Friday, 27 August 2010

Personal Brand

Chains rattle in an old film,

And something you might have half-said

Out loud to yourself becomes a draft,

Just a passing text message

Or the backwards-record whisper

From an open can of Coke.

Illuminated like almost everything

By the flash of orange flesh,

We pull the sofa away from the wall

Revealing puzzle pieces amongst the dust

Like those trainers you refuse to wear,

Because the colours are wrong


All wrong.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

High Spirits

What is it that stirs the leaves

Even though the wind is still,

The echoes of second thoughts

Or the lingering of our will?

No, just life indifferently passing

Where our very nature is abhorred,

Every second of each breath a burden

That makes our voices easy to ignore.

So through our silence we declare that

We will always refuse to be taught,

That a reason to be something...anything

Can simply be inherited or bought.

To live in such hope is the worst

You could wish on those for whom,

Life holds no future glory beyond

A McJob and a single rented room.

When pride becomes a source of envy

And dignity is a sword on a thread,

For us it is not death but life itself

That is the only cause for dread.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Regeneration Scheme

Miles away...


Somewhere nice?


No, not really just better

than here where sphincter-mouthed spiders

pucker-up to sip thirty-five grand cocktails

whilst children stare into catalogue back pages

and dream of owning plastic men.

Cabbage white light reflects off a 747’s wings

and glints off the glue-cracked skin of piggybank men

with latte foam at their mouths, doing everything

that has to be done to make sure that nothing happens.

Security follows Freedom like a demented changeling

giving lectures on how to behave like we’re happy

so that we don’t realise that what we have

is already too far gone and was never ours to begin with.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Wastage Report

Dream not of today,

When wages determine the value

Of each and every weary breath

And even the security cameras

Navel-gaze out of boredom and fear;

Whilst in towns like cancer cells

Of concrete and tarmac and wire,

We stare for hours at clocks

Waiting for the time we can get drunk,

Enough to forget we imprison our minds

Because our hearts want to be free

And our innocence is used as just

Another way to prove our guilt.


Dream instead of tomorrow

When all the money is in museums,

Greed is only seen at the zoo

And hope is used as a tool

Rather than a marketing weapon;

In cities where the ceilings aren’t glass

And roads are made in the stars

The truth will be cause for celebration

And truth-tellers will never be mocked

For thinking, saying, believing and doing

What’s necessary when a need turns to a must

So as to avoid ignoring our best

In favour of promoting their worst.


Now dream only of tomorrow

And pray that you never wake up.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

New Review

My review of 'Cities' by Elaine Feinstein is now available at http://www.handandstar.co.uk/

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Penumbra

‘Now you know why we fight. What you’ve seen here over at least the last few months should be all the proof you need that our mission is far from accomplished. As soldiers we have a duty to our country. As men we have a duty to this one.’



The entrance panels of the command tent snapped in the coffee-ground wind like flags draped from bedroom windows during the World Cup. Beyond them could be heard the low growling of passing jeeps and the drill songs of new arrivals who thought their singing reflected strength, rather than stupidity. Fresh meat. That was all that Craig could think about as he waited for the debriefing to end. It had already run long because a sentry triggered a base-wide alert for what turned out to be a woman peddling knock-off watches at the gate. No one was much impressed, least of all her. Although as the result of such bad publicity she made a sale or two. Some of the troops liked to believe they were helping the local economy. Lots of people liked to believe that, but to Craig the only things that mattered were food, water and bed.



After being dismissed he stopped by the canteen before making his way back towards his own tent. The dust-coloured, room-sized canvas shell had become his temporary home as the platoon’s barracks were being knocked down and hastily replaced by a building that had an unsettling sense of permanence about it. For a man straight out of training and on his first deployment that would not have been troubling. But Craig’s tour had been extended three times already and as the foundations of Block 1-C became deeper he could not shake the feeling that one way or another, his stay might become indefinite.


