Monday, 28 July 2014

Mysteries of the Manifold Man

Recently, I entered a writing competition on The Cult of Me blog, hosted by Michael Brookes. The competition was to produce 500 words based around this photograph:

The winning entries for the competition, including my own, can be seen here, and I have also posted my entry below. As always, notes on the piece are at the bottom of this post. My thanks go to Michael for hosting the competition, and congratulations to the other winners. And now, the story itself. Enjoy.

Mysteries of the Manifold Man/Sitting And Watching The World Going By

‘You don’t understand the Manifold Man;
Don’t know what he sees with those eyes made of glass.
He’s sitting and watching the world going by
And watching the long ages pass.’
21st Century Proverb

Sometimes, they snigger in corners, the huddled masses, laughing at the Manifold Man, out in the cold. Sometimes, they pity his glassy eyes that can never smile; they wonder, in their quieter moments, if that gaping mouth has ever spoken the simplest of words.
“I love you.”
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Where were you when the bombs came down?”

The urchins in ragged scraps of cloth swarm about him when the winter subsides; they wipe his glassy eyes of their icicle tears and their small white hands free the snows from the thick folds of his own clothes. He is a friend to some, always there; he always listens as they pour out their troubles to his motionless form. He never judges them, never speaks, but they know he listens. He is a terror to others, and they sit by their bedsides as the fires die, watching him watching them; if they can’t see him in the street, he’s under their beds, in the dark of their corners, coming to get them.

“Don’t stay out tonight,” their tired mothers say, “the Manifold Man will get you.”
“But he never moves,” they say back. Hoping they’re right.

And as they watch him from shattered windows, or throng around firelights that keep the night at bay, they do not understand the Manifold Man. What he has seen. What he has done. Who he is, and what he was. It does not matter to them.

To them, he is a symbol, a grim reminder of the day the bombs came and the fire fell from the sky. He is an icon, proof that all can stand the test of time. A comfort by day to one lonely child, a terror at night to another. The older ones remember; he was there before they were, he will be there long after they’re gone. Has he always been there? They close the shutters, some afraid, some inspired. He is eternal; whether he brings fear or faith, he will always do so.

What does he see through those reflecting eyes, in the glare of the flames and the cool of the moon? The man who never moves, never speaks, does he see at all?

And the days come and go, and winters and summers blend into one. Stars move in the sky, new constellations rise and fall. Rock turns to dust turns to sand in the wind, and a thousand, a million, new faces flash past the Manifold Man. Still, he sits, motionless. Sitting and watching the world going by.

With long-dead eyes.


Author's Notes: 

- The idea for this one came to me almost instantly on seeing the picture. I knew immediately I wanted to both play on the post-apocalyptic themes and also do something more relevant to today's world. The focus of the piece can really be synonymous with any kind of common belief or ideal; everyone has their own interpretation of that. Some fear what others love, some hate what others have faith in. This manner of playing with perceptions against realities is something that can be seen in a lot of my other works, but this is by far the most overt example. 

That's all for today. As ever, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment. 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Survivor's Curse/Falling Idol

Well, it has been a long time since my last post here, and even longer since I posted any actual writing; I have been distracted for the last few weeks by editing a novel. Now, however, that process is complete, and I have found time to write something. Today's piece is another in the 'snapshot' series that began with The Dragon Awakens from a few weeks ago, and is a sequel of sorts, although it could well work as a standalone. As always, the notes on this piece are added below, so for now, enjoy!

The Survivor’s Curse/Falling Idol

“And so there I was, this bloody great scaly thing bearing down on me, and I bring up the trusty old iron and put a ball right in the bugger’s eye!” He finished, and allowed himself to be momentarily absorbed in the tide of adulation that rose from every corner of the inn.

Six men offered him a drink on the house, two maidens and one woman he knew for sure was married called out for him to sweep them away on his next adventure, a dozen children who shouldn’t have even been there cheered for more. Mouths hung open and eyes stared and hands clapped furiously as he concluded the tale.

Someone he didn’t recognise passed him another tankard and a hand seized his pipe to refill if from some other man’s supply of tobacco. It was every bit the hero’s welcome he’d expected and come to dread as he rode with the three unburdened horses and his own faithful steed from the furious Dragon’s rage.

He could tell them all that part of the tale; eager ears would lap up every word. He could embellish the story with deeds worthy of legend. He could watch them listen with baited breath as he imagined Dragonfire coming down mere yards from him, how he could have heard the roar as the great beast descended from the heavens. It would make a good story, at least.

But he could not tell them how he had lumbered, barely conscious, from the rocky crags, stumbled down the mountainside and slumped over his steed. He could never tell them of the tears that fell by the dozen as he tied together the three riderless horses that would never be mounted again. He could not ever tell anyone of the fear that gripped him at any moment that he too would be taken and devoured and lost to the ages.

He drained the tankard in one gulp, no longer feeling refreshed by the contents, and sighed. All these faces would expect something more from him. Another tale told, perhaps, or even a new one made. Yes, they would expect him to go forth once again to fight some other great evil, and he simply could not do it.

Abruptly, he stood, and forced his way through the crowd, feeling the ripple of disappointment spread as he made for the exit. Through the pike smoke and the press of unwashed bodies he fought, not meeting a single disappointed gaze, nor heeding a single pleading word. He stumbled out onto the wooden walkway and slammed the door shut behind him, bracing it with his weight before eager observers could force it open.
Slowly, he sank to the ground, and cast off his dented and pitted armour. The bracers and helmet he set at his side, and then unclasped the cuirass, letting it fall away at the front before shifting and allowing the rear plate to slide down behind him. He reached round and cast it aside, completing the pile of worn metal.

In the night air, sounds from inside barely seemed to reach him; a few steps had altogether separated him from their world. A honed warrior’s sense told him a scuffle had broken out within the inn, and that it was safe to move away from the door; anyone inside would be too busy not getting battered to pursue him.

He rested his hands on the wooden fencing that stood between him and the black water below, and stared into it, seeing the rippling reflections gaze back. A mirror of the stars above was so far distant from its heavenly origin, and the lights that shone in the water were lesser than those in the air.

His own face, too, was something different; the mirror-him did not have the tears on his cheeks, or old scars on his brow, or a permanent frown etched on his visage. It did not carry the burden of lost comrades on a foolish errand, or the expectation of greater victories born from a single lucky escape. It was another him, and maybe, it was the him he used to be.

Maybe, that was why the followed him, even into the dragon’s lair, that most ancient of terrors. Yes, they followed that younger, stronger, better man. The man not yet a hero. They followed him, and he hated them for it.

The two brothers who had fallen as the others tried to escape, barely more than boys. They could still be brawling in the desert dust if they hadn’t seen something in him that made them follow. That brave shield-maiden from the north that stood by him until the very last, until she too was torn apart could be with her tribe, none the wiser but safe, so safe. The toff’s boy, out for adventure, could still be with his father, pestering him for the coin to travel the land, bored but alive.

