You are here, like we all are…novel extract

And extract from my current work in progress entitled ‘Five Siamese Histories’:

CHAPTER ELEVEN

‘You are here, here like we all are,’

Bastogne, Belgium

October 1944

Private Elias Lemon is so very cold.

Cold and thin like everything in winter.

He lifts his rifle above his head to prevent it getting damp, as best he can, but this is a futile gesture as the snow is falling in heaving clumps that weigh ponderously upon any surface touched. The weight of it almost pushing his flagging body down as he stumbles through each drift and hummock of snow. It feels like lifting icy stones; icy stones that are his unfeeling feet inside his boots. Lead legs lifting like slow pistons. Will the blackness of frostbite come? Perhaps it has already. At least he has a greatcoat, unlike some of his lost companions; a greatcoat he stole from a frozen-eyed German corpse. This is a risk he knows, he has heard that this part of forest is full of Americans, waiting for some kind of push. From a distance they might recognise the grey shade of his coat to be hostile. He has calculated the risk to be worth it. For now.

Death by a bullet versus death by creeping frost?

Exactly why he has ended up here in amongst the trees he has no clue and he is even uncertain as to the direction he should travel, but then again trees are the best shelter he can find, for now. Cover from the wind, cover from the machine guns that secret themselves as they must on high ground. High ground along the ridge beyond the forest, back behind him. American guns or German guns? He knows not.

Elias has patted his pockets for his compass several times, each time forgetting it was left in his kitbag. His kitbag that was left behind as he ran headlong from the mortars that peppered his unit’s particular line of fox holes with plump detonations that mixed snow and dirt in the air like a crazed succession of giant snow globes exploding. The compass would have helped and in this dark clouded weather he cannot discern where the sun is. Perhaps the frontline is East from here?

All he knows is that he is lost, and has been for two days. Two days of cold and hunger.

He stops.

Leans against a pine. Trying to catch his breath, but it escapes in short bursts of misty cloud as he wheezes.

Elias wipes snow from the bark in search of north-facing moss, a navigation trick he learnt in training, but this tree is sadly moss free. He removes his helmet, wipes his brow, and rests up against the trunk for a few moments. Slumping down the rough bark. He knows he should not linger, sleep would be a killer, though his bones desire it so.

Time passes into silence and Elias is vaguely aware that he is sat buried in snow, great patterings of it have fallen from the tree, covering much of his body, although it is at least no longer falling from the sky.

More time must have passed.

The voices speak German; a tongue he learnt from Doctor Frewen when he was but a boy, so he understands very well what they are saying and in his frozen mind he can hardly distinguish it from English. ‘English’; the surname of his father. The real father he never knew.

‘We should go back,’ says the first German voice,

‘Back is where the fucking Americans are,’ says the second voice,

Elias pulls his eyes open, ice on his lashes.

They are standing right in front of him, but it appears that he remains unseen. Or perhaps they think him dead? His hand is on his rifle but to pull it forward, lift it and grip the trigger would alert them. Perhaps he could shoot one of them, but would he have time for the second? He flexes his fingers but his knuckles groan with the pain of cold, his hand does not feel like it is his own.

Should he speak? Give himself up?

‘Let’s face it, we’re lost,’ says the voice,

‘You stupid fucker,’ says the second,

Elia’s eyes have cleared somewhat. The second is an officer; a clean-shaven youth, skull and crossbones insignia, black leather coat.

SS.

The first is simply a foot-soldier; infantry, an older man with lines of experience spreading from his eyes. Elias is aware that his own breathing has quickened with fear, and that his breath is producing multiple clouds. Clouds that will give him away. For no particular reason he can think of, apart from the fact he knows he is weak and perhaps dying, he coughs.

The two Germans turn slowly and the foot-soldier raises his machine gun; the officer pulls back his coat to place his hand on his holster. Elias stares at the officer’s boots with envy. Riding boots, nicely polished, wet with snow.

‘Help me,’ says Elias, in perfect soft German,

‘Help him,’ orders the officer, pulling out his Luger and pointing it at Elias.

The foot-soldier shoulders his gun and crouches to brush snow from Elias’ body.

‘Identify yourself,’ says the officer,

Elias cannot speak.

