Donna Langevin, is a long time resident of Toronto, Ontario. Her latest poetry collections include In the Café du Monde, Hidden Brook Press 2008, and The Laundress of Time, Aeolus Press 2015. She won first prize in a TOPS Contest 2008 and also in the Cyclamens and Swords contest 2009. She was short-listed for the Descant 2010 Winston Collins prize in 2012 and won second prize in the GritLIT Poetry Competition in Hamilton, 2014. Her full length play Bargains in the New World won the Eden Mills Festival play completion in 2015.
"Buttons" was performed twice in Dec. 2014 at the Alumnae Theatre Christmas Party and at Hot Sauced Words Christmas show at The Black Swan Tavern in Toronto.
The following work is copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
Hey you! Yeah … you up there looking down at m’ grave. M’ name is Frank. Sargent Francis Mitchell, 1893 to 1915. Like it says on m’ tombstone, I been in this rest camp called Flanders Field for damn near a century. Sergeant Buttons m’ mates called me ’cause I collected ‘em. You was wondering what m’ Christmas was like in the war … was I disappointed…Oh so you collect buttons too? Well, you should have seen mine … Big round navy Peacoat buttons with anchors. Victoria Crown Gilt Officer Guard’s button. A rare 12th Lancer’s Tunic button… But getting back to what you was asking …was I disappointed that Christmas of 1914, empty like … freezing my arse in the mud … instead of turkey dinner with mam and dad and m’ wife in their toasty old farmhouse.
Christmas 1914, well, would you believe back in August me and m’ mates rushed to join up quick. We was scared the war would be over by Christmas and we’d miss all the fun. You know how it is when you’re young, war looks like … you know… marching bands, medals, fighting for your country, glory, real decent brass … least that’s what them posters said. Shit! After a few bloody battles, we… well…we was dying to get home. Anyway we woke that Christmas morning to the Gerries singing in the trenches, Stille Nacht of all bloody things at the crack of dawn! Next thing you know, we was singing along in our fleabags, mouse-quiet… then like in a pub… Silent night, holy night…then Crikey, would you believe one of them Gerries crawled out, stood up on top of a mound, waving his hands like flags. Was it a trick…a trap? No, he weren’t armed. Then it happened. Us Tommies climbed out with them Gerries all along the lines. We walked across that blood-soaked, corpse-littered no man’s land between the wire.
Mein Name ist Steffen.
Hi m’ name’s James
Mein Name ist Manfred….
Nice to meet ya, I’m Paul
Have a cigarette.
Here’s some chocolate
Some Schnapps for your cigar?
I was puffing on a coffin nail when I spotted him. Thin as a rail. Big ears like m’ brother. Blonde like m’ dad, he was scratching his chats as I walked up. Suddenly his eyes lit up. He pointed to m’ gilt brass buttons with the crowns and George the Vth ciphers. He held up three fingers… I held m’ breath dazzled by his German Imperial Crowns with the crosses… I had to have ‘em, I really did…I mean I was the kid who raided mam’s button box to make trains …a big black four-eyed button for the engine, a red one for the caboose, a line of buttons in every shape ‘n colour for the boxcars, oilers, flat-beds and tankers snaking along the kitchen floor …Well, Gerry made a snip snip motion with his fingers and kept on staring…I reckoned he’d been the kind of kid who’d made button families. For all I knew when he was lonely in the trenches, he’d talk to a brass button dad, a pearl-button mum, and a heart-shaped sweetheart…Well lad, you know how it is with us button collectors… I couldn’t help m’self…I knew it was wrong to mess with m’ uniform but I snip-snipped back at him. He went and got some wire cutters…three buttons for three…we cut carefully… next thing we knew we was calling each other Franz and Willy. We took out dog-eared photos, his girl back home, m’ wife and newborn son. I gave him some plum pudding mum sent, we toasted each other with schnapps. Later we played football till it got too dark .
Cheerio Willie. Good luck!
Tschuss. Viel Gluck Franz!
Who were we kidding? We knew the next day our Flying Pigs, Whizz Bangs and Potato Mashers would blow Christmas to hell. We’d gas the Wise Men and shepherds, bayonet the Christ child.
Disappointed? What do you think? …No, I wasn’t daft. If we hoped this truce would last…You said you’re thinking of signing up… Gotta tell you this. Court martial for treason, shoot or be shot…Bite the bullet soldier.
I pocketed Willie’s buttons, carried them next to m’ heart. Next day when I aimed me rifle I imagined putting him in a rest camp and honked up m’ bully beef and biscuits. So I shot wide and high into the clouds. Some other chaps did the same thing. Them Brass Hats couldn’t pin it on us but they suspected Christmas had weakened us. They transferred us to other battalions so we’d be shooting at strangers.
I dreamed all the time of m’wife, her smile and beautiful eyes… would you believe each of them coloured different, one green like m’ best shirt, the other brown like m’boots …anyways, night before I leave Ethel makes m’favourite dinner, fish n’chips with Yorkshire beer batter and pickled onions…Wish I could scoff some now with you lad…anyways, we didn’t bother with dishes, just makin’ out all night…the last time Eth touches me…saying goodbye at the train, her arms around m’ neck, tears pouring like rain… that bloody black engine hissing and hooting to hurry us up ….me leaning out the window so far to keep Eth in sight I almost fall out…oh God, what had I done? Two months later her letter…I’m gonna be a dad… I longed to hold m’ son, watch Billy grow up, take him to rugby games, maybe get him a pony…I longed to get back to the countryside, build m’ own farmhouse with the money I’d save in the war. I knew I still had a choice…
The Boche are monsters … they lied when I joined up…they strip the fat off our corpses to make explosives, carve up British nurses, roast and eat babies… I couldn’t swallow that crap no more…When the British capture a soldier they gouge out his eyes…Is that the crap trap fed to Willie?
Willie, Willie Willie…he’d gotten under m’ skin…he was young like you, around eighteen I’d say, and he didn’t have no kids ... I had to give him a chance…and as for shooting strangers, well, if I’d gotten to know them, they’d be no different from us. That stupid war, they could stick it up their…
I made m’ decision. Couldn’t shoot between the eyes no more…So I shot invisible rabbits and geese. Pipped lizards and corpse- rats. A Brass Hat soon caught on. He was hauling me off for treason when a Daisy Cutter got us both. The last thing I remember thinking—m’ button collection was a sky full of stars spinning in front of me eyes as I bled to death in the mud.
Was I disappointed? Hard to say. Christmas from heaven? Christmas from hell? I did what I thought was right. Maybe you don’t agree. We all got fantasies … And now that you heard me out, I’d like to pretend you’re m’ great great great grandson feeling proud of me.