In a world of mud, colour was a low deceit and became his eyes, his legs and his feet tapping out messages to his body in the trenches. Bright colours such as red, orange and even blue were starbursts and new-born memories. Rail by rail, sleeper by sleeper the slow climb east or west, the locomotive found its way through craggy hills and mountain. Steppes washed red and orange by the flickering light of the day and nightfall falling like a stone and covering hay racks and stone houses, with their quaint roofs, and leaving behind the drift of wood smoke and the scent of passing history. A town glided past and on the bend birch forests turned blue and the air, higher up, tasted cleaner and crisper.
Commentary, setting the scene: first paragraph. I was trying to seize the reader and hint at the narrator being blind. In my head that was already an established truth. I wasn’t sure about low deceit. Here I was trying to link in with the ducking and diving of the trenches. But mostly, you write first and think of why you did something later. That’s called giving what you write an alibi. The question here is low deceit, or should it be simplified as low deceit? Similarly, Bright colours such as red, orange and even blue were starbursts and new-born memories. Juxtaposing trenches with train is tied in with the idea of climbing. I’m not sure that applies. If I was writing about the killing fields around Verdun, it is flat country. Hedging my bets with east or west. I’d need to look at that again. Be more honest. Craggy hills. Not sure craggy does anything, but impede the progress of the sentence? Craggy hills. Then the follow on mountains. A sameness, one a synonym for the other, but may aid the idea of movement? Steppes sounds pretty good, it suggests climbing, or even falling. The problem here is steppes are usually associated with the East and in particular, I’d guess, Russia. Washed red has connotations of blood. I’d probably get away with orange, the colours of change. Nightfall falling- like a stone- hits all the cliché buttons as it goes down. Hay racks and stone houses are at best a guess. This shows I don’t know what I’m talking about with the idea of ‘quaint roofs’. The drift of wood smoke tied in with the journey and also history does work.
Each station they stopped red-capped guards stood in attendance, a hammer ringing up out of the tobacco fug and rowdy song: so We’re here because we’re here because we’re here, and the relief of being somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere else, away from the shells and the shrapnel and the sucking stinging mud filled with ghosts of friends and rats feasting on the finest, and overblown lice on the warm-blooded seams of sentient leftovers, and the pitter-patter of machine guns. The wheel tapper walked close to the line, tapped out the cheerful beat of the evening, and the order of nothing falling apart. Everything in order. The rattle and shuttle of bodies defying gravity and moving on shuggling in the aisles and tilting in the compartment, and in the dining car, officers looking up from their hands of hearts over diamonds, alert, before sinking back into worn cards and playful bickering. Rubber followed rubber. The laughed as small sums of money changed hands, not lives, not in the way the most meaningless choice at the front could. Wax polish and the smell of the promised leg of lamb hung in the air, perhaps with a carafe of pinot blanch to follow and they licked dry lips. Laughed because they could, because they were here because they were here because they were here.
Red-capped guards continues the theme of colour, rising from the mud (I just thought of that, so it must be true). But the truth is I don’t know if i) guards were posted on the line ii) if they wore red caps, or iii) what they were supposed to be doing. I quite like the idea of a hammer ringing out the wheels and the wheels getting checked, wheel by wheel, by a wheel-tapper employed to do such a job because although it plays at normality it is ridiculous. Soldiers on leave are coming from a place where every minute of every day they died, yet, away from the front a parental ideal of care springs into action. I tried to show this with the anthem and rats feeding on the finest. A motif which recurs at the end of the paragraph.
‘Won’t be long now,’ someone said. He turned his head towards the Glaswegian accent.
The movement from the general to the particular, a focusing in works here. The accent is Glaswegian, so back in familiar territory for me.
‘Where are we?’ he asked one of the orderlies. He shifted closer to the window, his body squeezed into a hard seat in a third-class compartment. The kind that his mother used to take him on when they went doon the water to Rothesay, with all the other families from the streets surrounding them at the Glasgow Fair. His mother, sitting opposite, kept an eye on him far better than any medic, a black, winged hat buried her ears, wearing her best grey dress pinned with a large cairngorm brooch, a necklet of fur, some fox rubbed up the wrong way, her lips moving silently as she mouthed: ‘Hurry up. Hurry up. Hurry up’. Fearful of being sick and disgracing herself. George knew how she felt. His wee brother had cheered when he was called up and his wee sister had cried.
This is a kind of interlude linking past and present. The reactions of brother and sister tie the varying responses together and give a notion of home.
His fingers traced the bandage around his head, covering his eyes. They’d shaved his head on one side, minor bleeding, no lasting damage. Poked and prodded by one of the doctors. A light shined in his eyes. Then he’d slept for a very long time. Woke up somewhere unfamiliar. The smell of disinfectant and the groans of other men helped him realise he was in hospital. And that was all he had hoped for, all he dreamed of. Felt a body filling the space, leaning over him.
‘You have to go back to your regiment,’ a voiced tolled in an upper-class English accent. ‘Royal Scots, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, sir,’ he said, sitting up square in his bed and trying to salute.
‘Good man,’ he said. ‘I see you’ve got a medal for gallantry.’
He heard an intake of breath, slide of his shoes as he stepped to one side, fingers drumming impatiently on a piece of paper. The doctor acted like he was deaf and dumb as well as blind, with his instructions to the orderly to ‘get him up and get him moving, as quickly as possible’.
That was when he first heard the word ‘malingerer’.
This episode was the way the story played out in my head. My intentions were to juxtapose the way that soldiers from working-class backgrounds, in particular, were tortured by those of a different class in the belief that would make a man of them and cure them. But the story didn’t quite work out that way.
They walked slowly arm in arm, giving the others plenty of time to climb onto waiting buses and trains and leave them behind. The whistles and hissing of trains, the shouted greeting of other passengers meeting loved ones. An amputee beside them swung himself sideways and forward with the aid of crutches. He tilted his head and shifted his weight onto his good leg.
They would be best modified by giving the orderly some kind of descriptive presence. That way the linkage of past and present would seem more real. Arm-in-arm. The bustle of the station is alluded to in the next sentence. The problem with the amputee isn’t who he is or what he does, but a logistical one. There’s a shift in point of view. Who is seeing him? Especially if George is blind.
‘George, is that you?’ he called over his shoulder. ‘It’s Frank. Frank Lodge, we were together at Verdun.’
George had been with tens of thousands of others, on paper part of a centripetal force attacking a hill. A worm’s eye view of the trenches separated the men from the boys. Shivering boys who had soiled themselves, standing beside you, blown up. Men buried alive, some unearthing themselves, only to die later. Rank decaying body parts shovelled into bags. Left out in the open. Bayoneting and shooting of prisoners because the only way to survive was to remain alive. Gas drifting and men vomiting up their burnt lungs, the only cure a bullet. Fields of mud, vast cemeteries without end. He turned sightless, some plangent note in the voice calling him back.
Worm’s eye view is clichéd. The idea of starting with shivering boys and then in the next sentence allowing them to be referred to as men works, but perhaps some or all of it should be moved to the opening passage, second paragraph, and tied in with the pitter-patter of machine guns.
‘We met at the delousing station, shared a half of whiskey before going on leave.’ There was a pleading tone to his voice. ‘Remember?’
I wasn’t sure how much whiskey the men at the front had, but I remembered reading how the Germans, when they raided the trenches were astonished how much food and booze was on the other side.
‘Aye,’ said George, trying to sound convincing. But then it came to him, a man with hardly any hair and a nose so long it appeared no just on his face but on different time zones. Now it had come to meet him as he felt the man’s arms around his neck as his crutch fell and he awkwardly hugged his head. ‘Frank, sorry mate, I just can’t see you.’
Hardly any hair, i.e. balding or some variant, shorten. His nose being on different time zones – attempt at Glasgow humour.
The orderly bent down and picked up the crutch, he positioned the pad under Frank’s oxter and the crutch in an upright and steady position, allowing him to move his foot and let it take his weight.
‘Cheers pal,’ Frank said to the orderly. ‘Going home to meet the wife.’ His voice seesawed up and down. ‘Never thought I’d be able to say that.’
The orderly appears again here. A third body between George and Frank. The case for the orderly to have some kind of descriptive tag so he stands out is clear.
‘You’ve got a wife?’ George sounded surprised.
‘Aye, she couldnae resist me.’ The smile was slow in coming. ‘Just thought I’d say hello. We used to talk about you, you know, how you got transferred and then the terrible day. If you’re numbers up, it’s up. All dead – apart from you, of course.’ He bit his lip and nodded, even though the other man couldn’t see it. ‘Keep in touch.’ He steadied his crutch, but before striking out, reached out to embrace George once more.
Bit muddled here. Leading the reader into flannel land. how you got transferred and then the terrible day.
George flinched at the touch, but then he stepped inside the crutches, and placing his arm around his friend’s powerful shoulders, swaying and supporting his weight, he felt his unshaved cheek press briefly against his own. ‘Take care of yourself.’ George felt his eyes moisten beneath the bandages.
Need to re-order or rewrite sentence so the whose unshaved cheek is being pressed against flesh is clear.
‘You too,’ said Frank.
George waited until he could hear the tap and swing of the crutch as he took the first step and moved away.