Leaning in through the door he switched on the single wire-caged bulb that had been strung up above the bed. It gave off a solid kind of light that made him feel as though he had just woken up in a police cell after being chemically sedated and beaten. Compared to the sunlight behind him, which was graciously folding in on itself like magnolia flowers at nightfall, it seemed clumsy and brutal...wrong. But it was all there was and so he made do. As he slid his pack under the flimsy desk he sat down and held his face with his hands.


He scrubbed for a while. He scrubbed to get rid of the dirt that still lingered even after he had showered. But nothing could remove every aggravating fragment. He could feel the dirt grains at the corner of his eyes; taste them when he licked his lips, and as he furrowed his brow they even seemed to fall from his thoughts. It still clung to his hair as though the follicles were secreting particles of granite. Moving towards the bed he looked under his finger nails and even though they were trimmed right back there was dirt still beneath them. Tiny specks of grit had infiltrated every part of his body. There was nothing that could protect him from that country, and nothing save death that could send him back to his own.


At that thought he took off his boots, dropped fully clothed onto his bed and slept.



He slept but he did not dream. There was no longer any time for that. Since he arrived he had abandoned many things from his former life and dreaming was one of the first. Initially he had served as a combat medic. Triage had suited him well and he quickly learned when to treat and when to summon the chaplain. But as the war went on he found himself calling for the ministrations of faith more and more often and on medical knowledge less and less. He had enlisted to help save lives but moving from one dying man to the next, and the next, and the next, and the next searching in vain for one that could be snatched back from the brink of oblivion finally took its toll. One day he walked out of the field hospital and never went back in. Of course, he had been reprimanded and at one point it seemed as if he would be court-martialled for dereliction of duty. But finding willing soldiers was difficult and so he was allowed to remain in service, though he did not escape punishment.


He had been reassigned to an infantry division as part of what had unofficially become known as a Black Ball Squad. In an effort to cut costs, and to reduce prison populations, private security and detention firms had been hired to construct military units along the lines of the Foreign Legion. Craig was not aware of many such units that survived beyond their first couple of engagements, but they had proven most effective at distracting the enemy whilst the more valuable commissioned soldiers made their advance. He could only put it down to providential good fortune that he had managed to stay alive for so long. Sometimes it seemed like good luck, others...not so much.


At any rate he was more than happy not to have to work in the hospital anymore, especially since as he had been walking towards the armoury casualties from a transport helicopter crash were being rushed through the base on gurneys. The survivors were relatively calm, for the moment. But soon their agonised screams would echo through the compound as the medical staff tried to cut the uniforms away from their scorched skin, taking the flesh away with them like shreds of rancid kebab meat. Not even morphine and nano-mechanical nerve regeneration grafts could hide that much pain from the body. The last man was wheeled past. He could not have been any older than thirty but his face was a mess of ash and blood and tears, so Craig found it difficult to determine anything exact about him. As he clutched his severed leg to his chest he begged the nurses to make it stop. All too soon they would.



The armoury was dim and cool. It caused Craig to shudder slightly from some sensory premonition of the one and only thing we all have in common: our shared future. Behind a broad mesh screen, Andrew the quartermaster was tending to a section of semi-automatics like a school kid stacking shelves in a morbid mockery of a supermarket. Craig pressed the buzzer on the counter and waited. And waited. He pressed the buzzer again and held it down until the staff sergeant stopped tweaking a site to find out the cause of the noise.

‘What do you want?’ Andrew squinted at Craig with his milky eye as he tucked a small, oily, flat-headed screwdriver into his chest pocket.

Craig had always found it strange that a man with only one good eye was allowed to calibrate most of the weapons. He supposed the other must have grown accustomed to compensating. ‘My weapon is broken, I want a new one.’

‘None of my guns are broken.’

‘This one is.’ Craig dumped the rifle on the counter.

‘Impossible.’

‘It jammed several times on my last patrol. I’d say it’s broken.’

‘Hmm well, let’s take a look at it.’ Andrew opened a hatch in the counter screen and dragged the defective rifle to his side then as he made showy gestures of examining the gun, grunted over his shoulder, ‘How’s your P230?’

