Paul stood at the makeshift outpost. He shifted his weight between his feet and cursed the others for putting him on guard duty for the third time in a week. He was sure they could tell he was scared, and were punishing him for it . To them this was Cowboys and Indians, except with live ammunition: how to hit an Indian at a hundred yards. How to make sure he doesn’t get back up.
He looked down at the beach below, and squinted his eyes so the uniformed men looked like sunbathers, and their equipment like beach toys and towels strewn untidily across the sand. He watched them run at the tide, then turn back and scrabble back up the beach, like children daring to get their feet wet.
He let his eyes wander to the muddy hills which ended in abrupt cliffs, surrounding the beach and leaning out over the sea. He pictured his parents’ house, only a few miles from here; damp logs and half-finished crosswords. He grimaced as the wind whipped sand against his face. He thought of sand-fights with his brother. It was a game which nobody ever enjoyed, although there was always a clear winner; whoever cried last. Even as the eldest, Paul had usually lost.
He cleared his throat tentatively. He remembered the time he had stayed off school 'poorly', because he didn’t want to go any more. He had stopped eating to prove he was sick, and had secretly been pained by the unfamiliar sensation of hunger. Unsympathetic (or simply seeing through him, he'd never asked,) he soon found himself back in class, but without any dinner money.
The cough he had now was strained and choking, it grated against his throat and made the backs of his eyelids dance red and black. It was at its worst when he was trying to sleep, or had been stood around for too long. When he felt it coming he'd brace himself from it by leaning forwards slightly. A habit, he'd noticed, which only earned him more contemptuous looks from his peers.
Paul refocused his eyes with effort, and tried to follow the individual waves of the sea - they seemed always to duck back into the water, or be cut down by the wind, before they reached the shore. He imagined himself rowing out against the waves, in a one man boat. It was how he had liked to picture growing up, although he had always imagined there was calm water, or perhaps even a desert island just beyond the horizon. In reality there were always more stormy waters to battle against, and horizons stretching on and on.
He remembered telling his Mum and Dad he was going to join the army, and blushed despite the cold. He had stolen his Dad's words; 'a career to be proud of, an honour to serve your country...' and even at the time had been embarrassed by their proud, concerned faces.
He started to pace back and forth to force some feeling back into his legs. He gave the beach a cursory glance and noticed that there seemed to be less men running up and down. He had been optimistic about all this at first, he had enjoyed the assault-courses of recruitment, they reminded him of playing out. His childhood seemed to have been spent ambushing imagined enemies, rolling and crouching in the long grass, his hands switching between a gun, a radio and a bag of sweets.
Now any magic of imagination was replaced with the fear of anticipation. When a rocky outcrop he might have once hid in became a setting for ‘hostile encounter training’, he simply wanted to turn tail and trudge home, just as his boyhood self would have done when playing war was no longer fun.
He raised his head slightly and sniffed, he was sure he could smell sweets. Those same twenty pence mix in a paper bag kind. He inhaled again and realised it was the smell of cordite, which accompanied the pop-gun bangs of shooting practise which had begun down on the sand.
Paul lay in his bunk, unable to sleep. He traced the cracks in the ceiling from left to right, picturing the surface as map on which to deploy men, a general’s voice in his head:
‘We’ll place the first regiment here – between the reds and blacks. Yes of course the enemy will see them, that’s the point. Quite the point.’
He closed his eyes and swallowed. Eating communally meant even Paul's lack of appetite had been noted as a sign of weakness. Anything different is a 'sign of weakness' thought Paul bitterly. He felt his thoughts were clinging to him, imitating the sand which irritated him even after the most thorough nearly-cold shower. He rolled over and fought back his cough. The words Date of Departure formed in his mind. He mouthed them to himself, 'Date. Of. Departure.'
That day the medic had approached him and ceremoniously handed him a small bottle of antibiotics. He had looked Paul square in the eye, winked, then walked away. Paul hadn't asked for help. He wondered whether this was some sarcastic taunt he didn't understand. Later that day, he threw the pills into the sea.
Date of Departure eventually came. Paul woke early and slipped out, climbing a path to the cliff-edge. He tried to tell himself this was an absent-minded action, a simple early morning walk, but he knew this wasn't true. Staying in bed was unbearable though, where scenes from every war film he'd ever seen played in fast forward every time he tried to sleep.
He reached the cliff-edge, and watched the sun complete its bloody-minded ascent out of the water. He thought about letting go, and his hand gripped the fencepost so hard that splinters of wood pressed into his palm. He made himself lean forward by degrees, until he could look down the cliff's face to the water. Suddenly he felt the need to cough, and threw himself backwards onto the grass behind him. He lay there, picking stones out the soil and putting them in his pocket. It wasn't that he had any particular affection for these rocks, or this wet grass, thought Paul to himself. It was just that they'd been with him forever.
