She told me that she had a dream I was dying. Dying in a pool of blood, she said. In a field of torn bodies, she said. In war, she said. And she said that it felt as if she was giving birth to me, although when I died it was as if every millimeter of her body ached with a pain that crushed her rather than set her free. She told me and I said that it was just a dream and that I wasn’t going to die, that there was no war on and in any case if there was I wouldn’t join the army because I wasn’t patriotic and didn’t want to die for anyone who asked me to fight for a country I don’t believe in. But she told me she had seen the wounds in my flesh, had felt the short inhales of breath I gasped at; choking on blood. She had seen my eyes stop seeing the world and had ached as my lungs tore themselves apart inside me. I said I had to go to work.
And I finished school and took up the full time job Mister Solomon offered me as a joiner. And each day on my way to work I would walk beside the field where the gypsies camped and the gypsy horses grazed and in summer the wild flowers came alive with insects which hovered sweetly in the air. I would return home in the evening and cut the potatoes and carrots from our garden and my mother would prepare the rest of the food and we would sit together at the wooden table side by side and look out of the window past our little garden to the graveyard where my father was buried. I would wait till she had finished her food and begin to clear the plates and cutlery away and she would tell me she had dreamt that I had died again and I would tell her that I had not died and she would not say another word as I washed what needed to be cleaned and left to have a drink with Rory at the ‘Arms.
Then one day she wouldn’t help me prepare the meal, and wouldn’t accept the food I put out in front of her. She said nothing. She looked at her food and at nothing else and I tired of waiting for her to start and ate my own and asked her why she would say nothing and not eat. And she started to cry. She didn’t make any noise and she only wept two crystal tears which clung to her cheek and froze there. And so I stood and went across to her and put my hands on her shoulders and kissed the top of her head and suddenly she gasped outward and moaned terribly and she shuddered in my arms and she begged me to leave her, she said that she couldn’t see me because I had died and she asked me to leave her alone and she asked me not to stay with her because she couldn’t see me because I was dead. So I left to join Rory at the pub.
As autumn began to course through the trees, I began walking through the graveyard rather than beside the field which the gypsies had camped in. The moment they left the field I began to feel a coldness on the inside of my stomach if I walked my old route. The grass beside the path appeared grey and the individual blades seemed to lose their clarity and definition as they became diluted with an unknown poison. The field enclosed the path in a sphere of muted ambience. And if the wind were to attempt to permeate this sphere it would transform into the sound of the gypsy horses.
The graveyard held in it’s confines the lost limbs and names of ten generations of people from the village. Though the church had been destroyed a century ago no new one had been built, and burial ceremonies were taken by Mister Thompson, as he was the only person in the village to have ever read the holy book. Only people born in the village were buried here. There had once been a traveller who came from the East who had taken up residence here in the generation before mine. He had died one night in a storm. The oak which had grown in his garden had blown over into his house and had crushed him in his bed. The villagers would not bury him in the graveyard and would not touch his corpse so they heaped tonnes of earth over his house; creating the tumulus which now stands on the outskirts of the village.
I never stray from the central path in the graveyard. I never see my father’s grave. His name hangs on my breath yet lacks the substance to form itself around my lips and tongue into sound. The large crypts and celtic crosses which line the central avenue emit a warmth which smothers the flesh and comforts it. As I leave the graveyard I carry the warmth home and back to my house where I find my mother standing on the landing looking out through the upstair’s window. She stands motionless and says nothing as the wind brushes the long grass creating waves which float through the fields as if waves on a calm sea.
One morning before sunrise my mother began to scream. Her voice broke the particles of my bones. She screamed throughout day and night for two days. Our corner of the street was avoided totally and people began to mutter that my mother was cursed. Their muttering and whispering filled the village and shook the branches of the trees with their weight. Birds stopped flying over the village. The pigeons which belonged to Mister Carr flew away and never returned. The farmer’s two sheepdogs were found beside the river in the forest; dead, as if frozen by an inner turmoil. My mother stood in her room screaming at the same pitch as I stood beside her, holding her shoulders and trying to soothe her with my voice, letting the shadow of my breath warm her ear.
After she stopped screaming she became silent. I returned to work. She took to dead-bolting the front door so I would have to nip in through the back garden and squeeze myself through the kitchen window which I could prize open using a thin stick. I began to notice Susan Ellis in the house next to ours watching me break into my house from her bedroom window and I would smile at her and she would blush and flash a perfect set of teeth between her subtle lips.
During the winter, our work became in demand and I would head home in the dark with a handheld lantern through the streets of the village as I made my way to the graveyard. One night I was stopped beside the coach house by Miss Karla whose husband had left for America and died on the journey over there and who dressed in clothes from the city and had sold her wedding ring when she heard her husband had died. She asked me to help fix her door so that it would close. She showed me to her house and as I stood on a small stool to fix the joinery of her door she put a hand on my hip and I looked into her eyes and saw.
I walked home that night stepping quickly over the cobbles with the stink of it still on me. I jumped into the kitchen and into my mother’s room and I felt it on my breath. My mother stood and shouted that I was dead again and I said I wasn’t dead mother I was alive and she screamed and said that blood was pouring out of my mouth and my teeth were loosening in my gums as they decayed and she could see the death rising beneath my eyeballs and my skin was tightening and there was blood on my clothes and my hand was gripping to a hand which had left me.
