Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chiaroscuro Part 1

He sits in his easy Grandfather chair and opens a pouch of tobacco, presses the sticky shreds into his pipe and lights it, drawing the glow with short sharp breaths. The tobacco ignites and aromatic smoke swirls seductively around his unseeing eyes. He's in a contemplative mood and the pipe helps him focus. He can't see his surroundings; they think he doesn't see anything, but he does. He's full of memories which play on rewind in his head during these moments. A life not quite flashing before him, but salient episodes rising and ebbing with memory like the haze emanating from his pipe. He wasn't always blind. He saw once - before the war. He remembers; he remembers everything in vivid colour.

It's a small working class terrace in the depths of Manchester. A front sitting room, back room, kitchen and an outhouse. Three small bedrooms upstairs. One, shared for many years with his two brother's Billy and Donald, is now his alone. Another belongs to his two sisters Daphne and Marion. The his parents' retreat.  

They're in the sitting room after Sunday lunch.  Two easy chairs and a settee and a photo of the 'boys' in their uniforms on the mantle. The girls winding wool from a skein on their hands, giggling and chattering.  His mother's knitting. His father reading the paper - still wearing his flat cap and Lancashire clogs when the telegram comes.  His mother wipes her tears on her apron before she's even opened the door. The very sight of the postman outside his usual round time, with that red and white rimmed envelope, is enough to bring dread to the surface. Its words read before eyes meet and its meaning is fully comprehended.

I regret very much to inform you that your son Pte. W. Dixon, no 49268 of this Company was killed in action on the night of the 21st instant. Death was instantaneous without any suffering.
Your son's artillery team was in the advance party against the enemy. The attack was successful and all guns reached and new positions established. Enemy shelled our positions killing Pte Dixon and wounding a comrade. Impossible to retrieve his remains. He lies in a soldier's grave where he fell. I and the C.O. and all the Company deeply sympathise with you in your loss.
Your son always did his duty and now has given his life for his country. We all honour him and I trust you will feel some consolation in remembering this.  His effects will reach you via the base in due course.
In true sympathy
Sgt. August Martin, 4th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers

His father takes the photograph from the mantle, straightens his cap and sighs, "Oh Billy my Lad."  That's it. That's all that is said. A second son sacrificed in the name of King and Country.

He longs to serve but his father needs him in the shop. Two sons on the Western Front is enough sacrifice for a working family to bear. The youngest he's told, will stay put. Yet the yearning to serve is a self fulfilling prophecy. The following day, and against his parent's wishes, their youngest son Jack, enlists.

He's always admired them. His elder brothers so dashing in the photographs on the mantle, wearing Army greens and spit and polished boots. Their gleaming livery and noble smiles. It's his turn to shine now. 

At first they didn't give him a uniform, just an arm band, but after a week in Barracks it arrived. Coarse wool that made him itch. Thick socks that didn't stop the blisters from heavy leather boots stubbornly refusing to be pliant. But he cut a fine figure and was proud to wear it, and the colours of the  2nd Battalion, 25th Brigade of the East Lancashire Regiment. 

He's waved off by a stoic father, a teary mother and two distracted sisters, too young to understand the implications of war. The train is bound for the outskirts of London to meet up with Canadians and other Brits. They're all on the platform kissing sweethearts and hugging their mothers while onlookers wave flags and cheer them forward. It's a good feeling, having the ability to make a difference as they wave goodbye to an ever-diminishing crowd on a cold and fading  platform.

Spirits are high as they smoke and sing and make introductions. Lancashire lads, now fish out of water, dressed in green, feeling green. Soon to be cannon fodder for the fields of France.

Dear Ma and Da
We're in a camp just outside Luton a nice little town where we can buy whatever we require. There's a moving picture show and a restaurant and some shops. The roads are good and we can ride a bicycle if we can scrounge one.
There isn't a lot of time. We have to work at it all day. The uniform itches and I had to go to sick bay for some calamine lotion for relief. I have blisters on my feet from all the marching but I'm better off than Jimmy McAllister who behaved badly during his first week here and has been put on Sentry every night, walking past barracks while we all sleep. His potato peeling skills are improving I shouldn't mind.  We are enjoying fine weather, but very cold nights. In other words I may say in all my 19 years, I have never been so pleased as I am with conditions of this place, experienced in the last 24 hours. This is the real thing and makes one feel more war-like every day. We are 40 miles from London and can get a pass quite often, so hope to see the city in a week or two.
Your son

She's sitting at the end of the bar in a sunshine yellow dress, shimmering and obvious among the sea of khaki and navy blue. She has a Rita Hayworth black Fedora obscuring one side of her face, while she eyes uniforms with the other. She's wearing stockings with thin black seams, a luxury for girls at home. She's like a Hollywood actress sitting there in a  with a plunging neck, and smoking a cigarette. He's shy but she's beautiful, striking. He's innocent but he's brave. He's a soldier now.  A virgin soldier in every manifestation of the word.