But no, they had all followed him blindly, as so many men had before, and now they too were dead. Dead like the band that stood with him at the Grey Pass against the Orcen, or the army he led in retreat at the Fields of Fire. All those men and women and boys that would haunt his dreams, all following that man that stared back from the calm waters.

The reflection was shattered, the mirror cracked by the point of his sword as he hurled it down into the depths of the water. He didn’t even realise he had drawn the blade, and now it was gone, sunk to the depths of that stilling lake, lost.

Next to fall were the gauntlets, cast from his wrists into the dark water, and piece by piece, the rest of the armour was similarly discarded. Piece by piece, he stepped away from that life that had seen so much death, and stared aimlessly into the night for something new. The sounds from behind him subsided, and soon, all was silent, cold and still. The water settled, the dark closed in, and he was left to wonder. What now?


The boy watched from the shadows as this hero of heroes stared, mad-eyed and motionless, into the dark. He was unarmoured now, and there was no sword at his side. For a moment, the boy did not understand; the stories of the bold Dragonslayer and the broken figured before him trying desperately to reconcile themselves in his fevered imagination.

How could this man, so bold and proud and might, be reduced to something so mortal, so fragile? In the moonlight, the boy thought he saw tears on the old warrior’s face, and this too he did not understand. Brave warriors did not cry. Little boys, scared of their schoolmasters, cried. Mothers watching their sons leave for glorious battle cried. But warriors did not.

Seized by a concoction of boyish intrigue and a slight fear, not for himself but for the man before him, he stepped out onto the walkway, out of the shadow of in inn, and stood quite visible in the moonlight. The warrior did not turn. He took another step, and another and another.

Loud, so loud, a plank creaked under his foot, and in a flash the warrior turned, suddenly alert, hands going for a blade that was not as hit side. Then, frozen as if bewitched, he seemed to wither a dozen years, and collapsed to his knees, eyes fixed with horror on the boy.

The boy didn’t step back, or run away, or do any of the cowardly things that the voice in the back of his head commanded, and nor did he heed the imagined warnings of his mother about talking to strangers at night. This was no stranger; this man was a hero, and he knew it. There was nothing else to do, in that childhood mind.

“’Scuse me, Sir. Yer all right, en’t ya?” he asked, taking another tentative step forward. The man made no reply. “I asked if you was all right.” He repeated. Still nothing but the look of terror on the warrior’s face. The boy laughed in the moonlight. “Ha, ‘course yer all right, yer a man, and a hero, and you’s killed dragons, en’t ya? ‘Course yer all right. Just a bit too much o’ the ale, then?”

He turn cheerily to go, leaving the warrior to his silent madness. What more could he do?

Before he could take a step, an icy cold hand closed around his trailing wrist, and the boy turned again, to stare into those incensed eyes that were only inches from his own. He slowly withdrew his arm, and it slipped through suddenly relaxed fingers. He could almost feel the strength of this greatest of men ebbing away.

“Yer all right, Sir?” he asked for the third time, this time unable to hide the tremor in his voice that existed somewhere between fright and awe.

“No, lad, I’m not, and I shan’t imagine I will be.” He replied sullenly, and the boy felt his heart beating faster. The Dragonslayer, the legend himself, was deigning to talk to him. It took him too long to find words, and the warrior spoke again. “Not all right. There’s good men and a good woman dead because of me, and I come back, and they call me a hero.” At this point, the boy had no choice but to interject; he would not be lied to.

“Buy y’are a hero!” he insisted. “Who else’d creep inta a Dragon’s lair and face the beast? Who else’d beat it? You gotta be, sir, ‘cos all them folks in there think y’are. Yer an ‘ero to them, sir. Yer an ‘ero to me.” His voice trailed off.

“A hero to you? Tell me, boy, you ever lifted a sword? Fired a gun? Course you haven’t, and mark my words, you die having done none of them things, you’ll die an old and lucky man.”

“But what about the glory, sir? The adventure? Surely that’s worth it, en’t it?” He gave a hollow bark, shattering the night quiet.

“Glory? What do we know of glory, we warriors? We make our living in other men’s death, and taking what don’t below to us, and we come back and you think us good men for it. There’s no glory in the killing, boy, and even less in the deaths.” He wiped a tear from his unblinking eye, and the boy could tell he was nearly sobbing.

“Ya lost someone, sir?” he asked, and the man nodded, nearly whimpering, so far apart from the bold, brash and confident façade he had worn inside. Without knowing quite why, the boy placed a hand on his shoulder. “Then I’m sorry, sir, for yer loss. But grieving won’t bring ‘em back.”

“You think I don’t know that, boy?” the man shook his hand away, and rose to his full height. He glared down, a shadow against the moon, and almost snarled. “They’re not coming back, boy, and neither am I. You’ve had your hero, you’ve watched him, now you’ve met him. Tell me, boy,” he went on, leaning in closer, “am I what you expected? Eh? EH? Is this the man you think of as a hero?”

The boy stepped back, uncertain, and for the first time realising he had been scared the whole time, but too proud in front of this man he praised so highly to admit it. His breaths became shallower, his hands got clammy. It was all he could do not to run.

“Nnn…no, sir. It en’t.”

“And what was it you did expect? Tell me, boy!”

Just a few more moments. A few more moments, and the guards would come, and they’d take this mad man away. Just a few more moments.

“To tell the truth, sir, I expected something… better.”


“Better, sir.” The boy laughed, and then laughed at the fact he was laughing. It was a brittle, shaking laugh, but it was a laugh. “’Cos all them things ya did; I thought all of ’em was for us, and I thought that ya’d know that, and that that was why ya did them in the first place. But no. No, you did them for yerself, and yer gonna stop doing them now, for yerself.”

“I have that right, boy.” he seethed.

“No, you don’t. ‘Cos when you picked up that sword, and killed them men and orcs and whatnots, we was safe, and we trusted in ya to keep us that way. And now yer walking away and ya don’t get it. You got a duty to us, sir, and if you don’t do it, all of us is gonna die someday.”

There was no answer, and by the time the boy had finished looking around, even the sound of boot steps was fading into the night, leaving him there to cry like he had been wanting to ever since he saw that man, staring into the dark.

He cried for that man he knew he’d never see again, and his friends that he’d never see, and cried for himself for the lie he’d believed. But most of all, he cried for those people, safe and snug in their beds, that had no one now to defend them.

And in that moment, he knew what he would do, and the world seems to fall away to let him.


A boy’s hand plunges into icy midnight water, sending ripples across the surface, smudging reflections out of existence.

Thin fingers fumble in the dark, groping for something they had lost, desperately trying to hold on to nothingness

After an age of wandering they find their prize, seize it, and pull, five fingers on cold metal, and soon they are joined by five more in that struggle to pull from the depths a memory and a ghost and a shadow.

And then it is done, and the hands rise, and a blade pulls free from the silt, soaring upwards and glinting in the moonlight. The metal reflected a smile; it had a purpose again. 


