Tuesday, 24 June 2014

CILIP Carnegie Winner 2014 announced:Reassessing The Bunker Diary (again...)

Yesterday afternoon, the winner of the UK's most prestigious book prizes was announced, and my utter disbelief, that winner was none other than the novel I reviewed back in March as being the most disturbing, distressing and utterly unsuitable book I have yet to encounter on the Carnegie Shortlist: Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary.

So why did it win? 

Setting aside my own personal opinions of the novel itself for just a moment, I want to consider some of the reasons why this book has been selected as the winner, despite being surrounded in controversy and regarded with disgust by several readers, both those I have read online and those I have encountered personally.

'The Carnegie Medal panel can’t resist a controversy,' 
The Telegraph's Lorna Bradbury writes, and I cannot help but wonder if this is the case. Certainly, there has been no attempt to shy away from controversial subjects, and the majority of the shortlists in recent years have included a deliberately contentious novel, thrown in among innocent children's books to place a cat firmly among the pigeons. In 2011, it was Jason Wallace's Out Of Shadows, which deals with racism, violence and class oppression in Zimbabwe, in 2012 it was Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Grey, which presented a harrowing presentation of life as a minority in the Stalinist regime. In light of this, it can't be denied that the judges are no strangers to putting books on the shortlist that pull no punches. 

But even considering their track record, The Bunker Diary stands apart from such novels. There is no lesson to be learned from the book. There is no theme to be presented. There is nothing to take away of any meaning. As I discuss in this article, there are themes that could be detected, such as the overriding atheist nihilist perspective on life, but only after extensive analysis of the plot, character and content. 

The upshot of the victory is an upsurge in publicity for both the medal and its winner, which will, of course, lead to greater book sales and awareness for both. Whether it is the journalists that are praising the win as marking a 'new direction' in children's literature, or those like myself lambasting the choice, it's all more publicity for the writer (who has produced several similarly disturbing reads) and the medal (which presents itself as the foremost prize for children's writing. While this is no bad thing, I find it a worrying prospect that this most depraved of books will soon be being placed into the hands of unwary children. Is the publicity gained by CILIP worth those many nightmares, I wonder? 

More to the point, are such themes as do exist in the novel right to be presented to children? (They are, after all, the target age group of the Carnegie medal, as much as 'Young Adult' is the word of the day). Of course they are not. But maybe, the judges and most of the readers remain, by dint of age and outlook, blind to this. I was lucky enough to join a discussion group on the book before the winner was announced, and found that I alone was horrified by it; none of the other adults or children in the group shared my opinions. 

The adults suggested they were less shocked as they were perfectly aware of the horrors of life, and of the issues around violence and drug use presented in the novel. The children, on the other hand, seemed to miss the point in several cases. Some remarked that the book was 'boring and repetitive', citing horrifying scenes such as the suicide of a character using his own glass eye as a knife and the attack of a rabid dog as 'exciting' highlights in an otherwise boring novel. So perhaps, it is nothing more than ignorance that has taken this novel to the top of the list; the adults already know what it's going to say, the children self-censor it to the point where they are blissfully unaware of the bleakness and depravity. 

There is also the argument that children and teen literature is taking a turn towards presenting more adult themes through dystopia that renders the Bunker Diary nothing more than a natural extension of such a trend. What this argument fails to consider is the context within which Brooks and other authors present their chosen subject matter. Themes of murder, drug use and cannibalism are just as common in Michael Grant's bestselling Gone series as in The Bunker Diary, but presented in an altogether different environment. Grant's works are set in a town surrounded by an impenetrable forcefield, in which mutations are triggering young people to exhibit strange powers. In other words, the whole thing is a science-fiction fantasy, and while every bit as well-written and -presented as Brook's novel, it is ultimately far-removed from what life 'really' is. Brooks, on the other hand, has a habit of writing far too close to reality in this and other novels, making the content all the more vivid and relatable. While I don't deny that as a purely literary feat, it is a great achievement to present such matters so vividly, it is not something that should be being pressed into the hands of children. 

The only other answer I can think is that the novel was selected as a winner was purely for its literary value, and having not read the remainder of the competition, I can't pass judgement in that regard other than to say that The Bunker Diary is, for what it is, well-written, but as I point out above, rather too well-written. I also don't think the value of that outweighs the potentially damaging effect that the novel may have on a reader that is no thoroughly prepared for what awaits. Given that the book will now be being presented in bookshops worldwide as what is essentially the 'children's book of the year' without any kind of warning or alert about the content is a thought that is alarming in itself. As adults who read (and presumably understood) the book, do the Carnegie judges not have a duty of care to ensure that, if this book is to be plastered across bookstores, it is done so in a way that makes it quite clear the journey to the final pages will not be at all pleasant?  

