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Excerpt from Early Works

A Conflict of Interest

Explosions thumped all around our trench, flinging soil that scattered on my helmet, my hands. Jack Foster danced in the middle of the smoke, which towered like giant blooms of sick, alien flowers. His arms were outstretched, and he was spinning euphorically as dirty orange flames billowed close by. He held his helmet in one hand and his gun in the other. I could hear him laughing and whooping. Foster span, span, hands reaching and brushing the grimy smog. I only peeped above the rough earth wall which I huddled into and cringed down with every new explosion. Jack turned to me.

‘Look at it all, Hargreaves!’ I could barely hear him yell. ‘It’s like a symphony, an orchestra!’ He swung his arms and dramatically gestured to each new explosion as a conductor would cue his musicians.

‘Foster you mad bastard, you’ll get yourself killed!’ I shouted and crouched down small as I could, and pressed my helmet into the trench wall.

Foster ran to my trench and jumped down beside me. He sat and ran his hands over his helmet, fastening it back down tight. His breath came hard and loud as he tugged at his collar to let some cool air in. I stayed tortoised up in a foetal pose as I gripped my gun.

‘Wow,’ Foster said and looking for my reaction. ‘That was something.’

‘Mad bastard.’

Foster looked to the sky to watch the shell-bursts. The explosions were so loud, and sounded different from how they would do on TV. They sounded more like deep, thudding cracks and threw out grimy black smoke, not like the brilliant orange fireballs you see in Hollywood. You felt them as much as heard them, deep in your guts.

I didn’t move. My knuckles were white on my gun which I pressed to the front of my helmet.

‘Are you ready, Matt?’ Jack shouted to me. From his voice, I could tell he was grinning. ‘As soon as this bombardment lifts they’ll come right at us! This is it, the attack we’ve been waiting for.’

I squeezed my eyelids shut. Let me out, let me out; anywhere but here.

 

I remembered standing against my jungle-green Land Rover at a military fair a few years back. Crowds passed by me in my uniform without turning a head. Hot sun, hot dog smell, wasps and disappointment. There was me there with my small collection of army surplus gear and replica guns. A rheumy-eyed old boy coming up;

‘Your boots are from the wrong era,’ he said. Embarrassment.

School; horseplay in changing rooms, protesting while my belongings were thrown around and rough hands rustled my hair which I wore buzzed short. Last place on sports day where I wheezed hard through air passages that felt as narrow as drinking straws. I spat up gobbets of phlegm to the sound of disgust and laughs from the parents.

Then one week ago we raided deep into the woods of Hill 70 to flush the enemy out. We captured two bunkers. We took ten prisoners but that day we lost Sam and Jess. Pete found Jess afterwards, or at least half of her. Her helmet visor blankly reflected the still clouds above the canopy, and flies buzzed at raw, red flesh exposed to the air.

We secured the ruined temple the next day, pushed back the ragged tatters of enemy units which had been harassing us for days. That day we captured supply caches so large and got our pictures taken in front of the loot. I sat high on top of one stack of crates, swinging my legs like I was a boy again, kicking my heels against the enemy insignia. Elation.

The doctor sat me down for a check-up just the other day; took my blood pressure, listened to my chest.

‘Your recent efforts are taking their toll, you’re over exerting yourself and not getting any rest,’ she said. ‘Perhaps should consider applying for leave, or a transfer.’

No, I could never leave. Not now. Besides, I’d be disqualified.

 

A figure in our uniform and with his visor down crawled round the corner of the trench under hail-patters of dirt and sat next to me. The name sewn on to his shoulder underneath his corporal stripes was Jameson. Foster prodded Jameson with his elbow to get his attention then slapped my arm.

‘Are you ready, Hargreaves?’ Foster yelled in me ear. ‘They’re coming for us! Wave after wave of them! We’re gonna kill them all, right Matt?’

We all gave a little yell as a shell exploded very close. Foster laughed. Jameson grabbed his shoulder and brought his helmet close.

‘Stop winding him up,’ he yelled.

 

There was a sudden quiet except for the humming in my ears. It was like a wet finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass inside my skull. Smoke spun in milky, burn-stinking blizzards. I lifted my head above the trench parapet, just enough to let me peek over.

A whistle squealed in the woods ahead, beyond a crumbled, empty-eyed set of ruins like rows of broken teeth. There was some movement out there, which turned into silhouettes of figures leaping up and running at us.

‘Positions!’ Jameson shouted and we all got to our feet and aimed our weapons at them.

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