The household made a truce with the garden and left it to go wild. Poppies grew with long ticklish stems which bent and waved in light breezes. In an attempt to win at least one battle, the house was more splendid than ever. It was several storeys high, built with peach-coloured brick and white painted window frames. The customary scents of curious plants had fled in the heat, leaving behind the carcasses of withered flowers.
Yet the summer-scorched garden was not what drew so many eyes outside. Today, children were sitting in clumps across the patched lawn. Their parents kept out of the sun, chatting and drinking cooled wine, while watching their offspring through the large windows. The children seldom enjoyed these parties and, although everyone tried very hard to amuse them with games and sweets, it was never long before they were jostled outside ‘to play’. In these great gardens of nobody-in-particular the children were debating serious matters of great importance while they lounged about the lawn, careful to keep half an eye on the young ones.
Jess began the discussion, plucking a red flower from the lawn and holding it up to her chest like a badge. “What does this remind you of?” Everyone glanced at her, some even spared a moment to think. Others just turned back to their games.
“How about that day? The one every autumn. It’s on the paper,” said one boy. Several small faces turned towards him, each one a picture of confusion. So he continued, “On the paper, the square one on the wall. It’s got its own name.”
Jess spun the flower between her fingers before throwing it into the grass. The petals were still visible. “A day about a fight, wasn’t it?” She glanced at some of the older children, “Wasn’t it?”
Jess was the youngest of their ‘gang’, and because of her age most of the adults liked to indulge her, but the girls wouldn’t. Nor would Mark. Mark was an older boy, whose mother dressed him like his father and let his manners become stale.
“What are you talking about.” Mark asked, but it wasn’t a question. “You can’t be reminded of anything. You’re not old enough to be in a fight. I bet you haven’t even seen one.” He made a nasty little sound through his nose, and those who had been listening to Jess looked away. Jess flushed and tried to explain herself, just like she did in school. “I know, but I can’t help it. It’s just what they remind me of.” She frowned and looked down at the grass, stroking the cloth of her dress.
“Well, maybe she can remember.” In the crowd of children, it was difficult to say who had spoken, but many nodded in approval. “I remember things in dreams,” Ethan continued, and it became clear that he had been the one to speak in Jess’ defence. “Maybe it’s like that?” Ethan was a spotty boy, speckled in freckles and flecked in mud. Like Jess, he looked down at the grass while he spoke.
Mark pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his snotty nose, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He then performed a series of complex gestures involving his hair. The children watched in awe. Mark always brought a sense of weight into their games, making everyone feel as though they were part of something very grown up and clever- even when they were struggling to name a day belonging to a flower. “No, she wasn’t there. You can’t remember something if you weren’t there. Not if it was fighting. Not if…” He screwed up his face and squinted into the sun, as if he might find the answer written on the face of the burning rock. Mark sighed, “…something.”
“What if this fight was still going on? Someone’s always fighting somewhere.” A little girl Mark didn’t recognise suggested. She wore a very pretty yellow dress, and Mark wanted to say something impressive. “Well yes, but there’s something more than that.” The television screens and radio speakers would buzz angrily sometimes, and though they did not know what was being said, or where it was that the news people were talking about, they knew. They knew what it meant.
“This one is definitely over. It’s why we have the flower.” said Ethan. His quiet voice was met with nodding. “The red flower, so the fields will always be red. Then everyone will be able to remember.” Ethan did not look up as he spoke, but mumbled as he tried to concentrate and worked his fingers into the grass. He was the eldest there by a few months, and wanted to continue talking. He had something very clever in his head- or at least the beginning of something clever.
He was trying to extract a poem he’d learnt at school from the sludge of summer forgetfulness, calling back images of green smoky gas. It had begun with a funny language, he recalled. Looking down into the grass he unfocused his eyes. The lawn became a poisonous cloud, and the improvised crèche in one corner was now an enemy trench where troops screeched as they prepared ammunition for a raid.
Mark had nodded too this time, but wished he could think of what it was himself.
“It was more than a normal fight. It was something in history.”
“Something more than fighting?” There was a pause as young faces wrinkled at the thought of what could possibly be ‘more’.
“Everyone, come inside. Jess, Matthew- quick!” A list of names was called. The children remembered the house. They had forgotten it in their games. It had been a backdrop to their little world of a garden on a sunny afternoon.
To Ethan it was a list of soldiers, and as he returned from his thoughts of battles and poetry he saw the children’s scrambling limbs as they scrabbled into the house. The terrors of fighting filled him up and left him shuddering in the hot sunshine. He knew very little about battles, only what he had read about or learnt. His teachers had made it real to him in their lessons. While the other boys yawned and passed notes, Ethan would be listening and it came alive in his mind. It was there with him on the lawn. He stumbled as he went inside, moving with slouched shoulders and heavy thoughts on his mind.
The party games were beginning, fat parcels of newspaper and balloons filled the floor. The adults were grinning and enjoying themselves until they saw the grass stains on the knees of their ch–
All air and sound was sucked away. Several people jumped, both children and grown ups, but none so much as Ethan, who clutched his chest. He had snatched up his hand so quickly it hurt. He scowled at a crying child holding the sagging remnants of a balloon in stinging palms.
“A shot!” He yelled, filling his lungs with air and his face with colour. A hand fell on his shoulder in warning, but he kept shouting “A shot! A shot!” The hand tightened on his jumper and he was shaken roughly. Ethan noticed how full his stomach felt, as if he might fizz over from the lemonade he’d had. He was still shouting, shouting for help and for people to stop staring and to realise what had happened.
His father’s deep voice cut through his yelling. “Outside.” Ethan felt queasy, but a little better. He made his way to the windowed doors without looking up, in case he saw people watching. His mother was muttering apologies to everyone as he struggled to turn the handle. It was too slippery, and he couldn’t help but hear what she said next. “He was so nervous about today, I’m so sorry, the balloon must have given him a fright, yes. Very silly.” Very silly. She did not understand.
“I’ll have a little chat with him later…” His father added, and Ethan could see without turning that he was frowning. The door was lighter than he’d thought, and as he leant on it he tripped on the threshold. He did not fall, and managed to step out into the quiet, rustling garden.
Ethan sat among the poppies for the next hour, imagining that they marked soldiers’ graves beneath the lawn. Much later, when his father came outside, they sat together. He did not tell Ethan he was disappointed. He did not tell him that he was being silly. He put an arm around his son, and listened as Ethan told him about poppies, and how they reminded him of a war he couldn’t possibly remember.