Every year, on the 11th November, the nation remembers...
Bob Metcalf struggled as he set up his ironing board. Although he was fit for his age, the slow accretion of the years had slowed him down. His old fingers weren't as clever as they used to be, he thought to himself, as he tried again to get the reluctant board to stand up. The lumbago that he always felt first thing in the morning didn't help either. He paused and looked around the small but neat kitchen. The kettle caught his eye.
"I suppose I could have a cup of tea first." It was a tempting thought but Bob dismissed it. Some things just had to be done, and this bit of ironing was one of them. The board's legs finally locked into place and Bob let out a sigh. "Silly old bugger!" He bent down carefully to retrieve the iron, which he kept in the cupboard under the sink. He plugged it in and set the controls, and while it warmed he started to search through the basket of clean laundry. Eventually he found what he was looking for; a plain white shirt.
Bob had been a widower for more than ten years now. When his wife Flo had died after their thirty five years together he had thought that his life too was over. But somehow he just kept going. Flo had been the best wife a man could wish for, but there was one thing she couldn't do, and that was iron a shirt. Well not properly anyway, not the way Bob liked it. To give her her due, she had tried. But Bob had just smiled, "It's all right love, but I think I'd rather do it myself, like." They'd had many a good laugh over the years over him and his shirts. There were only two ways to iron a shirt he used to say, the right way and the wrong way. She would throw the damp shirt at him, "Come on then clever clogs, show us how it's done!"
Bob spread the shirt on the board, checked the heat of the iron, and got to work. First was the collar. This was easy if you knew what you were doing. The trick was to start at the tip of the collar and iron towards the back of the neck. Bob chuckled. It was surprising how many people you saw who got this wrong. You could always tell a poorly ironed collar — they stuck out like a sore thumb. He turned the shirt through ninety degrees and started work on the back. There were some who put a horizontal crease across the back of the shoulders, running from arm to arm. It was called a gunner's crease. But Bob never bothered with it. He wasn't a bloody gunner for a start, and why make more work for yourself? Do everything that's necessary, and nothing that isn't, that was Bob's motto. The iron glided easily over the white cotton and soon the material was as smooth and flawless as a field of fresh snow. Bob surveyed it critically for a moment and then moved on to the front.
He usually did the right side of the front first. He moved slowly as he nudged the tip of the iron between the buttons. Once he had been able to do this quite quickly but the passage of years now meant he had to pace himself. More haste, less speed, he told himself as he followed the row of buttons up towards the collar. After that the left side was a doddle; only the patch pocket needed a bit of care taken with it.
Bob always left the sleeves till last. They could be awkward customers sleeves. His board lacked the special sleeve-ironing attachments that you saw these days, but Bob didn't hold with new-fangled gadgets anyway. Besides, it was easy enough, if you knew what you were doing. With the iron hissing gently on the end of the board, Bob carefully laid out the left sleeve. When he was satisfied he picked up the steaming iron and slowly and deliberately ran it along the top edge of the sleeve, creating a razor sharp crease from the shoulder to the cuff. He then shook the sleeve out and ironed it again, this time going along the seam that went from the cuff up into the armpit. Finally he did the cuff itself with a few deft strokes. There were some that Bob knew who liked to go around with their sleeves rolled up, all year long. That was all right for the summer, but the summer was gone and there was a nip in the air this morning. Bob liked to have a quarter of an inch of shirt cuff showing when wearing his suit or blazer; it showed a bit of class, Flo used to say.
The right sleeve was dealt with in the same methodical manner and Bob slipped the shirt onto a coat hanger. He held it out in front of him and watched the pale morning light caress it. Perfect.
He left the shirt hanging from the handle of a high up kitchen cupboard, and went to look for his tie. Bob had a very small collection of ties, but there was only one he could choose on this particular Sunday. From the special rack in his wardrobe he retrieved a garish combination of broad red and yellow diagonal stripes. This was the tie of his old regiment. Officially described as 'maroon and gold', Bob and his mates used to call it 'rhubarb and custard'. He knew there would be no need to iron it, as he was always meticulous about putting away his ties neatly. He took the tie into the kitchen and added it to the same hanger as the shirt. He looked at the clock on the wall. Not even half past eight — plenty of time for a cup of tea and a slice of toast.
