Now for the main event, another entry into my ongoing First World War series. Without further ado...
In the near silence, Robson was almost calm. It was the quietest quiet he could remember since England, and for once, Smith wasn’t barking orders. It wasn’t that he disliked the corporal, but he wasn’t overly fond of him, either. Something about the man seemed to be shouting at any moment, always shouting. Orders.
It could be worse, he imagined, and Smith hardly overworked his men, but he was simply so different, somehow, from this place. As much as he had tried to drum into Robson that class didn’t matter in their unit, that he wouldn’t be treated any differently just because he ‘wasn’t landed’, it still seemed to make its presence felt. Smith’s bunk and desk were always pristinely tidy, Robson’s own bunk a mess, a place to sleep at night and store his meagre belongings in the day. Smith always took duties himself, and Robson was always last to be picked.
Class doesn’t matter? He thought bitterly. Yes it bloody well does. Why else am I the one sitting round with nothing to do while all you rich boys get the real action? Why else are you always ‘volunteering’ for whatever you can get your privileged hands on? Why else am I always on the godforsaken morning watch where NOTHING EVER HAPPENS?
Smith sipped the tea, and immediately spat, subtly as he could. Cold, tasteless and somehow dry. Anders could make a better cup. Even Johnson, and he avoided the stuff like the plague. For an officer’s mess, this was appalling. His eyes flicked back up to the Major.
“So, Smithy, how’s it going with the lads down at the front, eh?” the moustached officer asked, his multiple chins beginning to wobble as he spoke. It was only the difference in rank that kept Smith from laughing to himself.
“Smith, please, if you don’t mind, sir. And there’s nothing to report. Still the same mess as last week, still underequipped, still outnumbered, and still running low on biscuits. What the men haven’t eaten, the rats have. Maybe you’d like to see for yourself?” he concluded, the hostility he was trying so hard to suppress creeping into his last words.
He knew the Major would never accept the offer, but he always made it. Every week, every meeting, he would always ask. If ever he did come down to the front, and spend a few days in the trenches, Smith couldn’t help but feel they would find several of their more pressing problems relieved. He hid a smile as he imagined the Major cramming himself into a too-small bunk, petrified of the rat that circled his feet.
“Oh, no, we couldn’t do that. Not at all proper, you see, Smithy?” Smith clenched and unclenched his fist, noting the Major’s use of the epithet. Clearly, they were both playing mind games. He was determined not to lose. “How about that new chap we sent down last week? He’s a keen one, isn’t he? Roberts, or something like that.”
“Robson, sir, and yes he is. A little too keen, if you ask me. I’ve tried to keep him off-duty, otherwise I’m afraid he might try and storm the German front himself.”
“So he’s not seen action yet?”
“No, sir, not a shell, not a bullet, not a bayonet, so long as I can help it.”
There was something unfamiliar in the air, Robson noted. Too high-pitched and whining to be a bird, too loud to be the wind, and too distant to be a whistling passer-by. On and on it droned, higher and higher, and then lower, lower, lower, lower-
The muddy bank behind him erupted, a spewing geyser of mud and fire and a deafening sound and a searing heat and a sudden force that threw him back against the sandbags. Blind, deaf, and winded, Robson fell to the floor, limbs suddenly shuddering in a bizarre parody of motion. His heart hammered, machinegun-fast, and the blood that pulsed beat by beat around his shaking body boiled.
Another whine-BOOM, and more dirt sprang up, further away, covering the sun. As his hearing returned, Robson heard screaming, and only after two more explosions shook the world did he realise it was his own. He still didn’t know what was happening, or why, or how he was alive or what was happening. Every inch of his body cold feel how real this was, but his brain had not yet caught up.
Slowly, as more gaping holes opened up and the screaming went on, Robson climbed to his feet, juddering hands hauling himself up on split sandbags. A searing pain in his left arm refused to subside, but it faded to a dull, shrill blaring too painful to ignore or acknowledge. It was just there.
