CHARGING THE LIGHT BRIGADE
Trevor Kennedy and Sam Coulter (January/February 2020)
Stop a foot and cast an eye,
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now so you will be,
Prepare for death and follow me.
(Inscription on a gravestone in the Shankill Graveyard, Belfast)
Despite it being Christmas Eve, twelve-year-old Lewis Fee had never felt so depressed in his entire life. Life at home was shit. Really shit. And at school it was even worse. He missed his old primary school. Life was so much better then. Year 8 at the Boys Model was the worst ever, thanks to Kyle Weir and his mates who were making his life hell. The bullying messages and comments on Facebook and Instagram were one thing, but did they really have to flush his head down that used toilet last month, making him the laughing stock of the entire school and beyond, not exactly helped when he burst out crying afterwards in front of them all? He hated that fat ginger bastard Kyle, and the older boys in general, and would do anything to get his own back on him, but alas he just wasn’t brave or tough enough to go through with it. Maybe one day he would when he was bigger, then they’d pay for ruining his life. Lewis supposed he could have gotten him back by reporting him to the teachers, but that would have just made things worse for him. Much worse.
He could hear their usual taunts ringing in his head constantly: Little cry-baby faggot. Lewis the loser, the little mummy’s boy who couldn’t fight to save his life. Those sorts of things. But the stuff about his granda was the lowest point. His granda’s recent death had really affected him badly. The man who had taught him how to swim and so much more. They were very close and did so much together. Right up until that day the previous January when his granda went outside on a sunny Saturday morning to change the tyre on his car only to suffer a massive heart attack, dead before he hit the ground, right in front of the shocked eyes of several other of the residents of Silverstream Drive where he lived. Those bastardin’ bullies had no right whatsoever to make fun of Lewis about this.
His older sister Caroline wasn’t much help to him either these days and quite the little madame at times too. They used to get on really well when they were smaller, but now she was more into boys and going out clubbing at the weekends with her friends. She no longer had the time to go to the cinema or hang out with Lewis. He had very few friends anyway and he just wished things could go back to the way they were between them, joking around and laughing like they used to. Now she was just a miserable, moody cow who dressed and acted like a vampire with her weirdo Goth clothes, make-up and music.
As he mulled over his troubles from the sanctity of his bedroom, Lewis decided to himself he really needed to make more of an effort with his life once Christmas and New Year were over. He was tired of moping around, locking himself away and being a soft touch. In the new year, he was going to change for the better; he would get out more, make new friends, maybe even get a girlfriend for the very first time, stand up for himself and no longer be a walkover. He was sick of spending his free time stuck at home. He wasn’t even looking forward to Christmas as much as he used to. The magic of it had left him. He wanted to change though, for things to be like they were before again, but it all seemed like too much effort. It was so hard for him to get motivated to do anything lately. Eventually he decided to go downstairs and watch a bit of Christmas TV with his mother. At least it would be a slight change of scenery from the four walls of his bedroom, still adorned with posters of pop stars he didn’t even like any more. It would be some company for the both of them, before his da arrived home later.
He slumped down the stairs and into the living room where he sat on the sofa beside the Christmas tree with her. She was watching an old black and white film about a slim, yet handsome and troubled man, named George Bailey. It’s a Wonderful Life, it was called. A wonderful life indeed.
As the film was ending with the suicidal George Bailey realising the error of his ways and deciding to spend Christmas with his wife and children after all, while the supporting cast sang Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and an annoying little girl delivered a line about angels getting their wings every time a bell rings, there was suddenly a large crash at Lewis’s front door. His father had arrived home early, even more drunk than usual, it appeared. As he stumbled into the living room, Lewis noticed that his father had that intense drunken stare about his countenance again, the wild, insane-looking eyes. He didn’t always have that look about him when he drank but when he did Lewis knew it meant only one thing: there would be violence and screaming. And lots of it.