The foot-soldier chucks Elias’ rifle aside, pulls open his greatcoat and undoes his khaki jacket beneath, ripping his dog tags from his neck. Elias feels the pain of this movement against his skin; proof that he is still living.

‘English,’ says the foot-soldier,

‘Kill him,’ says the officer,

Elias can see that the foot-soldier has fear in his eyes now; a fear he has felt himself.

Ordinary men do not kill in cold blood, not without some primal existential fear as a prompt. For ordinary men there is an inbuilt aversion. He can see the signs; signs he learned from the Doctor Frewen. ‘Observation is the key to all human interaction,’ the Doctor used to say. Elias has learnt that the simple quick action of pulling a trigger to blow someone’s head off changes a man. Forever. He can see fear of this impending change in the eyes of this ordinary German. This man has not killed before.

The foot-soldier looks back at the officer.

‘He’ll die soon anyway,’ he says,

‘Do it, that’s an order,’ says the officer,

‘But sir, I do not have much ammunition, better to save it in case we encounter the Americans,’

‘You coward,’ says the officer, ‘I’ll do it,’

He steps forward, pointing the pistol in Elias’ face.

‘Wait,’ says Elias, ‘I am German,’

He knows his accent is good, but will it be good enough?

‘I don’t believe you. You wear the tags of an Englishman,’ says the officer,

‘I was sent by Oberstleunant Gersdorff, to scout the American positions,’ says Elias,

‘In English uniform?’

‘Yes, yes, I speak good English, my orders are to make contact with enemy positions in this forest and gather intelligence on their position, numbers and armament,’

‘I’ve never heard of this “Gersdorff”,’ says the officer, ‘what unit are you attached to?’

The officer waves his gun in Elias’ face as he says this.

‘The Sixth Panzer Division,’ says Elias,

‘The Sixth Panzer you say?’ says the officer,

‘Yes,’

‘The Sixth Panzer Division is nowhere near Bastogne, I know this for a fact. Why would a tank division send a pathetic spy like you? No, you are lying,’

The officer pushes the safety off and presses the cold rim of the barrel hard into Elias’ forehead.

‘Wait,’ says Elias, ‘Please I am German, I swear, my father was the famous Doctor Frewen, Adolphus Frewen, please, don’t shoot,’

‘Never heard of him,’ says the officer, ‘you heard of him Gruber?’

‘Yes…I have,’ says Gruber,

‘What?’ says the Officer. He turns to face Gruber, the gun waves away. Elias rubs the red ring it has left imprinted on his forehead with a freezing finger.

‘He was a scientist in the Great War,’ says Gruber, ‘They say the Führer reads his books,’

‘Oh, is that so?’ says the officer, ‘So now you’re a fucking expert on the Führer’s reading habits?’

‘It’s just what I heard,’ says Gruber,

‘It’s just what I heard “Sir,”’ says the officer,

Gruber has unshouldered his gun.

‘We should let this man go,’ he says quietly,

‘You insubordinate snivelling little farmer!’ says the officer, raising his pistol now at Gruber.

In future recollections Elias Lemon would think of these moments but not fully ever know the reasons for his actions. The instinct for survival and the crippling fear of death can make the oddest of bedfellows. Did he see hope in the weary eyes of the foot-soldier?

Elias swings his snow covered leg with all his might, kicking the officer in the calf, through the glossy leather of his riding boot. The officer is unguarded with his back turned and soon unbalanced in the uneven snow. He falls swiftly sideways. His gun hand flails and the Luger goes off. Elias doesn’t see or understand why but the foot-soldier Gruber fires too; a loud echoing rattle of his sub-machine gun that blasts Elias’ ear drums.

A slump of snow that has been waiting patiently in the branches for this moment falls through the echoes of gunfire and covers Elias completely.

He waits with snow in his mouth.

Nothing.

No movement or sound.

Can he feel the weight of the SS officer on his leg?

It is an effort to push himself up, pull his leg from under the body, shake himself free of the snow.

Now Elias is standing.

The officer lies partially buried in snow at his feet, blood spreading from his arm and head, into the fibres of his formally pristine uniform and out to stain and melt the snow. Wisps of steam rising from it’s warmth. Elias wonders if he can smell the iron from that blood-steam. A smell like horseshoes fresh from the smithy.

