In Flanders Fields...view galleries
“We are so lucky to have found a field full of poppies like this.”
“We’ve been driving all day, sir.”
“Exactly, that shows how hard it is to find it. It was in a field like this that John McCrae stood a hundred years ago, perhaps to the day, just like we are looking at the poppies. Now poppies grow best in a field that has been disturbed.”
“Is it true, sir, that the poppies were white before all the blood was spilled on them.”
“No, Aiden, poppies are flowers not evil faeries. Now, as I was saying, the fields were all churned up by the mechanics of war...”
Mr Xerri droned on about the devastation, death and mud, and killing and mud, and death. I know it is all true. I wear my poppy on Remembrance Day. I have a beautiful broach I found in my mum’s jewelry box which she said I could keep. To be true, this field is the last place to think about war and death. It is covered in patches of poppies, awash with poppies. We have walked right to the middle of the field, perhaps fifty metres, and I have hardly heard a word Mr Xerri said. Most of us don’t listen to him any time, except for George. Ben and Christina walking next to each other nearly holding hands, their heads leaning towards each other as they whisper inane comments, such pointless dross it is hard to believe. Totally gross. Dax staring dreamily up at the birds. He likes birds. Emmitt and Finn trudging, their shoes digging into the dirt, knocking down the plants, ruining their New Balances. Have they no self respect? And Aiden is trying to be the clown, as always.
“Sir, with all the bones in the field do you think there are ghosts?”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Aiden?”
“I think we never know when a ghost will grab us from behind, HAA.”
I yelped as Aiden grabbed me from behind. Then rolled my eyes. He got the response from me that he wanted now he was going to tease me about it for the rest of the day. The best thing to do is to ignore him. I drifted across to Dax, Aiden is more likely to pick on Dax than me.
“What you looking at?”
“The birds. Something is wrong with the birds.”
I looked at the birds flitting from one branch to the next then flying away to get on with their lives. They don’t have Mr Xerri forcing them to trudge across a muddy field.
“What is wrong with the birds. They are just being birds, flying away to a better day.”
“Precisely. Why are they flying away? Why are they not coming to the field?”
“Because we are here, stupid.”
“Well, yes. Now we are. But there weren’t any birds when we arrived.”
“It is just a stupid field. Why would they care about the field?”
“It is not a stupid field. It is teaming with life, just look a little closer and you’ll see. Little shoots on the plant. Hundreds of insects flying from poppy to poppy. A total feast for a little tree swallow or a greedy black bird. Anyone can see that.”
My god, Dax is as annoying as Aiden. If only I didn’t have to be in Mr Xerri’s stupid bus for losers, I really lucked out for today's trip. Hopefully next time will be better. I looked at the poppies. Dax was right. There were loads of bugs crawling about on the plants. More flies than I had ever seen on flowers. And not the fruit fly tiny little kind, the big flies with their green arses. The ones that hang about on dog poo. The ones that make you not want to eat your sandwich.
“K, fair enough, there are loads of flies. But maybe those birds don’t eat flies.”
“Some of them don’t. But the little blueish ones are tree swallows and they are insectivorous.”
“Weird. How come you know so much.”
“No for real. How comes you know all about this stuff.”
“It is just interesting. My uncle gave me a book about birds. And I guess he used to talk to me about birds when we went on family picnics before…”
Dax stopped talking. He looked at the ground. Suddenly I knew what he was saying.
“Oh god, did he die?”
Dax said nothing. I stood waiting. The others were drifting away from us down towards the bottom of the field. Mr Xerri was just talking to George now, the pair of them far enough ahead so we couldn’t really hear him. And he was talking quietly.
“You promise not to say nothing?”
“Sure. I promise. Just I’m, like, worried ‘cause I, like, thought he was dead for a hot minute and now I just want to know.”
“He’s inside if you must know. But you can’t tell anyone.”
“What can’t I tell no one?”
Jesus, Aiden had sidled up behind Dax. Dax stared at the ground but I was quick to reply.
“Dax is being a neek saying how the birds aren’t coming in the field even although there are loads of bugs but I reckon it’s the flies are coming rushing from all the fields because they have smelled your shitty arse.”
“Ha, ha, so funny. Not.”
But he walked away. I looked about before I spoke again.
“What’s he in for?”
“Yeah. Kinda. GBH.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. We stood looking at the flowers. The poppies were in tight patches with the red flowers creating a canopy hiding the plants below the flowers. Between the patches there were very few plants, hardly any in fact. It was just grass. We had been walking in the green grass, avoiding the flowers. Even Emmitt and Finn hadn’t tried to break the flowers yet. It was like we were all a little scared of the flowers. Like the birds.
“You know, we are all avoiding the flowers too. Even Ben hasn’t tried to pick a flower for Christina yet. It is like we all know something is wrong with the field.”
“I know. I think we should leave.”
“We can’t just leave. We will get into so much shit.”
“It just don’t feel right.”
“You know when something freaks you out what you gotta do is stare it straight in the eye. Face it down. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. But these are just flowers. And those are just birds. And I would just be happier in the school bus.”
“First I am going to have a proper look in the poppy patch. You’ll see, there will be nothing there. Emmitt, can I use your stick a moment?”
“Can’t you just leave it. There must be something dead there. There are too many flies.”
“You reckon there’s something dead in the poppies. Hey Ben, Dax thinks these are carnivorous poppies. Don’t get too close to them.”
I smiled an apology at Dax.
“Just give me your stick. Check how many flies are buzzing about the poppies. I just want to move the flowers to see if there is anything underneath. And it smells a bit rotten too.”
“You smell rotten.”
Aiden had come back, standing on the other side of Ben and Christina. Emmitt shook his head, he passed me his stick. I stuck it into the poppy patch. The poppies were more springy than I had expected. As the stick slipped in the poppies sprang back into place. I had to work quite hard to hold them to the side. Beneath the poppies it was much darker than I expected. The green on the plants was nearly black. I couldn’t make out what was below, if there was anything on the ground. I leaned closer to try to make it out. I swear the poppy swayed, though it might have been my stick moving. I looked at the poppy and then felt the searing pain in my eye.
I sat on the ground. Clutched my hand to my eye. I could do nothing the pain was so intense.
“Ha, bloody, ha. You’re not going to trick us.”
I moved my hand so it wasn’t touching my face. My sight in my right eye was fading. Not going black going white. White pain. Like my eye was turning into frosted glass. The one eye just white, the other normal. I looked at Christina with my good eye, my bad eye hidden by my hand. I could see my horror on her face. My panic in her expression. My sight started to crack. Black fissures forming in the white. It felt like my eye was a glass eye that had shattered. The shards slicing my eyelids, slicing my eye socket. Tears were pouring out onto my cheek. They weren’t tears. It was blood. Blood was running down my cheek. My bad eye turned black. Black pain. I pushed my palm into my eye. Stop the blood. Stop the blood.
I kept staring at Christina. She was stuck. Frozen. Like everyone.
“What’s going on over there?”
Mr Xerri’s voice drifted across the field. He didn’t know anything. Useless man.
Ben moved. I watched him come to me. I think he leaped but it seemed to be in slow motion. He knelt in front of me. Took my hand. Gently prized it from my face.
He let my hand spring back to cover my eye. It would have been better if he had sworn. It would have been better if he had said anything at all. He sat looking at me.
“What is it?”
“It’s a mess. It looks like… I don’t know.”
“Can I see?”
“Don’t be stupid, Aiden.”
Ben looked at me, his face close to mine. He was about to speak but was distracted by Mr Xerri swearing. We all looked at him. He had tripped in a poppy patch. He must have been distracted, walking straight towards us. Now he was kneeling in the middle of a poppy patch. George hovering behind it. We heard his sharp intake of breath. Then silence. Then he screamed. A high pitched wail. Pathetic. Like a toddler who has caught his hand in a door. He was looking at the sky, his hands gripping the poppies like he was trying to rip them from the ground. The poppies were stronger than him.
“Mr Xerri. Mr Xerri, are you okay?”
“Jesus George, help the man.”
Aiden was quick to talk but he didn’t move. Stayed where he was. Stuck to the spot. I was the only sensible one.
“George, it is OK. You just got to help him up.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just take one step in to help him out. Keep one foot on the ground. It is just a little slippery. A little gross. Like a compost heap. I know, I looked under the poppies.”
