I awaken to find myself lying on my back in a field of blood, staring at the deep blue beyond while sunflakes shower me with heat and light. Is there any finer noise than the whistling of the swift as he erratically dances across the sky? I watch him soar, then abruptly change his direction, the v-shape of his tail marking him out from the starlings who try their utmost to keep up but cannot match his zest. Two such pretenders take their aim, diving at him, determined to exert their dominance at any cost. He falls out of the sky, slowly spinning, smoke billowing from that distinctive tail. He crashes into the ground far away, over the ridge, where I can’t see him. But that’s alright. I picture him lying, like me, surrounded by poppies and the incessant hum of tiny lives following their own erratic path, dancing only to the rhythm of their own choosing.
A hand squeezes mine; cold as clay. I roll my head lazily to the side and smile. Rebecca smiles back, her beautiful face as perfect as ever I saw it. Her eyes are rheumy and scarlet; she blinks heavily as though suffering some malaise. Hayfever, it must be. She suffers every summer when we ride out across her father’s land. Pleasingly, I find that I have a cigarette in my hand. I put it to my cracked lips and pull deeply, it sears my chest, burning me deep within; I throw it away. Let the insects have it. She mutters something, so close to being intelligible. She moves closer to me, resting her head on my arm. I can smell her hair, sweaty and stale; strangely metallic, like hot shillings. I breathe it deeply in, trying to identify that strange aroma. The ghost of agony haunts my chest, like I was injured long ago in some far off place that no longer matters. I exhale and it retreats like the tide receding from the shore. I close my eyes, breathing slowly, enjoying the thick air that is heavy with pollen and sunshine.
I begin to shake violently; violently.
I open my eyes, I’m being shook. A man with a face brimming over with fear is shaking my shoulders. Every movement sends fresh paroxysms of blunt agony, screaming throughout my shattered body. His tin hat has a red cross on the front. It’s on skewwhiff; I should tell him off but I haven’t the energy. A boy lies next to me, Private Somethingorother, his face deathly pale. I only know he’s alive from the chill grip of his hand in mine. His head rests on my arm. A bomb lands near us, showering the shellhole with fresh clots of mud that plunk viciously into the brown-red water covering what is left of the lower half of me. The blast makes me realise that I am not deaf. The battle rages at a blank, pitchless roar where one noise is indistinguishable from another. I try to pick out individual sounds, the cheerful rattle of the German guns; shells whistling as they dance erratically across the sky; screams, cries. The smell of blood, mud and cordite fills my nose.
My throat and chest burn horribly. It was our own gas; we were betrayed by an unfortunate change in the wind. A ferocious pain twists my stomach as the chap tries to use a field dressing to stuff me back in like an overflowing suitcase. He seems to see something, some sign that my life is not worth saving. Maybe he realises that I am an officer and at least partly responsible for this slaughter. I try to speak, to hold his hand and tell him that I don’t blame him, to help the boy. He pulls away with revulsion, as though he’s scared that I will drag him down into the brown water with me. He splashes away, tripping on something, his arms flail wildly but he stays on his feet. He settles next to another young chap from my platoon and starts his routine again. I stare at the grey sky. High above, fighter planes like small birds do battle against the empty canvas of the heavens.
I try to pull my hand away, to warm it against my own body. The boy opens his eyes and looks mournfully at me, the hurt sadness of a child rejected by his mother. I leave my cold hand in his and squeeze. He smiles gratefully. I move closer to him. With every ounce of my will I put an arm around him and gather him to my chest. A shell lands near making the ground heave and the foul water roil. I close my eyes, I close my mind.
I open them again. The sun has passed behind a large white cloud. Rebecca has gone. I stand up and survey the field all around me. There is nothing to see but poppies and grass. The wind sighs through the crimson blooms making each rustle imperceptibly. In their billons they speak in a language loud enough to hear.
‘Sir?’ A voice behind me makes me jump. I turn to the Private whom I comforted. His face is calm enough but his eyes are troubled.
‘Not Sir, lad. Not here.’
He nods. ‘Is this heaven do you think?’
‘No, I don’t think it is. I recognise that ridge and the contour of the land. This is the field, but maybe as it should be.’
He nods again and smiles, a huge beaming grin that washes the mud out of his eyes. ‘I can’t say that I’m disappointed.’
I return his smile. ‘Nor I. Shall we walk?’
The boy nods again and takes my hand. It feels good, it feels right. We walk. Above us the swift returns to his strange path, but none chase him.