‘My pistol is fine at the moment. It’s just the rifle with issues.’ Craig tried to watch Andrew take the gun apart on a workbench covered with tarpaulin, but a television mounted on a wall bracket kept distracting him with archive footage from a local news channel. A group of civilians were shouting carefully scripted insults as two soldiers tried to pacify a woman flamboyantly mourning. No doubt some innocent farmer’s son had been killed in a “barbarous act of aggression.” Strange that no one ever mentioned the boy’s loaded AK-47 which had been kicked conveniently out of camera view.

‘Yes...well...as much as I hate to say it you’re not the first one to come in here with complaints. Some of the integrated attachment mounts on the SA85 have a tendency to interfere with projectile transition from the magazine into the firing mechanism. In short...they jam a lot.’

Andrew’s mumbled commentary startled Craig out of his televisual trance. ‘You’d think that’s something they’d figure out during testing.’

‘Testing? Why do you think we’re using them?’ Stifling what could only be called a somewhat sickly belly laugh Andrew returned to the counter and slid the gun back through the hatch. ‘There you go. That one should be fine for now. I’ve made a few adjustments which should avoid the ammo feed trouble.’

Shrugging, Craig reluctantly took back his weapon. ‘Can’t I just have an older model? Maybe an SA83?’

‘You wish! Most of our old equipment is on loan to trainee defence forces across the region. I wouldn’t count on getting your hands on one of those, and anyway by the time you do they’ll probably be classified as antiques and as such way beyond our price range. Sorry, but you’ll have to make do.’



The air outside hit Craig like a rabid Alsatian barking in his face. For a second he thought about going back into the armoury, but with no good reason for doing so other than it being hot outside he didn’t think it was wise. On a hard packed parade ground opposite, some new arrivals were being put through the first stages of their acclimation training. It was a short but unpleasant experience that he did not have fond memories of. He recalled a week or so of jokes about hamsters in a microwave, the rest he had blotted out just like so much else of his time on tour. He wondered how many more memories he would expunge only to replace them with the names and faces of the dead.


Names and ranks...after a time they had all started to seem so arbitrary to him. Random personal classifications like dots in a pointillist painting, the real picture only becoming visible the further away you were. A reconnaissance drone drifted overhead, a swift shadow under the clouds that was gone almost even as Craig noticed it. Its vision extended over the horizon like an augur’s through the choking mists of time. He allowed himself the luxury of wondering what it saw, but he did not really want to know. Yet the truth was he did know. Beyond the shimmering line in the distance, which seemed to simultaneously act like a prison wall and a gaping chasm between the heavens and the earth forever putting mankind in its place, there was only mile after mile of oppressive desolation. Some of it natural, but most of it not. Slash and burn tactics were not exactly approved, but they worked. Of course no one ever admitted what has happening even whilst they were doing it. It was so much simpler to let the smart bombs fall, classify the consequences as collateral damage and worry about the press backlash later.


Although to everyone’s surprise there had not really been much of a backlash. Perhaps people had grown accustomed to the fact that such things were beyond their control and that there was nothing they could say or do which would ever have influenced the armed forces. Even if legal action had been taken there was nothing anyone could have done to dissuade the army from their chosen course of action. For the better part of a century “just following orders” had not been a viable excuse, but things had changed. Anyone who argued otherwise quickly found their names added to the list of beneficiaries of the David Kelly Memorial Fund. Craig’s experience in the field had taught him that some things were meant to stay secret and as much as charity campaigners lobbied for total military accountability, it was in the best interests of their sanity that such requests were respectfully denied.


Public peace of mind was a worthy prize, but as Craig watched his patrol leader approach it was all too obvious that he would not be sharing it in the foreseeable future.