At 9.30 am precisely, Bob Metcalf stepped out of his front door into the thin November sunshine. He looked very dapper in his grey flannel trousers and dark blue blazer. His full head of grey hair was carefully combed and his moustache was freshly trimmed. He walked briskly for a man of 79 years and his eyes were bright and alert. Bob still walked miles every day. He preferred walking to the bus, and the church was only ten minutes away. As he walked he slipped his hand into his pocket. A last minute check. He felt the hard metal and the smooth ribbons of his medals. Bob didn't like to wear his medals on the way to church; they made him feel rather self-conscious. They weren't the originals of course. They were on permanent loan to the National Army Museum in Chelsea. He had been given a set of replicas as part of the deal. It had been about fifteen years ago when he first went to a regimental reunion and one of his old officers had recognised him. He asked him about his medals and Bob had explained that they were in a tin box in his loft. The officer looked shocked — wasn't that a bit risky? Considering how valuable they were? Bob hadn't thought about it before. Anyway a few days later a nice young man from the museum had come to see him. He had explained that the medals should be kept somewhere safer, or at least be insured. Bob hummed and hawed. He explained that he couldn't really afford the insurance and he didn't see the point of having them lying around the house all the time either. What did the young man think? The museum was more than willing to look after them for him, of course. Bob was happy with the arrangement. It was the logical thing to do, good for the museum, and good for him. But there had been a lump in his throat on the day he handed them over. He consoled himself with the thought that the medals themselves were nothing but a few lumps of shiny metal. It was the entitlement to wear them that was important.
Opposite the church Bob took the medals from his pocket. There were four of them, the ribbons stiffened with buckram and stitched together onto one large pin. He carefully ran the long steel shank through the cotton loops sewn just above the breast pocket of his blazer and turned the hasp. He paused for a moment and then crossed the road to the small gathering that stood outside the church door.
There was the usual crowd from the Royal British Legion, old men, like Bob, dressed in blazers and regimental ties, and some young Army Cadets in uniform. Bob was not a great one for the Legion, but he soon found someone he knew.
"Hello Bob! Nice to see you again — how you been keeping?" Len Collard was the chairman of the events commitee at the Legion. He was always asking Bob to come along to this or that function, but Bob nearly always politely declined.
"Not so bad Len, not so bad." Bob took the proffered hand, returning the firm and confident grip as best he could.
"Here fellahs, this is Bob Metcalf." Bob smiled politely as the introductions were made. There was a long round of handshakes and the usual enquiries were made into health, and family, and old comrades. Same old buggers every year, Bob thought, some of them even older than I am. Still it was nice to see the youngsters in their uniforms. He was introduced to the cadet instructor, who then introduced Bob to the cadets. They lined up to shake his hand.
The sound of organ music began to drift out through the open church door and people began to file inside. The cadets held back while the veterans went in first. Bob collected a hymn book and sat down. He had no idea how many such services he had attended over the years. The format never changed. There was the procession with the cross and then a hymn. Then the lesson was read and the vicar preached a sermon. Bob felt tired and his back was aching, as he tried to listen to the vicar's words. His mind drifted back to the lesson, something about salt losing its savour. He decided to look it up when he got home. It was important to get these things in context. Soon it was time for the silence. The congregation stood up. People went forward and laid poppy wreaths in front of a stone tablet with a list of names set in the wall. A cadet bugler played the last post and Bob felt a shiver go up his spine. There was a long silence and Bob thought about men who had been his friends half a century ago. After the bugler sounded reveille there was another hymn and a collection was taken. Bob dropped a pound coin into the velvet bag before passing it on.
When Bob stepped back outside the sun had gone and there was a cold grey sky instead. As he waited shivering he heard someone talking quietly behind him.
"That bloke there, is that a VC he's wearing?"
"Yes, that's Bob Metcalf, he won the VC in Korea..."
Bob felt the usual mixture of pride and embarrassment. Still it was nearly over. There was only the march to the British Legion hall, where he would stay for one drink, then he would go home and the medals could be put away for another year. As a young man, soon after world war two, Bob had noticed there were two types among the blokes who had served in the war. There were those who were always talking about it, and those who never mentioned it at all. Bob didn't like talking about the war, mainly because he was afraid that if he started he would never stop. He didn't like wearing his medals, or going to the Remembrance service, but he felt that he had to. Somehow he owed it to someone.
On the march to the hall the sky darkened and it began to rain, big, heavy drops that soaked the streets. The hall wasn't far away, but when they got there Bob was grateful for the brandy that Len bought for him. It was still raining when Bob left, and by the time he got home he was drenched and starting to feel the beginnings of the cold that would in turn become the pneumonia that would be the death of him. But even if he had known that morning how the day would end, and that it was the last Remembrance Sunday he would ever see he would not have done anything differently. For Robert Henry Metcalf, VC, going to the church on Remembrance Sunday was a point of honour.