Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Making of the Man

Today, I have another piece of the First World War series, and it's an interesting reasons. In the larger narrative, it's the first introduction of a character that will feature heavily later on, and much like Smith's first and last chapter, there's a lot of symmetry with his own end.

The Making of the Man

Five years old, and summer, and the children are playing, their whooping calls and laughs grating against Robson’s ears as he stands apart from the crowd. He would never be one of them, free to cavort and caper across the green fields, and to cheer in the warm air. How could he hoot and be merry with those words in the back of his head? Father isn’t coming home. He could never smile with them, and they hated him for it.

Older now, and in a darker place, and a fist slamming into his gut. He doubles over and splutters red on the cobbles, and does nothing to stop the hands that begin to rifle through his pockets. He has nothing to take anyway, but that won’t stop them.  This isn’t about money, it’s about who he is, and what he isn’t, and he isn’t one of them. He’s a target, nothing more, and it’s all he can do to hide the tears as the fists come down again and again and again.

She presses the soaked cloth to his face, trying to wipe away the worst of the blood, but it’s no good. The split lip has turned his chin red, and each cheek is an angry welt, scars from a battle he has already lost and will lose again. There will be no hiding this time, only mocking apathy and worse scorn. He looks up, into her diamond blue eyes, and she smiles somehow. With him here bleeding and sore, she actually smiles as she takes his hand.
“A soldier,” she laughs. ”A hero.”
Everything stops hurting.

“Smile.” Comes the command, and Robson forces his face into something like a grin, hand tightly gripping hers, perhaps too tightly. He doesn’t want this moment to end; he wants more than the photograph to be frozen in time. He could stay here forever. All too soon, the flash comes, and she steps away slightly, leaving his smile to fade with the receding glare on his retinas.
e could stahe here foreer.

Older still, lost in the smog of London streets, another day at the factory stretching out endlessly before him. Footstep by lethargic footstep he treads the cobbles, through the fog and bustling crowds, no one sight lingering for more than a second. An old beggar becomes a drunken youth that falls away and transforms again into a smart, clean-shaven soldier smiling giddily at the world. The figured seems to transfix Robson, a picture of another life, his father’s life; adventure and glory awaits this man, worth the risk. This, Robson decides, is real freedom.

Later, and the day has ebbed away, second by second. He lifts the tankard to his lips and drowns his exhaustion in the foaming beer, the world distorted by the emptying glass, blurring shapes becoming solid once more. And those shapes, khaki and red and diamond blue, entwined in the smoky corner of the bar. She stands there, laughing, with a soldier and a hero and not him. Someone tugs at Robson’s sleeve, waving a formless limb at the door and escape. He doesn’t even think twice as he takes the hand of the girl he never loved and slips into the oblivion of her arms.

War. Britain is at war, and every face in those serried ranks of khaki marching off reminded him of that night where he lost everything to a faceless soldier. He looks away as the crowd passes, as women throw themselves towards the green-brown line and are thrown back, a cascade of flowers their parting gesture. Wherever these men are going, they leave as heroes, and the men they leave behind are cowards. No one will give him a second glance now. There is nothing left for him here.

“Name?” says the officer, and Robson stammers something unintelligible, trying not to wither under his stare. “Name?”
“Robson. Ian Robson.” He says again, clearer this time, and the officer nods. Robson wrings his hands as the next question comes, the one that will decide his future. 
“Eighteen.” He says.

“Very good.” The officer frowns, but hands him the papers. What is that in his face? Anger at being lied to? Jealousy that Robson has the courage to fight while he sits here doling out forms? No, it’s pity, but he doesn’t know why. He had lied, and the officer knows it, but what did it matter now? Robson was going to war… 


Author's Notes: 

- The style for this piece is a very different one to a lot of this series, in several ways. First of all, it is written in a very 'instant' manner, and by that, I mean that it should hopefully be a bombardment of moments, an entire life on the page. 

- The other decision I made here was to narrate it in the present tense. I think this adds to the immediacy of the various scenes, and to the idea that everything is happening in a flash, as opposed to having already been and gone. I also wanted a direct contrast with Smith's sections- where Smith is slow and often poetic in his descriptions, Robson is very much more sudden in his way of looking at the world. If it doesn't 'happen', he loses interest, hence why this piece is so jumpy. 

- This piece also represents the start of Part 2 of the series, set in 1915, and should both contrast with the last chapter of Part 1 and lead nicely into the next few chapters. 

