A Maple Leaf (for Remembrance Day)
It was a town right by the sea and the small white house was right by the sea front, the door opened and there was the road and there was the stone wall and over that you could see the harbor and the boats tied to their docks. There was a smell of salty sea air all day and when the boy, whose name was Atley, was finished school he liked to go down to the docks and watch the fishermen returning. There were beautiful sunsets and on those evenings when it wasn’t stormy the oranges and the pink and yellows seemed to melt together. There was nothing that blocked them from the sea, it was a few steps up the hill to their house and they had views of the sea from almost every window.
Atley was nine. One of his jobs was to fetch the milk bottles off the doorstep that the milkman had left. There was the paper there too. He didn’t often notice what was on the front page, but he did notice the date that day was Wednesday, November 6, 1968. Sometimes Gerry, his guardian, let him listen to his radio, and Atley’s favorite song on the radio then was by the Beatles, Hey Jude. He didn’t know who Jude was, and thought it was an unusual name, nobody at school had a name like that, but it sounded like the song had good intentions, and Atley used to hum it sometimes on his way up to the schoolhouse in the morning.
He lived with Gerry who was getting older, he was 75. Gerry was an old family friend. He was not married and he had no children. Atley had no relatives nearby and he had been raised by his parents, but they had died in recent years. His mother had died of a long-term illness and then his father had died of a heart attack some time after, so Atley was already staying with Gerry at the time. He was as close to a father or grandfather as anybody. Atley did have sort of an aunt who lived in Eastern England, her father’s half-sister, but Atley didn’t like her. She was a piano teacher and Atley had gone to visit her once and he had a piano lesson while he was there. She had a big bum and it took up most of the piano bench. Also when she said she wanted to take a break and make a pot of tea, she didn’t offer him any and he would have liked to have been asked out of courtesy. Luckily it wasn’t the situation where he was forced to go live with her. It was a good thing, because Atley believed that if something happened to Gerry, he was going on his adventure. He wouldn’t be living with the big-bummed piano teacher whether they were related or not.
The two of them had a certain schedule. Atley went to school and during the day Gerry looked after chores in the house or went for a walk, went shopping for fruit and vegetables at the market, or had a pint or coffee with his friends at the local pub. When Atley was home Gerry told him about news events in the paper, or he played chess, or Atley did his homework. Both of them liked to read, if the weather was fair enough they would go for a walk around the docks or up out of the village onto the moors, where they had grand views out across the oceans, to what Atley believed was Africa. He thought Africa was mostly made up of giraffes and tigers and elephants, and so he believed he could almost see their manes and their horns from here. Gerry would pack a small picnic of some coffee and milk and oatcakes and fruit and they would sit on a large stone in a field and watch the activity in the harbor.
That Wednesday, afterschool, they had gone for a walk up out of town. On the way up, Atley asked about the cemetery that he saw down a side street they passed.
“Is that where my mom and dad are buried?” Atley asked. He didn’t remember much about their funerals.
“We can have a look in there on the way home,” Gerry said. On the way back from the walk, they went in. They found where his parents were buried. Atley liked the fact there were quite a few birds flying around, looking happy, and landing on the headstones in the cemetery and then flitting off to a nearby tree and then to the headstones again. It looked like they were enjoying themselves. He perhaps spent more time watching them than looking at the headstones.
When he stopped daydreaming though, he noticed Gerry was at a row of headstones farther down. Atley caught up.
“Who was the headstone for?” Atley asked. This headstone was different. Atley noticed at the top, in the circle, was a maple leaf. The inscription read Can. Army Medical Corps. Lower down on the stone was a cross. The headstone had a ladies name on it, Iris, it said, and then the last name.
“I thought that an iris was a part of a person’s eye, at least that’s what we learned at school,” he said.
“It’s also a girl’s name,” Gerry said, “And its the name of a flower.” It was then they left the cemetery and changed topics, Atley talking about learning science at school and how he didn’t like so many of the big long words that were in that class.
It was a worry what would happen to Atley if Gerry got ill and died. Atley would then be taken into child services and he didn’t want to leave the town. Of course Atley didn’t really think of this too much, he didn’t worry. Other people did mostly, older women that he saw on the street. Like when we went to get a pack of biscuits from the corner store for them to have with their cup of tea, and was on his way home, the old ladies would stop him and ask why he wasn’t dressed warmly enough and plant the ideas in his head that he should be worried about his security in this world. Atley believed that when it was the time for his Gerry to move on from this world, it would be the time for Atley to start his adventures. Because that is what he wanted to be when he grew up, was an adventurer and an explorer like Columbus. He liked to collect maps and he would post the ones he liked especially on his wall. He would sit in the evening and watch the ships go in and out and think about where they were sailing too. He even had an adventurer’s kit ready that he put things in he might need as he thought of them. Even though he knew that Gerry was okay, and there would be a long time before it was the time for adventures.
