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The International Writers Magazine
:Dreamscapes Fiction

The Playing Field
Gemma Roxy Williams

I
am Death. And this, is one of my stories… I reside here, amidst the stormy tombstones scattered with futile tears. On this verdant mound punctured by the stony stakes of the deceased, in the ice coated remnants of the sunlight hours; I am joined by a gathering of sober faces, their numb limbs layered in black. Congregated round an eternal bed of unyielding wood, slowly lowered into the consuming earth; their tears race to the soil that has taken him.

This is one of my moments of triumph, an instant of glory as I reclaim him as my own; a conquest long overdue. Yet they do not smile, nor celebrate with me; these, my despondent guests. The fools weep as if it might alter the predestined arrow of fate; as if their human grief could pull this hero from the ground.
One man stands out among the dreary gaggle; monotonous black suit glinting with a hint of metal, telling tales of glory and honour. I have been keeping my eye on this one; hovering over his modest bed at night, suspended among the ceiling cracks over his tattered crimson chair by day. I have been watching his health deteriorate, reaching my skulking fingers closer towards him with every coughing fit and fall. I thought he would be mine when I took so many of his bold comrades on that pitiful day; yet my days have been depleted in this fatigued box of a house.

Perched on the back of his chair; I have seen this poor excuse of a life that he clings to; these grey, commonplace days that he cherishes. Every Sunday I have seen the daughter, dropping a roast dinner in at five sharp, staying for a chat; she doesn’t know he often throws the meal out, preferring a snickers bar and a bag of salted cashews. There are grandchildren too, but I have never seen them; the sight of children gives his weary eyes the fiery look of a man being faced with the devil, confronted by all his sins. The main disturbance to a mundane routine of cowboy films and parched newspapers is that damn carer; He lets himself relax with her; he almost told her everything last week…

He heard the usual tapping of the code into the keysafe, a little cough as she got out the copper key and opened the door. She muttered her usual "Hi Bertie!", but he didn’t respond as usual; she assumed he must be tired. Then she caught the Remembrance Day services on his black and white TV, his moist eyes engrossed; she hadn’t even realized the months had turned from October to November. She hurried through the normal routine, getting a frosty glass of cold water and a handful of tablets, like solidified rainbow drops rattling in her fleshy palm. She pulled out clean pajamas from the dryer to warm his fish cold skin; like heated milk over cardboard. The gentle droning of the house was eerily silent without their usual banter; she could almost hear me there in the cracks of the silence.

She finished the normal routine, but sensed he wasn’t ready for her to go, so she sat down next to him, chatting about the Remembrance Day events; the little she learnt about the wars at school. Something she said triggered him off, he broke his restrained silence and he started to talk; his voice unusually deep and daunting. As broken images of gunfire and men marching in uniform troubled the TV; a slideshow reflection on a dull wall, he talked of his men, of the cold. He summoned up a camouflage image of torrents of bullets and camaraderie, glorifying war unintentionally; we both knew better. Her bright face listened so attentively, he couldn’t help himself; he let it flood out- for the first time he poured out the story behind the promising glimmer of the medals; the seize of the bridge in that insignificant village, the confusion of the gunfire, he even dared mention Henderson’s name.

As soon as his feeble mouth shaped this name, he broke down in tears. She wrapped her young arms around his sunken shoulders. She thought his dripping eyes were for his comrades, for the dead enemy, for the poor villagers caught in the way; little did she know of the ghosts that haunted him at night, the horror that the name Henderson would hold all his living days. I see them of course, they are shadows of my doing; all they ask is to be set free by the truth, yet he holds on… and after his tears he was silent, letting this young girl think him a disheartened hero, because it was easier than the truth…
This is my true playing field; here I roam like a child in an empty park; amidst the dying screams and grey orders. They had been camped here two long days; the eternal dripping from the skies dampened their uniforms and their spirits. This meager lump of iron in the middle of a commonplace village seemed a dismal conquest for the weeks of marching, the men dead; more than two sections of their good men lost to them; a wonderful gain to me. A sullen mishmash of the leftovers from each section; they almost overcame their numbing fear of what was to come, in yearning for action; anything but this endless waiting. The uneasy villagers turned down their lamps, eyes peaking out behind blinds to observe these khaki-clad occupiers turn their rough backs to the night’s bleakness.