This, then, is my real issue with the book: it should not be presented to children in the way that a Carnegie medal winner inevitably will, and to me, selecting it as a winner is at best misguided, and at worst, irresponsible and dangerous. 

So what is it about? Is this time to reconsider?

One question that has been playing on my mind, aside from why the novel was successful in winning the prize, is precisely what Brooks aimed to achieve with it, and there are some clues in his reaction to receiving the award. In his acceptance speech, Brooks suggested an interest in challenging the 'ingrained' attitude that books must offer some hope, or reach a satisfying conclusion, and also stated that 'teenagers do not want' to be presented with what he termed 'artificial hope' in novels. He concluded that it would be 'patronising' to reward the readers who survived his harrowing novel with something even close to a happy ending. 

I have to take issue with this; if anything, an ending that provides a hint of positivity or hope acts to make the previous events more poignant. While it is a harsh fact of reality that happy endings are largely the realms of fairy tales, that doesn't mean that such depraved reality and utter nihilism that is seen in The Bunker Diary needs pressing into the hands of children that, in many cases, are largely unexposed (or so I would like to think) to the events and situations presented within. 

Brooks puts a lot of focus on how the number of young people 'reading for pleasure' is dropping and becoming a minority, but then produces a book that is impossible to enjoy, which seems something of a dichotomy to me. To me, reading for pleasure is something synonymous with escapism, and escapism is not in any way compatible with depravity, cannibalism, insanity or extreme and undiluted violence of character. There seems to be a thread within Brooks' work of moral ambiguity, and that reaches a head in The Bunker Diary. His comment about it being 'patronising' to provide all the facts or answer questions or offer hope strikes me as a sign he is out of touch with readers. 

This may perhaps be a less innocent age than the heyday of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Famous Five, but sometimes, we as readers want a sense of justice. We want the Good Guys to win and the Bad Guys to get their comeuppance. We want the hero to escape and be rewarded in some way for his endurance of the unendurable. Leave the grim realism to the newspapers; it's impossible to escape the sometimes horrible real world if we are only presented with the same in fiction. There is a line between fiction and reality that Brooks does cross expertly well, but it's arguable as to whether he does so in a way that warrants being given to unprepared, unsuspecting children. There is no education to be had from The Bunker Diary; even the obvious 'don't talk to strangers' that one would expect to result from the capture of the bunker's inhabitants does not exist. They were all powerless to prevent their capture. The only moral is that 'as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport', or in the case of The Bunker Diary, abandon us and let us kill ourselves. Not really a message we want to be presenting to children, is it? 

So the Carnegie medal is over for another year, and a novel that is unprecedented among the winners for its sheer and devastating bleakness has been blindly selected as a winner. I remain convinced that it even being selected for the shortlist was a mistake, and appalled that it won. Feel free to leave a comment about anything in the article, and as always, thanks for reading. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

And Now For Something Completely Different...

As the title suggests, I've taken something of a departure from my recent work with today's piece. History has been cast aside for Fantasy, something I've written a fair bit of but not really given much time to on this blog. Anyway, as always, the story is below, and the notes follow. Enjoy.

Scale, Tooth and Claw

They stumbled along on two legs two few, these stunted creatures that had dared end His aeons-long slumber. Their high pitched cries echoes around the gantries high above and swooped to assail its ears, ears unused to sound after so long in silence. The interlopers scurried into the shadows once again, and well they might.

For long ages of the world, he had waited in this deep place, guarded by a darkness that was more than the absence of light. No one had dared approach from the worlds of men, and those worlds had faded from memory; nothing more to Him than dreams of empires He had laid low, cities in flames and those endless droves of two-legged cattle that could sate even His mighty hunger.

And now, that age was over; silence was now noise, stillness was motion, and so many things He had forgotten were remembered. Surprise soon fell away to a long-dormant thrill of the hunt; the subtle tang of fear in the air was a sensation so long gone, but so sublime. He snarled a gloating warning; He would take his time with these ones, as was His will.

