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Short Bursts

At this time of Remembrance, let me share a short story:

—–

“Art’ar?”

The legs standing beside Arthur were clad in blue, uniform slacks above a feminine pair of ankles.  They disrupted his thoughts the way the dawn chorus interrupts a nightmare. 

“Wha’ are you doing down there, Art’ar?”  She spoke in a sing-song, Oriental accent, surprise lifting her voice.  Arthur twisted in his corner, trapped in a foetal crouch between sensible shoes and an unyielding wall.  The legs folded gracefully onto their knees, and a face peered into his.  Flat, Chinese features, almond eyes wide and questioning.  Arthur felt his fists unclench where his knuckles had pushed into his temples, but the pounding of a pneumatic drill outside the window made him flinch and squirm again.  She reached forward and rested her fingertips on the back of his hand in a cool, butterfly touch of calm.

“I will shu’ the window.”

The noise outside plummeted from close combat gunfire to an un-silenced motorbike.  

“They are mending the road.  Shall I take you to the dayroom?  It is much quieter.”  She pushed his wheelchair in front of him.  Arthur began to feel foolish.  Thank God it was this girl that found him, not that muscle-bound bastard Grice.

“Come on, Art’ar,” she squatted in front of him again, legs demurely together, reaching under his arms, “let me help you.”  

The body inside the white, starched tunic seemed delicate, but the upwards pressure was strong.  The movement pushed a plastic name badge towards his face; Mei Li, Care Assistant, it reminded him, in white letters cut into clinical blue.  Arthur wondered how he could recover his dignity.  The hint of a breast behind the badge called to him like a forgotten melody, and he scrambled to find his feet.

“It will be lunchtime, soon.  Steak and kidney pie today.  Good?”  She tucked his feet onto the footrests.  Arthur liked this girl.  She showed respect, and at least she spoke English.  He wondered if he’d faced any of her ancestors in Korea.  They’d been plucky fighters, the Chinese.  Stopping a charge with a bolt action Lee Enfield was like trying to stop a swarm of ants with a pin.  Had Mei Li ever been taught about how seven hundred faced seven thousand on the Imjin?  

“There.  A nice place by the window.”  Sunlight streamed into the dayroom.  Blossom the colour of Mei Li’s lipstick cascaded over the lawn, and Arthur struggled to remember the name of the shrub.  No matter.  They all had names like social diseases, anyway.

“I’ve got a nasty dose of wisteria down my left side.”  He chuckled until he saw the looks around him.  He hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud.  In the sudden silence he heard Mei Li telling the dayroom nurse about how she’d found him.  

“I’m not deaf,” he shouted over his shoulder, hearing the betrayal in his voice, then slumped back in his chair when he saw she was talking to Grice.  Arthur’s next words were muttered at the garden.  “And I’m not mad, neither.”

He’d just had a bad turn.  Strange how things came back to you, every ball-tightening moment, even after nearly seventy years.  Nowadays he forgot most stuff in as many seconds.

Arthur jolted out of a doze, arms flailing, as the lunchtime gong rumbled its summons to the deaf.  His hand connected with a cup and saucer, sending thick, institutional china rolling over the carpet at the end of a splashed parabola of tea.

Every attack started with gongs.  Gongs and bugles, to break your nerve, so that it was a relief when they broke cover and came at you, yelling and screaming in their quilted jackets.

“For fuck’s sake, Arthur.”  Grice knelt with a roll of paper towel, mopping the tea.  “If you’re gonna drop things, I’ll give you a plastic beaker.”  Arthur pulled a face at Grice’s back.  Grice was all mouth.  Dangerous.  Especially when he braced himself over you with one hand on each arm of the wheelchair, pushing his face intimidatingly close.

“How’dya like that, granddad?  Shall I give oo an ickle baby mug?  Wiv a nice ickle spout to drink froo?” 

“Don’t talk to me like that.”  Arthur’s bombast sounded querulous, but the memory of youth was strong in his mind.  “You’re supposed to be a ‘Care Assistant’, but we get bugger all care and not much assistance.”

Arthur was proud of that.  He’d been practising those words in his head, but hadn’t been brave enough to say them.  Around him several residents cackled with delight, and for a moment Arthur felt a hero.  A drip of cold tea fell onto his forearm as Grice gripped the paper towel more tightly.

“I think you’d better cool off a bit before I take you into lunch.  If I’m feeling kind I might remember you.  But there again, I might not.”

Stupid bloody gesture.  He’d done something even sillier that day in Korea, and got away with it.  He’d heard a Bren gunner hosing his fire across the field, wasting ammunition, so he’d walked up behind him, in full view of the enemy, and kicked him in the arse.

“Short bursts, you wanker,” he’d shouted, then dropped into cover as bullets smacked the air past his head.  The man was pale and sweating like stale cheese, his fear almost disintegrating into panic.