My word stopped me as I realised what I had said: I had looked under the poppies.
“He is doing it. One foot in the poppies.”
“Sir. Sir. Mr Xerri you gotta give me your hand. Sir.”
“Sir’s not moving. Sir’s not lifting his hand. Sir, you gotta give your hand to George!”
“Sir! What should I do? Should I take another step?”
“You have to. We can’t leave him there. Why isn’t he saying anything?”
“Help me then.”
Nobody moved. Ben stood up.
Ben jogged to George giving the poppies a wide berth. He grabbed George’s hand.
“OK dude, I got you. Lean in and grab sir.”
We watched George leaning forward. He moved slowly. Carefully. His hand gripped the shirt at the shoulder. He started to pull. Mr Xerri started to lift. George wobbled. Hesitated. Then screamed. A whimpering squeal like a pig makes on the tele. He let Mr Xerri fall, he reached his hand to his eyes. He fell back on Ben falling in a heap. Ben pushed George off him. Left him lying on the ground. George’s squeal had reduced to a whimper, lying on his side, crying.
“I don’t see you doing anything Aiden.”
That shut him up. We watched Ben lean into the poppy patch. He grabbed Mr Xerri.
Ben didn’t collapse like the rest of us had. He kept hold of Mr Xerri. He pulled him out of the poppies. He pulled him until he fell backwards over George. George wailed. George simpered. Ben struggled to his feet. His eyes closed, blood starting to form tears on his cheeks.
“You gotta help me. Someone’s gotta come help me!”
Dax looked at me.
“What we gonna do?”
“We got to get out of the field. The field is evil. We just got to get out of here.”
Everyone was staring at Ben. No one said anything so I continued.
“You boys, you go fetch them. They can’t see. You help them to the bus.”
No one moved.
“Go help them, now!”
Christina set off. Emmitt and Finn followed her. After a moment Aiden ran after them.
I held my hand up to Dax. He pulled me up.
“Can we get out of here?”
“Wait a minute.”
We watched the others. They kept well away from the poppies.
“What is this thing? It’s mad isn’t it.”
“You were right. The birds don’t come into the field. They know better.”
“We’re dumber than the birds.”
“Are we going to be OK?”
“Sure, how hard can it be to get away from them remembrance flowers?”
Christina was now leading Ben towards us. Emmitt and Finn were pulling George to his feet. Aiden was poking Mr Xerri with his toe.
“He’s not moving. Sir is out of it. Gone.”
“How do I know. Asleep maybe. Dozy tosser.”
“Check if he is alive.”
“Check his pulse.”
“I’m not touching him.”
Emmitt and Finn started walking George back.
“Hey, don’t leave me.”
“We can’t just leave sir there.”
“You get him then.”
No one turned to get him. Within a minute they were back back with us. Those who could were looking at sir lying next to the poppy patch.
“He hasn’t moved.”
“The poppies look like his blood.”
“Jees Aiden, it's not funny. Not even a bit.”
We stared at him.
“What are we going to do?”
“You guys are so stupid, we call 911.”
Everyone suddenly remembered their phones. They started getting them out. Emmitt and Finn dropped George to the ground.
“We’re not in America, it’s 999.”
“We are in an American horror film.”
“I’ve got no signal. And it is 112 as we are in France.”
“I got no signal.”
“Ben’s phone got none.”
“So what we gonna do?”
“We gonna get out of this field then we’ll find signal.”
“Yeah, then we will get someone to help sir.”
“Hang on. Have the flowers been moving?”
“What you mean.”
“Like, wasn’t there a path back to the bus?”
Dax was right. Something was happening. The patches of poppies had joined up. Maybe they had moved. Or maybe they had grown.
“Flowers can do that. They can pop up. I have seen it on tele.”
“No, I mean like in the desert when it rains then the flowers open just like that. One minute. Cause the buds are there already.”
“But it hasn’t rained.”
“She’s right, it could have been the buds were there before we came.”
“I’m not going through those flowers.”
“Look. If we go that way then there is only a short patch of poppies to cross.”
“True say, she only got one eye but she can see better than you.”
