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We have had the order to move out. My Company is patrolling our side of the enemy line. But it is impossible to tell where our line ends and the enemy's begins. There is a great deal of tracer fire, smoke and dust all around. I can't see anything or anyone. Suddenly I find myself alone, my friends nowhere around me. It's night time and all I can see is a flat expanse of desert and a moonless sky bedecked with thousands of stars. Then I see him. At first he is just a shadow. Then he gets closer. My hands begin to sweat. He is definitely coming towards me. I can not make out his uniform or his face, it is too dark. Is he one of us or is he one of the enemies? I am scared; I raise my rifle and release the safety. He is still approaching. He can see me. Still I cannot make him out. I raise my rifle and look down the sights. I am beginning to shake. I don't want to kill him unless he is definitely the enemy. I don't want to kill him at all. He is very close now. His outline is clearer. My finger begins to squeeze the trigger. I can see his uniform. He is not one of us. I take aim. I squeeze tighter. He is very close now. I can make out the outlines of his face. There is something familiar about him. I don't know what. It's not the uniform. Still he is approaching and still his face is becoming more familiar. I squeeze the trigger tighter as his face comes into focus. That face, I am almost sure I know it. He is now closer, I recognize the face, but it is too late. I hear the explosion, feel the recoil, time freezes and the face I am looking at is my own - which then explodes into a mass of blood and splintered bone.
It is then that I wake up screaming, lying in a pool of cold sweat, shivering and hyperventilating. I don't know where I am. But I know that I have had that same dream again. I have been dreaming the same dream since I arrived here in "Tent City". They call it "Tent City" because that is exactly what it is. A city of tents erected in the desert, both desert and city stretching as far as the eye can see. Row upon row of tents each containing 24 men or women. I doubt whether it has been shortlisted for any architectural awards; I don't think it was supposed to be. There are no mixed tents but sometimes at night, judging from the sounds made in the bunks, I guess the tents do get a little mixed. But nobody seems to care; nobody seems to care about anything.
In the middle of Tent City they have made a recreational center complete with Pizza House and Burger Joints. They have also made a bar. All of these done up in the way they would be done up at home yet the more they try to make it feel like home the more homesick you feel.
I dig into to my wallet and fish out the photos I carry with me all the time. One of my mum and brothers and sisters. One of my dad, granddad and great granddad. I look at the ones of my grandfather and great grandfather. There is definitely a family resemblance; I do look like them. It makes me happy and sad at the same time. My great grandfather was killed in The First World War. He was a tunneler; we don't know if the tunnel collapsed or he was gassed. My grandfather was killed in Libya in the Second World War. It sends a chill down my spine when I realize that I am the same age now that they were when they died. My dad. Well, my dad, he broke the family mould. In his youth, when he was my age, he was out on the streets on the anti-Vietnam War protests. His whole record collection was full of Sixties music, a lot of it anti-war and hippy stuff, you know, "Make Love Not War", Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, "Hey man take drugs don't take lives".
He wasn't happy about me joining up; he certainly isn't happy about this war. He once said to me when I told him I was going to join the forces, "You don't remember your great grandmother son. I do. I know how she had to struggle to keep the family together after her husband had been killed. They said her husband had died a hero for his country. But that didn't help pay for the food; neither did the King and country for whom he died. The same goes for my dad. Of course I don't remember him but I do remember the struggle my mum had and the private tears she used to weep in her room when times were hard; clutching in her left hand a handkerchief wiping away her tears while in her right a picture of my dad and her on holiday in Bournemouth looking like they both had their whole lives in front of them together, like they were happy. He was dead a year later."
I never did see eye to eye with my dad on these matters. We never did get on after I joined up. Yet when I was leaving to come out here he hugged me; I can't remember him ever having done that before. I also thought I saw a tear in his eye as the train pulled out of the station taking me to a RAF base to fly out here. He gave me a music tape of John Lennon's. This I have put at the bottom of my knapsack, but I have been listening to it quite a lot recently Sitting at night in the desert looking at the stars makes me think a lot more about life and about my relationship with my dad. Being out here alone in the desert helps me see and understand things more clearly. Somehow words seem to mean a lot more out here. I suppose that's only normal.
"Imagine there's no Heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No Hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Nothing to kill or die for,
And no religion too,
Imagine all the people living life in peace..."
