Fear. What is that? There's no time for fear on the battlefield. You never know when Death could be imminent. It skulks around in the shadows stalking you, hoping to catch you out. As soon as you let your guard down and allow that venomous substance to seep through your skin and infiltrate your veins, Death seizes his opportunity. All it takes is a split second and you have a bullet through your head. Fear is just stupidity. The only thing that is worth being afraid of is fear itself.
They do say though that death is the easy way out. Point a gun to your head, pull the trigger and it will all be over. I wish. You see, it really isn't that simple. I would have thought that serving my country in the war would have secured me some kind of peace in the afterlife. Whether that be my dream world floating on clouds surrounded by beautiful women calling themselves angels or simply eternal rest doesn't bother me. What I didn't expect was to find myself existing but with absolutely no substance to me. A formless conscience floating around in some kind of nothingness searching desperately for a purpose. All that I am able to do in this state is rake through the mounds of leaves that are cluttering up my mind.
The only thing that seems to make any sense at all is a bright light glowing in the distance. I seem to be orbiting this strange iridescence and I can hear it calling to me. The sound is muffled as if it is far away, yet has a distinct high pitch that always seems to be close by. Every now and then the voice becomes clearer and I think I might recognise it, but then it becomes suffocated again and fades further away. It's so frustrating because I think I must be repressing something. Every time I get so close to identifying the source, it's like a blanket of smoke clouds over me, blocking all of my senses and thinking processes. During those periods of lucidity in which the orb seems to be getting closer to me, snatches of memory flash through my mind...
September 1939. I remember this. I had been posted on the Belgian border with the rest of the BEF. We'd been given orders to thwart the German advance. Oh and my brother, my brother William. He was always the golden child, smart and charismatic. When he fell for the reverend's daughter he managed to prove himself enough for her father to pay for him to study law and become a lawyer. Of course he didn't have to try too hard, blue eyed boy as he was. Not that being a lawyer was much help in the war against Germany. No, now he was in the same position as me. No man is safe on the battlefield, all men are equally disposable. Still, he somehow managed to be promoted and put in charge of the operation. Under his watch, my squad and I were to destroy as many bridges as we could to slow down the German advance.
This is where I find myself now, somehow fully materialised as if I've gone back in time and been given another chance. There's my brother over there. He seems to be having problems with the machine gun. What's weird is that although I know that I have definitely been here before and it is all familiar, there's something not quite right. I feel threatened and in unfamiliar territory, but this is my memory right? It's all in my head and nothing bad can happen to me because I'm already dead so why do I feel so uneasy? William's calling me over. I best see what he wants.
"Alright men, we have a slight problem. The machine gun is jammed and the enemy is only minutes away.Who is the best here at taking apart and reassembling weapons? We don't need any unnecessary casualties here".
The majority of the squad turns to me as I stare at my boots.
"Private Webster?" William prods. I lift my head and stare him straight in the eyes, my lips slightly puckered and with a sullen look on my face. Time seems to drag out the seconds painfully as I glare at my brother in deathly silence. I can't even think of the reason for my being so angry and childish with him but feel a strong and unreasonable urge to defy him. Piercing my eyes through his, my blood pounds erratically and my vision clouds up as I collapse on the floor which shatters like glass and tumble down into what seems like another memory…
Laughing and joking a nineteen year old William Webster and his wife Elspeth strode down the cobbled pavement hand in hand. I walk alongside them, feeling strangely invisible. The little cottage that we were walking up to was in beautiful condition with its little thatched roof, solid wooden doors and window frames painted blue. The huge willow tree that was our grandfather's pride and joy stood next to the pond in the front garden, towering above the modest little house that we called home.It is then that I notice a pale ghostly reflection of myself in the distance. This doesn't shock me too much, it could be a trick of the light. Then I hear whispered voices, similar to what I was hearing before I went into the light. Looking at my companions, I notice that they aren't really making any sound. The voices seem to be coming from the pond. As I approach it I can see the light coming closer and hear the voices getting louder. Nothing can prepare me for what I see when I look down into it. Rippling in the water and causing all the pond life to swim and scuttle away is an abhorrent creature. The worst thing about the reflection is that I feel attracted to it. The voices begin to sing in an alluring yet haunting way. Horrified but entranced, I find myself leaning in closer and closer to the reflection in the water. It is undoubtedly a reflection of me, but somehow also of Will. When I look at it, I not only see our faces as they look on the outside, but also a mash up of our inner selves. The merging of our faces into one may be grotesque, yet the glossing over of our inner psyches makes him look beautiful. My insides ache with longing and I feel incomplete and only half finished. As if fuelled by a sudden rush of adrenaline, I use all my strength to dive into the whispering orb of light headfirst...
