Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Absent Friends

As I mentioned yesterday, I have another of the writing exercises complete, and where yesterday's was a prequel to my other World War One work, today's is a conclusion, to these stories at least. I shall be revisiting these characters at some point, but this piece certainly marks the end of their collective story. It is set a few days after this piece.

The piece is based on creating absent characters. Again it's over the word limit, and I've taken a bit of liberty with the brief, focusing more on the effect of the absence on a character present. The first 500 words or so do work on building the non-present characters, but after that it really is the story of the protagonist himself. Here it is:

Absent Friends/After the End

The Somme, France, 3rd July 1916

The dugout was silent, Robson’s reverberating full-belly laugh conspicuous by absence. The pile of papers on Smith’s makeshift desk uncharacteristically scattered, July snow fallen in sheets on the surface. Next to them, neatly perched on the edge, a parcel that had arrived too late, unopened.

Anders lit the candle as night fell, and turned for a moment to ask what time the lads wanted waking. The words were halfway from his lips when they stumbled and slid to a halt. The sound seemed to echo for an age before fading, as if waiting for a reply that would never come. He forced out a choked cough, shattering the spell before it could fully take effect. Too long in this ghostly silence and he’d start hearing voices.

No, that wasn’t it. He would never stop hearing them. Smith barking orders, a compassion behind the barbed commands. Johnson would never stop complaining about the way the lintel hung too low on the left or the constant but gradual trickle of water from the leaking roof of the dugout. As the watch hit nine, he almost heard Robson’s cheery daily announcement he was heading off for duty. Anders turned to wish him good luck before he could stop himself.

After an eternity of the echoing voice calling back, the silence gathered and stalked back in, the ticking of the old watch the only noise keeping it at bay. Anders pulled out the watch, the brass case glinting in the candlelight, and watched the hand tick round, seeming not to count seconds but hours in the never-silent half-light. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

For the thousandth time, Anders heard Smith telling that same story, how this watch had been pressed into his hands as a comrade lay dying in the mud, how he had kept it safe across the breadth of France, and when home on leave, had paid a small fortune to have engraved into the polished brass casing, a dead man’s words.

When all is burnt and all is dead
When all the world is blood-stained red,
When all our wars come to an end
Then will Death be called our friend.

An epitaph, he’d called it. An epitaph to a good man.

‘Bloody poets,’ Johnson didn’t say as Anders traced the tiny words with a finger, ‘if they’d spend as much time with a rifle as a pen we’d be a damn sight closer to winning this damned war.’ The tirade continued for some time, silently writhing in Anders’ head, over and over and over and over and…

He stopped still, frozen but for his eyes, darting from place to place, looking for any sign of life. Had the plates moved from the table where they had taken a last supper? Had a shadow passed over the door as an old friend returned? No. There was no one and nothing, Anders reminded himself, all those lives were stilled, those pulses dead, those laughs, cut off mid-stream and lying decaying in mud. Nothing in here but him and the ghosts. All night, he sat there, not sleeping, not moving, just him and the ghosts, the candle becoming a puddle of wax, until the first lights of day dispelled the thoughts for another brief respite.

In that instant, he could take it no longer. There was nothing to be done but sit and grow old, and he wasn’t meant for that. He was without purpose. As menial as his tasks had been, Anders had always performed them to the best of his ability, not out of a sense of forced duty or pride, but because every meal, every mud-filled mug of tea, every almost-clean uniform he laid out for them could be their last. Everything he did, he did out of respect for these better, braver men who would surely die, and now they all had, there was nothing left. No service or small favour freely given could help them now.

And then the thought came to him, a flash of clarity that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Hurriedly, he grabbed a pencil and paper, and scrawled a brief message onto it, childlike enthusiasm infecting his ageing frame. He placed the watch in the paper, folding it twice, and left it on the desk, before climbing to his feet with more vigour than he had felt in a long while, and walking slowly towards the early morning sunlight and beyond.

