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I hope that this blog will become a place to look after my writing ideas and that, over time, I can use it to archive all my favourite creative sites on the web. Maybe others will enjoy it too.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Eyes Open

An explosion of noise followed by the shower of stones jerked eyes open that hadn’t even been aware they were shut. Somewhere beyond the ethereal white of the night’s fog a new morning threatened and was held at bay by the pitiful pile of sandbags making up their parapet. There was a coffee cup resting near the periscope somewhere but he couldn’t make his eyes focus clearly.

A flick, a spark, inhale, burn. It hadn’t been as long this time but splashes of mud and shocks of flame made no heroes of the sentries supposed to be out in strength but, in reality, cowering from the fury from above in fox-holes clawed into frosty earth. Shrapnel buzzed over his head and was acknowledged with a nonchalant nod of his unshaven face. He didn’t look over the lip to the scene beyond, it would be lost to the smoke and flame of a preparatory bombardment like the sounds of birds and rats had been lost to the express train roar. Soil bounced off his helmet from a nearby gout of force and his breath curled in tortured air. They had one more day left and that cold hope had been chilled further by the knowledge that they were coming this time rather than simply giving them something to think about.

Another close-call and he sighs, retreating to the Stygian gloom of his own officer’s foxhole surrounded by wooden planking and protected by another low beam of sandbags. All soldiers believed in luck, any that said different were lying, and he felt he was pushing his luck too far for the moment.

“Sorry about that, mate. Beans always give me gas.” Smiler greeted him with forced levity and an actual smile.

His nerves were too taut. “It wasn’t funny the first time,” clipped and angry for no reason, “And it’s not funny now!”

“Lay off, Sarge,” plaintively; not his actual rank but his nickname after the duties that he carried out for the section, “We’re all tired.” The complaint of the dead.

“Shut up. Just shut up, you bastards.” The real sergeant of the band sat alone and aloof in the corner. He was a veteran, a man who had seen everything before and the oldest irritable member of the section. He was at least twenty-two. “He’s coming.” Smoke billowed from his nostrils as he focussed his watery eyes on some ephemeral fixed point beyond the supported earth of the wall. The last time, two months previously, it had been a concrete wall, a safe haven in the maelstrom; now it was wood and chalk and mud. Before there had been a stove, electric lighting and even a heater; now there were rats, bad drainage, candles and winter wet. No one rightly knew what the sergeant saw in that steady gaze of his, just that it allowed him to act as oracle.

“Misty.” The returned sentry announced it as if it explained the constant dull rumble outside. It reminded them all uncomfortably of the first week all over again, conditions were similar, but it had only been a day so far. “Wet.” Despite being used to the noise it was still enough to reduce communication to the lowest common denominator.

“This sodden place is always misty. He’ll still come.” His stare never left that point beyond the wall, ignoring the rodent eyes peeking back. Did he see the end of all things in the mud and filth or else the firm compost from which all growth sprung? Hope or depression? Reality or illusion?

“It’ll be a week again. They always move slowly. One more day and the uplanders will be in, let them get it up their backsides for a change.” The latrines caved in at the first salvo, no one had bothered to replace them nor dig for the Captain. His hand made for an interesting centre piece on the planks of wood that stood for a table.

“Aw, just put a sock in it you whining piece of shit, he’s coming soon. He switched to shrapnel an hour ago, next it’ll be smoke or, if the wind picks up, gas.”

His instincts, never failed, the section trusted them before and would trust them again. Maybe he saw them in the layers of earth before him.

Glow, inhale, breathe out; ignore the dull noise echoing in ears, punching lungs and heating the back of the throat with dry dust. A decision no one makes and swearing on the inside. Despairing look at what remains of the cheap tobacco rolled in thin paper, discard it with barely disguised contempt and drag on the arid heat and the mist. Drill took forty seconds to set up the shrouded centrepiece of the section and be ready. “How long?” So much for university education.

“Half an hour.” Conviction. Not a good thing.

“Time for tea?”

“Supplies are late.”

