You- you know the story of, of the Odyssey? The book is a favourite o’ mine ever since I read it as a child. One o’ my favourite parts in the book, then an’ now, is the story of the Cyclops. You know, ‘ow, ow he’d poked that titan in the eye? “Oo’s done that?” bellows the Cyclops! His face all, all red, wit’ blood, his mouth an open ‘ole wit’ tombstone teeth. Oh, ‘ow he shouts wit’ gusto. Spittle fillin ‘is beard as ‘e staggers about scratching his, his fingers ‘gains’’ the dirt walls of the cave. “I’ll have you yet!” He stomps. “I ‘ave” shouts the brave Odysseus. “An’ what’s your name then?” Bellows the blinded Titan. “My name…” Odysseus shouts: “…is no man!” …So off the Cyclops goes… blindly staggering’ about in pain, bewailing that: “No man has taken me eye out.” As a child, the Cyclops terrified me. He’d be there, under me bed wanting to eat me bones up, as I grew up I put such childish things away. I started to see the funny side o’ it. ‘Ow the titan shouted to his mates, or replied “No man? oo did it then?” But then the great war came an’ that brought the cyclops back. Yer see…I know the cyclops is real… I know… for I saw ‘im… I saw ‘im at Fromelle. An for me Fromelle changed everything. Yer see, I fell in love.
My War? What was it like? What do you mean? How I felt when war broke out? Or later? For me, the outbreak of hostilities was a, was a bit of a-blank. I know it sounds funny to say it like, but it’s’ true. I was 18 at the time year see, so I didn’t think much about it, at the start. I was a prim an’ proper clerk for a cloth manufacturer back then. To me, the thought of signing up was… well it was, was simply a holiday away from the daily grind…made doubly exiting’ as I was going’ away with me pals.
The realisation of it…well… that was a little different. The thin’ that stands out now, as I look back at it, were the smells; for war ‘as a, a smell all its own…There was the, the smell of unwashed men: a sour stink, made worse by suffering and fear. Then there was the smell of that itchy and, it ‘as to be said, mostly damp woolen green-khaki uniform. Add to this the, the stench of ammonia; made worse by the rats, the faeces. There was the stench of trench-foot: Just rotting limbs in wet leather boots. The, the stench of bad breath of loose teeth in rotting gums, and of vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Most of all, there is the smell unique to war: the smell of blood, blood swirlin’ in cold stagnant water. It was a smell hard to, to, put into words. I know that i’ll never forget it.
Then there were the sights. I doubt I will ever forget the, the cuts; in the soil whose tops were weighted with’ sandbags, whose sides were shored up with slowly rusting corrugated iron and; an’ whose floor was made up of busted, planks of broken wood. Whose bottom was Constantly filled with’ a line of muddy water, no matter the season. The green, brown dugouts were deep too We were like moles there, scurrying’ around in the near dark warming ourselves as best we could around candles in the dark, where black frost bitten hands and noses glowed in the soft yellow candlelight. All of that I witnessed, and more… But… there is an impression like, that we spent our entire time buried wit bombin’ That’s simply not so. It was, however erratic, we could ‘ave been there for as short as a day or as long as a week, depending upon bombardment. The trenches worked, if you can call it that, on a rotation basis yer see. So, the trenches themselves weren’t our ‘ome’s, as such, that were our tents, a quarter mile back, However, we were on permanent alert, in case the enemy breeched our defensive line. To best describe it, is like saying’ we ‘ad either days or ‘ours of sheer bloody terror, followed by days or ‘hours of sleep if your luck was in, or days of blinding boredom, or duties if not. No, it wasn’t all doom a gloom, as the poets as Owen and McRae, would ‘ave you believe. Fun was to be ‘ad away from the trenches…fun and love… But, but that’s not to say, that, that their words weren’t true, they were…they were.
