It’s funny how some things slip your mind so easily, I’d forgotten until now I’d been a child once. But now it is as clear and real as the outcome of the next few spilt seconds. As if I were them I can see myself from my parents perspective leaning over my pram to tickle me, strange though… to see myself from their eyes.
But my earliest memory, a visit to a duck pond, is a memory that’s always stuck with me, a clear set of still images interspersed with blankness, the ducks, the trees, the water, everything except me in fact. But I know how I would have looked, the red jacket, so new it was a few sizes too large, brand new and still as red as valentines. I have red boots too, shiny and always wet with something. Navy blue shorts and paper-white legs add to the contrast. There is a picture of me dressed like this, that’s why I remember it now, it must have been in the park, I’d these big red cheeks, bloated and round like I was hiding apples inside.
The photograph was taken in autumn, the leaves toasted golden caramels and spread across the green grass like a pile of jigsaw pieces, there are even leaves red enough to complement my cheeks, jacket and boots. We play in the leaves in the park, Antoine and I, building piles as tall as we were then run through them kicking and laughing. Autumn was the best time for best friends, but we grew up, I remember photograph after photograph of me growing up, the one that is clearest to me now is from when I was 9 or 10 years old.
The first memory of not being a child any longer, my cheeks receded, this particular photograph went on the sideboard in the living room, my parents pride and joy, it has never moved. If we went there right now, me and you, it would still be there. I can see so many more photographs in my football uniform, another autumn memory. I loved football, loved it like you love reading and I loved autumn, but not like I loved the spring.
Spring was the turning point, it was the indicator of the holidays. Spring nights and daydreams spent filling myself with anticipation and plans of the hobby in which I engage my idle summer forces into. One summer my father and I built kites, ready for the autumn and her strong winds we built an army of them. I can remember flying the ones we liked best in the warm dry winds of October, we even named the biggest kite October Win’s. But it was making of the kites and enjoy most, by the time we were flying them my loose attention is dreaming of football once more.
Every year, in autumn, my father and I make our pilgrimage to the same old tailor to have my new football jersey embroidered with my schools coat of arms and my dads old shirt number on the reverse. the old man was my grandfather in the absence of a real one, every year we visit him and every year he greets me with the same smile and the same my how you’ve grown, the chalk sometimes falling from behind his ear when he smiles too widely. He smiles more than the memories of my grandmother, she was stern and too strict but it still doesn’t stop me from presenting her with a tear on my cheek at her funeral.
At that age I didn’t cry much, instead I rebel in a teenage fashion. There are few photographs from that period. Antoine and I would play truant on those days at school, hiding our spotty faces in an alley way until we were sure the bus had passed us by. Then take our acne plagued but innocent faces home only to spend the rest of the day inventing new games in the house and pretending we knew how to cook in the kitchen.
The memories of playing children fade fast as those of exams invade, the government too crowded our horizons with frowning faces one day, sending us to the sick bay to be stared, prodded and picked at. The stare is so hard, they look like somebody has rubbed their colour out. I’d only been to the sick bay once before then, once after a fight with a monster called Bill. My mother has come to take me home that day, she is friends with the nurse, so we had met before, they smiled at each other and look sympathetically at my swollen eye and bloodied nose. I’m glad they smile.
But our childhood’s had always been filled with friendly and familiar faces, until this day, the day they push me, lonely, into the sickbay with this woman, this new monster and this new sickbay, cold and inhospitable. Her white face broadcasts her intelligence and lack of adventure, but it sags through the years of disappointment, reaching down and blending seamlessly into her starchy white colour. Her suit too is not of the reds, greens or yellows of my fond autumn memories, but more like a child’s experiment to invent a new colour combining all that he has only to end with nothing, a putrid slur of visual disquietude.
– SO?!?!?, she doesn’t speak she announces, what do YOU want to be?!?!?! I grew up that afternoon.
The memories from here on in are of study and perseverance, exams and textbooks, cold showers and cooked breakfasts. The discipline helped my complexion and with the inevitable but tearful move from home, I was liberated. From school to university is a step from a being less than nobody to a living somebody. Far from friends and family, but happy, no longer the child’s lifestyle, university allowed me an enjoyable transition to adulthood. My progress astounds even me, the long nights of loneliness never came to their conception, instead I excel in all I start. Football, studying and even with the fairer sex. I study effortlessly to the top of my class and even win an engineering prize in my first year. The trophy I give to my parents as a way of saying thank you, they cry for me and place it next to the photo I told you about, then later when I receive my degree they place a photo on the other side of the trophy, the three of us together at my graduation.
I play the last match of the season the next day, destined to be my last match. At least I am going out with glory, scoring the winning goal in injury time. The entire team are running towards me, they are going to knock me unconscious when they all land on my yellow clad chest. A painful but memorable image, they are all crowded over me as I wake up, muddy grins and matching jerseys. Now though, as if this day was the last in which colour was a legal substance, the world took a different hue, the smiles became lips and the bright eyes dark sagging and folded skin.
The grown up world, chanting monotonous corporate slogans and slow marching to the drum beats of appraisal meetings and review boards, brought me nothing but serious faces. Interview boards took turn in line to investigate me as if I’m cattle, still inspection turns into my first boss, his Monday morning greyness and his grey-green shirts and suits of only slightly varying shades of the same colour. His colourless ties point to his bulging eyes and piggy glasses, sweet and innocent but the antitheses of having fun.