Author's Notes: 
- For this piece, I've adopted two rather different and idiosyncratic narrative viewpoints, in an effort to create contrast between young and old, reality and expectation, despair and hope and experience and innocence. Interestingly, though, by the end of the piece the young boy ends up claiming a moral high ground over his former hero, in many ways growing as a character just through his 1000 or so words of involvement. He's certainly not the same at the start as at the end. 

- The other thing I inadvertently found myself doing with this one was fulfilling a brief I read months ago in which one character teaches another, but in turn learns something profound through the process. However, in this case, that comes through the presentation of the learner rather than the teacher, so it's left to the imagination to decide what exactly was learned by the elder 'teacher'. It also highlights the fine line between wisdom and naivety; the boy may seem to be idealistic and childish, but above all he's right, which is part of what triggers the reaction. 

- The last section is really groundwork for expanding the story rather than this piece itself, but I thought I'd leave it in for the sake of it. Perhaps unfortunately, I now envision a much larger work growing from this, so I shall see where this leads... 

As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment below. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

CILIP Carnegie Winner 2014 announced:Reassessing The Bunker Diary (again...)

Yesterday afternoon, the winner of the UK's most prestigious book prizes was announced, and my utter disbelief, that winner was none other than the novel I reviewed back in March as being the most disturbing, distressing and utterly unsuitable book I have yet to encounter on the Carnegie Shortlist: Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary.

So why did it win? 

Setting aside my own personal opinions of the novel itself for just a moment, I want to consider some of the reasons why this book has been selected as the winner, despite being surrounded in controversy and regarded with disgust by several readers, both those I have read online and those I have encountered personally.

'The Carnegie Medal panel can’t resist a controversy,' 
The Telegraph's Lorna Bradbury writes, and I cannot help but wonder if this is the case. Certainly, there has been no attempt to shy away from controversial subjects, and the majority of the shortlists in recent years have included a deliberately contentious novel, thrown in among innocent children's books to place a cat firmly among the pigeons. In 2011, it was Jason Wallace's Out Of Shadows, which deals with racism, violence and class oppression in Zimbabwe, in 2012 it was Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Grey, which presented a harrowing presentation of life as a minority in the Stalinist regime. In light of this, it can't be denied that the judges are no strangers to putting books on the shortlist that pull no punches. 

But even considering their track record, The Bunker Diary stands apart from such novels. There is no lesson to be learned from the book. There is no theme to be presented. There is nothing to take away of any meaning. As I discuss in this article, there are themes that could be detected, such as the overriding atheist nihilist perspective on life, but only after extensive analysis of the plot, character and content. 

The upshot of the victory is an upsurge in publicity for both the medal and its winner, which will, of course, lead to greater book sales and awareness for both. Whether it is the journalists that are praising the win as marking a 'new direction' in children's literature, or those like myself lambasting the choice, it's all more publicity for the writer (who has produced several similarly disturbing reads) and the medal (which presents itself as the foremost prize for children's writing. While this is no bad thing, I find it a worrying prospect that this most depraved of books will soon be being placed into the hands of unwary children. Is the publicity gained by CILIP worth those many nightmares, I wonder? 

More to the point, are such themes as do exist in the novel right to be presented to children? (They are, after all, the target age group of the Carnegie medal, as much as 'Young Adult' is the word of the day). Of course they are not. But maybe, the judges and most of the readers remain, by dint of age and outlook, blind to this. I was lucky enough to join a discussion group on the book before the winner was announced, and found that I alone was horrified by it; none of the other adults or children in the group shared my opinions. 

The adults suggested they were less shocked as they were perfectly aware of the horrors of life, and of the issues around violence and drug use presented in the novel. The children, on the other hand, seemed to miss the point in several cases. Some remarked that the book was 'boring and repetitive', citing horrifying scenes such as the suicide of a character using his own glass eye as a knife and the attack of a rabid dog as 'exciting' highlights in an otherwise boring novel. So perhaps, it is nothing more than ignorance that has taken this novel to the top of the list; the adults already know what it's going to say, the children self-censor it to the point where they are blissfully unaware of the bleakness and depravity. 

There is also the argument that children and teen literature is taking a turn towards presenting more adult themes through dystopia that renders the Bunker Diary nothing more than a natural extension of such a trend. What this argument fails to consider is the context within which Brooks and other authors present their chosen subject matter. Themes of murder, drug use and cannibalism are just as common in Michael Grant's bestselling Gone series as in The Bunker Diary, but presented in an altogether different environment. Grant's works are set in a town surrounded by an impenetrable forcefield, in which mutations are triggering young people to exhibit strange powers. In other words, the whole thing is a science-fiction fantasy, and while every bit as well-written and -presented as Brook's novel, it is ultimately far-removed from what life 'really' is. Brooks, on the other hand, has a habit of writing far too close to reality in this and other novels, making the content all the more vivid and relatable. While I don't deny that as a purely literary feat, it is a great achievement to present such matters so vividly, it is not something that should be being pressed into the hands of children. 

The only other answer I can think is that the novel was selected as a winner was purely for its literary value, and having not read the remainder of the competition, I can't pass judgement in that regard other than to say that The Bunker Diary is, for what it is, well-written, but as I point out above, rather too well-written. I also don't think the value of that outweighs the potentially damaging effect that the novel may have on a reader that is no thoroughly prepared for what awaits. Given that the book will now be being presented in bookshops worldwide as what is essentially the 'children's book of the year' without any kind of warning or alert about the content is a thought that is alarming in itself. As adults who read (and presumably understood) the book, do the Carnegie judges not have a duty of care to ensure that, if this book is to be plastered across bookstores, it is done so in a way that makes it quite clear the journey to the final pages will not be at all pleasant?  

This, then, is my real issue with the book: it should not be presented to children in the way that a Carnegie medal winner inevitably will, and to me, selecting it as a winner is at best misguided, and at worst, irresponsible and dangerous. 

So what is it about? Is this time to reconsider?

One question that has been playing on my mind, aside from why the novel was successful in winning the prize, is precisely what Brooks aimed to achieve with it, and there are some clues in his reaction to receiving the award. In his acceptance speech, Brooks suggested an interest in challenging the 'ingrained' attitude that books must offer some hope, or reach a satisfying conclusion, and also stated that 'teenagers do not want' to be presented with what he termed 'artificial hope' in novels. He concluded that it would be 'patronising' to reward the readers who survived his harrowing novel with something even close to a happy ending. 

I have to take issue with this; if anything, an ending that provides a hint of positivity or hope acts to make the previous events more poignant. While it is a harsh fact of reality that happy endings are largely the realms of fairy tales, that doesn't mean that such depraved reality and utter nihilism that is seen in The Bunker Diary needs pressing into the hands of children that, in many cases, are largely unexposed (or so I would like to think) to the events and situations presented within. 

Brooks puts a lot of focus on how the number of young people 'reading for pleasure' is dropping and becoming a minority, but then produces a book that is impossible to enjoy, which seems something of a dichotomy to me. To me, reading for pleasure is something synonymous with escapism, and escapism is not in any way compatible with depravity, cannibalism, insanity or extreme and undiluted violence of character. There seems to be a thread within Brooks' work of moral ambiguity, and that reaches a head in The Bunker Diary. His comment about it being 'patronising' to provide all the facts or answer questions or offer hope strikes me as a sign he is out of touch with readers. 

