A Soldier's Return

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dealing with guilt in the aftermath of war

I enter the park, snow champing under my boots

A curt nod to a passing elderly couple

I watch them for a moment, shuffling in unison

I wonder if they have lost a loved one

A son?

A grandson?

Do they live under a covering of binding grief?

I hope hot

With all my heart

They depart, leaving me as one, alone

Winter's venom alienates me

A vicious cold wind that keeps the park bare 

Biting into the flesh

Numbing the hands

It is perfect

The Serpentine Lake appears, a grey monolith

Surface rippling slightly, babbling at the edge

The sky is the colour of a wolf's damp pelt

Greyness upon greyness

Matching my fatigued mind 

I sit on a park bench

And gaze across the lake

My bottom lip trembling

Hands clasped

Fingers entwined

I can't take it anymore

The nightmares

The dreadful memories

Images of death

The screams

The blood

The stench of decay

Rats gorging on bloated corpses

Mud-laden trenches

The dreaded whistle to go over the top

The surviving

The guilt

Ever-present guilt

Oh, how the guilt torments me so!

Plaguing my soul

Infecting my every thought

Corrupting my psyche

Haunted by the same question

The same blasted question

Why me!

Why me!

Why me!

So many dead 

Young men

Boys

Like my dear cousin Walter, my best friend

We enlisted together, brothers in arms

Fearless, courageous, determined to do our bit

Envisaging great adventures

Tales to tell our children, our grandchildren

Tales of bluster and high jinks

We were so gullible

I will never forget Walter's screams as he lay there

Limbs torn from his body, viscera exposed and smeared

Eyes wide, practically bursting from his skull

Knowing that death was imminent

Calling for his mother

For one last hug

Walter's death follows me like a stalking shadow

One of many

Incalculable deaths

The atrocities I witnessed, the bloody carnage

And for what?

For a few feet of land

Futile

Yet I survived

One of the fortunate souls

Barely a scratch to show for my efforts

It seems so unjust

A travesty

However, there is a heavy price to pay

Sleep fraught by nightmares

Body unable to curtail the terrible shaking

Any loud sound -

The slamming of a door

The backfiring of a car exhaust

Raised voices

And I fall to the ground, hands covering my head

Urine soaking my crotch

I'm back in the trenches

The Somme

Hell

I press my fist into my mouth and bite down

Stifling at least some of my cries

Tears stream down my face

Soul crushed

Every beat of my heart like a bullet to my chest

I yearn for perpetual sleep

To be amongst those who have fallen

To feel the embrace of angels

To smell the rich scents of Eden's garden

To be rid of a world steeped in blood

I stand, open my great coat and discard it

The coldness rapes me

My thin shirt offering scant protection

I step into the lake, the shock immediate

Colder than I imagined

I press forward

Water edging past my knees

I'm unable to breathe

I continue

My heart lurches

The water reaches my waist

My legs have no feeling

Yet they push on

My teeth chatter uncontrollably

The water passes my chest

Heart straining

It will be over in a jiffy

A few moments of discomfort

Goodbye Mother

Goodbye Father

I love you dearly

Please forgive me

Please understand

I must be with Walter

There are no victors in war

In one way or another

We all suffer ...

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