August 13, 2012 by Whispering Smith
I was twelve years old, a magpie of a boy, and how I coveted those silver spurs. They were cavalry officers’ spurs, chromed and chained with tiny rowels and large, black, polished leather guards. They hung above the Jones’ lamp-blackened kitchen range, suspended there by a brass nail hammered into the wall, the head bent downwards when its point had struck a red brick hidden beneath the thin, white distempered plaster. I longed to wear the spurs on my black Wellingtons and hinted, whenever the opportunity presented itself, just how much I wanted to own them. When I visited the Jones’s house, and that was often, the old couple always gave me a warm welcome, a home-made cake and a glass of Tizer, but they never offered me the spurs.
Mr Jones had not been in the cavalry himself, he had been a foot soldier, a rifleman of the Royal Sussex Regiment and badly gassed in the First World War. The Great War that was going to end all wars, but actually did nothing of the kind. He had at one time been a tall, thin, dark-haired man, handsome in an old-fashioned pork-chop whiskered way. I only remember him though, as a gaunt, stringy, yellow-skinned fellow, bent over, always short of breath and spitting noisily into the long grass of the council house garden he so badly neglected. Neglected not out of laziness, but from an inability to reap and mow, to breathe or to walk without a stick or constant resting. He reeked of the cloves he sucked for a bad tooth and of the vapour rub Mrs Jones plastered on to his scrawny chest and wasted muscles. In his youth he had been a farmer’s boy. That was back before he, like so many other young men, had dashed and danced to the bugle and drum, taken the Queen’s shilling on a sunny afternoon in Chichester market when a pretty woman, on the arm of a recruiting sergeant major, had lit a fire in his belly that only the stink of mustard gas would finally extinguish.
I didn’t know him back then of course, not when he looked like the stiff-backed moustachioed man in the sepia-toned photograph that hung in his front parlour next to the glazed, green baize backed frame of his seven medals. I had no desire to own the medals or to touch them, but I asked about them anyway, asked about the ribbons in a crafty move that I hoped would lead me to the spurs.
Old Gus Jones talking to a twelve year old, whispering out the words between coughing and spitting into a grey handkerchief, glad of the company and a game of draughts while Mrs Jones was out shopping or pinching winter coal from the snow-covered heap by our back door. He told me that the medals were not for anything special, not when you really got down to it. One was for trying to save a comrade, pulling him from a shell crater and lugging him back to an aid post only to find that he had carried a dead man for three-hundred bullet-soaked yards. Another, was just for being there. I listened, waiting, certain there was a story behind the spurs. I asked him if I could touch them again and I heard him creak like a loose floorboard as he straightened his crooked back and reached up for them. He smiled and set them onto the kitchen table in front of me. Looking back, I suspect that he was teasing me. An old man, crippled and bent with nothing better to do than tell tall stories to a young boy.
An officer’s, he told me, a big chap charging out in front of the line, galloping at the guns, pointing a silvery, straight-bladed sword ahead of him like a lance. Pointing it to where he wanted his company to be, the sword showing the way. Then the Maxim machine-gunner opening fire from a distant trench, toying with the rider and his prancing red steed. Stitching the dusty ground with lead, then the aiming point rising, the rounds sweeping down the side of the animal, ripping open it’s fat belly and spilling the steaming pink and white intestines out into the cold morning air. Then the man struggling clear of the fallen animal and the Maxim shifting again, tossing him around like a rag doll, dust puffing from his tunic, then ragged, bloody tears where the heavy rounds punched through him, keeping him erect, his spurs reflecting the brassy sunlight as he fell beside the screaming horse.
Under the protective cover of a moonless night they had dragged that cavalry officer back to their own lines before the rats could shift from bloated horse to drained man. Gus had swiped the spurs, he laughed when he told me, laughing at his own pettiness in the face of such foolish courage. He told me the story many times and it never altered or changed in any way. It was always a sorrel horse, a straight-edged sword and a Maxim machine gun. It was always a cold morning in February and he always chuckled guiltily with the telling of it.
I waited three years for those spurs and then, one winter, I went away to a sea training school for twelve weeks. It was my first time away from home and with the pain and loneliness of a strange place, I forgot all about them.
When I returned home Gus Jones was dead, Mrs Jones incarcerated in an old peoples home and the house had been cleared by council workmen, the grass hacked at, the weeds and rubbish burned.
My mother told me that Mr Jones had died peacefully. One frosty evening he had finally succumbed to the poison in his ruined lungs while playing dominoes and drinking a pint of mild and bitter in the public bar of the local pub. Mrs Jones, my father told me later, after being summoned to the public house, refused the doctor permission to examine the old soldier there, and she had pushed the corpse home in a wooden wheelbarrow with the weary GP trailing behind. Once in the privacy of the cosy kitchen, in front of the black range, she allowed the examination to proceed and thus have her brave and tired husband pronounced dead, and the death so recorded on the certificate as showing he had died at home. Although a long way from her chapel and her roots, Mrs Jones felt more comfortable with that than having her poor Gus declared dead in a public bar with more than three-quarters of a pint remaining in his straight glass. She had taken the beer home with her, decanted it into a cream earthenware jug loaned to her by the landlord, and propped it between her dead husband’s bony knees. She drank it down when the doctor had left and before the undertaker had arrived. My father told me he was sorry they had gone and that it was the end of something.
I listened to the news with a great sadness and wandered out into our garden, remembering the man and his stories. I stepped over the broken fence bordering the next-door property and stood there, looking up at the house. There were no curtains on the windows and the empty rooms stared back at me. The garden smelled of dead grass, weed killer and freshly turned earth.
The remains of a recent bonfire spread itself out across the weed encrusted path. Cold, black and grey rain-washed ash, littered with scorched tin cans, mattress springs and half-burned rags. I raked at it with a stick, disturbing the smoothness of the ash pockets, and hooked onto a dull metal ring. I pushed it clear of the heap. It was one of the spurs, blackened by fire and rusted with the rain. I found them both eventually. The leathers were missing, but the chains were still intact. I looked up at the house again and thought that I heard coughing laughter, but there was no one there. No ghosts, no old soldiers spitting their lungs out forty years on from a war they had bloodily won, and within the final victory of which, had, unknowingly, sown the seed of the next.
The spurs hang over my study desk now, and they are as I had found them, unpolished and darkened by fire. Sometimes when I look up at them I can see that tall officer charging the guns, turning and falling away, ripped by rounds fired from a Maxim at optimum range. I can hear the horse screaming and Gus Jones chuckling as he tells the story, teases a boy and haunts him forever with a glorious image of war that is as magnificent as it is terrible.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2012