INSPIRATION : The Perfect Gift

This time the inspiration is not a picture, but a whole chapter of history. This story is dedicated to all those who breathed their last breath in ‘the war to end all wars’ – if only that were true – and to the memory of Harry Redman, my great-grandfather, who managed to live through it all. Unlike so many of his fellow soldiers.

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INSPIRED

Half light. A mist shrouds the muddy trenches and banks in Harry’s small corner of France. In the perfect silence, skeletal trees stand still, holding their breath and playing dead. Like we all should be, thinks Harry. Especially today.

Harry is awake with only an inch of a cigarette and the relentless itch of lice for company. He is first up that day and every day, but only because he can’t sleep. Sixteen nights in a row now, with barely more than an hour or two at the most. And those fractured hours are filled with dreams. Whole passages of the day re-enacted in the dark theatre behind his eyelids. Last night it was Johnson, thrown six feet into the air by a shell, and landing, with his head missing, right on top of Harry. Again and again. Over and over. In his dreams, Harry has time to appreciate the precision of the shrapnel’s surgery, but when he wakes he is horrified by his unconscious thoughts. He misses Johnson’s smiling head, so full of jokes. They all do.

It’s not long before they go over the top into No Man’s Land, the playground of fate. Every time he climbs the ladder he says goodbye to his life, but it doesn’t seem to want to say goodbye back. His thoughts drift from family to sweetheart to all the friends he has lost on these battered fields, and all the friends he still will lose.

Now everyone is awake, and the stench of nervous sweat and cigarette smoke mixes with the sweat smell of death. Time has passed him by again. Maybe he slept after all. The soldiers are wide-eyed and scared. They smoke madly and talk about what they will do when they get back to England. It’s meant to be a lucky thing to do, but Harry can’t see how it makes any difference, so he never joins in.

“It’s my birthday today,” he tells them, uncomfortably aware of a nervous twitch just starting up in under his left eye. “I’m nineteen.”

They pass him a cigarette and clap him on the back. Pearce begins to sing the ritual song, but has trouble with the word ‘happy’, so only manages a couple of lines. Steadman’s watch still works, and he is glancing at it so frequently it must soon be time. Harry blinks hard, his twitchy eye becoming unbearable. He sucks the very last of the warm smoke from the birthday cigarette into his lungs, and stamps the butt into the mud. Perhaps the last butt.

“Right, men. Space out and wait for the signal. Steady pace. No running,” the officer calls out from the far end.

His voice is shaky and Harry thinks what a hard job he has, leading his men into such uncertainty. And for what? A few feet of land? Another hole in the ground?

“I don’t care about England anymore. I just want to live,” Pearce whispers to him.

“I don’t think this is about England anymore.”

“Then why are we here?”

Harry shrugs. He doesn’t know.

And then the officer is raising his hand and the first soldiers are on the ladders and up over the bank, exposing themselves bit by bit to the German guns. Heads, then shoulder, then torsos. ‘Shoot at me!’

Harry’s legs refuse to obey. This always happens. Every time. Pearce has to give him a gentle shove. He’s not sure what he will do if he loses Pearce, because he needs that shove. The momentum carries his body while his mind screams at him to stop. He feels naked as he walks fast, so keenly aware of being breakable. With his rifle clutched to his chest, he concentrates hard on the ice-cold metal of the weapon and tries to forget where he is. With one step he stumbles into a shell crater, with another he nearly falls over a rotting corpse. The sound of the guns is deafening and bullets zip past like angry hornets, inches from his ears.

The fog swirls and shifts, and Harry can see where it’s all coming from in the distance. The German trench, and the brigade’s objective, nearing rapidly. He stares around him. They have never got this far before. How far are they supposed to go? Are they meant to jump down into the German trenches? Of course they are – it’s the whole point of the exercise. And if so, then dear God, let him be hit now. Pounded with bullets is infinitely better than being bayoneted to death. Having to look the enemy in the eyes and discover they are just like you. Scared and shell-shocked, with a heart that beats like any English heart.

He begins to slow.

“It’s my bloody birthday,” he complains to himself.

He wants to put a hand up to the Germans and tell them what an important day it is. Perhaps they will invite him in for sausages and sauerkraut. A mug of beer.

He is smiling when his bullet finds him. It rips through the skin and muscle of his thigh and tears through his femur. It wipes the smile off his face. He feels it go in, looks down and sees a spurt of blood, falls over when his leg buckles. But he doesn’t feel any of the pain. After the initial surprise, he holds onto his tin hat and edges his way backwards, away from the German lines, on his bottom. As he does, his trousers start to work their way down. He stops to ease them up, and laughs out loud. Even when the pain comes, he laughs, flaked out with his head in a puddle of mud.

