An extra chapter, to add to the end of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, explaining how the family react to Charlie’s death.
The carriage clangs and rattles as we roll across the old Cranberry passage bridge. Outside, the sky is clear blue and the sun is shining bright, but the cold grip of the winter still clings to the leafless trees and damp, mud strewn grass. Normally the farmers would be working the fields, in preparation for planting the seeds, but now they are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, like me, they were called off to battle, forced to trade their spades and pitchforks for grenades and rifles. I shudder as I think that, even now, as I sit on the train home, they might be huddled in a trench somewhere, listening to the shells exploding and the guns of the wipers blazing in the distance. All the great nations have poured so much into fighting battle after battle after battle, so many people, riches and resources have been lost that there now cannot be possibly be anything left worth fighting for.
I sink deeper and deeper into my memories about my career in the army. I remember pretending to be a twin in order to get in, I remember running laps with my gun held above my head because of vile, horrible wicked Hanley. I remember feeling seasick over the channel, the training camp at Etaples, when we caught the German naked after we stormed his trench. I remember meeting Anna at the Estaminet in Pop, and then I remember Charlie. Don’t think about it, Tommo, don’t keep going back there. But I can’t help it; no matter what I do to distract myself from it, my thoughts eventually lead me back to the firing squad, and to Charlie singing Oranges and Lemons in defiance as the bullets flew towards him. How he ended up sprawled across the ground, stone dead. How Hanley had my brother court martialled for cowardice and disobeying orders, even though Charlie clearly knew better than the sergeant (who lost most of the group because of his idiocy). I keep thinking how, if death is the punishment for disobeying orders, there must surely be a death penalty for getting your company pointlessly slaughtered.
Then I wonder what I would have done in Charlie’s place; if I would have gone with the sergeant, and died in the mud, knowing I had given my life for nothing, or if I would have said no, and then been through an unfair court martial culminating in me being shot by the firing squad. What really annoys me, though, is the timing of Sergeant Hanley’s death. If Fritz had just aimed a little straighter, then Hanley would not have been able to punish one of his group for his own stupidity. Instead he managed to hold on ‘til he had done the deed before finally sinking into the fiery depths of hell, where I am sure he will be most welcome. Eventually, I manage to pull myself out of this horrible mental loop and focus on a happier subject, like meeting little Tommo for the first time.
With a hiss of steam and a loud whistle, the train comes to a standstill, and through the clouds of steam, Eggesford Junction Station comes into view. I have been told in advance that the family cannot be here to meet me, as Molly is still working and mother is tending to Big Joe. Apparently Big Joe fell into a river a week ago and caught a dreadful cold. The colonel had tried to wallop him, but Mother would not let anyone near him until he had calmed down a little.
I wonder to myself how Mother always managed to stand up to him, to protect Charlie and me no matter what the circumstances. Perhaps Molly will one day be in the same situation with little Tommo, her son, my nephew. Perhaps one day little Tommo will go poaching in the colonel’s river, or will get humbugs from a lost pilot. Maybe I’ll be there with him, “Uncle tom”, looking after the child like Charlie never can, acting as little Tommo’s father figure. But how would I know how to be a father? What example do I have to follow? One thing is for sure: I shall never let little Tommo near an unsafe tree. The crowds on and off the train push and babble as they swap places, meanwhile I slowly walk down the platform, ‘round the back of the station and down the road to the colonel’s estate. It is getting warmer now, the road ahead of me is bathed in a warm glow from the sun high above, and as the colours of the grass and the sky start to come out, I begin to feel at home once again.
After a stroll of about twenty minutes through the much-neglected countryside, at last I catch sight of the little cottage where I grew up. Despite the difference in the weather, and the lack of as many pretty flowers in the garden, it hasn’t changed one bit. I look through an upstairs window and see a figure gazing at me, it must be Mother, she realises I have seen her and she rushes down the stairs, out of the back door, frantically hurrying towards me.
“Tommo!” she cries “Oh, Tommo, my baby!”, and for a brief moment I wonder if she remembers which Tommo she is talking to. She meets me halfway down the hill and hugs me tighter than ever. I try to hug her back but have difficulty trying to wrap my arms around her while carrying a heavy suitcase. Together we walk towards the cottage, and she keeps asking me questions about the army, about the trenches, and Sergeant Hanley and
“You have been bathing regularly, haven’t you?”. When we arrive at the front door of the cottage, Big Joe is waiting for us inside, his face lights up.
