Heavy Pride

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They did dark work. Heavy work. Barbaric work, some people said – but never for long and never too loudly. ‘Who cared?’ was his reply. At the slaughter house his father did dark work, heavy work, even barbaric work as he buried his arms in blood and swung his blade to hack away at flesh. That was how they ate, that was how they lived and they did it without questions or accusations. They were happy not to see and not to know as long as food was on their table when the day ended. Only hypocrites cast scorn with full bellies and comfortably heavy eyelids. And when they did he lashed out, knocking into them, he thought, a measure of respect for the work that sustained them. Silencing the jibes and insults about the stench of death that covered his father and, by proxy, himself.

The soldiers were the same, not that they needed him to fight for them. Their work roused the hypocrites too though. Warm and safe in their rural security they whispered insults at the ‘murderers’ who descended from the army camp to buy their food and their drink. Always eager to condemn the job the soldiers were bound to do and always quick to take their money and sleep soundly in the peace the soldiers brought them. Those who judged never had a right to. It was always the ones who dodged and denied, evading the truth of the enemies who were out to kill them and theirs. Give in to their way of thinking and the village would be gone, the country would be gone. That’s what you got if you let the cowards take over, the weak who shied away from the abattoir at the first metallic scent of blood.

He would be different though. The slaughterhouse worker’s son. No cowardice. No shying away from the dark, heavy and barbaric work of keeping them all safe and secure. He too would bury his arms in blood, far deeper than even his father did, letting deeper shades of crimson taint his skin. He would stand with the soldiers. Join them when he could, steep himself in the effluence of their oppressive labour amidst the human cattle they corralled. Do the work they had to to keep the hypocrites alive, in mockery of their disdain.

And when they stared at him in the street, when they mumbled their insults in shameful corners he’d know that he had beaten them. He’d know he could feel proud.

This is from No Cure for Shell Shock, a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook or paperback here.

The Grey Column

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It was the third column of the day. The novelty had worn off now, the mood had changed.

On the arrival of the first one, marked by an earth trembling roar of diesel engines groaning their way through barely passable streets, virtually the whole village had turned out. Children shrieked with delight, chasing the metal behemoths of the tanks and optimistically calling for soldiers to give them a turn driving. The men, or at least the elders who had stayed far from the front, stroked their beards and pontificated on what these passing troops meant. Good news for the army, bad news, attack or retreat, victory or surrender. An academic matter, the war was a long way away, fought on imagined battlefields by immortal armies. At least that was as far as they were willing to let their thoughts stray before pushing against the unpleasant and unspoken truth.

The women just stared, or locked themselves away from the tumult of marching troops. Too many had lost too much. The sight of survivors, or those soon to die, was merely a false promise for the fate of their own sons, fathers, brothers and husbands. Or an unwelcome reminder of those whose marches had already ended. A few shooed their children away, fearful of the corruption of war that followed armies like a disease, infecting the mind before destroying the body. The children evaded them with a laugh, too lost in excitement to see anything but life and the intriguing other.

All of that passed though. By the time the third column arrived the image had grown too detailed. What had seemed an earth rattling stampede of engines had dulled to a constant reverberating roar. The children had lost interest, called home or gone to new excitement. The men and women had seen faces. As the soldiers had passed men had taken their place, grey faced and hollow. Eyes floating beyond their bodies, trapped in distant moments and places. To speculate or seek feeling there felt like a trap. Look too closely and you’d fall in yourself. Better by far to be behind closed doors, the war once again a far away fantasy. Fought on distant battlefields, with immortal soldiers.

Then the shelling started.

This is from No Cure for Shell Shock, a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook or paperback here.

News of the World

“Go and get some close ups. Don’t forget the faces, always get the faces.”

The cameraman nodded and ran off through the wreckage. He was the perfect tool for her, he did whatever he was told and didn’t hesitate. She had no idea why, most of those she’d found herself stuck with on assignment fitted a familiar mould of moral squalor and self-doubting crusading, the hallmarks of those who seemed most drawn to and repulsed by the work she did as a war correspondent. Everything had to mean something to them, gnarled and numb as they got, there always had to be something for them to prey on in their own internal monologues. Not this new guy though, Ed, a browned and leathery Australian foisted on her on arrival in the war zone, apparently hand picked to work alongside her. From all she’d seen Ed had nothing to him beyond the actions of the job, every trip just a repetition of a well rehearsed routine.

Alone now she could survey the scene of, theoretically, unintentional carnage around her. There were corpses, lots of them. Rubble, dismemberments and still roaring fires made numbers hard to guess at though. A stray arm, a fragmented mosaic of bones, they could mean one death or half a dozen. A drone strike. Perhaps a well planned one but this was a civilian target, a market, even if they’d hit the victim they’d intended a lot more had perished at the same time. Regrettable, collateral damage, a tragedy and no doubt fleetingly mourned by those who’d pulled the trigger even if those giving the orders denied all knowledge of the potential for loss of life. That’d be the way it was sold at least, when a dour faced General delivered his monotone judgement on it.

It had happened less than an hour ago, she was first to arrive. First of the journalists at least. Improvised emergency services, survivors, crying strangers and traumatised looking passers by were all around but they hardly counted. No, from what she could see she was alone in the midst of it all and knowing that a smile crept across her face.

This was the purpose, this was the time, this was what drove her onward. There was something in the air as she walked through the destruction in the supreme isolation of other people’s distraction. Something vibrating through the air and resonating itself into her pores, tensing and easing muscles into a half-nervous peak of… something.

Her last cameraman had called her ghoulish, but then he was a prick. Self-involved and desperately trying to cultivate a drink problem to make up for his glib emoting in the face of anything and everything they confronted on the job. He’d been sad, constantly, nothing deeper than that but that wasn’t enough for him, it had all had to be elevated into something bigger and more special. Natasha had hated him and he’d hated her in return right up until he’d been shipped off to take picturesque long shots of tracer fire from hotel balconies. No loss, not to her anyway.

There was a body besides her. She hadn’t noticed it initially as she’d drifted forward amidst the rubble. Half buried and coated in white dust only the torso and face were showing, the rest covered by concrete blocks and steel fronds from the fallen trunk of a support beam. A man, in his twenties perhaps although death made it hard to tell. Natasha felt another shudder of that something as she looked down at him. How long since he’d died? An hour at most, she’d gotten the call seconds after the explosion and she moved fast. His life had ended and he’d never have realised it. That’d make people sad, if she told them about it, and she might – far be it from her to deny the dead their moment but there were other bodies too, other stories here and only a handful would reach the transmission. The saddest ones, the ones with the most grieving survivors left in their wake, not through Natasha’s choices, that was just the way it was. Networks and editors and audience ratings ordered the meaningful away from the sorry but forgotten detritus. She just stood in the stories, watching them swirl around her, she didn’t decide what they were.

There were sirens now, the last few ambulances that were still working probably. Or the police, or the military, rushing to stand where she was, to make their own contribution to the passing tragedy. That’d mean an end to her solitude as the distracted victims were replaced by a surplus of uniforms, each one eager to feel they could contribute even if it was far too late for the little they had to offer. She had to enjoy the moment while it lasted, enjoy her place in the heart of the already ebbing punctuation mark of minor human history.

Ed appeared in front of her, face as blank as ever, camera levelled and ready.

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Gone Done (No Cure for Shell Shock extract)

‘Mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy…’ It was all he could hear. The screaming from the family in front of him had stopped, the shouted insults and encouragement from the men behind him had faded into nothing. He could still see their mouths move, all of them, almost in slow motion as he stood locked in his own mind beyond the moment.

Mercy? That was his voice, his own accusing, terrified voice. Mercy for who? For them? They were dead, they were dead, they were dead. One tensed muscle away from the grave. He couldn’t stop that, the life had been sucked out of his body, it was lost in the certainty of what was about to happen. They were dead, if not through him then through the others and if not through him then him along with them. Mercy? How could there be mercy? Where was there space for it? But it didn’t matter, the same word, ‘mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy’, screamed inside his head over and over again.

A crying family. Why should they have mercy? Why? He’d been offered none, he’d seen none, even beyond this instance, beyond this moment of decision where was there sympathy or sorrow for him? Nowhere. Dead. Mercy, sympathy, sorrow, wherever he’d ever known them they’d been left dead, executed before his eyes before he’d even realised their value. The families pitiful cries and begging, now muted into silent and numb gestures, what were they supposed to do? Save their lives? Their lives were over. Dig out something in him that didn’t exist? Mercy? More than that, sacrifice, for him to kill for them rather than the men he’d arrived with. A greedy demand, an insulting one. They grovelled to him for something they did nothing to offer themselves. Why not give themselves up? They were dead, if they could just accept it then he could be saved. If they could stop grasping for some way out he could silence the goddamn screaming in his head and do what he had to do. Mercy, mercy, mercy, but none for him.

Never any for him.

Never any for his family.

Never any for his home or friends or hopes or life – all of which had been taken without even a shred of sorrow.

He wanted to be sick. He needed to be sick. Those lifeless muscles gripped the gun in his hands. They were a million miles away from his thoughts, they were certain of what would happen. Only the desperate, near retching need to vomit still connected him to his body, the two bound by a thin thread of revulsion. Was that it? Revulsion? Mercy, mercy, mercy. No, there was no mercy and they were all dead already. So was there revulsion? Why? At what? He was doing what he had to do, he was doing what they all did, exactly the same as everyone had done since this war had started. That family who wished him dead with their pleading, the men behind him who laughed and cackled at every body. This was it, this was all of it so what was the revulsion for?

He couldn’t think. He couldn’t even see his own thoughts clearly. He was sure there was nothing there, no part of him which still felt anything for these corpses in denial. But mercy, mercy, mercy still screaming through his skull.

A father, a mother, a son and a daughter. Civilians. Innocent. Asking him to die. But he was innocent too. He was as innocent as any of them. He had never picked up a gun, had never sought them out, he’d never sought anyone out. All of this had been forced onto him, a rifle in his hands, these people in front of him and those men, those vicious, violent, broken men who’d dragged him into this. Never with a moment of sympathy, or sorrow, or mercy.

mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy

The little girl was the only one not joining in the pitiful play. No cries, no pawing for salvation, she just silently sat there, eyes locked on his feet, seeing nothing. She understood. No more than eight or nine and she understood, they were dead or he was dead. More than that, they were dead and he was dead, sooner or later. Just like those he’d arrived with. Those mad and violent men, dead already and driven insane by it. His finger tightened on the trigger without him willing it to. He would join them. He would do this thing, he would vomit, he would cry and he would forget the word ‘mercy’. It was no choice, no decision, it was already done, already set in stone and his limbs knew that.

He pointed the gun at her. Barrel levelled at her face. She didn’t move an inch. She should be the first. He could gift her that, she knew it was coming so better to not see it done, not to the rest at least. Was that mercy?

mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy

No, mercy was a felt thing, not just a word and he felt nothing. His muscles acted, his stomach churned, the voice in his head screamed. All separate, all alone, all decided.

The noise came back with the crack of a bullet being fired. Screams from the family, laughter from behind him.

No mercy.

The voice had fallen silent, cowed into retreat by the explosive of gunshot. Held there by another and another and another. He vomited. Crumpling to his knees he squeezed his eyes closed, trying and failing to collapse in on himself as hands slapped his back. More gunshots. Dead men making sure the corpses didn’t rise. No matter, he had killed them, he had done what he had known he would.

Hands were dragging him to his feet even as strands of sick still hung from his chin, ponderously dripping onto his shirt. More back slapping. Someone shook his hand. From the silence the world had become too loud, they were all talking, perhaps to him but he couldn’t tell. Words fell flatly around him ‘animals’; ‘dogs’, ‘filth’, ‘scum’, the words those dead men used to replace ‘mercy’. He would have to learn them now, they were his words, the language of his madness. The tears in his eyes drained away the old sounds, the old words, purging him ready for his afterlife. No more mercy, just scum and filth.

A hand clamped on his jaw. Rough, powerful, swivelling his head to face the bodies of the family. A heap of nothingness, no more begging, no more grovelling, nothing. Filth now, garbage, nothing human and nothing left to ask anything of him.

… filth, filth, filth, filth…

The word grew louder in his head. They’d been dead from the moment he’d arrived, they’d been filth from the moment he’d arrived. A final image of his own family passed across his eyes, bodies crumpled just the same as these, living, real people made garbage, just like these. Filth.

He forgot them all. The memories of a new man flooded in, madness drowning those of the child who’d passed with a gunshot.

… filth, filth, filth, filth…

No Cure for Shell Shock is a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook or paperback here.

Reviews and support are always appreciated.

Prisoner of War (No Cure for Shell Shock extract)

No Cure for Shell Shock Cover

He refused to look at me. I stared, I hated, but he refused to see. I lived through my eyes, for those long minutes. I tried to leave the rest, to let him have it so that whatever he took wouldn’t be me. I failed. For all that I placed in that stare some part of me remained for him to steal. Still he refused to look at me. He left, having seen nothing. None of my rage, none of the hatred he’d earned as he pinned me down and forced himself onto me.

He left that for me, a new self, built on that hate and anger. A replacement for the rest, for that part he’d taken as a prisoner of war.

No Cure for Shell Shock, my collection of short stories, is available for free on Amazon Kindle until the 24th of March – grab your copy here. Reviews and shares much appreciated!