The Red Flower (a Story) and War
This is a part of a watercolour painting by my father, Douglas F. Symes.
I hope you enjoy reading 'The Red Flower' (my most recent contribution to an Uxbridge Writers' Circle word challenge - the words I had to use are shown in italics).
I follow it with a small piece about war.
The Red Flower
It wasn’t until the master read out all our names and Tommy didn’t respond that we realized he wasn’t with us. We thought roll call was a waste of time, stupid in fact, but on that day we could see its value since none of us had noticed Tommy wasn’t where he always was—at the back of the room.
We’d been rollicking about by the river that ran into town under the old stone bridge. We told the games master we were looking for a lost cricket ball. Tommy was throwing stones into the water, trying to make them skip I suppose, but I didn’t see anything other than sinkers.
We were soon summoned back to the classroom, and it was after he found out Tommy was absent that the master left the room.
A fight broke out almost immediately between Bernie and Marvin. They each led factions within the class. I was in Marvin’s although I would rather not have been in either. But that was not an option. We were a rambunctious group, so we’d all joined in within ten seconds. Desks and tables were overturned, ink-soaked blotting paper flicked, chalk tossed, and paper ripped. After about five minutes, the master opened the door, but shut it again. None of us paid any attention.
But Tommy’s absence niggled at me, and I made a break for it when the master returned with reinforcements. The chaos and noise provided cover for my escape.
I ran back to the river. I was the anxious type back then and imagined countless disasters that could have befallen Tommy. But I didn’t find him floating face-down in the water, and he hadn’t fallen and hit his head on one of the granite rocks jutting out of the riverbank. I looked for clues.
A bugle played. The haunting sound came from somewhere left of the bridge. Ah, it was Remembrance Day!
In a rare moment of sharing—we lads didn’t share much about ourselves—Tommy had mentioned his father was killed in the war. He had no memories of him since he was a toddler when his father was shot down in a bombing mission over Germany.
I ran up the slippery slope to the bridge and threw my blazer and school tie on the wet grass (even though I knew my grey flannel trousers and white shirt alone, would give me away as an escapee from the imposing granite boarding school). I jogged along the pavement towards the town centre.
I was right. Tommy was there. He stood as still as the war memorial that the townsfolk were gathered around, with a red flower clutched in his hands.
When the sombre ceremony ended, the forlorn and tearful folk drifted away, and Tommy laid his flower under the wreath.
I was apprehensive about approaching, but a trace of a smile quivered on his lips when he saw me. We walked in silence for the first minute or two. Then we had a decent chat—I mean close to what I assumed adults had—not larking about, just talk. As I picked up my blazer and tie and brushed them off, he said he worried that I’d face retribution for leaving school to look for him especially since the school could face serious consequences if it became known that two pupils had been missing. He knew he’d be punished even though he felt it was within his rights to attend the ceremony. I’d never heard the word ‘retribution’ before, so I was relieved when he explained what he meant. And I’m well read. We studied the classics at that school, although I’ve never been able to determine how immersing myself in the classics helped me to build a bright future.
Tommy told me about his father and said how lucky I was that mine was alive. But I pointed out that he might as well be dead since I saw him once a year at most, at Christmas. I never did get to know him. He traveled a great deal and showed no interest in me. So, I’d lost my father too, but I didn’t say that.
We wondered how we could get back into the school without drawing attention to ourselves. It was almost lunchtime so we hoped we could sneak into class as they prepared to leave for the dining room.
No such luck. Three masters were wrapping up a bizarre reconciliation process between the two factions led by Marvin and Bernie. The room had been cleaned up by the class with the help of Mr. Smythe. But the fight had left its marks—several of the boys had ink on their faces, dishevelled hair, and ties askew. Punishments were administered. Some boys were sent to the headmaster for the cane. Others were assigned kitchen duties or other tasks.
Once this tedious process ended, our master walked towards us, his leather-soled shoes clacking on the wooden floor. He demanded to know what the meaning was of Tommy’s disappearance, and asked in his gruff voice how I could have had the audacity to follow Tommy.
We’d figured out our story. Tommy took ill and went to the toilets. I had to go soon after the fight broke out, and I found him still in there. I waited with Tommy until he felt well enough to return to class.
The master peered at us down his nose, through his half-moon shaped glasses and grunted. He gave us lines. We had to write, one hundred times, ‘I must request permission to leave class’.
We got off lightly that time.
Copyright Vicky Earle 2022
This is a drawing I found in my father's (incomplete) 1943 diary. There is no caption.
My father, Captain Douglas F. Symes, served in WWII from 1939 until 1945. As far as I know, he spent most of the time in Egypt. His mother was devastated when he left and, we believe, she assumed she'd never see him again.
He was instrumental in designing desert camouflage for the army, using his skills as an artist.
He told a few stories about his experience in the desert, including the fact that the British Army served the same rations wherever you were. So, he attempted to down hot soup in the desert's blazing heat, but didn't get far because his sweat was dripping into the bowl faster than he could consume the soup.
My maternal grandfather joined the BC Bantams (yes, the British Columbia Bantams although he was a permanent resident of England). He made about seven trips to Canada - we're not sure why. He fought in the trenches in Europe in WWI and was a victim of a mustard gas attack, suffering temporary blindness and serious burns which required skin grafts. Despite his ordeal, he lived until his early eighties.
There's more...but I'm not the only one with these stories.
The tragedy is that families continue to lose loved ones all around the world in wars that should never have begun.
I wish for peace for all peoples.
"Give Peace a Chance".
PS Ted Barris is an award-winning Canadian author of several non-fiction books including an amazing series on wartime Canada. I can recommend them! He has just released a new book: 'Battle of the Atlantic'. tedbarris.com