“OK. Let's do it.”
“Come on George. Hey. He is not getting up.”
“Can you carry him?”
“OK. Let’s go.”
Aiden went first. Then Christina leading Ben. Then Dax and me. Then Emmitt carrying George over his shoulder. Then Finn. No more than ten steps before Ben slumped.
“Oh god. Come on Ben. Ben?”
I stepped passed Dax. I took his wrist. Felt his pulse.
“He’s fine. He is just past out. Can someone carry him.”
Finn came forward. Christina and I helped lift him onto Finn’s shoulder. Christina held his hand. The others started walking but Dax was standing looking at me.
“It’s like a game. You are on half health but they are on no health.”
“Yeah, they had spikes both eyes but I only had one eye.”
“You know what we gotta do. When we get to the poppies? Close one eye.”
We were now spread out on a green bank extending into a sea of poppies. Aiden was at the front. He was looking out over the red sea. Dax and I were still in the clearing and the others between us. The sea beyond Aiden was less that a minute walking. Ten seconds running. Max.
“Look what I got, we get through the poppies and we are sorted.”
He was holding up the bus keys.
“When did you get those?”
“Sir left them on the seat for a moment so I took them. Was going to be a great joke seeing him panic.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Well, I didn’t know this shit was going to happen. Fuck you, I’m just going to do it.”
“No Aiden. Wait for us. We go together.”
“You’ll see how fast I am. Five seconds and I’ll be out of here.”
But he was gone. Leaping in. Then trying to run but his feet were not coming up. Like an old cartoon when the cat runs on glue then the glue stretches and the cat hangs in the air for a moment before being snapped back to the ground. Prone. I needed the others to wait.
“Listen, I know how to do this. Wait for me.”
“This is what we know. It is real slippery and real sticky under the poppies so we got to be sure footed. But here is the important thing. It gets your eyes. That’s what happened to me. That is what happened to everyone. So all we do is keep our eyes closed.”
“Yeah. But how will we know where to go.”
“Hang on, I’m not done. The others all got two eyes spiked then they pass out a minute later. I only got one eye spiked and I’m still OK. So we got four people with both their eyes. Christina, Emmitt, Finn and Dax, you are going to get us across. So Dax you go at the front and everyone walks behind you with their eyes closed. The person behind holds the person in front. OK Dax, you walk with one eye closed until you get to Aiden, then you pick him up and lead us to the bus. But if you get a spike in the eye you stop. You close both eyes. Then Christina, you open one eye and you lead us. You understand.”
“Yeah. You sure you want me at the front. I’m not that good with this stuff.”
“Yes. You have to pick up Aiden.”
“I don’t know.”
“Jees Dax. You can do it. You can. Now get ready.”
Everyone got ready. It was strange being in charge. A little mad rush of power. Adrenaline.
“No, hold onto my belt.”
“Yes, Emmitt is right. Everyone got a tight grip. Now lead on Dax!”
We started walking, the human centipede stepping into a sea of blood.
“How is it Dax?”
“It is hard to walk but it is OK.”
“I told you. You can do this. Don’t even open your eyes to peek. Trust me the pain is just massive.”
Dax got to Aiden before I stepped into the poppies.
“Everyone stop. OK Dax, put your foot by Aiden then close your eyes before you pick him up. Christina, you gonna have to let go for a moment. Now do it.”
Aiden was half on his side. Dax shuffled forward until his foot kicked Aiden’s thigh. Dax bent forward. He wobbled. Teetered. Oh Christ, he is going to fall into the poppies. He leaned further forward. His hand came out. I thought he was done for but his hand landed on Aiden’s back. He steadied himself. Felt along until he had Aiden’s shoulder. He lifted his arm. He pulled it up. Stuck his head under the armpit and hoisted Aiden until a standing position. Then he then leaned again to pull him into a fireman’s lift.
“Christina shuffle forwards. Can you reach Dax? Good. Dax lead on.”
“Can Christina go first? I’m struggling with Aiden.”
“Sure. Come behind me.”
“No, I am not going to let go. Just lead.”
“Okay, okay. Grab my belt Christina.”