Panting, I pick myself up off the ground fast. I'm back on the battlefield and there's nowhere to hide. My heart is pounding and I can feel in my bones that something awful is about to happen. There's no one to be seen but I can hear the whistling of bullets soaring through the air and the nightmarish mechanical scraping of tanks in the distance. Shit! We failed, the enemy made it over the bridge. What the hell can we do now? Our Lee Enfields are pathetically feeble up against those killing machines - hell, we're screwed. Jumping down a hole in the ground, I trudge through the dirt in search of someone, anyone.
"Oy! Webster, we're over here!"
Success, I make my way over to my squad, well what's left of them anyway. Reynolds has a huge gash down his face, Ryan has his leg all bandaged up and Scott is being attended to by a medic. God knows where everyone else is.
"Doesn't look like we're doing very well. Where's my bloody brother when you need him?"
I didn't expect eight pairs of eyes to try and lacerate me. Doesn't make you feel terribly comfortable believe me.
"What? What did I say?"
Reynolds shakes his head in disbelief, "You're sick you are Webster. Really sick".
"What? What did I do?"
Scott winces as the medic pours antiseptic on his wound before piping up himself:
"Well apart from abandoning your squad and leaving your own brother for dead, nothing Webster".
Ok I really didn't expect to hear that. If that's the case, I guess I really did deserve Death to come after me…
So I've been sucked down into a never ending black abyss without even an orb of light to distract me. Somehow though, I don't feel as if I am alone.
Well I do, thanks to you.
Wait, who was that?
All of this, it's just too much Ben. I came here into the woods for peace and serenity. At least I think I did. All it does for me is bring out all the thoughts and feelings associated with my time during the war, and now I get lumped with you and all. Maybe that's why I came here really, for familiarity. After all there's nothing and no one left at home for me, maybe it would have been better if I could have remained on the battlefield forever…
Hang on, is that you William? How the hell did you get inside my head?
Empty, bleak nothingness. That's all that's left for me now. The once spectacular array of watercolours in a masterpiece painting has been smudged and crumbled into a mass of ash and grey rubble. My perfect home, loving wife and beautiful baby daughter - gone, just like that.
What? Elspeth? Baby Chrissie? All gone? No.
I'll show you…
He remembered sitting under the shade of the tree with his arm around Elspeth, her head on his shoulder as he gently kissed the top of her head. How she loved being surrounded by the sea of red and yellow poppies, the bluebells, tulips and the pansies which stretched out for miles around them. Her favourites though were the rose bushes underneath the front windows of the house. He preferred climbers himself, like the ivy that clung to the trellising that framed the front door. Evergreen, dependable and always there, all year round.
All of this passes through my mind like a picture slideshow only brought to life and enhanced by his thoughts and emotions. It's like we are the same person. More than blood brothers, literally two brother's minds blended into one. But why?
So that you can see what I see and feel what I feel. You didn't kill me by abandoning me Ben. You destroyed me. All the building blocks of who I am and who I used to be, of what is important and what doesn't matter, of what is right and what is wrong, are all jumbled up in a nonsensical heap. Fact or fiction, truth or fabrication, emotion or reason, they're intangible, indistinguishable. I'm still alive but I may as well be dead. I exist in a living nightmare and now you are part of it…
I was taken to hospital when you abandoned me during the retreat from Dunkirk. I was shot in the leg and got caught underneath falling rubble. I must have blacked out after from the impact because the next thing I remember is waking up in hospital, one among many wounded soldiers lying inert in hospital beds. The ward was quite shabby and didn't look much like a hospital building. It might have been put up just for the purposes of the war. Looking around I thought I realised how lucky I'd been. It wasn't until when I went back to our home in Southampton that the reality of my situation hit me. It's gone, Ben. Everything I ever cared about, the house is reduced to rubble and nothing can be saved. The worst part was seeing their bodies. My dearest Elspeth lying on what used to be the kitchen floor, hair splayed out around her head with our beautiful baby cold as stone and clasped to her chest. They looked in shock, not as if they were at peace at all and my heart stopped still. I couldn't handle it Ben. I slumped down on to the floor curled up into a foetal position and rocked. Back and forth, back and forth for I don't know how long. It could have been minutes, hours or even days. Time ceases to exist when there's nothing to look forward to.
I decided that the only thing for me to do was to go into the woods and pretend that I was still on the battlefield. Only by lying to myself could I carry on, it was the only way to keep myself sane. Turns out that I wasn't the only one who had the idea. I met a few men while I was in there and you can meet them too: Thompson - he was a deserter, and Roberts and James were ex-soldiers like me. Look, there they are now, sitting between those trees over there.
