Short Fiction ~ Brindley Hallam Dennis
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 17
Grandpa Sam was a small thin-faced man with a grudge.
He’d served in the First World War, which he always referred to as The Great War. Dad said he’d been in a Bantam Regiment, made up of men who were under-height for the normal army. Dad said that made some of them even better fighters than the full sized men.
A lot of farm boys like Grandpa Sam were under sized, poorly fed despite living in the countryside where the food came from. Some say music-hall jokes about gormless yokels come from that time before The Great War, because so many rural labourers suffered from such malnutrition that they couldn’t think straight. When the war came and Grandpa Sam and his mate joined up they got the best food they’d ever had in their lives.
In the trenches his best mate would read letters from home for him, and write the ones he sent back. Dad said, your Grandpa could barely read or write before the war. He didn’t need to. He worked with a shovel and spade, not a pen and paper. That was one thing the army did for him, taught him to read and write.
A lot of men were subdued, taciturn, silent, when they came back from the war. It was as if something dangerous had lodged inside them like shrapnel, something that if it worked its way out or even moved would be like a bomb going off.
Grandpa Sam would tell me tales of his time in the trenches. Well, one time actually. He told me about it over and over again when I was small. Mum could see it upset me. She’d ask, what’s your Grandpa Sam been saying? But I never let on. I always made something up like I’d seen in a comic or a film or read in a book. I’m not sure, when I look back, that she believed me, but I think she preferred to pretend that she did. Mum told him to stop, but when she wasn’t around he’d tell me again. He didn’t tell me hundreds of times; perhaps a dozen or so over the years, but the telling and the story stuck in my mind.
It wasn’t a proper story. It didn’t have a beginning and a middle and an end. It was just a little scene that he remembered. That’s how he’d start. I remember one day in the trenches, he’d say, and he’d look at me to make sure I was listening. In The Great War, he’d say. It was a frightening story. When I remember it now, I picture myself with an apprehensive expression on my face, my eyes wide and round, and worried. I beat this German soldier to death with my shovel, he’d say. Then he’d look at me, and at least once, he said, what do you think of that?
And that was it, the story. There was nothing more. No beginning. No end. Just that one scene. And he’d wait for me to answer, but I don’t think I ever did.
By the time I went to college Grandpa Sam was in a home and had stopped telling me the story but just before he died I came back for the weekend and paid him a visit.
He was slumped in a big armchair half asleep. They all were, and the television, a great big screen, far bigger than was usual in those days, was blaring away at the end of the room and nobody was paying attention to it. I think it was there so that when people came to visit you couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other even though they were shouting most of the time.
He woke up when I sat down next to him. The care assistant had brought me a small, hard upright chair. He looked at me and a little grin came to his face. I remember one day in the trenches, he said, and he looked at me to make sure I was listening. But I’d read a lot about his Great War by then.
Where was that? I asked.
Where was it you remember? The trenches?
Where? I don’t know? Flanders. In Flanders. What does it matter?
He was flustered, and scowled at me, and said, more quickly than I remembered him saying it before, I beat a German to death with my spade.
Why did you have a spade? I asked. Why didn’t you have a gun?
What? I don’t know. I had a spade. Perhaps I was digging a trench, or digging someone out of the mud. We had to do that you know.
It must have been horrible, I said.
He had it coming, he snapped. He got what he deserved.
Grandpa Sam was breathing heavily and he glanced wildly around the room. He clutched his chest.
It served him right, he said. I said, I’ll kill you, you bastard, and he said, don’t do it Sammy.
He called you Sammy?
What? No. Tommy. He called me Tommy. That’s what they called us. Tommy.
He leaned forward then sank back into the big armchair.
You’ve never forgotten, I said.
He turned his head towards me and spoke so quietly I had to lean forward to catch his words.
Don’t do it, Sammy. That’s what he said. I’d never seen him look so upset, afraid even. He reached out and touched my arm. It was him or me, he said.
I came home for the funeral a few weeks later. Dad said he was very calm towards the end, very settled. Not like the old Grandpa Sam. It was as if he was ready to go. He lost his best mate in the war. The two of them used to write to Gran from the trenches. She kept the letters but after she died Sammy burnt them all.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England within sight of Scotland. He writes short stories. Writing as Mike Smith he has published poems, plays and essays, often on the short story form and on adaptations from texts to film & TV. Many of his stories have been published and performed, sometimes by Liars League in London, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. He holds the degree of M.Litt from Glasgow University.