The arguing came first, as it always did, the volume of the voices rising with each volatile sentence. Then came the excessive punches raining down on Lewis’s mother’s head. The lunging kicks to her stomach next. Then the loud screams and swearing. Lewis couldn’t take it any more. He had seen it happen so many times before and he was no match physically for his six foot father to do anything. He obeyed what his instincts told him to do, despite how cowardly it made him feel, and made a run for it, straight out the front door and into the cold, dark night ahead of him.
A translucent moon hung in the heavens above, as Lewis hurriedly made his way down his terraced street. He passed warm, cosy-looking houses adorned with Christmas decorations, the occupants of their brightly shining living rooms huddled around flat screen televisions with children playing games on their phones and iPads too. When he arrived at the top of the street, he turned a sharp left onto the main Shankill Road and began walking quickly in the direction of Woodvale Park. That’s where he’d go, he reckoned in his panicked mind. But it was so very cold. During the commotion at his house, he’d fled without his coat and now here he was, properly running away from home for good this time with only his jumper on to keep him warm. Shit one, but he trundled on up the road anyway. At least it wasn’t raining or snowing, he thought to himself, as an icy mist seemed to be gradually blanketing the area all around.
It was just after 10 p.m. so the main road was still quite well populated, mainly with drunken revellers making their way home, exiting the bars, nearby Chinese takeaway restaurants and kebab shops. Lewis soon quickly passed the Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club, Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone blasting from inside somewhere while happy customers sang along and some youths smoked at the front of the building. He crossed the road at Lanark Way and onto the beginning of the adjoining Woodvale Road, just opposite the Shankill Graveyard, when he noticed three women, possibly in their late forties approaching him. They were very drunk, wearing clothing not exactly in keeping with the current weather; short skirts and tops revealing their more than ample cleavage. One of them, the apparent leader, was a blonde woman with a comedy Santa hat fitted misshapenly on her head. The other two had tinsel wrapped around their necks. Lewis hoped upon hope that they wouldn’t notice him, as he tried to silently slip by them undetected and without making eye contact, but it was not to be as the blonde woman clocked him almost straightaway and spoke up.
“Awk, girls. Look at this poor wee lad here, out on his own on a cold night like this. What’s the matter with you, son, you look upset and what are you doing without a coat in this freezing cold?”
“I… I left it in the house. I don’t need it. I’m just going for a walk and want to be left alone, okay,” stuttered the embarrassed Lewis.
“What do you mean you’re just going for a walk? On a night like this? What’s the matter, son, has someone annoyed you or something?” replied blondie.
“I’ve just been having a really bad day and need to get away from everyone and everything. I don’t really wanna talk about it, thanks.”
The three women stared at him in a drunken pity and somewhat confusion, not really knowing what to properly do or say. Blondie spoke again.
“Aww, ya poor wee lamb, ya. Look, it’s Christmas Eve. You should be in your warm bed right now all excited for Santa arriving with loads of presents for you.”
“I’m not a kid. It’s not like I still believe in Santa. Just leave me alone!” stated Lewis abruptly.
“Awk, I know you’re not a kid. Look, my name’s Andrea and these are my friends Lizzie and Sally. We’re just heading home after a Christmas party. C’mon and we’ll walk you home and get you back safely to your wee mummy.”
“No! I don’t want to go home, not tonight or ever again!”
The brown-haired Lizzie approached Lewis next and embraced him, hugging him tightly and kissing him on the cheek, her boobs almost falling out of her low-cut top. “Awk, now. Don’t be like that, son. I’m sure your mummy is worried sick about ya. C’mon, take my hand and we’ll walk you home.”
