Four years ago we visited the war memorials in France and Belgium. We began at the Somme and travelled through France, to Theipval, Passchendaele and finally Menin Gate in Ypres. The experience had a big impact on me, I hadn’t expected to feel so emotional, to feel so acutely the echo of history. Around us flat farmland, dry golden wheatfields, the sound of bird song and the busy hum of machinery but beneath that: the quake of war, the crouched, whispered shuffle of boys and men through and up-and-over trenches. When I returned home, I felt compelled to write this short story. I share it often in remembrance of those to who went out and never returned and to those who did return but were never the same.
A DIFFERENT SELF
The driver keeps the horse steady. You collect your hat and fix it neatly to your head. A tuck at the back. A sweep of finger and thumb at the front. A breath. Your hand grips the worn canvas strap of your bag. You straighten. Soldier! Your foot finds the pavement but a thread holds you back, caught between the cart and a button on your uniform pocket. The horse moves away. Snap. The button shoots into the road. You are home.
You’ve not told them you’re coming. You tell yourself you wanted to surprise. The truth sits somewhere in the heat across the small of your back and the stinking sweat gathering under your arms. You are moving down the single street. A group of children are kicking ball against the old barber shop. The ball slaps against a rectangle drawn in chalk on the wall. Shoot! Goal! Shouts go up into the air like rifle fire. Your heels hit the pavement too hard; the ground rising to meet your boots. Hand over head, scramble through the noise. Avoid the barbed wire. Catch your breath.
You lift your head from your knees. Stand Soldier! Hand over thumping heart. You are a foreign entity, a child walking through his toy village. A giant invasion. Both invisible and loud, crashing through the quiet, every movement tainting safe memories, safe futures with pain. You seek out the neat skyline of the village, a skyline that’s both alien and familiar. Your gaze settles on the proud crown of the chestnut at the centre of the green. It seems that you spent all your life under the boughs of that tree. Seven. You won Deco Reilly’s prize conker. Ten. You climbed to the second branch; it cost you a broken arm and a chipped tooth. You touch your tongue to the sharp edge. Comfort. You are still here. Fifteen. Hail storm and a sweet, hot kiss from Flora Mullins.
Mrs. Byrne’s nose is against the butcher’s window and there are faces coming towards you from across the road. Faces that you recognise, that you once smiled at, bantered with. It feels as if you are looking at them from a long way aways. As if you’re the one peering through a murky window.
Shur look who it is? Home at last. Isn’t it well for ye? Does your Mammy know yet?
I don’t think so.
Oh, she’ll be thrilled. Aren’t you the lucky one? Not an injury about ye.
No injuries at all, Mrs. Byrne.
You are shrinking. Peeling apart from the inside, sucking inwards.
Lucky. Fortunate. Poor divils. Let me shake your hand, son.
Your face smiles, you can feel the hinges of your mouth working, the nuts and bolts of your neck. The damp squeeze of your hand. Shake. Nod. Smile. You are already moving away.
I’d best get going. She might have the tea ready.
And you remember those words. The past is resurrected in front of you. Like a favourite coat or a sweetheart’s embrace, it closes around your chest. You’ve said those words many times. She’ll have the tea ready. Comfort. Home. Warmth. But then nostalgia dissolves, leaving behind the cold sludge of fear; a damp, hollow, chill. You are ruined you think, then banish the thought from your mind.
Your eyes lift high to the curve of the countryside, where in the evening shadow the cross from St. Anthony’s church seems to project into the darkening sky from the top of the hill. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Lord save me.
The peak of Molloy’s house is at the end of the road. You remember it as grand. You painted the eaves a dark blue four summers ago. Sixteen. Shirt off, even when it rained, the hard rung of the ladder pressing through your boots. Shy glances through the window at their bedroom; rose quilted with four wide, fat pillows. You had fantasised about resting your cheek on them, pushing your face into the cool lavender-scented down. You try to conjure up the desire now but it flops over in your mind. Three weeks ago you held a rare picture in your hands. The slimy, sagging walls of the trench pressed at your back as you stared at your home. Your village. Your family. You could not make your eyes believe them real. Ma and Da in the doorway, arms gathering children like a cherished bouquet between them. Your ma’s head is bent towards you and your face is upturned in response, a defiant scowl on your brow. Nine. A man from the local rag points the camera. You want to play football. You do not want to be still. You don’t smile. Even though it would have come without trying; without directing your lips over your teeth. An easy smile that would have lifted your cheeks and shone in your eyes. Click.