He passed through the trench unnoticed, just another batman on an errand, until he found a space filled only with the dead that had been cut down before they could leave the muddy hand after another, he clawed his way up the latter and over, and out into the wasteland that stretched for miles, a world of the dead where nothing grew.

He did not know how long he walked among the dead, and the almost-dead, who reached out and called for home and family, or uttered streams of curses and unintelligible babblings. Across mountains and valleys of that scarred land he walked, waiting for the bullet that only came when every last drop of his sanity was torn away. Silhouetted against the rising sun, Anders slumped to the sniper’s welcome bullet, and died, staring into the clear blue sky.



The watch now sits, quite lost, among thousands of other artefacts recovered from those hellish places. The face is cracked, the mechanism muddied and jammed up, the time frozen at some moment from another age. The inscription is barely readable, only a few thin lines on the battered case. You might see it one day, small and insignificant, a piece of useless metal amidst a sea of others.

What you will not see is the paper it was wrapped in, an unassuming white sheet with a few lines of scribbled text. It has decayed, fallen apart, become scattered on the wind. Words that were forgotten.

Better men that me have died. I go to join them. Remember us.  

Author's notes:

- This is very much a tragedy, a story of loss and madness and ultimately suicide. As always, I hope not to have mistreated the context or content. It is also undoubtedly the end of the story of these men, although as I said before there are many tales still untold. I do hope this provides a sense of conclusion, though. 

- The last part I'm not sure on. Part of me wants to spend more time on the conclusion, but I feel with the previous piece I have done all I can on No-Man's-Land without needless repetition, given that I eventually intend to combine them all into a single longer piece. I do like the almost desensitised feeling of the last couple of paragraphs, but I also feel the need to redo them. In my head, I had a scene from Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong (a great book, by the way) in which a character goes 'over the top' and experiences a moment of outstanding clarity, seeing the world as almost beautiful for a split-second before all hell breaks loose. I wasn't intending to copy this, but there were a couple of bits I wanted to try and convey. I may well re-read that scene and then re-draft this ending, as I really do like the contrast he manages to achieve. 

As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to comment. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

No Man's Land/The Poet's War

This blog has been lapsing into inactivity for a week or so, but now I'm back into the swing of writing, and have continued progressing with the Writing Exercises with two more completed in the last couple of days. It's a prequel to the stories found here and here, set in the trenches of France in World War One. This piece, unlike the others, has no specific setting, but is pre-Somme given its position in the story. 

No Man’s Land/ The Poet’s War (Ways of Seeing) 

Nine o’clock. Smith clicked shut the freshly-cleaned watch and climbed to his feet, noting with sudden alarm the chaotic mess his desk had become as he worked. Hastily, he shuffled the papers into some kind of order, and gave a dissatisfied grunt. It would do for now, he concluded. Grabbing his rifle from where it lay by the narrow exit, he made his way up into the trench. 

At this late hour, the trench was all but deserted, only a few stragglers and the watchmen not at liberty to return to their dugouts where they would huddle for cover as the night dragged on. The setting sun cast long shadows, plunging the entirety of the trench into darkness, broken only by flashes of blinding light where the last rays pierced gaps in the sandbags. Smith noted the major openings as he walked, and decided he would place a detail on repairs as soon as it was light enough to work. 

Smith reached the watchman’s post and tapped the current guard on the shoulder three times, a routine they had perfected over the long months of service together. Johnson turned on the third tap, saluted and marched back to the dugout, breaking step as soon as he was out of sight. Smith stepped up into the alcove and put his eye to the periscope, surveying the wasteland that was set out before him. 

Every day it was the same, and yet different. New shelling had created a barren landscape entirely different from what he had seen only yesterday; mounds stood where there were craters, craters where there had been a rare patch of level earth. Rivers of rainwater, unable to seep into the saturated ground, that had run away to the left yesterday now wound their way to his right, dripping slowly down into the ever-filling-and-draining trench. 

