11 Sep 2010

This says everything I would like to say but can't quite put into words as wonderful as this.

"Five years on
what false alarm can be trusted again?
What case or bag can be left unclaimed?
What flight can be sure to steer its course?
What building can claim to own its form?
What column can vow to stand up straight?
What floor can agree to bear its weight?
What tower can vouch to retain its height?
What peace can be said to be water-tight?
What truth can be said to be bullet-proof?
Can anything swear to be built to last?
Can anything pledge to be hard and fast?
What system can promise to stay in place?
What structure can promise to hold its shape?
What future can promise to keep the faith?

Everything changed. Nothing is safe."


- An extract from 'Out of the Blue' by Simon Armitage, written to commemorate the September 11th attacks five years on.

4 Sep 2010

"September, 1939."

It was one of those beautiful days that come in late September where the evening sun bathes everything orange and pink. Sylvia was sat on the back step outside her house with her blue tea-dress and big wooly cardie to keep off the chill. She'd just lit up a cigarette when her eyeline was obstructed by a tall, dark figure.
"Robbie!" She budged up to make room for him on the step and blew smoke in his face. He coughed, politely. They sat in comfortable silence. They'd been doing this for 18 years, ever since their respective mothers had had babies next door to eachother in the same month. Beautiful, noisy Sylvia and pale, bookish Robbie had grown up with and in spite of eachother.
"I've joined up." Robbie said it in a rush, as if he couldn't hold it in. He looked jangly and strung out, his grasshopper legs bouncing up and down. Sylvia dropped her cigarette and made a strange 'oof' sound, as if she'd been winded. She picked it up and tried to light it again, but her hands were shaking. In the end Robbie did it for her.
"You're joking, aren't you? I mean, who'd want a skinny little spec like you?"
He blushed. "The navy. I'm going to read maps and that sort of thing - navigation."
"The navy? The bloody navy! What on earth do you want to go in the navy for?" She was trying to laugh but it wasn't coming off. "I thought you were leaving me to be all la-di-da at University - not leaving me to go play boats!"
"There's a war on, Sylvie."
"And don't I bloody know it! It's all I've heard for days and it's only been three weeks!" er voice cracked. "It's all a lot of fuss about nothing." She rested her head on his shoulder, it fit just exactly in the space between his neck and his shoulder. "Will you wear those trousers like that film we saw? Do you remember that one? The one with the naval officer and his girl in the Congo?"
Of course Robbie remembered that film. He'd spent the whole picture trying to pluck up the nerve to kiss her, but had lost it when all she could talk about on the way home was the handsome lead actor.
"Robbie?" She moved her head slightly so the tip of her nose pressed into his neck.
"Yeah, I remember. I'm not sure what I'll be wearing to be honest."
"Oh Robbie. Why do you have to go? Couldn't you have just waited for them to call you up if they'd needed you?" Sylvia pulled her arms up and around his shoulders so the cigarette smoke blew through his brown hair.
"If I wait for draft - and draft's coming - then I'll get put in the army straight away. You know I'd be no good as a private, Sylvie. This way I can be useful and still make sure I don't get myself killed."
Sylvia began to cry quietly. "Shut up! Please don't say anything like that."
"You sound like mum."
She sighed. "When do you leave?"
"Two weeks."
She took another drag over his shoulder and he coughed again. "You'll have to start smoking if you're going in the navy. And you'll need tattoo's. Tattoo's and prostitutes - one for every port."
"Lay off it Sylvie."
They sat for a while like that, her arms around his neck and her lips and nose pressing into the skin between his collar bone and chin.
"Don't forget me. I don't care how pretty the whores are in Calcutta. You've always got to come back to me." He could smell the smoke on her breath as she lifted her head up and looked at him, very seriously.
"Sylvia Jones, you are the most beautiful girl I will ever see - even more beautiful than the whores of Calcutta." They both laughed nervously as their heads drew closer together.
In the end she kissed him. Everything was about to change for good. This last golden September of 1939 would be remembered as the calm before the storm of the next six years. It would be the memories they made in this moment that would carry them through the horrors they had yet to face, and Sylvia seized on this moment to make her own.
Robbie reached out for hand and held it tight. "I'm always going to be coming back for you, Sylvie."

"Homecoming."

This is another story. I imagine that the stories I will be posting at the moment could be organised into some kind of collection.

Life continued exactly as if a war had happened. Husbands returned to wives who had lived new, independent lives for six years. Pretty, quiet girls who liked reading and listening to the wireless had turned into beautiful women who smoked and drove vans and worked salvaging war-torn London. Whereas once they had been happy to practice recipes they had learned at a cookery class on their husbands, they'd got used to cooking meals for 10 families at WVS Shelters on rations. When they tried (and they did try, every single one of them) they discovered they couldn't go back to a life before Woolton Pie and careless talk costing lives and air raid sirens. They'd seen horrors too. They might not have been in Africa or Italy but they'd seen children lying dead in the street after bomb blasts. They'd spent nights sitting awake in Undergrounds listening to aeroplanes and doodlebugs. They had had their own war.
Their husbands, their men, their boys, their heroes - they were having trouble too. Blighty had been so idealised in their absence it could never match up to what it really would be; tired, grey, damaged and altogether older than it had been when they'd left. Some of them returned to houses without rooves. Others returned to houses without wives.
It was hard to explain why they had been changed irrevocably. When you are asked across the dinner table what's wrong, how can you tell your wife that the reason you feel sick and dizzy is because burnt pork fat smells exactly like a burnt man in a plan? How can you explain why you don't want to go to church and plays God's benevolence anymore? How can you lie in your marriage bed and admit the nightmares you have are about the man you killed?
It wasn't just the memories of war, either. It was the routine of civilian life. Men who had flown spitfires and left with a perfect record were rewarded by returning to bank jobs. Where were the card games, the dirty jokes and where was the adrenalin? Living every day for six years with the fear of dying had given many men an edge and a hardness that couldn't translate back to life in England. If boredom was depression then the whole of the country was suffering badly.
Yes. The war changed everything all over again when it ended. Life continued as if it had happened.

1 Sep 2010

"The Flight Jacket."

This is something new that I wrote. I'll share it with the Internet ether for your viewing pleasure:

She's wearing his flight jacket - and he's nearly as proud of that item of clothing as he is of her. It's standard issue in the RAF; brown leather and sheepskin to keep them warm out on the airfield or up in the planes. It's about as cold today as it has been on base, but he's more than happy to give it to her. His Marilyn, his best girl. He'll marry her once this damned war is over and she'll make him the happiest man in the new England they are all fighting for.
They're walking around Holland Park in the January drizzle and she's turning every head. London is gray and gritty, but Marilyn has got on her red lipstick and her best stockings and she's curled her beautiful black hair into ringlets. They make a handsome couple; the beautiful young WVS Volunteer and the boy in blue, the hero of the skies. They've already had a woman approach them and tell him that her son is in the RAF too, that she wishes him every will in the world. An old man on a bench has called "good luck, lad! We're all behind you m'boy!"
It's true, everyone is behind him, and when he leaves that afternoon the station is full of people clapping him on the back and telling him he's a brave young man. He kisses her through the train window and he ends up with her tears on his face as they are pulled apart by the train and by duty and another countries greed and ambition.
*
He died, of course.
He became one of the few to who the many owed so much. Marilyn got a standard issue letter telling her that Reginald Hythe had been gunned down somewhere near his base by a German plane. She wondered who Reginald was - her fiance had been called Reggie. She had a number of his posses ions forwarded to her. He'd been mad for Sherlock Holmes and she got back some well-thumbed Conan Doyle paperbacks. Inside A Study In Scarlet there was a photograph of her from the day of the engagement. His St. Christopher went to his sister badly grieving and heavily pregnant with a husband in the navy. Marilyn got his flight jacket back too. For some unknown reason he hadn't had it on when he'd gone up in the spitfire for the last time - had the alarm gone off too suddenly for him to do the buckles up? Or were his hands shaking too badly?

It smelled of cigarettes and cold weather and engine oil. Marilyn wrapped herself up in it and found a rollie in the left pocket with a playing card - the five of diamonds. In the inside pocket was her last letter to him. She told him how much she loved him and how she had heard on good authority Mr. Churchill had struck a deal with the Germans to end the attacks on British skies.
Bloody Hitler, Marilyn sobbed. Bloody, bloody war.