- As a final note, I've edited Robson's first-written last-chronologically piece, Back To Life, to better reflect the themes and ideas that came to me in forming the character here. Check it out here

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

Thursday, 8 May 2014

A New Dawn?

Today's piece is another instalment of the ongoing World War One series, The Poet's War, and follows on directly from the previous piece. As usual, newcomers can check where it fits in relation to the other pieces on the Ongoing Works page, and notes are below.

A New Dawn?

14th November 1914

Stephens’ face stared blankly back at nothingness as they lowered him silently into the shallow grave, in truth little more than one of the less-flooded shell holes that littered what was left of the trench amidst the craters, shattered structures and littered detritus of battle. The eyes, unmoving and still, were what captivated Smith the most, some morbid fascination preventing him from looking away. The rest of Stephens’ face was a torn and bloody mess, ripped ragged by a single bullet, but the eyes were untouched. He could be watching a play, or a game of cricket on a summer’s afternoon with those staring, round, peaceful eyes, and they would still look the same, so real, so alive.

Alive in what Smith was rapidly beginning to accept was a dead and dying world. Too many corpses lay unrecovered in the chaotic ruins of what had once been a trench, too many sights hinted almost casually at the scale of the death surrounding them. Across that wasteland, nothing moved, nothing grew, and nothing lived.

Through the smoke that still hung over the vacated battlefield, the odd flare or cry would go up, the searchers and survivors locked in an ever-shorter game of Hide-And-Seek, counting the seconds, not until they were found, but until that was immaterial. A single tear rolled gently down his cheek, a gesture that seemed altogether too insignificant for the sheer hell he found himself in.

Just as suddenly as the world had burst into vivid live as he had approached the front lines, every sight and sound and smell a fusillade of words and lines, falling together and gone in seconds, it had become quite dead equally quickly. Somewhere in the last four blood-soaked days, the illusion had been shattered, the reality had become a nightmare, and what had once seemed a wide open world had transformed in an instant into something confined, trapped and claustrophobic. 

He couldn’t yet tell entirely when the sudden transformation had occurred, only that it had. Maybe when Stephens’ face, that same face he now looked down at, had been split red by the first shot fired in anger. Maybe it was when the grey lines had moved across the grey field, puppets jerking in haphazard motion ever closer. Maybe it was when that grey met his khaki and both were made red, bayonets plunging in riflelight. Or maybe, it was when he had stopped after days of alert readiness and near-constant bloodshed, and finally slept, as dead to the world as the corpses around him. Maybe that new dawn was what had finally tipped him headlong into this nightmare.

“We should say something. You should, sir.” Johnson muttered, the first words Smith had heard him offer since the fighting had stopped. There was something new in his voice, but also something gone, as if scorn had been relieved by a shattered pride. He had not seen much of Johnson in the battle, but the giant man seemed somewhat diminished by the ordeal, stooped over this shallow grave and looking as solemn as if it were his own opened up before him.

“Aye.” Smith began, and then paused as the words caught in his throat, which seemed to tighten around them and force them back, intent on preserving the silence. He tried again. “Our Father, who art… who art…” He could not bring himself to say Heaven in this complete hell. “Ah, bugger it. Goodbye, Stephens. Goodbye, little Lenny Stephens. Goodbye.”

Smith pressed the shovel into Johnson’s reluctant hands and turned away without another word, not meeting the eyes that were deader than those of the corpse in the shallow pit. Some detached fragment of his mind wondered what his own would reveal should he dare to look. Ghosts in firelight of fallen men? Empty, dark spaces, a door to the soul that had just departed? The same fixed stare that he couldn’t shake from his mind?

With every step away from the open grace, the wet ground underfoot seemed more reluctant to let him leave, grasping and clinging at his boots.  Smith was tempted to let it keep him. Somehow, what meagre ceremony had been held did no justice to their fallen friend; he deserved something more. But then, others were still out there in the wasteland and the gunsmoke mist, dead and dying and so alone. He should be grateful they were able to give Stephens a send-off at all.

After an age, another tear fell, and this time it was one among many, a single tear for a dead friend amidst a torrent for nameless others. Through blurred eyes he looked back at the grave. Johnson had planted a makeshift cross of charred timber, and fallen to his knees before it, occasionally wracked by silent sobs. Smith left him to his grief; he would at least allow the man some dignity as he diminished.

