Remembrance 2015

In the past on such a day I have shared my World War One short story. This year I thought I would do something different. 

Remembrance Sunday is a day when we remember all those that have given their lives in pursuit of our freedoms. We should remember them every day, but this one day at least gives a focal point.

For the last year I have been working on a WWI novel. As it approaches its final stages of drafting I thought I would share an excerpt of a part that has been more polished. I think it is a particularly poignent passage considering today’s message. Have a read and see what you think.
Lest we forget…

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Objection (Novel Excerpt)

– Prologue – Sometime After the War
He stood in the gathered crowd, his family in a line beside him. He looked at them before bowing his head, as all those around were doing in reverence to the dead. They, his family, had changed so much during the few years of the war, as no doubt he had also. When he looked in the mirror he no longer saw the young boy he had been in nineteen fourteen. The war had aged them all. His family could no longer bear to look at him for long, no doubt seeing in his eyes the horrors he had witnessed. Or maybe he reminded them of the other son and brother they had lost. 
They all stood in silence, with hats and caps doffed under arms, focussing their vision on their shoes. Meanwhile the bishop droned on in his fashion, extolling he virtues of sacrifice.
He stared with them, trying not to dredge up the memories of the past. I have lived through hell, but in that I am not alone, he thought to himself, trying to push away the rising feeling of nausea. Bile stuck in his throat and he desperately tried to swallow it away. No one noticed, or if they did they attributed it to his grief. 
It wasn’t just the soldiers that had suffered and sacrificed, those at home had too. He wondered how his brother might be now, at this memorial to the dead. How much he would have changed by the war. But he would never know. They had both endured their own private hells, and as the dead would keep their solace, so would the living. No one would ever truly understand their plight and those that had experienced it didn’t need the others to remind them. That was what the nightmares were for. 
So he stood there, in silence, with their neighbours and people from the nearby streets, waiting for the bishop to finish his sermon and for the memorial to be revealed. There would have been many more of them before the war, with smiles on their faces and a friendly welcome, but now it was so different. So many were lost, so many he had never really got a chance to know. So many chances not taken, opportunities lost. Some families didn’t even know what had happened to their sons, brothers and husbands. The steady stream of letters had dried up, until one final, foreboding letter had arrived, decorated with the stamp of the war office, telling the family that their son was missing in action. Whatever that really meant. It had happened to too many. The look of defiance, of still holding out hope that their loved one would push their way through the crowd, to tears of joy and welcoming embraces, was mixed with the grief on their faces.
The bishop stopped, and was replaced by a Major that looked young enough to have been a junior Lieutenant at the outbreak of war. His voice broke as he began reading out the names of the lost…Morgan… Norris… Oliver… and many more besides. The endless torrent of the dead never ended. They were just names now, their legacy the brass plaque that was being unveiled. 
He patted his coat pocket, remembering the bundle of letters that he kept there. That’s where they would stay, sealed, but not forgotten. The letters had started almost as soon as the war had. When they were very young, he and his brother had written notes to each other, especially when they went to separate schools, but they had stopped as they grew apart. As adults, and with a war hanging over them, it had only seemed natural to write again. 
He stood there, head bowed as the Major continued reading out the names of the fallen, some of whom he knew, others he had never met, and he wondered why he thought of his brother, not of the friends and loved ones he had lost. 
When he could bare to think of him, he had spent most of the war angry with his brother. Not angry, that wasn’t strictly the right emotion, but it was true that they had never really understood each other. Not since they were kids had they ever agreed on anything. Like most things concerning his brother, he couldn’t put his finger on how he felt. They were two very different people, with two different stories. He had high hopes for his brother, they all had, yet he threw it all away. He chose his path. When he should have turned to his family he turned away. It was hard now to remember him as they were when they were children. Too much had happened to both of them. The family had a little memorial of their own, in the privacy of their home, but his name had not been spoken aloud then, nor since. They missed him, that much was certain, but it was too painful a memory to recall. 
The major had finished now, and had disappeared from the front of the gathering. There was a cough from someone amongst the crowd. The only sound apart from that was the occasional sniffle of a nose, or the sound of stifled weeping. Heads were still bowed and would remain that way for some time, some years perhaps. 
At first he hadn’t understood his brother’s decision; they stood on opposite sides. But as the war dragged on and on, past its first Christmas and into a new year, year after year, he had begun to feel that he understood his brother a lot more. He begun to understand the need to fight for something, to believe in something and to not give up, no matter what life would throw at you. That was a sentiment he could agree on, and he guessed it was something their father had managed to install in them both, despite their differing opinions on other matters. It had been a clear dividing line at first, but things were less clear now. Things had changed for all of them. The horror of the war had left no one family unaffected. They couldn’t change their decisions, but they could make sure that they counted for something. That things hadn’t just changed for the worst, but would be allowed to change for the better too. 
He just wished his brother was still around to say this to, but he would never have the chance now. Their paths drifted apart, on what was to be a fateful day for millions of people…

Lest We Forget…

I haven’t made a blog post in a couple of weeks, for two reasons. I haven’t had a writing workshop on my course. We have been looking at other things. Also, I have been quite busy writing stuff that I can’t post on here. One of which was a submission to Black Library.

