Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Monday, 28 November 2011
At present, I am 8000 words off completing the NaNoWriMo challenge... I'm reasonably happy with what i have written, but it needs a lot of editing and restructuring. This is a chapter I wrote tonight.
Un-posted letter, France 1917
I am well.
It is strange to think how keen we were to reach the front a few weeks ago. On arrival in Armentieres (have you ever heard of a place in Britain that is ‘Proud to be poor?’ That is their motto here!), we were in a small bistro. We drank the local cheap white wine and met up with officers who had come from the front. they were a good crew, but the alarm bells should have rang when they were saying things like, “You’ll be looking forward to leaving,” and “the sane ones are shot for desertion.”
I live with lice. How horrified would I have been but a few months back to think I would not care about lice wandering over my body! but Lice wash off. There are things I have seen I will never wash away.
One day, I was asked to lead a firing squad. “What is the charge?” I asked.
When I first arrived I would have been horrified at British men leaving their comrades to battle. But now I am not so horrified. These men are dying for Britian. dying for something not quite tangible. Something they will not benefit from in the way the owners of the armament factories or other war necessities will benefit. Most of these men are poor men, come to lose their minds. Or lose their lives for no profit; only the desperate experience of this hell.
This is one duty we are allowed to refuse. I refused, knowing those who run are the bravest of souls. the people who are sensitive and human enough to know this is hell on earth and should not be part of living. Some; other brave men, place a part of their body above the line of the trench to be shot. Hand wounds, feet and some who are braver, legs are raised for the poor german soldier to shoot.
Now, mother, I know you will find it strange that I have an empathy with the bosche, but these men are as poor as our men. they are men. they are scared, just like us and they have been sent to fight in a war they will not profit from. A war they will be wounded or die in for nothing that will make their material lives any better.
Father was oh so wrong to make the women of Tullylish grieve. He was wrong to send these brave sons of Ulster marching to their deaths or to losing their minds.
I met a man who is from Banbridge. A Silas Gibney. He was a good man. He speaks well of my father and the other men of the Bann who have been encouraging the young to come sacrifice themselves. He speaks of Ferguslie as a man of goodness, a man who implored, through propaganda and Minister, that all fit men in the factory should go to war. Although Gibney was too old and could refuse, he is here because his son died here. He is here to avenge the death of his only son, sent here by Ferguslie and my father, who died at the hand of the germans who were sent here by their rich men of the Rhine. Men who place their hands above the trench line for our brave men to shoot. It is almost like a game of, “you do this for me, and it will be your turn when you are brave enough.” He will be happy when more German men are dead, he say’s to me half-heartedly, more and more healf heartedly as days procede because he is perhaps coming to the realisation of just who the enemy of the poor men really are.
Although this war is not how we read about war as boys, we do come face to face with our enemy at times. Sending shells and rifle bullets into their trenches is not the height of it. Sometimes their are pushes forward through the mud, blood, shit, bones and vermin. a whistle blows and this is the cue for both the dancing ragdolls to push into the rain of lead sent on cue the other way. Heads down against the storm, we push. If we are lucky we stumble into a crater and wait until a lull and make our way, slowly back, through the mud, on our faces, as low as we can go. If we are unlucky we meet our German cousins face to face and gaze into their eyes as they writhe and scream at the end of our bayonetts. My stomach hurts when I remember the first young man I killed. He looked as if he had just walked from the church turn to the bridge and had been chatting happily to Scott or Wilson and was on his way for eggs at Dawson’s farm. He was like any lad from Tullylish, with his life extinguished before it started and he like the boys from tullylish fell into the mud, mouth foaming, gasping for his mother...
The men enjoy only one thing when in the trench, and that is the rum. I make sure they have two ladles full. I think this ration is given to them to keep them brave, but I watch as it makes them settle and sometimes snatch sleep, sitting on the muddy wooden walkway.
Sometimes, believe it or believe it not, we have a sing-song with the Germans. One German used to sing English songs and we would join in. he knew the words by heart, we thought. We used to send requests over the line, shouting, “Mademoiselle from Armentières” or “Memories” went the call, and he knew them all word perfect!
When I was in the hospital and I read the press reports of the war and when you came to visit me and I couldn’t speak, well, I wanted to say that what you all believed about this war was rubbish. This wasn’t a game of chase. this wasn’t colourfully dressed soldiers marching in formation like cockerels, waving flags and tally-hoing. Father and you have no idea of the strain. the stress of seeing people torn to pieces by a rain of metal from the sky or from below (the tunnels full of explosive are the other problem). I don’t think England nor Germany will win this war. the winners are far away from the war, making money from every boy torn apart or incapacitated. I needed the break. i needed the time to recuperate and think. I needed the time away from the real world of death, blasts and whistles. You can’t imagine as you sat with me, perhaps looking serene, that all I could see was death and destruction. all I could see was waste, and the faces of the men who I stabbed in the guts or shot in the face.
