There is a cold mist that wraps itself tightly around the graves, binding them up as if they were to suddenly break. The trees line the side of the path, their branches reaching over me like lovers’ arms. As if they have been away from each other for years. The only noise is the call of crows, flying from tree to tree and now and then the splutter of a car engine in the distance. I walk blindly through the cemetery, the mist parting as I interrupt its smooth white gauze.
And then I see it. I see you.
‘An unknown soldier’ marked by a wooden cross. Unidentified. Unknown. Did nobody know you? Shall I make you a life?
Your name will be Harry. You will be eighteen years old. You have fallen in love with a girl you met at a dance called Anna. She didn’t want to dance with you. This definitely wasn’t love at first sight, no butterflies at seeing your face, pale with freckles.
But you told Joey you were going to marry that beautiful red haired girl.
You watched her dance with everyone but you. Men with more money, men with more class, men with more charm. But it was your arm. Your arm she linked with hers to walk home. The old gaslights were burning as you stood outside to wait for her. Waited until everyone had gone home. Except her.
She was trying to fix the small heel on her new white shoe that had broken off. You tried to fix it for her, then seeing that it was no use, you gave her your shoes. To protect her stockings from the wet pavement you said.
And you had walked home with no shoes while she dragged your size 10’s along with her little size 5 feet. Your mother had scolded you, told you you’d catch a cold with your feet all wet like that. Anna lived on the other side of town but you daren’t tell your mother that. If she knew you’d walked all that way with no shoes…
But you and Anna had talked of people you knew and places you’d been and she’d been hard to win over but you saw a smile escape her lips as she turned to walk up to her house. And you’d let her keep the shoes to walk up to her front door.
What you didn’t know is that she’d fallen in love with you the moment you gave her those shoes.
But then you had not seen those shoes since that night. Your best ones! Anna was out with men and you were just a boy. They bought her gifts and you couldn’t. Every time you saw her, you’d walk the other way.
Until one day she caught you and you realised that although these men had spoiled her with gold and silver, she remained unspoilt. She was not arrogant and demanding as you expected her to be. Nor was she as hard to please as she was before.
She asked you to walk with her and told you about the men who she had declined, the men who had stood her up, the men who had proposed. Until you were sick of listening to stories about Thomas, Sammy, Benjamin, James, David and the rest of them.
So you asked for your shoes back instead.
Anna didn’t even blink, just smiled and said ‘I wondered when you were going to ask that.’
Walking to her house, she looked up at you from underneath her long, dark eyelashes. She never showed her teeth when she smiled, unless you made her laugh. Those lips were always painted in a crimson lipstick. It always stained your lips when she kissed you.
You talked of the future. Of her grand plans to become a teacher and to travel abroad teaching English in other countries. Of your grand plans to tour the world as a violinist.
But that was never to be, Harry.
The threat of war brought Joey, excitable Joey, running up your path encouraging you to sign up. To go on an adventure together like you had when you were kids.
But this time, it was real and you had real guns. And there were real enemies, Harry.
You gave Anna a ring and a promise you’d come back for her. She gave you a promise she’d wait for you.
Is she waiting still, Harry?
Does she still wear your ring and keep your photo beside her bed? Does she study your face and remember what it felt like beneath her once smooth hands? Do the same hands smooth someone else’s face as they drift off to sleep? Does she wear his ring now?
Did you and Joey think one war would be enough to bring the world to peace?
You were once the apple of your mother’s eye and now you are unknown.
Your name was not Harry. There was no Anna.
What was your story, unknown soldier? What was your story?
© Alice Morgan 2013