This may perhaps be a less innocent age than the heyday of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Famous Five, but sometimes, we as readers want a sense of justice. We want the Good Guys to win and the Bad Guys to get their comeuppance. We want the hero to escape and be rewarded in some way for his endurance of the unendurable. Leave the grim realism to the newspapers; it's impossible to escape the sometimes horrible real world if we are only presented with the same in fiction. There is a line between fiction and reality that Brooks does cross expertly well, but it's arguable as to whether he does so in a way that warrants being given to unprepared, unsuspecting children. There is no education to be had from The Bunker Diary; even the obvious 'don't talk to strangers' that one would expect to result from the capture of the bunker's inhabitants does not exist. They were all powerless to prevent their capture. The only moral is that 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport', or in the case of The Bunker Diary, abandon us and let us kill ourselves. Not really a message we want to be presenting to children, is it? 

So the Carnegie medal is over for another year, and a novel that is unprecedented among the winners for its sheer and devastating bleakness has been blindly selected as a winner. I remain convinced that it even being selected for the shortlist was a mistake, and appalled that it won. Feel free to leave a comment about anything in the article, and as always, thanks for reading. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

And Now For Something Completely Different...

As the title suggests, I've taken something of a departure from my recent work with today's piece. History has been cast aside for Fantasy, something I've written a fair bit of but not really given much time to on this blog. Anyway, as always, the story is below, and the notes follow. Enjoy.

Scale, Tooth and Claw

They stumbled along on two legs two few, these stunted creatures that had dared end His aeons-long slumber. Their high pitched cries echoes around the gantries high above and swooped to assail its ears, ears unused to sound after so long in silence. The interlopers scurried into the shadows once again, and well they might.

For long ages of the world, he had waited in this deep place, guarded by a darkness that was more than the absence of light. No one had dared approach from the worlds of men, and those worlds had faded from memory; nothing more to Him than dreams of empires He had laid low, cities in flames and those endless droves of two-legged cattle that could sate even His mighty hunger.

And now, that age was over; silence was now noise, stillness was motion, and so many things He had forgotten were remembered. Surprise soon fell away to a long-dormant thrill of the hunt; the subtle tang of fear in the air was a sensation so long gone, but so sublime. He snarled a gloating warning; He would take his time with these ones, as was His will.

First, He recalled, came the wait. The wait that would pass in the blink of a heavy-lidded eye, for these creatures had not the patience of His kind. An age for them was one beat of His iron heart. Soon enough, they would show themselves, betray themselves to his majesty, offer their frail forms for the taking. It would be a spasm of movement or the slightest sound that gave him away. And there it was, as close as it always was to one of His immense stature.

A noise he recalled from so long ago, the high-pitched and quivering sound of fear made manifest. It was so very familiar, that sound, and it awoke something deep inside him. The furnace of his breath that had been cold for centuries suddenly burst again into flame, burning up from within and waited to be unleashed. But not yet. First, he would chase them.

As one, the huddled group stepped into the lighter darkness, believing themselves hidden, no doubt. The shadows no impediment to His sight, and he saw their spindly forms slinking away, fumbling across mounds of hoarded gold. One, He noted, dared even pocket a single coin. The theft was unforgivable

The distance between them was swallowed up in a single stride, buoyed by a beat of gigantic wings, and for a moment, he was before them, the fire of his eyes bathing them in a ruddy glow, and then came the chase. They would run, and he would let them, for the valiant deserved a glimmer of hope, and they were bold indeed to end his sleep. So He would test them, and watch them fail. And then He would kill them.

The group scattered and reformed between mountains of treasure, a fluid, moving flock that would offer a worthy pursuit. He toyed with them, as was his habit, allowing them brief moments of peace and refuge, moments of before plunging down from on high or bursting from beneath the piled gold, scattering it and them to the shadows. It was entertaining, this game they played, and he would let it go on for as long as he chose. What was left of their life was his to control; what was made of it was their own to decide.

Move for move He matched them, a hundred of their tiny steps made redundant by one of his, and the rush of air as the backdraft of His great wings sucked the very air from the chamber would throw them from their feet. Shakily they would rise, marvelling at their continued existence, and keep running, still refusing to accept the inevitable: that they were nothing more than prey.

He was fully alive now, muscles and flesh and sinew that had not moved in millennia now flexed in elated anticipation; they would make no more than a morsel, but revenge and this re-found exhilaration would sate Him for now. And then out, out into the world where new empires would have risen from the ashes of the old, ripened by time and now fresh and tender; a feast waiting for Him that none could deny.

A pair of intruders halted while the others fled, and turned to face Him, and raised sticks that breathed fire. So, it was a warrior’s death they sought. Then he would grant it. A swipe of a claw sent them left, a slicing wing right, and then a darting mouth agape forced them stumbling back,  sprawling at His feet. At His mercy. They raised the fire-sticks again, and something new happened.

The sensation was strange to Him. Sharp, small objects slid from his scales, a minor annoyance but one he relished. An acrid taste that was not quite smoke pricked at His nostrils. There was even the kind of pain he had not felt in centuries, a dull ache behind each impact. But it was no matter; what weapons they had conjured in the long centuries of His negligence would be no match for iron scales and ivory claws and the flames that came from so deep within.

Flames that now burst forth from that place, and filled this marble cavern he had made his own, a temple to his might, turning gold undisturbed for centuries to molten flows and charring white stone black. How could any hope to resist? But still they did, darting this way and that, scattering where the flames took root and cowering where they thought he could not reach.

One of the fire-stick-bearing trespassers fell to the cascade of fire, burnt to cinders in a flash and snapped up in a burning maw. A mouthful, but the first of many. Two more were pinioned by razor claws, their bodies rent and torn and consumed moments later. The chase was over, the feast was begun. Only one more remained.

And where could it be, this most elusive of creatures? It mattered now; let it cling to its last few moments, cowering in the dark and savour them. He would savour its terror. The strong kill the weak, and He was the strongest. This last creature, this petty blight on his magnificence, would soon be as cold and dead as the corners he trembled in.

Again, that dull ache came, and with it, a sound like the crackling of timber in a forest fire or the crack of a claw on stone. A second sound, and this time he caught sight of a flash, like lighting but brighter. This new weapon was strange, fascinating. Valuable, and he would have it. A scaled head turned to face the light where, again, the lone figure was illuminated.

He would be shown some respect in death, for it was no small thing to face a Dragon and stand his ground. His death would be fast, but honourable. One limb at a time, He turned to face this bold prey, and inclined His head, His serpentine neck reaching out in a salute that was not mocking or cruel. A warrior this man had lived, and a warrior he would die. He prepared Himself for the final blow, a single bite that would end-

The pain was unbearable, an angry biting burning stinging stabbing flailing fiery pain. A pain he had never felt before, and something hot and red fell onto the gold below. Every piece of His being screamed in abject agony and in that moment the world was darker; the vision of the warrior vanished and was replaced by blackness. How? Why?


