right, the train approached at speed some five hundred yards away. Harry offered silent thanks to the rail company for keeping to the timetable.
He closed his eyes for a few seconds and assured himself the trip would be worthwhile. Another glance up the track — two hundred yards and closing. Harry looked to the sky and uttered the words he’d prepared the night before.
“I’m coming, Joyce. Be there soon, sweetheart.”
Intent on keeping his word, Harry took four strides forward — three across the tarmac platform, the fourth beyond its edge.
The 10:16 non-stop service to Paddington thundered onwards.
Patently Harry is a fictional character but that doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of British veterans currently suffering the same way. If you’d like to make a donation to Help for Heroes, you can do so by clicking here.
Thanks for reading and feel free to share this story on social media using the buttons below.