I swore I wouldn’t cry.
‘Real men don’t cry’ my father would say, each and every time in my childhood a tear would appear because of a banged up knee or a cruel jibe in the playground.
‘Girls cry. Are you a girl Aled?’
I wonder what he would think if he were next to me now. Would he cry? I look around me, at the faces of the men. Some are crying. Not loudly, but I can see silent tears in their vacant eyes, eventually escaping to roll down their drained faces. Are they real men?
The boat jerks violently over a wave, causing us all to bash into each other, waking up those lost in time and reminding us all what we are doing aboard this floating fragment of Hell.
I can remember exactly where I was when the war was announced.
Dr Jones’ daughter had organised a birthday gathering for him on the village green. Taking advantage of the last of the summer heat, everyone was basking in the sunlight, enjoying the uninterrupted harmony of life. Delyth and I had escaped behind the blackberry bushes; they had just begun to ripen. If I shut my eyes, I can still see her standing there. Her red hair loose, falling in curls around her shoulders, blackberries, dark violet, prickled on the bushes behind her. Her kisses, as sweet as those berries.
As a child, I can remember running off with my brother Tomas to collect those valuable berries, our tins washed and ready, like pirates hunting for gold. It was a challenge, a competition, to see who could find the biggest one, black in colour, bursting with sweet juice.
I never won; I was too small to reach the tops of the bushes where the ripest would grow. Tomas would walk off grinning; clutching that blackberry tin, eager to show Father the finest blackberries in all of Queen’s country, ready and perfect for a pudding. Each time, I was left alone in that field, the sensation of failure taking over my body. And each time I would crush the fruit in the tin with all the strength I could muster, feeling those berries burst under the pressure till eventually all that was left was blood stained hands and a cluster of second best blackberries, punished for being worthless.
Blood doesn’t look like blackberry juice in reality.
It certainly doesn’t smell like it either. But once you have seen it morning, noon and night, you can come to convince yourself that it is. Those men, comrades, and friends, aren’t lying on the ground, shot out of existence, but rather, are lying there in a sweet summer daze, blackberry juice fresh on their lips.
The roaring sound of orders wakes me up from the innocence of nostalgia and brings me back to the present. The men around me are scared, I can smell it. It is as if fear has become the new cologne, everyone is wearing it. It fills up the boat like gas fills up a tunnel. It is so strong, my stomach lurches and I have to swallow back the urge to throw up.
I want to laugh at the absurdity of where I am. I want to throw back by head, and howl with laughter at this so called joke that God is playing on me and the rest of the men in this desperate war. He has a strange sense of humour. If I look up, I can almost see him winking down at me from the clouds, a smug look on his face. Like Tomas and the blackberries.
The boy beside me is shaking, murmuring the Lord’s Prayer, as if the words could somehow save him. In his hands I can see a picture, crumpled but clean, with a girl gazing out naively, captured in a forgotten world of innocence. She is handsome. I look at the boy’s face; he is young, too young. Not ripe enough to be with the rest of us blackberries.
Another round of instructions is given, I can’t hear the words but I can tell these are the final orders. All the men shift their body weight forward, holding their weapons of war, ready to run, to face our enemies.
I don’t want to laugh anymore.
A whistle blows and the front of the boat collapses onto the sand. The smell of fear is gone now, all is left is the stench of death. Two by two, like the animals on the ark, we lurch out of the tin box and begin to run. As I step onto the foreign land, I quickly pray; I beg for mercy, for survival, for the chance to have one last blackberry.
Bullets sound and the running begins.
Ignoring the men falling around me and my feet sinking into the wet sand, I simply run, as if it was all I had been trained to do. Perhaps, if I run fast enough I can turn back time. I can run right back to those blackberry bushes, back to Delyth, back to home.
The heat from the explosions paralyses my senses, but my ears still ring with the resounding screams of my fellow men in agony. I must be damned, this must be Hell.
Then, out of the chaos, I hear one single bullet slice through the air and suddenly my legs refuse to run anymore.
I can see Delyth before me; she is smiling. I try to get to her, but I can’t, I feel too tired to run. The ground is getting closer and the world suddenly gets quieter, as if all sound has been silenced. Tears form in my eyes and I let them fall, I don’t want to be a real man anymore, it’s not worth it. If only my Father could see me now.
I fall, landing on the sweet, fresh grass of home.
I can taste the blackberry juice.