As Omega President, it is my turn to greet you Australasian Christian writers and readers. It is ANZAC Day, and in times past I've reflected on true stories from people who lived through those dreadful years of war 1914-1918. This year marks 100 years since Armistice and I'd like to offer another piece. This time, the reflection is a piece of fiction—an excerpt taken from one of my early novels 'Beyond the Valley'. When I wrote this book, I read many accounts of ANZAC soldiers and heard from people who had lived through the Great War. This excerpt (re-written for this occasion) starts at the time of Armistice, and follows the story of one young returned soldier, having left his mate behind—killed in action:
John didn’t want to put it off any longer. There was still one last issue that had not yet been laid to rest—to do with Charlie and Johnny, and only he knew about it.
He’d watched Charlie over the last few weeks, not sure if his attendance at church meant he’d given up atheism, or if he was there just simply to see his little girl. As a minister, John was used to reading people, but from Charlie’s demeanour he couldn’t tell what was happening in the young man’s heart. Charlie sat through the services, talked a little with Aimee at the finish and then went home with his parents. He showed no emotion either positive or negative. He showed no interest, neither in the sermon nor apparently towards life in general.
Then last week, the armistice had been announced. November 11th at 11 o’clock 1918. The whole valley had gone mad with joy. There was a public holiday and picnic. They held races for the children, and sang songs and cheered. It seemed that everybody in the valley had come into the school to attend, even Charlie. But Charlie didn’t cheer. Neither did he sing or engage in any way. And when they’d played The Last Post at the flagpole in remembrance of those who’d paid the ultimate price, Charlie didn’t cry. Nearly every other townsperson had wept for the Johnny, John most of all. His son would never come home. Charlie had stood impassively, his head bowed, no expression on his face. John was aware of his son’s best friend, and what he observed troubled him. It was time to pay a pastoral visit.
‘He’s probably out at the lookout.’ Charlie’s grandmother had answered the door. ‘He sometimes goes there to be alone. This melancholy takes a hold of him and he doesn’t seem to be much use to anybody for anything,’ Rose said.
‘It must be hard for you,’ John said.
Rose’s eyes filled with tears. ‘I’m glad our boy came back at least. Yours ...’
John swallowed back his own emotion. He’d cried nearly every day since he’d received the telegram. He doubted it would ever stop.
‘I’m sorry.’ Rose wiped her nose with her handkerchief. Try the lookout. I can’t think where else he could be.’
As John rode up into the hills, he kept wiping his own nose. His son had come up here many times with Charlie. They had been the best of mates, and Johnny had told his father about the plans they had talked about at the lookout. This wretched grief was going to dog him forever. Every place he went, there was something to remind him of his son.
Charlie’s head snapped up. Was that Johnny calling him? For that brief moment a surge of joy pushed him to his feet in anticipation. Then he remembered—Johnny was dead and buried somewhere in the desert in North Africa. When John Laslett rode from between the trees, it made sense. Johnny had always sounded like his father.
‘Grandma Rose thought I might find you here,’ the minister said as he rode up and dismounted.
‘I come here sometimes to think,’ Charlie said. That momentary burst of energy was gone and the weight was back pressing on his shoulders.
‘Do you mind if I sit down?’ John asked, and then tied his horse to a nearby bush. ‘I’ve been meaning to catch up with you. Some things we need to talk about.’
Charlie forced himself to nod. There was his adopted daughter to talk about. He couldn’t run away from responsibility forever.
‘I’m really grateful that you and Mrs Laslett have allowed Meg to take on Aimee.’
‘We’re grateful you’ve given Meg a chance to continue to do what she loves best. Having Aimee has helped her cope with leaving her missionary work. She would have been restless sitting at home with nobody to care for and love.’
Charlie hadn’t thought about it like that, and was relieved to know the Lasletts looked upon Aimee as a blessing rather than a nuisance.
‘It’s not Meg I want to talk about. It’s Johnny.’
Charlie felt a wave of anxiety cord his muscles. He wanted to get up and run into the bush. He had fought not to think about Johnny for nearly a year. He couldn’t think of his friend without the image of his body being hit by the shower of bullets and falling lifeless to the ground.
‘I don’t think I can …’ Charlie’s mouth had gone dry and his stomach had knotted.
‘You blame yourself, Charlie, I know that,’ John said. ‘You think it was all your fault that Johnny was killed.’
‘It was,’ Charlie said, ‘and I wouldn’t blame you for hating me for it.’
‘How was it your fault?’ John asked.
Charlie braced for John’s anger, but it didn’t come.
‘No one has ever told me exactly what happened. All we know is that he was killed in action.’
‘I don’t know if I can talk about it.’ Charlie was now fighting a wave of black spots that seemed to be clouding his vision, and a wave of nausea that made him want to spit out the pain boiling inside.
‘I can’t force you.’ John’s tone remained quiet and steady. He paused for a while before continuing. ‘You know Johnny wrote to me just before he died. He knew it was going to happen.’
Charlie squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath. He didn’t want to hear this.
‘He wanted me to tell you.’
Charlie became aware that John was waiting. He cracked his eyelids and saw the minister holding out an envelope, and recognised Johnny’s handwriting.
‘You need to know, Charlie, and I need to tell his mother and sisters, but not before you’ve given me permission.’
Charlie stared at the extended envelope. What was he saying? He was speaking in riddles, and Charlie didn’t want to understand. He began to shake his head.
‘Please,’ John said. ‘For Johnny’s sake and your own.’
After a long pause, Charlie eventually took the envelope. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to hear from Johnny. He didn’t want to think about Johnny. He didn’t want to remember what he had done.
‘You need to read it,’ John pushed. ‘It’s important, Charlie.’
Heart hammering at an alarming rate and feeling dizzy with worry, Charlie withdrew the letter and began to read.