The words came to Smith unbidden, as they did every night, and again he fought the urge to prise his eyes away from the glass lens to commit them to paper. Instead, he let them dance in his head like so many fireflies. 

Today’s world is falling dead; tomorrow’s unborn, 
Greyness yet to find a form, 
These hills and gullies, crested with the sunset 
Will stand, will die, and we will forget. 

As his eyes became more accustomed to the light, the sharp shadows and glaring lights adopting more mellow tones, Smith was greeted with the same horrors he saw every day and dreamed of every night. Men lay in the mud, dead, their uniforms rotting away, their faces grey and pale, their flesh eaten away by the maggots and rats that paid no heed to allegiance. All these dead men, so far from home, were meals to those things that crawled in the dark and were consumed with ravenous hunger. 

Dead among the dying they sit, these pale husks of men 
Who cannot fight or die again 
Their too-young bodies rent and torn 
Will disappear before the dawn. 

Smith’s vision became clearer, this vision of a daily hell, and the more he looked, the more he saw. Morbid curiosity drew him in, calling seductively, ordering him to look closer, and closer, and closer until… 

A man still moves in this too-still world 
Face scarred, eyes bloodshot, lips curled 
In a cry for home 
To the crows and the sky 

The ghostly figure crawled, inch by inch, across the wasteland, driven by some desperate force that defied injury and reason. He was bloody all over, shot several times in the chest, and his left arm hung useless, handless at his side. Smith could not look away. For a moment, he considered ordering out a party of men to retrieve this moving cadaver from the field, but he knew it would be a futile effort. The man’s groans, coming to him now through the sunset, belied what little time he had left, his ever smaller and weaker movements were a death warrant. At the very least, Smith could end his misery, but he was somehow paralysed, unable to move until this ghastly play had its final act. 

He cries for death, this dying man 
That sweet relief that ends us all; 
And cries not tears but floods 
To drown himself in mud and blood 
If none will answer his fatal call. 

The sun set, and the crawling corpse groaned on and on into the night, Smith charting his progress and losing sight as darkness fell. Flares, sent up intermittently, would give him another brief chance, a glimpse as this horrible visage came closer, and then it would fade, those ghostly eyes and torn face haunting Smith in the dark between them. 

Why does he crawl? Why does he call 
For home, when he is alone 
So alone among the dead? 
What thoughts, what promises, 
What secrets never told are pounding, 
Marching round inside his head? 

At two o’clock, a flare was again sent up and Smith realised with some horror that the creature -for he was no longer a man with those howls and that grimace- was moving ever towards him, now only a dozen yards from the edge of the trench. Another fifteen minutes at most, and he would reach that precipice, and tumble down to lie among the sandbags or be consumed by the muddy water. 

Come home, old soldier, 
Come back to your ranks and be seen. 
Be seen that they might know who you are 
What you are and where you have been. 
Tell your tale now, or a hundred years hence, 
It make no difference till the warlords relent. 

Author's Notes:
- First off, a confession: on this piece I've gone well over the word count, but I've found that these characters have just run away with me somewhat. I feel I'd rather take a little longer and do the setting/character/message justice rather than truncate it just to meet the word count. As always, I hope to have treated the subject well and respectfully. 

- The brief for this task asked for a character to have a unique way of seeing a traumatic event, and the focus for this was the poetry in this piece. I've always been fascinated by the War Poets, (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke et al) and in poetry in general, so this was very interesting to write and experiment with mixing in poetry with prose. If anyone reading this is a poet, then I imagine you'll know what it can be like when words just spring into you head and change the way you see the world. I hope that's worked in this piece. 

- The poem itself I think works as a standalone piece, although I do feel the context of this piece improves it. It lacks a coherent rhyme, structure or style, but that is intentional as it highlights the confusion and lack of surety from the narrator. 

