Sunday, 20 April 2014

First Impressions

First of all, apologies for the lapse into inactivity that this blog has suffered over the last couple of weeks; I have found myself with too little time to really write or post anything. That said, I've got a few ideas and new bits and pieces to post now, so time-permitting there will be more coming over the next few weeks.

For today's piece, a direct follow-up to my last World War One piece, although very much a contrast to it. Enjoy:

First Impressions

4th November 1914        

The journey through France had been long, too long, and Smith had found that, despite day after day with nothing to do but sit, march he and think, was still unable to really understand why he was here. These rolling fields, small woods and the huge European sky showed no signs of a war being fought; everything was as tranquil as it had been back home, the landscape unscarred, the people acting just the same, the very feeling of the place no different.

On reflection, he wondered what precisely he had been expecting. Ranks of soldiers rallied around a flag, fluttering in the French breeze? Fortifications manned by grizzled veterans already tired of the war?  Fields and fields of bloody corpses? It didn’t matter, those sights that haunted his dreams. They weren’t real.

The mud underfoot was different, somehow wetter than that of home, and the air was cleaner, at least on this remote road to nowhere. The sky, when not clouded, was bluer, the grass greener, every colour more vibrant and alive. It would have been ironic, if not for the grim and ever-approaching reality. He might not be there yet, but he was marching to a war. That was not something easily forgotten.


On the ninth day, the column came across the first signs of what they were moving inexorably towards. They had reached a small town scarcely twenty miles west of the front, and while the officers organised transport for the next leg of the journey, the men were given two hours’ rest. Smith had initially tried to maintain some kind of order, but it was hopeless. After ten minutes of barking whatever orders he could, he relented, and simply hoped the troops would not get too inebriated.

He eventually found a quiet spot, in the corner of the square, and unwrapped his carefully-concealed diary. Finding the first crisp, white page, he paused for a moment, wondering exactly what was worth noting. He hadn’t paid attention to the name of the town, nor the last, and no one really knew where he was going next. The weather had been unremarkable, if a little windy, and there had been nothing to do but march and halt. And that, he reflected, did not make compelling reading.

Ten long, slow minutes passed as the nib of his pen hovered over the page, searching for something noteworthy, and around him, Smith could feel a change in the atmosphere. A quiet had descended, the bustling market slowed and fell still, and all eyes turned to the eastward road. Smith stood, pressing through the crowd, and craned his neck for a better view the impending scene.

The unearthly quiet became even more silent, to the point at which sound seemed almost impossible. A pin dropping would be a gunshot. A sharply-drawn breath would shatter the world around him. Nothing moved.

Eventually, a green blur appeared at the head of the road, and instantly, Smith understood. He had been surrounded by nothing but that green for a month. The troops were withdrawing, possibly even the very troops his men were supposed to be relieving. Had they been too slow? Was this a retreat, or just a routine operation? Who were these men?

As the lines of khaki approached, these thoughts fell dead, replaced instantly by a morbid curiosity, a paradox of vision. At once, he wanted nothing more than to see everything he could, and to turn away. Dreams died as they drew nearer; the reality was becoming all-too-clear.

Eyes, unseeing, on staring faces. Gashes, still bleeding, sewn with cord and wire. Limbs flailing in a bizarre parody of motion. Steps, marching but out of time, one after another after another after another. These were not men, but ghosts.

Every detail was sharp in the midday sun; the men appeared to draw in the light, absorb it, darken it. Smith made out names, numbers, insignia and decorations, pointless shapes that meant nothing. He could see the bloody stubble clinging to the chin of a man too young to shave, and the limp of an old soldier, too old to fight. He could see a hand with a finger missing, the pattern tapped by its remaining companions somehow lacking, incorporeal. He could see the twitch at the corner of an eye, replaying the same look of utter horror again and again and again.

Everything here was so real and yet so distant; the silent crowd seemed to vanish, the buildings became simple shapes, every focus was on these poor shells of men, marching step by step to some other place, be it a haven, a sanctuary, or just another hell. At the head of the column, a bugler, one arm hanging dead and useless by his side, pressed his instrument to his lips and blew, but there was no sound. Something within the man was broken, unable to bring forth a sound.

One figure, ghostlier than the rest, with a blood-flecked face and madman’s eyes, suddenly leapt from the column. He fell to his knees, and then, with effort enough to move the world, stood shakily, and began staggering towards the crowd. His comrades, too tired, broken and confused to care, just kept walking ever onwards.

Smith’s eyes locked with this mad spectre’s, and the stumbling man started to claw his way through the crowd, who parted before him. Inch by inch, the ghost lurched and then crawled towards Smith. He was unable to move, transfixed as this monster of man, this blood-coughing, scrabbling corpse moved closer and closer.

He fell at Smith’s feet, another cough spraying blood, too red, too real, across his shoes, mingling with the mud. A hand closed around his leg, the fingers suddenly gripping too tight. Too real. Smith knelt down to this obviously dying man, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Their eyes met again, so close now, and Smith could finally understand this man. What he’d seen, what he’d done, where he’d been suddenly became clear; a portrait in a stare that he knew he would never forget. The grip on his ankle released, and the man fell suddenly limp, lying down in the mud at the roadside and fumbling for something at his breast pocket. Gently, Smith reached down and undid the button, and the contorted hand closed around something inside, pulling it out.

A simple pocketwatch, quite unadorned, brass somehow untarnished amidst the mud and blood a chaos. The soldier pressed it into Smith’s hand, gibbering madly but making no sound. Smith took it, and the dying man reached again for his pocket. This time, there was no grip, and Smith moved his hand aside, his own feeling in the pocket for whatever the soldier wanted. His hand closed around a scrunched ball of paper, which he withdrew. Immediately, the man started nodding, and Smith pocketed the paper. There was nothing to do now but wait.

It took two hours for the unknown soldier to finally die, and Smith remained with him the whole time, listening to the insane mutterings and watching his life slowly ebb away. Eventually, the crowd had parted and the troops moved away, and the two of them were left alone, a scene from a battlefield in the town square, a scene he could never forget.

Finally, Smith gathered the courage to unfold the paper the dead man had been so intent on handing over to him, and found on it only a few words, shakily scrawled on the crumpled page. A dead man’s last words. At last, he had found something to write in the pristine diary, marring it forever, its white innocence annihilated at the stroke of a pen. The watch ticked on as he painstakingly copied out each word, ink draining slowly out from the nib, life leaving an old soldier too young to die.

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.


Author's Notes: 
- Much like my last piece, there is a strong emphasise on body language in this one, although this time it was more a quirk of the context and content rather than a deliberately used device. I felt the 'silence' was important to this piece, as both Smith and the reader are held in a a grim illusion that direct speech would shatter. A similar effect can be seen in my piece Countdown, where speech is used in exactly that matter, to shatter the relative calm of the moment. 

- This piece also introduces a lot of motifs that have and will feature heavily in the continuing narrative, such as the watch, the use of poetry, the ideas of words being linked so closely with memory. As such, it lends context to a lot later pieces that I've already posted, or sets up these themes and idea for those reading in order. 

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

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