Home Leave

The longed-for home leave
Proves to be a waking dream,
And not a good one.
Smothered by the softness of it all,
There is no grit, no lice, no slime,
And worst of all, I miss the fear
Of sudden death. It’s so unreal –
I’m like an actor in a play
Of only half-remembered lines
Who must be prompted,
Carried through the play by those around.
Invited to have tea with Reverend Weekes
Where, without warning
While I nod attentively and smile
I realise that my cheeks
Are wet with tears
Which fall as gently as the summer rain
Into my cup
And saucer.

A fellow officer – now dead –
Once shared with me his “Rendezvous with Death”
In verse.
I need no formal rendezvous.
Death sits as my companion through the day
Then holds my trembling hand at night
While talking softly but incessantly
Of those who’ve died,
His bed-time stories drive all hope of sleep away,
And fill the quiet moments of my mind.
I cannot rest, I cannot sit at dinner table,
Cannot “Come to tea”
And smile politely: “Thank you, just one
Sugar, and a little milk.
What perfect weather! Yes,
The garden’s looking lovely, and tomorrow
We will picnic by the sea.”
But if I were to speak
Of what is really in my head –
The images, which only I can see,
Would surely cause profound distress,
Or shock and horror,
Maybe outrage.
So I sit instead and smile,
And out of no-where,
Prompted by the smallest thing,
Come tears,
Like winter bournes
Awakened by the weeping autumn skies.

When little brother Sam died, aged just five,
The tears had welled and flowed
In large and lonely drops.
But now I weep for regiments;
My three lieutenants, chaplain, colour sergeant,
And my men – 300, like the Spartans –
So my tears fall in relentless weeping
Curtains, as they fell upon us, drenching us,
Day after autumn day upon the Somme.
I hear their cries, I hear the rain,
I hear the shells and bullets once again,
I hear my wife say: “Come, my dear,
We must go home.”
A voice so full of gentleness and love
My heart is crushed, my eyes are wrung
Like sodden clothes from which the water streams.
The vicar’s voice says” I will pray for you, my boy,
And for our final victory.”
I want to say “Don’t pray for me! The sight,
Of whole-limbed noble soldier –
Not a scratch! –
Allowing folks at home to feel a pride
In Britain’s noble fight!”

I want to tell him: “Pray for Private Bride!
Just seventeen years old, torn clean in two
And weeping gently for his mother
As his legless torso lay
In mud and pool of blood.
The subaltern who caught a shell
And was reduced
To offal in an abattoir from Hell.
The giant of a colour-sergeant
At my side as we advanced
Through wire again not cut by shell…
Flung sideways onto me
(and thus I cheated Death once more as
Maxim bullets scythed the air above…)
His throat – once roaring terror of enlisted men
But soaring up to Heaven during Church Parade –
Reduced to mass of sucking, blowing blood,
A bullet through that glorious wind-pipe,
Eyes astonished, saddened, glazed.
The Geordie lad – VC by rights –
Who smothered that grenade,
His shattered lungs blown through his back
Blood Eagle of the modern day
A sight to make a Viking proud.
Have we advanced so little
In one thousand years
That with our arts and sciences,
We just repeat the savagery
Of Viking raiders
To Bride’s native Lindisfarne,
Who shed the blood
And tore the lungs from those who shone
Such glorious light
Upon the written word of God?

My wife and I depart beneath
A slowly creeping barrage
Of the kindest-meaning words;
Apologies, assurances of understanding,
“Over-wrought”, and prayers.
“You’ll soon be right as rain, my boy.”
Oh Lord! I must be gone
Before I tell him
There was absolutely nothing right
About the rain
Which swallowed our whole army
On the Somme.

So here I sit and stare at walls
Made thrilling, brave, heroic
By a boy so eager for the chance
To shine in battle for his king, his country,
And Lord Kitchener himself.
Could that long-vanished boy
Have possibly been me?
I gaze at Kitchener’s face –
Now drowned, of course –
While Death sits by me on the bed,
Companionably, silently,
And holds my hands in his,
The only person in the house
Who understands how deep, how dark,
The well of tears
Which I must shed.

© Richard Lindsay 2015

Background to the poem ‘Home Leave’