There isn’t a whole lot of red around really, in this magnificent sea of blue. Just a little red trim on the shirt collar as a mark of respect to the Chelsea Pensioners; old soldiers who live at the nearby Royal Hospital. We used to be called the Pensioners and to be honest we’ve played like old men sometimes. That’s in the past though. It’s the last day of the season and it’s ours for the taking as long as our nerves don’t get the better of us.
Don’t know what Elvis Costello was on about. I always want to go to Chelsea, like I was born to the place. We pass an antique shop on the Kings Road and a flash of scarlet draws me immediately. There’s an old soldier in his tunic and hat looking the business. He’s admiring something in the window as I approach. Someone shouts Chelsea and the soldier turns to face me, looking a little giddy on his feet. I hold him up and the two of us go into the shop to find him a seat.
The shopkeeper gets him a glass of water and a chair. I’ve passed this place hundreds of times but never ventured in. It’s amazing and every breath I take makes me feel like I’ve gone back to a different time.
He tells me his name is Thomas and asks if I’ve ever met Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. I haven’t of course, but I say I have, just to keep his spirits up. It seems to and he points animatedly at a small box in the window, with some medals and a letter in it.
Thomas gestures to me to bring it over and when the shopkeeper nods in approval, I do just that. He doesn’t want it himself though and points to the letter as if he wants me to read it. Maybe his eyesight isn’t the best. I open it and begin to read as he relaxes back in his chair.
My dear Michael,
I’ll never forget that day. There were thousands of us marching through the narrow streets. Excited; all a little scared if we’re being honest that maybe things wouldn’t go our way. The other lot were a bit handy so we’d all had a bit to drink to settle the nerves. Some of the lads were singing. Well, when I say singing, I mean shouting really as none of them could hold a note. It was a release though. Some of us just marched in silence by way of contemplating our fate.
It was just like going to the football for the biggest game of our lives except we knew we wouldn’t all be coming home from the horror we would have to go through to defend the white cliffs from those who had ideas well above their station.
I still remember the old days, and all the pretty girls and bars and even a couple of stolen cars and the odd bit of necessary medicine in order to keep up with the play. We were always going to be young at heart, so it seems odd to refer to them as the old days, I suppose.
We had only been in that stinking cold trench for two days when we heard the officer scream over the top as a prelude to the bones, brains, sinew and muscles of ordinary young men like you being ripped apart in the name of King and Country. I never saw you fall and as we piled into the waist high mud of their trench, I just thought I was one of the lucky ones. I looked back but I never saw you again.
Maybe if we could have turned all the spilled blood into ink there would have been enough written to ensure it never happened ever again. It did and it does of course and most nights I see your pale white, terrified face as clear as that day at Passchendaele.
Yes my friend, the horror got worse and the weapons got better but the central premise; the macabre plot was the same. People in power protecting other people‘s money by sending young men and women to early graves.
It’s a very different world now Michael. Everyone seems so distant with love only for the faded memories. Speaking of which, I have your medals here; Pip (Star), Squeak (British War) and Wilfred (Victory).
Maybe see you at the football.
I look up from the letter as the shopkeeper asks if I’m interested. I turn to Thomas but the seat is empty. The shopkeeper shrugs as a hint of scarlet mingles with the blue outside. I wonder if our team of millionaire heroes will survive and get their medals today.
© Ash Cheyne 2017