She paced across to me and she spat in my eye and I struck her across the cheek with my hand and she gasped as she fell to the floorboards and a thin film of blood formed on her flesh where the coarseness of my hand had cut her face. She put a fingertip to her cheek and she tasted the blood and looked at me and I told her to see, that that was what real blood tasted like.
I went straight to the graveyard and began to look for my father’s grave. The warmth from the graves lingered over me, draped across my shoulders. I inspected each grave and could not find my father’s. I wasn’t sure if this was because he wasn’t buried here or because I couldn’t remember what his name was. I propped my lantern against a celtic cross and sat down beside it, crossing my legs. It began to snow. Each snowflake settled securely on the limestone. I opened my mouth and let snow fill in the space between my tongue and gums. The back of my neck was warm. I looked to the sky and the stars weren’t there.
So my father wasn’t buried in the graveyard. Or his name had finally left my memory completely. The last strands of it had been severed from my mind, cut out from my vocabulary and thoughts. My mother was found one day walking through the wood, almost naked. Mister Thompson said she had seen the devil. I took a few days off work and spoon fed her watery soup as she lay in bed. Once, she started at the touch of the liquid to her lips and looked at me, I smiled at her, but she closed her eyes and began to cry.
Rory began to go out with Eileen Jones. She used to sit with us at the pub as we talked beside the fire place. She would listen to us carefully, not saying anything that would jeopardize her relationship with Rory, for Rory was inclined to go cool on her if he thought she was trying the undermine him in front of me. One evening before spring, she told us she heard war was coming. Rory said that he would fight, that he wasn’t afraid to die, that he was ready to kill another human being. I said that he wasn’t old enough to fight anyway, he said that he would be by the time war came - if it was coming at all - and that we should fight together as brothers on the battlefield. We shook hands and laughed and he bought us two more drinks.
Three nights before my eighteenth birthday my mother slipped into a thirty-six hour sleep. When she woke she saw me and asked her to fetch her some food and a drink of water. She smiled as I came back with what she asked and she touched the side of my face. She told me that she had dreamt about the day she had given birth to me. How I had cried so loudly the doctor had left the room, but how I had stopped the moment my mother had stroked my cheek with the back of her finger. She tells me that she loves me and I return the phrase. I look out of the window and watch a bird fly down and land in the bird bath in our garden.
The summer heat brings the insects back to the field flowers. The grass grows strong and defined, but the gypsies never return. On the evening of my birthday I walk with Susan Ellis into the field and we lie down, hidden by the grass. She feels small in my arms and her breath is soft. It is the longest day of the year, yet the sun doesn’t seem to set at all. In the morning we wake and stay together in the grass, she asks if I will go to war with Rory, I say that I will stay with her and she grips my hand.
The next weekend my papers arrive. I burn them in the fire. Mister Thompson calls round and asks to see my mother. He stays in her room with the door locked for several hours. When he leaves he bumps into me on the landing and pushes something into his pocket hurriedly. He says that the devil is still with my mother. I go into the room after he has left the house and she is crying dry tears. She says she can see the blood on my clothes, and that she saw me in the field. She says that she cannot feel me anymore. She says that she has given birth to a ghost.
A man comes and tells me that if I don’t report to the barracks with him now he will arrest me and I will be shot. I ask if I can say goodbye to Susan and he says yes, I can. I knock on her door but she doesn’t answer and the man tells me that he doesn’t have the time, that I have to come with him now. At the barracks I see Rory getting into the back of a troop transport lorry. He smiles and waves at me. I salute him as he disappears through the gate of the barracks.
On the third day of basic the man who sleeps in the bed next to mine loses his fingers when his rifle misfires. I look at him and see him counting time in his head silently as he stares at the blood and covering his mutilated hand. As he reaches thirty seconds he opens his mouth and the terror grips him and he falls on his back and flails and writhes on the floor and has to be restrained by two others. But they hold his chest too tight and they don’t realise he’s having an asthma attack and he dies there, in the training field. And I lay awake that night looking at the shrouded ceiling and see nothing and everything as the memory of what stars look like tethers itself around a part of my brain I had forgotten existed and I remember the look on my father’s face as he sat me on top of the gypsy horse and dappled sunlight comforts my eyes.
As I take my first post as night watchman I read the letter I had been given in the morning. It is from Rory, he tells me that he is well and has been promoted to sergeant. He says he wishes we were fighting side by side and that when we get some leave he will buy me a pint. He asks if I have heard any news from the village. I fold the letter and put it into my chest pocket next to my cigarettes. My breath rises in front of my eyes and as I rub my hands together someone arrives and tells me my shift is over.
We destroyed ourselves with machines. Tore our bodies apart with cruel manufactured metals. The fields are ravaged and beaten, and forests are uprooted. They say that we are fighting against evil. They shot MacInnes when he said this was more pointless than the Great War. A young boy’s dead face looks up at me from a hole in the ground. His face is a distant memory. The field is full of nameless dead who will not be buried. I look out across hell as the sun begins to rise and I think of my father.