The cell was a cold grey, the evening light casting long shadows of the bars that stood between the condemned and their final sunset. Too high to reach or see out of, all one could do was stare at that fading glimmer. The floor of the cell was a hard concrete, the grey stained by all manner of horrors. In the far corner, there was a puddle of still-drying blood, the stench of which filled the room; a final reminder of why he was here.
Smith’s shoes made a sharp click-clack, click-clack, shattering the silence and making every step a gunshot, echoing off the white walls, a never-ending cascade of noise. From somewhere nearby, he heard a voice raised in pitiful cries. The screeching and clicking folded together, the entirety of this place summed up in a few simple sounds. Madness, suddenness, silence. Even when Smith stood still, the noise circled round and round in his head.
Searching for something, anything to take his mind off the cacophony, he found his gaze irresistibly drawn to the deranged scrawlings that littered the wall. Some were indecipherable, some other language real or imagined, some were purely illegible, the tortured minds that produced them unable to remain sane long enough to form words. But a few were all too real, a name here, a prayer there, a date and a place and another date and here; the only testament these men would have, their own eulogy spilled across the walls, written in chipped plaster or red blood.
“Ah, you’ve arrived early, Smith.” Smith whirled, the voice that knifed through the silent echo chilling him to the bone, the upbeat tone at odds with the severity of its surrounding. Smith regained his composure without missing a beat, saluting crisply. “Well then, let’s not waste any time. I’m afraid we’re a little short of staff here, so you’ll be guarding the prisoner tonight, if you wouldn’t mind. No chance of escape, of course, but they tend to go a bit mad on the last night. Understandable, I suppose.”
Smith let the sergeant continue the monologue, feeling his fists clench and something in his stomach squirm. Everything about this man was jarring with this place; he was smartly dressed amidst the untidy scribbling, he stood straight where so many were broken, his voice rose crisply over the screaming from the other cells. After some time, the speech ended, and Smith was shown to the door of the cell, where he began the long, slow wait.
It was midnight where the sobbing started. The walls muffled the sounds just enough that Smith could still hear them, each wracking moan and wordless cry came to him, as if from far away. Occasionally, he could decipher whole words. Home. Mother. Die. Why. Names broke through to him, meaning nothing, only echoes of people he never knew.
After an hour or maybe two, in which there had been no peace, the noise finally stopped, the silence just as haunting. There was a dim shuffling from inside the cell, and Smith knew it was coming closer. He felt the inevitable knock on the wall behind him, and moments later, the voice.
“Come on. I know ye’re there. Wouldn’t leave me wit’out a guard, would they? Just talk to me. Just talk.”
Smith was paralysed, unable even to breath. If he remained still, silent, then perhaps the prisoner would give up. Perhaps he would forget who he was calling out to, or slink back into the silence, and Smith could go back to pretending he didn’t know why he was here.
“Just talk.” Came the voice again, hollow and cutting, reaching down to the very fibre of Smith’s being. How could he ignore a dying man’s wish? Was he that inhuman? He knew it was stupid; in six hours he would be killing this man. But somehow, he just couldn’t ignore him. He couldn’t speak, either.
“D’ya know why I’m in ‘ere?” the walls whispered to him. He gave no answer, but the prisoner somehow knew he was curious. “Disobeyed orders, didn’t I? Mad ‘McLellan, not doin’ as ‘e’s told. Mad, mad McLellan.” The voice gave way to a high-pitched laugh, which seemed to tear out Smith’s insides and rearrange them in a grim parody of a human. Every word, every syllable, and both of them became closer to being animals.
“Told ‘em their war was bloody stupid, din’t I? Wouldn’t go over, would I? And they called me a coward. Hahhahahaha! Me, a bloody coward! And yet ‘ere I am, facin’ death with no way out. So when you’re out there, tomorrow mornin’, linen’ up yer shot, just ask yerself: Who’s the bloody coward now? Who, eh? Who?”
The last word was screamed out, shattering whatever was left of Smith’s resolve. The madman knew his piece was done, and slunk back to the silence, his scream becoming a mutter as the night wore on. Mad McLellan’s words went marching through his head for hours, and eventually, only one thought remained.
Mad, mad McLellan, the man who wouldn’t fight, was the only sane man he’d seen since London.
The morning light was cold and harsh, the rain becoming ice and making the footing treacherous. Smith picked up the rifle and marched into the courtyard, where McLellan stood upright, tied to the wooden pole in front of the stained grey walls. Smith didn’t need to see through the bag to know he’d be grinning, knowing that he had the last laugh over his executioners, who now formed a line and stood ready. Smith noted with some sickness that, apart from his own, no hand trembled on the rifle. These men were executioners, cold and ruthless.
“Firing squad. Ready.”
Rifles came to shoulders, Smith moving as one with the rest of the men, doing his best to do anything but think. It was no good.
The air was silent, their breaths wisps of cloud taken on the wind, the gentle breeze ruffling the king’s flag that Smith could not take his eyes off. The seasoned executioners adjusted their aim, turning this brutal business to an art form. Smith’s own weapon wavered, pulled left and right by the burning desire to miss. McLellan stood a little straighter, defiance incarnate.
Who’s the coward now?
- This piece is based on a very real place and setting; on my visits to Belgium I've seen a prison cell and execution range very similar to the ones described here, and it was genuinely a chilling experience. If the description of this setting is at all like I think it is, I hope there is a real sense of that in this piece.
- One idea I was playing with when writing this was that Smith took on this role of executioner to 'save' Robson from it. In the narrative I'm developing here, there's an interesting dynamic between those two characters, with Smith doing what he can to protect Robson's innocence in the hell of war, while Robson is constantly trying to achieve the 'glory' he signed up for. I'll leave that there, as it's something I want to play with in another piece coming up soon.
That's all for today. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to comment.