He watched the light fading towards the Wrekin until the bend of the track brought the hill between them and the view, on the last steep approach to the top where a large crowd waited around the huge pile of wooden pallets ready to be burned. The farmers had been busy for days ferrying loads up the slope and the scouts had finished the job that morning, assembling an imposing pile. From the valley the beacon had changed the outline of the hill, adding what looked like a newly-erupted rock formation.
More than three hundred people crowded the site, many with a drink in their hands and the sound of laughter and chatter increased every minute. But as the time approached and the frail figure of the elderly parson was helped up on a box to speak, a gradual hush descended.
James liked this old parson who’d seen active service as an officer in the war and knew its realities. In his retirement living right next to the church he took most of the village services to help the vicar-in-charge who found his parishioners in this corner of the four-church parish, too far out of line with his High Church views.
Now he stood, long dark coat fluttering, his voice almost carried away on the wind, to say a few simple words about the sacrifice of those who’d died that the life of those around him could be as it was.
The chattering went on at the back but gradually all went quiet as he repeated the familiar words of Laurence Binyon: “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them."
“We will remember them” came the vigorous response from the crowd while the old man checked his watch and bowed his head for two minutes of silence.
James looked at the sky, still clear but darkening by the minute, hearing again the sound of guns banging and screams from a more recent conflict with different priests trying to bring absolution before death came. He closed his eyes against the tears and bent his head to hide them. Beside him Kate squeezed his arm and he realised he’d forgotten she was there.
The two minutes seemed to go on and on before the old man said in a cheerful voice: “Right, lighting up time.”
Two farmers pushed forward with a giant taper made of sacking and straw wrapped round a broom handle. There was a strong smell of diesel on the hilltop and when they lit the taper and thrust it into the pile of wood, it took hold with a rush of fire.
As the blaze caught hold the dry pallets crackled and became a mass of flame leaping high into the evening sky. Faces were suddenly illuminated and people began to see who was next to them, greeting neighbours and friends; the excitement grew as cans of beer and bottles of wine were emptied in a toast to the beacon. Something primeval in the effect of the fire liberated emotions and swirled everyone on the hill into a sense of good humour and well-being, a fitting climax to the day.
They looked around for other fires but James could spot only one small blaze away to the south on the rim of hills towards Herefordshire. But then he looked more to the east where the Malverns could be seen in daylight on a clear day. Sure enough, there was the distant pinprick of dancing light which answered their own from forty miles away.
Jack thrust a can of beer into his hand and said: “Cheer up mate, it’s supposed to be a celebration!”
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