By the time the pain subsided and His eye stopped burning, the scent of flesh had long gone; only the acrid smoke and metallic tang of spilt blood remained heavy in the air. Slowly, sluggishly, He became aware it was his blood that had fallen in drop and spread in thick pools across the cavern floor. The thought of that red liquid outside his thick hide was alarming.

Tentatively, he dipped a claw in the pools and brought it to his mouth, his tongue darting out to taste it on instinct and recoiling at the metallic sharpness. He lifted the claw higher, and watched the liquid drip to the floor where it splashed and rippled out in neat circles. He shifted His head again, and then stopped. Where he had once seen, there was now darkness.

Gently, his tongue flicked up and probed the eye, met with the same taste of shed blood. Blinded. Blind. A roar of rage escaped unbidden, causing tremors in the rock. A hide armoured thick that had defended him from a thousand shafts and blades, and this new weapon had found His one point of weakness. He was drowned in respect for this warrior, and something else, something he only knew by instinct.

Fear. He was afraid. Not so invincible as He had once believed, and where one had succeeded, now many more would follow. They would come in their hundreds as news spread of a Dragon laid low, a Dragon spited, and they would bring more of those fire-sticks. Enough, maybe, to hurt Him further. Enough, maybe, to slay him.

No, that would not do, for He was greatest among creatures, and he would not be cowed. Revenge would be had; a warrior’s fate had been offered and spurned, and this time He would not snow mercy. Cities would burn before His honour was restored, His vengeance had. It was time, once more, for Him to emerge and remind the peoples of all the lands why they left in slumbering in peace.  

One beat of his wings carried him into the air, another set Him sailing across the cavern and up, up to the mountain’s spire, where long ages ago he had sundered stone and descended into the dark. Now, at last, He would return, and the worlds would again know the terror that came with every beat of His wings and each gout of flame that issued forth from between razor teeth. The light was in sight now, and He flew towards it, out, out into the world, heralded by flames.

 Smoke rose slowly through the mountaintop and blackened the sky, and with that smoke, carried in the shadows, came a darker shadow, and a roar of a new age dawning. Wings spread to blot the sun, and cataracts of flame harboured in the stomach of this most ancient of creatures replaced its light; for miles, all was bathed in fiery light, a forewarning of something so old and so new.

Somewhere in that roiling mass of smoke and flame, reptilian lips parted in a cruel smile, and the slits of a single dome-like eye scoured this new land he did not know. Hurricane wingbeats would carry him to where the cattle was richest, and steely talons would prepare the prey. Fiery breath would cleanse His kingdom, and once all this was done, colossal jaws would feast as they had aeons before. The world was changing, and the dragon would take His place as its master. 


Author's notes:

- The idea for this one came to me when considering the nature of Dragons in various fantasy settings; they're mostly shown as either intelligent but subservient to other races, willingly or otherwise, or they're portrayed as mindless beasts. So at some level this was my attempt to restore balance to the Force, and represent the dragon in a way one rarely sees

- The character of the Dragon in this one is something that I've left deliberately ambiguous. I've tried not to make him a force for good, because he's not, but I don't think he reads as inherently evil either. He's doing what he does because, as far as he is concerned, he is the strongest creature alive, and has that right to do as he pleases. There's an arrogance to him, but only because he's better and he knows it. So maybe he's evil, or maybe he's just doing what he thinks is natural.

- In the style of writing style itself, I've tried to straddle the line between archaic and melodramatic, to add to the impression of the dragon being an ancient force, slightly out of touch but also convinced of his own power; he's not being over the top, just revelling in his own power. Again, I aim for this to add to the ambiguity of the narrator.

- So what is this all for? Well, it may be just a one off, but on the other hand, I've got a few other ideas kicking around that would entail a degree in world-building. Several characters could easily fit this setting, and I quite like the idea of it becoming a series of sorts, but with no real plot other than some very overarching themes, simply exercises in character and style. I've chosen the fantasy setting as it allows me to be far more idiosyncratic in writing than any other kind of world, and gives a lot of creative freedom, a blank canvas so to speak. So there may well be more in this series of 'snapshots' in the near future. 

As always, thanks for reading, any comments are welcome

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

After The Fact

Another instalment in The Poet's War today, and again, this one is a direct sequel to the last.

After The Fact

20th February 1915

Everything had gone wrong, and the words had stopped. The blood that splashed across the trench wall was just blood, the look of dawning comprehension on the young boy’s face before the knife fell and froze it was simply that. He understood, and he died. Smith always wished he had been the one to do it; unlike Johnson he would not have relished the deed.

The mission had, according to the papers at his fingertips, gone off without a hitch. Two maps and a sheaf of probably useless papers had been recovered, only one man had been killed (a hero’s death, the letter he had yet to sign assured the bereaved family) and there were two less Germans in the world. In his more lucid moments, Smith couldn’t help but wonder if, somewhere just a few hundred yards away, another man was sitting in this same place, papers waiting on another desk to tell half the story.

And somewhere, he knew that three men lay face-down in the mud, blood joining that of a thousand others, all red, red, red. Private A. (Alan? Adrian? Anthony?)  Carter, the letter told him, and all he could do was sign it. That was the closest he’d come to ever knowing the man, this same letter that he’d sent too many times before. And two other men, who to all intents nothing more than numbers on a report, neatly filled out and filed and forgotten.

He reached for the whiskey, trying to recall if it was his second or third of the night. It didn’t matter; he didn’t do this often. But there were days like this that merited something a little stronger than coffee. From the corner of his eye, Smith noticed Johnson giving him a suspicious glare, but ignored it and slammed the glass back to the desk. He would not be condemned by the man he had seen smile as he took a life.

He folded the papers away and placed them in the prepared envelopes, and paused for a moment before placing the lid on the pen. There was so much more to write, but where to write it. How could he tell some far-off mother that her little Alan (he looked like an Alan) had died a hero’s death, how he screamed as the bullet tore into his back as he tried to run, crying, for a home he could never reach?

How could he write the names of the men he never knew in that tiny box that asked only for a number? No one would ask, and no one would expect him to tell. This was now a war of paperwork, and names didn’t matter. Only numbers, and the simple addition and subtraction of human life. The glass came to his lips again, disappointingly empty.

“Sir,” said Robson for the third time, the words finally penetrating the haze of barbed-wire thoughts and land-mine nightmares. “The van’s arrived for HQ, sir. Those forms, the letter. You want me to run them up there, sir?”

Smith struggled to his feet, straightened his uniform into some semblance of order, and shook his head. “No, Robson, it’s all right. I’ll do it. I could do with a walk.” He paused for a second, catching Robson’s face fall in that way it always did when told to wait behind. Maybe he was being a little harsh on the boy, but he needed to get out of the dugout. “You can join me if you want, lad. Christ knows no one likes sitting around here.” He shot a pointed glance at Johnson, who did not look up from polishing his knife.

