The Accidental Soldiers by Becci Louise, 2017

The Accidental Soldiers by Becci Louise 2017

The Accidental Soldiers

Becci Louise

Commissioned by Poole Museum

© Copyright Becci Louise, 2017.

All rights reserved. This product, or any part thereof, cannot be reproduced, stored or distributed in any way, or by any means, without the express written permission of the poet and creator.

The Accidental Soldiers

Arrival

In darkness, the ghosts of accidental soldiers

gather by the quayside, jostling

to be the first ashore. Their feet

no longer feel the land beneath them,

their gravity buried a thousand miles away

or more, with their bodies, lain open

by the crooked tooth of war.

 

They are so many that the living breathe them in,

the ghosts infect the dreaming of children,

stir the rest of mothers, unpin the grenade hearts

of fathers and launch them, hissing,

into the agony of what if.

 

It could have been their sons, their brothers,

were they sleeping a century before.

The ghosts know this, know the weight of what if

laying over the town, and struggle forward

to feel the shore.

They wander like a sickness through the narrow streets,

seeping through the brickwork, drawn to the warmth

of boys not yet un-stoppered by a war

fought for God-Knows-What

on unfamiliar shores. Some ghosts

still wear the desert in their eyes. Some

still pick shrapnel from their teeth. Others, still,

do not yet know they’ve died, the fever that took them

still festers in the smoke of them.

 

But they come—every night, they come—

whispering across oceans, no matter how wide,

stealing from their graves, against the wild tide,

because they want to come home.

To the place their souls understand,

to the familiar tug of a native land,

a town balanced on the tip of the coast,

from whom they were pulled, expectant, wild-eyed

and brimming for battle, only to return

as ghosts.

 

The First Ghost

Harold Robert Victor Andrews

Some of them hesitate before the land.

The mist of them whispers from the surface of the sea,

they don’t know if they’ll still be

when home is under their feet again.

 

The first to push through those memories of young men

is younger than the rest of them.

Harry was just a boy, then. Childhood punctuates his face

even in death. The slender lines of impending manhood

 

draw along his jaw, but there are pimples on his cheek,

his lips, in living, were soft with words yet to be said.

He carries, still, his mother’s desperate token—

The photograph of her, a bride, had told him

 

he’d have his own wife one day,

so he ought to be careful not to die.

That’d be an awful inconvenience for his future.

He’d not listened, of course.

 

The dizzy pull of war, lads signing up,

the scratch of khaki under his chin,

admiring eyes of boys too young to join—

or at least, younger than him.

 

They’d needed all the lads they could get, by then.

He’s pretty certain the Sergeant knew

he was only seventeen. But a body with a gun

can pull a trigger, no matter how it trembles,

 

and perhaps he’d take a Hun or two with him

when he died. But Harry has no idea

what it means to kill a man. He might have done,

he can still feel the bulk of that gun,

 

it weighed like manhood in his arms,

and he had hated the soft glow of young stubble

on his face, how it gave his age away.

He’d wanted to be fierce.

 

But Mesopotamia blistered his body,

his feet skinned and bloody.

It was the heat that took him in the end.

He died, gasping for water

 

because he was not ready for war.

(As if anyone ever is).

Now, his ghost steps back into town,

still rattling with shame.

 

He finds the place, he thinks, much changed,

but the dead have mist for memories.

He wanders the high street, calling his mother’s name.

The city throws his voice back at him,

 

the desperate cry for his mother,

cloying and urgent, just the same.

 

The Second Ghost

William Henry Stay

Slower to step ashore, heavy, still,

under the weight of his death, comes William.

Always William to his father, those three syllables

bedding him deep into the Earth, like an apple seed.

But he was Billy to his wife,

Billy, a breath cut a syllable short—a pulse tripping

 

on itself at the sight of her.

He remembers her laugh like life coming back to him,

that dizzy love, a rush of vertigo. They’d married quickly,

as everyone did back then,

with the dark maw of war gaping wide above them.

He’d fought hard not to fight at all,

military exemption in 1916, while Alice

 

battled the blinding sickness of pregnancy,

her body in conflict with itself. How could he leave her

like that? But eventually, of course,

the war became too hungry to allow

for such compassion, and he shook like a torn flag

under machine gun fire,

 

body a bed of bullets, inverted seeds

sapping the goodness from him. It took him

an hour or two to die, and at the last,

what made him panic most was not the pain,

but that the blood loss meant

he could not remember his wife’s name.

