He watched them running: slipping and grabbing each other’s hands and shoulders in an attempt to break through without breaking rank. The mud plastered their hair wetly against their scalps, making so many shadowed skulls where a moment before had been grim faces. He thought – and didn’t know why, except that with the deafening roar the open mouths could be as easily laughing as screaming – of seeing his childhood friends run through the jets of fireman’s hoses back home in London. The air cleansed in the holiday heat by the inch of water underfoot and the feel of his vest bagging and slopping against his own, thin chest. Surrounded by arms stretched into indiscriminately embraces and the sound of wet limbs slapping against each other.
He remembered sitting out the back of his friend’s father’s fishmongers, pressing the back of his calves into a block of ice. Socks rolled down to get the full benefit, thick tweedy shorts barely registering anything beyond a habitual need to scratch where the material chafed his thigh. Sharing a ice-cream with Billy Thompkins – or was it Ned, the older brother? – and kicking backwards with the heel of his shoes, because Billy – or was it Ned? – had told him that if you kicked the same place a hundred times in a row then the whole block of ice would shatter. The Thompkins brothers had been two of the last to volunteer. Dead on the same night, sliced cross the throat by the same piece of shrapnel. The men either side of them didn’t get so much as a scratch – swore blind they’d been so shoulder-pressed into the two of them that nobody had realised they were dead until enough ground was gained for them to step apart and the two brothers shuddered down into the mud, already cold and congealed.
This morning there had been rimes of frost circling the toe of his boot like tide-marks. If he let himself think of the possibilities of there being more to the world than the hyper-reality of the present then he worried about freezing to death in the coming months. He had spent a very pleasant winter one year; reading in the schoolroom while the other children ran in uncomfortable circles in the snow outside, playing those puzzling games of intimacy and denial the fruits of which we then carry with us for the rest of our lives. He felt that same way now, as though standing with his nose pressed into the cold, slick windowpane watching his peers petting the grey pony while the chiming milk bottles were unloaded from the cart. When they reluctantly followed the clattering delivery-men into the classroom, their faces would be chafed red and the slush would pool under their boots, patching the wooden floorboards.
His days – that winter – had always started in a dull cloud of envy. But the small sounds of the bottles nudging each other as the milk thawed by the radiator and he sat by them, finding companionship in pirate adventures and tales of heroic valour, would soothe him during the morning break until the day finally ended with a sense that he was the one to be envied, able to take his boots off and press his toes along the thick ridges of the radiator until they steamed. He had learnt that innocence was not something to be lost but something to be filled – an empty shelf waiting to be lined with experiences and intimacies. Somewhere on that shelf was the knowledge that would force him now into lifting one foot out of the thick, glooping mud and putting it down in front, and keeping on doing so until he either lived or died. But somehow he couldn’t find it – could only stand as though waiting for an invitation while everyone else pushed past him and ran and slipped and fell.
*first published online in Issue 3.5 of Friction in 2011