My battalion? I was in the 61st regiment, 2nd west Midland brigade- based from Dudley, a town situated in the heart of the Black Country. A place I’m proud to call me ‘ome. See that picture there? That’s us. the fella in the middle of the front row? That’s me… I, I joined my regiment through the “Pals” connected to me position at the factory. At that time, the biggest “Pal”, the one who we all looked to at the start of it all, was Harry Pendleton… but…but… you know… it’s funny how people an friendship’s change…’ow real faces shine, when the Cyclops rises. Before the war, I envied Harry Pendleton… The light in his forest green eyes, his confidence… on good days…in my mind’s eye…I still, still see that Harry, jaunting down Blackheath high street. His, his straw boater, sat on his head, set at that quirky angle, to hide that ginger crop, we all knew he hated so much. I remember his shaped moustache, above those sardonic thin lips…That’s on good days. On the bad days, when I can ‘ear the blasting bombs, I don’t see that confident man. I see ‘ow the cyclops remade Harry. How it had paled his, his skin; drawn it; mottled, muddied and sunken it. I see ‘ow the confidence had gone, ‘ow his cornflower eyes seemed to stand out, near feral, nervously glittering’ in near buried dark sockets. Right now, I can see ‘im as he stands by the ladder, quaking…. waiting…waiting of’ the whistle to take us over the top. So, as you see, the poets were sometimes right, men, you see, they don’t want to die. Not for something’ that they don’t believe in, and by the end, not many men believed in it anymore. On either side.
On those days’ I also think of Jack. It helps your see. See that fella there? that’s Jack…Yep… Jack Wattyl his name was…. Jack… I never met a man like that ‘afore or since… ‘eye, never was a part of us pals were Jack. Jack was what ‘arry called “an add on” … I recall ‘ow ‘arry used to mock his tatty clothes an’ his background. Yer see, Harry coming from a middle-class background, used to think ‘ee was something of a man of the world, and that meant he ‘ad a-a dis-dis-dislike of the likes of Jack from the start. At ‘ome, Jack battled from job to job. Unwanted ‘an unwelcome. Disowned. Many were the times ee’d ask if I know of any positions at the mill goin’ I did try once or twice. But ‘arry…ee’d made it clear that ‘ee wasn’t welcome. An I, I was too full of Harry to know the difference. You see Jacks, Jacks face? In the picture? All rat like? You know, narrow, with a pointed nose an’ thin narrow lips? He doesn’t look like much, but ‘ee was a gentleman, Though the picture doesn’t show it. Underneath that cap, ‘ee also ‘ad thick mound of glossy wavy coal black ‘air, the pic doesn’t show host forest green eyes that seemed always this side of weary. Not mirthless… or sneaky… just weary. That was Jack. The home lad. The Cyclops made Jack. For jack knew a truth about the war, He knew that it made us all equal. There were no airs o’ graces in the trenches. Just us men a fear an’ the bombs. I got to knew ‘im really well in the end and by that in a friendlier way; of’ ee saved my life yer see. It Tow-er, the last week of the Somme, an it was as close to Hell as I had seen with these eyes. For a full week, we were under heavy bombardment, wit’ no relief. Day and night, the shells came upon us. Our dugouts crumbled under it. They would fall flat on top ‘o us and we’d have to dig ourselves, and our comrades out. Once or twice that week, we’d find them. Their mouths and noses clogged with dirt, their skin sallow in the half light. suffocated. That or…or smashed to a pulp. By the end of that week, we were near hysterical. Fights broke out, as we fought like the fuckin’ rats to get away. I recall fists and fingers scratching’ into my face, as we tried to get out. Then in came the C.O. and the sergeant His face raw red. His eyes near out of their sockets. He shot twice into the air. At which one of us leapt at him. Though ee was bayoneted by the sergeant. Then The C.O shot two men at point blank range. The bullets crumpled their faces as blood burst out. We would have turned on that bastard, were it not for that fuckin’ sergeant, whose machine gun was pointed at us. We all took a step back. Both guns were trained on us. I felt the tension rise. If anyone raised a rifle, we would be shot or for the firing squad. We simply stood there. Facing each other as the real enemy, as the bombs rained down upon us on the ground shook. I don’t know ‘ow long we stood there like that. It could ‘ave been a minute or a few second’s. Time is fluid in situations like that. Then there was a huge “whump” in sound, followed by a numbing. My ears popped and the ground slid under me feet. The darkness… The silence…the numbness ... at first it was tranquil. But as time moved on I realised I was conscious and I couldn’t breathe. … I couldn’t breathe…there…was…this…oppressive weight I felt …I felt…like I had died and gone to Hell. Fingers reached for me. Talons clawed, Then, suddenly, I was pulled back an’ then air, stinking foul air, filled my lungs… an as my vision cleared there was Jack grinning. ‘No Blighty wound on you then, sad that.’ He quipped. We hugged. That was the first time… I felt…like…like I was reborn. I never forgot that.
