The Accidental Soldiers by Becci Louise, 2017
The Accidental Soldiers by Becci Louise 2017
The Accidental Soldiers
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
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
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
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.