First, He recalled, came the wait. The wait that would pass in the blink of a heavy-lidded eye, for these creatures had not the patience of His kind. An age for them was one beat of His iron heart. Soon enough, they would show themselves, betray themselves to his majesty, offer their frail forms for the taking. It would be a spasm of movement or the slightest sound that gave him away. And there it was, as close as it always was to one of His immense stature.

A noise he recalled from so long ago, the high-pitched and quivering sound of fear made manifest. It was so very familiar, that sound, and it awoke something deep inside him. The furnace of his breath that had been cold for centuries suddenly burst again into flame, burning up from within and waited to be unleashed. But not yet. First, he would chase them.

As one, the huddled group stepped into the lighter darkness, believing themselves hidden, no doubt. The shadows no impediment to His sight, and he saw their spindly forms slinking away, fumbling across mounds of hoarded gold. One, He noted, dared even pocket a single coin. The theft was unforgivable

The distance between them was swallowed up in a single stride, buoyed by a beat of gigantic wings, and for a moment, he was before them, the fire of his eyes bathing them in a ruddy glow, and then came the chase. They would run, and he would let them, for the valiant deserved a glimmer of hope, and they were bold indeed to end his sleep. So He would test them, and watch them fail. And then He would kill them.

The group scattered and reformed between mountains of treasure, a fluid, moving flock that would offer a worthy pursuit. He toyed with them, as was his habit, allowing them brief moments of peace and refuge, moments of before plunging down from on high or bursting from beneath the piled gold, scattering it and them to the shadows. It was entertaining, this game they played, and he would let it go on for as long as he chose. What was left of their life was his to control; what was made of it was their own to decide.

Move for move He matched them, a hundred of their tiny steps made redundant by one of his, and the rush of air as the backdraft of His great wings sucked the very air from the chamber would throw them from their feet. Shakily they would rise, marvelling at their continued existence, and keep running, still refusing to accept the inevitable: that they were nothing more than prey.

He was fully alive now, muscles and flesh and sinew that had not moved in millennia now flexed in elated anticipation; they would make no more than a morsel, but revenge and this re-found exhilaration would sate Him for now. And then out, out into the world where new empires would have risen from the ashes of the old, ripened by time and now fresh and tender; a feast waiting for Him that none could deny.

A pair of intruders halted while the others fled, and turned to face Him, and raised sticks that breathed fire. So, it was a warrior’s death they sought. Then he would grant it. A swipe of a claw sent them left, a slicing wing right, and then a darting mouth agape forced them stumbling back,  sprawling at His feet. At His mercy. They raised the fire-sticks again, and something new happened.

The sensation was strange to Him. Sharp, small objects slid from his scales, a minor annoyance but one he relished. An acrid taste that was not quite smoke pricked at His nostrils. There was even the kind of pain he had not felt in centuries, a dull ache behind each impact. But it was no matter; what weapons they had conjured in the long centuries of His negligence would be no match for iron scales and ivory claws and the flames that came from so deep within.

Flames that now burst forth from that place, and filled this marble cavern he had made his own, a temple to his might, turning gold undisturbed for centuries to molten flows and charring white stone black. How could any hope to resist? But still they did, darting this way and that, scattering where the flames took root and cowering where they thought he could not reach.

One of the fire-stick-bearing trespassers fell to the cascade of fire, burnt to cinders in a flash and snapped up in a burning maw. A mouthful, but the first of many. Two more were pinioned by razor claws, their bodies rent and torn and consumed moments later. The chase was over, the feast was begun. Only one more remained.

And where could it be, this most elusive of creatures? It mattered now; let it cling to its last few moments, cowering in the dark and savour them. He would savour its terror. The strong kill the weak, and He was the strongest. This last creature, this petty blight on his magnificence, would soon be as cold and dead as the corners he trembled in.

Again, that dull ache came, and with it, a sound like the crackling of timber in a forest fire or the crack of a claw on stone. A second sound, and this time he caught sight of a flash, like lighting but brighter. This new weapon was strange, fascinating. Valuable, and he would have it. A scaled head turned to face the light where, again, the lone figure was illuminated.

He would be shown some respect in death, for it was no small thing to face a Dragon and stand his ground. His death would be fast, but honourable. One limb at a time, He turned to face this bold prey, and inclined His head, His serpentine neck reaching out in a salute that was not mocking or cruel. A warrior this man had lived, and a warrior he would die. He prepared Himself for the final blow, a single bite that would end-

The pain was unbearable, an angry biting burning stinging stabbing flailing fiery pain. A pain he had never felt before, and something hot and red fell onto the gold below. Every piece of His being screamed in abject agony and in that moment the world was darker; the vision of the warrior vanished and was replaced by blackness. How? Why?


