“I’m afraid the last train left ten minutes ago. The first one tomorrow is at 5:25 am.”
Realizing that this was a full six hours away, the old man seemed to shrink even further into his disheveled trench coat. From my spot on the bench beneath the station clock I could see him sigh as he reached down to pick up his valise. He shuffled towards me; thread bare Florsheims barely leaving the terraza tile with each step.
As I turned back to my book he gingerly eased himself onto the other end of the bench. I had to feel for the guy. While I was young and had my whole life in the backpack propping up my feet, he had very little padding left to protect his backside from the hard metal bench and couldn’t have had much more than a change of clothes in the bag at his feet.
We spent a few minutes in our own worlds until the ticket window shut with a snap and we were left alone in the semi-darkness. The old man sighed again and then turned to me.
“So…did you miss the train, too?” he asked in a voice as soft as eiderdown.
“Nope. Hostel was full. This is better than spending the night in a field somewhere,” I said.
He spied the flag on my backpack and smiled. “Ah, you’re a Canadian! On your way to Flanders, then?”
“Not quite. Vimy and Arras,” I said. “I had a great uncle die somewhere between the two as a sapper. I promised my family I’d bring back a few photos of the trenches and hopefully one of his grave at Arras.”
The old man nodded and fell silent for a moment. I had just turned back to my book when he spoke again. “I was Royal Flying Corps. We were attached to the Canadians for awhile in France.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Fearless, they were. Drank a bit much for my liking, but never let us down in a battle.”
“What battles did you fight in?” I asked, much more out of curiosity than politeness.
“Oh, too many to count. I was one of the unlucky ones who didn’t get killed early on.”
This caught me off guard. “Um, don’t you mean one of the lucky ones?” I asked.
“Son, if you’d been there you wouldn’t have to ask that question,” he snapped at me, blue eyes momentarily blazing. “It was hell. Four years of sheer, muddy, bloody, deafening hell. I’ve walked through more body parts and rat invested trenches in my lifetime than anyone should ever have had to. Most of those body parts belonged to mates I grew up with. Only five of the boys I went to kindergarten with made it back to our village.”
“Gee, I’m…I’m sorry,” I muttered, abashed and embarrassed by his outburst.
He smiled sadly. “We were all about your age, you know,” he said. “At the beginning I was as excited to be leaving Brighton as you were to leave your home, I’ll bet. A grand new adventure with all my mates. We had no idea what we were really getting into.”
I could tell he was getting ready for some serious story telling so I put my bookmark firmly in my book, laid it aside and got comfortable. The old man told me of battles, aerial photography and artillery support and then about friends lost, letters home and, surprisingly, of the odd love tryst with a French or German farmer’s daughter. He painted for me a picture of loss and desolation and yet also of the desperate hope of youth.
The sun was rising when he turned to me and asked, “What was your uncle’s name?”
“Thomas Reeves,” I answered. “He was a sapper with the 5th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops.”
“Oh,” he said softly. “I thought so.”
Just then a train arrived on the track outside. “I think that’s your train, sir,” I said when the old man made no move to get up or collect his things. He was deeply lost in thought.
“Huh? Oh, yes. My train.”
I stood to shake his hand. “Thank you for the company, sir,” I said with sincerity. “And thank you for…you know…for everything else.”
The old soldier smiled and nodded before he turned and shuffled out to the waiting train.
I stretched, turned to pick up my backpack and glanced down at the now empty seat at the end of the bench. The man had dropped a photo. I snatched it up quickly and started towards the door to catch him but the train was already pulling away from the station.
I studied the photo in my hands. It captured two young army men, standing outside a tent with what looked like a makeshift airfield behind them. The men were dirty but smiling and had their arms around each other’s shoulders. The man on the left, with the winged cap badge, was obviously my late night storyteller. The other man, though. There was something about him.
I turned the photo over and had to sit down again at what I read. In scratchy penmanship it read, “1917 – Me and Thomas Reeves. After Vimy, France.”
The old soldier had left me a better photo than I ever could have taken. I smiled and said a quick prayer of thanks. I put the photo in the pocket beneath flag on my pack and stepped out into the peaceful France sunshine.