"Excuse me Miss, can I buy you a drink?"

She smiles, "You shipping out soon?" 

Long fingers point her cigarette to the ceiling as red lips embrace it's tip and draw back. She exhales the smoke in seductive whirls. She's so sophisticated to him.

He tells her 'yes' and buys her a gin and tonic. They chat about the war, the world and how it's a shame so many young men have to leave and that she'll have to find a sugar daddy before too long, since all the handsome chaps are off to fight. She drags a finger with a long polished nail from his throat across the brass buttons down to his chest giving him chills. He's still oblivious to her profession but she's sweet and indulges obvious nerves.

"Dance?" she asks, and he's willing despite his two left feet, but glad of the lessons he'd had at school. She's warm against the coarse wool. His hands around her waist, her arms around his neck and she smells of rose petals and Capstain 20's. His mates are giggling at the bar, mocking the young gun with more than a pistol in his pocket, all too aware he's unaware that tonight will cost him a pretty penny.

"Coming back to my place?"

He's caught off-guard having never been with a woman, but too proud to confess it and ever the gentleman.

"Aight lass,"  he says softly, "I'll walk you home"

She opens the door and pulls him gently through the threshold by the sleeves.  The room is feminine and curtained, with a Queen Anne dressing table adorned with perfume bottles, long gloves and a dressing table set. A small stool in front, where he imagines her putting on her makeup, gliding those stockings along her legs. The thought of seeing her thighs more than arousing. There's a double bed beautifully made in soft pink and pillows, lots of pillows, plush and scattered. A harsh contrast to the barracks cots, and so inviting.

"Undress me." She whispers it as a statement not a question. Hot breath against his neck.

He hasn't a clue where to begin, but she's experienced and makes it easy as his fumbling hands are directed along the small of her back up to the nape of her neck. Her zip glides gently as he feels the bareness of her shoulders and the smoothness of satin covered buttocks. Four hands keep sliding and a shock of yellow pours onto the floor like liquid gold. Her hands guide his between her thighs as he smells her sex and feels his own. Polished fingers unbutton jacket and belt, slide braces over his shoulders. His shirt pulled from his torso. He feels blissfully out of control and comforted that she isn't. Mouths pressed tongues dance, and he understands what's meant by a true French Kiss. Bodies now naked and in sync, she slides into bed with a single movement and without disengaging. Skin on skin, he 'gets' it - hands, hips - he loves it. Her curves unseen between the sheets but soft and undulating flesh moves expertly beneath his body. Firm breasts are hidden but available to touch. He toys teasingly with each nipple and she moans. The left providing more arousal than the other as she guides his erection into her. Pleasure is short but overwhelming. He's falling in love or mistaken lust.

He doesn't mind parting with the ten quid at the end of the night. In fact she asks him to stay until early morning. He sleeps, curled in the warm embrace of a sweet-smelling whore.

I don't even know your name but took note of your address before I left. I am snatching a few moments to write a note and it is one fine morning here and the grass and trees are green and pretty. I know you have other men but I don't have a sweetheart and before we mobilise I would be grateful if you would send me a photograph.  We are all men here and a pretty face would cheer me up no end.  I will try to get hold of some silk stockings for you if I can.
The trip over was remarkable in that we had fine weather almost all the time and I was not sick a minute of the time. France is a beautiful country. The moon is just coming up and it reminds me of the evening we spent together. It is as big as the mirror ball in the dance hall and shines just as bright. Slept on some soft pine boards last night but if wood is any harder let me never see it. Must close here, lights are taboo and the light of the moon is failing me. Please send me the picture and tell me your name.

She doesn't reply.

"Stand to. . . " the order's bellowed one hour before dawn and they're roused from sleep in the muck and the damp.

