He came of age at a time of war [An exclusive extract from my new book, Swell]

He came of age at a time of war.

She wore a blazing smile, a blood-red gash against chiselled white teeth, and yet when they bade farewell mother and son had not touched or kissed but waved politely. He never looked back as he marched away awkwardly wooden in his stiffly pressed uniform and his suitcase, stuffed to bursting, gripped tightly at his side.

He thought of her constantly during endless nights swaying sleepless in the belly of the steaming ship, his skin slippery with sweat.

At times he imagined her close by and watchful, stroking his hair and cheek, whispering into his ear while he pretended to sleep. And often in the twilight of his dreams he saw her cleaning and shifting in the parlour at home, bewitched by the soft sway of her body as she spread herself across the table, rhythmically scrubbing at a speck, her eyes expectant, her mouth half-smiling when she caught him watching her. Other times, it was her legs that mesmerised him; plump and firm, they swished busily beneath her floral cotton dress the hem of which wafted her faint scent of rose water and burnt toast. Then, as dawn broke, she would caution him to think only of her and deny the devil his temptations.

. . . be a good little soldier for your mummy

One morning the ship stopped heaving and shoulder to shoulder the soldiers marched their upholstered chests and jutting chins into a forest green furnace.

GOLLY GEE IT’S REALLY SWELL
TO SEND THOSE YELLA’ MEN TO HELL! . . .

It was there those good ol’ boys sallied forth two by two, expecting weaker prey, and caroused in a very un-private hell where bullet swarms hung in air made thin by a thousand breaths shocked to extinction. It was there they learned that in the clumsy, slow motion art of dying only the living scream.

In blazing dread, Death dissected bloody organs and flung them still pulsing at the stripped branches of trees – hung them like gaudy baubles at a bizarre banquet – while a raucous choir thundered a crashing overture to oblivion. Limbs, carelessly severed, crawled.

He could have run into the soft arms of Death, instead he burrowed into sticky red earth and lay very still, hardly breathing, peeking through a crack between splintered tree trunks until the roaring stopped and silence crept into his bones with the morning chill.

~

It is 4:16pm and the heat has reached suffocating maturity. He lies sprawled in his chair gulping air while all around him his precious things drown in boiling oil. Leaden fingers fumble aside the tiny curtain of his peep-hole and he gasps, his tongue a hot knife, his one spying eye seared by sudden brightness as muscles across his temples tighten and tear loose from the bone.

Outside the hut, bloated cars bask in a sluggishly slopping sea and crackling air shimmies along roasted metal while dazzling light bends and gyrates to primitive rhythms. From dips and hollows in the tarmac, eddies of heat wrestle and writhe, skim sideways to escape the scalding surface only to quickly condense into breathless, exhausted ooze and die away. Meanwhile in his skull, a relentless beat drums harder and faster, incessantly louder and heavier and enters his body through his gaping, foaming mouth and dripping skin. Sound, tendons, gristle, the throbbing bass, bile, blood and bones beating, beating into him, becoming him. Booming in him, a reverberating core-less husk, shells exploding, skin stretched and burnt. Pounded, him pounding compounds of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, a white-hot anvil. Beating, beating, beating.

Through mist and into his sagging eye steps a figure, a mirage, ragged at the edges, emerging limb by limb from wrinkles in the oven-baked battlefield. Gradually the smudge becomes a girl, a young woman, striding purposefully towards his hut and with each step a plume of dust jumps from the black tarmac as if she’s under enemy fire.

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© Rivenrod 2015

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