At the door, you clear your throat. Emotion is squeezing across your chest. Spine poker straight. You lift your hand, form a fist and go to knock but fear clings to your elbow; pulls your arm back. Don’t touch. There is sweat stinging the rims of your eyes. Or tears. The door blurs. You blink. The war rages against your temples. Reality seems like it’s sifting away, as if with the first strike of your knuckles, your home will collapse into a heap of sand then drift off on a breeze. You glance back from where you’ve come with a strong sense of longing. You can’t want to go back? You don’t. Run. Shoot. Shiver. You don’t. But it’s sank into the soft parts of you, made you deformed, filled you with horror, terror and shame; secret monsters of war that wake you at night drowning in sweat and piss. You struggle to find the parts of you not shaped by panic. A wedge of flesh or an unoccupied cavern between the angles of your skeleton untouched by the sight of blood-stained mud, or shrivelled by the dying moans of Paddy Tierney; the whimpering sleep of Jimmy Sullivan, the stench of your own foot rot and the acrid stink of gun powder. Somewhere between heart beats, you feel it. Beneath your shoulder blades. A shiver. A chance. You. It is such a vulnerable particle of hope, it makes you nervous.
The door is opening. It sticks then shudders inwards. Against the gloom of the living room, she’s standing. Hand pressed over closed mouth; fingers bent white against her chin. You search for signs of change first. She is smaller or you are bigger. Her hands drop. Palms sliding over apron.
Her lips twitch. Your Daddy’s at work.
Your eyes are stuck on hers. Held. Locked. Safe. There are tiny flickers of movement in her gaze as if she is cataloguing your hurt. You can feel your insides curling around that vulnerable particle of flesh.
Her hand moves from her side. White flash. Blood rush. You flinch. Head down, Solider.
Welcome home, son.
The cool of her palm is soothing against your hot cheek.
You are being led inside. Each step brings you further into before. Five. Sitting on the icy floor, new shoes. The bunny runs round the tree. Jumps in the hole. Close it up tight. Twelve. Loading the aga with turf. A perfect imprint of the handle branded into the pale blue skin of your forearm.
Sixteen. Doesn’t he look smashin’ now in his uniform?
Ah, that he does. You’ll take care now, son.
I will yeah, Ma. Don’t worry.
There is tea on the table. A half loaf, a pot of jam and a cup of pale brown tea; milky with half a sugar. You remember.
Let me take a look at you.
Her hands cup your face; fingers trembling against temples. You are still as stone. Your skin aches, your breath trips. You reach up to settle her touch. To show her you’re okay. Be a man. Get up, goddammit. Fire! A burst of air spits through your lips. Your teeth bump together and you feel a sharp pinch at the back of your tongue. Panic rises through your feet, your guts twist and tighten, pull high under your ribs. Your ma is a watery presence before you but her hands are sure and firm against your skin.
Tis alright, son. You’re alright.
Cool hands glide down your arms. A tug on the cuff. A sweep over the shoulders. You are not sure when you came to be sitting. The chair feels too narrow, the seat too low. You do not fit.
We’ll fix that, shall we? I don’t have an exact match, but nearly is next to there, isn’t it son?
The thread from your pocket is captured between her finger and thumb. You’re nearly there. Nearly here.
She spills a number of buttons into her palm and selects a brown knobble of wood.
She hums as she works. The tune weaves under your arms, around your back. Holds you in the past. Eleven. Ma’s lips on your forehead. You are ill, lying under hot, sticky sheets; at sea in your childhood bed. Your friends call out from the green, laughter streaming in through the window.
You are not sure when thought becomes words, but from nowhere you are speaking.
Will I feel myself again, Ma?
She wraps the excess thread around her index finger and tugs. Snap. When she looks up, her eyes are pools of compassion. Your mouth seals tight. She twists the button, adjusts it so that it rests neatly against the stiff fabric.
A different self, love. A different self.