Supplies are always late. Constant bombardment somewhere on the line, phone lines always cut, movement dangerous. Sappers routinely sent home. Food late, cooks aren’t heroes either.

“There’s a slab of Kelly on the plate, knock yourself out. Coffee in the usual.”

Shrug, remember the coffee outside, sit and stuff the slab half heartedly into the saliva. Silence. Alliteration, refuge of the ravenous. Hold out part of it to Smiler as he sits playing with the last six of his playing cards. Grunt, wordless now in anticipation, uniform scratching the skin at the neck, nothing to do but wait, try focussing beyond the latest shift of dust. It was smoke now. He declines.

“How can you eat at a time like this, Sarge? We’ve only got a day and then it’s all someone else’s problem. Aren’t you the least bit excited?”

Pointless prattling. His section went on the first day, joined this one afterward to replace Badger, filling large shoes. No liked him then and no one does; faux happiness, uneducated, delusion and whines too much. Played with his cards too much. His face ripe for smashing in, fists clenching in readiness but they are fought back down. He’s easier than what lies beyond the mist and flame and smoke and shockwaves because he is within reach.

On that first day there had been nothing to see, feed the thirst of the muzzle, feel the bounce of metal from metal, a world reduced to the staccato bark of a mechanical master. A summer dawn, quiet of a morning with clear blue and birdsong, listening to the steel rain, sheets of death washing over and drum behind as the set up had been completed. They had walked, disbelief and ashen faced, they just walked but could not be seen. Spared that. Eight hours and the ammunition did not run out but the light did. “Half an hour you say?”

“Maybe sooner.”

“How can you talk like this? Come on! One more day! Surely they’ll give us one more day!”

“Shut up!”

Silence then, stretches across the foxhole like no-man’s-land after the shells have fallen, all sides drawing breath. Time to think, if it weren’t for the maddening rumble just loud enough to be grating but quiet enough to keep ears working. The slab of Kelly over, cards flipping once more. Always watching, waiting, listening to the tone and then the realisation that the rhythm has changed. Check inventory: postcard from home, the last; lucky coins; spare ammunition clips; grenade; bayonet; chocolate liberated from a farmhouse, only a small amount left; and nothing that was wanted would be left behind. Kipper stows his book, Mutch fingers his enemy pistol without bullets like a man possessed, Smiler runs the joker in and out of his palm softly.

“Who’s out there?” Meaning who was supposed to be out.

“Me.” Sarcastically deliver, no hint of humour, war breeds cowards.

A grunt. “Go check, let us know if you see anything.”

Two days after that slaughter they had changed their tactics to rushes and the Brass had adopted a policy of focussed withdrawals and ambush style counter-attacks to draw them in. Within a day we had been pulled out.

Spent time in a local village with local girls and local law, common enough for men pushed to the edge. Found one with flame red hair and a body that did not display too much of the ravages caused by her business. A tactical withdrawal from the inn, to the darkness of her room, with the darkness of her touch, in the darkness of the situation. Emotions over-ridden by suppressed instinct, proximity to death brings proximity to lust. Smell, lick, bite. Panting a secret language never heard by lovers, cut and thrust of the war beneath the sheets. Breakthrough and reserves brought up to exploit the gap. Emotionless groping, mutual meaningless mental masturbation. Flesh on flesh and virginity liberated by the invaders from another land. Some of them were willing but were better when they resisted.

He was right, no shower of soil as a greeting, almost calm across the unearthly scene lit by the first rays of dawn. Bruised blue around the cloud nestled in shell craters and abandoned sapping lines, confident enough to maintain strength on watch above, frustrating attempts to peer through the gloom. Ringed by red and purple dimming to cold blue above. Nothing. A cock of the head, there really was nothing: no rumble, no gunfire, no noise but birdsong. Again. They are coming.

“Section make ready! Time to get up and at ‘em.” The last uttered in a bored undertone, another eight hours? See nothing, feed the monster. Binoculars fished from webbing, raised up and scanning the close horizon carefully. Flurry of activity close, metallic clinks and clanks as a reception is prepared for the visitors from beyond the veil drawn across the front.