Lewis felt both angry and awkward at the same time, as he tried to break free from Lizzie’s grip. He just wished these mad drunken women would piss off and leave him alone once and for all. He eventually squirmed free from her and bolted across the main road, narrowly avoiding being run over by several cars. A passing driver with ALPHA TAXIS emblazoned on the roof of his car swore out of his side window at him and gave him the middle finger, while the three well-meaning women stood on the other side of the road with their mouths wide open, not wanting give chase in their high heels. Lewis was too fast for them anyway. He wanted to get offside as quickly as his feet would carry him, but Woodvale Park was too far up the road now, so the nearest decent hiding place would have to do and that came in the form of the Shankill Graveyard, the front gates of which he was now at. But the gates were padlocked shut, so Lewis had no other option but to scale the wall and railings beside them, which he did, awkwardly, but with his adrenalin pumping he eventually clambered over the spiked rails, careful not to impale himself on them, dropping to the other side and into the deserted old historical cemetery.
Normally, being in such a place in the dark of night would have terrified Lewis, but he had so many other real-life worries to take his mind off things. All the same, his new surroundings were still very intimidating, the old tombs and gravestones lit eerily in the misty moonlight, with the trees and bushes at each side of the graveyard rustling in the wind almost as if they were whispering to him the long forgotten secrets of the ancient dead below his feet, or even trying to warn him about something. The large, domineering statue of Queen Victoria in front of the graves seemed even bigger than usual, towering over the boy, seemingly watching his every move with a haughty scorn, like one was not best pleased at his intrusion into this sacred corner of her kingdom. Lewis tried to put his Gothic surroundings to the back of his mind, as he panted towards one of the nearby benches, his cold, icy breath clearly visible in front of his eyes.
He sat down on a bench and attempted to gather himself together and correlate in his head everything that had just happened to him in such a short space of time. It wasn’t easy though. He was out of breath and beginning to feel the sharp cold again, his emotions running high and feeling thoroughly dejected. He held his head in his hands and pondered how this was indeed the worst Christmas ever and how he could never go home again now.
Shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, he eventually attempted to compose himself and work out what he should do next. He decided he should stay in the graveyard for a little while more and then when the main road was quieter he would sneak up to Woodvale Park where he could head to the glen at the back of the park and try to find somewhere to camp out. It wasn’t half bitterly freezing though, baltic even. He really should have brought his coat with him, but hoped he could indeed find some shelter in the park. He really needed somewhere and he was becoming more aware of his unsettling vicinity by the minute. The realisation that he was literally surrounded by the bodies of the long dead was beginning to frighten him and play tricks with his mind.
From the side of his eye, almost as quick as a flash, Lewis suddenly saw a movement from behind one of the gravestones in front on him. He tried to rationalise it in his young mind by telling himself it was probably just the wind, or older boys out drinking or taking drugs.
Then another movement, followed by a crisp, commanding, well-spoken voice:
“Tally-ho, old chap. I say, what the bloody devil’s gotten into you, young fella? What’s with all the tears? It looks to me like somebody needs to man up!”
A panic-stricken Lewis glanced all around him to see where the odd voice was coming from but couldn’t see anyone at all. “Who… who the hell’s that? Who’s in here with me? Stop trying to scare me. It’s not working, you know! Who are ye?!”
A moment of tense silence.
Then, as if on command, a tall, strangely-dressed figure stepped out from the side of the statue of Queen Victoria, just to the left of where Lewis was facing. Despite it being dark and misty, the figure could be clearly seen in the moonlight from above, standing proudly beside the monument of the old monarch. It was a man, dressed in the most bizarre costume, perhaps on his way home from some sort of Christmas fancy dress party, Lewis mused. He was wearing a strange type of top hat, along with a red blazer with white straps on it and black trousers and boots. The man had obviously been to the fancy dress party as an old-time soldier from some war long ago.
Lewis shouted in his direction, “Go away and leave me alone! I’m not in the mood for any jokes tonight. I just want to be left here on my own in peace. I’m not doing anyone any harm!”
The odd figure responded, “And I certainly don’t mean you any harm either, boy. On the contrary, actually. Believe it or not, I’m actually here to help you, young man. May I come over and share a seat with you?”
“You can if you tell me exactly who you are and want you want!”
