Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Crooked Tree - The Story That Almost Was

The image above was set as the prompt for the writing challenge Mr. Wendig (also the owner of the photo) set to his regular readers.

Well, suffice to say I think I went over the word count and managed to miss the deadline... I just have a few edits to do and I will post the text of it up here. Tell me what you think as a starter for ten and I'll continue moving onwards and upwards!

EDIT: Story Added.


The sound of the wide brimmed steel helmet hitting the earth was the only noise in the foggy copse as Lance Corporal Kingsley dropped it, along with his gear, on the ground. With a sigh, he sat himself under a great leaning tree and began fiddling around for a packet of tobacco and his box of matches, idly itching at old dressings beneath his uniform shirt.

It felt so good to just sit, his calloused hands at rest for the first time in an age. He sgrinned joylessly as he idly exercised his dirty fingers and sat and did nothing. They felt so stiff, burning with fatigue and the aching memory of blisters and hard, old skin.

He found his pipe and clamped the stem between his teeth, the cheap clay clicking as it met enamel; lighting up.

The ritual felt so natural now, a million years away from the memory of the bright eyed, untarnished youth, eager to wear the uniform and impress the girls when the regimental band was set to entertaining. A dark knife of greasy, longish hair swung in front of his eye, jogged loose by the hunched, fumbling efforts to light his pipe in the cloying damp and he remembered that boy, sighing into the quiet.

This place he was in, this hollow of grey-green verdure carpeted with the unexpectedly soft leaves of dark green scrub and the single drunken tree-trunk leaning precipitously above him, reminded him of the chalk smeared brown glades of the Chilterns in the autumn. He felt like he had found a new piece of England somewhere in this forsaken foreign land, that God Almighty had sheltered him with this gauzy curtain of mist.

The waiting calm around the copse twitched him forward, an auditorium that breathed expectantly for his first notes. He sat controlled, still, waiting for a few minutes and letting the pipe smoke calm him slowly. He watched the grey-blue whorls disappear into the silver glowing misty air straining not to turn and face the music.

The music had to wait though, had to sit quietly and patient until the miles made him safe once more, just a wandering vagrant and a million miles from the dark mud and the pain and the blood.

His face tightened slowly as he looked towards his trumpet case, eyes dangerous and haunted as he stared at the forbidden fruit even wrapped in bulky tarpaulin as it was. Fingers grown stiff and worn from carrying hundreds of stretchers flexed with the need for glorious noise in this quiet, secluded transplant of English countryside.

Minutes passed as he sat, smoking quietly, staring at the wrapped black leather of the trumpet case.

His soiled clothes mocked him, the dark spatters of mud blending in perfectly with the splashing brown stains of old blood across his uniform, but they didn't disguise an old bloody hand print by his knee. He felt shackled by old pain and the smell of death. Convulsively, he jerked the pipe away from his cold lips as a shuddering gasp ran through him, his brow beaded with cold sweat. He sat and panted and let his hand rasp rhythmically through the dark stubble on his jaw, the strong fingers kneading his greasy, pallid skin.

The pipestem clattered against his teeth as he desperately sought for the succour of smoke.

He needed to live, to breathe again and feel like a man, not the ghastly golem he had become over a hundred thousand bloody afternoons, the deliverer of the dead and dying, the witness to the illness and infection and the grisly deaths by bombardment and sortie and horrible accident.

He shuffled over to his belongings and untied the tarp, busying himself with unfolding the oiled canvas and throwing it over the trunk, casting about for stakes to complete his simple bivouac. His body felt awkward and sore, but he persevered, setting up his spot for the night in this secluded, aching place.

He looked at the trumpet case as he worked, occasionally glancing at it, or staring for longer moments, remembering the old joy of it. He cursed softly to himself and looked out at the gauzy mists. It must be afternoon sometime, and possibly late, but it was hard to tell. Grimacing, he picked up his kit and hauled it to the shelter, taking care not to disturb the progress of his fresh dottle and end the pleasant diversion of smoke.