He had a cat named Freda. Atley opened the door one morning a few months before to get the pints of milk off the doorstep. Freda was sitting beside the pint bottles and asked Atley a question when he reached for the milk. Atley invited her in to talk and it was arranged she lived there. She had quite a lot of personality. She would often call from the other room when she wanted someone’s attention and was very particular about cleaning her feet. Atley found that she didn’t like to be picked up or cuddled, but she did like to be petted and to have her back scratched. Sometimes Atley would be at his desk in his room doing his homework and she would sit by him and stare until he stopped what he was doing and paid attention, and she would make loud chirps at him if he did not pay attention. Sometimes she would even stretch up and put her paws on the edge of the desk, meowing loudly at the same time.
He knew that Freda would have to accompany him on his adventure when the day came to go, he didn’t know exactly how it would work yet, he didn’t know if she would respond well to a leash, but he would work things out later. The summer had gone in the little fishing village and October was over, and as the evenings drew shorter and cooler his activities with Gerry moved inside and that evening Gerry made fish chowder from the fresh fish at the market and they ate it with chunks of homemade bread. Freda curled up in front of the fire which was lit every night.
That night, after they had eaten their dinner, Gerry was reading and Atley sat down on the settee.
“Who was Iris?” Atley asked.
“Iris was an old girlfriend of mine,” Gerry said. ” Fifty years ago I was in love with a nurse, whose name was Iris, and that was her grave in the cemetery. It was during World War I and she was Canadian and had been a nursing sister overseas in 1915 working with a hospital in France. She wasn’t injured there but she went home for a brief visit to Canada, then came back to work at the hospital here in town. It was then that I met her,” Gerry said. “She was in the coffee shop when I was in there and we got to talking. I had wanted to take her somewhere nice for our first date, but she just wanted to go to the chippy so that’s what we did. It was near Christmas time and the harbor was quite pretty, with all the Christmas decorations and lights, and we sat and ate our fish and chips. Then we used to go for a lot of walks down along the sea front. She was very clever. She had gone to nursing school in Canada and then New York. I thought we would get married. I would have even moved to Canada if she wanted. It was then though, that she started to get sick. Unfortunately she caught tuberculosis and she died. She was only 25. There was a big funeral in town for her, because she was an army nurse. There was a horse-drawn carriage for the casket, and behind a procession of a hundred nurses in white caps.”
Gerry explained further that he did not fight in the War as he was judged unfit. ” I had gone to volunteer but they had turned me down,” he said. “When I was around 20, I had been riding my bicycle on a sunny day and had packed a picnic, when I fell off and broke my leg. I had lost my balance and the bike and I fell down the side of a small stone bridge. Luckily I didn’t go in the water. The break though, although it did get somewhat better, it was never the same again. She died in 1918. She was 25 and so was I then. We were both born in 1893. When the war started in 1914 I was 21, but I had only just broken my leg a couple of months before. The war ended in November and she died the July before. So we never had a chance. She died and then four months later the war was over, but she was gone.”
Gerry continued, “We didn’t really talk about her experience in France much, except for once. Most of the time we talked about things that were going on in town, how her work had been, when she was working. We talked about what our dreams were and what our childhoods were like. She told me what Canada was like and what she missed. She was from Manitoba. The one time we did speak about France we were on a walk,” Gerry said. “The doctor had said I should try and exercise my leg to improve it’s condition. Iris said she encountered a lot of men who were younger than her, dying or in very poor physical condition. The patient that stuck in her mind the most was a soldier who was from a Manitoba town twenty miles from hers. He was saying he didn’t like missing the prairie summer. He had been shot badly enough that he would not recover to fight again, but he was going to survive.”
“Well, I’m glad you told me about this,” Atley said. “It was odd that you hadn’t mentioned it before and that we had never gone to her grave before. Now that I know she is there, we should go see her there more often. She sounds like she was a nice lady.”
Atley liked nice ladies. For instance, he didn’t like the lady at the off-license because she had ugly hair and frowned at him a lot. However, he did like Mrs. Frances down on the corner because whenever she saw him, she waved at him, went in the house, and then came out with a freshly baked scone for him. So Iris sounded like a nice lady to him.
