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It amazed me how a street filled with people could fall into complete silence. The only sounds came from the distant murmur of the motorway and a group of sparrows squabbling in a tree close to the memorial. The cortÃ¢ge, led by a mute in a long tail coat, crept past the ancient town hall and slowed to a halt in front of us. I stared at the hearse, at the flag-draped coffin and couldnâ€™t imagine Jack being in there. Only the muted weeping of his parents, his sister and her children confirmed that he was. I watched them step forward and place red roses on the top of the hearse. I did the same, mine being a white one.
Goodbye, old friend.
I wiped my eyes, trying to erase the burn of tears. Charlotte, Jackâ€™s sister, leaned against me. I held her in silence while another person approached the hearse. Tall, dark-haired and slender, his face pinched and pale. He didnâ€™t have a flower. Instead, he placed his palm on the glass and whispered something before stepping back into the black-clad knot of mourners. No one offered him comfort except for Charlotte who lifted her head and gave him a watery smile. He nodded and faded back into the crowdâ€”another person in black, stilled and silenced by grief. I wondered, briefly, whether he was the one Jack had written to me about.
"Ade, Iâ€™ve finally met someone I can see spending the rest of my life with. I miss him like crazy. Iâ€™m counting down the days until leave. Iâ€™m climbing into bed with Cal, and Iâ€™m not leaving it, not until I have to get on that fucking plane..."
I stroked Charlotteâ€™s hair and swallowed when the cortÃ¢ge moved on, crawling slowly forward past the Royal British Legion members with their lowered standards and salutes. Old men whoâ€™d fought other wars, mourning the loss of one of their own from the endless bloody mess that was Afghanistan. Jack wouldâ€™ve loved this.
Fucking hell, Ade. All this fuss for me? All I did was step on a fucking IED, hardly a heroâ€™s death, just a stupid mistake. Just go to the pub and get rat-arsed in my name, thatâ€™ll do.
I swallowed and wiped my eyes.
Charlotteâ€™s sobs subsided to sniffles. She stepped back and smiled. "Thanks, Ade."
"Any time. Youâ€™re coming to the pub, arenâ€™t you?"
"Good." I kissed her forehead. "Iâ€™m going to head back now and make sure everything is ready."
She nodded. "Iâ€™ll round everyone up. Weâ€™ll see you there."
The crowds were breaking apart, people drifting back to their everyday lives. The bikers stood around talking, apart from those who volunteered to look after the mourners. The standards were carried away and traffic moved along the High Street once more. Wootton Bassett became just another little market town with pubs, betting shops and butchers. I walked to my car and wished Jack was still there.
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The private dining room soon filled with people, all picking at the buffet. Iâ€™d gone for Jackâ€™s favourites at Charlotteâ€™s request. There were sausage rolls, pork pies, Scotch eggs, the usual. In spite of his best mate being a chef, Jack always derided the â€˜fancy-schmancyâ€™ stuff.
"Give me a good ploughmanâ€™s any day."
I didnâ€™t think heâ€™d mind if the sausage rolls were made with wild boar and apple sausage, or that the pork pies werenâ€™t those unnaturally pink horrors you get in supermarkets. Iâ€™d made pÃ¢tÃ© the day before and the bread that morning. My commis chefs did me proud with the spread. A whole poached salmon, dressed with translucent slivers of cucumber, formed the centrepiece on the buffet table. It had been in my freezer since Jackâ€™s last visit.
"See. I didnâ€™t spend all the time in Scotland in bed with Cal. I brought this for you. Put it in the freezer and cook it for me when I come back on leave."
It hurt to look at it and at the large photo of Jack standing thigh-deep in a Scottish stream holding the fish and grinning. Sunlight glanced off his fair hair, finding streaks of corn silk there. I could almost hear him.
"Will you look at the size of this fucker. Told ya I could fish."
Charlotte had had the photo blown up, mounted, and brought it to me. I propped it up on an easel so everyone could see it. People passed by and paused. The man who might be Cal sat on his own beside it, cradling a glass of wine in his hands. I wondered whether I should talk to him had no idea where to start.
"Penny for them." Charlotte appeared beside me.
"Whoâ€™s that, the one sitting by Jackâ€™s picture?"