Graham swore under his breath and wiped the stinging sweat that had dripped into his eyes. He stared dead ahead at the uneven path in front of him, willing on his already aching legs and stretched out arms. He was as usual, at the tail end of the company, flagging behind woefully, whilst the other more hardy soldiers pushed on determinedly. He hoisted the heavy backpack further up his shoulders, in an effort to relieve the sharp edged straps that were digging painfully into his armpits. This was the final training session of the most grueling week Graham had ever experienced and to keep himself going, he kept an image of a steaming bath in his mind. He was starting to forget what it was like to rest. The last seven days he had been subjected to crack of dawn awakenings and ice cold showers with the other cadets. Most people have a fairly significant reason they join the army. Either they truly believe in the idea that serving one country is both their duty and an honour or alternatively and most often the case, they come from a bad family situation and see it as a way out. Graham didn’t join for either of these. In fact the only reason Graham was doing this was to lose some weight and prove to his friends and enemies he was not a useless fat lump. And this is why Graham was struggling to keep up, a combined lack of psychological and physical strength. The other cadets were not only in better shape then him but they also knew why they were they, giving them a much more focused and stable state of mind.
Graham was just wondering how much further he could run, when his jelly like legs buckled slightly as the ground suddenly sloped upwards. He kept his gaze lowered to the dusty ground, refusing to look up, knowing that one of the many insurmountable hills of the Brecon Beacons rose above him. Graham could go on, would go on. It wasn’t so much that he was fearful that he was suddenly going to collapse. In fact he was more scared about the fact that he didn’t need to stop. The first few days had been the hardest but at the mid week point he had been beaten, bullied and forced so much against his will that he had been broken like a dominated horse. Yes he had lost some weight and proven to himself more then anyone that he was strong enough to do it but at what cost? He had been humiliated, tortured and laughed at by the other cadets as well as his Sergeant. All that Graham had achieved was to put himself in another situation where he was picked out as the weakest. Was this what his life had become? Prey to other more clever and stronger predators. Graham was brought back to a reality with a mouthful of dirt. He was lying face down on the ground, his arms crushed beneath him. He had tripped on a concealed root, a lapse in concentration.
‘Private, on your feet now.’
Graham lifted his face from the ground and groaned, his lip red from a fresh cut. The company Sergeant was storming towards him, a look of fierce fury burning in his eyes. The other cadets had halted progress and were exchanging smirks and making snide remarks.
‘Shut it!’ The Sergeant roared and the company fell silent.
Graham tried to lift himself up but the heavy backpack pinned him to the floor, preventing any escape. The Sergeant kicked Graham hard in the shin.
‘Get up, you shit.’
Graham clenched his teeth, forcing back a yell and tried again desperately to get to his feet. He got halfway and gave up, flopping back onto the floor like a marooned fish.
‘We will not wait for you Private.’
Graham said nothing.
‘Turn back or find your own way.’ The Sergeant spat and kicked a cloud of dirt into Graham’s face.
Spluttering and coughing, Graham watched hopelessly as the Sergeant marched back to the front of the company and they resumed their jog up the hill. Graham lay there for a few minutes, hearing the crunch of the soldier’s boots become steadily fainter until eventually a deep silence descended around him, only broken by the occasional birdsong. It was while he was laying there, contemplating whether or not to bother getting up at all, that he thought he heard a voice high above him. Using all of the little strength in his possession, Graham forced himself up onto his knees, straining with the almighty effort. The hot midday sun bore down on him, making him sizzle like a fried egg on a car bonnet. He grimaced and spat dirt and blood from his mouth. Not caring anymore, he slipped his arms out of his backpack and let it topple to the floor. It was the best feeling in the world and went some way to making up for a face full of dirt. He coughed and looked up. A dark outline could be just glimpsed peering down at him from the top of the hill. He raised an arm to shield his eyes from the unrelenting rays. The shape was small and blurry. He blinked once and the shadow suddenly disappeared. Maybe it was one of the cadets sent back to retrieve him.
With a great effort he heaved himself to his feet and began to gradually climb the steep hill. It was much easier without all his kit and he reached the hill top quicker then he anticipated. A wide stretch of undergrowth stood before, lined on either side by a dense wall of trees. He scanned from left to ride, looking for signs of the mysterious figure but to no avail. Then a movement in the left wall of trees caught his attention. A tiny pink hand was curled around one of the trunks of the large trees. Graham narrowed his eyes. Two small eyes peered back at him through a gap in the foliage. Before he had time to register what he had seen the hand and the eyes vanished, followed by a loud rustling and snapping of twigs underfoot.
Without even realizing Graham found himself running towards the trees. He tore through the screen of leaves and ducked just in time to avoid a very low hanging branch. He glanced around wildly as he ran, desperately searching for the owner of the tiny pink hand. A flash of blue caught his eye and he made a beeline for it, oblivious of the thin twigs and branches whipping at his face and arms. Graham emerged into a small clearing and was temporally blinded by the harsh light in the gap in canopy high above. When his eyes readjusted, he stopped dead in his tracks. A young boy of about four or five was sitting on a large moss covered stone in the centre of the clearing. He was wearing a small, navy blue raincoat and had his back to Graham. As Graham approached cautiously, he could discern that the young boy was giggling to himself and rocking backwards and forwards. Closer and closer Graham inched, who was moving slowly so as not to startle the young boy. As he drew nearer he realized that the young boy was not laughing but instead crying. Not sobbing or wailing like one expects from a small child having a tantrum but tiny whimpering sniffs, barely audible over the wind rippling through the trees. Graham went to open his mouth, to maybe attempt some words of comfort but was cut short when all of the sudden the young boy jumped off the rock and hurried out of the clearing.
Graham had been traipsing through the trees for sometime, with no sense of direction or idea where he was going. The young boy had disappeared and Graham was beginning to grow worried. It was getting dark and there was a young boy lost somewhere out there, afraid and alone. The trees had begun to thin out and the ground was rising before him up to a another crest, dotted with a few taller trees. Graham exhaled loudly under his breath, wondering how on earth such a young child could have made it so far in these conditions. A few minutes later he emerged at the top of the ridge and took a minute to catch his breath. He was standing on the edge of a wide flat hill, looking down across a large valley. Set into the middle of this hill was a large stone monument and to Graham’s great surprise, stood the young boy facing it. From where Graham was standing, the young’s boy face was obscured and so he sidestepped to the right but as he did so, a sound made him glance to the left. A series of loud voices could be heard, drawing nearer. Graham recognized the harsh bark of his Sergeant and suddenly a great panic seized him. He ran around to the front of the monument and ducked down, flattening himself against the cool stone. It was only when he was crouched down here, did he realized that the young boy had vanished again. He was about to move again but the loud grunt of his Sergeant glued him to the spot.
‘Move it ladies. I haven’t got all day.’
Graham waited nervously, his arms and legs trembling with a combined panic and the sheer physical ache. The ground trembled beneath him as several pairs of heavy boots drummed across its surface. Graham remained hidden until the last pair of boots had died away before unfurling himself from his awkward position. He got up and massaged his sore back, glancing as he did so at the large stone monument beside him. Words were etched into its worn and weather beaten surface. Leaning closer he inspected them with a curious eye.
It read: This obelisk marks the spot where the body of Tommy Jones aged 5 was found. He lost his way between Cwm Llwch Farm and the Login on the night of August 4th 1900. After an anxious search of 29 days his body was found on September 2nd.
A cold sensation seized Graham’s entire body and he felt a silent scream trap within his throat.
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