“Sergeant John Brown of the 17th Lancers cavalry regiment of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s British Army, Charge of the Light Brigade, at your service. And who might you be and why the bloody hell are you dressed so oddly?!”
“What… what are you on about? Are you drunk as well, just on your way back from a Christmas party? My name’s Lewis… Lewis Fee.”
The strange man began slowly walking towards the boy.
“Lewis Fee, eh? Not the sort of name I’m used to, I can tell you that for nothing. One of those bloody modern names, no doubt. Whatever happened to good old manly names like Charles, Robert, George and Henry? Or how about a nice Biblical name, you know, Zachariah, Nathaniel, those sorts of ones? No matter, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lewis Fee. You can call me John, by the way. Now, tell me all about the buggers who have been bothering you, young Fee.”
As the figure approached him, Lewis noticed how much of a strikingly tall and handsome man he really was, with his flowing, brownish hair and thick handlebar moustache. He reminded him of the type of person he would often see on TV in one of those Charles Dickens-style costume dramas that he’d glanced at from time-to-time, usually on a boring Sunday evening when nothing else decent was on. Lewis didn’t feel threatened by the man, however. Indeed, the man had an extremely calming influence on him, like Lewis somehow knew him from somewhere. He felt safe and somewhat protected in his company, the way he used to feel when he was with his granda. Sergeant John Brown soon sat his tightly built frame down beside Lewis at the end of the bench.
“Well, move yourself up a bit. You could fit an army on here. C’mon, boy, shift.”
Lewis did as he was told. “So who are you, mister? Do I know you from somewhere?”
“I wouldn’t bloody well think so, boy. Not unless you’re one of my descendants. Let’s take a look at those eyes of yours… blue, I see. Nope, definitely not one of mine. Good God in Heaven, I’d love a smoke right now. I do miss my pipe. Unfortunately they didn’t bury it with me, the buggers.”
“A pipe? You mean like a weed pipe?”
“What the bloody hell’s a weed pipe? You mean like a hashish pipe? I once tried a little bit of that back in India - never again, my boy - bloody cloud cuckoo land! No, I mean I miss my old tobacco pipe.”
“Why don’t you just buy a new one in town or something?”
“My dear boy, things aren’t quite as simple as that where I’m from.”
“What do you mean? Are you not from round here?”
“No, sadly not. Well, not really anyway. Not any more. You might even say I’m completely out of time and place.”
“So where are you from then?”
The man paused for a few seconds. “I’m not really too sure, to be honest. I suppose you could say I’m from The Other Side…”
“You mean you’re from the Falls?”
“The Falls? I don’t think I quite follow you, young Fee. I was born and reared on the Shankill Road, not far from this graveyard, if you must know. I spent many years away from home, fighting for the Crown in wars long forgotten by most. I don’t really come from anywhere now. I died many years ago. I suppose you could say this graveyard is my home now. Well, mine and many others. I do still miss my old mother though, just as much as I did when I was away in all those foreign lands.”
John Brown stared ahead of him. Lewis was almost certain he could see tears welling up in the man’s eyes, but when he noticed Lewis was watching him he quickly composed himself again.
“So, tell me, young Fee. Who the devil’s been bothering you?”
Lewis didn’t believe in ghosts, but somehow he just knew this man, Sergeant John Brown, was telling him the truth. He didn’t feel afraid though, quite the opposite. He felt an odd connection to him, something he couldn’t quite explain or even comprehend. He just knew it felt right.
“I’ve ran away from home, Sergeant Brown.”
“And why the blazes did you do something like that then? And on a freezing cold winter’s night like this too! Have you gone stark raving mad, m’boy?”
“I just can’t take it any more.”
“Take what? What’s the matter with you? C’mon, you can talk to me, Lewis.”
“I… I… Look, Mr. Brown, it’s about my da. I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“I told you to just call me John. Now come on, young man, spill the beans. What’s up with your father?”
“It’s the drink, John. He drinks too much.”
“Likes a tipple then, does he? Like most of us menfolk. So what’s the problem?”
