Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Absent Friends

As I mentioned yesterday, I have another of the writing exercises complete, and where yesterday's was a prequel to my other World War One work, today's is a conclusion, to these stories at least. I shall be revisiting these characters at some point, but this piece certainly marks the end of their collective story. It is set a few days after this piece.

The piece is based on creating absent characters. Again it's over the word limit, and I've taken a bit of liberty with the brief, focusing more on the effect of the absence on a character present. The first 500 words or so do work on building the non-present characters, but after that it really is the story of the protagonist himself. Here it is:

Absent Friends/After the End

The Somme, France, 3rd July 1916

The dugout was silent, Robson’s reverberating full-belly laugh conspicuous by absence. The pile of papers on Smith’s makeshift desk uncharacteristically scattered, July snow fallen in sheets on the surface. Next to them, neatly perched on the edge, a parcel that had arrived too late, unopened.

Anders lit the candle as night fell, and turned for a moment to ask what time the lads wanted waking. The words were halfway from his lips when they stumbled and slid to a halt. The sound seemed to echo for an age before fading, as if waiting for a reply that would never come. He forced out a choked cough, shattering the spell before it could fully take effect. Too long in this ghostly silence and he’d start hearing voices.

No, that wasn’t it. He would never stop hearing them. Smith barking orders, a compassion behind the barbed commands. Johnson would never stop complaining about the way the lintel hung too low on the left or the constant but gradual trickle of water from the leaking roof of the dugout. As the watch hit nine, he almost heard Robson’s cheery daily announcement he was heading off for duty. Anders turned to wish him good luck before he could stop himself.

After an eternity of the echoing voice calling back, the silence gathered and stalked back in, the ticking of the old watch the only noise keeping it at bay. Anders pulled out the watch, the brass case glinting in the candlelight, and watched the hand tick round, seeming not to count seconds but hours in the never-silent half-light. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

For the thousandth time, Anders heard Smith telling that same story, how this watch had been pressed into his hands as a comrade lay dying in the mud, how he had kept it safe across the breadth of France, and when home on leave, had paid a small fortune to have engraved into the polished brass casing, a dead man’s words.

When all is burnt and all is dead
When all the world is blood-stained red,
When all our wars come to an end
Then will Death be called our friend.

An epitaph, he’d called it. An epitaph to a good man.

‘Bloody poets,’ Johnson didn’t say as Anders traced the tiny words with a finger, ‘if they’d spend as much time with a rifle as a pen we’d be a damn sight closer to winning this damned war.’ The tirade continued for some time, silently writhing in Anders’ head, over and over and over and over and…

He stopped still, frozen but for his eyes, darting from place to place, looking for any sign of life. Had the plates moved from the table where they had taken a last supper? Had a shadow passed over the door as an old friend returned? No. There was no one and nothing, Anders reminded himself, all those lives were stilled, those pulses dead, those laughs, cut off mid-stream and lying decaying in mud. Nothing in here but him and the ghosts. All night, he sat there, not sleeping, not moving, just him and the ghosts, the candle becoming a puddle of wax, until the first lights of day dispelled the thoughts for another brief respite.

In that instant, he could take it no longer. There was nothing to be done but sit and grow old, and he wasn’t meant for that. He was without purpose. As menial as his tasks had been, Anders had always performed them to the best of his ability, not out of a sense of forced duty or pride, but because every meal, every mud-filled mug of tea, every almost-clean uniform he laid out for them could be their last. Everything he did, he did out of respect for these better, braver men who would surely die, and now they all had, there was nothing left. No service or small favour freely given could help them now.

And then the thought came to him, a flash of clarity that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Hurriedly, he grabbed a pencil and paper, and scrawled a brief message onto it, childlike enthusiasm infecting his ageing frame. He placed the watch in the paper, folding it twice, and left it on the desk, before climbing to his feet with more vigour than he had felt in a long while, and walking slowly towards the early morning sunlight and beyond.

He passed through the trench unnoticed, just another batman on an errand, until he found a space filled only with the dead that had been cut down before they could leave the muddy hand after another, he clawed his way up the latter and over, and out into the wasteland that stretched for miles, a world of the dead where nothing grew.

He did not know how long he walked among the dead, and the almost-dead, who reached out and called for home and family, or uttered streams of curses and unintelligible babblings. Across mountains and valleys of that scarred land he walked, waiting for the bullet that only came when every last drop of his sanity was torn away. Silhouetted against the rising sun, Anders slumped to the sniper’s welcome bullet, and died, staring into the clear blue sky.



The watch now sits, quite lost, among thousands of other artefacts recovered from those hellish places. The face is cracked, the mechanism muddied and jammed up, the time frozen at some moment from another age. The inscription is barely readable, only a few thin lines on the battered case. You might see it one day, small and insignificant, a piece of useless metal amidst a sea of others.

What you will not see is the paper it was wrapped in, an unassuming white sheet with a few lines of scribbled text. It has decayed, fallen apart, become scattered on the wind. Words that were forgotten.

Better men that me have died. I go to join them. Remember us.  

Author's notes:

- This is very much a tragedy, a story of loss and madness and ultimately suicide. As always, I hope not to have mistreated the context or content. It is also undoubtedly the end of the story of these men, although as I said before there are many tales still untold. I do hope this provides a sense of conclusion, though. 

- The last part I'm not sure on. Part of me wants to spend more time on the conclusion, but I feel with the previous piece I have done all I can on No-Man's-Land without needless repetition, given that I eventually intend to combine them all into a single longer piece. I do like the almost desensitised feeling of the last couple of paragraphs, but I also feel the need to redo them. In my head, I had a scene from Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong (a great book, by the way) in which a character goes 'over the top' and experiences a moment of outstanding clarity, seeing the world as almost beautiful for a split-second before all hell breaks loose. I wasn't intending to copy this, but there were a couple of bits I wanted to try and convey. I may well re-read that scene and then re-draft this ending, as I really do like the contrast he manages to achieve. 

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

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