Magazine and writing resources
Three stories about war, each five kilometres apart
People wanted to know if Patch killed anyone during the war. Sometimes, he said ‘It’s all push-button now.’ Sometimes, for kicks, he gave them silence: let the moment tick, unexploded, while his questioner worried. Then, someone cleared their throat and the conversation moved onto sport.
Sometimes, when in the right mood, he bragged about how much fun he’d had. He enjoyed the muscle sap of basic training, how every part of him hummed with fatigue, barely able to keep his eyes open as he spat then worked polish two-fingered into the toe of each boot.
The first time he fired a gun – pressed flat in the dirt of the range, cheek snug against the rifle’s stock, his nostrils twitching against cordite, gun oil, linseed – nerves all over his body sprouted out further than his skin, tested the air, groped against the fabric of his uniform.
On deployment, he loved the way the choppers whipped up grit in huge, stinging fantails, sticking cold fingers down his uniform collar as he ran bent backed towards them. Sat in briefings, he often tuned the detail out, until the commanding officer spoke in gobbledegook. He loved the way all the acronyms chinked together like steel-jacket rounds in their heavy, metal crates. Even the boredom seemed exotic.
Tonight, without leaving a note, he slips out of the house and drives up into the hills. He leaves the car in one of the dark narrow lanes used by townie kids to take drugs or by couples looking for somewhere illicit and remote. He hikes, moving out at double time. He looks back once and sees the city lit up with threads of orange light. He stands for a moment and imagines the whole place burning.
He hikes in a straight line then checks his map: Redver’s Dyke. As he goes forwards, his boots sink in soft mud over their laces and freezing water soaks through his socks.
For the Regimental meal the night before, he billeted with Felding and his pretty young wife, slept in a child’s sleeping bag on the sitting room floor.
When Felding went upstairs to change, Patch stood beside one of the easy chairs, unsure if he should move the complicated pile of cushions and sit. Felding’s wife fussed: over-filled a bowl with peanuts then dropped them on the carpet as she tried to pour the excess back into the packet. They both knelt down to pick up the spill.
She sat back on her haunches, her jitters gone.
‘Jonathan never says anything about it,’ she said, ‘Even when I ask. What was it like? Out there; combat, I mean.’
Patch froze on his hands and knees, caught. In his eyeline, three bamboo fronds spiralled from a glass vase.
‘Remember the last time you got so drunk you could barely stand but drove home anyway?’ he said.
‘I’ve never done that.’
‘There you are,’ he said.
The way the wife’s long curly hair fell across her face reminded him of the young woman he paid one night on leave. The girl’s skin smelled of cinnamon and fragrant cooking oil, infused with something sweet. He had lain back on the bed, and closed his eyes, a hand in that mass of curls, and realised he hadn’t even asked her name. As he felt her breath on his stomach, then his thigh, it was his wife’s sister he thought about.
During the supper, after the fifteenth toast, Felding, his mouth looking burst open and bloody with red wine, leaned across the table and asked ‘Remember the man? Remember how we went back and there was nothing there? I still hear the sound he made going under the wheel. I think about that a lot, don’t you?’
Patch pretended he didn’t hear.
Here, the ground begins to rise again and Patch’s soaked feet thwack through stringy clumps of heather. Above him, hard little stars are being hammered into the sky. In the dark, the farmhouse smudges the blue-black night with a patch of grey. As he gets closer, he makes out that it is a plain bungalow, the facia and guttering gone. The front door stands ajar and, when he pushes it further open and steps inside, the walls weep damp.
He jabs the beam of a pocket torch around the rooms. In the lance of light, door jambs and work tops stand out sudden and sharp as exposed bone. The kitchen shimmers with the tang of fox. Crushed beer cans and cigarette stubs show he’s not the first person to use this place. In the bedroom, he finds a double bed, its orange nylon counterpane thrown back. His torch illuminates a wardrobe, its door off at its top hinge, inside a single suit jacket, green and furred with mould.
In the living room, Patch spreads a tarpaulin on the floor and unpacks from his backpack a long knife with a serrated edge, firelighters, matches, a bottle of sleeping pills.
The fire he lights in an old aluminium saucepan throws flapping shadows around the room. He sits cross legged and tries once more to find his soul. With his eyes closed he tries to trace the edges of it so he can prise it open as you might with a hatch that leads to a cellar. Whatever the soul is, it has not latch or hinges. Instead, he returns to Felding saying over and over, ‘I didn’t see him, man. Didn’t see him.’
‘A goat,’ Patch says aloud.
Even in muddy darkness of this house that smells like the bottom of a well, he can hear the drone of flies swarming round the glossy wet on their vehicle’s wheel arch. He tastes again the sour, hairspray taste of the vodka that he bent over and brought up on to the sand.
‘It’s only a goat,’ he had shouted to Felding, as they scrabbled among the drab boulders heaped beside the road. On the horizon, dust obscured the burning fist of sun.
James Mason has, in small and superficial ways, been a poet, editor and comedian. His work features in The Phare, Flash Fiction Magazine and Horla magazine, as well anthologies by Black Pear Press, Retreat West, and Cranked Anvil.