Noise: A constant. Punctuating thought. Thinking difficult: full sentences, a distant memory. The bombs like pauses in all the wrong places. Thought was fractured, broken. Like dismembered limbs, ideas fell away and lay on the ground, rotting. There was no such thing as silence.
Having said that, today had been quiet. This was relative. No one finished the sentence but it was clear that they meant for here. There was the distant rumble of the guns, the clamour of the men as they went about their daily survival. Always that. Occasionally a scream, anguished and wild, spread out on the air and action began. Men ran in from all directions, stretcher-bearers, medics, officers; all glad of something definite to do. Never mind the horror.
It was not like the hush at home. The peaceful, calming, gentle quietness of the countryside. I would stand at the garden gate, looking out on the eternal green of the fields, and think that the surrounding miles were empty of all human life. It was a comforting thought. Too full here: full of life, full of death. Full of noise.
Home kept springing up on me; the first signs of winter were appearing here. In this ravished land, it seemed fitting. Even nature was joining in with the dying. Easy to believe that the whole world was collapsing, decaying. I thought of the expanses of white, pure unsullied snow that would be appearing there, at home. The comfort of toes in front of fires; sheer warmth. Dear God, who even knew what that word meant anymore. My toes and fingers were barely part of me these days. I felt them not. The fingers particularly, no longer obeyed me; no longer felt the need to follow my command.
I was trying to write a letter home. To my parents. I never knew what to write. James, he told his family everything, about the men, about the horror but mine, they would not want to know how I was feeling. They never did when I was at home, why would it be any different now? They thought it messy, the showing of emotion, unseemly almost. Consequently, I was no good at it. I could not find the words that would describe my loneliness, my longing for home. The word usually used – homesick – now grossly inadequate. The nausea too great. And the longing for home was make believe anyway. I longed for the idea of home. It did not relate to the actual memories I had of the place where I grew up. It was some sort of shared idea, something I thought must exist somewhere but which had not for me.
Then a letter to Clara. I do not even understand how Clara had come about. The novelty of going off to war, coupled with the novelty of a girl waiting back home. Barely known then, she was such a fixture of my life now that I could not imagine shaking her loose when I returned home. My parents conspired with her, talked of weddings, children, seemingly having forgotten the mere months we had known each other before this current hell broke out.
Therefore, I was divorced from it, the idea of home, of love and family whilst I also wanted it more than anything else. It, or something like it.
This was not even the major problem. It was not even that my fingers were so cold that I could barely keep a grip on the stub of pencil in my hand: that made it more difficult but not impossible. No. It was the thought of trying to write anything with any sort of meaning. It would be trivial to write of the weather or the soul shattering noise. What substance was there to that? But to write of anything else, the blood, the death, the limbs cut off, lives ending… If I started to write that, when would it stop? How would I stop? I could not stop. I can feel them, the words, all bundled up at the back of my brain where I have tried to shove them. They are just waiting for the moment when I would start to write and then they would come gushing out, soiling the page, the world.
Imagine my mother’s face, as she took in those words, sat in the cool comfort of the kitchen, reading of the horror and the gore. Imagine the letter falling from her hand, as she ran out into the garden, wondering if she would vomit. I could not make this happen to her even while I would like to take her complacency and shatter it into a million pieces. These images, they did not belong in the greenery of England. If I return there, I do not want it to be tainted with the knowledge that I have acquired, here, in this place. I wanted my mother to be able to look at me and not see the blood of others in my eyes.
I could tell of the men, I suppose. The camaraderie. Some here, James was one of them, said it was like school but school was never like this for me. The friendship here, in the face of death, could probably never be managed elsewhere, certainly for me. It was new to me. Therefore, I could tell her of Gregory, so blond, so blue-eyed. He joked about his German ancestry and how he really was a spy. It made us laugh and we desperately needed to laugh. Then there was Tiny, probably the tallest man I have ever met. He seemed like a giant from another land and it was a wonder to James and I that he had not been hit. He was constantly crouched, bent almost double. Arthur, he was the dopiest, the clumsiest man who would undoubtedly be dead by now if not for the collective efforts of the other men. We were a team and we stuck together. We could not lose a member not even one as annoying as Arthur. Finally, there was James. I knew that I could write pages about him. He was the heart of the unit. Everyone said so. I pictured his dark eyes now, his thick curly hair, his mouth curled into a smile and I tried not to worry that his raiding party were late back.
Herein lies the problem. How could I tell delightful tales of these men in my letters? When my mother replied, all interested in what they were doing saying and I had to explain they were dead now, how was I supposed to write about that? Safer not to mention in the first place.
So bland lies given. Lapped up, of course. I guess I fuelled the nonsense. Six months ago, I was home. An injury, not minor but not life threatening. In hospital, home for a rest. I heard the things they said. The war will be over any day now. The worthy sacrifice. Fine and honourable: all that. Would they be able to say that sat where I am now? No. It was certain that they could not hold tight to their mendacity if they could hear the bombs in the distance, see the gory remains of what used to be a human being. If their hearts were permanently in their throats, they would not be able to utter so easily those words about glory, about dying for your country.