Somehow, Smith was certain it was over for now. Over for Christmas. Whether it was the first hints of snow in the air, or the first silence of the relentless guns, or the complete lack of anything left to fight for he did not know, but he knew another attack would not come, at least until the new year. A winter, then, to grieve for the fallen and rebuild the trenches that would be their only monument, and welcome with open arms and forced smiles the men that would doubtless be sent to replace them.

And then what? They could do it all again when the winter ceased, or even before if they chose, and for what? For the foreign soil that clung to his boots, unremarkable, worthless, but urging him to stay with every step away? For the flag that hung in tatters over a burned-down ruin where so many men had already given their lives? For the hope that maybe, one day, far away, some other generation would not have to face the same?

Without knowing how it got there, Smith found the diary in his hand, miraculously unscathed despite the fighting, and opened it to a fresh page, letting the blood and mud on his hands stain the crisp whiteness; there was no purity here. Perched on an overturned barrel, pen in hand, he began to try and put some meaning to all of this madness. For minutes, maybe hours, nothing.  

When, at last, the words came, there were only two. It was enough.

What Now?  


Author's Notes: 
- The first thing I had in mind with this piece was to really bring to the fore something that has been a constant, if subtle, feature of this series from its inception, namely that what I really intend to focus on is not the actual fighting of the war but the myriad effect that it has on the men who took part. While it's tempting to write an out-and-out battle scene (and one may well be forthcoming further along), I think in this particular context, it's better to only hint at the real fighting rather than present it directly. 

-The other advantage of this is that it leaves the exact reality to the imagination, which no doubt does a far better job of presenting the sheer insanity and hell of the fighting than words could ever hope to. 

- This piece possibly the first one which really functions better as part of the narrative than as a standalone piece. Not only does it herald a complete change in both Smith and Johnson and their perceptions of the war, but it also occupies the position of a turning point in the tale as a whole. It is only now that the promise of being  'home for Christmas' (hinted at towards the end of the piece) becomes an impossibility and the true nature of the war is revealed. This will also contrast nicely with the introduction of a new character to present 'part 2' of the story, but that'll have to wait for now. 

That's all. As ever, thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment, and I hope you enjoyed the piece. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Words for the Living, Words for the Dead

Time for another piece of fiction, and another piece in the ongoing First World War serial. To see where this one slots into the narrative, see here. From now on, the works in this series will be broadly in narrative order as I've just about managed to fit it all together. Without further ado:

Words for the Living, Words for the Dead

10th November 1914

At last the marching days have ended,
And step by step we reach this place,
The end of one world

The start of the next.
Tonight, assembled, think on our sins,
For tomorrow at dawn a new war begins.

Smith put the pen aside, and watched the ink dry, soaking into the paper, drowning its white, unmarked youth in blackened wetness, before that too faded away leaving only an echo. It was the fifth entry in as many days, and he knew now that the sharp lines would be visible through the thick paper, shadows and ghosts on the next page. The days were quite literally blurring into one, an endless slog of

Marching, marching, step by step, a war to fight and then forget.

Ever since his encounter with the dead man, that unnamed and unforgettable walking corpse, with his parting gift, nothing more than a scrap of paper, the world he now existed in had seemed so much more real and vivid to Smith. New words and lines of verse teemed in his head, entering unbidden and departing without warning, an endless cycle of forgetting and remembering.

By keeping the words alive, he kept his memory alive. By keeping his memory alive, he kept the dead alive.

 The light flickered, and already Smith was familiar enough with the dugout to realise who had moved and where. There wasn’t much to notice, just a few bunks in the far wall, the short passage along to the kitchen, and only varying shades of brown dirt, wood and canvas to set the shapes apart.

“Evening, Johnson.” He said without looking up from the paper, still mesmerised with the drying ink. The shadow came closer and darkened the desk.

“Oi, Stephens, get your arse on duty.” The new arrival called down the tunnel, and almost immediately, the small man scurried out, the emergence of his pale, bare face instantly reminding Smith of a rat, poking its head out into the daylight and looking immediately guilty. Stephens’ protruding nose and wide eyes did little to help the impression.

Stephens darted quickly from the dugout and out into the sunset, and flitted back in just as fast to grab his rifle. It was a schoolboy error, and Smith instantly felt the urge to admonish him for it, before remembering that Stephens was, in fact, still a schoolboy, barely sixteen.

Too young to fight, too young to die
In evening’s light he lives his lie.

Before he could stop himself, Smith had committed the words to the page, separate from his earlier thoughts. Johnson gave a disapproving snort, and at last, Smith looked up at him.

