By Zain Butt
I once was playing in the halls of school, me and a few friends were here after hours. We walked the halls we usually saw filled with people finding their way in at the start of the day, and out afterwards deserted. We saw the math classroom where Tommy and I would never take our eyes off the board, and where Léon and John spent their time writing and drawing respectfully, deserted.
The library as quiet as it ought to be, our footsteps louder than they should. Pushing through the corridors and moving down the stairs, we slipped our way into the mighty auditorium, this time only ours to bear. Tommy gave his rousing speech first, talking of dedication. Léon went second, speaking of stories and their importance. John went third, and all he could do was make us laugh. Me, I simply marveled at it, at how we might one day be people inspiring students here.
As I took it all in, I must’ve not paid attention - my friends had disappeared. The walls had more headmasters than I recall them having. I tried to leave the way I came, but the door had locked itself shut. Must’ve been a joke on me, those fools were always doing tricks. So I made my way to the back, thinking they might’ve forgotten it.
Swinging the door open, I was met by a sea of pictures. I’d never seen them before, what a curious room it seemed. Each picture assigned a name, and a date, many shared between them. Though I’m not a smart man, even I knew what it meant, and hung my head down in respect, for the lives that had come and went. There must’ve been a tragedy, a crash, a plague, something cruel.
I thought what a pity it must’ve been, such a senseless loss of life. These many must’ve been students, much like me and my friends. They must’ve walked these halls too, when they were lush and filled with life. They too must’ve laughed and played, surrounded by friendship and delight. There must’ve been those amongst them that loved Science, Math, or English. Those that played cricket, hit pucks or drew and paint. How proud their parent’s must’ve been, a shame they now rest with saints.
I wonder if they ever had loves, those that blossomed or weltered. Indeed, they must’ve had moments of failure, of success and of grace. They must’ve shared notes, pens, pencils, papers. For if they had nothing else, they certainly had each other.
As I motioned to be on my way, I couldn’t help but notice. These uniforms that they wore were not of Harbord cloth. Their age too, older than students, what a strange lot. They certainly had the charms, a dedicated expression, an author’s gaze, and a humorous smile. It’s almost like I knew them, their names were certainly familiar.
Léon Taylor, Tommy Atkins, John Rupert, all with a date to share. I froze, I was shocked, simply able to stare. My eyes went weary, the date running in my mind. What happened in 1941 in Hong Kong? Why can I only remember sounds of ships, planes, and guns? It was hurting, my head began vibrating although the shelling had started again. I’m surrounded by faces, but they don’t speak. I won’t stop moving, but I’m going anywhere. The wounded and maimed pile around me, but I do not get hurt. One phrase rings among the chaos, growing clearer and clearer as the noise drowns out. One phrase that maybe John had said, Léon, or Tommy. They told me, or I told myself, as I broke down and cried.
“Remember us,” they said, as the pictures began to speak. I’d remembered it now, the promise I made, the one I intended to keep. I stood up, my mind now clear and calm, looking down at my coat I made sure it was right, and let my disheveled hands wipe my tears.
Today, and forever more this day, I would be with my friends within these halls. We would laugh, we would play, I would remember it all. We’d all be here, giving the same speeches, telling the same jokes, laughing the same laughs. And I would end in this room, and rest a poppy by each of their portraits, lest they be forgotten.