“He changes when he’s drunk though. He gets violent, beats my mummy up. He even threw her down the stairs once and she ended up in hospital. It’s like he becomes a different person when he drinks.”
“Ah, now I see what you mean. It doesn’t take much of a man to beat up a woman, drunk or not. So how come you think running away is going to help anything? Will that not make matters worse?”
“Look, I just can’t take it any more. Everyone hates me, especially those dicks in school.”
“I’m sure that’s not the case. I know we’ve only just met but I don’t hate you, and I’m sure we can become friends. Who’s bothering you in school then?”
“That fat ginger arsehole Kyle Weir and his mates, that’s who. Always picking on me, calling me names. They even flushed my head down the toilet one day and now everyone thinks I’m just an idiot that they can push around.”
“You need to learn to stand up for yourself, Lewis. This Kyle boy, I’m sure he’s not as tough as he’s making out. If you don’t make a stand with him this will continue to happen and only get worse. Do you really want to be the boy that everyone picks on and makes fun of? It’s time to man up, old chap!”
“But I can’t, I just can’t.”
“Poppycock! Of course you bloody well can!”
“But… but I’m afraid.”
“Of course you are, Lewis, but we have to face our fears or else they control us. Being afraid is natural. How do you think I felt during my Crimean days with the enemy approaching, all guns blazing and bayonets flashing? Bloody terrifying it was! But courage, real courage, is realising that it’s okay to be afraid but doing the right thing anyway, for the greater good.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“So are you going to go back home? I think your mother needs you.”
“But what about my da, he’ll still be there?”
“You’ve got to face him at some point, both of them actually. Your poor mother will be worried sick about you now.”
Lewis looked directly into John Brown’s eyes. Despite the tough exterior, they were kind eyes.
“I’m really cold. Maybe I should go home. I just don’t think I can face my da right now though.”
“But you have to, Lewis. Although you might not think it, he probably needs you there as much as your mother does. You have to help them both. It won’t be easy but there’s always a way. You have what it takes, my boy, I know you do.”
Lewis stood up off the bench and dithered for a few moments.
“Okay then, I’ll go back at some point, but not right now. He’ll probably fall asleep soon, but in the morning I’ll go home and try to talk to him about his drinking and how it’s affecting us all. It’ll be Christmas Day anyway and I don’t want to miss getting my presents either.”
“It’s Christmas?! Good grief! All the more reason to go home now then. On your way then, lad. Skip to it, I don’t want to see you back here tonight!”
Lewis smiled for the first time in quite a while.
“So who are you, John Brown? Who are you really?”
“Who, me? Oh, it’s not important who I am. What is important is that you get home in time for Christmas, boy.”
“No, come on. I told you all about my life, so it’s only fair that you tell me who exactly you are.”
A pause. The sergeant stood up and stared at Lewis directly, intensely.
“Stop a foot and cast an eye, as you are now so once was I. As I am now so you will be, prepare for death and follow me!”
“What?! What the heck does that mean?”
Another pause, longer. Eventually the old soldier sat down again and spoke up, this time in a more relaxed tone.
“I was someone once, a very long time ago now. I had a family, just like you. Times were hard but we were happy. Then the war came along and I had to do my duty for Queen and country. It was only right. Died on the bloody battlefield, I did. At least it was an honourable death, I suppose. I don’t really know what I am now, to be honest. A guardian maybe.”
“Yes, we’re all guardians here really. The unseen protectors of the Shankill Road. Yes, that’s who we are, I think.”
From seemingly out of nowhere, from behind the gravestones surrounding Lewis, another figure appeared, a man. Then another. And another. Then some more, shades of women and children amongst the men, all dressed in old-time clothing, some in mere rags. Lewis stood frozen, not quite aghast but mesmerised by the sight of the spectres in front of his very eyes, not fully grasping the spectacle of ever-growing denizens of the graveyard now in the land of the living. The sergeant eventually broke the mood with his officer-class clipped voice.
