Blood mingles with the shrapnel littered soil. It wasn’t meant to be like this. The crimson liquid is pulled in the direction of small divots in its vicinity; like it’s searching for the body it once filled. I don’t want it to touch my face. I’ve never seen blood like this; it looks like it has a life of its own. Is it mine?
I haven’t tried moving yet. I can see whorls of smoke rising from behind mounds of charred earth. Panic rises in my throat; I’m breathing but suffocating, choking on my need to cry, scream, anything. I can hear the distant shouts and sobs of the boys I marched with. It wasn’t meant to be like this. I carefully try and move my head; I feel a sharp sting as I pull the side of my head free from the red russet mud. At least my neck isn’t broken. As I lie face up, staring at the sky, blinking through the foreign stretch of vivid light, a string of birds chirp their way across the tranquil blueness. I am trapped between the sky and ground, the air pressing down on my static body, paralysed. I forget where I am for a minute.
My mind wanders to home. The comfort of your touch, knowing my darling girl is waiting for my return from work at the mill, the warm smell of doughy bread as I tiresomely stroll through the wooden cottage door to our sanctuary. I see you turn at the sound of the brittle door closing shut; a slow smile captures your lovely face. I remember the optimistic joy of watching our British men walk in unison, parading bravery through the streets. I yearn to make you proud of me, desperate to be a part of the great fight for our nation, and I’ll be the man you deserve Mary.
A terrible bang jerks me from my precious memory. I must be hurt, my legs might be broken. Or blown 100 yards east or west from my awkwardly positioned form. The last thing I saw was Jimmy to my left, same as the rest of us, marching rhythmically toward the hammering machinegun fire. Toward the jaws of the beast, teeth of barbed wire, fetid lips of sandbag lolling over the edge of a dirt mouth. It roars, waiting to devour us as we systematically march into the thunderous hunger.
Jimmy fell, like a broken marionette, legs collapsing beneath him. Not yet old enough to shave, he dropped face first into the decaying stomach of a formerly departed Tom. As his head hit the protruding mound of the corpse, a festering explosion of yellow and red foam escaped the holes caused by low hitting perpetual gunfire and a prior attack of chlorine gas. The bodies became one.
It happened quickly, as I watched Jimmy’s impolite demise, my eyes flickered along the never ending line of boys just like Jimmy, snuffed out like a row of long stemmed candles, down they went. So many, just gone. Disappearing amongst the upsurge of dirt, smoke and spluttering red.
Anticipating the same fate, I turned to face forward, still walking. Slower now, how can I keep a collective pace without the rest of my army? Men are falling around me and yet I am not hit. Ordered to just keep going, not allowed to stop for nothing. As I look down at my tattered boots, moving over the debris littered field I am deafened by a terrible shrill screaming, louder and louder. The shell hits and all I see is blinding white then black.
For a moment, I’m lying relaxed on the red and white picnic blanket Mary made. My Mary. Im looking above at the clear powdery sky, the warmth of the sun seeping into my skin. I can smell fresh lavender and pipe tobacco, scents mingling. Mary lies next to me. She smiles slowly pulling a sharp bread knife from beneath her petticoat. Still her eyes are locked with mine as she presses the tip of the blade between my ribcage and hipbone. Looking into my eyes, she giggles and gently pushes on the blade, my body engulfs the foreign sharpness. I laugh with her.
I lurch awake, blinking through dust and something sticky, a copper taste drips down the back of my throat. I turn my body slightly to the left with an explosion of pain; something’s coming out of me. My left side feels soft, not like skin, more like flesh. Blood is glugging out of my side, its all wrong. How am I alive?
The air, thick with smoke smells like matches, I could do with a cigarette. Pungent mud has seeped into my ears. The relief of being able to work my body into moving is overwhelming. I can see a khaki-covered arm to my right. I gently lift my head to check it’s not one of mine. Thank Christ, its not. The arm is lying ownerless, half submerged among the crimson-soaked earth. I can reach it, hand to hand; the anonymous brother lends me his sleeve.
Im not sure how long I’ve been laying here, it’s all gone quiet, apart from the distant sound of groans and a stammering echo of German shots. Back in the trenches, our watery dugout seemed like hell. Endlessly awaiting the big push to ‘victory’. What a joke. Pointless. The moment before we went over the top, each of us boys lined up before a crooked wooden ladder. I thought of the constant orders to keep our feet dry, trying to maintain the health of our feet before we reach the point of becoming cannon fodder. I yearn for the semi-safety of living just under the threat of gunfire, not knowing the devastation that awaited our surge toward the enemy.
As the daylight dwindles, I can feel my mind relenting into fatigue. I think of you, and fight the crushing urge to give in. I pray your photo and four letters haven’t been ripped from my inside pocket when I was thrown. I gently move my hand to check and feel thick globs of something wet between the folds of my uniform’s course material. I can’t feel the folded paper. My breathing becomes desperate, gulping the murky air. I’m panicking. All I can do is look up at the sky as I hear another penetrating shrill obliterating my focus.
I find you again, Mary. In the depths of my mind. Hearing your sweet, delicate voice as you absently chatter to the growing rise of life within you. Your rosy hued cheeks against your alabaster skin make me think of a red apple crumble, the bittersweet warmth. I’ve got something to tell you, it could make everything better. I walk towards you my darling, but you don’t seem to notice me. I open my mouth to tell you the news and a sudden blackness surrounds you and our homely scene. I’m running as fast as I can but the growing length of the tunnel disallows my gain. I need to tell you something. You become smaller and smaller, slowly moving out of sight, down the unfathomable deep of the ever-growing channel. Enveloped by the dark.
The night has finally suffocated the day, almost veiling the destruction that surrounds me. It doesn’t look real anymore. The dead man’s sleeve is balled up and pressed into my side, keeping in what’s trying to escape me. Maybe I wont be noticed under the blanket of night, I slowly roll towards the dead medic. His unmoving eyes have been staring at nothing for hours. An expression of shock stuck onto his pale face, open mouthed, head twisting unnaturally to reveal too much bone. I reach him finally. He’s half a man now, gone from the waist down.
I scramble for his pack; desperately I claw for the morphine that must be there. Got it. I find sutures from a small front pocket and a long bandage. I hear movement, No, not now. I was so careful. I grit my teeth and heave my body over a small mound in the dirt. Anticipating a small painful drop, I panic- the star flickered sky rushes away from me as I fall.
Im back with you, in our kitchen the smell of the fresh winter breeze rolls in through the slightly open shutter. You’re standing with your back to me, at the sink. You’re wearing the white dress I like, with the small red roses on it. The colours muddle and it looks pink from my position at the table. This is the first time you’ve cooked me breakfast in two weeks. You aren’t the same. The look upon your terrified face will haunt me. The scream’s of our realisation can never be etched form my mind. I glimpse a small trail of red, dripping down your leg, the liquid spreading with tiny tendrils against your white stockings. It slowly travels over your brown buckled shoe and begins to rest in a building pool between your feet. It wasn’t meant to be like this.
I wake to the discordant din of metal against metal. I sit rigidly against the chemically washed white pillow, supporting my aching form. I look across the small, private room, barren of personality or life. The smell of disinfectant and cheap mass dinner’s being churned in a huge steel cooking pot sickens me. This is what I survived for.
My superiors wrote of bravery and courage as we faced the enemy, all-safe and warm a mile behind the frontline. They didn’t tell you of the fear, how we cried out for anyone as tears washed the gore from our cheeks. Oh no, they wouldn’t tell of what it was like. I was just another boy, tarnished by our bloody victory against the army of enemy boys. I probably could have had a pint with most of them if it wasn’t for the orders of slaughter in the name of English pride.
The overhead florescent lights flicker in the hallway, visible from my bedridden position. Not again. Mary. Standing at the foot of my bed with our too- small baby clutched to your chest. Smiling a tight smile, eyes staring through me you hold out the quiet child. I close my eyes instinctively; balling sections of the starched white sheet in each fist- there is no sanctuary within my mind- I’m back.
The only solace in trudging toward the enemy was the hope I’d see you again Mary. Our lives could have been so much more; we could of had so much. My dreams of you got me through it all in the beginning, our two week long tryst provoking an imagined existence. The flash of white as the shell hit was like nothing else, it changed me. I lay amongst the festering mass of earth; the once green, peaceful expanse of The Western Front has become a terrible ever-growing necropolis. Blurry eyed, breathing in the remnants of dusty earth, I watch helplessly as blood mingles with the shrapnel littered soil. It wasn’t meant to be like this.