He would never wash the stains away, Smith thought, thinking of Macbeth and that terrible butchery of it the dramatics society had put on in 1912. The mad man, huddling in the middle of the stage, backlit and howling, soaking his hands in red paint that would not wash off. Melodrama at its worst, and yet oddly appropriate in this emphasised, vivid hell.


Robson left the dugout in Smith’s shadow, the light momentarily obscured and then splintered around the corporal’s form. He noted the revolver at his waist as the handle caught the light, and for a second, envied the fact it had been used so recently, while his own rifle lay unfired by his bunk. The corporal had been given the chance he had not; why did he look so broken and haunted in the early morning glare?

He struggled to keep pace through the mud, and all too often slipped from the soaked duckboards, saving himself only by a hand shoved against the trench wall. Smith did not once look back to help him or reprimand him. It was as if he were in another place entirely.

Even when they passed Anders, cheerily heading back towards the dugout with his latest culinary ammunition, Smith didn’t return the greeting of the only man he seemed a friend with, staring resolutely ahead and barely even breaking his step to let the batman past. Robson nodded a good morning, but was similarly ignored. Everyone seemed to be in their own world this morning, and as always, he was an outsider to all of them. Quite what he had been expecting he had almost forgotten, but it was not this half-silence and muttered curses and constant fear and anger.

The corporal had his own problems; every day the whiskey bottle he kept on his desk was emptier, and every night he was the last one to sleep, sitting up into the long hours of the morning with nothing but a glass and that bloody ever-present notebook. Robson found himself unable to care what he disclosed to those pages. It didn’t matter.

Johnson, he was out just for revenge. There was only one reason he spent hours cleaning an re-cleaning his rifle and bayonet, and it wasn’t for inspection; his boots went unpolished, his uniform unpatched. He lived only to deny others that state. Robson could understand that; it was the most base and inexplicable aspect of human nature he knew all too well. Those that cannot have do what they must to deny others the same.

Anders, well, he was just the cook. And the cleaner. And whenever there was something to be done, he’d do it. He kept the dugout running while Johnson and the corporal tore themselves apart with their demons. But where was the glory in that? Did the ageing man sometimes wonder what it would be like to rise up over that flimsy barricade, into the wasteland and wait for something new to come?

And Robson, what was he? An outsider to all of these, a stranger they refused to come to know. He was a hero-to-be that would never get to claim that right. He was betrayed, victim of so many promises not delivered on.

No, he was a soldier, and he would do his duty while these other, lesser men fought themselves.


Author's Notes: 

- This one is very much a character piece; you get a very introspective view of the inner workings of Smith's mind and how's it's changing, and then the complete opposite of that in Robson's deliberately flawed analysis of each character in turn. Obviously, Robson's thoughts are too idiosyncratic to be reliable, but one also has to question whether Smith has kept enough of a grip on reality to be a trustworthy narrator. 

- The change in narrator is meant to add to that effect, and work to create an impression that it's impossible to understand this situation. Smith and Robson both have such diametrically opposed views that they can't both be right, but the question is, are either of them? Well, I shan't spoil it here, but there's going to be a lot more of that going forward, and I may even re-write some of the narratively later pieces to begun to tie all of this together a little more. It's rather strange to see how far this story has come from its beginning that was the end, and how it really has taken on a life of its own. 

Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to leave a comment. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Sentry

It's been a while since I've had time to write anything decent, but I've finally managed to put together the next piece in the Poet's War series. It's taken me a long time to decide where I wanted to take this one, but in hindsight I'm actually rather happy with the direction it's taken. Without further ado...

The Sentry

19th February 1915, France

In the dark, the party were almost invisible as they crawled across the emptiness of no-man's-land; their presence was only betrayed by the tiniest movements and shifts in the blackness to a deeper shade. Shadows in the dark, silent and deadly. Ghosts in the night.
‘Ghosts in the night?’ Where did that come from? Robson thought as he watched from afar, casually peering through the gap between the sandbags, fighting for a glimpse of Smith and the others before they vanished from sight. Must be the corporal's blasted poems.
He kicked the dirt at his feet and stared up at the stars and tried to think about anything but where they were going and where he was not.
‘All this way for this, and the bastards beat me to it. Typical.’


Smith eased forward another inch, all too aware of the scraping thudding sound his rifle was making against the dirt, and the glint of moonlight at the point of his bayonet, and the creeping, crawling sensation as some unseen, multi-legged insect tap-danced across the back of his motionless hand. He resisted the urge to swat it away; any move could mean death for him, or worse, for his comrades lying in the dirt just feet from him, faces staring down, maybe wondering if the faces of their own fallen brothers in arms were staring back up from the blackness of this graveyard of the nameless, nationless dead.

What did it matter from where the bone came that crunched under his shifting boot? Why did he suddenly care about the name of the corpse whose foetid odour forced him to silence Johnson’s gagging with a sharp nudge? Who these men were that lay in the mud with him, living and dead, from worlds apart, were? Where they came from? None of it mattered. And yet, it did.

Robson folded the photograph back into his chest pocket, feeling his heart beat slightly faster against it, and drew the letter from his pack, five days old and creased beyond recognition. So many times he’d read and reread the meaningless words, and now he was reading it again. It was too dark to see, but he knew it by heart now. He sneered when she talked of an ‘afterwards’, when they could be together again. He laughed when she promised him she’d wait for him; he wished she wouldn’t. It would give him a reason to leave.

His fingers tore absent-mindedly at the corner of the crumpled paper, not quite ready to complete the motion on and down and rip the hollow words apart, scatter them on the still breeze that barely stirred the clouds above.

Robson tore his eyes from the words he couldn’t read and scanned the grey-black yet again, but there was nothing to see. Black sky showed through sheets of cloud, and white stars through that, but nothing moved. Grey hills rolled away to the south and a sea of mud stretched out before him, but nothing moved. Not a man or a beast or a light or a sound in that terrible, terrible darkness.

He knew that somewhere in that dark, a thousand rifles lay ready to be taken up and bring the starlight to this Earth. A thousand pairs of boots waited to be called to march forward, into the open night, and bring it to life. A thousand eyes, or maybe just two, watched this wasteland and waited for the call to arms, where drowned memories and empty, unlooked-for promises could finally be forgotten in clashes of fire and lead.

Maybe it was just him, he pondered. Maybe he alone was waiting for that moment; others had already had their honour satisfied. Certainly Smith and Johnson had seen battle, even Anders, the cook, bore scars along his cheek that twitched and narrated a history of battle. ‘The Sudan’, he would say, ‘when I was in the Sudan…’

Yes. All of them were heroes but him, and even now, Smith was crawling once more into the valleys of death with his very own Light Brigade, men different from Robson only in that they had been chosen while he was left aside. Did they not trust him? Had he not yet proved himself? How could he, when all the duty he was given was to watch, and wait, and wonder.


Just yards from the trench now, and once again, the words were building to a crescendo in Smith’s head. The dirt was not dirt but a brown river, streaked with red, frozen with the weight of untold dead. The moonlight was not simply silver but beams of day pouring down, casting shadows on this darkening ground, where men and ghosts must surely drown. The wire he eased himself under was a million barbs of purest spite, murderers in the still of the night.