The foot-soldier is laying on his back, but Elias can see he is alive, breath pumping in steamy jets from his nostrils. A quick inspection of his body and then Elias kneels and cradles Gruber’s head on his lap.

‘You’ll be alright,’ says Elias, ‘the bullet hit your shoulder,’

‘Where am I?’ says Gruber,

‘You are here,’ says Elias Lemon, ‘here, like we all are,’

© 2017 Simon Poore

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Blythe

Three Years …

We weren’t married when my wife’s son took his own life in October 2014. When the ripples began. Blythe was 22, intelligent and witty; a young man with striking red hair and a certain quiet charm. A young man troubled, like so many others, by the blight of mental illness. Her only child.

Now we wear the rings and call each other ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. We are married. But there was no ceremony, no papers to sign, no celebration of love for family and friends. How could Claire have a wedding without her beloved son, who had been the centre of her life for so long?

For twenty-two years.

Claire and I had been together for about two of those years when the phone call came. I am still caught by a quiet dread when my phone buzzes in my pocket, perhaps that’s why I leave it on silent. It takes me back to her wounded voice telling me he was dead. I was readying myself for an open evening at the school where I teach and of course I dropped everything to go to her. The world stops in such moments and before I had always wondered how I might cope when faced with such calamity. The truth is you do what you need to do. Or just what you can. That is all I did. There is no bravery in it. Simply a set of human reactions.

I had to ask her to direct me as I drove her to her parent’s house where it had happened. Where he had done it. Her parents, Blythe’s grandparents, were away, so he had been alone. We had thought he’d been getting a bit better.

I felt enormous guilt that I couldn’t remember the way, that my sense of direction was so weak; it was the littlest of things she shouldn’t have been worrying about. She sat there looking small in the passenger seat, telling me it would all be alright, that it was a mistake and he couldn’t possibly be dead. I felt compelled to tell her she should wait in the car when we arrived. I had visions of her running headlong into the house. Of her seeing what she should never have to see.

She stayed in the car and I went to talk to the policeman waiting at the door, stood there with his dutiful face and his thumbs tucked in his stab-vest. He was kind as he told me the worst and even after that I had to ask him. I had to ask him just to make sure.

‘Is he dead?’

I turned to see she was out of the car and then I had to tell her. Tell her it was true.

He was gone.

The hardest words I’ve ever had to say.

She wailed with a voice that still stabs my heart; a wail I now recognise all too clearly from shaky footage on the news. Some poor mother in the rubble of Aleppo, some poor father or grandmother or orphan caught in the aftermath of bullets on a street in Paris or Las Vegas, or a bomb in Iraq or a far flung earthquake. Or any one or other of the countless tragedies casting their own ripples across our world.

These tragedies are not distant fictions. They are ours.

I guided Claire as best as I could, she could hardly stand, guided her into the neighbour’s house. The poor neighbour who had broken in and found him dead. Another soul caught in the ripples.

I sat on the neighbour’s stairs while Claire bravely made her statement to the kindly policewoman. I spoke on the phone to her father, Blythe’s grandfather, and told him it was definitely bad news. I sat on the stairs and she sat in their front room alone and felt Blythe close to her as we waited for those people whose job it was to investigate and record the intimate details of the tragedy. And then I sat with her on that unfamiliar sofa and held her hand as they finally took his body away into the darkness of the night.

Was I numb? I think so.

At home I made endless cups of tea and sat alone in the kitchen trying not to intrusively listen to the sobbing of Claire with her parents and sister in the next room. When they had no words left I put on the TV to distract them. A nature programme. I like to remember it as the calming voice of David Attenborough that they lost themselves in but I can’t be sure it was.

Two days later I found a bee, slowly dying on the doorstep. The last of the bees of summer struggling with its footing in the cold. I wrote a short story about that bee, trying to make sense of it all. Of course it didn’t and couldn’t, in any shape or form. It was an imperfect tale, sentimental even, but those I shared it with seemed to like it. The start of trying to make sense of the ripples.