“I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends and neighbours, young Lewis.”
A long-haired male figure, dressed in a spectacular buttoned-up red coat and black hat with a feather placed on top of it stepped forward. Sergeant Brown continued, “Lewis Fee, please meet my good friend Corporal William Smith of Captain Coote’s Troop. He died on the 16th June 1690 on his way to the Boyne, the poor bugger. He was buried here by the very Reverend Rowland Davies, Chaplain to the Williamite Calvary.” Corporal William Smith nodded in acknowledgement at Lewis. Two more men then moved into view.
“And these fine gents here are the Reverend Isaac Nelson of the Nelson Memorial Church and William ‘Bullseye’ Braithwaite. The Reverend was once the Nationalist Member of Parliament for County Mayo from 1880 to 1888 and old Bullseye was a crack shot with a rifle and pistol, hence the nickname. He also went on to found the Braithwaite and McCann pub chain in Belfast.”
Even more ghosts made themselves visible.
“Meet William S. Baird. He founded the Belfast Evening Telegraph. And Sir James Edward Verner here was a Lieutenant Colonel of the East India Company.”
A group of several phantoms were now nearing on Lewis, women and children. One of them, a woman covered in tattered clothing made herself known to the startled boy.
“And I’m Margaret Cameron. In 1912 I signed the Ulster Covenant and later went on to serve as a nurse in The Great War. Many of my friends who you now see in front of you also rest here in the mass graves created for them in the 1830s. All victims of cholera and typhoid.”
A gobsmacked Lewis, his jaw agape turned to Sergeant John Brown in shocked silence, as if he was about to deliver a stream of questions towards him but couldn’t quite find the words. Instead, he turned on his heels and ran towards the graveyard railings, panicked, not quite believing what he had just experienced. As he climbed up onto the wall below the railings and lifted his right leg over the steel bars he turned and looked back into the graveyard. But it was now empty, devoid of anything living or otherwise. All he could see in front of him was the statue of Queen Victoria, the silent gravestones, benches and surrounding lawns, bushes and trees. He quickly turned back and jumped over the railings, landing on the ground of the main Shankill Road below his feet again.
And straight into the path of Kyle Weir and two of his mates.
“Aww, look who it is, little Lewis the mummy’s boy. What’s the matter, you wee faggot, you look like you’ve had a bit of a fright?” said Kyle as his gormless friends giggled in unison moronically.
After everything he had been through tonight, Lewis was in no mood whatsoever for Kyle. “None of your business, Kyle. Now fuck off and leave me alone.”
The statement stunned Kyle.
“What did you just say to me, ye wee bastard? Do you want me kick you up and down this Shankill Road until you’re crying for your mummy again, just like you did in school that day when we flushed your head down the bog, haha?”
Lewis could feel the anger building up inside him with a great gusto. “I said fuck off, you fat ginger bastard!”
“That’s it, you hold him, boys, and I’ll beat the shit out of the wee prick right here and now.”
But before Kyle and his two friends could do anything, Lewis did what he had never done before in his life. He clenched his fist as hard as he could and aimed a punch in Kyle’s direction, smacking him hard on the side of his nose. Kyle dropped to the ground, apparently unconscious, blood gushing from both his nostrils.
Kyle’s shocked friends bent over their fallen leader, attempting to resuscitate him. Lewis simply turned his back on them and started to walk back down the Shankill Road.
As he reached the part of the footpath before the graveyard ends, Lewis caught a glimpse of something in the corner of his eye.
He turned around and peered into the cemetery for one last time on what had been a very eventful night indeed.
He was greeted by the sight of a familiar face, one with a very impressive moustache upon it. Sergeant John Brown of the 17th Lancers cavalry regiment of the British Army was standing upright, smiling broadly in Lewis’s direction, before aiming a proud salute at the boy.
Lewis simply grinned, saluted back, and then began the journey home to spend the remainder of Christmas Eve with his mother.