He shook his head; this was no good. The poetry could wait. He had a job to do. The others drew closer around him, and on his signal, moved forward again, with more intent than before. In Johnson’s eyes, the moonlight betrayed a pallid hunger for revenge and death that would only be sated if everything went wrong. They would go in, silent and deadly, and get out with a prisoner, leaving no trace. Ghosts in the night.

Smith peered over the edge of the trench, drawing his rifle up beside him, and detached the bayonet, readying it like a knife. He lodged the rifle against a fallen sandbag; in the confines of the trench it would only slow him down. He gave the next signal, and as one, they moved up and over the trench’s narrow walls, sliding down in an avalanche of dirt and wood. Carefully as he could, he stifled the clattering planks, and got to his feet. Ten minutes, and they would be gone.

A pale face come round the corner,
Aghast with fear, agape with wonder,
And screaming with that final breath as-

Everything went wrong.


The night came to life, a single flash and a million echoes of that flash, and fire rising up in bursts from the distance. Screams began to cascade down, friend and foe indistinguishable in the chaos, united only in pain and suffering. And with every scream and rifle’s flash, someone was made a hero, in death or victory immortalised.

Everyone except him.


Author's Notes: 

- As noted in this post's introduction, this chapter posed something of a dilemma in direction in that it was my first chance to really depict Robson 'on the front' as it were, but at the same time, there is still a lot unresolved from the last chapter to feature Smith and Johnson. While the latter issues are only really hinted at in this piece, I wanted to make sure they were still there. Both threads of the story will be developed more, and hopefully brought together. 

I'm not yet at a point where I want Robson and Smith to be directly interacting, but at the same time, they both needed to feature in this story to exacerbate the difference between them. I'd already done that a bit in 'Shellshock' (chronologically after this piece) but by including the two perspectives on this same event, it threw up some interesting contrasts that almost wrote themselves. To Smith, the war is starting to become unimportant; the only thing he is fighting for is to save lives, it's no longer about flags and nations. Robson, on the other hand, is eager to be a part of the war but can't be for reasons that will become apparent later on. For him, the promise of glory is elusive, for Smith it has been proven to be a lie (in his first appearance, 'When the Clock Strikes Ten', Smith is not unlike the idealistic Robson seen here). 

- Robson himself is a very interesting character to write, because there's so much contrast within him. He doesn't want to die, but longs for the chance to prove he can survive. He's pining after a woman who doesn't love him, while mocking a woman who feels that way about him (See 'The Making of the Man if you've lost track of what I'm on about). He's bored with the lack of action, but totally unprepared when it does come.  So he is a fascinating character, although not a 'good' one; he holds double standards, longs for bloodshed but only to pursue innocent childhood dreams, and as such, he makes a very nice counterpoint for Smith's principles and sense of 'rightness'. I look forward to playing with that further down the line. 

- Again, there's the lexical difference between Smith and Robson; Smith describes things, Robson narrates them. There's some overlap, in an attempt to almost connect the two characters (but not quite), but Smith is certainly the more passive of the two, Robson the more active. In this piece, that contrasts a lot with the roles they find themselves in.  

That's all for now. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment. All the chapters I mentioned above can be found in the Ongoing Works tab in narrative order. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Making of the Man

Today, I have another piece of the First World War series, and it's an interesting reasons. In the larger narrative, it's the first introduction of a character that will feature heavily later on, and much like Smith's first and last chapter, there's a lot of symmetry with his own end.

The Making of the Man

Five years old, and summer, and the children are playing, their whooping calls and laughs grating against Robson’s ears as he stands apart from the crowd. He would never be one of them, free to cavort and caper across the green fields, and to cheer in the warm air. How could he hoot and be merry with those words in the back of his head? Father isn’t coming home. He could never smile with them, and they hated him for it.

Older now, and in a darker place, and a fist slamming into his gut. He doubles over and splutters red on the cobbles, and does nothing to stop the hands that begin to rifle through his pockets. He has nothing to take anyway, but that won’t stop them.  This isn’t about money, it’s about who he is, and what he isn’t, and he isn’t one of them. He’s a target, nothing more, and it’s all he can do to hide the tears as the fists come down again and again and again.

She presses the soaked cloth to his face, trying to wipe away the worst of the blood, but it’s no good. The split lip has turned his chin red, and each cheek is an angry welt, scars from a battle he has already lost and will lose again. There will be no hiding this time, only mocking apathy and worse scorn. He looks up, into her diamond blue eyes, and she smiles somehow. With him here bleeding and sore, she actually smiles as she takes his hand.
“A soldier,” she laughs. ”A hero.”
Everything stops hurting.

“Smile.” Comes the command, and Robson forces his face into something like a grin, hand tightly gripping hers, perhaps too tightly. He doesn’t want this moment to end; he wants more than the photograph to be frozen in time. He could stay here forever. All too soon, the flash comes, and she steps away slightly, leaving his smile to fade with the receding glare on his retinas.
e could stahe here foreer.

Older still, lost in the smog of London streets, another day at the factory stretching out endlessly before him. Footstep by lethargic footstep he treads the cobbles, through the fog and bustling crowds, no one sight lingering for more than a second. An old beggar becomes a drunken youth that falls away and transforms again into a smart, clean-shaven soldier smiling giddily at the world. The figured seems to transfix Robson, a picture of another life, his father’s life; adventure and glory awaits this man, worth the risk. This, Robson decides, is real freedom.

Later, and the day has ebbed away, second by second. He lifts the tankard to his lips and drowns his exhaustion in the foaming beer, the world distorted by the emptying glass, blurring shapes becoming solid once more. And those shapes, khaki and red and diamond blue, entwined in the smoky corner of the bar. She stands there, laughing, with a soldier and a hero and not him. Someone tugs at Robson’s sleeve, waving a formless limb at the door and escape. He doesn’t even think twice as he takes the hand of the girl he never loved and slips into the oblivion of her arms.

War. Britain is at war, and every face in those serried ranks of khaki marching off reminded him of that night where he lost everything to a faceless soldier. He looks away as the crowd passes, as women throw themselves towards the green-brown line and are thrown back, a cascade of flowers their parting gesture. Wherever these men are going, they leave as heroes, and the men they leave behind are cowards. No one will give him a second glance now. There is nothing left for him here.

“Name?” says the officer, and Robson stammers something unintelligible, trying not to wither under his stare. “Name?”
“Robson. Ian Robson.” He says again, clearer this time, and the officer nods. Robson wrings his hands as the next question comes, the one that will decide his future. 
“Eighteen.” He says.

“Very good.” The officer frowns, but hands him the papers. What is that in his face? Anger at being lied to? Jealousy that Robson has the courage to fight while he sits here doling out forms? No, it’s pity, but he doesn’t know why. He had lied, and the officer knows it, but what did it matter now? Robson was going to war… 


Author's Notes: 

- The style for this piece is a very different one to a lot of this series, in several ways. First of all, it is written in a very 'instant' manner, and by that, I mean that it should hopefully be a bombardment of moments, an entire life on the page. 

