The familiar notes of the Last Post play clear and still in the sombre silence. Pale faces, noses pink from the cold, reveal a mixture of emotions. Some are blank, facing the ground in respect, while others gaze into the distance, seeing images no-one else sees. Still more are merely bored. No-one speaks. They can feel that the fragile silence is all too easily shattered like glass.
Daniel is at the back of the crowd in his old uniform. He left the army five and a half months ago. His slouch hat is held tight in a cold and clammy hand, Rising Sun gleaming dully. The knuckles of his hand stand stark white against his tanned skin. At this time last year, he thinks, I would have been in Afghanistan. Over there, they would be sleeping in the chilly Afghanistan air, ready for just another normal working day in the morning. No time for long ceremonies in a warzone.
In some ways, Daniel misses the army: the routine, camaraderie and feeling he was doing something worthwhile. On bad days, he’s glad he left. Lord knows what would’ve happened if he’d have continued down that dark path, away from the reason he joined in the first place – to help improve the world. In the latter years, Daniel had sometimes found himself wondering if it was worth it. It seemed that no matter how hard he and his mates worked, more of them were slaughtered while the enemy grew stronger. Sometimes he wondered whether he should just give up on life. He couldn’t – he’d worked too hard to stay alive. Instead, he left while he was still whole, at least physically.
Daniel found and still finds it difficult adjusting to normal life. The war has changed him. Before he signed up, he would have been fine keeping a job, but now, the nightmares and ineluctable insomnia intrude on his waking thoughts. He’s stared into the abyss, and the abyss has stared into the very essence of his being. He feels the constant pain of its attention slowly wearing him down, fraying the rope tying him to life.
Finally, the last note, a high E, is sounded. It lingers in the frozen air, invisible, yet so sweet and pure the listeners feel they can almost stretch out a hand and grasp it. Too late, though, as it fades into the morning and cold white light glints off the brass bugle returning to its player’s side.
Silence reigns once more, but not in Daniel’s mind. Louder, louder grow the screams, the machine guns’ incessant rattle and the shouts of the Officers as control, once held so confidently, slowly slips into chaos. Daniel sees his mates’ life-threads snapped prematurely: shot down, blown up, or simply fallen to the ground, dead before his very eyes. He tastes the metallic tang of blood on his tongue and smells the rotten stench of corpses. He shivers, but not from the cold.
The world is suspended in time around him. Even the flies, usually so obnoxious in their presence, are absent. Daniel’s breath comes loud and fast, but when he looks up, the people in the square remain unmoving in their silent vigil. They don’t notice. He is alone.
It seems as if the whole entire Universe teeters, waiting for something, anything, to happen. To either heave the world back into normality or push it, gently, off the precipice into the abyss.
The second hand completes its impassive circuit around the giant clock looming in the square, triggering the minute hand to make a single step. Blank faces quickly restore themselves to animation as the world hauls itself back to normality, back to the safety of forgetting. Everyone relaxes instinctively, strangely relieved.
Daniel isn’t. His hands are still damp and he dries them on his trousers. He scrubs half-heartedly at his face and smooths the creases in his pants. Society has returned, but he is left to fall deeper and deeper into the cold.
Hunching his back, Daniel turns to walk away from the now happy gathering. Before he can go, however, a friendly hand clps him lightly on the back and from a distance he hears, “You alright, Danny?”
Is he? Daniel considers the question. He isn’t, not yet, but he smiles anyway. He turns, pauses, takes a breath and replies, “Yeah.”
Half reluctant, half grateful, he grasps the metaphorical hand pulling him out and away from the hole, taking one last look into its depths until next year. Fog swiftly moves to cover the chasm and he is, for the most part, glad to be rid of its dark truths.
For the majority, remembering is only once a year and it is easy to climb away from the memories – but for some, remembrance is falling, diving into the abyss for better or for worse. These are the war-damaged souls who must be pulled back to safety.
Humans cannot survive with constant grief. Ignorance truly is bliss. It is the people who see this as a simple truth who are there with a thousand helpful hands when people fall – or jump – into the abyss.
These people understand that to move on, we must move together. How are we to find our way through the labyrinth of life with no assistance? Theseus could not have succeeded in his quest without twine.
It is for this reason that friendships, though invisible to the eye, are the threads that hold us together.