I first found out that Jack had an “operation” as he called it, about a month later during one of our rest furloughs from the front line. I had just finished my lunch, which was “soup” though it were poor meat that formed a rubbery magma in my mouth; it blended sickly with the rice and pasta, with the cooked potatoes, that blended together to this thin gruel; that was insipid and lacked any vitamins or decent vegetables for that matter.
I have to say here, that It was only after it ended I heard ‘ow the distribution of food to the front-line canteens was a joke, simply because of the huge task in hand. Yer see, word never, or rarely, got back to the kitchens about troop advancement, this was since it was supposedly secret. This meant that the supplies intended for a certain detachment, would only reach their destination after that detachment had departed. So many did without food at all, this led to a huge black market in food distribution…Yer, well, anyway, I, I sat in the mess tent, pouring’ over which o’ me tabs, I was goin' to smoke, when jack, -‘oo was sitting across from me- asks me if I want a pack of players. Fags in the trenches were rationed, so if you liked a smoke and couldn't keep control of your ration, you were fooked. I remember looking’ at the large stubs a thinking’ well I’m fooked. I I looked up an’ I must ‘ave had a face on me, as Jack simply smiled. An hour later we were ‘bout a quarter- mile away, sitting almost out of full sight of the dirt track road that led to the front. I remember It was a warm clear day an I was on lookout, faking’ rest, with my back leaning’ on a, a large part blasted flint walled barn. The doors, I remember, that they had red paint which was, was peeling off and blistering’ off revealing the, the pale sun bleached wood underneath. In the distance, I could hear the thumping’ of the shells and to my right, I could just make out between the green line avenue of majestic trees, the clumping thump of soldiers an’ horse trotting’ or marching’ either towards the bombs or away from them…T’was a Thump…thump…thump like a heavy heartbeat. We were sitting there Jack to the left to me, wit’ this this big bag he was carrying’.
I ‘ad finished my second to last stub an’ was crumbling the fag into the dry grass an dirt. I watched the blue smoke curl up from the green grass as I stubbed the tab out. Churning the earth an with it feeling a sharp pain rise up me arm as the orange embers of the fag burnt me thumb
‘What you think about all this then?’
He knew what I was thinking, ‘The war?’ he quipped.
‘Ee grinned at that; then sighed as ‘ee lay back, propping’ his feet up on the knapsack ‘ee’d brought wit’ him. His soft green eyes shone as he rubbed his two-day stubble. Then Ee took off his cap and welsh ragged his oily black hair. His narrow jaw an long nose glistened in the early afternoon light. ‘Well, there’s money to be made, an when it’s all over.’
‘-yer think it will be? Over I mean?’
‘-One day sure.’
‘-Yer think, it be a different world? A better one?’
‘-Won’t be the same! That’s true enough. No more Kings. The Russians revolted, that’s good for the likes of us. If we can do the’ same?’
