Sunday, 20 April 2014

First Impressions

First of all, apologies for the lapse into inactivity that this blog has suffered over the last couple of weeks; I have found myself with too little time to really write or post anything. That said, I've got a few ideas and new bits and pieces to post now, so time-permitting there will be more coming over the next few weeks.

For today's piece, a direct follow-up to my last World War One piece, although very much a contrast to it. Enjoy:

First Impressions

4th November 1914        

The journey through France had been long, too long, and Smith had found that, despite day after day with nothing to do but sit, march he and think, was still unable to really understand why he was here. These rolling fields, small woods and the huge European sky showed no signs of a war being fought; everything was as tranquil as it had been back home, the landscape unscarred, the people acting just the same, the very feeling of the place no different.

On reflection, he wondered what precisely he had been expecting. Ranks of soldiers rallied around a flag, fluttering in the French breeze? Fortifications manned by grizzled veterans already tired of the war?  Fields and fields of bloody corpses? It didn’t matter, those sights that haunted his dreams. They weren’t real.

The mud underfoot was different, somehow wetter than that of home, and the air was cleaner, at least on this remote road to nowhere. The sky, when not clouded, was bluer, the grass greener, every colour more vibrant and alive. It would have been ironic, if not for the grim and ever-approaching reality. He might not be there yet, but he was marching to a war. That was not something easily forgotten.


On the ninth day, the column came across the first signs of what they were moving inexorably towards. They had reached a small town scarcely twenty miles west of the front, and while the officers organised transport for the next leg of the journey, the men were given two hours’ rest. Smith had initially tried to maintain some kind of order, but it was hopeless. After ten minutes of barking whatever orders he could, he relented, and simply hoped the troops would not get too inebriated.

He eventually found a quiet spot, in the corner of the square, and unwrapped his carefully-concealed diary. Finding the first crisp, white page, he paused for a moment, wondering exactly what was worth noting. He hadn’t paid attention to the name of the town, nor the last, and no one really knew where he was going next. The weather had been unremarkable, if a little windy, and there had been nothing to do but march and halt. And that, he reflected, did not make compelling reading.

Ten long, slow minutes passed as the nib of his pen hovered over the page, searching for something noteworthy, and around him, Smith could feel a change in the atmosphere. A quiet had descended, the bustling market slowed and fell still, and all eyes turned to the eastward road. Smith stood, pressing through the crowd, and craned his neck for a better view the impending scene.

The unearthly quiet became even more silent, to the point at which sound seemed almost impossible. A pin dropping would be a gunshot. A sharply-drawn breath would shatter the world around him. Nothing moved.

Eventually, a green blur appeared at the head of the road, and instantly, Smith understood. He had been surrounded by nothing but that green for a month. The troops were withdrawing, possibly even the very troops his men were supposed to be relieving. Had they been too slow? Was this a retreat, or just a routine operation? Who were these men?

As the lines of khaki approached, these thoughts fell dead, replaced instantly by a morbid curiosity, a paradox of vision. At once, he wanted nothing more than to see everything he could, and to turn away. Dreams died as they drew nearer; the reality was becoming all-too-clear.

Eyes, unseeing, on staring faces. Gashes, still bleeding, sewn with cord and wire. Limbs flailing in a bizarre parody of motion. Steps, marching but out of time, one after another after another after another. These were not men, but ghosts.

Every detail was sharp in the midday sun; the men appeared to draw in the light, absorb it, darken it. Smith made out names, numbers, insignia and decorations, pointless shapes that meant nothing. He could see the bloody stubble clinging to the chin of a man too young to shave, and the limp of an old soldier, too old to fight. He could see a hand with a finger missing, the pattern tapped by its remaining companions somehow lacking, incorporeal. He could see the twitch at the corner of an eye, replaying the same look of utter horror again and again and again.