“Tommuiluvuilu” he cries (at least, that’s what it sounds like), and he wraps his arms so tightly around me and Mother that I feel as if we will be crushed.
“Alright, Joe”, says mother “give him some room to breathe!” and at last, we are released. “Now,” says Mother, showing me inside, “there’s someone else who would like to say hello.”
I remember when I was very young, everyone else seemed so huge, and I spent most of my life looking directly up at people while crawling about on the floor. It was as if I existed in a different universe to everyone else, for they were all huge compared to me, ate different foods, lived different lives, and talked in a language which I did not yet understand. In short, grown-ups were a different species.
Now, mother takes me into the kitchen and shows me a most wonderful sight. In the corner, wrapped in bright yellow blankets, is little Tommo. He is, without a doubt, the most adorable little creature I have ever laid eyes upon, with wide blue eyes, a tiny, button-like nose and small, round ears. For a moment, as I look at him, the burden of Charlie’s death, and of every other problem in the world seems to briefly evaporate. I then get a feeling of having come full circle, for I am now the giant, looking down at the tiny baby from high above, thinking back to when I was that size, and wondering exactly when I became the almost adult that I am now. Eventually, mother snapped me out of it.
“Isn’t he beautiful, just like you all were.” she said “Oh, and to think one day he might be going to France…” she stopped herself, visibly on the verge of tears. For a moment, we had nothing to say, but then Big Joe started coughing again, and mother rushed to give him a handkerchief.
When Molly arrived, it was almost sunset, and Big Joe, though still visibly excited about me being back, had eventually been forced into bed. Mother was in the kitchen, getting ready to make dinner, and I was in the front room, looking after little Tommo. I heard her walking across the garden, and hurried to the front door. I knew she was expecting me to be there, but she acted surprised when she saw me, she hugged me tightly and started telling me all about the colonel’s sudden decision to cut everyone’s wages, and how the Wolfwoman nearly fell down the stairs. We sat together for dinner, talking about life in the trenches and back home. At last, I felt as if we were part of a family again. But those feelings were short-lived, for then Molly said
“So, what really happened? To Charlie, I mean.”
Right now I am still trying to give them an answer, Molly and Mother are staring at me expectantly, and the only thing breaking the awkward silence is Little Tommo’ s gurgling. At last I speak.
“Charlie wasn’t a coward.” I say “He was shot because Hanley didn’t like him. The sergeant told the platoon to go and charge right into the enemy firing lines. Charlie said we’d all be killed, that it’d be stupid and he wasn’t going. He was right, and all. Only half of the soldiers who went out ever came back. Unfortunately, Hanley did, and I bet he was annoyed that Charlie was right and he was wrong. Anyone else would’ve admitted that, but not Hanley.” I realise that Mother has a tear on her cheek, but I keep going, “Charlie got court martialled, then shot for cowardice!” Molly bursts into tears, then the baby wakes up and starts crying. Mother comforts Molly, but Molly does not want it. She walks over to little Tommo, and through her own tears she tries to comfort him by singing Oranges and Lemons in her sweet voice. I cannot bear it anymore, and storm outside. Eventually, Mother comes out, she sees me staring down at the earth scornfully. She puts her arm around me and says
“It isn’t your fault that Charlie died; if you had tried to save him you would have been shot as well. War is no playtime, Tommo, and sometimes you have to give up the people you love.”. Mother is right, Charlie was destined to die from the moment he signed up. Then I remember how the Colonel ordered us to join the army, ordered us to go and threatened to evict us. My mind is filled with images of the cruel Colonel, the Wicked Wolfwoman and Horrible Hanley, all being shot to pieces in No-Man’s-Land while we watch from the trenches, me, Molly, Mother, Big Joe and Little Tommo. Charlie is there too, with Father and Bertha. I wish it could be true, that we could be together again, forever. I look up to the stars, where, somewhere, Bertha is howling and Charlie and Father are saying
“We’re always here for you, Tommo, always.”
Mother walks me back into the cottage and together we sing Oranges and Lemons as we slowly start to adjust to life without Charlie. It will be tough, but I think I’ll manage.