Ten years slide by like pyramid bound stones on their way up. I can see only a few memories as I slogged away at my first engine, its birth-cycle slides by now like butter skiing the virgin slopes of new potatoes. The first presentable draft, the first scale model, the prototype, shiny and purring. 6 years from conception to production the first one is coming off the line now, 6 years of gruelling in such appalling state of recollection. Leaving me here with my boos and factory floor boys, faces as grimy and matt like the dried concrete oil slick on which we stand. We break a bottle of champagne over the manifold and a few solitary flash bulbs extinguish their lives in sorry record of this event. The four years that follow, do so with similar states of high inertia. But were interrupted.
Dissolved as I was in my work I’d no idea of what was going on in the outside world. Then I suppose none of us did. But I sit now staring at my Monday attempt to perfect the fuel delivery system listening first to the offices fall silent then to the sound of war breaking out on the radio. I guess you might have seen it coming, well, we didn’t. The greyest part of my life has just had its canvas pulled from behind it, the dried cracking oils left unsupported fall to the ground. No time to say goodbye to the friends I have forgotten to make or the dream girl I never met. Now I move to the next chapter in my life, now I meet the sternest face of all, yours.
– What do you MEAN you don’t know how to use explosives? slamming your T-bone palms on the desk in front of me. Spoken like a true sergeant but do you expect me to be ‘on the ball’ two hours after having said goodbye to my parents, my career, so long and laboriously worked for cut short only to be faced with you critical brow with its furrows deeper than the trenches we cower in day in day out. If only you knew how threatening you are, of course I know how to use explosives, I just never have. Half the division jumped at the familiar boom of ‘why are you wasting my time?’ Well, you know now I wasn’t, my efforts at university remain fresh in my mind, confident in them then as I am now. But still I can feel the trembling the first time corporal Glee handed me the white waxy block, you’re there, you remember? Looking over my shoulder with a cold judging smile. I can hardly hold it in my hand it unnerves me so much and all you have to say is ‘how lucky I am we don’t have to kill people in the ‘Engineers’.’ Well, I hesitate now to be insubordinate but you were wrong Sar’nt.
I can still see the matchstick men and matchbox cars as they topple from the first bridge I blew, randomly spinning as they plummet into the steamy white froth of the valleys welcoming haven. We didn’t see them hit the bottom, Tom and I, you remember Tommy don’t you? He is here with me, tears running down his cheeks clearing a line of ‘known ground’ though the brown and green paint that hides our true colours. The image is burned to my retina, his mixture of pain and awe, but we made a pact that day to not cry anymore. And we didn’t but we shed more lives instead, trading many lows for few highs, but we won daily in comparison to the day I kneel with his head my lap looking down at his heart pumps the last few drops of blood through the gash in his neck. Still I promised him I wouldn’t cry so I don’t, but I hold pain for him that is only now about to die away. But the image never will.
The years since then, however many they are, fell like the young bodies of the men I lost during them. Fox, you wouldn’t have met him, one of those who should have made it through, a winning smile and bright ginger sideburns, his full house proudly waving in my face, not the truest preface to his chest exploding leaving a ragged and bloody hole in the aces of spades and my eyes stinging with his blood. I haven’t had chance to bury many so we give him a good soldiers burial, leaving that ace tucked in his hand, it never having moved. That wasn’t so long ago, months most likely, moving with unknown rhythm, some days pass like I read playboy and others like you study Sun-Tzu. Browsingly or contemplatively the nights no longer bid me asleep nor to have say on their tempo. Regardless of my unavailability to the torrid concoctions of war dreams the sleepless nights brought me instead hallucinogenic phantoms, but familiar faces like in my vision now plaguing my conscious purpose.
I was there the day they marched through the capital y’know. It’s clear as day, they parade in rank and file through parliament square, crouched alone in a recess in some half-started half-finished and half destroyed building my only visual stimulus the gut wrenching sight of them through the hole in the plaster and dust of the wall. My stomach rebels more at the sight of the switchbox in my hand. It calls me like a postcard from a friend long lost. I can’t look at it and I refuse to as I hit the switch, not at it or its results, but can my minds delineation be worse than any reality, aptly storing a home video of their victorious procession and the expense of its young lives. This must be by a furlong the lowest point there is, no bridge, no building tank or object attaches my explosive to these soldiers. I have killed. Killed with no justification or vindication, without and by long lacking excuse, I guess now we both know how it feels to be violated.
And now look at us, now, look at what we are: scavengers, ducking in and out of the bloody mist of desert trenches making little ground for large loss. We’re not a nation anymore, we’re guerrillas, we wear the same beard, the same torn uniform and see through the same glazed eyes. But you, you’ve lost that stern look, you look like a rabbit caught in life’s headlights. Your rusty shaving mirror, still the same one? Stopped any bullets yet? At least you can manage a laugh, not me. We know the reality of death now too, a recent victim grey faced and blue lipped by our side, his eyes weep a different colour to yours. That’s it y’know, my last memory, I wish there were more, but I can feel again now the wrenching in my stomach as you tell me you had to kill this kid yourself as his screams of agony were giving away your position, I wonder if reality will be my last memory, I wonder if I will remember this bullet stopped in mid-air boasting in slow motion in front of me, begging for permission to penetrate my throat, its callous spin and dire consequence mock my life, like the bad last card at a crooked blackjack table it creeps innocently toward me unaware of its deliverer’s bad intention.