As he lay in a slit trench, in the dark,
next to the howitzer – smelling the gun oil
despite the cold, shivering despite
the army issue blanket and a tribesman’s
sheepskin tunic he’d bartered for – he thought
of tomorrow’s oven heat, turned, looked up.
Before he came to India, he’d never seen
so many stars. He’d eleven months to go
before his discharge – better counted that way
than in days or weeks. But maybe he’d sign on
for another tour. There was still no work
in the cotton towns. His mam and him
had lied about his age. Better that than
hunger and the workhouse. He thought of his dad,
in the madhouse with shell shock, dying there,
gripping his hand, shouting that poem:
‘Up lad, up, ‘tis late’, his mam sobbing…
He thought of the Pathans. ‘Ten thousand,’
the officer had said, a moustached Colonel,
who’d cut his teeth as a subaltern
in the Amritsar massacre. ‘And lead
by the mad Fakir of Ipi. By contrast,
we are fifty thousand – British, Gurkha, Sikh.
Ten brigades, five divisions, armoured cars,
tanks and a squadron of Wapiti bombers.
We shall prevail.’ They’d hardly ever seen
the enemy – but caught the endless sniping,
the frequent roadside booby trapped bombs.
When they did get close, the treacherous,
ruthless, suicidally brave buggers
flitted over the Afghan border.
He’d vote Labour when he got home. Change things…
He suddenly remembered Quetta, the earthquake –
and felt the guilt like a knife. His unit
was piling corpses from the native quarter
into a two ton Bedford when one of them
moved. He knew him, Kassim, the battery’s
char wallah, a young man his age. They had talked,
laughed. ‘Please. I am not dead, sahib.’ ‘It’s Kassim,
Corp,’ he called to the NCO in charge.
‘He’s alive.’ He watched the Corporal go to the cab,
bring back a pickaxe handle and cleave
Kassim’s skull. ‘He’s dead now, son. One down.’
The Corporal grinned at him. He looked away.
No one had spoken up – one had even laughed…
The eastern sky was lightening. He’d sometimes dream
of Kassim, good dreams, from which he’d wake
bereft. There was no one he could tell.
He remembered the end of that poem
his dad recited again and again.
‘Up, lad: when the journey’s over There’ll
be time enough to sleep.’