Jack sat up in bed his unseeing eyes staring ahead, his dream-strangled cry fading to nothing.
When he reached for the warm comfort of his sleeping wife, as he’d done for fifty-odd years after one of his nightmares, there was only the cold white sheet. You’re a crazy old man, he told himself, having nightmares after all this time and forgetting your wife’s been dead over a year.
He looked at the clock. Mustn’t be late.
Breakfast. Wash up. Glance at the paper. Man drowned in beach channel by incoming tide.
He shook his head, blinked. Shopping next.
‘Hello, Jack! Expecting the family?’ asked a neighbour seeing him return laden with shopping.
‘Yes, apart from Amy, she’s at art school. They’re bringing Tom to spend the night here while they visit friends, but how do I amuse a twelve-year-old grandson whose only interest is computers?’
‘It’ll be sunny tomorrow. What about the go-karts at the far end of the beach?’
‘Maybe,’ Jack replied. No fear! he thought.
Back at home he went down the garden to pick the strawberries and vegetables for lunch. He remembered sunnier times when Amy, excited about going to the beach with Mollie later, would chatter to him while she helped him to pick the peas.
‘Look at this beautiful butterfly, Grandad! Quick! Oh, you’ve missed it now!’
I’ve never been close to Tom, Jack thought for the umpteenth time. We’re too alike: solitary hobbies and no conversation. Maybe getting married late made me too old for grand-parenting by the time Tom was born or…
Mollie used to marvel after she came back from the beach with Tom at what he knew about wild flowers and sea creatures and how well he was doing at school. Perhaps, thought Jack with a mixture of guilt and relief, Tom might occupy himself on the new laptop finishing his school project.
Lunch was almost over without a word from Tom beyond ‘Hello, Grandad!’ when he arrived. Jack tried to start a conversation.
‘That’s a smart computer of yours, Tom.’
‘Yes,’ Tom answered. As if looking for something to add, Tom cast his eyes around the room lingering over Amy’s seascape on the wall behind Jack, before focussing on an old deed box on the sideboard.
‘What’s in that old box, Grandad? The one on …Ouch!’
Jack guessed that Tom had received an under-the-table kick from his mother. He steered the conversation into what he hoped was safer water.
‘What’s your school project about, Tom?’
‘I…er…I don’t know…’ Tom glanced at his mother. She rescued him by announcing that they’d have to go, they’d be back tomorrow afternoon.
Tom got to work on the laptop while Jack cleared away the meal wondering why a school project should be so mysterious. The explanation came in the form of tremendous battle sounds from the computer that hurtled him back sixty-four years to a beach in Normandy. He screamed:
‘Stop the noise! I need some peace! I can’t stand any more!’
Jack saw Tom’s eyes widen and his body stiffen as he turned the volume off. Then he saw Tom pressing other computer keys.
‘Don’t start again!’ yelled Jack, ‘I need some peace!’ He moved over to pull the plug out at the wall.
‘Please don’t, Grandad!’ Tom begged.
Jack hesitated. Tom seized his chance.
‘You have to press these other keys before it’s safe to switch off the power. I’ll put it away now.’
Jack watched Tom tiptoe upstairs to his room with the silenced computer. He slumped from force of habit into his armchair where he sat, motionless apart from an occasional shudder or grimace, staring at nothing.
The sound of the front door softly opening and closing penetrated his brain. He leapt up, searched everywhere, but didn’t find Tom.
These modern kids run through batteries at such a rate, he’s gone shopping for another, Jack reassured himself. He headed for the village.
‘No, your Tom hasn’t been in,’ the newsagent said, ‘If he’s gone to the beach there’s not much time left, the tide’ll be in soon.’
Jack forced his feet that wanted to walk home to march to the beach. The sea and sky beyond were a misty grey. Soon the tide would engulf the rocks on the headland. A bit of poetry learnt at school came into his head:
‘Break, break, break
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea…’
With downcast eyes he saw that the path had ended at the sand dunes. He stood immobile willing himself to raise his head and begin the advance across the beach. Go now, commanded Mollie’s voice in his head. When he raised his eyes he saw his beach as it had always been, with its expanse of golden sand and the headland beyond. A second later ugly images of barbed wire and other vicious military defences blocked his view.
There’s nothing stopping you, he told himself, don’t be stupid, go! He stepped forward, stooped to free himself from the spiteful barbs, told himself not be stupid, stood up, stepped forward, stooped to free himself, told himself not to be stupid, again and again until he arrived at the big rock on the headland.