Darkness crept around him like a whispered threat. He could hear the other members of his unit but he could not see them. If anything they were shadows within a greater shadow, and even he was only aware of their presence because of their conspicuous lack of it. They had been sent on a routine sweep of the settlements west of the base. Apparently there had been rumours of insurgents operating in the area and it was his squad’s duty to make sure that, one way or another, any such enemy activity remained a rumour. It was a tedious but necessary task, one that none of them took pride in. The mission had started to play out exactly as Craig expected. They had arrived at the first set of designated co-ordinates, found nothing except for a few drunken farmers who of course had no idea what they were talking about, and had moved on to the next village only to be told that if they wanted any information they should go back the way they came. In the extremely unlikely event that they eventually found and engaged any targets then the resulting combat would more than likely have been swift and impersonal, more of a transaction than a fight.


Despite his experience Craig had always found it difficult to describe modern battles to himself and others, simply because there were no battles as such. Fighting was usually done at a step removed, and although he and his fellow soldiers inflicted death and destruction on a regular basis it was always from a distance through a scope at shapes, shadows or green smudges in the darkness. At times he found that he needed to consciously remind himself that his targets were people, even though his commanding officers would have liked him to believe anything other than that simple truth. And it was so difficult to believe them. After all what gave them the right to tell him who to kill? And worse, what gave him the right to follow those orders? It seemed so absurd that he was being paid to murder. And yet he had murdered. But in whose name? Certainly not his own. And who did the enemy kill for? Did they truly fight for God? Or did they fight because their God had abandoned them to the mercies of a foe that they could never hope to defeat?


No matter which way he thought about it he could not convince himself of any logical reason that compelled both sides to continue fighting. The most obvious choice seemed to be between either fear or courage. But he was not even sure if he could any longer tell the difference between the two. Like both sides of a trick coin they seemed so much alike. Some of the most courageous men he had ever known had in the end succumbed to fear. He had been unable to do anything but watch as they stared at their hands in the dark when they thought they were alone, as if tormented by the presence of blood only they could see. Or listen as they rocked back and forth on their bunks with their hands over their ears, recoiling from all contact as though from explosions and whimpering the word “mum” over and over again. He had seen them cry, but they never sobbed, the tears ran silently down their cheeks like rivers of names that only the mourning could recall. Before joining the army he had never heard soldiers spoken of without them being called heroes. If only everyone could have seen what being a hero really meant.


But that would never happen. It was much easier to have people believe that every man came home with a chest full of medals and a head full of charming stories; more comforting to think that they all slept soundly rather than waking in the middle of the night soiling themselves because of the nightmares. The words “Lest we forget” were so often recited, but the point of all the pomp and circumstance that surrounded armed conflict was precisely to eclipse all memory of the truth. To turn flesh to stone and bronze in city parks; blood to ink on the pages of history books and as reminders on calendars.


Before they went on a mission Craig did his best to remember the faces of his comrades. Even though he was not particularly fond of any of them he felt obligated to make sure that if they fell into the freezing silence of death, then they would be remembered as men rather than simply icons on shelves in their family homes. Most were convicts hoping to take the easy way out, some were career soldiers like himself who had fallen out of favour with their commanders, and others were merely people who did know any better and had decided a career in the army was somehow a good idea. But it did not matter what they were, none of them deserved to be forgotten.


As the squad arrived back at the patrol vehicle, Craig caught himself listening to the crude jokes some of the soldiers made about the locals. But their uncouth guffawing was not what attracted his attention. It was the complete all-encompassing quiet that seemed to engulf their words just as they were spoken. Even the few insects native to the area had fallen silent. He went to ready his weapon but before he could even take off the safety piercing sparks of light like stars going nova shattered the darkness. Muzzle flashes. He readied himself to give the order to take cover but it was not necessary. Just like him most of the others were hurling themselves into prone positions. But for some it was already too late. There was no time to think of them and Craig had other things on his mind than watching their blood drip down the flanks of the vehicle like paint drying on an office wall. He managed to discharge several rounds before his rifle jammed. Due to the lack of visibility he did not know if he had managed to hit anything and in his anger at the weapon he did not care. He threw it impotently in the direction of the attackers. Over the clatter of bullets against metal he could hear the vicious whine of night vision equipment being hastily activated. It was such a malicious sound, as though the essence of unquenchable rage had been combined with the desire to kill under any circumstances and at all costs and harnessed into a narrow beam of sensation.


He kept his head down as the rest of the unit began to return fire. The brutal stutter of light machineguns and the clipped roar of rifle shots made it seem as if he were screaming at himself in an empty room. Defenceless except for his sidearm, which was useless at such range and in those conditions, he started to feel like he had seen so many others feel. Through no fault of his own he started flinching at the ricochet of every single bullet. His mind started to close itself off from external reality until a man with a savage gash in his leg yanked on his sleeve. He tried to get to work on the wound but his fingers would not function. He fumbled everything and had to pass the medical kit onto another soldier who still had command of his faculties. Forcing himself to give directions to his seconded assistant he managed to find a degree of focus, but it was not enough for him to be of any use. He sat there watching the fight unfold with that same dumbstruck mixture of awe and terror as when a child stares up at a fireworks display.


Unable to tell exactly what was happening, and being of no practical use to anyone with an injury, Craig made his way around to the back of the troop transport they had been travelling in. As he began to haul himself onboard it seemed as if there was a momentary lull in the barrage of bullets. He allowed himself a hurried glance in the direction the gunfire had came from only to see two burning spheres careening towards their position. He jumped down from the entrance, sprinted a short distance and then threw himself with every ounce of strength left in his body as far away from the vehicle as he could. A wave of heat and light smacked into his side. The force knocked scorching air from his lungs and dashed him against the ground like a ragdoll. He looked directly up into the night sky and, having lived in heavily urban areas since birth, he saw something he had never seen before in his life. Stars were spread across the sky like knots of silver thread in a widow’s veil. Just as it seemed his life was about to be snuffed out, the infinite legion of the heavens met his gaze as though welcoming him into that pristine multitude. If he had the strength he would have sighed, but his last shred of will faded and all sense or feeling left him broken and abandoned on that charred stretch of dirt.



When Craig regained consciousness the ground was bathed in a hellish half-light as if Milton had been seeing into the future rather than reimagining scripture. All around him fragments of vehicle chassis smouldered, whilst mangled limbs leaked the last of their life into the pitiless dirt. He had always imagined the aftermath of explosions in slow-motion as if his mind had been hijacked by Hollywood conventions. But as his eyes adjusted to the grim gloom of the fire-light he found that there was no motion at all. It was as though time had coagulated in that tiny, insignificant corner of creation and trapped everything around him in suspended animation.



Blood ran down his neck in thick trickles from a wound at the base of his skull. One of his eardrums had been perforated and he could only tell he was breathing because of the pain in his sternum. But it was not the extent of his own injuries that forced him to come to his senses. He struggled to his feet and took stock of his surroundings. It was only then that he realised there was no one else left alive.



Thirty metres away he saw a body. At least what was left of one. It was unclear as to whether the soldier had dragged himself free of the wreckage or if he had been flung there by the force of the explosions. Either way it was obvious that even if Craig had been able to locate his medical kit there was nothing he could have done to help that wretched pile of skin and rags. He swallowed his own terror at the sight and dared himself to approach. With every step towards the body the air thickened with the stench of fuel and scorched flesh. A few paces from the corpse he noticed that bile had been dripping from the corner of his mouth like foul water from a tap with rusted pipe work. His extreme agitation had overridden the urge to expel vomit, it was only once he felt it at his lips that he doubled over and gagged.


As he regained his composure and steeled himself to look again on the roasted heap that had once been a human, Craig knew that despite his habit of familiarising himself with the troops in his unit before departing on an assignment that he did not know that soldier. He could tell from the relatively diminutive stature of the body that it had belonged to a young man. Strange then that he had not done better to make himself remember him. They had not been friends, or even passing acquaintances. He was certain that the boy had only arrived recently, as part of yet another new deployment wave. Like the surging wrath of the free world unleashed by the demands of unsympathetic politicians and armchair generals, Craig felt as if he could not contain himself any longer at the reality of what he saw. The boy had been so young. Too young to have died there, in that place so far from home, alone and unknown. And Craig was not so delusional as to believe that the boy would be granted Brooke’s simple dignity of making that desolate patch of dirt, by sandbags under an overpass on a road that lead nowhere, an eternal corner of his homeland. No. If the corpse did not become a feast for local stray dogs, it would be collected by the military. Pictures of it would be “leaked” onto the internet. His coffin would be shamelessly paraded before the national media as a symbol of suffering and sacrifice when neither word meant anything to the people the boy had died “protecting” from enemies they did not know or even want to understand. It made no sense. Why had they sent him to fight and kill? Why had they sent a child to die?


There were no answers.


In that singularity of silence Craig dropped his rifle, he no longer paid attention to the fact his life was in potential peril every moment he spent in the open, and knelt down next to the boy. He could only imagine what it had been like for the child to feel his life being taken from him by his own cells as they cascaded from his body; to know that the limitations of his own primitive physiology had betrayed him to death and darkness. Craig held what was left of the ruined body in his arms and wept. Not as a man cries at the funeral of a dear friend, or for a departing lover but as a man who has endured long past the point of his own annihilation, who has nothing left to reinforce the walls inside himself and so lets them collapse.



The sun had been up for quite some time and continued its own ferocious assault on that blasted wasteland, by its nature mute and unaware of the folly of man. Craig had no idea of how long he had knelt there; clutching the boy’s obliterated face to his chest. But it was long enough. Long enough for a ragged, half-starved spectre to come stalking up on him out of a torrent of dust and searing light. If Craig had looked upon that swirling shape he would not have been able to tell whether it had come from this world or the next. Every inch of visible skin was layered with blood, sweat, dirt and ash. His clothes bore no symbol or insignia and just like his flesh they were caked with the muck of a life spent constantly fighting. All there was of a man were the eyes, so vibrant against the surrounding skin they were like gemstones lost on a slag heap.


The shadow cast over his shoulder told Craig he had been found. Whatever battle had raged around and within him was over. There was only the sound of the wind and the fires that consumed the ruined metal in the ditch at the side of the road. Then he felt the barrel of a gun against the back of his neck. It was not a cold sensation as he had always expected but rather like a snake burying its fangs in his skin; there was a heat behind it as though fear had turned his blood to venom. Every breath at that moment seemed to last forever, his lungs filled to bursting by the essence of immensity before they became shells around their own private voids.


An eternity passed as the scraps of existence he called a life dwindled into pale nothingness at the back of his mind. He laughed sullenly to himself at the pathetic remnants of memories that would not have even made a passable film trailer. He set the body down and then in a moment of clarity that came over him just as he braced himself for the end he asked silently, ‘Why aren’t I already dead?’


The pressure on his neck ceased. He heard the stranger shoulder his weapon and shuffle around to face him. He too knelt down by the boy; his lips moved silently in prayer and his eyelids fluttered as though he was engaged in a struggle to wake from his own dreams. In that boy’s face he had been able to see the young of his own nation buried not in reality but in memory. Fathers, brothers, sons. All devoured without reason by the relentless, flesh-craving jaws of war. Some fought because their clerics told them heaven would not stand cowards to enter, others because their country apparently howled for blood. But so many more had fought and died because they had no other choice, because the world had judged them too poor and too stupid to be fit for anything else.


As he did his best to guide the boy’s soul finally to peace, he saw that the living soldier had begun to realise the truth. All night from afar he had watched the invader weeping and it was clear that if only one of his enemies understood then the war was already won. At that his eyelids opened and he stared directly at Craig. That glance was a spear that gouged out the last of his breath and pinned him in place. The stranger looked from Craig to the boy and back again before he stood and snarled, ‘Now you know why we fight.’