No Man’s Land
This is a commission from performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes. I was asked to make a response to the first World War, as part of the centenary of the war in 2014.
Though there’s still a faint smile crease in Penelope’s cheeks, she can no longer speak. She hasn’t got long to live; had a good innings. Reached a ton. Lost her husband to World War One.
Kimberley sits by her great grandmother’s hospital bed, bored. She’s got better things to do. Looks at Penelope, her silver curls of hair, eyes watery blue. Her skin pinpricks Kimberley’s curiosity; frail and papery, like the bark of a birch tree, but above the wrist there are whorls, like colourless bruises, or inkless tattoos.
“Not long left, eh, nan?”
Barbed wire whispers from her dad: “Kimberley! Don’t be so bloody rude!”
Kimberley shrugs, and turns on the six o’clock news. Same old, same old; someone called Saddam just invaded Kuwait, and the USA is in a panic. Kimberley puts her Walkman on to escape, throwing shapes in her head to a pirated tape of Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’. She slips out the door, crosses the ward, heading for a fag outside Guy’s hospital. Lights up at the foot of a memorial to those who lost their lives between 1914 – 18. Stubs out her fag; in her ears, her hero Chuck D screams “We gotta fight the powers that be”. She stares up at the arch with disdain. Her eyes see a crumbling invocation of an old, weak, dying nation, whose coffers were filled through exploitation. To Kimberley, what these commemorations actually say is “Britain Rules The Waves”; monuments to yesterday, used by the powers that be to keep people dumb and enslaved, doing whatever their government says. She scrawls ‘Fuck War’ on the wall, her marker pen mightier than the sword. Turns round to see an old man staring. He’s furious at what she’s done, but also scared.
He’s got a mole the size of a small coin in the centre of his brow, like a third eye.
“Got a problem?” hisses Kimberley. He shuffles away, and she shouts, “And don’t you fucking look back, alright?”
A boy, hardly yet a man, a mole the size of a small coin in the centre of his brow, like a third eye, stands shivering in a trench, covered in freezing mud. By now. he’s gotten used to the stench – overflowing latrines, rotting feet – but he still hasn’t gotten used to the corpses, or to the blood.
Other things give him the creeps. Rats; big, hairy, fat beasts that run across his face when he’s trying to sleep; and lice, which bed themselves in every seam and every crease. And then there is fear. Fear pervades all. It soaks into his boots from the freezing water underfoot; it crumbles into his fingers, like these bastard walls. Fear of death; fear of not dying, and instead staring down at what will be left; ravaged limbs. Perhaps the loss of feeling in his hands. He fears the command which asks him to go over the top, stumbling into No Man’s Land.
A man kneels down next to the boy, unzips a flask, pours him a tot of rum, which instantly warms him up. “It’s not the end of the world, is it, son?” The man flashes a grin. The boy smiles back at the terrible joke; something inside him gives in. From that moment on, the two become friends. And together, they will eventually play a part in shaping history; but it won’t be the battle they are decorated for, which the one that survives will remember; instead, it will be the camaraderie.
For the two begin to tell each other stories. They cling to each other through the tales they tell. Facts, fictions and fabrications weave together like the threads of a banishing spell, which keep them protected from bullets and shells, rain and cold. The older tells the younger about where he’s going to go when he gets out of this hellhole; tells him of the life he’s got back at home. He describes leaving New Street train station, waving his kids and his missus goodbye; recalls the tears in his wife Penelope’s eyes.
When the young man returns from war, two years older, decorated soldier, he visits Penelope to express his lament, and speak of the love embedded in the stories told between men.
Penelope opens the door and smiles. Silver curls of hair, watery blue eyes. He notices the skin on her hands; frail and papery, like the bark of a birch tree. Above the wrist there are whorls, like colourless bruises, or inkless tattoos. She offers him a cup of tea; nods sagely, tight lipped, as he unveils his memories. She looks relieved. He takes his leave.
As she shuts the door behind him, Penelope sighs; sits on the staircase and cries, bereft. Runs a finger over the burns in her arm, made by her husband in a drink-fuelled rage before he left. Surface wounds retained from her own war, but perhaps the least of the damage she sustained; far worse are the feelings of self-hatred, inadequacy and shame which pervade her delicate frame like his open handed slaps and – when he was really pissed – his closed fists.
Things aren’t always as clear-cut as they’re made out to be. People we cite as heroic are also fallible, filled with very human flaws; cowardice, bitterness, tyranny, guilt. Sometimes we shield our eyes, for fear of seeing what secrets lie inside the heroes we have built.
At New Street Station, she waved him goodbye, amidst thousands of women saying farewell to their men, perhaps for the last time. She wanted to look like she was crying. She fingered an onion in her pocket, to make her eyes wet.
Kimberley toys with a locket, strung around her neck.
She’s been wearing it for a while; it belonged to her great grandmother, Penelope, who died years ago, when Kimberley was still a kid, a rebel without a pause, all anti-this and anti-that and militant rap and sharpened claws. Now she finds herself walking the same streets which as a youth, she used to tag with a marker pen, and a ‘Fuck you’ attitude. She’s been walking for hours, which she likes to do whenever she’s upset; she’s just left Eddies’s flat, and he’s in the worst state she’s seen yet.
Who could have predicted that when she was older, Kimberley, once bitter, sour, fighting the power, would fall in love with a soldier?
Things weren’t going to be run of the mill if your lover was called Eddie Khan. Born a Muslim, served the British army; campaigns included Kosovo and Afghanistan. Still, they made a good team. He didn’t tell her the nightmares he’d seen, and she didn’t share the stuff of her dreams. But two years ago, Eddie returned home a ghost; relieved of his post midway through the second Iraq war, due to the traumas he suffered on tour, in particular one nightmare he’d seen.
At first, he lived with Kimberley. Periods of depression, paranoia, anxiety. Couldn’t get a job. Started to sink. Over the years, he’d left his religion behind and learnt to drink. Alcohol exacerbated the monkeys in Eddie’s head. He drenched the sheets with cold sweats. Kimberley would sleep in a different bed; it’s tiring looking after someone who’s depressed. After three or four tins, he’d stare; a look which left her feeling scared. One night he grabbed her by the neck. Kimberley moved out. She loved Eddie, but wasn’t about to become a victim of his crap. He needed help, and she promised him that, but from the safety of a nearby flat.
Today, Eddie Khan is a mess. Four in the afternoon and still hasn’t got dressed. He’s raving about how the government won’t support him. They trained him to kill, he says, but as soon as he became a civvy, he ceased to become important. Kimberley leaves – he is struggling, alone, irate. Now she’s on a long walk, trying to get her head straight. She finds herself at the foot of a memorial to war. She looks at the statues of soldiers, captured and frozen in time. She starts to cry. In her is triggered a grief for those caught in a battle with no choice but to fight. Those who struggle with the things they’ve seen. Eddie Khan. Penelope. Those who sacrifice their lives, in service of their fellow men.
We must remember the terrible things we’ve done in the past – so we do not do them again. We must forgive – but not forget. Allow the past to serve as a reminder. In every action we make, every single thing we do – can we be kinder?
An old man stands next to Kimberley. He sees her crying. Worries that if he interferes, she might tell him to go away; he takes the risk anyway. He puts her hand on her shoulder gently, and this is what he has to say;
“It’s ok, love. It’s ok.”