Everything here was so real and yet so distant; the silent crowd seemed to vanish, the buildings became simple shapes, every focus was on these poor shells of men, marching step by step to some other place, be it a haven, a sanctuary, or just another hell. At the head of the column, a bugler, one arm hanging dead and useless by his side, pressed his instrument to his lips and blew, but there was no sound. Something within the man was broken, unable to bring forth a sound.

One figure, ghostlier than the rest, with a blood-flecked face and madman’s eyes, suddenly leapt from the column. He fell to his knees, and then, with effort enough to move the world, stood shakily, and began staggering towards the crowd. His comrades, too tired, broken and confused to care, just kept walking ever onwards.

Smith’s eyes locked with this mad spectre’s, and the stumbling man started to claw his way through the crowd, who parted before him. Inch by inch, the ghost lurched and then crawled towards Smith. He was unable to move, transfixed as this monster of man, this blood-coughing, scrabbling corpse moved closer and closer.

He fell at Smith’s feet, another cough spraying blood, too red, too real, across his shoes, mingling with the mud. A hand closed around his leg, the fingers suddenly gripping too tight. Too real. Smith knelt down to this obviously dying man, and placed a hand on his shoulder.

Their eyes met again, so close now, and Smith could finally understand this man. What he’d seen, what he’d done, where he’d been suddenly became clear; a portrait in a stare that he knew he would never forget. The grip on his ankle released, and the man fell suddenly limp, lying down in the mud at the roadside and fumbling for something at his breast pocket. Gently, Smith reached down and undid the button, and the contorted hand closed around something inside, pulling it out.

A simple pocketwatch, quite unadorned, brass somehow untarnished amidst the mud and blood a chaos. The soldier pressed it into Smith’s hand, gibbering madly but making no sound. Smith took it, and the dying man reached again for his pocket. This time, there was no grip, and Smith moved his hand aside, his own feeling in the pocket for whatever the soldier wanted. His hand closed around a scrunched ball of paper, which he withdrew. Immediately, the man started nodding, and Smith pocketed the paper. There was nothing to do now but wait.

It took two hours for the unknown soldier to finally die, and Smith remained with him the whole time, listening to the insane mutterings and watching his life slowly ebb away. Eventually, the crowd had parted and the troops moved away, and the two of them were left alone, a scene from a battlefield in the town square, a scene he could never forget.

Finally, Smith gathered the courage to unfold the paper the dead man had been so intent on handing over to him, and found on it only a few words, shakily scrawled on the crumpled page. A dead man’s last words. At last, he had found something to write in the pristine diary, marring it forever, its white innocence annihilated at the stroke of a pen. The watch ticked on as he painstakingly copied out each word, ink draining slowly out from the nib, life leaving an old soldier too young to die.

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.


Author's Notes: 
- Much like my last piece, there is a strong emphasise on body language in this one, although this time it was more a quirk of the context and content rather than a deliberately used device. I felt the 'silence' was important to this piece, as both Smith and the reader are held in a a grim illusion that direct speech would shatter. A similar effect can be seen in my piece Countdown, where speech is used in exactly that matter, to shatter the relative calm of the moment. 

- This piece also introduces a lot of motifs that have and will feature heavily in the continuing narrative, such as the watch, the use of poetry, the ideas of words being linked so closely with memory. As such, it lends context to a lot later pieces that I've already posted, or sets up these themes and idea for those reading in order. 

That's all for now. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to comment. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

When The Clock Strikes Ten

As promised yesterday, here is another instalment in my ongoing First World War series (working title: The Poet's War). This one really occupies the position of either a prequel or first chapter, for reasons that should be obvious. That said, anyone who has seen the chronologically 'later' pieces will also get something from this, and it becomes a reflection rather than an introduction. The rest of the pieces, for those who haven't seen them, can be found by clicking the 'Ongoing Works' tab at the top of this page.

When the Clock Strikes Ten

King’s Cross Station, 18th August 1914

Anthony’s gaze was fixed on his boots, reflected eyes in the polished black leather staring back at him, a portrait of the man he had become. Clean-shaven chin, bushy but neat moustache, the officers’ cap balanced perfectly straight on his short-cropped hair. His khaki collar was pristinely sharp, ironed only hours before, his brass buttons polished to perfection. Every inch an officer of the British army.

The steam whistle snapped him out of the reverie, and he looked up at the great clock. Five minutes.

All along the platform, families jostled for position, mothers hiding tears, fathers shaking hands, young girls flinging flowers at the departing youth. Line after line of khaki made its way onto the train, a green-brown exodus for who-knew-where.

In the crowd, he made out his own parents, standing twenty feet to his right. In the middle of the throng, they were somehow detached, an island standing firm in the chaos. A last memory of home. For a second, he was about to take a step in their direction, and another and another, but he knew it was impossible. Improper. The men behind him were waiting for his lead; he couldn’t desert them now. His goodbyes were already said.

Behind him, the troops muttered to themselves, some breaking ranks to wish last goodbyes, others shedding silent tears. I’ll be back soon, mum. He heard one say, Back for Christmas, eh? He shook his head. The jingoism would be no good in the face of rifle fire and artillery. There was a good chance none of them would be coming back at all.

His eyes searched the crowd, eyes not lingering on any one face to see the torment there. Back to his men. Up to the clock. Down into the grieving mass. Back to the clock. Impossibly, he could hear the mechanism working. Tick tock. Tick tock. Counting down. Three minutes.

He took a step, and as one the platoon formed behind him, snapping to attention and marching forward. He led them across the platform, step by step, and onto the waiting train, greeted in silence by a grey-faced conductor.  Anthony could tell he was an old soldier, with his upright stance and alert eyes, and a stare that had seen too much. He gave a quick nod as he boarded the carriage, a flash of understanding between generations.

Still silent, he found a seat and sank into it, pretences abandoned out of the public eye. It was five hours to Dover, given the extra stops, and with any luck he could get some sleep between now and then. The noise around him was loud, but somehow soothing. He was not as alone as he had feared he might be. Comrades in arms were his family now.

Tick tock. Tick tock. The unheard clock moved on, and he caught it just as the larger hand moved, in that moment where a second takes an age. 09:59. One minute.

Back on the platform, he could see his father fighting through the crowd, decorum and sense thrown aside. His mother trailed behind, so fragile, her tears unhidden. Had the train not started moving at that moment, he imagined her face would be pressed against the glass, imploring him to come home. Too late, he thought, as the wheels began to grind along the tracks, carrying him away.

Tick tock. Away from home. Away from everyone he knew. Away from the green fields and little rivers and the apple tree at the bottom of the garden.

Tick tock. Tick tock. Towards a new world. Towards a new life. Towards fire and blood and mud and slaughter.

Tick tock tick tock tick tock. Stop.

In one moment, reality was clearer than ever, a flash of frozen lightning that made everything so very very real. In one moment, he wanted to claw open the window and jump from the train and to curl in a ball and cry and to scream and scream and scream and-

The cacophony burst forth at 10 o’clock precisely, as the train whistled its white noise when the deep clock bell tolled and the wheels began to screech and Corporal Antony Smith’s thoughts were drowned in a torrent of blasting sound. There was no need to think now. No need to scream. No need to do anything but wait. 


Author's Notes: 
- For those who have followed this story from its inception, this piece will feel familiar. The very first piece in the series featured a countdown to going 'over the top', into the unknown, and that's something I've attempted to recreate here. I think that, in the context of a longer work, it adds a nice sense of reflection, the first chapter mirroring the last. What that means is up to you, but I think it works nicely. 

- Similarly, the aforementioned piece made a lot of use of body language and positioning in place of speech, and again this is a direct mirror to that, right down to some exact movement being copied.  

That's all for now. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014


Time for another bit of writing, but before that, just a quick note about a new feature on this blog. You can now find a tab titled 'Ongoing Works' at the top of the page, which has a list of all the serial work I've posted on here, in narrative order. It should save you having to trawl through posts to find previous works if you want to revisit it, and also help keep things in order.

Now for the main event, another entry into my ongoing First World War series. Without further ado...


In the near silence, Robson was almost calm. It was the quietest quiet he could remember since England, and for once, Smith wasn’t barking orders. It wasn’t that he disliked the corporal, but he wasn’t overly fond of him, either. Something about the man seemed to be shouting at any moment, always shouting. Orders.

It could be worse, he imagined, and Smith hardly overworked his men, but he was simply so different, somehow, from this place. As much as he had tried to drum into Robson that class didn’t matter in their unit, that he wouldn’t be treated any differently just because he ‘wasn’t landed’, it still seemed to make its presence felt. Smith’s bunk and desk were always pristinely tidy, Robson’s own bunk a mess, a place to sleep at night and store his meagre belongings in the day. Smith always took duties himself, and Robson was always last to be picked.

Class doesn’t matter? He thought bitterly. Yes it bloody well does. Why else am I the one sitting round with nothing to do while all you rich boys get the real action? Why else are you always ‘volunteering’ for whatever you can get your privileged hands on? Why else am I always on the godforsaken morning watch where NOTHING EVER HAPPENS? 


Smith sipped the tea, and immediately spat, subtly as he could. Cold, tasteless and somehow dry. Anders could make a better cup. Even Johnson, and he avoided the stuff like the plague. For an officer’s mess, this was appalling. His eyes flicked back up to the Major.

“So, Smithy, how’s it going with the lads down at the front, eh?” the moustached officer asked, his multiple chins beginning to wobble as he spoke. It was only the difference in rank that kept Smith from laughing to himself.

“Smith, please, if you don’t mind, sir. And there’s nothing to report. Still the same mess as last week, still underequipped, still outnumbered, and still running low on biscuits. What the men haven’t eaten, the rats have. Maybe you’d like to see for yourself?” he concluded, the hostility he was trying so hard to suppress creeping into his last words.

He knew the Major would never accept the offer, but he always made it. Every week, every meeting, he would always ask. If ever he did come down to the front, and spend a few days in the trenches, Smith couldn’t help but feel they would find several of their more pressing problems relieved. He hid a smile as he imagined the Major cramming himself into a too-small bunk, petrified of the rat that circled his feet.

“Oh, no, we couldn’t do that. Not at all proper, you see, Smithy?” Smith clenched and unclenched his fist, noting the Major’s use of the epithet. Clearly, they were both playing mind games. He was determined not to lose. “How about that new chap we sent down last week? He’s a keen one, isn’t he? Roberts, or something like that.”

“Robson, sir, and yes he is. A little too keen, if you ask me. I’ve tried to keep him off-duty, otherwise I’m afraid he might try and storm the German front himself.”

“So he’s not seen action yet?”

“No, sir, not a shell, not a bullet, not a bayonet, so long as I can help it.”


There was something unfamiliar in the air, Robson noted. Too high-pitched and whining to be a bird, too loud to be the wind, and too distant to be a whistling passer-by. On and on it droned, higher and higher, and then lower, lower, lower, lower-

The muddy bank behind him erupted, a spewing geyser of mud and fire and a deafening sound and a searing heat and a sudden force that threw him back against the sandbags. Blind, deaf, and winded, Robson fell to the floor, limbs suddenly shuddering in a bizarre parody of motion. His heart hammered, machinegun-fast, and the blood that pulsed beat by beat around his shaking body boiled.

Another whine-BOOM, and more dirt sprang up, further away, covering the sun. As his hearing returned, Robson heard screaming, and only after two more explosions shook the world did he realise it was his own. He still didn’t know what was happening, or why, or how he was alive or what was happening. Every inch of his body cold feel how real this was, but his brain had not yet caught up.

Slowly, as more gaping holes opened up and the screaming went on, Robson climbed to his feet, juddering hands hauling himself up on split sandbags. A searing pain in his left arm refused to subside, but it faded to a dull, shrill blaring too painful to ignore or acknowledge. It was just there.

He had been trained, he realised, to react to shelling. He had been trained to be shot at, hunkered in a muddy hole and powerless. He had been trained to storm a trench through a hail of bullets. But nothing and no one had trained him for this sheer insanity.

Step by step, with the world falling apart around him, Robson staggered down the trench, too blind to step on duckboards and wading his way through the ankle-deep mud. The only sounds were screaming explosions and exploding screams, red and white and fiery screams. There was no sky, only sharper pain on unshielded too-wide eyes, and no ground, only a shaking, shattering world tearing itself apart.

He was somewhere, and nowhere. Too real and not real enough. Yelling and silent. Loudquiet, runningwalking, deadalive, he inched along what reality he could see, no purpose other than to live. To escape. To end this madness.

After a minute day week year lifetime, he felt something give way beneath him. The ground fell away and left him suspended, for an instant, in nothingness. Something hurt and something else didn’t and he didn’t know which was which. Vision became sound became pain became thought, and he plummeted, down into the cold hot water mud below. The last thing he remembered was something gripping, snatching at his arms, one more pain in the torment.


“He’s coming around, sir.” Johnson whispered, and Smith looked up from the papers he wasn’t reading, at Robson’s shaking, wide-eyed shell. Not a shell, not a bullet, not a bayonet, so long as I can help it. The shame of failure was a deep wound that had constantly gnawing at him, every second since he had returned to the dugout to see Robson, gibbering and shaking in the bunk.

Robson’s eyes were too open, the blank stare of a madman. His fingers danced an insane jig against his thighs, his foot tapped out of rhythm, a bizarre, dissonant tempo. The flesh wound in his left arm, a deep gouge of frayed skin and torn muscle, was the least of his worries, already treated as best they could. It could scar, but he would live.

“W…wh…whereamI?” Robson muttered, lips barely parting, jaw trembling. “D…d…de...dead.” His mouth split, forced apart. “Deeeaaaaaaad! Deeeeeeeaaaaaaaaad!”

“No, not dead yet, lad.” Johnson replied, steadying his shaking arms. “Not dead yet.”


He could still hear the screaming, a distant wail that he somehow knew was still his own. The colours faded into one, the bright vista replaced with a muddy haze.  There was another noise creeping under the yells, a paler, smoother noise, and a shape face moved in the blur, lighter than the surrounding mass of brownredgreen.

Something moved, an arm, his own, and a sharp pain followed as it hit something else. His fingers were fire, flickering flames, tapping shell bursts on the wall. His breath was exploding, every shallow inhalation was shrapnel down his throat. His eyes could not close, blasted open, split sandbags spilling tears. Taste was blood and ash in his mouth.

The noises in waves rose and fell, sometimes loudquiet, sometimes quietloud. Once, the blurs turned sharp, stabbing lights in the dark, and then the soft shapes returned and he slept with open eyes. Slept and dreamed and prayed, and in the brief respite between nightmares, he thought he understood.  


Author's Notes: 
- This piece was written with no brief other than the initial concept, but it does revisit some themes of earlier posts. I've made heavy use of the sensory bombardment that is synaesthesia in this piece, in an altogether more active way than the last time it featured heavily. 

- I've played with language a lot here, blending words and in places throwing punctuation and syntax aside. This is intentional, to add to the sense of sheer confusion I want to convey. 

- In terms of structure, I'm not entirely sure whether this piece is better with or without the interludes featuring Smith. On one hand, it breaks up the three phases of the main narrative nicely and also ties it in with the ongoing story, and also foreshadows the conclusion and adds context. However, I feel the piece may have ended up too longer and cumbersome, and would work just as well without it. As part of an ongoing narrative, I'll certainly keep it, but I have a feeling it may detract from the individual impact of this piece. 

That's all for today, I have another WW1 piece to post tomorrow that, in a way, brings an element of this story full circle. There's plenty more to come, though.