The trumpet case was propped between his thighs, the old black leather comforting as he ran his gnarled fingers over the contours of the thing, delighting in every familiar scratch and fixing. It sang to him, the seductive siren song of days passed, of standing in the club, the light on him and the pianist, and the music filling the room. The rapt expressions of the small little audience had fed him then, even as they listened to another man's music dancing through his fingers and fell into the haunting moments between each plangent note.

He had lived.

That desire to live again was like an ache and he felt compelled to play with all his heart, just for these leaves and this crooked tree and all the fogs and mists that reminded him of home.

His fingers found the clasps on the case with all the passionate desperation of a man reunited with his lover.

The mouthpiece was so unexpectedly warm in his hand that he nearly sobbed in eagerness, sliding it home with sure, steady movements, feeling the stiffness slowly fall from his fingers as they forgot the chafing handgrips of stretchers and remembered instead the glow of brass and polish.

The pipe cracked as it was tapped out hurriedly, haphazardly, the stem breaking as he rapped the bowl into the muddy sole of his boot.

He brought the instrument to his lips... and the first note was perfect. It rang in the mists like a bell.

Terror at the brazen stupidity of this music danced with the giddy feeling of freedom as he began to play with all of his soul. The notes sang out, emotions painting the moist air, each note full of bravura passion and lusty gusto. The minutes rushed by as the young trumpeter of yesteryear emerged once more, the lone horn finding it's way into old comforting tunes written of remorse and love and gladness, and the lament for a world in which music had been shattered by the battering bombardments that rocked the trenches.

It was growing darker as the sky began to blush into the first shades of apricot and peach, and the slowly setting sun bathed the trumpeter's gaily flushed features as he opened his eyes once more. The music didn't stop though, the notes coming as sweet and sure as they had many years ago, all those old ragtime standards and the concert hall arrangements.

The thinning mist drew his eye like the coy play of a lady's sheer silks, his music growing ribald and suggestive as his gaze danced across the evening... and six whirling ripples of purple pipe smoke.

His eyes widened.

The music sank slowly from the sensual steps of the dance of desire into the crooning wash of a funereal ode.

Six men sat in the shadows of the clearing, smoking quietly and watching him play with awe. And deep sadness. Each looked hungry and unwell, the worst of them a tall, gentle looking man in the uniform of a captain, a pistol hanging loosely in his brown gloved grip.

Kingsley played on then for this solemn audience, a tear running down his face as he straightened his shoulders and began his last melody: Intrada.

There was no accompaniment as those noble notes rang out in lonely isolation, telling their story of glory and regret and the love of the beautiful. He saw the tears on their faces. They shared the same fear across the expanse of scrubby land between them: the end of the music and a return to the pummelling rhythm of the huge guns on the horizon. They were terrified of being un-human again, going back to the patient deaths of duty and a hundred small sufferings that rode their waking moments. He knew he could not go back with them.

The song slowly came to an end and Kingsley finally lowered the trumpet from his lips. He watched hypnotised as the pistol came up and, even across the slowly darkening bower, the trumpeter could see the gleam of dying sunlight on the barrel of the gun.

The captain tried to speak then, working his jaw, not quite looking at Kingsley. The voice was burred with fatigue and guilt, “You ran, son. You can't run... why did you run? Why?”

Like the officer's shoulders, the tip of the pistol slumped as the words emerged.

Kingsley could only think to tuck the trumpet away safely as he made it to his feet slowly. Three of the other soldiers looked away, faces drawn and queasy-looking even in the warm evening light; he knew as well as they did that there were no words, no explanation necessary.

In the silence of the moment, he savoured each of his heartbeats, each steady stroke of the cadence between him and infinity. He could feel the excited flush was still upon his cheeks. His hands were steady now and the dreadful weight on his soul had eased.

“Take her back to England, Captain. Let my father know she sings sweetly,” he said, nodding at the case.

The wet tracks down his cheeks shone as he stood before the officer, a magician of the music one last time. The crooked tree, in a place that felt like England in the autumn, under a golden setting sun, wasn't such a bad place to die.

The Captain raised the pistol once more and, finally, looked Kingsley in the eye.


Hope you liked it. More to come.

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