I prefer not to tell you exactly how he did it. This is the age of Google where it’s all too easy to research anything, including efficient ways to end it all. Claire put it to our M.P. that websites which encourage and instruct those inclined to suicide should somehow be controlled or banned. He is, I feel, a good man and he argued most eloquently for freedom of speech. But these are, at the end of the day, moral questions best argued within the comforting vacuum of the abstract. Not so easy when it’s affected you and yours. Not so easy for her when it was her son who had searched those very websites.

The days passed into weeks as we waited for the funeral. Sleepless nights and life on hold.

She stood at the front of the church and spoke with grace and humour about how wonderful her son had been. We watched video clips of Blythe that made the congregation laugh and we wept to the plaintive tones of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Claire spoke of how she felt it was like an episode of ‘Sherlock’ and that her beloved son was playing a joke on everyone, it was an illusion, a trick, that he hadn’t died after all. That he might suddenly appear at the back of the church and shout ‘surprise’.

Her eulogy remains the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.

She still hates the vicar whose church we borrowed for the funeral. He did not officiate that day, but he did meet with Claire on a few occasions to finalise arrangements. Now that vicar blanks us in the street, or in his church during the Christmas nativity. He either does not remember or doesn’t wish to. I’m sure he means no harm. And this is another of the ripples that spread from such an event. It’s like sometimes you have a halo above your head that warns people away. Who knows exactly what you’re supposed to say to the mother whose son took his own life? To mention it or not to mention it? Some struggle so badly with this conundrum that they consistently shy away.

And this brings us to the haunting question of ‘why’?

Another ripple.

The cliche is that he was a young man who ‘had everything to live for’ with his ‘whole future ahead of him’. It’s not a cliche when that is exactly what has been lost. Such an enormous loss. Why?

And so the search began. Claire’s father, Blythe’s grandfather, quite rightly said there should be no blame, and yet there is always blame, impossible to avoid. Inward blame and outward blame, endless searching for that word you shouldn’t have said or that decision you could have changed or that signal he gave that things were so desperately wrong. All those things other people could have done differently.

Before.

We sat around anonymous conference tables with professionals from the mental health trust and they listened with faces covered in earnest sympathy. Ultimately though, they had no answers.

I probed them with well-rehearsed questions on behalf of my wife, my Claire. How many people in their care had committed suicide in the last year? Shockingly they didn’t know. I felt appalled. The first duty of any health care professional should be the protection of life; the first and most sacred of all human rights, the right to life. And yet here they were telling me they didn’t know exactly how many people they had failed. I asked if they had heard of Merseyside’s ambitious ‘zero-suicide’ initiative where they proactively aim to eliminate suicide by encouraging people to believe it is not a viable solution to the problems they face. They only seemed vaguely aware of it. We asked why hadn’t they kept the family informed or why they repeatedly failed to respond to the hundreds of phone calls and emails and pleas for help from Claire over the previous four or five years as Blythe had deteriorated. I pressed them on their inadequacy. They used the argument that Blythe was an adult and as such he was entitled to patient confidentiality and that he had ‘capacity’ to make decisions for himself. We disagreed.

They had failed to see how clever Blythe had been. In the few interviews he had with psychiatrists he would ‘present’ as rational and reasonable, whereas in the real world his decision making had become irrational and scary. He told them what he thought they wanted to hear and they bought it. He lived for a time ‘sofa-surfing’ or on the streets. He showed symptoms of bi-polar; at times believing he could save everybody and everything, at other times he plumbed the debilitating depths. He had tried to take his life once before, shaving his head and sitting alone in a cold fenland field. But hadn’t gone through with it that time realising, he said, that there is still love in the world.

The only time they ever offered him a hospital bed he refused it, simply because the only bed available was two hundred miles away.

Two hundred miles.

They wrote a report. They made recommendations.

Eventually, after much badgering, we secured a meeting with the head of the Norfolk and Suffolk Mental Health trust. Again the earnest sympathy. Of course he knew how many people under his care had taken their own life that year. He had been briefed well that I would press him on it. What he didn’t say was that the numbers were rising.

He promised, in the way that faceless bureaucrats make promises, that they would learn from their mistakes. That they would learn and things would improve. He said it wasn’t about money. He solemnly promised that he would write to me personally later that year (2015) and detail the improvements that were being made.

It’s now 2017 and I’m still waiting for that letter.