Please don’t show this to mother. If it all comes to nothing I wouldn’t want to upset her, but I felt I had to share my feelings with somebody, Dad, and I know you will understand.
All my life I have felt that God has something for me to do, and I said to Meg some time ago that it was something I must do alone. Lately I have begun to feel that I know what it is. It has to do with Charlie. I love him like a brother, Dad, and yet he lives his life as if it will never end. He refuses to acknowledge God and stands on the edge of blasphemy constantly. If only he knew that he was breaking his Saviour’s heart as well as my own when he talks like that. I pray desperately that he will not be killed in this war. Dad, you and I both know that if he dies his life will not end there. If I am to die tomorrow, I know that I will be welcomed into the loving arms of my Saviour, Jesus Christ, but if it is Charlie, I fear he will face a lost eternity.
Dad, if it comes to this, I will die in Charlie’s place. At least I will not be lost, but I cannot risk having him in everlasting torment forever.
Of course I pray that he will soften his heart and remember the things that we have all said over the years, but he becomes more reckless with despair as the days go by.
The other night, I read that Scripture: ‘Greater love has no man than he lays down his life for his friend.’ I don’t pretend to be anything close to Jesus Christ, but I will follow His example if it means Charlie has another chance to one day meet me in heaven.
This may all come to nothing, and if so, then I will rejoice in coming home again, but if something should happen, please tell Charlie that I loved him like a brother, and I plead with him, if there is still time, to give his life to Christ. I want to meet him in heaven, and know that we were brothers on earth.
As always, tell mother and the girls that I love them with all my heart and will see them soon, in this life or the next.
Your loving son
Something harsh was scratching at Charlie’s eyes, and he stood trying to blink it away. His jaw has locked with tension and his throat hurt. The emotion was boiling in the pit of his stomach.
‘How did Johnny die?’ John asked softly. Charlie’s chin began to quiver. He needed to say it, but wasn’t sure it would come out right.
‘He died saving my life!’ The words were hardly out and the emotion came spilling out after it in deep gut-wrenching sobs. ‘Why did he do that? I’m not worth dying for!’ Following the sobs came wave upon wave of rage and Charlie felt a loud and angry cry come from deep within his being. He began to punch his chest with his fists until he fell to his knees and pushed his face to the ground.
‘Why did you do it, Johnny? I’m not worth it. You shouldn’t have done it! You should have let me die.’ Charlie was barely aware of how he must have sounded. His face was leaking—from his eyes, from his nose, from his mouth. ‘Why?’
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Why did Johnny’s father care so much? He should hate him.
Eventually the storm subsided.
‘How can you ever forgive me? If I hadn’t been so hard hearted, Johnny might still have been alive.’
‘You can’t know that,’ John said. ‘If it hadn’t been you, Johnny might have done the same for one of the other men. He might have been taken down in the charge on Beersheba. Johnny’s life was and is in the hands of God.’
Charlie shook his head. ‘He should have let me die. It was my own stupid fault, and I have nothing to live for any way.’
‘Eternal damnation is a serious business, Charlie. Please don’t waste my son’s sacrifice. You read what he said. There is still time. Give yourself to Christ. Meet Johnny again someday, and tell him yourself.’
‘It’s too late for me,’ Charlie argued. ‘I married a prostitute, didn’t you know?’
‘I know,’ John answered quietly. ‘And I know that you rescued Aimee from neglect and abuse.’
‘That hardly makes up for all of the wrong things I’ve done.’
‘Nothing makes up for our sin, Charlie, except the blood of Jesus Christ.’
‘I don’t understand it.’ Charlie shook his head. ‘When I studied natural science, they said I needed proof before I accepted anything.’
‘Do you need proof that summer will end and winter will begin before you plan what crop you will put in next year?’
‘Yes, but everybody knows the seasons will change, they always have.’
‘A lot of people know that God is real, and that He has sent His son, Jesus Christ, to save us from sin and death. He always has, and always will.’
‘Yes, but I can’t prove that.’
‘You can’t prove that winter will come either, and yet you plant your seed hoping that it will.’
Charlie stopped. He was spent, and couldn’t think of an intelligent answer.
‘You don’t believe with your head, Charlie. You have faith in your heart. You accept it without proof.’
‘Only fools do that.’
‘The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God’. There is a God all right, Charlie. You only have to look at the stars and the wonders of creation to see his fingerprints all over the world. And you only have to look at the example of your friend, Johnny, to know what Jesus has done in dying for you. Like Johnny, Jesus died for your sin, except His gift is eternal life. Johnny’s was only for a bit more of this mortal life, hoping you’d make the right choices now.’
Charlie sighed. He heard what Reverend Laslett said, and he desperately wanted to believe, but his mind kept getting in the way.
‘Is it possible to pray for my faith to grow?’ Charlie asked hopefully.
‘It’s more than possible.’ John smiled. ‘I’ll pray with you right now, and tomorrow, and every day after that, until your faith is enough to accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour. I don’t know if it is possible, but if it were, Johnny would be laughing in heaven if he knew you would do it.’
Charlie nodded. ‘He would laugh, and probably cry too. I miss him so much.’
The emotion welled up again, and Charlie saw it in John’s eyes as well as he grabbed him in a hug.
‘I’ll try it, for Johnny,’ Charlie said as he pulled away. ‘It really is the least I can do.’
‘Do it for yourself, and for Aimee, and for your parents, and for me as well.’ John said. ‘The angels in heaven rejoice when one sinner repents and comes home to the Father.’
|Model photograph of Character, Charlie Shore
Omega Writers' President, Meredith Resce, has written and published 18 titles. This excerpt comes from her novel 'Beyond the Valley'—fifth novel in the Heart of Green Valley series.
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