Back to Life (A Backwards Story)
Robson is dying, he knows that. In the mud and the blood and the fire of the field so far from home. Killed in someone else’s war. He gropes at cavity where the bullet has punched through his chest; he’s no doctor, there is no chance of survival; the wound is ragged and torn, blood already running dry. Breathing was impossible, even without the thick gunsmoke. He had run across that muddy, ravaged field and it had hit him, and he had fallen and he had stayed down. His last thought as he lay there, dying in the foreign mud, is how it had come to this…
He bursts from the trench, not yet daring to run, rifle in hand and cold. There is no clarity to the cacophonous sound and his vision is a blur, wave after wave of inexplicable sensations bombarding him, one after another after another. From somewhere there comes a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat that is followed immediately by blood-curdling screams, from somewhere else there is an explosion of blinding light that assaults his eyes. And then there is pain, that burning, searing pain as his chest is torn apart…
Another battlefield, and he was sitting in a different trench, German this time, smoking the last of the cigarettes he’d picked up on leave. His face was dirty but not bloody, and his rifle rested casually against the parapet. In his free hand was that faded photograph, a girl he could scarcely remember. She was just a name and a face now, but he still held on to that. A last token of home. What was home now? One day, when the war was over, he would find her again. He would find himself, too. When the war was over…
Robson steps down into the trench, making sure to tread on the duckboards that are themselves sinking. Making his way along the muddy ravine, the world comes apart, and everything he knows is wrong. This mud and squalor is not at all what he had been told to expect, nor are the constant sounds of distant guns and the screams from somewhere too far away to matter. But had he expected the cheerful smiles that greet him from every face, even if just to hide the pain and pity. There is something not right about those smiles, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe here, he’ll be one of them at last…
His first view of France is a grey line on the horizon, unremarkable and plain. Closer, he sees a green tinge to the coast, and makes out hills and trees and a place where a river meets the sea. Closer still, his first real glimpse of what they will be fighting for. A small postcard village, picturesque fields that roll over hills and down into the morning haze, the smiling faces as they come ashore. A hundred other men see what he sees, and he is certain every one of them is feeling the same thing; this isn’t too bad.
As fields roll by past the windows of the train, England slowly leaving him behind, a swarm of bees buzz through his head. He is leaving those he never loved, but also one he did. One who a man, dressed in khaki, like him, youthful and free, like him, took away. If she could see him now, what would she say? It doesn’t matter. He unfolds the photograph from so long ago, that moment frozen in time, and for a moment, forgets. Maybe, at long last, he has made her proud.
Robson takes one last look back at the three of them as he steps on the train. The father who was not his Father, beaming and saluting, Jeanette’s face glowing with admiration for her very own soldier that never loved her, and Mother, crying and making no effort to hide it. He wishes she would stop; it’s spoiling the moment, some last pang of loneliness holding on with those tears. At the very least, she could pretend to be a little proud.
‘Come back to us.” He hears her call as the train moved off. I will, he promises himself. I will, he lies.
“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…