A general came to address the regiment before they left. He spoke of the glory of sacrifice, of vanquishing terror, and the nation's pride. Paul desperately wanted to cough, but to do so would certainly be considered disrespectful. Paul looked at the general's medals and tried to guess which each was for. He felt calmer. Then he saw the loose fabric, pinned to the body, where the general's left arm should have been. Paul burst into a coughing fit so severe he could feel the eyes upon him.
They marched towards the too-small plane as a regiment. As they reached the steps they broke into a line, Paul slowed to a shuffle and was nearly the last one to board. He took a last look around and saw nothing but concrete in each direction. He still had his hand in his pocket, feeling the rough edges of the pebbles he had picked up when he was shoved in the back, which sent them rattling down the plane's interior. Paul didn't go to pick them up.
Paul took his seat and tried to keep his mind blank. The engines rattled the windows, making the ground shimmer like a mirage below them. Let this be a dream, he thought. Thoughts kept surfacing. He focused on how his feet were hot, his chest tight, and how his forehead hurt as he pressed it against the window.
Paul was carried roughly into the plane which was to take him home, already half full of men. Most were obviously wounded and sat on one side of the plane. A few amongst them were comparing their injuries in a competitive fashion. What ailed the the men on the other side of the plane was less clear, as they were lay on stretchers, half covered with grey sheets. Paul was thankful when he was placed with the seated casualties.
As he took a seat he caught sight of his boots. He considered them carefully; they hadn’t fallen apart, but were tired looking and dulled from a thousand miles of marching. He looked through the port-hole window, and saw the same effect in his reflection. The skin around his eyes had the look of paper, screwed up and flattened out again, yet was leathery to touch. His lips were dry and deeply cracked, and they felt alien as he ran his tongue across them.
He tried a smile. He'd survived, just about. As he thought this his entire body rattled with a clutching cough which made him bend over double. He remembered the bottle of pills, and how they had arced across the sky as he had thrown them into the sea. For the thousandth time he felt his ribcage through his overcoat, trying to trace the hollow ache with his hands. He pushed himself against the window once more, and tried to think about home. The drum of the window against his forehead blanked his mind.
Shortly after landing, all of the men, regardless of their condition, were stretchered to ambulances which delivered them directly to the hospital. Paul’s ambulance drivers seemed disappointed with their catch, as if they’d perhaps hoped for something more dramatic and gruesome than his wet cough and weak body.
Paul was sitting rigidly on a green and white narrow bed, a curtain surrounding him. He liked having a curtain. Private spaces had not existed in his life for a very long time. He was trying to ignore the form which lay on his lap. It read: ‘Tuberculosis: advanced. Immediate treatment undertaken.’ Each time he so much as looked at it a hundred scenes flooded Paul’s mind: metal running through flesh. Deep red running through hands.
To see TB so far along was relatively rare these days, each doctor had muttered, unable to hide their shock. Paul dreaded their questions, and burnt with shame and fear when they asked how long he had been like this. He couldn't meet their eyes and hated himself for it. In the end they had agreed that with an intensive course of treatment Paul had a ‘fair’ chance of recovery, but was to be hospital bound 'for the foreseeable future'.
Later his parents arrived. His Dad ruffled his hair and didn’t meet his eyes; his Mum wrung her hands and tried to keep the tears from hers. Avoiding questions, they took turns at telling Paul what he had missed; Dad’s promotion, the pub changing hands, the post office threatened with closure. Paul concentrated on not falling asleep.
Eventually he was left alone. He was hot and cold in fits, and had cramps which shot up his legs into his stomach. His headache throbbed behind his eyes, and the red and black now came in nauseating waves. None of these were new developments, but were significantly worse of late. Paul sat motionless, staring at the silhouette of the curtain in front of him. He thought about the past, and tried to immerse himself in childhood memories. Now, all he could picture were false images of a child skipping through dandelions, a laugh and smile that had never been his resounding through the air. He thought about dying, and how, if he died, all he knew and felt now was all he would ever know, or feel.
He fell into a feverish sleep , and dreamt that he was a child again, at war, sat by figures lying face down in the sand. In the dream he cowered from the blows which split the air around him, and began to roll the uniformed bodies over to wake them. They all had the faces of his parents, disfigured with pain and joy.
Over the following weeks, Paul immersed himself in the routine of hospital life. He found that despite himself, he enjoyed it; his mother’s regular visits, daytime television and long naps. He could feel himself getting better. He also found the memory of war, which he’d felt burnt across his eyes and mind, begin to fade. In their place he allowed fantasies of striking up with one of the nurses to occupy his mind. He imagined himself well again and taking her for a meal, laughing about how they met. In reality, the nurses’ sing-song chatter restricted Paul to a script of pleasantries. Whenever he went to the toilet, Paul practised smiling in the mirror and tried to fashion his hair into some sort of style.
