He thinks he can smell the sea. A sharp smell. Sour. A bit like urine. It reminds him of the corner of the trench earmarked for pissing when the platoon took over a new section. Of course, you didn’t always use that corner. Sometimes, during stand-to or waiting to go over the bags, you just stepped aside and went – and if one man went then you could bet your bottom dollar they all would go. Like at school, waiting in line for a spelling test or something. Please, sir! Me too, sir!
He smiles at the thought.
And then there are times when you just went. You didn’t even get your todger out. The spreading warmth was strangely comforting. Something private you chose to do in desperate circumstances and nobody could stop you doing. Like thinking. He wonders where the officers pissed. You never met them in the pissing corner. He trudges on, his boots thudding on the hard ground.
Left, right, left, right. A comforting rhythm. Sort of sweeps you along.
It occurs to him that a battalion on the march is like the tide coming in. You seem to be getting nowhere fast but when you look down you see the water is advancing quite quickly, eddying around the rocks and filling up the crab pools.
Left, right, left, right.
Which is all fine and dandy until something breaks the rhythm. Like back in France in the early days, when one of the men stumbled on a bit of broken paving or just wobbled, exhausted. He and the other country lads had been alright. It was the townies that suffered. Thin, wiry lads, wise-cracking and grinning at the mamzelles. So sharp you’d cut your fingers on them – but the marching got them. They just didn’t have the calf muscles. That first march through the night, when two of them finished up hanging onto Mr Jenkin’s belt whilst he carried their rifles!
Left, right, left, right.
He remembers how much taller Mr Jenkins had been than the lads he dragged along. Younger than most of the platoon, he was, but a good head taller. They said it started in your mother’s womb – but that wasn’t fair, was it, to be undersized just because of your ma? Except being tall hadn’t helped Mr Jenkins in the end. Walking past that broken bit of parapet – the bit that lazy fucker from Mumbles was supposed to fix – when a Jerry sniper got him in his sights. That wasn’t fair either.
He can definitely smell the sea now. Maybe he can hear it?
He stands still, listening, the thud of his boots replaced by the thudding of his heart. You can’t hear the sea from here during the day, when the wind is sighing through the grass and sheep are bleating on Llanmadoc Hill, but you sometimes can at night, like now, when the tide is high and all is dead quiet. He tries to remember where the tide had been when the train ran alongside the Bristol Channel four hours ago, but he must have been asleep.
The track is going downhill. It’s well dark now but it doesn’t matter. He hasn’t trod this way for years but his feet know when to stay in the ruts and when to skip out and walk on top. He’s moving faster, a quick-march, like swooping down one of those strange, long hills in France to a new billet in some dirty Froggy farm.
Their barns were good, though. You had to give them that. Bloody big barns with great thick walls like castles, and high roofs like churches with white owls gliding between the rafters. You could tell the country boys amongst the Tommies if there was straw to spread, because they did it quickly, all tidy-like. Sometimes the straw was mouldy but usually it was good and sweet. Comforting, wrapped in your blanket with the straw prickling and rustling, and the guns thudding in the distance like your ma beating a carpet on Spring cleaning day. Sometimes you caught the eye of another Glamorgan lad and you knew they were thinking the same thing.
He’s reached the village now. The cottages are dark and hunkered down, like cattle humped in a field, motionless but warm, chewing the cud. He comes to the pub and his footsteps slow. He thinks about going inside. Pushing open the door to firelight and fragrant pipe smoke. Lamplight on familiar faces, big dirt-stained hands curved around tankards. Budge up, mate! He would hold his own now. Give as good as he got with the banter. He probably wouldn’t even have to pay for a pint – not him, the returning warrior! The pub door opens and two figures emerge. Silence spills out around them and he realises that the place is empty, because Augustus fell in France way back in ’14 and Trev is a pile of bleached white bones somewhere in the desert and Sid and Sam are at the bottom of the Med and all the others are scattered; Charlie waiting for a peg leg in Swansea and that lad, the queer one, in the asylum and –
The two drinkers hobble towards him. One pauses, props his stick against his belly and strikes a match. His face flares, goblin-like, as his thick fingers cup the flame.
He can’t see me. His night vision is fucked! When a flare goes up in no man’s land you don’t dive to the ground like they do in cowboy books, you freeze and shut your eyes. That way you can still see when it all goes dark again.
He clears his throat ready to greet the old man but he’s overcome by shyness – and then it’s too late because the man has seized his stick and shuffled on.
He’s getting tired now. It’s been a long day travelling and a long night crossing before then, with the destroyers slinking alongside to port and starboard, and the water heaving like black ink. He starts thinking about what would happen to a tree that fell into the sea, at Oxwich, say, where the woods came down to the water’s edge. Would it float as far as France? And, if it got as far as France, what were the chances it would find its way through the Bay of Biscay and the Straits of Gibraltar and be washed up, years and years from now, worn pale and slender like a girl’s arm, on a beach in Greece or Turkey? Or would it just drift in and out on the tide in Oxwich Bay, until some old biddy dragged it home and burnt it?
