It begins with a ringing in my ears, as always.
A fire spreads throughout my body, blazing through my arms, then my legs, a sickness advancing from the deepest reaches of human imagination – the mind at war with matter. I’ve been shaking and writhing quietly for weeks, told my skills were too valuable to get rid of. Work yourself half to death with bones popping out and guts oozing out of the wrong places and the Doctors will chuckle, saying ‘Walk it off, it builds character.’ Losing focus. Shadows blurring together. I would laugh at the Medicals now if I could, through laboured breaths and a cold, piercing sweat, at how I was somehow deemed perfectly healthy; ‘a prime specimen’. A bullet to the leg never hurt a fly. The trenches wash away that kind of naivety.
A faraway banging snaps me back to reality, dreary as it is. Something compels me to put one leg in front of the other, and then the other, until I enter a trembling rhythm, like a stumbling march down a rock-face to certain death. As I limp forward, a cursed stench fills the air, somewhere between blood and the droppings of a cow, accentuated by the rotting of the wood under foot. I wade through mounds of dirt, shaken, shivering, and waterlogged from near constant downpours into His Majesty’s personal sewer. My head pulsates and the dizziness intensifies, and I am left blundering through unfamiliar backdrops, grey outlines in my vision as I tumble from one corner of my foul surroundings to the next – memories and nightmares flooding to me with every waking moment.
Shrill screams and deafening cries ambush me, crimson bleeds into the sky, and the ground itself seems to move as though trying to swallow me whole. My hands begin to convulse uncontrollably, clamming up, and that accursed banging continues in some distant world from mine. I’m reminded of the teacher’s belt clamping down on an unruly child, the scraping sound of leather on flesh echoed through the pounding in the distance. Pain flares up in my palm at the memory. Keep moving. My throat dries up. No water. Bottle empty. Fire and brimstone. Eyes grow from the trees, contorted and weeping, bearing down on me from their perch above me, leering at my very being. A wave of coldness floods over me as I trip into a puddle of muck, and the vision of Hell is briefly replaced with a wall of ice trapping me under the surface, before I am once again sent reeling back into the ground by that damned banging. Slowly getting back up, I begin to trudge forward once again. The walls close in and the shadows seem to whisper of conspiracy. I can hear the maddening tittering of someone nearby, or maybe that’s me, or maybe…
A flash of light brings me hurtling to a stop in a field. Home. The sun inches out from behind the clouds and for a brief moment I’m back where I belong. Where trees do not cry into the soil, where the weary can get their peace. I can smell a fragrant, pleasant scent. Strolling forward, small figures seem to appear in the distance, radiating warmth and with gleaming smiles on their faces, a time before all of the suffering of the present – my family, toiling the fields for what little harvest they can glean, labouring tirelessly, but still… happy. Some way away, I can see my little brothers and sisters out in the garden, playing at soldiers and enjoying the sunshine. As far as the eye can see, pure bliss.
And next to an old tree, her.
Liz, the girl an angel couldn’t hold a candle to. Sweet, smart, funny, beautiful, everything to anyone, able to lift the spirits through the hardest times, always there when you needed her. I’d known her all my life, and from day one she was the sort of person who you loved before you even knew what ‘loved’ even meant; no-one better from here to America.
I walk up to the ash tree where she lies. A grey cloud is suddenly rolling over head, and a light breeze begins to rock through the hills. The hairs on my neck begin to spike up. I square up to her, needing to say something I should’ve really said a long time ago – but I’m stopped by a terrible sight. The corners of her mouth are dried with blood and part of her arm is rotting. The light drizzle transforms into a raging storm, and as the rising gale blasts through, her face starts to peel away, leaving nothing but gore and bone, a sick and wicked sight. I turn around, unable to face what I have just seen, and watch as my little bastion of hope is ripped apart around me as the wind ruptures the very fabric of my world.
I drop onto my knees, breathless. Wrestling myself back up from the ground, a tall spectre of a man slithers into view, here to collect me. I barely hear any of his words, but I make out enough. ‘Is this all the back-up? My God, they ARE trying to get us all killed…’ the vision mutters, spitting venom. ‘It’ll have to do. Alright, boy, if you’ll steady yourself for one moment…’ the rest falls on deaf ears. Something about an attack over the top, the Somme, your bit for king and country. A bang slams down nearby, flaking shrapnel and nearly hitting a few men near the dugout. One of them appears to be shaking.
I’m nudged towards the ladders, and told to take my time with any last prayers before we move out, as if God hadn’t already abandoned me out here. I walk up to my ladder, gripping it unsteadily, and slowly make my way up it.
A bell rings out, and we attack.