Silence. Silence reaching out, for the first time in what felt like centuries the world went silent. Shattering the peace came the familiar sound of a Lee Enfield being cocked. The large round being forced into battery. The sound had almost a fraternal echo. Five men, most drunk, forced to complete a task to keep morale high. They pointed at the small cloth square.
Through the blindfold Lionel, formerly Lieutenant Snowdon, saw the outline of an officer and knew the words of command. He had been made to issue them once or twice before.
He barely had time to reminisce when the world exploded. He had been ready, willing almost. His sacrifice. The war to end all wars. The death of truth. Freedom from it all, a “thank God,” began to form on his lips.
The revolver barked. Lionel had pulled the trigger, aiming to the heavens he snarled and raged at the common little man “You will move over that bloody ladder or so help me God I will shoot you.” The man, Dawn, a nice enough cove from the midlands stared into space. “Pick up the rifle, move!” Lionel was his commanding officer he had to do something or loose those who were looking to him to lead. He sneered like the devil, levelled his revolver. “Dawn, you coward.” It was a simple statement made in a cold calculated way. At complete odds with the face that said it. In a world of percussive explosions, the noise of one trigger pull and shot was drowned.
Dawn continued looking into space. Nothing different in his face except the neatly punched black hole, just an inch left of the centre of the forehead.
It began so innocently. Lionel could not have known that one poem would make such a huge difference. The chums from school had all finished together as that damned Kaiser and the Bosch had made moves on Belgium. The beer they drank at the pub influenced them “Whose for the game? The greatest that’s ever been played?” they all shouted out loud. They all joined that evening. Each one destined to become an officer. Not to worry, it would all be over by Christmas. God he loved them all Bunter, Cartwright and even Crowley. They were going to be the heroes, the ones on the front line that all the fillies would be after when they were on leave. Webley revolver in one hand, Mills Bomb in the other. For King and Country.
Crowley pressed another bottle into his hand. “Come on then bottoms up!” He cried.
“Down in one, then off to the recruitment office!” Shouted Cartwright. “Come on you damned Jessie!”
Lionel laughed, gulped down the beer and headed out of the door with the others. In the shadows of a run-down shop, paint blistering a figure watched. He was sitting, only his eyes turning to follow, thinking of the fools and his own adventure on the front. Disgusted he turned, the chairs wheels creaking, not heard by the laughing back slapping friends.
For Lionel the turning point of the war remained in Ypres. He saw all his friends again. They had been given their commissions and sent out to the front line. Unlike the hoi polloi who had not had his private education, they were sent into regiments that came from places they had never been to, let alone grew up in. He had been posted to the Northamptonshire Regiment. Orders from Commander French came through from officer to officer all the way down to the men. The morning was quiet.
The fog swirled into strange sights. He thought the shapes of malformed men flailed in the distance. These were the trench ghosts. The minds of men on edge seeing things. Seeing their sins made manifest, the men they had killed, were going to kill. “Sir, tea.” The soldier set down a mug and Lionel nodded thanks, swilling the weak looking mixture. Rum was being handed out. Rum for courage, Lionel preferred his more expensive whiskey, but he must show willing in front of the regular chaps. So, he drank.
He remembered little of the battle, it was mostly silence and grey. Each step took him further within himself. The one thing he remembered was coming across a familiar face. It was Bunter. In the silence he shouted the man, boy really. He caught him at the shoulder and shook him, Bunter turned and smiled. Greeting his old friend. Lionel screamed. Had he his senses left he would have known he had turned at that point somewhere dark and without return. Bunter kept grinning an insipid smile with lips curled back, one cheek blown and full of flies. A milky eye winking and fluttering in the noises of battle.
Lionel ran, he didn’t know which direction. He was no longer the man in uniform, brave and loyal but the boy of nineteen pretending at being a soldier. He hit a trench, somehow making it passed the wires and mud and death. The only other being there was huddled in a corner muttering, chanting something and clutching at an object covered in mud and ichor. Lionel stopped, heart beating a tattoo in his chest, As the world came into focus again, he realised he did not recognise the language being spoken by the man. Lionel had been rather a swot at languages: Greek, Latin and French. He also recognised the German cadence and snippets of the brutal Germanic tongue, but this was different, threatening.
He raised his pistol and shot, kept shooting until he registered several dry clicks.
The man remained. He had been dead a while. Lionel shook his head. The world then fell apart. A shell caused a torrent of mud and splintered supports to half bury him. In the silent chaos the veil lifted and he saw it.
He remembered one of the marching songs about “packing up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile…” the one part that came back to him again “while you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag…” that was it.
He had gone to the devil and could see it. It was a dormant thing waiting. Tenebrous wings now cracking into life, suffering fuelling them, dormant no longer. This war had been the key to its release. There was no more petty death, small battles and wars. This Great industrial war, the men in lines waiting to die. In field, hole and trench. The figure wasn’t human, it was on too vast a scale, he couldn’t comprehend it. It did not care about the men who died, anymore than one would care about the cow from which a steak came from.
Yellowed eyes looked towards the heavens, Lionel could not tell what emotion lived in that shadowy form, hands (as he could not find a better description, they were merely grasping clawed things at the end of several appendages) reached forward. The knowledge of death had allowed him to peer through the veil. To see the damage being wrought by humanity.
Smoke cleared from the barrels of the five rifles. “Don’t feel bad for that officer prick lad, he had left his squad and run to the support trenches, they found him gabbling about fighting being evil or summit. He had been shooting corpses when they found him. He got what he deserved.”
Even so the private shuffled off embarrassed as a drunk priest mumbled words of absolution. Lieutenant Snowdon’s family got one line to say he had died in Ypres.
The fabric of reality seemed to weave and stitch fragments of the past together again.
Silence. Silence reaching out, for the first time in what felt like centuries the world went silent. Shattering the peace came the familiar sound of a Lee Enfield being cocked. The large round being forced into battery. The sound had almost a fraternal echo. Five men, most drunk, forced to complete a task to keep morale high. They pointed at the small cloth square, through the blindfold Lionel, formerly Lieutenant Snowdon saw the outline of an officer and knew the words of command. He had been made to issue them once or twice before.
Lionel felt the pain of three tearing wounds from before. He had come back, his suffering was not over. This time no “thank God”, this time Lionel screamed.