When the Clock Strikes Ten
King’s Cross Station, 18th August 1914
Anthony’s gaze was fixed on his boots, reflected eyes in the polished black leather staring back at him, a portrait of the man he had become. Clean-shaven chin, bushy but neat moustache, the officers’ cap balanced perfectly straight on his short-cropped hair. His khaki collar was pristinely sharp, ironed only hours before, his brass buttons polished to perfection. Every inch an officer of the British army.
The steam whistle snapped him out of the reverie, and he looked up at the great clock. Five minutes.
All along the platform, families jostled for position, mothers hiding tears, fathers shaking hands, young girls flinging flowers at the departing youth. Line after line of khaki made its way onto the train, a green-brown exodus for who-knew-where.
In the crowd, he made out his own parents, standing twenty feet to his right. In the middle of the throng, they were somehow detached, an island standing firm in the chaos. A last memory of home. For a second, he was about to take a step in their direction, and another and another, but he knew it was impossible. Improper. The men behind him were waiting for his lead; he couldn’t desert them now. His goodbyes were already said.
Behind him, the troops muttered to themselves, some breaking ranks to wish last goodbyes, others shedding silent tears. I’ll be back soon, mum. He heard one say, Back for Christmas, eh? He shook his head. The jingoism would be no good in the face of rifle fire and artillery. There was a good chance none of them would be coming back at all.
His eyes searched the crowd, eyes not lingering on any one face to see the torment there. Back to his men. Up to the clock. Down into the grieving mass. Back to the clock. Impossibly, he could hear the mechanism working. Tick tock. Tick tock. Counting down. Three minutes.
He took a step, and as one the platoon formed behind him, snapping to attention and marching forward. He led them across the platform, step by step, and onto the waiting train, greeted in silence by a grey-faced conductor. Anthony could tell he was an old soldier, with his upright stance and alert eyes, and a stare that had seen too much. He gave a quick nod as he boarded the carriage, a flash of understanding between generations.
Still silent, he found a seat and sank into it, pretences abandoned out of the public eye. It was five hours to Dover, given the extra stops, and with any luck he could get some sleep between now and then. The noise around him was loud, but somehow soothing. He was not as alone as he had feared he might be. Comrades in arms were his family now.
Tick tock. Tick tock. The unheard clock moved on, and he caught it just as the larger hand moved, in that moment where a second takes an age. 09:59. One minute.
Back on the platform, he could see his father fighting through the crowd, decorum and sense thrown aside. His mother trailed behind, so fragile, her tears unhidden. Had the train not started moving at that moment, he imagined her face would be pressed against the glass, imploring him to come home. Too late, he thought, as the wheels began to grind along the tracks, carrying him away.
Tick tock. Away from home. Away from everyone he knew. Away from the green fields and little rivers and the apple tree at the bottom of the garden.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Towards a new world. Towards a new life. Towards fire and blood and mud and slaughter.
Tick tock tick tock tick tock. Stop.
In one moment, reality was clearer than ever, a flash of frozen lightning that made everything so very very real. In one moment, he wanted to claw open the window and jump from the train and to curl in a ball and cry and to scream and scream and scream and-
The cacophony burst forth at 10 o’clock precisely, as the train whistled its white noise when the deep clock bell tolled and the wheels began to screech and Corporal Antony Smith’s thoughts were drowned in a torrent of blasting sound. There was no need to think now. No need to scream. No need to do anything but wait.
- For those who have followed this story from its inception, this piece will feel familiar. The very first piece in the series featured a countdown to going 'over the top', into the unknown, and that's something I've attempted to recreate here. I think that, in the context of a longer work, it adds a nice sense of reflection, the first chapter mirroring the last. What that means is up to you, but I think it works nicely.
- Similarly, the aforementioned piece made a lot of use of body language and positioning in place of speech, and again this is a direct mirror to that, right down to some exact movement being copied.
That's all for now. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment.