"Yes, dear. By the window."
Sara pushed the door open and stepped into the attic. Dust motes swirled in the pale sunlight cutting across the floor from the small window in the sloped roof. Her grandmother sat hunched in a battered old armchair, a mug of tea in one hand and a sheaf of papers in the other.
"What are you doing up here by yourself?" asked Sara. Moving between the teetering piles of junk, she spotted an open shoebox beside the chair. Old photographs and scraps of paper, yellow with age, spilled onto the floor.
"The same thing I do every year on 11 November. Say, do you remember when your granddad died, and I had to move in here? I brought all of those old boxes?" asked her grandmother.
"Yeah – Dad wanted to chuck them but you wouldn't let him."
"No, I wouldn't. These are very special, Sara. I got these from my mother just before she died in '73. They belonged to your great-great-grandmother." Sara's grandmother held out the square of paper. Sara took it and turned it over. Spidery handwriting in faded ink covered the paper. She held it up to the light and squinted.
"I can't read it properly."
"Of course you can't. I'm surprised you kids even know how to do proper handwriting any more." Sara's grandmother pursed her lips.
"We use computers now.”
“Yes, and what will you have to show for it? You can’t keep emails in a box, or treasure your tweet thingies forever.”
“So who was she writing to?" asked Sara, keen to avoid another of her grandmother’s Luddite lectures. To make a point, she peered down at the handwriting. She thought she could make out the date. Nineteen-something?
"That one's actually by your great-great-grandfather, Harry Robson. He wrote that one on 8 November 1917. Two days after the end of the Battle of Passchendaele."
"Good God, girl, what do they teach you in school these days? It was also known as the Third Battle of Ypres."
"He was in the army? Wow, that's the First World War, isn't it? I didn't know we had any soldiers in the family." Sara stared at the letter, her mouth hanging open with awe.
"We don't. Harry was a stretcher bearer. Poor man had to run out into No Man's Land to collect the wounded. I don't like to even imagine the horrors he saw. He certainly didn't tell my grandmother about them."
"Have you got a photo of him?"
Sara's grandmother flicked through the photographs in her hand. She held out a small snapshot, the scratched sepia and torn edges trembling between her fingers. Sara looked at the proud young man in the photo, his arm around a smiling young woman. A small boy played with a ball at their feet. The young man had the same eyes as her grandmother.
“The little boy is your great-grandfather, Jack. That was taken just before Harry left for the front in 1917 so Jack must have been about six.”
“Why do you look at these every year?”
Sara’s grandmother held up a crumpled letter. She smoothed the paper against her knee and cleared her throat.
“11 September 1918. My dearest Florence, I do not have long, but I could not rest another day without writing a reply to your last letter. Not a day goes by when I do not think about you, and how you are coping without me. At least you have little Jack for company until I return.
“As to the men and myself, we have had many successes this week, but also many losses. I fear each day that I shall lose my humanity, and cease to be moved by the plight of those I bear on my stretcher, but each day I remember to thank them for their sacrifice. I do not envy them their task, although I am sure they do not envy me mine. Can you believe that I have done this for a year?
"However, I have extra reason to thank them, for it is their bravery that keeps our dear little England free. Free for you, and for Jack. It is thoughts of you both that keeps me going, and I am sure it will not be long before I am back with you both. Until then, my love to you both, as always. Yours eternally, H.”
“That’s really nice,” said Sara. She thought of the boys in her class at school, and the crude graffiti that covered their notebooks. She couldn’t imagine any of them penning such a letter.
“It is. This is why I look at these every year. Everyone remembers the fallen, and pays their respects, but I like to remember who and what we lost in my own way.”
“Who we lost?”
“Harry wrote that in a rare break during the Allied Hundred Days Offensive. A week later, he was killed by shrapnel. He, like so many others, never came home,” replied her grandmother. The old woman fixed Sara with a stare. “So just you remember that.”