“Move over, I’ll show you.  Magazine.”  The reassuring weight of the butt nestled into his shoulder, the wood hard against his cheek.  Oh, that glorious smell of hot, oiled metal and cordite.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  “Target, aim off, squeeze.”  Tattap.  Tattap.  Tattattap.  The gun chattered to him like a lover.  He counted twelve bursts out of a thirty round magazine, and eight of them knocked over a Chinaman.  “Now you do it.”  Smart Arse Sergeant.  God, if only they knew.  He’d grabbed that Bren to stave off his own funk.  Now he just remembered how the bodies lay, humped in the killing ground. 

Lunch was finished.  Grice hadn’t come back for him.  Outside a blackbird started singing; liquid gold in the shrubbery.  A bird had sung that day, too, warbling peace over a hillside of huddled dead and bleating wounded.  He’d shut his eyes then, as now, to savour the sound, to isolate it.  If you concentrated, you could ignore the metallic scrape of magazines being reloaded, and the dry sound of boots on rock as their dead were lifted to the rear.  It had flown away when the gongs started again.  Sensible bird.

Visiting time.  Relatives were spending an awkward hour with the inconveniently old.  In the corner a middle-aged woman was holding the hand of, of…  Names.  He couldn’t remember them any more, not unless they were in your face like the badge on Mei Li’s tit.  

“Wake up Arthur, Pete’s here.”  Grice spoke in the gentle, caring tones he put on for visitors.  “He’s been a bit strange today,” he added to the grey-haired man fetching an armchair.  “Didn’t want his lunch.”

The vaguely-familiar man stretched to squeeze Arthur’s hand, smiling, but his greeting froze on his lips as Arthur spoke.

“Pete’s dead.” 

He’d never forget that name.  Peter Brooks.  Brooksie.  Best mates.  Pete died after the third wave.  Arthur had found him thrashing on the ground, mumbling like a spastic with half his face shot away and his brains trickling into his hair.  Arthur took one look at that wrecked head and slammed in the morphine, over and over again, then held his hand and forced himself to look into Pete’s remaining eye until the light went out.

“Pete’s dead,” he repeated, less confidently now because the man was staring at him as if he’d been struck.  

“Dad, it’s Peter.  Your son, Peter.”

Arthur felt his face dissolve.

“Don’t cry, Dad.  It’s all right.”  A hand gripped his arm, squeezing reassurance.  

“I killed him.”  The pressure to unburden rose like a balloon of gas in his gut.

“Dad, please.”  

“With morphine.”  Shouting now. 

“Calm down, Dad.  You’ll make yourself ill.”

“Getting a bit upset, are we?”  Grice appeared beside them, releasing the brakes on Arthur’s wheelchair.  “You’re disturbing everyone, Arthur.  I think you should go back to your room for a nice, quiet rest.  Gimme five to settle him, Pete, then come through.”  The words were spoken over Arthur’s head as the grey-haired, sad-eyed Peter rotated out of sight.

“Bloody hell, it stinks in here.”  Grice strode to Arthur’s window and opened it, just as the pneumatic drill opened up in a sustained judder of noise, shaking photo frames into motion along a shelf.  Even Grice changed his mind and shut the window before turning back into the room.

“What’s that, Granddad?  Short bursts?  Whadya mean, short bursts?  Oh, for fuck’s sake, you’ve pissed yourself.  That wasn’t a short burst, was it, you senile git?  You’ve fucking sprayed it everywhere.”

Mei Li cleaned him up.  Arthur gripped her hands as she helped him into clean trousers.

“Forgive me.”

“Art’ar, there is nothing to forgive.”

Arthur shut his eyes.  He didn’t have the words to explain.

The Naked Desk

Writing a book, I’ve found, is like wading out into a river. At first, you can’t even see open water through the reeds, let alone the far bank, but you have a vision of what might be there as you struggle through waist-deep mud. There are times when you scramble back to firm ground to find a better way in, and even when you can see your way clear ahead, the silt slows you down. Eventually, you can swim. Finally the current takes you, and then the ride is spectacular. Nothing is going to stop you until your feet touch that far, glorious bank. And as you climb out, there comes a moment when you can sit, take a breath, and look back at how far you’ve swum.

That, for me, is the moment when the Work In Progress is finally worthy of being shared with beta readers. It isn’t finished, and it won’t be finished until it is sold into publication, edited, re-edited, and polished to a publisher’s satisfaction. But it has reached a milestone. It has moved from screen to paper for a last ‘red pen’ edit. It is as good as I can make it on my own. The criticisms will come, need to come, along with those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ suggestions, but for a moment the WIP is a fine and beautiful thing. I haven’t landed in the place I saw in my early dream, but then my dreams evolved each time the current took me in a new direction. The trick is to ride the currents and avoid the eddies.

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Today I’m sitting on that far, metaphorical bank, but in the real world I’m staring at a strange sight. Beneath the never-vanishing stack of bills, correspondence, and reading material, my desk is naked. The WIP has been sent out into the world. But on the shelf above are three books that I’ve bought to research the next project. They include ‘The Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry’, written by Geoffroi de Charny, who was to die as the standard-bearer of the French oriflamme at the battle of Poitiers in 1356.

It’s a good time to think about the next river. 14th Century and the chivalric ideal.

Total immersion.

