July 2, 2013
Edward laughs like a loon. He sits splay-legged on the beach on a perfect summer day with the sun high and hot and the sea a shimmer of slate-blue. Beside him his best friend Harry wears a smile as broad as the slick of sand they sit upon. This is the best moment in both of their lives.
They have been walking. A trail of footsteps marks the way they have come—from beyond the rocks where the beach curves out of sight. They have lost their shoes and hats and their uniforms are a mess of tears and dark stains. But they are laughing nonetheless. Harry’s arm, alongside Edward’s (because now they are lying side by side, becoming quiet) is dark and smooth and gleams with youth and health in the sun. Beside his, Edward’s arm is smaller, and while his brown skin, painted with a palette of sun and wind, is darker than it was, it is still lighter than Harry’s. His bicep does not roll in his arm like Harry’s, but he is muscular and strong.
Harry’s other arm is loose and broken. The pain has started and now he moans rather than laughs.
“We’ll be alright,” says Edward, gripping his friend’s good hand. “Hold on. Help will come.”
Beyond the rocks where the coastline curves from view, the beach is strewn with the bloated and torn bodies of boys and men. These lie among the detritus of their smashed ship. All of them, ship and boys and men had been blown high into a smoke filled sky.
The noise of the blast still rang in their ears and the shriek and scrape of tearing metal, the horror of the screams of men were the cacophony of nightmares. The ship had seemed to rise from the water. They’d been sorting supplies together, in a box container, side by side as they are now. They had never let go of each other, holding wrist and hand like children because each knew his survival depended on the other.
Harry and Edward found life jackets and desperate, clung to a piece of floating wreckage. And all the while the awful dark water had roiled and heaved in the stinking air and the screams of dying men grew mercifully, tragically less. “This is a miracle of God,” said Harry, when they knew how alone and alive they were.
They lie side by side upon the sand. Edward’s face is turned to Harry and he holds Harry’s good hand whose palm and fingers swamp his own. Harry’s face is turned to the blue sky though his eyes are squeezed shut. Tears run down his cheeks and he moans his pain. Edward makes soft sounds of comfort, like a mother, learned from the love and caring that was given to him long before his memory formed. He hears Celia in the soothing murmur though it comes from his own lips.
He’d signed up for the duration but nobody thought it would keep going like this. He hopes Celia still gets her share of his wages. He hopes she is safe. He prays that she still loves him. ‘When I come back I’ll be a man that can get a job,’ he’d told her. ‘The government will look after us because of all the sacrifice.’ That was what he’d believed.
It seems a lifetime ago now. It was a few lives he’d lived on that ship that is now in pieces scattered from here to Timbuktu. He doesn’t let go of Harry’s hand even though he’s stopped moaning. “No V.C. for us, Harry,” Edward whispers. The sea is calm now, waves rolling up onto the beach and washing back, the soothing rhythm a comfort. It’s good not to be on the water.
Edward’s legs are damaged, but he won’t know that until he tries to stand up. They’ve lain on the sand for more than an hour since making their way from the wreckage, but they won’t rest for hours yet.