Price Of Love

Entry by: Mac

17th February 2017

It will turn out to be his final two hours, though I don’t realise that at the time, despite knowing the end is imminent. The end. Was does that mean? He is with me now, some forty years later.

He speaks sparingly but not because of the circumstances of the moment. He always spoke sparingly and left volumes of meaning, like a minimalist novel that won’t slip quietly to the back of your mind, haunting you in unstudied moments.

I know the early story: orphaned when he was six, the family sitting in a parlour in a little house in South Wales, discussing who will take which child. The girls have a function, they are old enough to be useful. Poverty makes beggars of us all. What use can a six year old boy be? His aunt chooses him. This is her brother’s child. She will take him as her son, to be brother to his cousin, another son. He never forgot his debt, though she never spoke of any obligation other than to “help your younger brother”.

When he left school, she didn’t know for almost a week. His deception was studied, focused. He would wash in the stream and change into his school clothes in the little shed at the bottom of the back yard. Creeping out of the house at dawn was trickier; she wondered why he was leaving so early in the morning. She asked questions. She tried to catch him. But he was clever in his deceit. And so it was that, at the age of twelve, he entered the cage with grown men and descended into the bowels of the earth to be a miner. One of the most terrifying journeys he ever took in his life. By the age of seventeen he had taken the second.

She was determined to make him quit and return to school – he was a bright boy. He was equally determined to pay the debt he believed he owed. Circumstances forced victory on him but she was saddened that her bright, little adopted son could not fulfil the potential she believed he had. Her husband lost his job and the younger boy contracted bronchial pneumonia. They needed the meagre wage that he brought home from the mine, so she accepted the situation with a heavy heart.

The silent, daily terror of the mine drove him to enlist just before his sixteenth birthday. He could serve in the Great War, earn money and escape the darkness. She argued with the recruitment sergeant but to no avail. His sixteenth birthday passed and legitimised his position as a boy soldier, barely five feet tall and painfully thin. Her youngest son had developed a weak heart following his illness. She was torn between the fractured remnants of her family and she let him go.

This is the part of the story he tells in those final two hours. Slow painful sentences, short gasps for air, a glazed look as he sifts this memory from all the others.

Training was to be in a small town in the north of England, far from the Welsh valley that was his home. It’s a place that seemed devoid of greenery, of trees and hills, only the stark fortresses of buildings that seemed prematurely old. The barracks stood in a corner of the town near the docks. During his infrequent exploration of that corner of the town he met a girl; they were both sixteen. She showed him the nearby countryside on Sunday afternoon walks, when he could get away. He liked her. And then, imperceptibly, he loved her. He didn’t know how love crept up on him. It just did. She introduced him to her family: mother, father, three brothers and four sisters. He had never known such chaos, such noisy pleasure in being together and a part of him always remained an outsider. But another part attached itself to her and never let go until the day she died. And on that day he walked through the fields where they’d walked when they were sixteen.

He got his posting for France. They were both seventeen. To spare her and himself, he reluctantly admits, he postponed telling her until two days before he was due to leave. He expected tears; there were none. She stood in silence for what seemed like an eternity, her face set in a determined frown, bottom lip thrust forward.
“You remember that look,” he says to me and smiles weakly. “Nothing is going to shift her.”

She said she would see him tomorrow, their usual meeting place when they wished to be alone, then she turned and left. He drifted back to the barracks, trying to sort the conflicting thoughts in his head. He should end it, just in case … He should make promises and hope … He wished they’d never met … he could never let her go …

When they met the following evening she told him that her mother wanted him to go home with her for supper. He nodded, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. She swallowed hard and then thrust her hand into his. There was an envelope – and in the envelope was a ring. Gold. With his initial. He looked into her eyes, expecting to see hopelessness or fear or loss. But no, that fierce determination was there. Defying him to return home safely. And then she kissed him.

He was one of several boys in his trench. They were held back from the fighting. At the end of each day’s sortie they were sent out – boys from both side – to bury the dead and to drag back the wounded. Nobody fired a single shot during this hour. It had become an unspoken rule. He’d learned quickly how to dig, how to bury, how to match pieces of flesh – arms, legs, heads – with disparate bodies, drag them into the hole, say a hurriedly whispered prayer and the cover them with soil. Then he scurried back to the trench with the other boys. The chaplain would be there to say more, intone longer prayers; they bowed their heads and then it was over until the next night.

It was a strange feeling to know that you had expertise in rapidly disposing of the dead. To know that you gave covering, rest and a perfunctory dignity to men that you’d seen earlier in the day, perhaps even have known. After the chaplain’s prayers he turned his thoughts away from death towards her; always he saw that determined look, the set mouth, the fierce eyes.

Instinctively, he felt for the ring on his finger and discovered it was gone. He’d lost weight in these last few weeks. The ring was loose. It must have come off. He tried frantically to remember when he was last aware of its presence. It must have happened when he was out there, burying more bodies. The one thing he had of her and it was gone.

He waited until the early hours, when all was quiet, and then crawled out to where he had buried the night’s bodies. He’d taken care of five. He began to dig using his hands to filter through the mud, not daring to use the spade lest it made noise that would alert men on both sides. He dug them up, sifted through the soil and the mud, and then reburied them. Shortly before dawn, he found it and wept silently.

He sighs and closes his eyes. He has told me his story. One of many. Always spare and always redolent with meaning. He reaches out his hand towards me. I hadn’t realised that he had been clutching the ring all this time.

“Here,” he says and he drops it into my palm. I have no words so I simply take it. We sit together, the minutes ticking by moving closer to the final moment. He smiles and glances at the ring in my hand. I put it on and return his smile, despite the stinging tears.

“The gift of love,” I say.
“The gift wasn’t important,” he says. This from the woman who was his life: not important. Despite myself, I gaze questioningly at him. He can’t leave me with a comment like that. He closes his eyes and sighs and then, to my relief, opens them again.
“The gift is beautiful,” he whispers. “But the important thing is accepting it … and the life that goes with it.”