Gerry took medicine that the doctors prescribed for blood pressure and there were a couple of occasions where Atley was a little worried about him. A couple of times when he seemed to sit down and looked tired, or when they were on a walk and he said he needed to sit and have a rest and look at the view, more so than he used to.
Two days later, the Friday before Remembrance Day Sunday, Atley was at school and the Headmistress asked to speak with him and told him that something had happened today, and Gerry had been taken to the hospital, they were still waiting to see how he was, he had been unconscious. She had received no further word, but Atley was to go home and fetch his things and then he was to go straight to Mrs. Beckley’s house nearby, to spend the night. Mrs. Beckley was a teacher at the school.
Atley felt like his heart had froze. He could hardly speak and answer the schoolmistress. The school day was almost over but Atley left then and walked home. When he got home it was weirdly quiet. He was so used to having Gerry there. Freda greeted him and he went into the kitchen to feed her. She seemed hungry and oblivious to what was going on. Atley went upstairs to get some things together to take to Mrs. Beckley’s. He wondered about his adventure kit, but decided it was too early to worry about that. Atley got a change of clothes and his book and a couple of toys he liked, and some pocket money he had beside his bed. He didn’t know why he couldn’t go visit Gerry because that is really what he wanted to do. He needed to talk to him about something, and what they were going to do for the next couple of days, as Gerry had an idea about a different hike that they would try. He went downstairs and Freda had curled up on her favorite blanket by the chess set by the window. She would be alright until tomorrow’s breakfast. The sun was going down and he thought it best to get going to Mrs Beckley’s house. He locked the door and went out.
At school that day they had given the children poppies to pin on their coats, but with all the kerfuffle, Atley thought he must have left his poppy on the desk of the Headmistress. It was Remembrance Day on the Sunday. They had been selling them by the market, so Atley made a donation and got another poppy. There had been a cold wind that day and it was obvious the man handing them out was cold and you could see his ears were turning red. After he arrived at Mrs. Beckley’s throughout the evening he did not hear any further report of Gerry’s condition and he went to bed wondering. He mostly just wanted to talk to him.
The next day was Saturday and Atley received word that Gerry would be fine. He could go visit him in the hospital that day. Atley first dropped by the house to feed Freda, and then went to the hospital which was a small cottage hospital at the edge of town. Gerry was sitting up in bed.
“It seems there was a mistake with my medication, or I mixed it with something else and had a bad reaction. The doctor has sorted it out,” Gerry said.”I’ll be home tomorrow. You’re to stay at Mrs Beckley’s still tonight and feed and say hello to the cat like you have been doing. I will be home in no time.”
Atley then left and went back to Mrs Beckley’s. She had a son named Norris who was in the same year as Atley. Atley got along with him fine, and when he got back from the hospital they had some soup for lunch and then spent the day with Mr. Beckley in his garage, helping him clean out and sort through his tool drawers and when they found an interesting tool, asking if they could have anything he had double of. Everything was going to be fine and he was happy all day because of this. In the afternoon, when Atley went to feed Freda, a storm swept up from the sea and as Atley walked through the town the wind beat against his face like a wet slap and tousled his short hair all over his head.
On Remembrance Sunday, Gerry was home by late afternoon and Atley came back from the Beckley’s and they had a cup of tea and sat by the fire.
“Do you feel alright?” Atley asked Gerry.
“I actually feel very good,” Gerry answered. After that there was a pause. Gerry asked, “Were you worried?”
“I wasn’t,” Atley said.
“I think you were and you are fibbing,”Gerry said.
“I guess I was a little,” Atley said.
Gerry said to Atley, “The doctor says I am in good health. I should be around for a while. It is not your job to worry about who will look after you. Besides, the Beckley’s have said to me, if you ever needed a home, you could go live with them. See. There are people in this town who love you and care about you.”
Atley was a bit worried even though he said he wasn’t and was glad he had the talk with Gerry about things. He went to bed feeling content. Freda spent the night on his bed curled up against his side, purring as loud as a jet engine. As he fell asleep he thought of what a good man Gerry was, he was glad Gerry was friends with his parents and his parents put him in good hands. He thought of Iris, the lady with the flower and the part of the eye for her name, and thought about what a nice lady she was, going so far away from home to help all those men in France and then the people at the hospital in town. He promised to himself he could go visit where she rested again and go see the maple leaf on the headstone. He didn’t know if he was army material himself, but it made him think that when he grew up he would like to make the world a better place, in his own special way.
This is a work of fiction. Names, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Certain characters may be composites or entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.