I smiled, closing my eyes, imagining’ him starin’ into my eyes, his green beautiful eyes… Yes…I did think, that, at that moment, there could be a better world. ‘It was a moment like no other, for or since. I stared at him feeling elated scared excited and a host of other feelings I had never felt towards another man before.
‘I’d like a world where we could be free to love.’ I recall there was a pause then, I felt my tongue heavy as expectation rose in me. The feeling’s that rose, scared me. My words blundered on.
‘I I never what that, what I mean is I- ‘
Jack giggled, his voice gentle. ‘-forget it’ I still recall that burning fag. I recall ‘ow the blue smoke came from the green grass in spirals, as the brown dried tobacco an’ the blue grey ash, an’ what was left of the white paper disintegrated into the soil.
I felt the sun bake me legs… it shone just over the treeline ‘I just wanted to say- ‘but me words were cut short as I felt someone standing’ in me light. I looked up an opened an eye, to see what was goin’ on an’ there stood this youngish lad with a nasty scar down his right cheek.
Jack gets up then an ee say’s 'Keep an eye out Roy' then, then he shakes this lads hand and says ‘So what you go to trade?’
‘-Managed to get a nice scotch from the officer’s mess.’ Jack smiles that smile.
‘-What you you you w-want for it?’ stammered out Scarface.
'-The usual.' Was Jacks dry sounding’ reply.
'-Fuck off!' Scarface retorts ‘You fuckin’ know how hard it is to peddle that? If I am caught-
'-You’re not, not back at the front for a, another couple of days, an, from what I hear- “Jack’s grin was what I remember then.
‘-yeah? Good ol' Jack. Bending’ over for favours.'
‘-You got to do what you got to do to survive.’
Scarface looked sullen then. ‘-come on don’t be cunt.’
Jack grinned and flashed a small bottle of something’ from the bag ‘ee ‘ad. Scarface, sighed at that and shrugged his shoulders
‘-Three’ Jack came back quickly.
I smiled. Scarface looked up at the sky and then gave a small nod before taking Jacks fag; then silently took a drag, to sign the deal.
‘Stay here.’ Jack says.
Then both men went inside the old flint barn and out of sight. I kept me head down, faking’ sleep, ready to move if I see an officer. Tension grew in every second. Yer see, if we were caught then it would be field punishment number one. Which would mean being staked out in no-man’s land till yer bought it. Once or twice, I saw an officer look. But none came over. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen passed. I was getting nervous; I can tell you. Finally, an with much relief, the man with the scar and then Jack came out of the barn, without the bag. Jack ‘ad his wiry smile on his narrow face and a light shone in his eyes. He chucked me a pack of players that I nervously stuff into my tunic pocket.
‘That’s for standing duty.’ He said, as we made our way back along to the field entrance towards the men an’ the horses stomping up the dirt.
‘-What’s that all about then?’
‘Stashing up for a rainy day.’ Was all ee said, as we put our ‘ear’s down an’ joined the battle-weary lines ‘evading back to barracks.
That night, when all was quiet, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I woke a turned to see Jack smiling’ at me. ‘I’ve got something’ for yer.’ He said gently. An with a wink’ ee gave me a letter.
‘If anything,’ ‘appen's to me, you must open this. But not before.’
With that, he gently kissed my forehead, an slipped into the night once more.
I held that letter tightly in my hand, till morning’ came.
If the Cyclops had taken a human form, amongst us, it would have taken the shape of Sargent Brannagan. Brannagan was both a crook and a bastard in equal measure. So much so, that it t’was hard to know when one ended and other began. I told you of how ‘ee treated us during the last week of the Somme? Well,’ee, like I survived that, though ‘ee never trusted me again. Unlike that fuckin C.O. Brannagan ad this gruff, cracked voice, that burst out of his wide mouth, that contained these black and green teeth. His cheeks were ruddy and his sapphire eyes, which were widely set a had this permanent gaze of contempt, glittering from them. It was clear that ee ‘ated everyone below ‘im, less there was cut in it for ‘im.