- At the end of the day, this piece is about character, so I hope to have made that the focus of it. With any luck, this piece and the other WW1 bits will give you a good sense of Smith's character and those of his comrades. I'm pretty sure I'm not yet done with this cast, and will almost certainly return to them. 

As always, feel free to leave a comment, and thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


Here's another of the writing exercises I completed a few days ago. It's a direct sequel to the second exercise, Deja Vu, found here. Enjoy:

Homecoming /2117 part II

At last, he was home. Miles and miles and miles over the broken wasteland that was once England, past towns still burning and villages already razed to the ground in an effort to stave off the cold and the dark. The horizons had glittered every night with the embers that now consumed the planet, and on the third day, after the great ship had lifted off and begun the voyage into the long dark of space, fire seemed to consume everything. Every house, every office block, every shop and bank.

London had been the greatest of the bonfires, a never-ending cascade of flames that, from close-by, seemed to span the entire world. Every so often, over the roar of the flames, he could hear screams and cries as one of the hopeless, deluded or just careless survivors caught alight. Some relished it, the final burning escape, and some would roar and howl at the pain. Humanity was now united in only one thing- that ancient desire to fight off the dying of the light. Now, as they had centuries and millennia before, the last surviving men and women would sit, huddled around glowing embers in the cold of night, throwing ever more kindling into the flames. Books and boxes, cabinets and cars, anything that could be burned was slowly turning to ashes.

And after the horror and heat that was London, came the long, slow walk across the southern counties, where woods and fields sheltered the cowering remnants of a once-mighty species. Every night, they would look to the stars, and the mad would laugh and the lost would cry. Every day, they would spend searching for more fuel for this greatest of fire, humanity’s funeral pyre. Every man and woman he passed would beg him to stay, to join the relative safety of their various groups and gatherings, but he refused them all.

Through it all he had walked, and finally, after an age, he was home. As he drew closer, he began imagining the scene with an ever-growing anticipation working its way through him. He would walk down the street he had crossed so many times before, still glancing out of habit though no car would come. He would give a friendly nod to anyone he passed, though there would be no one there. And finally, he would open that old oak door and he would see her again and everything would be well.

He would sit down at that table like he hadn’t done for years, he would eat from the finest plates and bowls they had, and he would clear it away like he never did. His apology would come in the arch of the living room door, the explanation would wait until he was settled in that plump leather chair. After that, it all depended on her. He tapped the ring in his pocket, then clutched it tighter.

And, at last, he came to that street. The burnt-out remains of cars littered the roadway, covered in ash, and more fell constantly, the dusty snow that would provide the shroud for mankind’s cremation. Windows had long-since been smashed, houses emptied of their now-worthless contents. Gold, silver, jewels. None of them mattered now. They couldn’t burn. Not a single building stood intact, all since stripped of anything that would ward off the cold. He didn’t look too closely at the old school or the bank, or any of the shop windows. All that mattered was that he got home.

He rounded the corner and turned onto his old street, again greeted by a vista of burning detritus, and as he made out the shape of his house through the ash cloud, a timid hopeful joy began to blossom inside him. Kicking up yet more dust, he ran towards the building, not bothered by the choking ash or the stinging heat or the blinding light. He only cared about home and her.

And there she was, silhouetted against the flames, walking towards him, crying in the heat and throwing her arms around him. Trying to hold him back, almost dragging him away from the home he had spent so long coming back to. Dragging him away from the safety he so longed for. And then he realised, understood the words she cried in his ears, and stopped dead, cursing himself for being so foolish. Because this was the end.

And at the end, everything burned to stave off the cold and the dark. Everything. 

Author's Notes: 
- The brief for this one specified the piece be centred on 'home' as a concept and what that means, and I've taken a little artistic license with it to be honest. I've stuck to it in terms of making the setting at large a key part of the story, hopefully laying hints for the ending throughout if you're reading carefully, and I've also focused on what 'home' means, but to a lesser extent. 