He had been trained, he realised, to react to shelling. He had been trained to be shot at, hunkered in a muddy hole and powerless. He had been trained to storm a trench through a hail of bullets. But nothing and no one had trained him for this sheer insanity.
Step by step, with the world falling apart around him, Robson staggered down the trench, too blind to step on duckboards and wading his way through the ankle-deep mud. The only sounds were screaming explosions and exploding screams, red and white and fiery screams. There was no sky, only sharper pain on unshielded too-wide eyes, and no ground, only a shaking, shattering world tearing itself apart.
He was somewhere, and nowhere. Too real and not real enough. Yelling and silent. Loudquiet, runningwalking, deadalive, he inched along what reality he could see, no purpose other than to live. To escape. To end this madness.
After a minute day week year lifetime, he felt something give way beneath him. The ground fell away and left him suspended, for an instant, in nothingness. Something hurt and something else didn’t and he didn’t know which was which. Vision became sound became pain became thought, and he plummeted, down into the cold hot water mud below. The last thing he remembered was something gripping, snatching at his arms, one more pain in the torment.
“He’s coming around, sir.” Johnson whispered, and Smith looked up from the papers he wasn’t reading, at Robson’s shaking, wide-eyed shell. Not a shell, not a bullet, not a bayonet, so long as I can help it. The shame of failure was a deep wound that had constantly gnawing at him, every second since he had returned to the dugout to see Robson, gibbering and shaking in the bunk.
Robson’s eyes were too open, the blank stare of a madman. His fingers danced an insane jig against his thighs, his foot tapped out of rhythm, a bizarre, dissonant tempo. The flesh wound in his left arm, a deep gouge of frayed skin and torn muscle, was the least of his worries, already treated as best they could. It could scar, but he would live.
“W…wh…whereamI?” Robson muttered, lips barely parting, jaw trembling. “D…d…de...dead.” His mouth split, forced apart. “Deeeaaaaaaad! Deeeeeeeaaaaaaaaad!”
“No, not dead yet, lad.” Johnson replied, steadying his shaking arms. “Not dead yet.”
He could still hear the screaming, a distant wail that he somehow knew was still his own. The colours faded into one, the bright vista replaced with a muddy haze. There was another noise creeping under the yells, a paler, smoother noise, and a shape face moved in the blur, lighter than the surrounding mass of brownredgreen.
Something moved, an arm, his own, and a sharp pain followed as it hit something else. His fingers were fire, flickering flames, tapping shell bursts on the wall. His breath was exploding, every shallow inhalation was shrapnel down his throat. His eyes could not close, blasted open, split sandbags spilling tears. Taste was blood and ash in his mouth.
The noises in waves rose and fell, sometimes loudquiet, sometimes quietloud. Once, the blurs turned sharp, stabbing lights in the dark, and then the soft shapes returned and he slept with open eyes. Slept and dreamed and prayed, and in the brief respite between nightmares, he thought he understood.
- This piece was written with no brief other than the initial concept, but it does revisit some themes of earlier posts. I've made heavy use of the sensory bombardment that is synaesthesia in this piece, in an altogether more active way than the last time it featured heavily.
- I've played with language a lot here, blending words and in places throwing punctuation and syntax aside. This is intentional, to add to the sense of sheer confusion I want to convey.
- In terms of structure, I'm not entirely sure whether this piece is better with or without the interludes featuring Smith. On one hand, it breaks up the three phases of the main narrative nicely and also ties it in with the ongoing story, and also foreshadows the conclusion and adds context. However, I feel the piece may have ended up too longer and cumbersome, and would work just as well without it. As part of an ongoing narrative, I'll certainly keep it, but I have a feeling it may detract from the individual impact of this piece.
That's all for today, I have another WW1 piece to post tomorrow that, in a way, brings an element of this story full circle. There's plenty more to come, though.