Tracey approached the war memorial in the park with reluctance. Last year, she’d spent the money her grandmother had given her for flowers on herself. An afternoon at the pictures, a couple of hours of peace away from the demanding old bird. This year, the old bird had got wise and had demanded Tracey bring home a receipt from the florist. Oh, can’t you go yourself, Gran? Tracey’s annual question always met with the same response. I would if I could, my girl. Do you think I enjoy being cooped up in here all day?
Yeah, yeah… Tracey, having pushed Gran’s buttons, got out of there before Gran could pack her off on a guilt trip as well as an errand.
And now, with the flowers grasped tightly in her fist, Tracey was about to do her annual duty.
She found the name on the plaque and gave it a wipe with her sleeve and leaned the flowers against the stone plinth.
Tracey was startled. A soldier was standing beside her; she hadn’t seen him approach. “Um, it’s all right,” she shrugged.
They stood looking at the monument in silence. Tracey wanted to go to the bus stop but didn’t wish to appear disrespectful now there was an actual soldier standing there.
“My gran’s boyfriend,” she felt an explanation was due. “Came back from the War with his head blowed off.”
The soldier nodded.
“Only if he hadn’t – if he’d lived, I wouldn’t be here today. Gran wouldn’t have married my granddad and my mum would never have been born, so, you know…”
The soldier nodded again.
“What about you?” she asked, nodding toward the list of names. “Anyone you know? Any family?”
The soldier looked downcast. “Half of those men were in my regiment.”
“All those shattered lives. All those weddings that never happened. All those children who were never born.”
Tracey’s mouth hung open. “You’ve lost your mind, mate. This lot died a long time ago.”
The soldier reached out and grabbed her roughly by the arm. “You could have been mine,” he said with a bitter grimace. “You could have been my granddaughter.”
Tracey struggled to pull herself free. Tears were coursing down the soldier’s pale cheek. And then he turned his head and Tracey saw daylight through the hole where a grenade had blasted half his skull away.
His lips curled back in a rictus. “Tell your gran Jack says hello.”