You might wonder why I do not chase him for that letter. Part of me wishes I had. Part of me imagines that he has found it too difficult to write. One only has to search the pages of the local press to see the waves of criticism his trust faces. They were in special measures. Deaths continue to rise. Part of me realises he had forgotten his promise and was too busy fighting the flack from his bunker.

I read that he is retiring; I hope he finds peace.

I do not blame him, or any of his staff. They too, in their own ways, are hit by the ripples. I could see it in the eyes of those staff who spoke under oath about Blythe at the much delayed inquest. Those eyes spoke of their own guilt, their own demons. They are people who wish for the world to be a better place and to help and care for people. Why else would they choose such unforgiving vocations? They too are victims who continually must ask the ‘what if?’ questions that can never be answered.

It is about the money.

They are victims of a system where there are far too few doctors and nurses qualified to deal with the rising tide of illness and despair. Firefighting a forest blaze with a thimble of water.

The zeitgeist of any society trickles down from above. The only kind of ‘trickle-down’ that seems to actually work. And the zeitgeist of our times seems to be one where those above deem abominations like nuclear weapons as important, as worth billions, where the tightening belt of austerity is seen as virtue. There is plenty of money to begin to fix this and it is a monstrous lie to think otherwise. I wonder how those who make the cuts to such vital services can sleep at night.

Why do I not chase them and campaign and fight this injustice? For that’s what it is when someone takes their own life; a true injustice. The truth is that right now I do not possess the strength of will to chase and badger and fight, neither does Claire who desperately wished for a charity of some kind in Blythe’s name. It is a regret, but I suppose our fight is to live our lives as best we can. Perhaps the campaigning or charity work will come another day.

In the year that followed Blythe’s death we lived day to day and tried our best. And slowly, ever so slowly, not every day was punctuated by tears.

Then, in the spring term, one of my A-level students killed herself. Another blow. Another set of ripples. She was seventeen. To my shame I somehow couldn’t bring myself to think properly about it at the time. It was too much to think about the ins and outs of her life and why she did what she did. But later part of me couldn’t help but wonder what I, as her teacher, could have done differently. It was impossible not to think about that. I feel truly sorry for her and her family.

What is patently clear to me as an educator is the rising level of stress and pressure and fear manifesting in our young people. It is a time bomb ticking. Exam success is all. Well-being too often an after thought. They are the first generation to live in the glare of social media, where worth is judged by surface image and every move captured in a selfie to be scrutinised by all, and without top grades they are a failure. We desperately need to find new, more humane ways for our young people to measure their own self-worth.

Soon.

And now, three years later, how do Claire and I cope with our own set of ripples?

Once a week Claire volunteers for the local soup kitchen, feeding the hungry mouths of those who shared the cold concrete with Blythe when he was homeless. A growing rag-tag band of the dispossessed and the lost. Many with severe mental health issues; excluded and invisible. In the past year or so the numbers who regularly come for food has risen from under fifty a night to about eighty or a hundred. For Claire it feels like home, a place to be close to Blythe. A place to do good.

She walks the dog to Blythe’s grave and she feels him by her shoulder when we go to the cinema or stroll on a beach. We bought a camper-van and, for Claire, Blythe joins us on our travels and adventures. We have a red beach hut that will be named ‘Blythe’. We laugh and we have friends and family and moments of fun, just like everyone else.

But.

But the truth is we don’t always cope and maybe we aren’t like everyone else.

There is always the creeping ripple of grief that seems to set us apart however hard we try. Some will tell you that grief comes in distinct classic stages but I don’t believe this. It comes in uncalled for waves that crash and fall and merge and build, where the ripples overlap and pile upon one another, or drift away to hang like dark clouds ominously waiting. There is no pattern to the stages.

For Claire it comes in stalking and overpowering moments of anxiety, where she falters like the thinnest of twigs about to snap. It comes in anger at the smallest of annoyances which loom like heavyweight worlds crushing her shoulders. It comes from that ever present knot in the stomach that nags like the worst of reminders. It comes with a destabilising guilt that you shouldn’t laugh at something funny when he is no longer here to share it. It comes with the innocent question she has to answer when she meets someone new; ‘do you have children?’ It comes in the dark hours of night when sleep is hard to find and thoughts are all she has, and in the heavy sleep of morning when endless dreams send promise of a world that is not to be. Dreams where Blythe is still alive, somewhere out there and lost in the fog. It comes in her daydream of inventing a time machine; if only it could take her back to save him. It comes from every little regret filled reminder of ‘if only’ or ‘what if’. It comes with resentment towards those near and far who failed to help or failed to really believe that Blythe needed help. I am, to my endless regret, perhaps one of those.