- I almost feel this needs another sequel to properly tie it up. That, and 'The 2117 trilogy' has a nice ring to it. I think it merits a sequel that is far more focused on character, which took something of a sideline in this section. At some point soon I will certainly round off this story.

- I hope the ending wasn't too obvious, but at the same time I hope there's enough clues in the rest of the text to give you a nagging sense of doubt throughout, so that when the ending reveal comes, you almost feel annoyed for not seeing it coming, or pleased at having guessed it. 

As always, thanks for reading, and I welcome any comments or criticism. There's another piece I have ready to post, so that will be up later tonight or tomorrow.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A Poem: Memory Four Ways

Another Day, another poem.

Memory Four Ways

An echo, a word from some other world,
Calling across the voids and heard,
An echo, a legend that tells me the truth,
An echo, a voice that reminds me of you.
(Those memories, too few)

A ghost of a smile on your face as you pass,
A hammer to shatter this old heart of glass,
A ghost of a smile that will tear me apart,
The point of that smile like the tip of a dart.
(Scarring my heart)
A shadow of doubt that is soon thrown away,
A shadow that brightens the darkest of days,
The shadow of you is all that I see,
That shadow of you that can’t set me free.
(What does that make me?)

Reflections of dreams that I see in your eyes
In dreams, the reflection is nothing but lies,
The lies that I cling to like everything’s new,
The lies that I call the reflections of you 
(My friend, of you)

Poet's notes:
- This is a continuation of my experiment with unusual (for me, at least) use of structure. While the verse tends to hold true to the fairly simple AABB rhyming pattern, I've played around with adding an 'afterthought' to each stanza, separate from the main part of the verse, deliberately echoing the last rhyme. I think this fits quite well with the theme of memory and recurring thoughts, as it drags out the verse a little longer, purposefully jarring with the rhythm but extending the rhyme.

As always, any comments are welcome and thanks for reading.

Monday, 3 February 2014

A Poem: Ways of Seeing

What's a poet without any poems,
A notebook that's empty of rhyme?
A blankness that's worthless is all that it is,
So I'll fix that and now is the time...

As noted, there is really a distinct lack of actual poetry on here, largely due to my recent focus on short fiction, but today I finally got around to writing some more verse. This one is still only a first draft, so may well evolve (in which case I shall post again for comparison), but for now, enjoy:

Ways of Seeing

I see the world through the eyes of a child,
But not one so mild
As raging and torn, too old for my time
Seeing the rhyme
But not knowing why.

I reach out and touch with a tentative hand,
So strange in this land,
A frozen hand that cannot feel
If this is real
This heart that can’t heal.

You see the world through eyes looking back,
Not fearing attack
But searching and lost, between two worlds, not alone,
Both worlds your own
But neither quite home.

You hear my promise, a part of the world,
A flag unfurled,
A word too clear but it’s better this way,
I might run away;
I’ll be back some day.

They see us both through the eyes of the world
Snarling lips curled
At me for being and you for seeing
Not fleeing
The world that I call my own.

What I cannot see is what you are to me,
What we could be
If the eyes of the world turned their gaze,
Lost in the haze
Of numberless childhood days. 


Poet's notes:
- This poem is something of an experiment and a departure from my usual, somewhat more structured work, with the shortened second and fourth lines of each stanza being particularly atypical. I can't quite decide whether they help or hinder the flow of the poem, as I've not yet recited it aloud. 

-  The rhyme an rhythm are deliberately broken in places, and the format purposefully a little looser than usual. I'm not sure precisely what this adds, but I did feel right when writing. I'm interested to hear thoughts on that if anyone would like to comment. 

The next few of writing exercises should be complete within the next couple of days, as soon as I have time to write. 

That's all for now, thanks for reading, and any comments are welcome as always.