|Emlagh Point, County Mayo, Ireland. Image credit: Diego Sideburns Flickr|
South Of Ireland
It had been three years since Kieran Smiley had buried his father. It felt like days. He could still feel the County Mayo chill from the graveside now, buried beneath the mud that formed the walls on either side of him. Those walls so often felt like the only friends he had, but they were more synonymous with the predictability that had become his biggest enemy.
It was May 1917. He’d always expected to come here and for it never to feel like home, but that had changed with the insufferable boredom of the changing seasons. He’d spent the last twelve months engaged in staring contests across vast plains and pot-holed hillsides, and the longer the sun seemed to drag itself through the mire the more he could convince himself that it looked like Ireland. His father had died for a vision, and he was convinced he would return home to another war zone. Maybe it had been a mistake to enlist. He’d done it to honour his father, but for all the death that surrounded him now he was still unfairly being made to wait.
These sessions of waiting room dullness, the painful repeatability of the change between pleasant sunshine and wafer-thin rain, were only interrupted by the death he’d been craving for so long. He was thankful that he hadn’t reached the point of finding the act of going over the top completely joyless yet. He was only in his early twenties, but he’d grown up with terror. Death didn’t frighten him because those days of conflict were the only ones that didn’t seem a towering iron cage.
He was woken before the sun had appeared from behind the Messines Ridge on the 7th June by a fierce barking.
“Company! At arms on the west flank in forty seconds!” came the order, transmitted through the gruff Cork parlance of Sergeant Robert O’Flannery.
Kieran Smiley buttoned his shirt around his long torso eagerly. He noticed his fingers quivering, but they didn’t slow him. It couldn’t be later than three in the morning, else the rumble from the mines and spluttered debris from the other side of the ridge would surely have been his alarm.
The next ten minutes felt expectedly like an age. The groan emanating from the Earth when the mines finally detonated seemed to Kieran a cruel fusion of laughter and indiscriminate Godliness; more like Krakatoa than the Battle of the Somme. In that instant, both the past and the future seemed superfluous. The colour of the sky put shame to Dante's depictions of Hell, and the noise, he imagined, would not even be rivalled by The Rapture.
He looked to the shorter, younger man next to him as they took their positions on the left side of the trench. He’d known Timothy Specker at school, and somewhat admired how easily the boy had been able to appropriate himself as a loose cannon.
“This is it, eh, Smiley?” he said, a grin turning up the corners of his mouth. “All of the fighting at home and we’re going to die somewhere where we sometimes get to see the sun. Winter seems like a long time ago now, doesn’t it?”
Kieran suddenly felt warmer, more alive. “That’s right, Tim,” he nodded, before turning back to face the wall. “It certainly does.”
“Twenty seconds!” came O’ Flannery’s voice again from further down the trench. “On my whistle it’s up and over boys! Hold the line, and I don’t want to see anyone stopping without acquiring a bullet hole. Let’s make short work of this, yes?”
Kieran felt the temperature of his blood rise beneath his skin. The three shrill whistle blasts would be the change. Three years destroyed in a second.
The sun seemed ghostly rather than fierce. The week since the offensive had been one of squatting between trees and scraping blood off rocks. Everywhere Kieran looked, men and structures resembled what he always thought warfare should look like. This isn’t what it’d been like in Ireland. There, assassinations in dingy pubs weren’t followed by heads buried in hands, not on this scale anyway. Now he could barely remember his father dying.
The swiftness with which the charge came and went had made him feel hollow. He couldn’t make himself feel terror or honour anymore. Anything prior to the previous week seemed of little note. He’d seen men dying before. It wasn’t the piles of bodies or the languid respect paid by Field Marshalls which unnerved him; it was the speed with which everything had changed. Just days ago he thought martyrdom was the honourable thing. Now he felt five years older. By sundown that evening, he could barely remember the piles of bodies.
He woke after the sun the following morning, without any provocation or call to arms. Tim hadn’t made it through the offensive at Messines. Had he died for king and country? Or was it merely to make the time pass quicker?
Leaving the make-shift bunker and trudging towards the edge of the glade where he could see the sergeant puffing on a cigar took him past the rows of German prisoners. They were prisoners of time: they were waiting for their judgment and their futures, and it was only time that could deliver them either.
“Smiley,” nodded O’ Flannery as Kieran approached. “Wondering what the next step is, eh?”
“Not really sir,” he replied. “It doesn’t seem to matter to me.”
“Ah, you’ll get used to that feeling.”
The sergeant’s mouth hinted at a bleak smile. Kieran shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot for a second.
“It’s like I can’t even picture their faces back home, sir. My mother. My sister,” he mumbled.
“Aye,” sighed O’ Flannery. “It’s not warfare that changes men Smiley. It’s having too much time to think, and then suddenly having none.”
He turned, clasped Keiran by the shoulder and headed back towards the bunker, leaving him to stare across the plain beyond the edge of the forest.