I know now that I am beginning to understand and appreciate my dad for the first time in my life. I hope it's not too late. I mean I hope I get to see him again and have a pint with him; we have never really done that before. I have always drunk with my Army friends. I suppose I was a bit embarrassed about my dad and his politics so I steered clear of his company in the pub. I wonder now if I ever hurt his feelings. He never said anything, but then again he wouldn't. I don't write and tell him what I am thinking; I am a bit embarrassed I suppose. I think if I wrote anything it would sound a bit soppy. Never mind, when I get back from here I will definitely have a pint with him and everything will be sorted. I do write to my mum, you know, the usual stuff, "Hi Mum, how's everything, things are great out here, miss your Sunday roasts, etc..."
It's Saturday evening out here now. The bar is open. Well it is a huge tent actually. The Padre is one of the barmen, beaming and smiling, his ruddy face made even ruddier by the desert sun. There are also three Army girls behind the bar serving. Everyone is trying to look normal and happy like they were out drinking in a pub in England. But it doesn't really work; you know everyone is putting on a face and probably feeling the same way as I do, afraid and thinking about their families and what exactly are they doing out here, but nobody says anything. There is this strange feeling, like this is the last night before we get the order to go to war. People are drinking more and everyone is buying rounds.
All the optics are lined up and most beers are available. There is no draft available, but all cans and bottles that you would find in the U.K. are. Most of the girls are drinking Alco-pops and the guys canned lagers. Outside there is a large tract of desert land made out into a circle. In the space are wooden tables with benches to sit on. You know, the kind of seats that you would find in an English country pub. But this is like no country pub I have ever been to. They have called it "The Queen's Arms", what else! I feel like I am watching a film yet I am also part of it, if you know what I mean. It's difficult to explain it really. But I get the impression everyone feels the same way.
I walk up to the bar to get the drinks. My mates are outside. There are four of us. We joined up at the same time. We did our training together and have remained mates looking after each other ever since. The Padre comes up smiling benignly, I wonder if they are taught to smile that way when they do their training, you know, looking saintly and all that. "Hello Son," he says, "how are things with you; bearing up are we?" "Well. I don't know Padre, I mean, do you think it's right? Back home most people think that it isn't right. I'm confused, scared I suppose and I keep having these nightmares." He replies, "That's only natural son, you'll be alright, I'll say a prayer for you or if you want you can come to my tent and we will pray together." I look at him, I've heard stories about lads praying with the Padre in his tent and they all say it isn't The Holy Spirit who is trying to come down on you. I smile and take my tray full of drinks outside to my friends.
Sean, Johnny and Jimmy are waiting sat around a table. "Where have you been Micky?" they ask. "I was talking with The Padre," I replied. "Better be careful with that one," Sean jokes. I nod my head. "Right," says Johnny, "let's drink up and shut up." And so the night continued, round after round, beer after beer, the usual chat: football, sex etc. Yet there was definitely a tension that I hadn't experienced before. After a while the music was turned up. People started dancing. "Look at the body on that one," says Jimmy, and so the chat about women continued, and the more everyone drank the more people started to dance. There was a feeling of desperation, the kind of desperation that said to you, if you don't do it or get it now you never will, a last chance Motel. My three friends eventually got onto the dance floor. "Come on Micky, or are you waiting for The Padre?" they taunted. "No, I'm fine, I'm going to carry on drinking," I replied. I watched all of them, in their desperation trying to forget what lay ahead, drinking themselves into the oblivion that would eventually help them slip into a dreamless intoxicated state of sleep.
"Whatever gets you through the night,
It's alright, alright..."
Next morning at roll call we are told we will be moving out to the front line at nineteen hundred hours. There is an eerie silence after we are dismissed. In fact people are quiet all day, writing letters home, reading, getting kit together, some of the guys are just staring into space. Everyone is afraid but no one will admit it. Nineteen hundred hours arrives, we are loaded into the armored vehicles and move out to the front. People are sat on benches facing each other but no one says a word. As we get closer to the front we can hear the explosion of artillery shells. I look at my friends sitting opposite me; we smile nervously at each other. I don't think I have ever had better friends in my life before and somehow doubt that I will ever again. There is a peculiar smell in the armored car, like something I have never smelt before; it's getting stronger as we get nearer the front line. I realize then that it is the smell of fear that is almost becoming a stench.
"When the night has come,
And the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light I see,
No I won't be afraid,
No I won't be afraid,
Just as long as you stand,
You stand by me..."
We arrive at the front and get out of the armored car. By now the noise of artillery gunfire is deafening. The soldiers are shouting and screaming, orders are being given, there is a lot of smoke, I can't see anything, everyone is confused. Soldiers are running in all directions, bullets whistle by, clouds of smoke, or is it gas, hang in the air, people are falling all around me. I have lost sight of Sean, Johnny and Jimmy. I panic and begin firing blindly. This is madness, the sight is Apocalyptic, hell on earth, moaning, piercing shrieks, frenzy abounds, I can't take it anymore, nobody said it would be like this, nobody prepared us, I don't want to die, I am running around aimlessly, tripping over bodies I can't see. Oh God! Suddenly I feel a searing pain rip through the top of my head.