I do what I can. I make cups of tea. I give reassurance and hugs. I try to resist the irrelevancies and stresses of work and responsibilities and think of the true things. I often fail. I try to love as best I can. I often fail. I lose myself in the things I love, like writing or music and this can mean I take my eye off the ball and miss the cues of Claire’s unhappiness. I should kiss her more often.

The memories of what happened may fade with time, but it will never be over, the ripples continue to spread. The questions will never be answered.

So what is left?

Regret.

That I didn’t do more.

That I never really knew the real Blythe for the great young man he was.

Hope.

Small hope that one day someone in power will finally see what needs to be done. And do it.

Gratitude.

I am lucky she found me.

I am lucky there is still love in the world.

The Bee and the Chasm

A Story for Blythe

Can there be any light on the very darkest of days? Is this a possibility? The sun is shining and yet even its rays leave a cold shiver of realisation. In bed during the shade of night one can pretend, at least for fleeting moments, that it isn’t true, it cannot possibly be true; this thing that has pierced your heart and left a chasm so wide no one can see across it. Is there another side?

The bee knew it; knew it was possible. Possible that there could be light, even on this darkest of days.

It sat on the pillow next to my face. How it got there I cannot tell, I had made sure the windows were shut from the first chill winds of autumn. I could see the condensation, born of cold, dribbling down the glass. Rivulets of my own breath turned magically into liquid form, describing floods and estuaries of some chilly vertical land on the surface of glass.

I looked at the bee, the cloud of my breathing slowly fluttering its impossibly finespun wings. A bee; such a delicate little thing. Such fragility despite the barbs of its sting. How could such a thing ever possibly fly?

I could see the tiniest of beads of my breath clinging as bubbles between the striped hairs on its torso. Was my face reflected in the surface-tension curve of those droplets?

The bee could barely move because of the cold. Antenna twitching and now and then it tried to take a step, legs wobbling like minuscule twigs sliding on ice. Trying to gain purchase that wasn’t there, just like me. It couldn’t possibly fly. The summer of the bee was over.

The bee was looking at me. And I was looking at it.

“You look sad,” said the bee,

“Yes,” I said, not wanting to reveal the chasm within me,

“Don’t be sad,” said the bee,

“Aren’t you sad?” I said, “Your summer is over,”

“How could I be sad?” said the bee, “It was such a very wonderful summer,”

“But you must be in pain?”

“Oh, the pain is nothing. It is fleeting compared to the long warm summer I had. All those flowers I touched! Hundreds and hundreds of them, spread across the world. You should have seen the colours, so many colours and so bright; all the colours of the rainbow and more. So many more colours than we have names for; colours dancing in the warm air all around me everyday. The scent of all those blossoms; so heady that when I flew between them it made me dizzy with wonder. I spread their sweet pollen so very far and wide. So many good flowers; so many flowers that can bloom and spread and brighten the world because of me. And, oh my goodness, the honey we made! So sweet and nourishing, such a taste you wouldn’t believe!”

“But…but now it’s over,” I said,

“Why are you so sad?” said the bee,

“There is a chasm…in my heart…I’m frightened I will never be able to cross it,” I said,

“Oh,” said the bee, “I have seen that chasm; I knew it was coming when I saw the first brown leaf fall. It scared me too but now I can see the other side,”

“What is there?”

“More flowers, more honey,” said the bee,

“But your summer is over?” I said,

“There will always be more summers, beautiful warm summers, however dark the days may seem,” said the bee, “just think, more blooms to pollinate, more colours to see, more scents, more honey to taste. Look. Look at the rays of the sun,”

I turned my head on the pillow and sure enough the sunlight sparkled diamonds through every drop of condensation on the glass.

The bee was gone. But now I knew there would be more summers out there, somewhere across the chasm…

© 2017 Simon Poore