The Waterloo Rap

My wife and I were invited to a gloriously extravagant party recently, when we were invited to turn up dressed in the style of  ‘the French Revolution or Les Miserables’. We were also invited to submit a ‘limerick or clerihew’ on a relevant theme. My limerick grew, acquired a West Indian accent, and became a rap. So here, for your gentle amusement, is

The Waterloo Rap

In eighteen hundred and then fifteen

That’s way before young Vic was Queen

We Brits marched South, tooled up to fight

The Grand Armée in all its might.

See, we love French cheese, we love French wine,

We’d even love their Josephine,

But killing a king, now that ain’t right,

And égalité gave our toffs a fright.

So Wellington, yes, he De Man

Who’d stop the Frogs if anyone can,

Led me an’ Fred an’ all our crew

Along the road to Waterloo,

And dissed that Boney

Saying “Honi                                                                                                                 

Soit qui mal y pense,”

Which sounded good, but don’t make sense.

They came on hard, they came on tough

Till Boney finally cried “Enough!”

And after a hell of guts and gore

There weren’t many left from the day before

So I shared a pipe with a French Old Guard

And told him “Man, you tried us hard

But killing a king, see, that’s a crime, and

You can’t kill George, ‘coz that sod’s mine.”

The heroic view of history

This evening I poured myself a glass of wine, put on some music, and pulled a book off the shelf. I chose, not quite at random, the first volume of Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’, since I wanted to see what the wartime leader and amateur historian had to say about the dawn of the English. It’s one of those books that are too finely bound or significant to be thrown away, but which somehow sit there yellowing and undisturbed for years. It was written in the 1930’s, and re-edited before publication in 1956, but it is stunning to see how how profoundly have styles changed in just 60 or 80 years. Here he is on the Arthurian legend:

‘If we could see what exactly happened [the reality behind the myth of Arthur] we should find ourselves in the presence of a theme as well founded, as inspired, and as inalienable from the inheritance of mankind as the Odyssey or the Old Testament. It is all true, or it ought to be; and more and better besides. And wherever men are fighting against barbarism, tyranny, and massacre, for freedom, law, and honour, let them remember that the fame of their deeds, even though they themselves be exterminated, may perhaps be celebrated as long as the world rolls round. Let us then declare that King Arthur and his noble knights, guarding the Sacred Flame of Christianity and the theme of a world order, sustained by valour, physical strength, and good horses and armour, slaughtered innumerable hosts of foul barbarians and set decent folk an example for all time.’

Rousing stuff. For a moment my study filled with the scent of a thundering good cigar. Better historians than I might challenge Churchill’s academic rigour, but then he had an angle, in the same way that Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had an angle. There may even be a touch of self-aggrandisement there. But for those who have a taste for history that is robust, muscular, and heroic, he can’t be beaten.

When I reached for my glass, I was mildly surprised to find a humble red rather than a fine brandy.

Cheers!

Après Charlie?

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Image: Daily Telegraph

Of all the images I’ve seen since the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket atrocities, the one that stays most in my mind was in the UK Daily Telegraph. It’s a young woman on a march in Madrid, a dark-haired, olive-skinned, apparently Spanish beauty. Her eyes are lowered, and she lets the placard in front of her shout her message. It’s written under the crowned ‘Keep Calm’ theme that seems to be everywhere at the moment, and it says, simply,

KEEP CALM, I’M A MUSLIM, NOT A TERRORIST

Brilliant. That young woman deserves huge respect.

But in the last few days, the debate has moved on to ‘free speech’, or ‘freedom of expression’. Should the Western democracies’ hard-won right to lampoon our leaders, even religious leaders, be curtailed if that right is used to lampoon a faith?

The arguments are surging backwards and forwards. Even the Pope has contributed. But I haven’t yet seen anyone address the practicalities of how such a law would be drafted. Clearly, it must ‘protect’ all faiths equally, so Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ might have had its last repeat. By the same principle, it must regard all faiths as equal. In defending minority sensitivities, there can be no such thing as a ‘minority’ that is not worthy of being defended. We’re going to need a whole new Government department of censors who can consider, with ernest political correctness, whether blockbuster films such Exodus can be released if they are deemed to show Ra and Osiris unfavourably against the God of the Israelites. These brave public servants will have to live and work in bunkers to guard them from aggrieved factions who disagree with their decisions.

Let’s think this one through…

Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Bone JackPerhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.

Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.

Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.

 

The Venal and the Divine

It was a weekend of contrasts. On Friday, I thought the traffic was even more intense, more impatient than usual. The evening news showed shoppers in feeding frenzies, coming to blows as the stores opened their doors on Black Friday. Christmas cometh, grab your wallets and fight. There were images of men rolling on a floor, grasping at the same package of some massively-discounted item, and of shoppers pushing away stacked trolleys, their faces alight with greed.

On Sunday evening, our local church had its Advent carol service. In candle-lit peace, twenty-eight choristers sang anthems in four-part harmony. Gentle at first, as sweet as the carols and readings they framed, the pace grew until the choir let rip with the 14th century Resonemus Laudibus. It was fast, it was loud, it was triumphant. And at least for one hour the poorest of the congregation, or the choir, was richer than any retailer. The faces that spilled out into the night afterwards shone with a different kind of joy.

Christmas cometh.