19 Dec


C.R.JAMES 2010


          “Seems like a hundred years ago now, running down the High street with the rest of the lads, leap-frogging our way down to the recruiters station. The excitement and sense of impending adventure defining our life’s purpose. I remember men and women standing in the streets cheering, waving their miniature Union Jacks, every one a brother. There were no strangers in the town that day, everybody knew somebody who was joining up, or someone who had already joined; the king’s shilling making kith and kin of us all. But that was back then, back home in Blighty. That was when we were just playing at war, rehearsing at being soldiers, perfecting our bayonet lunges, parodying pain.”

          The shell arced across no-mans-land, high above the wire and into the sky, exploding above the trenches and drenching the subterranean world of the trench fighters in cold green light. Men shielded their eyes, putting a hand over one to protect their night vision, the way they had been taught at the depot, before shipping out to France.

           “God, how we used to complain. The sergeant had been right, we never had it so bloody good. The whining was never ending; the beds were either too hard, the food rotten, liberty on Fridays nights too short, the cost of a pint and the effort it took to kiss the pretty girls too much. Everything was a chore, an effort, everything took too bloody long. Life was for living and we were ready to live in the here and now, not the bloody future, not tomorrow, but now! We were ready; ready to shed our boyish ways and take up our manly responsibilities. Too eager by far to enjoy the warm beer at the bars, the frantic clinches in dark alleys, the jangle of shillings in our pockets; looking back of course it don’t seem so bad!


          The flare dangled in the sky, the dark trail of smoke clearly visible against its luminescence, drifting slowly to the ground, slipping through the air on the tiny parachute holding it aloft. As the flare fell the shadows became longer, the largess of no mans land reduced to pockets of pooled light and deep shadows. The flare fizzed as it extinguished itself in the puddled morass, the light still visible to the cycloptic watchers, the image burned deep into their retina.

         “But that was then, a  lifetime ago when basic training had been a game and Army issued passes meant weekend freedom; steam trains to distant nowheres to see friends and family before the great leap forward into France. God, that train took forever; stopping at every cattle call and whistle stop along the way! Took an age to cover the fifty miles from camp back to our village. We would play cards or chat up one of the lasses, anything to kill the boredom. Manys the time we would get off the train with a couple of extra quid in our pocket, lady luck having flashed her lovely smile. Wasn’t always the case though, and sometimes you would have to borrow a couple of shillings from father till payday with some old flannel about paying him back later.”


          Men who had remained still when the flare hung high began to move around the trench. It was dangerous to move about when the flares were lit, the briefest of movements eliciting the whine of bullets from the darkness beyond. Time had slowed down, life had come to a mud sucking halt, the joy of spring recruitment, now dead and buried in the fields of France. The young who had given up their youth, shambling like old ragged beggars as they shuffled out their existence in the shit where a day could last a week, a minute an entire lifetime.

          “You know what? Right now I could really go for a pint of warm beer. I often find myself between attacks and barrages sitting on that train, in my imagination of course…, back to our village, hoping that the journey back home takes just a little longer. Lounging back on those big horse hair cushions, no longer wishing life away, just enjoying the slow pull and push of steam, the corn in the fields, the smiles of the pretty girls.”

          Somewhere in the distance an anonymous machine gun opens up, the mechanical chatter sowing death and injury on a random trench filled with unknown faces. The bullets splashing mud and blood, the dead and dying dropping to the floor, the taste of muck in mouths, the smell of cordite in nostrils. Arse-clenching- piss-yourself-fear seizing those still able to remember better days.


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