Three weeks ‘ad passed since the flint Barn trade off. An we were both slurpin’ our tea. He slowly passed me a letter under the table, which I took, just as Brannagan came into the tent.
‘-Gentlemen, he began as ee scowled at us ‘You lads… have been given a special assignment.’ There was a viscous grin on his face.
‘Us sir?’ I was always polite to my superior officers.
' Yes, you…laddie.’ He hissed. ‘you are to go to Fromelle, there is a commanding officer, a Major Sweet, you are to support the Major in’ doing what the officer tells you to do. ARE WE CLEAR?’
We stood up and saluted; and with, with his viscous stare bearing on our backs, he watched us as we made our way to Fromelle. I recall it was a ‘ot day, made even ‘otter by the uniforms we wore, but, that walk, well, we coulda’ been on ‘oliday. We walked slowly; the seeds of the long ochre grass were blown’ in the wind. The summer trees rustled, knocking out the, the sound o’ the near distant artillery shells. The air was full of nutmeg…funny that. ‘
What’s that letter you gave me for.’ I say.
‘It’s a surprise.’ He grinned, as he looked down. I stared at his profile. Unsure what to say or do. This letter was a new twist to our friendship…which…was had become more than that, I must say. We were, I am not ashamed to say, very fond of each other by then. Twas the Cyclops that brought us together, I was sure of it, an together, we were going to come out of it. But this letter… It was like stating he feared the worst.
‘You can’t say that…Say that you’re goin’ to die.’
‘-It’s just in case.’ -
‘I’ll be there for you.’
Ee took my hand gently. And in that I felt conflict and strength in equal measure.
‘I know you.’ He said gently.
With that I smiled. An hour later, we were on the outskirts of Fromelle.
There isn’t much to Frommel, its really just a line of trees, towards an old farmstead. Oaks and birches slide off towards the west. The odd painted house with large grey blistered windows, like you might see in an early Van Gogh. By the time we reached the place, the sun was a huge orange ball that that settled in the dusk. But even in the dim light, I could see in front of us, a huge pile of bodies. The men were not only from our side…they were Germans too. All men ran ranked like ourselves, The pile was three feet high and ten feet across I had never before or since, seen so many dead in one place. Major Sweet didn’t smile or shake our hands. His voice carried the, the veneer of the aristocracy, that, in the recent months I ‘ad come to loathe. Yet, there was something else in this man.
‘Bury them here!’ his spoke tartly. ‘There is to be no trace of them? do you understand?’
He stared at us. His skin ruddy, his amber eyes smarting. I could see that he hated this, place. Moreover, hated to do this, hated everything about this and most of all he, he hated ordering’ us to do it.
‘Sir, why are- ‘
‘-That’s classified.’ The reply was stark.
‘-But- ‘Jack’s face paled.
‘-If you fail, or refuse, you will be shot and added to the pile. Do you Understand? DO YOU UNDERSTAND!’
I still remember ‘ow ee bellowed that out. This was fear talking’ nowt else. What had happened here and why was this being done? We never knew, and to this day I still don’t know. All I knew was that we ‘ad no choice… we dug…We dug and we dug and we dug. I recall the heavy weight of the spade in my hand and the blisters that burst that soon became callouses; an as the, the night drew in, the cold. The bitter cold. Around us were the dead. The brave dead. Piled up, like, like stiff dolls. The English khaki, the German blue grey, French Blue Serge, they were all rounds us. then I stared at their faces…Their odd faces, the alien looking’ skin… everything piled up...piled up like stacks of rotten meat, that the flies spat on to liquefy munch and fuck on.