He swings down and around the churchyard. His boots ring loud and hollow over the plank bridge and soon he’s walking uphill. Bent hawthorns scratch the sky on either hand and his heart is pounding and his breathing hurts –
And then, he’s there.
He stands before the door and sees that his head is now level with the lintel. He will have to duck! Well, the doc said you kept growing until twenty-five, so, with two years to go, maybe he’ll catch up with Mr Jenkins. They feed you well in the Army, you have to give them that. He smiles and opens the door. The kitchen is lit only by the glow of the range and at first he thinks the room is empty. Then a shadow moves and an arm reaches out to adjust the damper and he sees his mother’s face.
He sleeps that night with his kid brother, in the box bed where he and Augustus used to sleep. He pulls the blanket over his shoulders and curls against the boy for warmth but the child whimpers and kicks so the soldier turns away. He falls asleep watching the fire glow and listening to the sea breathing.
An hour or so later, the boy wakes with a wail. The ladder stair judders and the fire glow disappears as his mother bends over the bed.
‘He’s so cold, ma, and his breath is all stinky.’
‘Hush, hush.’ His mother holds the boy’s face between her palms and kisses his forehead. ‘It’s alright. He means no harm. He’s your brother, a brave soldier of the King.’
When he wakes again, the room is full of cold, grey light. He needs a cigarette. He pulls on his breeches and boots and steps outside. He can barely see across the yard and the sea smells very close, pungent and sickly. His heart starts to race and his hands fumble the front of his tunic searching for his respirator – until he realises this is not a cloud of sulphurous gas, just a sea fog rolling in. He lights a cigarette.
The boy comes out. He’s a pale, seedy-looking child. Must be eight years old now. An after-thought. The soldier remembers the terrible embarrassment he felt as his mother’s belly grew. That dirty old goat. Making her do it.
The boy stands in the doorway, peering fearfully around. His mother appears behind him. She pushes a greaseproof paper package into his pocket and wraps her arms around him. He squirms and pulls out of her embrace but she lifts his cap and drops a kiss on his lank hair. The soldier waves his cigarette, attempting a casual brotherly greeting, but the kid scoots across the yard. The stones rattle as he runs down the track. His mother sighs.
‘He misses his big brothers.’
He crosses the yard and shuts the gate. His mother has already gone inside. In his mind, he follows the boy as he meets the other school kids by the church, scowling and punching each other, faces pale and intense with pent-up frustration, at the cold and the fog, the silence and the old men. He watches them start up Llanmadoc Hill, plodding higher and higher. It will be clear on top. Maybe even sunny. They’ll grin and start fighting again, pushing each other off the track into the prickly black heather. You can see the whole of Gower from up there. The estuary and the mud flats, Cefn Bryn and Arthur’s Stone. All the little fields and woods and hidden places.
He finishes his cigarette and tucks the butt carefully under a loose stone in the wall.
His mother is stirring porridge in a pot on the range. She has to keep stirring to stop it getting lumpy. He sits at the table running his fingers over the surface, finding the marks he made stab-stabbing with his penknife, the rough circles from hot pans set down hastily, the sharp dent where the iron was dropped end-on. He pushes back his chair and stretches his arms wide.
‘Oh ma, I’ve seen such wonders! I’ve seen the pyramids rising out of clouds of golden dust and minarets pointing to heaven like ivory fingers. And camels, a hundred camels in a line passing by in the early morning with shadows a mile long.’
His mother is concentrating on stirring the porridge and doesn’t reply. She reaches for bowls and spoons whilst still stirring and he smiles, remembering how her contortions made him and Augustus giggle. He stands up and searches for the sugar bowl, moving cocoa tins and flour jars. They feel old and empty.
‘No sugar,’ she mutters. ‘You’d think we’d be used to it by now.’
‘The war won’t last forever, ma. Johnny Turk is done for and men and guns are piling into France. We’ll chase Jerry back o’er the Rhine by Autumn and then I’ll be back and I’ll bring you a sack of sugar – and honey, and raisins, if you like.’
He leans against the brown stone sink so he can see her face.
‘I’ve seen grapes growing, ma – and figs and olives. Some of the olive trees were a thousand years old and the valleys were full of little purple irises. And I heard the cuckoo! Can you believe it? I heard the cuckoo out there in Palestine, as clear as if I were here at home.’
His mother sets the porridge pot down on the table and wraps a towel around it. She picks up the kettle, fills the teapot and stirs the leaves.
‘I’ve seen the holy places, ma. The hills of Judea, glowing red in the setting sun. And Bethlehem.’
But his mother is distracted. She glances at the door. ‘Where is he? That old girl playing him up again, I’ll warrant.’
He bounces on his feet, full of restless energy. ‘I’ll go fetch him, shall I, ma?’
The fog has retreated a little but still fills the valley like dirty sheep’s wool. He crosses the yard to the byre. The cow swings her head and peers at him, her eyes wise and steady.
His father is crouched low, head pressed to Missy’s flank, milky eyes half-closed, hands moving rhythmically. He grunts, annoyed.
The soldier grins and shuts the door. He leans against the wood partition. Missy slowly scrunches hay and the milk whooshes into the bucket. It’s a time for confidences and confessions. It always has been.