Bayonets are fixed and ready for dawn's raiders. Shells fly and machine guns rattle. This was 'the morning hate' the first volley in a deadly game. Strangely all goes quiet for breakfast. After the "Stand to" - rum is issued to the soldiers who busy themselves cleaning their rifles before  inspection by senior officers. Pompous and zealous in their examination of muddy boots and dented helmets, they fulfill their pretentious duty.

"Fix your belt son!" to one who's belt is barely there.

"Your weapon's filthy," to another, knee-deep in mud.

The young recruits still attempting to stand at attention and present themselves well. The older guard raising eyebrows and thinking 'what does it matter, we'll be torn to shreds tomorrow.'

Sandbags to fill, duckboards to repair, latrines to dig, all under the shower of flac from enemy lines.

He's scared. Early excitement and anticipation fades to fear and trepidation. He's wet, cold his sanity retained only by the memory of a nameless beauty in a stunning yellow dress.

As it quietens in the afternoon, he leans against the hardened clay wall and smokes, makes silly ornaments from shell casings and bullets and takes the time to roughly draft a letter in pencil.

Under a blanket of black, they fetch food, water and supplies, run sentry two hours at a time and fight the urge to sleep on guard. The boys at the front retreat. The boys at the back advance. Fresh meat for the coming conflagration

Dear Ma and Da
A few lines to try and tell you what it is like out here. I am giving no state secrets away, only telling bare facts, so I think I can sign my name on the back. I did intend to write to you a few days ago, but there was an awful din going on we were staying in a cellar in the day and working in the trenches or in front of the trenches at night. It was impossible to sleep through the noise of shells that kept hitting the walls. We get out for a day or two then have to go back for two or three nights. There has been heavy fighting round this way for the last two weeks. I've been at the front line for what seems like weeks and without a rest we out here are wondering if ever they will relieve us, and wonder “Will they ever come” It takes us all our time to keep together. The noise is bad but the gas gives me a right royal headache. We were in the trenches a few days ago during the day and saw Germans coming to attack. We had to cross a bit of open ground and they fired at us but we lay flat. Otherwise I might not be writing this letter at all.
After they had had found their position they started shelling, and it was hell with the lid off what with gasping for breath and expecting to be blown to pieces, to say nothing of being unable to see. We have lost a lot of men this last few weeks. Rather a sad thing happened the other night we were out doing barbed wire in front of the trenches, they had been warned that we were out there, we had almost finished when two of our men were shot right through the head by our own people, but things like that are not talked of in the papers.

As much as I wanted to be here,I now long to come home.

Your son


He's going 'over the top'.  A daytime excursion into the belly of Hell - he'd rather be doing sentry at night. The smoke is thick as mucous and he's armed to the teeth but laying low. Foreign tongues invade his ears as he waits for artillery to split the air.  He can hear his heartbeat. His ears are ringing and he's terrified that even breathing will give his location away. He leans into the wall, fixes his bayonet with frozen fingers and waits for the call. They scramble above the trench and he begins to crawl, comrades fall as he scurries on all fours through the wire and remnants of yesterday's fray.

Men left where they fell, twisted, torn, grimaced smiles and dead eyes. The eyes of his brothers spur him on.  Not even a crow dares land here in Hades.  Bodies strung out like wreckage washed up to a watermark. Dying on the wire. Fish caught in a callous net, hanging grotesques in crucifix poses. Pegged as they died, suspended on their knees and riddled with bullets. There's a flash of red, then white, then black as he's thrown and winded, his face burning, his leg shattered.

Dear Mr Mrs Dixon

I am writing to inform you that your son Jack was involved in a skirmish during the recent assault in Normandy . He was wounded in the lower leg and sadly has lost his sight due to the impact blast of a grenade. He's resting comfortably in Calais. He will be well enough to travel within the month but will need your support once he is demobbed. Enclosed are his medical records, forwarded in advance to assist with some necessary preparations.
We have little hope that he will regain his sight although his leg will heal completely. I am sorry to be the bearer of such bad news but he is luckier than some who perished on that dreadful day and many who suffer here still.

Yours faithfully

Matron G Card
British Military Hospital
Calais FR

Continued in Part 2


  1. Lots of editing needed, but this is quite good so far. You have some really good descriptive phases here.

    On to part 2.

  2. one would almost beg for more detail in the final paragraphs...but war is like that. A lot of buildup, a lot of boredom, and then that fateful moment that happens in a flash. I was recommended a book (The Middle Parts of Fortune) and this reminded me very much of that - i think you'd like it. very good.