Fever is high,
Can't see no future,
Can't see no sky,
My feet are so heavy,
So is my head,
I wish I was a baby,
I wish I was dead..."
I wake up. I am in my bunk, back in Tent City. I look around, but the tent is empty. Where is everybody? God that was an awful nightmare. I think I would prefer to have the other. Things are getting to me. Maybe I should see the Doctor and he can give me something to calm me down.
I look at my watch, it is 5.30 p.m. How come I have slept for so long? Why didn't anyone wake me? I think to myself that I had better check things out. I get dressed. I pull back the flap of the tent and step outside. It is dusk, day quickly fading into night. But that is not all. There is a mist, it comes up to knee level, like an early morning mist that you would see in England, but I have never seen anything like it out here before. I wade through this swirling mist because my legs feel heavy. I feel like I am wading through a swamp. My heart is beating faster. I feel that there is something not right. But what? I do not know.
Eventually I hear the comforting voice of people as I approach the circular area outside the bar. There seem to be many more tables than before and all of them are full... There is a low murmur of people talking. The kind of sound you would hear from people who were attending a funeral reception.
I walk into the bar and see the back of The Padre. He is filling a glass from one of the optics. I look to see the reflection of his face in the mirror behind the optic. I gasp; there is no face just a bloody cavity that once held that ruddy leery face. Beside me is a tray of drinks, containing the same drinks as I had bought last night, or was it last night?
I walk outside to see my mates sitting at the same table. "Over here Micky." I feel relieved. I saunter over; distribute the drinks without looking up. I sit down, take a long draw of beer and look up smiling. But that smile is soon extinguished. As I look at my mates from left to right I see Sean; his face is all blistered and yellow, he can hardly breathe, and his once big blue eyes have shrunk into the size of small raisins and have gone right onto their sockets. He smiles and as he does so some of his blisters erupt and yellow pus runs down his face.
From him I look to Johnny. Johnny takes a long draw of his beer but it all runs down the side of his face, the left side that is, for the right side has been blown away. Thank God Jimmy looks OK; he is drinking and then gets up to shake my hand. As he rises I see the beer pouring out of his stomach. He looks as though he has been disemboweled or fallen on a hand grenade.
Is this another nightmare? Out of the corner of my eye I see two men waving in our direction; they are seated at the far end of the circle. They seem to be waving at me. I look towards them and they beckon me over. As I walk through the tables filled with other soldiers I notice people with horrific battle wounds, limbless torsos with heads rolling around, faceless and half faceless creatures that look less than human, bodies covered with sores, soldiers with their brains and intestines hanging out. I see all kinds of different uniforms that I recognize from bygone wars. Some First World War, Second World War, Korean War, Gulf War and many that I do not recognize. Most of the uniforms are in tatters while a few are in pristine condition. I make my way through this carnage to the outer perimeter of the circle.
As I get closer to the two men waving at me I think I recognize them. No, this can't be possible, for at the table the men looking at me are the same as those whose photographs are in my wallet. My great grandfather and my grandfather. "Sit down Micky," says the former. I sit and say to them, "This can't be real, I must be dreaming because you are both dead." "It is real," he replies, "and yes son we are dead." He pauses. "And so are you." "No!" I scream and bring the back of my right hand to wipe my brow, but there is no brow, there is nothing above my eyes. Realization dawns on me, I too am dead. The top of my head has been blown away. They both look at me, great grandfather blistered like Sean from gas, grandfather with a gaping hole in his neck from a bayonet charge. "Then I am dead," I hear myself say. "If I am dead, what am I doing here? Oh my God what is going to happen to me? I thought that when you die you go to heaven or hell," I say to them.
My great grandfather looks at me and says in a slow deliberate voice, "That is the case for normal people son, but we are not like that. We are soldiers; we have taken the Devil's Shilling. We have broken the Sixth Commandment. 'Thou shalt not kill'. We have sold our souls. We are doomed to wander this underworld. There is nowhere else for us to go. That is why we are Dead Souls. You are now one of us. Our fate is to travel to every battle that will take place in the future and there our numbers will increase. This our army of Dead Souls will stalk the underworld until The End of Days, The Final Day, Judgment Day." "Then what will happen?" I ask. "Well," he replies, "what will happen then, we don't know." He pauses again and after some hesitation he says, "One can only Imagine."
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