We started shuffling forward again. Small steps, small constant steps. Going at the pace Dax could manage carrying a person. Before I closed my eyes, before I stepped into the poppies I thought I had this sorted.
“Keep talking to us. Keep telling us how far.”
“I think we nearly half way.”
We shuffled on.
“Everyone call out they are ok. Starting with Dax.”
“I'm ok, I can manage.”
“George feels real weird. Like his hair is growing. Or he is getting lighter.”
“Jesus man, there are poppies growing out of his neck. Put him down. Put him down.”
“What. I can’t do that.”
“Man I am looking at him and you got to do it.”
“Emmitt, there are little flowers coming out his neck. Do what Finn says. Do it.”
“Right. But this aint good.”
He dropped George into the poppies.
“You’re not dropping Ben are you?”
“No. I have had a look and Ben is OK. Let's get out of here. Dax try to go faster.”
We didn’t go faster. We were going at the same speed. It would have been impossible to shuffle faster without opening our eyes. I held my free hand in front of my good eye.
“We have about a quarter left.”
“Can everyone say they are OK. Dax?”
“I’m OK, this seems to be getting easier.”
“I’m OK but can you check Ben as he seems to be getting lighter.”
I opened my eye, there were little poppy shoots coming from his neck, and his ear.
“Is he OK?”
I hesitated. If I said anything Christina would come running. But Ben's head was behind Finn so no one could see so I could lie. But if I said nothing would Finn be next.
“There are tiny leaves. If we walk quickly it will be OK.”
“I’m not carrying him.”
“Don’t drop him. I will take him.”
Christina let go of Dax. She spun round. Nearly fell. Grabbed Emmitt. Wobbled but didn’t fall.
“We’ll be OK. Just don’t panic.”
“I won’t put him down but you keep an eye on him. If the flowers go red you are taking him.”
“Fine, just don’t drop him.”
“I’m not an arse.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Dax just keep walking to safety. You are so close. Emmitt can guide the rest of us. Can we just walk.”
Christina came round to Ben, she held his hand. She closed one eye. Dax was already walking. Emmitt started walking. I closed my eye.
“This is getting harder.”
“You can do it. Are you there yet Dax?”
“Dax is to the left. Have you taken us the hard way Emmitt?”
“How would I know. I am going straight now.”
“Is there any red yet?”
“Just green. You’re OK. There is just green.”
“I am out.”
I peeked. Dax really was out of the poppies. There really wasn’t any red blossoms on Ben. But I watched the one shoot curl upwards, the shoot coming out of Ben’s ear was now reaching for Finn. I closed my eye again.
“Can we go faster Emmitt?”
“I’m trying. I’m trying.”
“You’re doing fine.
“Guys, you’re doing well. You only have maybe five steps to do Emmitt.”
“Dax, you must drag Aiden all the way to the road.”
“Yeah, I will wait for you. Another two steps and you can give me your hand.”
I peeked again. The shoot coming out of Ben’s ear was closer to Finn. It was touching his shirt. It was waving. Just two steps. I somehow knew what was going to happen. It was the shoot we needed to worry about not the flower. I knew but didn’t know how to stop it. Just drop Ben and get out of there? But if we dropped Ben, Christina would do something stupid. We would all get it if she did something stupid. We just needed to be lucky, we just needed to take the two step until Dax could pull us to safety. I closed my eye again. One step. Two steps.
“Nearly there Emmitt.”
“But we’ve done two steps.”
“Just two more.”
I peeked again. The shoot had reached Finn’s shirt. It was not swaying, it had gripped the shirt. All I needed to do was twist Ben’s head. Make a space between the shoot and his body. I let go my grip on his belt to reach up to his head but I was too late. The shoot had reached his skin. I watched as Finn arched his back for a moment as he felt the prick. Then he screamed. A terrified panic screech. Then he collapsed pulling Emmitt to his knees. Emmitt looked round and yelled. A roar more than a yell. His hand flew to his eye. He shot up to standing. His expression fierce.
“Arrg, that hurts.”
“Keep your eyes closed. Just walk to me. Listen to my voice. Walk to my voice.”
“It is just one eye. I'll be fine.”
Christina was pulling Ben. Pulling him up. As he came up Finn came up too.
“Just come. Just come this way.”
