After The Fact
20th February 1915
Everything had gone wrong, and the words had stopped. The blood that splashed across the trench wall was just blood, the look of dawning comprehension on the young boy’s face before the knife fell and froze it was simply that. He understood, and he died. Smith always wished he had been the one to do it; unlike Johnson he would not have relished the deed.
The mission had, according to the papers at his fingertips, gone off without a hitch. Two maps and a sheaf of probably useless papers had been recovered, only one man had been killed (a hero’s death, the letter he had yet to sign assured the bereaved family) and there were two less Germans in the world. In his more lucid moments, Smith couldn’t help but wonder if, somewhere just a few hundred yards away, another man was sitting in this same place, papers waiting on another desk to tell half the story.
And somewhere, he knew that three men lay face-down in the mud, blood joining that of a thousand others, all red, red, red. Private A. (Alan? Adrian? Anthony?) Carter, the letter told him, and all he could do was sign it. That was the closest he’d come to ever knowing the man, this same letter that he’d sent too many times before. And two other men, who to all intents nothing more than numbers on a report, neatly filled out and filed and forgotten.
He reached for the whiskey, trying to recall if it was his second or third of the night. It didn’t matter; he didn’t do this often. But there were days like this that merited something a little stronger than coffee. From the corner of his eye, Smith noticed Johnson giving him a suspicious glare, but ignored it and slammed the glass back to the desk. He would not be condemned by the man he had seen smile as he took a life.
He folded the papers away and placed them in the prepared envelopes, and paused for a moment before placing the lid on the pen. There was so much more to write, but where to write it. How could he tell some far-off mother that her little Alan (he looked like an Alan) had died a hero’s death, how he screamed as the bullet tore into his back as he tried to run, crying, for a home he could never reach?
How could he write the names of the men he never knew in that tiny box that asked only for a number? No one would ask, and no one would expect him to tell. This was now a war of paperwork, and names didn’t matter. Only numbers, and the simple addition and subtraction of human life. The glass came to his lips again, disappointingly empty.
“Sir,” said Robson for the third time, the words finally penetrating the haze of barbed-wire thoughts and land-mine nightmares. “The van’s arrived for HQ, sir. Those forms, the letter. You want me to run them up there, sir?”
Smith struggled to his feet, straightened his uniform into some semblance of order, and shook his head. “No, Robson, it’s all right. I’ll do it. I could do with a walk.” He paused for a second, catching Robson’s face fall in that way it always did when told to wait behind. Maybe he was being a little harsh on the boy, but he needed to get out of the dugout. “You can join me if you want, lad. Christ knows no one likes sitting around here.” He shot a pointed glance at Johnson, who did not look up from polishing his knife.
He would never wash the stains away, Smith thought, thinking of Macbeth and that terrible butchery of it the dramatics society had put on in 1912. The mad man, huddling in the middle of the stage, backlit and howling, soaking his hands in red paint that would not wash off. Melodrama at its worst, and yet oddly appropriate in this emphasised, vivid hell.
Robson left the dugout in Smith’s shadow, the light momentarily obscured and then splintered around the corporal’s form. He noted the revolver at his waist as the handle caught the light, and for a second, envied the fact it had been used so recently, while his own rifle lay unfired by his bunk. The corporal had been given the chance he had not; why did he look so broken and haunted in the early morning glare?
He struggled to keep pace through the mud, and all too often slipped from the soaked duckboards, saving himself only by a hand shoved against the trench wall. Smith did not once look back to help him or reprimand him. It was as if he were in another place entirely.
Even when they passed Anders, cheerily heading back towards the dugout with his latest culinary ammunition, Smith didn’t return the greeting of the only man he seemed a friend with, staring resolutely ahead and barely even breaking his step to let the batman past. Robson nodded a good morning, but was similarly ignored. Everyone seemed to be in their own world this morning, and as always, he was an outsider to all of them. Quite what he had been expecting he had almost forgotten, but it was not this half-silence and muttered curses and constant fear and anger.
The corporal had his own problems; every day the whiskey bottle he kept on his desk was emptier, and every night he was the last one to sleep, sitting up into the long hours of the morning with nothing but a glass and that bloody ever-present notebook. Robson found himself unable to care what he disclosed to those pages. It didn’t matter.
Johnson, he was out just for revenge. There was only one reason he spent hours cleaning an re-cleaning his rifle and bayonet, and it wasn’t for inspection; his boots went unpolished, his uniform unpatched. He lived only to deny others that state. Robson could understand that; it was the most base and inexplicable aspect of human nature he knew all too well. Those that cannot have do what they must to deny others the same.
Anders, well, he was just the cook. And the cleaner. And whenever there was something to be done, he’d do it. He kept the dugout running while Johnson and the corporal tore themselves apart with their demons. But where was the glory in that? Did the ageing man sometimes wonder what it would be like to rise up over that flimsy barricade, into the wasteland and wait for something new to come?
And Robson, what was he? An outsider to all of these, a stranger they refused to come to know. He was a hero-to-be that would never get to claim that right. He was betrayed, victim of so many promises not delivered on.
No, he was a soldier, and he would do his duty while these other, lesser men fought themselves.
- This one is very much a character piece; you get a very introspective view of the inner workings of Smith's mind and how's it's changing, and then the complete opposite of that in Robson's deliberately flawed analysis of each character in turn. Obviously, Robson's thoughts are too idiosyncratic to be reliable, but one also has to question whether Smith has kept enough of a grip on reality to be a trustworthy narrator.
- The change in narrator is meant to add to that effect, and work to create an impression that it's impossible to understand this situation. Smith and Robson both have such diametrically opposed views that they can't both be right, but the question is, are either of them? Well, I shan't spoil it here, but there's going to be a lot more of that going forward, and I may even re-write some of the narratively later pieces to begun to tie all of this together a little more. It's rather strange to see how far this story has come from its beginning that was the end, and how it really has taken on a life of its own.
Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to leave a comment.