Poppies and Medals

woody2It all came down to a promise during the cross word.

“Would you do something for me?” said the small figure in the armchair, sipping the hot tea.

There was only one answer.

The tea was sipped. The cross word completed.  Except for seven down.  Comic character. Nine letters.

Too soon it was time to leave the cake and crossword and head back to the city.  The traffic on the motorway was heavy.  Snow Patrol sang ‘Chasing Cars’ as wipers worked in synchronization on the slow moving cars, with their steady stream of red tail lights.

I watched the wipers and lights and remembered another time. Another place.  Another smile.

A grey haired figure.  He lent heavily on his stick as we linked arms and walked the city streets.

“You won’t let me down?” he said softly.

“Never” I said.

“Good.  Then I shall pass the baton to you”.

We said our farewells at the train station.  The scene of hellos, goodbyes, hugs and tears.

I remembered the last look before the train snaked out of the station and disappeared down the tracks.

I didn’t know I would never see him again.

Autumn was handing the mantle over to winter. Buggies were banned on the fairways and golfers did not stray too far from the fire or the coffee pot.  One soft glorious day would be followed by murderous weather.

“Got much golf on this week?” said the Golf Police.

“No.” I said.   “Need to get organized before the weekend”.

The Red Rose of England was taking on the gold of the Aussies.

But he didn’t know about the promise and the baton.  Or the faded photo in the frame.  And I didn’t know about a Lone Piper called Tommy Johnson.

I made it to the golf club for coffee. Golf was rained off and the fire crackled with rough hewn logs.  The Chef put extra toast on the plate, with melted butter and thick sweet blackberry jam. “So shall we play tomorrow?” asked Big Rich.  “Weather is meant to be better”.

The relentless rain hammered down on practice green and the winds tore at the trees.

“Count me out” I said.

I made my excuses and went home to burn the supper.

The next morning I was not last in the shower queue.  I travelled up to the city with the thespian on a train crowded with glazed eyed commuters.  We found a seat amongst the papers, mobiles and rucksacks.

“Don’t get lost” said the thespian “ and enjoy your day”.

A hug, a smile and we went our separate ways.

The city was busy.  Red buses, crowded pavements and black taxis.  Traders were at their desks and office staff were armed with their first cappuccino of the day.

I pushed my way through the crowds, found a vantage point and sent a text.

Made it.  Tell Romeo to come down off the balcony and Juliet to dry her tears. Be still and remember xx

And then I switched off my phone and kept my promise on Armistice Day.

The cenotaph stood amongst the mighty London plane trees, with its stone carved wreaths and fluttering flags.  A focus of remembrance. A saluting point on the  eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

On each corner of the memorial, the bowed heads of the Life Guards with their bear skins and red plumage.  The sounds of Big Ben echoing down Whitehall as the traffic stopped and the leaves fell softly through the two minutes of silence.

Memories. Tears. Homage. Quiet men who wore the George and Victoria Cross.   They reminded me of the grey haired man who passed on the baton. A  Brigadier who won the Military Cross and every year left his prayers and a wreath for his comrades who  lie in foreign fields. The lone piper, dressed in Hodden Grey, played ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ and a mother wiped away a tear.

A simple service where the top brass saluted their own and afterwards spoke to the men of courage.  Where a medal outranked gold braid.

Afterwards we fell in step through St. James’s Park. The Piper’s last Parade.    His last lament at the Cenotaph.

“Did it sound ok?” he said.

“Beautiful” I said. “Beautiful”.

We spoke of battles and brotherhood.  War and the oval ball. Tartans, bagpipes and being on parade.

“Find me afterwards” I said.

He promised.

The Guards Chapel was cold. Faded colours of regiments hung above the congregation. Hymn books inscribed to Guardsmen, young and old.

The Organist played and the choir brushed down their poppy red robes in the vestry.

“Ready Fred?” said The Man of God.

Fred, ramrod straight in his red tunic with bright buttons, stripes and shiny black shoes nodded and the service began, as it had each November on the eleventh day.

Prayers, hymns and words from Military men and the Man of God. Candles in side chapels, flickered on names written in black italics.   A son, a brother, a serviceman. A final prayer, a blessing and an anthem and the red robed choir brought the service to a close.

I never did find the Lone Piper. He had changed into civvies and blended into the crowds walking through the autumnal leaves.

I placed my wooden cross amongst the others and it became part of the sea of sadness.  Splashes of red on the green grass.   Words written on a cross, washed by the rain.

I left my poppy and a prayer in the Abbey, by the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.  A prayer and a poppy for the young RAF lad, who had no grave but the sea.  And his name was added to those who have no resting place.  A quiet place, amongst the poets and the kings, where mothers stood by the black marble tomb,  wept and silently claimed him as their own.

And so I kept my promise to the little figure in the armchair, who remembered the smiling boy in the faded photograph.

‘No roses grow on a sailor’s grave. no lilies on an ocean wave.  Only the lonely seagull sweeps and the tears a sweetheart weeps’.

And somewhere between the quiet simplicity of the Cenotaph ceremony on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, the England Fifteen took on the Gold shirted Wallabies. And on each sleeve, the simple poppy.

They listened before the match to someone who knew  about courage, comradeship and brotherhood.  Each understood the message, each others’ battle field and call to arms.

It was the day Johnson’s team cast off the shackles of expectation, discovered a fearless scrum half and delivered between the posts.

In the evening, when the stadium was quiet, the poppies fell at the Royal Albert Hall.

‘They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.  Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.  And in the going down of the sun and in morning. We will remember them.’