They started walking. So did I. The three of them pulling each other. Bound together by Ben. Christina clutching Ben. Ben’s head pulled to Finn’s back.
“Just keep walking. You are doing it. You will do it.”
I kept walking. My eye was open. I didn’t care any more. I walked the way Dax had taken. He was reaching for Emmitt.
“I’ve got you, hold tight.”
Dax yanked, pulled Emmitt out of the poppies. Emmitt ran three more steps then collapsed to the ground holding his face. Rocking. Moaning softly like the old women in an Italian mafia film as the coffin is carried down the road.
Dax stood back as the theesome burst from the poppies. Three steps and they flung themselves on the grass, next to Emmitt. I still had a way to go. I didn’t look at the poppies. I could feel their slimy glue trying to stop my feet from moving. It was easier to slide my feet than to lift them. But each step got harder. It felt like the poppies were twisting about my shoes like vines trying to trip me. I lifted a foot. Wobbled. Put it down. Slid, shuffled, slid, shuffled. I was doing it. I was getting to the edge. Two more steps.
“Give me your hand.”
I reached. Dax grabbed my fingers. I started falling forward and he gripped my hand. Pulled. I collapsed onto the grass. On Dax. We both laughed. Laughed loudly. Rolled onto our backs then at the same time we both realised we were only just out of the poppies, we sprang to our feet.
“This is so mad.”
“No one will ever believe us.”
“You know sir is gone.”
I looked over the field. There was no sign of sir. Not even a mound. Just a patch of poppies where his body had been.
“He’s just a patch of poppies over there.”
“No, it was over there. That patch.”
“I don’t know.”
“But there isn’t even a mound or nothing.”
“George’s gone too. He would have been just there. Like right here.”
We both turned at the same time. The others were lying where they had fallen.
“Guys, let's get out of here.”
I took out my phone to check the signal. Dax went to check on the others.
“Ben is dissolving into the poppies.”
He was. The poppies were growing through his clothes which were saging, collapsing. His legs were disappearing into the ground, his trainers were half buried in the grass. Christina and Finn were both looking at me.
“Dudes, get up.”
I went over to Christina. Lifted her arm. Pulled. Nothing. Pulled, she shifted. I saw her hand, shoots coming out of Ben’s hand into hers.
“Dax help me.”
We pulled Christina, dragged her away from Ben but the shoots held strong. We couldn’t break them.
“We got to break them.”
“I’m not touching them.”
Dax kicked but the shoots didn’t break. He kicked again. Nothing. He stopped.
“She’s passed out.”
“She didn’t even scream when the poppies got her.”
“Not like you.”
“Let's just get out of here. Then we can get some help.”
I looked at Aiden in the poppies.
“I’m not going to get the key.”
Dax held up the key.
“I took them when I was picked up Aiden. Felt them in his pocket.”
“Can you drive?”
“Let’s do it, Emmitt lets go.”
We looked at Emmitt. He was not moving.
“He’s passed out.”
“But it was only one eye. Does that mean I am going to ... die?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it is different for girls. Christina didn’t scream.”
“Yeah, but I did.”
“I don’t know.”
The panic was filling me again, all my cleverness was for nothing. Then it clicked.
“I know. It’s my contact lens. I wear contacts so it didn’t get me.”
“Lets just go, drive to the nearest village to get help.”
“Yeah, we can do this.”
We ran to the bus. I hopped with impatience waiting for Dax to unlock. I sat in the front seat. And waited. Dax took ages. I wanted to shout at him to hurry up but I was exhausted. Drained. Like I was emptying. Like the others. Dax got the bus started. He got us moving. The last thing I remember was Dax saying I mustn’t go to sleep.
I went to sleep. Didn’t I?
Then I woke up here. In hospital. This is a hospital isn’t it?
Yes, you are safe and well though you have been through an ordeal.
What happened? How did I get here?
The bus you were travelling in crashed into a gorge, you were thrown clear when it hit the barrier.
And Dax, is he OK?
I’m sorry, no one else survived.”
But Dax was the only person in the bus.
I’m sorry, we were unable to recover any remains from the bus because of the explosion and the river. We only have a few personal items which we will be giving to the next of kin.