The raiding party that day had been as voluntary as any, I walked along the ranks and said, “you, you and you.” I had watched nearly fifteen of my men die in that day, sitting on the toilet or casually lighting a cigarette and ping! their eyes would cross as the bullet entered their skullor their face would disintigrate as they spoke. We used our mirrors to find the sniper’s nest. We crawled under the wire and slowly, oh so slowly across the darkess of no mans land and then down into the trench, stabbing as we went. He stood in front of me. “Kamerad!” He said and he put his hands on his head. His sniper’s rifle beside him. No-one was in the trench but us.
I gritted my teeth and ran for him, his face registering horror, his hands out in front to try to stop my blade cracking his chest. I missed his heart and he writhed and screamed. I withdrew the bayonett and stabbed at his open mouth and counted fifteen blows into his crown for every man who had fallen at his hand that day.
I sat beside him. I spoke to him. I told him it was over for him. I told him he was lucky. We were the unlucky ones left in this hell. His pockets revealed his life. He was from Kiel. He loved to sail with his young son and wife. She was very beautiful. He was an Officer, but he was a teacher of young boys. A photo of his school was folded in a pocket. A teacher of boys who shot boys through the skull. He had letters in his pocket, that smelled of perfumes which were tied up in little pastel coloured ribbons. His mother and father looked very distinguished. they would be proud of this boy who was over here to parade up and down on a charger with white plumes in his hat, chasing the Britisher up and down the green fields of France. Like every mother in the world, thinking their son will be careful and their son is having the experience of a lifetime.
The gas would clear the rats. But the birds would fall from the sky. If we found any struggling for life, we tried to save them. some would nestle in your pocket until they were ready to leave, singing. Beauty in the beast. A break from reality. One day when we were on R&R in the barn of a french farm about five miles from the front, the King arrived and we ordered the men to cheer. I didn’t cheer, and few of them did. Perhaps the King’s cousin in Russia should have visited his men more often. Some of the Russian men who deserted came to us and asked for directions away from the battle, but wanting to get back to Moscow. how long after this hell would the Tommy’s put up with a king in a car, parading past them expecting some kind of thanks? some kind of worship? I am firmly of the belief what is happening in Russia will happen in Germany and then France and then England. Tullylish will no longer be an island apart, I feel. the Russian soldiers are doing what our men, I fear, will do and that is what their new political leader, Lenin says, “Convert the imperialist war into civil war.”
I grabbed the detris of his life and stuffed it into my pocket.
I felt oh so guilty sitting in that hospital while men in the real world were scrambling for life. I had to return to hell. Back to reality. For them. And i did, and here i am.
I crawled through the shit and mud and rotting men and mules and fell into the trench. none of the raiding party returned. The bullets that had shot my arm in shreds were many. I had got a return to blighty. I thought if that ever happened I would be happy but the guilt was too much. But this was not my biggest injury. My injury in my mind was greater as you must have sensed in the hospital. I remember you unclenching my fist and taking the sheets of music from me. We would not hear his voice sing again. Song had been slashed from his gullet and his smashed jawbone. I remember you cleaning away my tears as you read the words through yours,
“Round me at twilight come stealing
Shadows of days that are gone
Dreams of the old days revealing
Mem’ries of love’s golden dawn
Dreams of love so true
O’er the sea of memory
I’m drifting back to you
Childhood days, wild wood days
Among the birds and bees
You left me alone, but still you’re my own
In my beautiful memories
Sunlight may teach me forgetting
Noonlight brings thoughts that are new
Twilight brings sighs and regretting
Moonlight means sweet dreams of you
Dreams of love so true
O’er the sea of memory
I’m drifting back to you
Childhood days, wild wood days
Among the birds and bees
You left me alone, but still you’re my own
In my beautiful memories”
Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Sunday, 6 November 2011
I've joined in with the NaNoWriMo this year... I have wanted to do it for a few years, but have never had the time (I started last year and had to stop!) So, this is my second attempt. And this is Chapter 1!
I know I'm dying. I've had a good, long, interesting life, I suppose. I'll be sad not to see my great grand children all grown up. I would love to hear their dreams and politics as young men and women. I hope their struggles bring a fair world closer.
I'll be sad not to see my ex-President arrested and imprisoned for what he did to the young people in Afghanistan and Iraq. For what he did to the young poor people he sent from here to kill their young poor people. But then the people who sent my family to war were never arrested, and our victories were few. We did scare them, though. Our world of scrambling and scraping to live was allowed to change for a while. But then their greed brought us to ruin again. Obama gives us hope. The hope she gave us way back then.