But that, that, that didn’t scare me. I’d seen bodies. What scared me were the eyes. Or, the lack of them. Hundreds of men, from all sides of this terrible war, lying in an unknown grave with empty sockets, an amongst the corpses were…their ghosts…. I could feel them tug at me, pull on me, drag on me, breathe into my heart and want to scream into my ears. I felt their skinless fingers scratch my hands and felt them tug at me feet as I lifted the corpses bloody and broken and placed them into this newly dig shallow grave. What could have taken so many lives from both sides and to do this to them? T’was then that I realised a half truth. A terrible monster had done this did this. Not men. T’was the Cyclops, from under my bed, finally getting his revenge against Odysseus all those centuries ago. I could feel his presence and see his single furious eye in the moonlight; oppressively baring down on me. His teeth -tombstones. His drool, at the sight of this feast filling his thick pubic beard rich wit spittle and blood as ee feasted upon the souls around us.
I heard mocking’ in the skies and looking’ up I remember seeing’ that though the moonlit cloud the fingers of crow’s wings, circling, circling, circling’ overhead. They call it a murder of crows. Silently We dug and we dug, we carried and we carried we stood over and we bowed our heads. How did they all end up here? All alone hundreds of miles from home Separated from their families and friends? These empty eyed people? Perhaps better men than me will be able to put a reason to it. I see simply war. There was no good or bad, or right or wrong, or an us or a them. It was the Cyclops.
It was total night when we ‘d finished. I was numb with the cold. Numb with the task and sick to my stomach. In the light of a yellow lamp I looked at Jack an ee looked at me. Our faces were stark. We both thought it, and our eyes welled with the immensity of it. Then, we did something that I am not ashamed of. We kissed. We reached for each other and kissed long and hard. We hugged and held each other, needing each other, but not wanting each other. Right there and then, during all this death we made love.
A month later Jack died no man’s land.
I was behind him. I saw through my gas mask amid the exploding’ shells, the cracking soil and the pale of ghosts faces. I saw his body buckle and break as the bullets from the German machine gun cut into him. But in my mind’s eye I saw The Cyclops had ‘im in his mouth and was chomping’ ‘im to bits. I gasped and raged as I saw his body buckle and then and there I realised the truth of those men in that unmarked grave. This war was never going to end and if it did, it would not end with a victor. This was a killing field. A means to an end. A cull of innocents. I screamed as the shells went off around me I mud and blood slapped my face We were fodder for them! I vaguely recall that I charged over to Jack as bullets flew about me.
I screamed my silence through my mask; as I fought through the barbs of wire. Then there was darkness, darkness and a dizzy thumping sound in my head. I thought that I was going to die, I felt separate; a distance from myself. Then I, I awoke in a field hospital, a mile from the front. To my right a nurse, I’ll never know her name, was tending my wounds. On the other side of me was the Captain from the burying detail. He looked down at me, and with a tear in his eye and he smiled.
‘-You got your Blighty wound. ‘was all he said. Then he walked away.
So, they brought me home. That was all of twenty years ago today. I hear they are calling it the "the war to end all wars” now perhaps it will be, though something tells me, it’s the tip of the iceberg. For my solace, I have the letter that Jack gave me. Inside the contents read thus:-
My dearest Roy, What I must say, you already know. Our love, that can bear no name, will be forever in my heart. Know, that I loved you from the start, and protected you when and where I could. I fear that without me, you might be lost in some hideous action. However, if you manage to survive this terrible war, or end up with a Blighty wound, before you leave for home, go to the old flint barn, you remember it? and look under the wooden boards in the right-hand corner. There is a chest. Its contents are for you. Use them wisely and well. My love for you always and forever, your Jack x
The ironic thing is that I never managed to read the letter, until I was on the boat, on the way home. I’ve thought about saving for a ticket to get back and find that old barn, I get a feeling that a certain Londoner has made his mark upon it.
Harry Pendleton? 'ee managed to survive too, but 'ee'se the only one of our old pals that has. I hear from him in letters and the occasional post card. He wants to meet up. But I doubt I will...its the cyclops, yer see...the cyclops made monster's of us all.