Somehow, although he was inside my head and I couldn't see him, I knew which trees he meant and where to look.
"Hey Will, come over here. Where have you been?"the man who must be Roberts calls, beckoning me over. I go and sit down next to them but remain silent, wondering if Will is still in my head.
"Didn't you hear me? I said where have you been Will?"
That's strange. Why is he calling me my brother's name? I've never thought we looked that similar.
"What's up with you mate? The shakes getting to you again? I think I've got a couple left".
Reaching into his pocket, Thompson pulls out a tiny plastic bag with a few little pills in and I take it from him. If Will took them (with him being the sensible one out of the two of us) I'm sure it won't hurt. Popping one of them into my mouth, I start to clear the ground a bit to make it more comfortable, lean against the tree and fall asleep…
My eyes snap open suddenly and I realise that it's the middle of the night.
"Pssst. Over here".
The voice seems to be coming from in the trees behind me and I get up to follow it. I crunch through leaves and snap twigs as I try to tiptoe as quietly as I can so that I don't wake the others.
There it is again. I think I can see a slight movement a few feet ahead of me. The trees are rustling a little and I can just about make out a pair of worn old boots. Moving my legs faster, I hurry over to catch up but just as I do, the boots vanish. Stopping still, I can hear the sound of footsteps to the left of me and the light splashing sound of a pebble being dropped into a stream. My heartbeat begins to speed up, does this person want me to see them or not? Could they just be luring me into a trap? I concentrate on my surroundings and listen for the sound of water flowing. Following my hearing, I frown as I can smell damp as I get closer. Eyes flash momentarily between trees in the distance and I hear the sound of a gun firing. Looking down at my hands I remember that I have no rifle with me, I am unarmed. Creeping cautiously now, I keep my eyes peeled for any signs of activity. Funnily enough, while I'm alert, the woods fall silent and completely still. I sigh and turn back to return the way I came.
When I wake up again I feel as if I've only just got back to sleep. I can hear that voice again. No wait, I hear voices. My eyes widen in alarm as I hear the whistling sound of artillery fire and I curl up with my hands over my head. Then an explosion of gun fire fills the air on all sides. With disbelief, I roughly try to shake my companions awake.
"Wake up, it's not safe here. Please, I don't want to have to leave you. Come on, they've got weapons!"
Grumpily the other men sit up, clearly not impressed. As usual, Roberts is the first to speak:
"What is all this about Will? You're acting really strange".
"Didn't you hear the gun fire? It was deafening, like being back in the middle of battle. Listen".
Ironically, as soon as you try to show people something, nothing happens. As hard as I try to hear something, the woods may as well be dead. Not even a rabbit or mouse can be heard.
"I'm going back to sleep," moans James, and they all fall back into their stupours.
I'm sure I wasn't imagining things. Maybe I'll stay awake and prove that there is something going on…
It is almost dawn and I still haven't heard a thing. All I can think about is how tired I am. Every couple of minutes I almost nod off and have to roughly shake myself awake. This time when I half open my eyes I bang my head against the tree trunk in shock. Directly opposite me is William standing straight and tall, fully armed and grinning at me in the most eerie way. Behind him are flying bullets, storming tanks and thousands of British soldiers. Bombs explode around him, narrowly missing him every time.
"What is wrong with you? First you get inside my head, now you miraculously materialise in front of me. What do you want William? I'm sorry I swear, just tell me what you want!"
Grinning from ear to ear, William lowers his rifle and somehow manages to speak without opening his lips:
"Vengeance, and guess what little brother? I got it".
He drops his rifle which smacks down on the ground and raises his hands as if signalling surrender. Before I have time to ask him what he means, a bomb lands in between his feet and erupts from the ground, enveloping him in flames and fumes. Then he is gone just as quickly as he appeared. In place of him is what looks like a billowing black curtain stretching out as far as I can see and whispers are coming from behind it, calling my name.
You go to war, you go to die. Everyone knows that. At this point in time, I'm not afraid of death, I'm afraid of my own mind. That idyllic family home seems so distant and long ago that I talk about myself in the third person. I have two personalities and I'm not sure which one really exists. What if either William or Benjamin is simply a manifestation that I have conjured up in my mind? My head harbours memories that seem to have been transplanted into me, I'm not sure which ones are mine and which ones aren't. Maybe I really do have another person inside my head, whether it is Benjamin or William I have no idea. Does this make me insane? My sense of identity is after all submerged in some kind of wilderness along with everything else that I have managed to lose.