Darkness began to smother the grey daylight, I hid among the shadows of their bashers; my ill-omened laugh whispering in the blowing rain. The men not on watch began to drift into uneasy sleep; then they awoke, hearts bleeding with fear; to the ominous thud of gunfire. The Germans were trying to take back the bridge; the villager’s screams resonated deeper than the dull howl of gunfire as they ran out to us for help. Under the mystification of night’s cloak the six men who remained readied their weapons, jumping to their feet; the chaos of deep shots and hollow wounds began. The Platoon Commander shouted insistent orders to persist, despite their being outnumbered by ten to one. Nicely cocooned behind all their equipment; hidden from approaching enemy and the dazed villagers around him, Captain Henderson was only happy to risk the men’s lives; these leftover nine were certainly expendable. In this deceit and horror I ran riot; I screamed like a dog gone mad, I chased each bullet and marveled in every weave of confusion.
Harry fell to the floor, a small river of warm blood flowing down over his left eye; good old Joker Jeff was limping, a blunt hole clean through the jagged tendons of his knee. The others stumbled on, in a frenzy of bloodshed; flares shedding erratic light on the tortured faces. Index fingers and battered shoulders were numb, rifle switch set to R allowing incessant, impartial fire. I lingered in the murky skies, looking down on a bridge sprayed with dead German bodies illuminated in the surreal light of the flare; like a child’s game of dominos when the child is loosing, and everything gets thrust to the floor.

Henderson didn’t stop though, despite this envelope of dead men; he kept screaming. Blood red eyes screaming at the men to continue. Staring into the pleading eyes of a frantic Mother caught in the way; "That’s an order boys", so they shot. Bertie Davis paused, to question; a frail head of wispy hair gazed up at him. "That’s a fucking order Davis, you hear me. Or I swear I’ll kill you myself" so, no longer suspended in the midst of pandemonium; he shot the young girl in his path, and he pretended not to see her teddy, dripping in her futile blood, fall to the filthy floor.

Then silence reigned as blood pounded through their ears, and the four remaining men looked at each other’s blood stained faces, ripped combats, their distraught eyes. At their booted feet lay not only men in German uniform, but the innocent men of the village, and their fractured wives and torn children; their officer watching them with fresh fear in his face. I had enjoyed a most successful reaping of my crop; though these worn soldiers did not celebrate with me.

In the bitter light of the growing sun, support arrived and the men were relieved; the new recruits found a blood bath. The four remaining soldiers informed them uneasily about the German slaughter of the rest of their section, of their disgusting massacre of the men, women and children of the village. Bertie, Arnold, Sam and Pete returned home heroes; esteemed for their amazing defeat of these most vicious Germans and their commendable attempt to impede the sordid German breach of the Geneva Convention. Captain Henderson was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously; it was assumed he was bravely killed in action- no one but me and those four men heard that lone shot ring out long after I thought all my fun was over…
They all go home, these sheep dressed in black, mourning an empty body. The clarity of the day starts to dim; with the falling cloak of night enveloping the memory of the friend asleep in dirt, they allow tear-weary eyes to close quietly in the warmth of their beds. But He doesn’t slumber serenely, nor drift from this scene of misery, hastily as the others do. He lingers behind the disappearing throng of black; worn features moistened by a distinct absconding tear. In the hoary light of this deep-winter afternoon, he falls on his knees before his friend’s grave; a feeble shadow of the soldier he was. Now the droplets of grief rain upon the unforgiving stone; I tremble over him. It is not yet his turn for the peace of the final sigh of death; not yet for this lone figure upon a hill of solitude. The last decorated hero among crowds of grey men, the last soldier to hold the truth within his fading grasp.

© Gemma Roxy Williams March 2006

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