One day, years ago, 1969 or 1970, I was in Queen Street, I think there’d been an antiwar demonstration, and I met this old fellow of 70 or 80 or so. I was young then,
but I liked talking to old people about the old days. We had a coffee at Coffee Time, a place I loved, in Wellesley Street I think it was. I loved having a coffee (filter), and sausages, eggs and toast, and maybe tomatoes. (I would very often sit there alone – I love to sit alone in coffee bars.) He talked of why he had become a communist – as I suppose I might have a communist, too, in those days, or something close to a communist.
He told me of the First World War, the horror of it, and the effect on his mind of seeing the cemeteries in Belgium or wherever the dead are laid. “The dead”, he said.
“The rows and rows of the dead. And the crosses. The endless crosses. The crosses in endless rows or diagonals, like white bones. The dead, the unending dead, the rows and rows and rows of all those dead. All that life. All that once life. The dead. I couldn’t bear it. The dead, the dead, the dead, the dead. The waste, the absolute waste: the total futility, the loss.” He had some coffee. I was glad he could speak this immensity to me. I was young, and it was what I wanted to hear. Yes, there had to have been some better way.
He leaned closer. Perhaps there wasn’t much hope in him.
“The crosses, the rows and rows, the ordered dead: the endlessly dead; the white, the crosses, the dead, the dazzling, the white rows.”