By the time the pain subsided and His eye stopped burning, the scent of flesh had long gone; only the acrid smoke and metallic tang of spilt blood remained heavy in the air. Slowly, sluggishly, He became aware it was his blood that had fallen in drop and spread in thick pools across the cavern floor. The thought of that red liquid outside his thick hide was alarming.

Tentatively, he dipped a claw in the pools and brought it to his mouth, his tongue darting out to taste it on instinct and recoiling at the metallic sharpness. He lifted the claw higher, and watched the liquid drip to the floor where it splashed and rippled out in neat circles. He shifted His head again, and then stopped. Where he had once seen, there was now darkness.

Gently, his tongue flicked up and probed the eye, met with the same taste of shed blood. Blinded. Blind. A roar of rage escaped unbidden, causing tremors in the rock. A hide armoured thick that had defended him from a thousand shafts and blades, and this new weapon had found His one point of weakness. He was drowned in respect for this warrior, and something else, something he only knew by instinct.

Fear. He was afraid. Not so invincible as He had once believed, and where one had succeeded, now many more would follow. They would come in their hundreds as news spread of a Dragon laid low, a Dragon spited, and they would bring more of those fire-sticks. Enough, maybe, to hurt Him further. Enough, maybe, to slay him.

No, that would not do, for He was greatest among creatures, and he would not be cowed. Revenge would be had; a warrior’s fate had been offered and spurned, and this time He would not snow mercy. Cities would burn before His honour was restored, His vengeance had. It was time, once more, for Him to emerge and remind the peoples of all the lands why they left in slumbering in peace.  

One beat of his wings carried him into the air, another set Him sailing across the cavern and up, up to the mountain’s spire, where long ages ago he had sundered stone and descended into the dark. Now, at last, He would return, and the worlds would again know the terror that came with every beat of His wings and each gout of flame that issued forth from between razor teeth. The light was in sight now, and He flew towards it, out, out into the world, heralded by flames.

 Smoke rose slowly through the mountaintop and blackened the sky, and with that smoke, carried in the shadows, came a darker shadow, and a roar of a new age dawning. Wings spread to blot the sun, and cataracts of flame harboured in the stomach of this most ancient of creatures replaced its light; for miles, all was bathed in fiery light, a forewarning of something so old and so new.

Somewhere in that roiling mass of smoke and flame, reptilian lips parted in a cruel smile, and the slits of a single dome-like eye scoured this new land he did not know. Hurricane wingbeats would carry him to where the cattle was richest, and steely talons would prepare the prey. Fiery breath would cleanse His kingdom, and once all this was done, colossal jaws would feast as they had aeons before. The world was changing, and the dragon would take His place as its master. 


Author's notes:

- The idea for this one came to me when considering the nature of Dragons in various fantasy settings; they're mostly shown as either intelligent but subservient to other races, willingly or otherwise, or they're portrayed as mindless beasts. So at some level this was my attempt to restore balance to the Force, and represent the dragon in a way one rarely sees

- The character of the Dragon in this one is something that I've left deliberately ambiguous. I've tried not to make him a force for good, because he's not, but I don't think he reads as inherently evil either. He's doing what he does because, as far as he is concerned, he is the strongest creature alive, and has that right to do as he pleases. There's an arrogance to him, but only because he's better and he knows it. So maybe he's evil, or maybe he's just doing what he thinks is natural.

- In the style of writing style itself, I've tried to straddle the line between archaic and melodramatic, to add to the impression of the dragon being an ancient force, slightly out of touch but also convinced of his own power; he's not being over the top, just revelling in his own power. Again, I aim for this to add to the ambiguity of the narrator.

- So what is this all for? Well, it may be just a one off, but on the other hand, I've got a few other ideas kicking around that would entail a degree in world-building. Several characters could easily fit this setting, and I quite like the idea of it becoming a series of sorts, but with no real plot other than some very overarching themes, simply exercises in character and style. I've chosen the fantasy setting as it allows me to be far more idiosyncratic in writing than any other kind of world, and gives a lot of creative freedom, a blank canvas so to speak. So there may well be more in this series of 'snapshots' in the near future. 

As always, thanks for reading, any comments are welcome

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

After The Fact

Another instalment in The Poet's War today, and again, this one is a direct sequel to the last.

After The Fact

20th February 1915

Everything had gone wrong, and the words had stopped. The blood that splashed across the trench wall was just blood, the look of dawning comprehension on the young boy’s face before the knife fell and froze it was simply that. He understood, and he died. Smith always wished he had been the one to do it; unlike Johnson he would not have relished the deed.

The mission had, according to the papers at his fingertips, gone off without a hitch. Two maps and a sheaf of probably useless papers had been recovered, only one man had been killed (a hero’s death, the letter he had yet to sign assured the bereaved family) and there were two less Germans in the world. In his more lucid moments, Smith couldn’t help but wonder if, somewhere just a few hundred yards away, another man was sitting in this same place, papers waiting on another desk to tell half the story.

And somewhere, he knew that three men lay face-down in the mud, blood joining that of a thousand others, all red, red, red. Private A. (Alan? Adrian? Anthony?)  Carter, the letter told him, and all he could do was sign it. That was the closest he’d come to ever knowing the man, this same letter that he’d sent too many times before. And two other men, who to all intents nothing more than numbers on a report, neatly filled out and filed and forgotten.

He reached for the whiskey, trying to recall if it was his second or third of the night. It didn’t matter; he didn’t do this often. But there were days like this that merited something a little stronger than coffee. From the corner of his eye, Smith noticed Johnson giving him a suspicious glare, but ignored it and slammed the glass back to the desk. He would not be condemned by the man he had seen smile as he took a life.

He folded the papers away and placed them in the prepared envelopes, and paused for a moment before placing the lid on the pen. There was so much more to write, but where to write it. How could he tell some far-off mother that her little Alan (he looked like an Alan) had died a hero’s death, how he screamed as the bullet tore into his back as he tried to run, crying, for a home he could never reach?

How could he write the names of the men he never knew in that tiny box that asked only for a number? No one would ask, and no one would expect him to tell. This was now a war of paperwork, and names didn’t matter. Only numbers, and the simple addition and subtraction of human life. The glass came to his lips again, disappointingly empty.

“Sir,” said Robson for the third time, the words finally penetrating the haze of barbed-wire thoughts and land-mine nightmares. “The van’s arrived for HQ, sir. Those forms, the letter. You want me to run them up there, sir?”

Smith struggled to his feet, straightened his uniform into some semblance of order, and shook his head. “No, Robson, it’s all right. I’ll do it. I could do with a walk.” He paused for a second, catching Robson’s face fall in that way it always did when told to wait behind. Maybe he was being a little harsh on the boy, but he needed to get out of the dugout. “You can join me if you want, lad. Christ knows no one likes sitting around here.” He shot a pointed glance at Johnson, who did not look up from polishing his knife.

He would never wash the stains away, Smith thought, thinking of Macbeth and that terrible butchery of it the dramatics society had put on in 1912. The mad man, huddling in the middle of the stage, backlit and howling, soaking his hands in red paint that would not wash off. Melodrama at its worst, and yet oddly appropriate in this emphasised, vivid hell.


Robson left the dugout in Smith’s shadow, the light momentarily obscured and then splintered around the corporal’s form. He noted the revolver at his waist as the handle caught the light, and for a second, envied the fact it had been used so recently, while his own rifle lay unfired by his bunk. The corporal had been given the chance he had not; why did he look so broken and haunted in the early morning glare?

He struggled to keep pace through the mud, and all too often slipped from the soaked duckboards, saving himself only by a hand shoved against the trench wall. Smith did not once look back to help him or reprimand him. It was as if he were in another place entirely.

Even when they passed Anders, cheerily heading back towards the dugout with his latest culinary ammunition, Smith didn’t return the greeting of the only man he seemed a friend with, staring resolutely ahead and barely even breaking his step to let the batman past. Robson nodded a good morning, but was similarly ignored. Everyone seemed to be in their own world this morning, and as always, he was an outsider to all of them. Quite what he had been expecting he had almost forgotten, but it was not this half-silence and muttered curses and constant fear and anger.

The corporal had his own problems; every day the whiskey bottle he kept on his desk was emptier, and every night he was the last one to sleep, sitting up into the long hours of the morning with nothing but a glass and that bloody ever-present notebook. Robson found himself unable to care what he disclosed to those pages. It didn’t matter.

Johnson, he was out just for revenge. There was only one reason he spent hours cleaning an re-cleaning his rifle and bayonet, and it wasn’t for inspection; his boots went unpolished, his uniform unpatched. He lived only to deny others that state. Robson could understand that; it was the most base and inexplicable aspect of human nature he knew all too well. Those that cannot have do what they must to deny others the same.

Anders, well, he was just the cook. And the cleaner. And whenever there was something to be done, he’d do it. He kept the dugout running while Johnson and the corporal tore themselves apart with their demons. But where was the glory in that? Did the ageing man sometimes wonder what it would be like to rise up over that flimsy barricade, into the wasteland and wait for something new to come?

And Robson, what was he? An outsider to all of these, a stranger they refused to come to know. He was a hero-to-be that would never get to claim that right. He was betrayed, victim of so many promises not delivered on.

No, he was a soldier, and he would do his duty while these other, lesser men fought themselves.


Author's Notes: 

- This one is very much a character piece; you get a very introspective view of the inner workings of Smith's mind and how's it's changing, and then the complete opposite of that in Robson's deliberately flawed analysis of each character in turn. Obviously, Robson's thoughts are too idiosyncratic to be reliable, but one also has to question whether Smith has kept enough of a grip on reality to be a trustworthy narrator. 

- The change in narrator is meant to add to that effect, and work to create an impression that it's impossible to understand this situation. Smith and Robson both have such diametrically opposed views that they can't both be right, but the question is, are either of them? Well, I shan't spoil it here, but there's going to be a lot more of that going forward, and I may even re-write some of the narratively later pieces to begun to tie all of this together a little more. It's rather strange to see how far this story has come from its beginning that was the end, and how it really has taken on a life of its own. 

Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to leave a comment. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Sentry

It's been a while since I've had time to write anything decent, but I've finally managed to put together the next piece in the Poet's War series. It's taken me a long time to decide where I wanted to take this one, but in hindsight I'm actually rather happy with the direction it's taken. Without further ado...

The Sentry

19th February 1915, France

In the dark, the party were almost invisible as they crawled across the emptiness of no-man's-land; their presence was only betrayed by the tiniest movements and shifts in the blackness to a deeper shade. Shadows in the dark, silent and deadly. Ghosts in the night.
‘Ghosts in the night?’ Where did that come from? Robson thought as he watched from afar, casually peering through the gap between the sandbags, fighting for a glimpse of Smith and the others before they vanished from sight. Must be the corporal's blasted poems.
He kicked the dirt at his feet and stared up at the stars and tried to think about anything but where they were going and where he was not.
‘All this way for this, and the bastards beat me to it. Typical.’


Smith eased forward another inch, all too aware of the scraping thudding sound his rifle was making against the dirt, and the glint of moonlight at the point of his bayonet, and the creeping, crawling sensation as some unseen, multi-legged insect tap-danced across the back of his motionless hand. He resisted the urge to swat it away; any move could mean death for him, or worse, for his comrades lying in the dirt just feet from him, faces staring down, maybe wondering if the faces of their own fallen brothers in arms were staring back up from the blackness of this graveyard of the nameless, nationless dead.

What did it matter from where the bone came that crunched under his shifting boot? Why did he suddenly care about the name of the corpse whose foetid odour forced him to silence Johnson’s gagging with a sharp nudge? Who these men were that lay in the mud with him, living and dead, from worlds apart, were? Where they came from? None of it mattered. And yet, it did.

Robson folded the photograph back into his chest pocket, feeling his heart beat slightly faster against it, and drew the letter from his pack, five days old and creased beyond recognition. So many times he’d read and reread the meaningless words, and now he was reading it again. It was too dark to see, but he knew it by heart now. He sneered when she talked of an ‘afterwards’, when they could be together again. He laughed when she promised him she’d wait for him; he wished she wouldn’t. It would give him a reason to leave.

His fingers tore absent-mindedly at the corner of the crumpled paper, not quite ready to complete the motion on and down and rip the hollow words apart, scatter them on the still breeze that barely stirred the clouds above.

Robson tore his eyes from the words he couldn’t read and scanned the grey-black yet again, but there was nothing to see. Black sky showed through sheets of cloud, and white stars through that, but nothing moved. Grey hills rolled away to the south and a sea of mud stretched out before him, but nothing moved. Not a man or a beast or a light or a sound in that terrible, terrible darkness.

He knew that somewhere in that dark, a thousand rifles lay ready to be taken up and bring the starlight to this Earth. A thousand pairs of boots waited to be called to march forward, into the open night, and bring it to life. A thousand eyes, or maybe just two, watched this wasteland and waited for the call to arms, where drowned memories and empty, unlooked-for promises could finally be forgotten in clashes of fire and lead.

Maybe it was just him, he pondered. Maybe he alone was waiting for that moment; others had already had their honour satisfied. Certainly Smith and Johnson had seen battle, even Anders, the cook, bore scars along his cheek that twitched and narrated a history of battle. ‘The Sudan’, he would say, ‘when I was in the Sudan…’

Yes. All of them were heroes but him, and even now, Smith was crawling once more into the valleys of death with his very own Light Brigade, men different from Robson only in that they had been chosen while he was left aside. Did they not trust him? Had he not yet proved himself? How could he, when all the duty he was given was to watch, and wait, and wonder.


Just yards from the trench now, and once again, the words were building to a crescendo in Smith’s head. The dirt was not dirt but a brown river, streaked with red, frozen with the weight of untold dead. The moonlight was not simply silver but beams of day pouring down, casting shadows on this darkening ground, where men and ghosts must surely drown. The wire he eased himself under was a million barbs of purest spite, murderers in the still of the night.

He shook his head; this was no good. The poetry could wait. He had a job to do. The others drew closer around him, and on his signal, moved forward again, with more intent than before. In Johnson’s eyes, the moonlight betrayed a pallid hunger for revenge and death that would only be sated if everything went wrong. They would go in, silent and deadly, and get out with a prisoner, leaving no trace. Ghosts in the night.

Smith peered over the edge of the trench, drawing his rifle up beside him, and detached the bayonet, readying it like a knife. He lodged the rifle against a fallen sandbag; in the confines of the trench it would only slow him down. He gave the next signal, and as one, they moved up and over the trench’s narrow walls, sliding down in an avalanche of dirt and wood. Carefully as he could, he stifled the clattering planks, and got to his feet. Ten minutes, and they would be gone.

A pale face come round the corner,
Aghast with fear, agape with wonder,
And screaming with that final breath as-

Everything went wrong.


The night came to life, a single flash and a million echoes of that flash, and fire rising up in bursts from the distance. Screams began to cascade down, friend and foe indistinguishable in the chaos, united only in pain and suffering. And with every scream and rifle’s flash, someone was made a hero, in death or victory immortalised.

Everyone except him.


Author's Notes: 

- As noted in this post's introduction, this chapter posed something of a dilemma in direction in that it was my first chance to really depict Robson 'on the front' as it were, but at the same time, there is still a lot unresolved from the last chapter to feature Smith and Johnson. While the latter issues are only really hinted at in this piece, I wanted to make sure they were still there. Both threads of the story will be developed more, and hopefully brought together. 

I'm not yet at a point where I want Robson and Smith to be directly interacting, but at the same time, they both needed to feature in this story to exacerbate the difference between them. I'd already done that a bit in 'Shellshock' (chronologically after this piece) but by including the two perspectives on this same event, it threw up some interesting contrasts that almost wrote themselves. To Smith, the war is starting to become unimportant; the only thing he is fighting for is to save lives, it's no longer about flags and nations. Robson, on the other hand, is eager to be a part of the war but can't be for reasons that will become apparent later on. For him, the promise of glory is elusive, for Smith it has been proven to be a lie (in his first appearance, 'When the Clock Strikes Ten', Smith is not unlike the idealistic Robson seen here). 

- Robson himself is a very interesting character to write, because there's so much contrast within him. He doesn't want to die, but longs for the chance to prove he can survive. He's pining after a woman who doesn't love him, while mocking a woman who feels that way about him (See 'The Making of the Man if you've lost track of what I'm on about). He's bored with the lack of action, but totally unprepared when it does come.  So he is a fascinating character, although not a 'good' one; he holds double standards, longs for bloodshed but only to pursue innocent childhood dreams, and as such, he makes a very nice counterpoint for Smith's principles and sense of 'rightness'. I look forward to playing with that further down the line. 

- Again, there's the lexical difference between Smith and Robson; Smith describes things, Robson narrates them. There's some overlap, in an attempt to almost connect the two characters (but not quite), but Smith is certainly the more passive of the two, Robson the more active. In this piece, that contrasts a lot with the roles they find themselves in.  

That's all for now. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment. All the chapters I mentioned above can be found in the Ongoing Works tab in narrative order.