Pearce is suddenly beside him, crouched as low as he can get. He grabs Harry under the armpits and hauls him backwards. It’s a long way and the shells are screaming all around them, but they make it. Pearce, exhausted, almost throws him down into the trench, and into safety. They look at each other for a long while until the stretcher bearers come to take Harry away. Then Pearce, unable to delay any longer, climbs the ladder back into hell. He turns near the top.

“Happy birthday,” he grins.

Now he can say the ‘happy’ word. Now Harry is homeward-bound.

Harry closes his eyes as the stretcher rocks him back and forth, a baby in a cradle. He feels the fatigue borne of sixteen long nights lap over his body. Finally, he can sleep. His enemies have given him the most perfect of gifts.

(Photo by Frank Hurley)

Odd Writers #4 : Robert Shields & His Enormous Diary

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Diaries are supposed to be full of secrets and intrigue. They are a place to store our wildest dreams, and crazy thoughts we would never let out of our confused little heads in a million years. The idea of someone discovering your diary should be an unthinkable thought, filled with icy horror.

Rev. Robert Shields’ diary was absolutely not one of those diaries. It was a whopping 37.5 million words long and filled 94 boxes – the equivalent of 500 good-sized novels. How did it get so big? He simply documented his life every five minutes of every day for a quarter of a century.

There may well be secrets and intrigue hidden within those pages, but the six pages available to the public contain treasures like these:

“7 a.m.: I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.”

“7:05 a.m.: Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.”

“6:30-6:35 p.m.: I put in the oven two Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese at 350 degrees.”

“6:50-7:30 p.m.: I ate the Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Cornelia ate the other one. Grace decided she didn’t want one.”

Out of all my ‘Odd Writers’ so far, Robert Shields has to be the oddest!

The Curtain Twitcher’s Handbook: Tip #2

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‘The Importance of a Darkened Room’ by Daisy May

It may seem obvious but, at night, curtain-twitching should only be attempted in a darkened room. So many of us forget in our haste and are discovered.

I looked down at the tissue in my hand. It was a damp, wrinkled ball full of tears and snot, and looked exactly like I felt. I stood up to toss it into the spotty bin that matched my curtains.

My curtains.

Still here,” the God of Curtain-Twitching reminded me.

I silently protested.  “But you show me only bad things.”

I only show you what is there,” came the response, which I thought was a bit of a cop-out.

Sighing, I reached over to turn my bedside light off and headed for the window. I heard the god murmur with satisfaction.

 


Taken from The Curtain-Twitcher’s Handbook, in which Daisy discovers the dying art of curtain-twitching is not just for old, nosy people.

OUT ON MAY 1st

Read an Excerpt here

First Kiss. First Good Kiss.

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I apologise unreservedly to whoever I was with, but I don’t remember my first date. You’re supposed to, I know, and I’ve been picking away at the layers of my life for a while now, trying to recall. It’s not there. My brain obviously didn’t think it was exciting enough to stick in the memory cupboard.

But I do remember the first kiss that wasn’t just a quick peck in a kid’s game. It was outside the youth club, in the dark, against the rough pebble-dash wall. I don’t know quite how it came about. There’d been the usual dancing – girls only, having picked up the requisite moves for our favourite songs – the paper cups filled with Ben Shaws Dandelion & Burdock; a bag of Scampi-flavoured fries.

So why is this stored away, and not a first date? In truth, I remember it because I was under pressure and I didn’t enjoy it. Everyone else had french-kissed except me. I took the first offer I got that night to get it over with. My partner was small, blonde and mouthy. We were both young and inexperienced, and I don’t think he enjoyed it either. He thought it was a good idea to try and reach my tonsils with his tongue, if at all possible – which it unfortunately was. Still, I like to think I got him back with the Dandelion & Burdock/Scampi-flavoured fries taste combination.

Fast forward, months later, to someone completely different. It really helps when you actually like the person you’re kissing. We were in the cinema, in the dark, and there were no Scampi-flavoured fries. I don’t think I saw any of the film because, early on, his hand grazed mine completely unexpectedly. I felt that jolt that people talk about, and there was suddenly nobody else in the whole world. What followed was something to stick in the memory cupboard. For all the right reasons.

There are first kisses, and there are first good kisses. They are often not the same thing.

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons – Marianne Stokes (1855-1927) ‘The Frog Prince’)

Odd Writers #3: Demosthenes

Could the humble razor be a major secret weapon for writers?

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Demosthenes, the great Athenian Speech Writer and Orator, thought so.

To keep himself holed up in his purpose-built underground chamber, working away like a demon, Demosthenes would often shave half the hair from his head. He would be so ashamed of how odd he looked that he wouldn’t leave the chamber until it grew back.

But, then, he lived a very long time ago.

Fast forward to nowadays and nobody would bat an eyelid at a half-shaved head. So we have to declare the razor defunct in the modern writer’s toolbox. Back to the drawing board 😉

(Photo Credit: Unsplash | David Sedrakyan)