Pause for thought...
November 2020 commemorates 102 years since the end of World War 1. With armistice in mind, I would like to share a short story I wrote 5 years ago called White Feather. It is part fiction and part memories of Grandfathers and Fathers long gone.
I stand alone on the station platform feeling uncomfortable and out of place. The scent of oily steam hangs in the air; a hubbub of conversation and laughter rises and falls in inharmonious waves.
The baggy civilian clothes I wear fill me with a sense of not belonging. I find the normality of life surreal; to see and hear joviality and optimism in a way that is not ironic seems incomprehensible. I wish I shared my fellow countrymen’s enthusiasm for war but I have been there, seen things they have never seen. But still, regardless of my thoughts, it is good to be back on English soil in my home town.
I have lost too much weight and when I walk my trousers flap like the sound of an ensign raised to the wind. Young men stand aside me, neat, prim and proper. They are in uniform, joyous in their contribution. But I can tell they haven’t had the horrors of war branded into their memory yet.
Occasional glances pass my way.
I see Kitchener pointing at me; placards of patriotic propaganda posted on walls ask, ‘Who’s absent – Is it YOU?’ And ‘Women of Britain say GO!’ If they really knew the truth I doubt they would say anything of the like.
The twitch starts. It derives from a trembling hand. It travels through my wrist and up my arm. Each spasm culminates at my neck and my head involuntarily jerks to one side. One-two-three-four-five times.
The hiss in my ears sounds like the sea in a shell. An absent minded porter crashes a trolley into another; the sound reverberates in my head – evocative of artillery fire.
My train chuffs into the station. It billows out smoke in thick black clouds to block the rays of a low November sun. It stirs dark memories I would rather forget. The terror, the explosions, the bullets. Tanks and men sinking as though in quicksand.
I have no escape from the horror and stench of torn torsos, limbs and broken bodies in the stinking quagmire of hell on earth. Shellshock merely provides a temporary sanctuary from the carnage of the front line. The third battle of Ypres weighs heavily on my sub-conscious and dominates my every hour, day and night. A quarter of a million dead in one advance – five rotten miles gained and a Passchendaele barely recognisable.
I take a breath and walk unsteadily through throngs of people towards the door of a carriage. My breath is shallow; it condenses in the cool air, my chest accursed from the mustard gas attack only five days before. I can feel it now, Jerry’s new weapon, tearing at my skin and eyes, its fingers clawing through the sides of an inadequate mask on my face. My lungs, even now, blister in an internal flame.
Amid the hustle and bustle another twitch transcends all others. Six jerks this time.
More glances pass my way.
I take the last seat in the last compartment of an overcrowded cigarette-smoke filled carriage and wonder if the trip to see my sister is a good idea after all. Since arriving home, twenty-four hours of normality has left a bitter taste. I don’t want to go back to be told what to do. I want to map out my own future, free myself from the chains of gentry and generals. I feel I am no more than a pawn on a chess board.
An elderly couple shuffle along the hard wooden seat and turn their back to me. Two servicemen opposite ignore me; their eyes instead on the pretty girl in her pleated woollen skirt and buttoned up brown coat as she gazes out of the window. Conversation is subdued. As the train pulls away leaving the town behind, I feel I am invisible.
Green fields pass under a sea-like sky, the trees stripped of leaves by many an autumn breeze. They look beautiful compared to the battle fields engrained in my memory were only the stumps of once thriving forests remain. I can still feel my legs, shin deep in the mire, struggling to carry the last of four of my wounded comrades back to the stinking water filled sanctuary of a wood-lined trench amid artillery rounds plopping into the ground. Barely a fifth of us returned from that reconnaissance patrol. The lucky five we were called.
My best friend Jones was the luckiest that night. What I would give to be him, to lose a limb, to become a broken cog in the war machine. Lieutenant Hughes said I would receive the Military Medal. I aught to be thrilled, but I have yet to find solace.
Again, trauma plays the strings of my nervous system and my spasm travels through the wood to my fellow passengers, thankfully only thrice.
Eyes glance my way amid vocal silence.
The train decelerates on its approach to the next station. The pretty girl stands. I give her my best smile and open the compartment door for her. She returns my kindness with a face of stone and extends a delicate pale hand… and in it, a white feather.
Long hard stares pass my way.
I feel the tempest swirl. Time stands still as all eyes turn to my blistered clenched hands. I want to grab the white symbol of cowardice whilst it is still in her hand and crush both. I want to tell of the horror of war; how I watched my closest friends fall under the bayonets and tank shells of the Hun. I want to tell about the lice in my hair and clothes… the rats… the stench… the madness. I want to tell of my mother not allowing me to enter the house until I stripped myself of my rancid uniform… of how I was directed to a tin bath of tepid water under an inky sky of stars in the back yard. I want to tell of the hard brush scouring my scalp. But I can’t; the words clog in my throat. The girl leaves the carriage and the feather floats to the dirty floor.
Minutes pass, and the clankity-clank of wheels on steel is the only sound in the carriage. My fellow passengers brush away imaginary dirt from trousers; eyes down. They know I am looking at them.
I raise a hand to my identity tag. Even though I wanted to be free of the chains of war this morning, Mother made me wear it. Now I realise why.
It’s not there.
I feel the cold sweat of anxiety under my collar as I search for the cord. Its string-like fabric lies behind my tie but no metal tag falls between my fingers. I trace the cord and find the circular disc above my shoulder. A spasm must have shaken it around.
I need to re-gain respect. I pull it out. Eyes glance my way again. I say not a word, but I say everything.
The door slides open and an elderly gentleman cheerfully enters and sits under a black cloud of tension. Medals hang above his breast pocket like soldiers on parade, Victoria emblazoned on discs of shining glory below vibrant colourful ribbons, each one telling of courage and heroism. The air lightens, and the two servicemen slide along respectfully to give him more room.
“Home leave, Son?”
I take a moment to realise he is talking to me. He reminds me of an elderly Lieutenant Hughes – could be his father even. His voice projected out and filled the compartment. “Let me guess. Lice infested uniform?”
I recall it hanging on the line in the yard, crumpled and creased. I nod.
“Good show. Any medals yet?”
A closer look at his medals and I guess he had fought in the Crimean War as a young man. He too must have seen horrors much like mine under cannon fire and slashing swords of steel. Yet here he was, jolly and animated, his optimism enlightening my soul.
Suddenly, the words fall out of my mouth and I recount the tale of my pending Military Medal. Eyes widen in awe, praising and attentive. I wish I had it now, to wear with pride amid the masses fed on propaganda and glory.
Fancy something more up to date and a little spooky?
Then take a look at this tale...