Sometimes though the thought of dying for my country was the only thing preferable to fighting for my country. In the middle of it, sometimes, I prayed for a bullet. Rather than witness the hell of the battle, the wonder of if you would survive. At that time, death would be welcome. Even if it was only because it was exact knowledge.
Now I have my worry. I put my pencil and paper down. My mind was focused on only one thing. James and his party were still not here. I could not focus. Every second passing was like a blow. In my heart and on my skin. In my head, I saw him smiling. His eyes crinkled around the edges. I could talk to him although it was hard for me to put my finger on exactly what it was that meant I could do this. When you talked to him, he fixed you with an intent expression. It was easy to imagine that you were the only person in the world. He listened closely and remembered details to use in later conversations. He was so natural and easy with everyone. Opposite, in fact, of everything about me.
Where on earth were they? I could imagine his screams now. See the terror attacking his normally handsome face. Afterwards, a corpse, various pieces missing. I would not sleep. Not that it was real sleep anyway. At least an imitation of rest was usually possible. However, not tonight. Eyes forced open.
The noise startled. I must have dosed. It was the scraping of boots on boards. The careful attempt to keep the noise level down, the cough that we all seemed to have. From the damp, from the cold. I breathed out slowly wondering whether to acknowledge his return, a little ashamed now, of my motherly concern. His voice, quiet, answered my quandary.
“Mark, still awake?” Hissed angrily. The tone was urgent, caught between wanting to talk and not wanting to disturb, I hissed my reply. “Awake. Never really asleep.” A grunt of agreement.
I edged myself to my feet, not to disturb the others. We were wedged together, aiming to minimize contact with the earth, the ever-sucking mud. To keep the bodily warmth together. The ice wind cut at my skin. I hadn’t realised I was warm. Now I was definitely feeling the chill.
“Snipers.” He began. No need to explain further. He knew what I was thinking. How could there be anything else? “Jack took a hit to the shoulder. His own fucking fault. Too fucking noisy. Pulled the fire straight towards us. Lucky we are not all dead. We didn’t even manage to do what we bloody went for.” There was a new sharpness to his tone. The anger that came from being close to death. Not his fault anyway. Everyone knew the raids were dangerous and achieved little. Nevertheless, it was easier to blame Jack than the whole goddamn system.
As I could not find any words that would comfort, I reached out my hand, squeezed his shoulder. Part of me saying, there were not any. Not anymore. Language shot to pieces. Hoping the gesture would be enough. His hand came up, placed itself over mine. Squeeze returned. It must only be a moment but it seemed that my entire life had not been as long as this. Then it was over. His hand disappeared and I removed my own. I could not imagine his heart was beating as intensely as mine was. I peered through the blackness at my hand, feeling that it should have changed somehow. As if, the moment would be marked somehow, in the skin.
A little warmer today and as such, my fingers a little more obedient. I tried again with the sheet of blank paper. Imagined writing what I wanted to say to Clara. A new realization as I looked at my hand. The place that was touched. Instead what I have ahead, a life of emptiness, imagining things I cannot actually feel. Angrily, I scrawled roughly across the page:
The thought of you makes my skin crawl.
Yet I knew that I would get home and I would not be able to say anything other than yes. I would let it happen to me. I would let life wash over me. The alternative was beyond me. I did not understand why I held on to the small thrill of skin touching quite so tightly but I did know that it was not right. Not any of it. Not James. Not Clara. None of it. I took the sheet of paper and crumbled it into a small ball, threw it into the ooze.
James brought me tea, or what passed for it. I cuddled the warmth into my hands. We sat quiet, no need to talk. I would stay like this forever in this easy companionship, if I could. If war were only this, sitting, waiting, I would enjoy it well enough. I could not imagine how I would achieve this in peacetime. Not even with James. He would have his own life, back on his childhood farm, me continuing training as a lawyer as I had been before the war began. Separate lives undoubtedly. We would marry, have children, and move on. Even if we made a point of meeting, well, we would never have this again. Well, I would not anyway. We might pretend but this could only exist because of the proximity of death.
The news came. Over the top. Tomorrow. The first time for James. Me, a survivor. Made me a lucky charm. I was suddenly popular. I tried to be honest but what was the point in scaring them half to death. Spend your possible last night on this earth in terror. No point. The knowledge would come soon enough.
I considered, once more, the future, the cold tight feeling that pulled at my skin when I thought of an afterwards. I glanced at James, allowed myself the thought of skin on skin. Then pushed away the thought because it was unacceptable. That much we all knew. Those sorts of men… I let the thought trail off. I didn’t really understand what it meant. The way my heart had jumped, pleasurable but not, not… right. It would not leave. I had to face that as a truth. Clara, I could barely even remember what she looked like. I allowed the small thrill to run through me again and then pushed it down, away, wondered how to keep it there.
It was comforting in a way, the thought that I would not mind to die. Not now. It was the very quiet that I longed for. The only answer. An exit. Acceptable to die in a war rather than taking your father’s shotgun, holding it in your mouth and pulling the trigger. Rather than drowning in a river. It made sense suddenly. Knowledge would come.