“Still playing around with that bloody poetry, then, Smithy?” Almost as an afterthought, he added “Evening.”

“I am indeed, Johnson, and I’ll continue to do so until the Boche decide to make things a little more interesting for us. Christ knows we all need something to keep us sane around here.”

“Whatever you say. Anything good?” Johnson peered over his shoulder, his glare seeming to scrutinise every line and dot on the paper, as if expecting something revelatory to be hidden within the depths of black on white. Smith was not quite sorry to disappoint him. A dirt-encrusted hand viciously seized the page and turned it over, to where an altogether different verse was inscribed.

Johnson’s eyes scanned the page, taking in every word, and Smith could do nothing but brace himself for the forthcoming scorn. When Johnson began his inevitable recital, it was in a voice laden with as much snobbish mocking as he could muster, and the sheer contempt for the art was all but tangible. 

“The wet grey mud and red-stained dead”
And every shade between
Are good men dying, mothers crying
For what their sons have seen
When they followed colours flying
To distant shores where blue turned green
Turned red.”

His eyes returned to Smith. “Bloody depressing is all I can say. Don’t you lot ever write anything cheerful? How’re you staying sane with this tragic rot in your head?”

Barely. Smith wanted to reply, but restrained himself, instead simply closing the book and tucking in under his arm, making for the exit before Johnson could make another mocking comment. The temptation to pull rank and assign Johnson all manner of unpleasant duties nagged at the back of his mind, but he resisted it; better to be the butt of a few jokes than make enemies out of men he would too- soon be relying on in battle.

Smith stepped into the trench just as the last sunlight reached an incandescent barrage over the piled silhouettes of sandbags, flames lapping at mounds of bodies. The ground underfoot was slick with water that ran too red in places, lifeblood draining away into some worse hell. What had once been an effective fortification was now a grim mockery of order and solidity.

Men passed, ashen-faced, nodding silent greetings to absent friends. Slowly, a bird made its way across the pale dome above them, the only living thing free to leave this endless stalemate. Smith watched it fade with a ghost of a smile still amazed by how easily the poetic descriptions came to him. Seized by some sudden fixation with the not-quite-silence, he stepped back from the path and closed his eyes.

The sounds that made it through the noiseless air were just as alive and vivid. A whistle sounding from across the undulating void was a summons to battle, and heads looked up in alert expectation.  Somewhere, a sentry gave a call in some other tongue from half a world away, the aggressive syllables reaching out into the stillness. Closers, now, a more familiar voice raised in furtive alarm, a rat calling to its horde.

A rat.


Instantly, Smith was running, snaring a discarded rifle from somewhere he didn’t look, feet pounding across mud that sought to cling and drag him down into its murky depths. Frantic moments later, he reached the sentry.

The sentry, slumped against the wall, mouth open in a wordless scream, filling with still-pouring blood from an empty, red wound, hand outstretched; a final warning to the doomed. Smith prized his gaze away and up onto the sea of mud.

The sea of mud, across which moved grim marionettes, stumbling through the twilight, flashes of light and pinpricks of sound louder than any cannon, a creeping wall of death. Smith’s thoughts stopped, dead as the sentry beside him.

There were no words for this.


Author's Notes: 

- Keen-eyed regulars (if you exist) will notice similarities between this piece and No Man's Land, most notably the frequent intermixing of poetry into the prose. This is quite deliberate, and if anything, this piece adds context to that, explaining the genesis of Smith's rather idiosyncratic thought process. It's also just an excuse to indulge in some poetry. 

That's it for today. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, 2 May 2014

A Poem: Sunset Starlight

Time for another poem from my back catalogue. Most of my writing time has been spent on editing a longer novel recently, so I haven't produced anything new in a while. To keep things ticking over here, I've dug up this poem I wrote a few months back which is probably one of my favourites.

Sunset Starlight

Last rays of Sunset and the first star of Night,
Between them a poet, who hides in the light,
Counting the seconds as time slips away,
And counting down time till the end of the day.

Fire so red and a Blackness so blue,
The Sun and the Stars just remind him of You.
The light in your eyes was the light of his life,
And now that you're gone, his world's full of strife.

A face in the sunset or a word in the dark,
He knows it's not You but it still brings a spark,
A memory trying and dying like suns,
And leaving this poet with nowhere to run.            

So he waits for the dawn and the first light of day,
Hoping your light keeps the darkness at bay,
Waiting for sunlight but not knowing why,
And knowing the light is the light in your eyes.


Not an awful lot to say about this one, so thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment.