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. 

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