Tom was there, sitting motionless, his arms around his knees, staring out to sea. Jack’s relief was overtaken by panic. You can handle it, came Mollie’s voice in his head. He spoke from a few feet away:
Tom responded with a quick sidelong look directed at Jack’s feet before resuming his seaward gaze.
‘Tom, I’m sorry I went mad at you.’
The only response Jack heard was sound of the sea crashing on the lower rocks. He went on:
‘Tom, you are as precious to me as you were to your Gran, as precious in your own way as Amy is in hers. Only I’m not as good at showing it as your Gran was.’
Was Tom’s seaward gaze less intent and his posture less stiff?
‘Tom, when your Gran used to tell you and Amy I was too busy in the garden to come to the beach the real reason was that I could never face a beach after leaving Normandy. Not until now when I made myself come to look for you.’
Tom turned to face Jack.
‘Mum said I was never to mention the war to you. When you asked about the school project I didn’t tell you because it’s on the Normandy landings.’
Jack could feel the spray from the encroaching sea. He’ll come with you now, came Mollie’s voice in his head. Tom climbed down from the rock as if he too had heard.
‘Grandad,’ he said, ‘I’m sorry I forgot about the sound effects on that loud disc after lunch. I put it on because in the project I’m meant to be the war reporter describing what D-Day was like for the soldiers.’
I’m not a computer disc, I was there, Jack thought. The tide had almost reached their feet.
‘Tom, I have some stuff that might help with your project. Let’s go,’ he said.
At home Jack fetched the box that had earned Tom his lunchtime kick under the table and they sat down together. He took out a postcard that he’d sent home from Normandy with a view from the cliffs of the village of Arromanches and its beach.
When Tom saw it he pulled a postcard from his folder and exclaimed:
‘Look, Grandad! It’s exactly the same as this postcard my friend, Declan, sent me last year, except on mine you can see the remnants of the Allies’ temporary harbour.’
‘That harbour was built after we’d captured the beach on D-Day,’ Jack told him, and he went on to speak of some of the things that had been locked in his mind for over sixty years.
Jack and his pal, Spud, a real joker, were both aged twenty when they’d landed in Normandy. They’d all been seasick except for Spud and had to disembark into the sea because the crafts couldn’t get any nearer. One lad from another landing craft disappeared into a channel out of his depth, sunk by his heavy equipment.
Spud had been laughing at his suffering comrades staggering up the beach and kept asking where the bullets were, it was so quiet. Jack had told him to shut up, he didn’t know what it felt like to be seasick.
Then everything had come at them. The noise was dreadful. Spud went down, Jack had turned to help him, there were shouts of ‘Get off the beach, idiots!’ then Jack got hit. He remembered nothing until he came to while he was having his wound dressed. It soon healed and he was declared fit for duty.
He never saw Spud again. They’d gone on to take another hill, cross another river, capture another town, until they were told the war was over.
Within Jack’s head the war continued. The nightmares and flashbacks had started as soon as he’d returned home. After Spud had gone, followed by others whose names he’d either forgotten or never known, he’d never been close to anyone until he met Mollie. His companions had been his plants whose silent beauty repaid him for his understanding of their simple needs.
Even now he wasn’t much good at conversation, he’d always left that to Mollie. He’d wondered about contacting Spud’s family to tell them what a great pal he’d been until he’d heard of someone who’d done that and had the door slammed in his face.
‘I’ll always wish I knew what had happened to Spud,’ Jack concluded.
‘I know how to find him,’ Tom said.
Tom set up his computer.
‘Grandad,’ he said, ‘I’m not putting a noisy disc in, this is a dongle that connects the computer to the Internet through my dad’s phone line.’
A series of images flashed across the screen until Tom lingered on one. Jack began reading:
“…nightmares, flashbacks…post-traumatic stress disorder…normal response to abnormal stress……survivor guilt…you are not mad…”
I’m not mad after all, thought Jack, but what about Spud?
By then Tom had found the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s commemoration of Spud with a photograph of the military cemetery where his body now rested. Through his tear-glazed gardener’s eyes Jack saw the soldiers’ graves each with its lovingly tended plot of flowers and a cold, white headstone.
‘I’ll send you a print-out from Dad’s computer,’ Tom promised.
Jack placed the two postcards side by side. His dead pal honoured, his present and his past united, and the nightmares put in their place. He turned to his grandson:
‘Tomorrow’s going to be sunny. How about a visit to the go-karts?’
To the beach once more
Jack sat up in bed his unseeing eyes staring ahead, his dream-strangled cry fading to nothing.