When I was 9 years old I moved to France with my parents when my father got a job as a gardener with the War Graves Commission, looking after allied cemeteries from two world wars. We ended up living next to a large Australian military cemetery on a hill, miles from anywhere, which meant spending lots of time mooching around trying to find trouble in which to get. Not that easy when all you can see is empty rolling fields… and endless lines of headstones in neat rows, with strict orders to leave alone.
It was actually a lovely place; quiet and serene, the only sound that of skylarks - if you could appreciate it for what it was. Unfortunately, prompted by boredom, I think my 11-year old brain eventually slipped into early fiction mode, seeing ghosts where there were none, supported by vague images of battlefields and trenches and feats of great courage.
I retained a memory for years after of shadows moving among the headstones in the evening, of men in WW1 uniform standing chatting, exchanging cigarettes and whiling away their time – of which they had a lot, of course.
This stayed with me, teasing at the edges of my imagination, until I decided to do something about it. That something became ‘The Lost Patrol’, a novel for young adults (and even old adults), about a group of soldiers lost in limbo after being caught in an artillery barrage and vaporised, presumed wrongly by their regiment to have deserted.
It occurred to me, what might happen to these men if they couldn’t move on, trapped by rumour and dishonour? Could they make their own transition to a final resting place? And would it work so long after the event?
Well, anything’s possible, so I placed a teenage boy, Robbie Greene, on a reluctant holiday in the area and bored as only young boys can be (I knew what that was like). As it turns out, he's not alone. But he's the only person who can see these spirits wandering among the headstones and looking for somebody to help them get away. Because if they don't, a fresh horror awaits them: beings known as the ‘Dark Ones’ are coming to drag them down into a place where there is nothing; no Heaven and no hell, no future and no past.
Robbie has trouble dealing with this at first. Because ghosts don't exist, do they? But they do exist and their leader, the enigmatic Sergeant Stone, is very persuasive. And frankly, as far as Robbie's concerned, anything's better than boredom.
‘The Lost Patrol’ (which has a fair bit of dark humour) is all about coming of age, of finding something deep inside, of courage and hope and facing up to things you never imagined, to fears you didn't even know you had.
Just as thousands of ordinary young men did a hundred years ago in 1914.
But mostly it’s about that thing we all think about from time to time: what if… ?
'The Lost Patrol' - available on Kindle: