I’m thinking about a drill hall photo which, when closely examined, reveals three misty figures by the gate: a round-faced woman standing with two men behind her. It was taken before the Great War. There is no drill hall now; its low wall has stumps where they cut the railings off in the last war, and there are gateposts. That’s all. In beautiful weather, I parked my car, walked up the canal a little and took some photos of the saturated colours of narrowboats. By the pond in the village centre, a pale, wrinkled old man told me that no one took his photo these days and asked me to take his picture by the red tulips, so I said I’d do it from the other side of the pond, with the reflections, and I did, and he grinned. Then I walked up the river past the site where the photo was taken.
All the time, passing cottages, I was considering what fine fibres of the silk of memory tied the older houses to the photo; and which had lost men, and which retrieved them. And this is what I thought.
The muddy flow of time has paused, ebbed, dragged back though the shingle of humanity, in a macabre reverse choreography torn up the comfort of time, the voices of time howling in anguished urgency: no, no, no, not again.
Outside the drill hall is a man whose emerging adulthood was midwifed by the stinging lachrymators, the pungent rottenness of bromine. Later now, a new generation later, he is using a cutting torch. The whispering stir of memory tickles the stifling catch at the back of his nose as the acetylene meets the metal railings. He is cutting them down to make Spitfires.
Uninvited, insisting, the past paws at him.
Sparking like the metal filings showering in the air, the images flicker, a counterpoint of fragments. He sees these javelin railings hopped over by lads perky as robins while their romping dogs skittered on the gravel and chased stones. The skid marks of black bicycle wheels pattern the mud. Two boot marks plunge where the audacious rider leapt off, here, here. A spray of starlings resentfully rise, indignant at the boys’ clamour – a magpie chattering angrily in the elms. It is spring and the scent of muscari saturates the still air.
He sees the drill hall’s diamond lamp suspended, webbed by blinked-back tears.
He sees three people. The woman whose face is round as a bun-loaf, eyes dark as currants, is calm, comfortable in her dormant village, wrapped in the muscari blanket air nudged by the pick-pecking sparrows, their velvet heads cocked beadily alert for predators.
And he wants to say to her, turn to the man next to you. Turn to the man with the hunted eyes. Turn to the man with the eyes like a dove. Turn now, touch him, take him, climb into his arms, because the gate gapes open in front of you and he will go through it. Soon there will be a hole in your heart and the man will climb into it.
And the other one, reach to him too, for he will soon be grinning his mad neurasthenic grin at his unreal world, where he will incessantly try to chatter everything there is to say in a mad dialogue while he chases his thoughts round his mind for the rest of his life.
He won’t see you for much longer, for soon he will bequeath his left eye to a stagnant puddle. His right eye will be scarred and pulled into a permanent lift so he will always seem to be looking upwards; and he will have no right eyelid.
The skin on his left cheekbone will be stretched up by surgery to meet his left eyelid, so that under those dark, bushy eyebrows there will be a taut tense area of skin, gathered with clumsy stitching and puckering along a seam crossing the socket where his iris once was. His nose will disjoint as though it has been assembled from a mosaic of bone fragments; and though his lower lip now under its moustache will still be luscious and sensuous, and his lower teeth will stay strong and white, his upper lip will be caught up and looped in puffy segments under his segmented nose. The surgeons will make him a fixed half-smile to beam trustingly while his dead eye scans the sky.
He loves you, and yet he will never tell you, because when he comes home he will have no upper teeth and the roof of his mouth will be shattered, so he can only moan and aspirate. And dribble. If you talk to him, he won’t be able to hear you properly, because he has only part of one ear and the other is a flap of skin, a fake. His dark hair will be replaced by a wig because his scalp will be burned and torn and riddled with scars like a trench map.
Touch his face now, for now it is real. In time, they will ask you for a photograph to copy and make him a face of electroplate, padded inside to catch his saliva dribbles. He will have two glass eyes and a false moustache. They will fit it so it can be held in place with spectacles. Woman, behold your brother.
Then he will be penned up with the other legends and heroes, with their God-mocking metal faces, and their left stump left stump staggers through the soiled Eden where what remains of their bodies exists in a decades-long practice run for death.
And sometimes you will take out the photograph album of your mind, and blow off the grey dust and think of these two men, captured next to the vicious fence, while you turn your back on them to face the photographer; and you will wish that you had spun round and thrown your arms round them to hold them safe for ever.
Woman, now, sitting in the bay window, needle flying in and out of making and mending. Woman, then, with the eyes dark as currants. Woman, he thinks urgently, squeeze the blood out of your son before he too hurtles towards his death.