When I first let America know my views on war and hatred, I thought I was old! Way back in the 1960's. I had grown children, and little grandchildren. And my children were not surprised I couldn’t stay quiet. When I got up onto those podiums to speak to those crowds, well, I felt kind of dumb to begin with. But my writing and my letters to the newspapers and my going along to those peacenik rallies to hear those eloquent, angry or serene young men urge peace meant that some of them pushed me up there. Going on fifth or sixth after those brilliant young black leaders and those women who knew what it was like to be second class citizens was, perhaps a bit of a lull in the proceedings. I couldn't rant, I couldn’t shout. I just told them to stand together. I told them that they would be split from without if they didn’t hold their wit. I told them about Ally. I told them about Davie and my da'. I told them that none of them came back from war to riches and neither would the boys out in the east. I told them that the rich man’s war only bred more hate and spawned a second war. I told them that the people who had stoked this war would never go to jail. The people who profited from it would never be hurt. And the ties between the two were many. I told them the people who had driven me from my country to find liberty in the United States were the self same people who profited from war, and they were never brought to justice. In fact those who died and the families who suffered the pain and the hardship were only too glad to send other generations of young men and women out to die or to be maimed in order for these rich "patriots" to profit, again and again. And I told them America was smarter than that. And then I sat down. And I remembered her, because she brought me to these podiums, even though I hadn’t seen her in many years. But she did.
I stare out of the huge window at the autumn colours. I took some of the American accent over the years, but some of my Ulster accent is there. And the words. "Fall." I'm told it was a word that came from the old country and that my use of Autumn is more recent. But I dont know. We really called it the turn. The time when the spuds were dug, the fields full of the withered stick like top of the stuff that would sustain us over the winter. There was nothing like a mound of spuds after working all day in that factory. Steaming on the plate; big, oval, steaming balls of flour, my da called them. As a young man I liked autumn. Ma would make Black currant or black berry bread pudding and we had shelves of jam from the summer fruits. Spuds and tea. And blackberry pudding. That's what I was brought up on. My ma would say, "just be glad you weren’t reared in our day. When we were glad of pinead!" I knew the hunger that made people live on pinead. I had friends whose houses served it still, and when da was still alive, well, there were days the whisky bottle or Mollies Bar, or the greyhounds got the spuds and we got the pinead. Pinead was, in our better off house, a meal of bread soaked in tea. In the not so fortunate, it was bread soaked in hot water. A warm meal.
The carpet of golden and brown leaves in the garden before me brings me back to the autumn day at the Halt.
I remember thinking about Davie on the day I met her again.
Davie was a wild man. He'd joined the army, like a lot of men his age in 1914. Him and uncle Ally and my da'. Davie was the only one of the three of them to come out the other side. Ally was killed in action. That was the day my granny became an old woman, when the singing was wrung out of her. She never got official letters so as soon as it arrived the thoughts were, "which one?" Ally was the youngest. The one who had been at her apron strings only a few years before. I remember him going, along with my da and Davie and the others from the factory. The drums and the fifes played at Church Halt and the red white and blue filled everyone’s hearts full of hate for the hun. The minister praised the boys for their patriotism and for standing up for democracy - a democracy most of them couldnt take part in. Howarth, the factory owner told the lads to go do their duty. And the minister and Howarth thanked each other. Hankies waved and the big men blew kisses to wives and childer'.
Tommy, my da' came home. So did Davie. Tommy was full of the drink and he stayed that way until he was found dead in our chair by the hearth in 1920. My ma' in someway was relieved, but it was only the goodness of the Howarths in the big house that meant we could stay in the cold, damp, house. They gave her a job cleaning the stairs and their fancy bathrooms and hallways and she paid them the rent from what they gave her. I learned to hide the axe from Tommy when he hit the bottle, because he was for killing Howarth and the minister for sending them all to war.
"The aristocracy killed the young men," he would rant. "We had no business blowing German teenagers to bits. Our business is spuds and linen and whisky!" And then he would go for the axe to kill the top-hatted factory owner who had sent them all to fight for God, Ireland, democracy and Protestantism.
Davie came back, wilder than before, full of plans to go to Canada and make a fortune, but his time was spent in "The Bunch O'Grapes" drinking stout and sitting at "The Welcome" smoking his pipe and, as my ma would say, "fraternising with the catholics like he was one of them," until he got one of them in the family way. He told her he would marry her, but she found out he was going to leave and she went to Banbridge station on the day, but he left by Portadown.
My granny had letters from "the disgrace" from Dublin, Southhampton and Toronto, but she never opened them. And Ally became the Virgin Mary I suppose.
As I thought, I heard the train stop at the Halt. I was to wait here for a guest, Howarth had said, and i was to take it directly to him. I had no idea the guest was his daughter.