- The other decision I made here was to narrate it in the present tense. I think this adds to the immediacy of the various scenes, and to the idea that everything is happening in a flash, as opposed to having already been and gone. I also wanted a direct contrast with Smith's sections- where Smith is slow and often poetic in his descriptions, Robson is very much more sudden in his way of looking at the world. If it doesn't 'happen', he loses interest, hence why this piece is so jumpy. 

- This piece also represents the start of Part 2 of the series, set in 1915, and should both contrast with the last chapter of Part 1 and lead nicely into the next few chapters. 

- As a final note, I've edited Robson's first-written last-chronologically piece, Back To Life, to better reflect the themes and ideas that came to me in forming the character here. Check it out here

That's all for today. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to comment. 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

A New Dawn?

Today's piece is another instalment of the ongoing World War One series, The Poet's War, and follows on directly from the previous piece. As usual, newcomers can check where it fits in relation to the other pieces on the Ongoing Works page, and notes are below.

A New Dawn?

14th November 1914

Stephens’ face stared blankly back at nothingness as they lowered him silently into the shallow grave, in truth little more than one of the less-flooded shell holes that littered what was left of the trench amidst the craters, shattered structures and littered detritus of battle. The eyes, unmoving and still, were what captivated Smith the most, some morbid fascination preventing him from looking away. The rest of Stephens’ face was a torn and bloody mess, ripped ragged by a single bullet, but the eyes were untouched. He could be watching a play, or a game of cricket on a summer’s afternoon with those staring, round, peaceful eyes, and they would still look the same, so real, so alive.

Alive in what Smith was rapidly beginning to accept was a dead and dying world. Too many corpses lay unrecovered in the chaotic ruins of what had once been a trench, too many sights hinted almost casually at the scale of the death surrounding them. Across that wasteland, nothing moved, nothing grew, and nothing lived.

Through the smoke that still hung over the vacated battlefield, the odd flare or cry would go up, the searchers and survivors locked in an ever-shorter game of Hide-And-Seek, counting the seconds, not until they were found, but until that was immaterial. A single tear rolled gently down his cheek, a gesture that seemed altogether too insignificant for the sheer hell he found himself in.

Just as suddenly as the world had burst into vivid live as he had approached the front lines, every sight and sound and smell a fusillade of words and lines, falling together and gone in seconds, it had become quite dead equally quickly. Somewhere in the last four blood-soaked days, the illusion had been shattered, the reality had become a nightmare, and what had once seemed a wide open world had transformed in an instant into something confined, trapped and claustrophobic. 

He couldn’t yet tell entirely when the sudden transformation had occurred, only that it had. Maybe when Stephens’ face, that same face he now looked down at, had been split red by the first shot fired in anger. Maybe it was when the grey lines had moved across the grey field, puppets jerking in haphazard motion ever closer. Maybe it was when that grey met his khaki and both were made red, bayonets plunging in riflelight. Or maybe, it was when he had stopped after days of alert readiness and near-constant bloodshed, and finally slept, as dead to the world as the corpses around him. Maybe that new dawn was what had finally tipped him headlong into this nightmare.

“We should say something. You should, sir.” Johnson muttered, the first words Smith had heard him offer since the fighting had stopped. There was something new in his voice, but also something gone, as if scorn had been relieved by a shattered pride. He had not seen much of Johnson in the battle, but the giant man seemed somewhat diminished by the ordeal, stooped over this shallow grave and looking as solemn as if it were his own opened up before him.

“Aye.” Smith began, and then paused as the words caught in his throat, which seemed to tighten around them and force them back, intent on preserving the silence. He tried again. “Our Father, who art… who art…” He could not bring himself to say Heaven in this complete hell. “Ah, bugger it. Goodbye, Stephens. Goodbye, little Lenny Stephens. Goodbye.”

Smith pressed the shovel into Johnson’s reluctant hands and turned away without another word, not meeting the eyes that were deader than those of the corpse in the shallow pit. Some detached fragment of his mind wondered what his own would reveal should he dare to look. Ghosts in firelight of fallen men? Empty, dark spaces, a door to the soul that had just departed? The same fixed stare that he couldn’t shake from his mind?

With every step away from the open grace, the wet ground underfoot seemed more reluctant to let him leave, grasping and clinging at his boots.  Smith was tempted to let it keep him. Somehow, what meagre ceremony had been held did no justice to their fallen friend; he deserved something more. But then, others were still out there in the wasteland and the gunsmoke mist, dead and dying and so alone. He should be grateful they were able to give Stephens a send-off at all.

After an age, another tear fell, and this time it was one among many, a single tear for a dead friend amidst a torrent for nameless others. Through blurred eyes he looked back at the grave. Johnson had planted a makeshift cross of charred timber, and fallen to his knees before it, occasionally wracked by silent sobs. Smith left him to his grief; he would at least allow the man some dignity as he diminished.

Somehow, Smith was certain it was over for now. Over for Christmas. Whether it was the first hints of snow in the air, or the first silence of the relentless guns, or the complete lack of anything left to fight for he did not know, but he knew another attack would not come, at least until the new year. A winter, then, to grieve for the fallen and rebuild the trenches that would be their only monument, and welcome with open arms and forced smiles the men that would doubtless be sent to replace them.

And then what? They could do it all again when the winter ceased, or even before if they chose, and for what? For the foreign soil that clung to his boots, unremarkable, worthless, but urging him to stay with every step away? For the flag that hung in tatters over a burned-down ruin where so many men had already given their lives? For the hope that maybe, one day, far away, some other generation would not have to face the same?

Without knowing how it got there, Smith found the diary in his hand, miraculously unscathed despite the fighting, and opened it to a fresh page, letting the blood and mud on his hands stain the crisp whiteness; there was no purity here. Perched on an overturned barrel, pen in hand, he began to try and put some meaning to all of this madness. For minutes, maybe hours, nothing.  

When, at last, the words came, there were only two. It was enough.

What Now?  


Author's Notes: 
- The first thing I had in mind with this piece was to really bring to the fore something that has been a constant, if subtle, feature of this series from its inception, namely that what I really intend to focus on is not the actual fighting of the war but the myriad effect that it has on the men who took part. While it's tempting to write an out-and-out battle scene (and one may well be forthcoming further along), I think in this particular context, it's better to only hint at the real fighting rather than present it directly. 

-The other advantage of this is that it leaves the exact reality to the imagination, which no doubt does a far better job of presenting the sheer insanity and hell of the fighting than words could ever hope to. 

- This piece possibly the first one which really functions better as part of the narrative than as a standalone piece. Not only does it herald a complete change in both Smith and Johnson and their perceptions of the war, but it also occupies the position of a turning point in the tale as a whole. It is only now that the promise of being  'home for Christmas' (hinted at towards the end of the piece) becomes an impossibility and the true nature of the war is revealed. This will also contrast nicely with the introduction of a new character to present 'part 2' of the story, but that'll have to wait for now. 

That's all. As ever, thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment, and I hope you enjoyed the piece.