One morning, a suited man arrived in Paul’s ward. He announced he was from the armed services and would like to speak to a Mr Ashton, if he may. His expression jarred somehow with the surroundings, a holiday smile in a hospital. Paul’s insides seemed to drop then tighten in quick succession, and his hands gripped the bed sheets involuntarily. He had just enough time to compose himself again before the man reached his bed.
He did not introduce himself, but immediately started asking Paul about his health, tilting his head, in a caring manner which seemed intentionally patronising as he listened. After several minutes, he stood, proffered a hand, and left with the words, ‘we can’t wait to have you back with us soon’. As he walked away, Paul could see him brushing off his suit with his hands.
Paul fought against his heart, which seemed to be beating so fast it had lost its rhythm, and his breath, which felt deafeningly loud. He forced himself to open a newspaper, feigning normality – and turned the pages without reading them. He could not go back, would not go back. He turned the pages faster and his eyes clouded. He wished he’d let himself die sick, rather than have recovered enough to be killed. Memories rushed back, and he rubbed his eyes to block them out, and tried to disguise his whimpering by forcing a bitter tasting cough.
When almost all of the blotches had faded from his vision, and he felt he was breathing normally once more, he opened his eyes. He found himself staring at a sunset courting an impossibly blue sea. His heart jumped again. The picture was advertising flights to La Réunion.
Paul waited two weeks. He still told himself this was to allow him to recover, but feared that is was really out of cowardice.
These two weeks were now up, and Paul walked out of the hospital's main doors, in what he hoped was a confident manner, . He wore clothes he had persuaded his Mum to bring for him for 'comfort' and carried a rucksack containing little except for half a dozen bottles of pills, all with various labels and dosages. Even the prospect of stealing had at first prompted fresh bouts of coughing and feverish sweats, but he had persuaded himself it was necessary, and turned the nurses into hated obstacles, hindering his progress.
He breathed in the chill air and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, still consciously wanting to appear calm. Inside he was alternately congratulating himself and berating himself for thinking he had achieved anything. He reached the main road, and looked around. He half expected to be brought down by a rugby tackle from the suited service man, or be spotted by his old regiment stood queuing outside the post office. He nearly smiled as he realised how ridiculous these thoughts were, but could not quite shake the feeling of being watched.
Paul didn't have a watch, and the bus seemed to take a painful amount of time to arrive. He shifted uncomfortably, and each posture he struck seemed forced. He yawned and his chest bubbled threateningly.
Finally the bus arrived. To distract himself he spent the journey thinking about home: his room which had gone from pastel, to bright orange, to a sombre blue, as he had grown up. In his head, he traced the stealthiest route between his bed and the bathroom. He had imagined each creaky floorboard to be an alarm, or perhaps a landmine. He remembered wrapping his duvet around him and pretending it was the most advanced shielding system in the world, or daringly sleeping the wrong way up, and feeling as if he had flipped the entire world. Then he remembered it was in that room he had made the decision to join the army, and shook his head to break the reverie. Soon afterwards, he arrived.
He stood pressed against the glass, and listened to the PA system grapple with pronunciation of places he’d never heard of. He coughed into his sleeve, and wondered if he’d managed to hoard enough medicine to recover, and whether taking a bag full of prescription medicine onto an international flight was illegal. The glass vibrated as planes leapt the joint between the ground and the sky, and his stomach clenched and unclenched. He breathed in deeply and let his breath fog the glass, obscuring his vision.
He fingered the slip of paper which read; ‘15:55 / La Réunion’. Until he left the ground, he still repeated to himself that this was nothing but a fool's plan, and he would be apprehended any minute. So far, however,the only raised eyebrow he’d received was from baggage desk who had puzzled at his lack of luggage.
He smiled nervously. The fear he felt now was not the same as that he had felt on the Date of Departure. Nor was it the same as the creeping fear of death, which had been magnified a hundredfold by his illness. It wasn’t even the fear of being caught running. Really it was that of launching himself into the unknown, rowing over the horizon again. When Paul refocused his eyes, the condensation had cleared from the glass.
Gone were the inward facing seats, the down-turned eyes and grey sheets. Suddenly Paul had entered a world where foreign voices reigned, drowning out even the steady drone of the flight-safety announcement. A boy in bright colours hurtled down the aisle, ignoring his parents calls, and met Paul's eyes unapologetically as he shot him in the chest with a finger gun. Paul did not smile, but waved his hand peaceably at the boy's parents.
He felt the plane take off and lost himself in the red and black behind his eyes: he dreamt of magnificent sunsets and seas, of breathing deeply, and feeling the warm sand between his toes.
Suddenly his body forced him forward. With the taste of blood in his mouth, he found himself staring out of the window, past his reflection, to the steadily approaching horizon.