“Gun up Sarge!” his complaining over, Smiler is overcome by business and drill precision. Kipper brought ammunition and Mutch the tripod. Forty-eight seconds, not really the very best but it would do for now. Our Sergeant remained out of sight, quietly ensconced with his own demons inside but no one said anything. They never did, our Sergeant was a dead man, a charm against the enemy, an innocent from the salient years before: ineffable. He pulled a knife in the village, devil of a time explaining him out of that.

Water brought closer, cold stabbing through cheap winter wool, fingers red raw and shaking with leaking shoes. Cursing, low and guttural. Anticipation and squinting to see further.

Squeaking, a spring-like release; chugging of a petrol driven engine and the first tell-tale rattle of gunfire – their machine guns; much slower and louder than our own dogs of war in response.

“Steady, wait for the targets.” Senselessly wasting ammunition is not an option. Supplies are late.

“Sarge.” Simple and immediate confirmation. To the drill.

Return to vigil, that noise getting closer, along with the rattling of metal, the chattering of fire; how were they getting their guns closer?

A black form emerges from the funeral shroud, rolls forward shouldering aside banks of roiling white as it waddles over cuts, gulleys and listening posts. A most ungainly beast seemingly balanced and alive. Spews black fumes from top and side as if all the fires of Hell burn brightly within. Without waiting a gun opens fire from the specially constructed sandbag nest. An odd response, metal ricocheting from metal, the zing and plink of bullets a swarm of hornets in an orchard. Yet the beast is unperturbed and spits its own flame lit retort from deathly black muzzles peeking from front and sides. Involuntary flinch, vision replaced with blackness then the wood of the duck board. Hissing through clenched jaw. The gun belches its answer once more to the glockenspiel medley of the mocking ignorance of the beast and war breeds no heroes.

A scramble, a fountain that erupts all over all at once then moves so that Kipper is screaming for his mother. Hands all over his jacket, spurting pulses from holes that let the light through, gurgling as he falls. Ammunition spills with blood across the trench and another recruit joins the army of Heaven. Smiler keeps firing, five minutes ago he refused to contemplate another day, now he keeps pulling the trigger long after there’s nothing left for the firing pin to strike home.

A new smell, that of fear, in nostrils made alive by acrid cordite, new warmth on thighs and crotch, a weight dribbling down the back of gooseflesh buttocks to dare to lift eyes above the parapet once more. The beast, undaunted, reaches the end of the wire with its awful mass, still it rolls onward, inhuman, fell and clanking like father’s suit of armour in childhood games.

A tread on the lip, a rotating foot pulls the bulk in, a snout into the trough to feed on the young men served as swill inside. The machine gun is still clicking as the metal form claws and grasps the far wall, lifting up and out of our home beyond, to the green fields miles behind? Why is the gun still clicking?

The answers arrive and shoot him cleanly with rifles, one in field grey tunic and winter coat readies a grenade before hurling into the hole we just left. No sign of the Sergeant. Wicked bayonet points flash with moisture in the cold sun. “I surrender!” He’s from number four section, our left flank, his hands raised in supplication to the intruders.

One of them cups his ear as if he doesn’t understand or can’t hear and it’s been done before. Tales that when the devils reached the lines after eight hours of butchery there were no prisoners taken, that they are lusting for blood and only death will satisfy. Inhuman animals, baying and cawing.

“I surrender!” He repeats his plea, clutching to last ember to light his day.

A sneer, a shot, a perfectly executed bayonet thrust, a laugh, they leave. I look at Smiler, his arm draped over the cooling gun barrel, his head blown open and leaking over the carefully arranged sandbags and his body slumped beneath. Empty eyes staring into the beyond, like the Sergeant. Nothing left in the dugout that will be missed, but there is, the Sergeant was a talisman, a guarantee now lost and all that can be done is wait, and wonder. I saw the elephant, a thick metal hide and dark eyes malevolent in the bright dawn.

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