A soldier in the front line finds his only comfort in a worn photograph, but how much has the war affected him?
It was too much to take. How could I suffer more pain than this? And so I ran.
I hunched on the sloppy floor, waiting. It was all we seemed to do those days – wait. When we weren’t hiding from the shells or picking off enemy soldiers with long range shooting, we just waited for hours on end, waiting for instructions to come. It was times like these that I felt my mind starting to falter. When we were fighting, at least I didn’t have time to think. But the waiting in the trenches gave time for dark thoughts to grow.
The trenches were more like graves at this stage. 7 Feet deep at the lowest points, you had to climb to get a shot. If you slipped, your fall would be cushioned by corpses. Bodies were strewn all around us, all lifeless, only most were dead. The stench was unbearable, it made our eyes water. The holes that acted as toilets overflowed so we had to wade through the ankle-high sludge. A poisonous blend of screaming and explosions deafened us so much we had to shout to be heard. Rotting wooden huts stood every 500 yards, serving the rats as much as the soldiers. The huts were made to shelter up to twenty soldiers, leaving the other 20 in the eternal rain. It never stopped. The rain, that is. Sometimes I wondered if it was even water that was falling, as the drops burned into our toughened skin. Each day was like the last, never a glimpse of the sun, only clouds of smoke. I worried if the world had forgotten us; the soldiers who began fighting for the “common good” of man. Surely this was not what we fought for?
Had my wife been right? She had been carrying my first child for 8 months when I got the call to save the country. My family were so proud of me, yet she seemed to know something we didn’t. She begged me to stay at home, to hide. She couldn’t accept the fact that I would return a few months later as a hero. That was 7 years ago. 7 years and 53 days.
These times in the trenches were the worst. The screaming cut through me like a meat cleaver and gnawed at my brain. I was sure I would go insane. It was times like these that I drew upon my only light in this darkness. It was a photograph, passport sized, of the woman who awaited me at our home. Frayed and soiled, I could still make out the bright smile, shining through the smoke. Her radiant blue eyes filled me with hope of returning home. I thought back to the day I left:
“Don’t go,” she dapped at her eyes, “ Don’t leave us.”
I promised her I would return within months, weeks even.
“They’re not telling you the whole story,” she mumbled, pointing to the newspaper, “You know that.”
I took her hand and held it. Avoiding her gaze, I reassured her that they know what they’re doing. I would come home a hero. I could not meet her eyes with my own; they were so cold, so bitter.
“Soldiers climb aboard” The intercom echoed around the docks.
I opened my mouth; to say what, I still don’t know, but she turned and left, leaving the photograph in my hand.
“COVER!” I was torn from my dream, and ran for the shelter. It was evident that the shelters were insufficient, and in the panic to get inside, the photograph was knocked from my hand. I cursed and fell to my knees, clawing the dirt and grime. Where was it? I bit the legs of those who kicked me. A comrade picked up the square of paper and looked at it. I thought of his dirty fingers smearing my wife’s face. Growling, I jumped to my feet, drew my gun and shot.
Grabbing the picture from the dead man’s grip, I glanced at his face. He was a childhood friend, a man who I grew up with, and who had never done a thing to offend me. Until now. I pushed my way through my allies, who spat at me as if I was a criminal.
I cried that he had stolen my wife’s picture.
“There is no picture!” They shrieked at me. “Get out!
If only they knew.
And so I ran. The barbed wire tore my flesh, the fire burned my skin. But I would not stop, not until I was home. Who were they to say I had no wife? I checked my ring finger. Damn, I must have lost it. Martha would be furious. Or was it Anne? Then it hit me; like a hammer blow to the chest. Still, it only slowed me. Another blow, this one to my skull. It was impossible to tell which blow was lead and which was shame. I felt my legs give way and I stumbled. The taste of blood grew ever stronger, stronger almost than the bitter taste of realisation, and I collapsed. I just lay there, waiting, clutching a dirty, blank piece of paper to my heart.