 

He comes back now, holding himself together

with sea mist and shame, whispering her over and over,

Alice into the silence. Alice into the dark.

Unlike Harry, he knows how long it’s been.

He’s hoping he can conjure her back to him,

but whether in death, or grief, or anger,

she stays away.

 

The Third Ghost

Lance Corporal Clarence Frederick Keene

Some of the ghosts only hover by the quay,

fever-racked memories reduced to smoke and suffering.

This one remembers only that his mother

called him Freddie when he was sick.

She hadn’t been in Palestine

 

for the hottest sickness of all, she hadn’t

stroked his sweat-soaked fringe from his brow

and shooed the fever-spots from his eyes,

collared the goblins he’d hallucinated, or lifted

water to his flushed lips.

 

He knows he had called for her as the malaria ravaged him,

knows that, though he’d faced the barrel of a rifle

with his jaw set and his eyes open, he’d quivered

in the blistered gaze of pestilence. He’d seen his death

watching from the shadowed corner of the hospital tent,

 

its rotten teeth grinning, its outline shimmering

with disease. He wants to see his mother,

but the word ‘coward’ hovers in the moonlight of his ghost

and he cannot bear it. He walked the white foam

as it kisses the hulls of ships, peers between the buildings

 

in the hopes of seeing home. He’d been planning

to come back a hero, as they all were, he supposes.

Look at them now—the racked reflections of dead men

skulking like thieves in the star-shine, squabbling over scraps

of memory, unsure what to leave to the living

 

and what still to claim as ‘mine’.

Freddie whispers his own name, his lipless form

clinging to the sense of himself, though most of his ghost

is fever, now. He knows two certain things

malaria could not take.

 

His name is Freddie

and his mother loves him.

 

The Fourth Ghost

Daisy Hunt

Not all the ghosts come in from the sea.

Some are already waiting, their smoke laid

like bitter pollution between the cracks of paving stones,

in the plaster of houses, in the jaundiced glow

of street lamps. Daisy has been waiting

 

for a hundred years for Percy’s ghost.

Dead as she is, held together with want and grief,

she wears only her own vapour, but imagines

that, when Percy finally finds her, he will see her

wearing her wedding dress. It was so white,

 

subtle and soft, a length that covered her ankles, proper.

She’d looked a dream, seen herself reflected in his eyes.

Not six months later, he’d hoisted his rifle

and marched off to die. Only a year they’d been married

when the bullet got him in the throat.

 

No one taught Daisy how to be a widow before the first blush of marriage

had paled from her face. No one explained

how the grief would worm through her

like the ravage of cancer, bring years to her face,

age her eyes until their shine reflected only

the haggard fear of the dying.

 

She still spoke his name in her sleep. Percy.

She had been jealous, at first, when friends’ men

came home, had taken a while, to see

how each was haunted, how shells had blown them through

with more than just shrapnel, had sliced

 

their thirst for life. More than one of those who returned

later died by their own hand.

At least she hadn’t had to fight through that.

At least her Percy died whole, died, probably,

with that dimpled grin on his face, those wedding tears

on his cheeks, the ones he’d tried to hide.

She steps out onto the quay, now, as she has every night,

to search the parade of ghosts for her husband’s face.

Ghosts don’t have faces, they are electric fear

and elemental instinct. But it doesn’t stop Daisy trying.

 

And Years Have Passed…

The ghosts never say long.

Their town—this whole land—has changed too much

for them to hold together in a home

that has since become foreign.

 

They returned to find women working their factories,

unions emerging like fish, blinking, from the sea.

They could not keep up with the churning purpose

of factories, the relentless progress of industry.

 

Perhaps, if they had come home living,

if they had maintained the capacity to adapt,

they’d have fallen into the mechanics of this evolution

grown with their families, supported their women.

 

But ghosts are held together by stability,

and progress is as wild and worrisome as war.

Their children no longer hang their heads

and hold out their hands to be beaten.

 

Their women no longer bend under brutal skirts,

bear children and silence with the patience of ages.

The ghostly melody of deference

once played before these men went to their death,

 

has translated into assertiveness.

The ghosts no longer understand the language

their land speaks. They no longer know

its anxious cities and its colonised peaks.

 

They are tied to their own history,

to their accidental graves far across the sea.

In death, it never occurs to them that they might not

have had to skirt the edges of life every night,

 

had they been born in this town at this time,

and born into these new rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

- Rupert Brooke