So, I thought, given the importance of the date, that I would post a flash fiction piece I wrote for a magazine which never saw the light of day. I don’t believe it needs any introduction or any comment on setting from me.

The Day

by Michael J. Hollows

The noise grew to a cacophony as it had done each time before, wailing like sirens before finishing in a calamitous bang. British artillery shells fell in the distance, throwing up great clods of dirt that could be seen from the British army’s position. Each shell whined overhead, causing the assembled men to flinch and duck instinctively each time, despite the distance. It was always the same, the noise. Each time the commanders decided to try and pummel the Bosch into the ground, the boys at the back would aim their cannons and the shells would fly. The sound of massed artillery was not easily forgotten. But they had been through it before, countless times, to get to where they were today. It didn’t make it any less uncomfortable though.

Private Gerald Harlow ducked again as he heard the wash of another shell go overhead. He cursed as his foot slipped off the boarding and threw mud up his fatigues. The mud added to the wetness around his ankles as he placed his sodden boot back on the boarding with a squelch. He looked at the men lined up either side of him, they were all soaked through. Gerald had run out of fresh socks weeks ago, he had even forgotten what dry feet felt like. His comrades likened this place to hell, but at least hell is supposed to be warm, he thought bitterly.

The dull crump of the artillery added to the misery as Gerald surveyed his surroundings once more, trying to warm himself up. The equally miserable men around him were all of similar age. Young men gone from their homes to fight in the British Expeditionary Force. Many of them had had no other choice, no prospects. Some had chosen it. But Gerry, as the others called him, had enlisted underage to get away from his home; to get away from a difficult life. His family were poor and aging, few were left. Only his sister had managed to make any money for herself by marrying in to a somewhat wealthy family. If he had stayed at home, he would have been living in poverty now, the army had given him a way out. Looking around, it didn’t seem like such a good idea now.

The captain was moving along the line of men, swagger stick under his arm, whistle held lightly in the other hand. He was a good man, as he passed each soldier he offered words of encouragement and a brief smile. As Gerald knew from experience this was a rarity in the army. The man also reminded him of home, whether it was the comforting Hampshire accent, or the body language that reminded him so much of his late father, he couldn’t quite tell. A note in his diary that morning, that had also been transcribed as a letter waiting to head home, said as much.

Today was the first of July, 1916 and the letter had told his elderly mother about his experiences in the army at great length and about the men he had met. He had ended it with the line, “Today is the day, today I become a man.” After writing it he had thrown up into a latrine and headed out on duty. Several hours later he found himself standing where he stood now, with his sodden boots and the deafening sounds of artillery.

The squelch of footfalls preceded the Captain reaching his position. As with all the others, he stopped briefly, putting a hand to Gerald’s arm and with a commanding tone so easy to him he said, “Are you ready, son?”

Naturally, Gerald swallowed nervously and deeply, before raising his head to look his Captain in the eyes. He struggled to control his nerves and his hands were shaking gently by his sides, but he managed a curt nod. The Captain smiled knowingly and moved on, removing his hand from the Private’s arm. An odd sense of relief flashed through Gerald, before he remembered the oncoming battle and his stomach fell again.

He hadn’t noticed the absence of sound, but it seemed strange now. He had grown almost familiar with the noise of the artillery barrage and had somehow phased it out of conscious thought. Now it was gone however, its absence was far more obvious and somehow disturbing. The cessation of the bombardment meant only one thing and Gerald swallowed deeply again while he shuffled his feet.

The Captain turned on his heel and looked along the line of his men. Breathing deeply he bellowed, “This is it, lads. The big push, get rea-“

His call was interrupted by a series of dull explosions nearby, which made Gerald’s stomach lurch and almost tipped him forward where he stood.

Unperturbed the Captain continued his speech, “That’s the mines, men. Now when you go over the top Fritz will be reeling so much you can walk all the way without seeing a single one alive! See you there! Ready?”

Gerald heard his Captain’s words and felt reassured by them, surely a man of his experience knew exactly what he was talking about and as the Captain put the whistle to his mouth the Private felt an immense sense of pride. He was finally a man.

The sound of whistles broke out all along the trench as the officers signalled their men to battle and they were soon joined by the shouts of the soldiers, roaring at the top of their voices.

Gerald added his own voice to the chorus, screaming until his lungs burnt with the exertion. Without another thought he followed his comrades up the ladder, placing his foot on the bottom rung and propelling himself into no man’s land.

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