by Stuart Kelley
Odd that I would think of that day at Darlington Station in this moment. The sky above is haze grey with plumes of brown smoke drifting by. All sound has ceased, at least for me, for I can hear nothing.
The Westside Platform at Darlington Station was a flurry of activity that warm Sunday morning in May. Drab green and brown uniforms blended amongst flowered sundresses, feathered hats, and bright high heels. There was a frenetic din of voices, some loud and urgent, others soft and submissive. But mostly the tone was that of sadness. One could see tears and hear weak sobbing from the women, most often accompanied by the reassurance of a young uniformed companion trying to console.
“There, my sweet…please, please don’t weep. It won’t be long. You’ll see.”
This compelling appeal would be met with tear-filled eyes staring up at her companion hopeful that he was speaking from knowledge and not just desire.
“Oh, my darling, be careful. Come home to me.” She would implore.
“Yes, I will be careful my love.” He would affirm. “You just take care of yourself now and…and I’ll write every day, just like I promised.”
Their intertwined fingers would momentarily tighten, then release. With that, their parting would begin. He would hop up onto the railcar step, she would wave a perfumed hankie, bidding him farewell. They would exchange a blown kiss through the air, and he would disappear into the massive railcar now crammed tightly with men in green and brown uniforms.
Amid this sea of dark, earthy colors, of camouflage and khakis, my eyes were drawn to a patch of color so brilliant it beckoned one’s eyes to break from a lover’s gaze. It was a wooden cart, its contents almost glowing in crimson, a red that could only be created by God’s hand at the peak of his favor. The rickety, two-wheeled cart brimmed with watered filled cans of red poppies. The cart was accompanied by a small woman draped in grey flannel; her posture so gnarled I wondered how it was the cart got to its appointed place on the platform. Perhaps a son or husband had guided it into place the night before. Her weathered face held the expression of both sadness and joy.
Occasionally, a soldier would pluck a flower from the cart and a brief negotiation would occur between him and the old woman. It would always end with the exchange of coins, her nodding in appreciation with a weak smile while handing him a flower, and his expression beaming in delight as he turned to hand his lovely this new-found token of his affection.
I myself, was alone for I had no young love by my side. Nor did I have the prospect of anyone pining for me that could be the beneficiary of such a gesture as to hand a bright red poppy. I smiled weakly and counted myself fortunate that I did not have to bestow on someone any sorrow at my parting. Yet my heart ached at the deep richness and beauty of that scarlet bounty held so precariously by that aged and splintered wooden cart. I so wished for someone at that moment.
Soon, I too hopped onto the railcar step with one foot, swinging the other onto the steel companionway that joined the railcars. I made my way into the car on the left for no discernable reason; my momentum had simply carried me that direction. I found the traverse easy going through the aisle as most of the soldiers were resting on their knees in the seats, hanging halfway out the open windows of the passenger cars, their arms and heads flailing about, bidding their lovers a final farewell, whistling their love-calls one last time.
I took a seat on an empty wooden bench facing two soldiers and took out the folded Binghamton Times to begin passing the hours. One soldier thumbed his finger across the top of a fresh pack of playing cards he had coaxed from his breast pocket while looking hungrily at his seat mates. I knew they would soon be in a spirited game of poker and the week’s advance pay for each soldier would soon change hands. I mused at my good fortune for I knew I would be able to read in peace without the volley of “Where you from?” type questions that would soon occupy the interests of adjacent companions throughout the railcar.
A piercing whistle blew, the train jolted, and white steam began to pass thickly past the windows, slowly at first, then dissipating into a thin veil of gray as the engine’s wheels found their grip on the rails and the train began to lumber down the track.
Once free from the steel arches of the station, sobs and assurances that filled the platform could no longer be heard and the train became bathed in a brilliant light of the mid-morning sun. It soon took on a rhythmic cadence as pistons, wheels, and rails click-clacked in time.
What lay before us now was miles of lush English countryside, rich fields of lime colored grass and thick hedgerows crisscrossing the checkered landscape. A peaceful, almost tranquil sojourn across this British Isle would ensue until we reached the coast. There, the ships would be waiting anchored just offshore, belching sooty black smoke from their tarred smokestacks. Here we would embark, men and metal into the cavernous ships holds, a cacophony of sounds and voices from men all too young to be tasked with what was soon to be. From there it would be a short sail to France, to the trenches, to the war.
Resting my back against the earthen trench wall, all sound continued to elude my ears even though I could feel the concussion in my chest from muffled explosions occurring around me. My vision was starting to blur. Tears from mustard gas or perhaps thermite clouds hugging the ground from mortar shells landing close by stung my eyes. I reached for my helmet but only grasped wet, heavy mud. I looked to my right to pull my rifle next to me. I thought how strange it was that the wooden stock had been almost pulverized by shrapnel, its dark leather strap hanging unfettered from the barrel.
Everything around me was the color of that day at Darlington Station. Drab green and brown uniforms on fallen soldiers next to me; the shadowy black of the sprawling Westside Platform, the whitish-grey color of steam from an idling train engine, and even a patch of crimson.
A brilliant shade of red had caught my eye, just as it did that day in May. I squinted to gauge its distance for I could not immediately determine if it was close or afar. I strained my moisture filled eyes to focus on its beauty, to take in its color. I was becoming desperate now to see it clearly, to witness that rich sea of scarlet poppies. Oh, to be able to pluck a water-soaked stem from a can on that cart seemed all that mattered now.
The presence of red in my vision began to expand. But now I could feel its warmth as well as see it growing. It was impossible to focus on it as it was ever so close. I reached for it as if I too were a lovelorn soldier on Darlington Platform selecting a token of love for my mate. My hand found the tunic of my buttoned jacket and my fingers felt tattered khaki. I lifted my hand and saw that it was crimson red. No flower there, just a wet coldness.
I looked up at the haze grey sky, brown plumes of smoke drifting by. I smiled weakly and counted myself fortunate that I had no one to bestow any sorrow at my parting. There would be no going home to Darlington Station.
Writers’ workshop and writing group