He was jolted awake by one of the stretcher bearers tripping over a tree root half buried in the mud. He weakly opened his eyes
and saw a blur of twilight. "It never dawns in the jungle," a young corporal had told him on the cramped transport to New Guinea. "Like God never meant for creatures of light to tread there." He blinked as something appeared to fly into his eye. Nothing entered it but when he opened it again the blurry shadow, too close to focus on, was just another mosquito come for its lunch.
"Come, eat!" he heard his mother say. The young mother from a village near Poznan who had joined her husband in 1919 in search of a better life in the zinc mines of Broken Hill.
"But I don't want to!" The words escaped silently.
"But you have to if you want to grow up to be a big, strong man like daddy." Yes, he wanted to grow up to be a big, strong man like his dad but that was not incentive enough.
"No, I will not eat my soup!" he quoted mockingly. Never took that bogeyman story seriously, smart little beggar, even when he was seven.
He didn't feel the gaze of the soldier at the foot end of the stretcher but a few words penetrated the feverish haze. "I reckon three days before 'e's gone if we don't get 'im to an 'ospital. 'Ere, 'e's giggling to 'imself." Good old Midge, he was safe wherever Midge was, crazy fake Cockney bastard who always fancied himself in a pub in a country he knew only from his dad's tales of London. Midge was looking out for him, nothing could go wrong. Nothing... A long silence followed as the men concentrated on keeping their footing in the primordial slime that covered this whole god-forsaken island.
He didn't remember where he'd been hit. If he'd been hit or had just come down with one the devilish bugs that made this place unfit for mankind. Beyond the wretched soreness of his body he could feel his shoeless feet burning and throbbing from a month's trek and the visitations of the mosquito clouds. A good thing, he thought in a moment of lucidity, at least they were still there. Not like Joe Mitchell who had left his right foot in a swollen river when the Japs strafed them. Three days later they'd left the rest of him under a tree and just taken his dog tags with them in the lieutenant's pocket as they headed south towards the coast.
He saw the canopy of green so dark it was almost black above him. It looks green from above and outside but underneath only the light is green and the forest above is dark as everything strives upwards to steal precious light from its neighbour.
The light. It was so dim and he could only see ahead of him, which was straight up as he lay on the stretcher. Blackness surrounded his narrow field of vision and he felt as if it were closing in. He thought his eyes were still open and they were, but he could no longer see and the neverending noises of the jungle suddenly seemed so distant.
"Frank! 'Ang on mate!" He didn't feel the stretcher being set down and Midge shake him. He just heard a distant voice calling. He saw the grandfather he'd never known, just like he looked in that old picture on the mantlepiece. Grandpa Jerzy. He was beckoning.
"Wake up, dad. Wake up!" The distant voice was that of a woman. "Wake up!"
Veteran of New Guinea and Palestine, the obituary would read. Ever since he'd gotten out of that jungle he'd made sure he always had a pair of boots, if it meant stealing them along with some other fellow's foot fungus. When he was discharged he took them with him and kept them under his bed. "Just in case the Japs come again," he would jokingly say. But if you looked closer there was an undertone of dead seriousness. Since those seven days it took them to get him to a field hospital, his feet a pair of swollen red balloons that took twice as long to heal as the rest of him did, he was determined that, if they did get him one day, they'd not get him without a decent pair of boots to call his own.
Soon his daughters would come to dress him in the old uniform that still fit--he wore it every Remembrance Day--and the boots he'd been polishing
every Sunday afternoon for the last 55 years, preparing for the day that could have come then but, by some miracle of providence, had not. Now it was time. Whatever was beyond, be it heaven or hell like the priests said or nothing at all like he himself suspected, he'd be alright. After all, he had a good pair of boots to stand in.