‘How’s it going, da?’
His father shifts his weigh on the stool and moves his hands to the other teats. There’s a moment’s silence, then the milk lets down again.
‘We needs you home, son.’
‘I’ll be home soon, da. For good, next time. I’ve been telling ma.’
His father moves his head so his forehead is pressed against cow’s flank.
‘I’m a machine gunner now, da! In Palestine we had the Hotchkiss gun but now I’m on the Lewis. I’m Second Gunner.’
‘We know you’re needed there, son, but there’s plenty others, surely, by now?’ His voice is muffled. ‘The top field needs turning ready for the early spuds and this old girl needs driving to the bull at Reynoldston.’
The cow shifts uneasily. The milk is slowing. The time for confidences is ending.
‘The boy is simple. He can’t be trusted. I needs to fix the roof but your ma will have to hold the ladder. We needs you home, son. Settled, like.’
The soldier rests a hand on Missy’s neck. ‘Da, there was a girl. In Cairo.’
Her eyes were velvet brown and her hair a silken waterfall. She smelt of nutmeg and jasmine.
‘She was beautiful.’
The skin of her inner thighs was softer than anything I have ever touched before. I sank into her and it was like sunrise and cathedral bells and shell burst all at once.
‘She said she’d wait for me. Until after the war.’
His father pulls himself up, hand on the cow’s spine, lifts the bucket and sets it down against the wall. He feels for the tin lid, fits it carefully and swings the stool onto the ash peg above the door. The soldier follows as he shuffles across the byre to the ladder leading to the loft.
His father starts to climb, one rung at a time, like a small child. The soldier rests a heavy foot on the bottom rung.
‘I can strip the Lewis down and put her back together again in a minute, da. Blind-folded!’
His father is in the loft now on his hands and knees, dragging the remains of last year’s hay from the further corners.
‘You should hear her when she gets going! Spitting death, the sergeant says. Like a rattlesnake.’
His father is shuffling backwards. His feet have missed the ladder. He’s kneeling up, his arms full with hay to drop to the floor of the byre ten feet below. He’s leaning back, anticipating the rung just below. He teeters, suddenly unsure. His voice is high and thin, a bat squeak of terror.
The soldier bounds up the ladder, an easy reach for a man whose head now tops the lintel. He flings his left arm forward and his fingers lock in the gap between two planks. His slams his other hand flat against his father’s back. He braces, fighting the momentum of the fall, his arm trembling with the effort. His father slumps forwards, panting. The soldier breaths out sharply.
His father shuffles sidewards, finds the rungs, descends slowly. The soldier stands at the foot of the ladder, arms outstretched to catch him. His father is shaking violently and tears course down his cheeks. He turns and gropes for the milk bucket. The soldier darts ahead of him and opens the byre door.
‘Da, you go across. Have a sit down. I’ll shift that hay.’
He shimmies up into the loft and pulls the hay forwards, piling it in a neat semi-circle near the ladder. He jumps down and lands softly, and settles the feet of the ladder more firmly on the earthen floor. He waits for his breathing to settle. He’s more tired than he thinks.
After tea, he steps outside again for a smoke. The fog cleared as darkness fell. The Down looms jet black behind the house, blocking out the sky. He can hear the sea but now he can feel it as well, breathing in and out. He’s not surprised by this because he’s lived most of his life within earshot of the sea and so it’s part of him and he of it.
He has a sudden desire to see the sea. He only has a few hours left and he needs to see it one last time. He tucks his cigarette butt under the loose stone and vaults the gate. He pauses, looking back at the soft smudge of light. His mother’s arm appears and the curtain is drawn. He heads across the small field behind the farm. He reaches the wall, climbs the stile and turns once more. A dark shape lumbers towards him, breathing heavily.
‘Missy.’ She nudges his leg and he rubs between her ears, feeling the tight warm curls beneath his fingers. ‘Good girl.’
He twists around and jumps down on the far side of the wall. He’s on open hillside now. He zig-zags upwards, boots rasping through the dead heather. The moon is rising ahead of him. He can’t see it, but he senses the dawning of its silvery light. He feels the blood pumping in his veins and his muscles powering him along. He feels exhilarated and invincible. The way grows steeper. The sky is lighter. He can see his hands and feet now. He’s nearly at the top. He takes one last look back. The estuary gleams grey, like steel, but the farms and village are buried in darkness.
He runs the last few yards and stands bent double, struggling for breath, then gropes his way forward a few steps and sits down. The ground falls away precipitously in front of him and the bay lies spread before him. The tide is high, the beach submerged. The moon is full, rising out of the sea, cutting a shining track through the water, like a road across the desert. A mile away, the Worm has broken free and is heading out to sea, trailing silver ripples as the tide rushes over the causeway. The cold is seeping through his body. He turns up his collar and works his hands into his pockets.
I’ve seen such wonders.
He can smell lavender, which is odd because surely there’s no lavender growing up here? Gentle fingers touch his face, brushing the hair from his eyes – which is also odd because there is no breeze.
He wriggles deeper into the heather.