Wind, rain. Lying there in his bed, Fred can hear the latter beating against his roof and the former rattling the glass in the windows of his upstairs flat. His first thoughts of the day are tainted by a weary dread. Every year it’s like this. Why did they have to sign the WWI Armistice in November? Why couldn’t history pretend it happened earlier in the year, during Spring or Summer?
Fred sits up slowly, giving his old tendons and string-bean muscles a chance to awaken from their atrophied sleep, and begins his morning ritual: coughs, hacks — deep, resounding expectorations from the depths of his body, his thin frame wracked by each rattling explosion. It passes, it always passes after a time, and Fred grabs the pack of du Mauriers off the night table, pulls out a butt, rips off the filter and lights the cigarette with his Bic. He sits there, propped crookedly on the edge of his bed, hair tousled and still startlingly black despite his seventy-five years, smoking, listening to the wind eddying beneath the eaves, the rain beating a xylophonic tune across the window. Beyond and from the harbour, the dull and measured drone of a foghorn. Inside, the mechanical snick-snack of tiny gears turning within the cheap, wind-up alarm clock on the folding TV-table beside his bed; the groaning of old pipes as freshly heated water begins its climb from the boiler in the cellar to the cast-iron radiator in the corner of his bedroom.
Unmoving on the edge of the bed, eyes open, pale blue irises ringed with the yellow of ripening cataracts, the brows above them knit through with hairs gone coarse and unruly, he stares, hand poised beside his deeply-lined face, untouched du Maurier emitting a twist of blue smoke from its position between his fingers. The ash at the tip of his cigarette lengthens, tilts precariously.
Those boys, those men, all of those regimented bodies and the disorderly souls that inhabited them. Some were younger than him, some older. They filed through the camp where he was stationed as cook during World War II and he fed them all. He fed them so well, he suspects the brass saw to it that he stayed there in the camp in Nova Scotia for the duration of the war, despite his protests, his eagerness to go and fight in Europe. He’d been livid, then, being forced to stay behind. Now he wonders what would have become of him had he gone. He has come to accept in the long years since that in its own small way his contribution was made, but it still bothers him. Those fresh young faces are dim and distant now, as thin and spectral as the tendrils of smoke dissipating into the air around his head.
The wind drives more rain against the window, startles Fred from the drift of his mind. The ash dislodges from the tip of his cigarette and misses his pyjama pants by mere inches during its descent to the hardwood floor where it will add to a scatter-shot pattern of tiny burn marks. Then, with the same careful purpose that he now approaches all aspects of daily life, Fred rises, dresses in his uniform –laid out and pressed last night– applies the plastic poppy to his cap and prepares to go out into the storm for the march to the Cenotaph.
In the kitchen, he turns on the little transistor radio and the newsman says it is three degrees, which Fred automatically translates into Fahrenheit for himself: thirty-seven. Chilly weather, November weather, but with the wind and rain it will feel colder — bitter and bone-deep. He’ll be lucky not to catch his death. Or perhaps, he thinks, it’s more fitting to say that he’ll be lucky if Death doesn’t catch him.
But he’s used to this, he tells himself. He’s been through it before and he will go through it again. The dead demand it and the living deserve it. Grey, mournful November with its bare trees and overcast skies. Sleet-slicked pavement and chilled souls in black gathered silently around a stone memorial. As grim as the milieu will be, he cannot help but feel it is still appropriate, especially for remembering the undoing of so much of the human fabric. Grey and cold are probably what death’s fingers feel like when they finally tag you, and he finds that notion strangely comforting. If true, at least it will be familiar.
He checks his umbrella for wear, pulls on his galoshes and heads out into it.