Monday, 21 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #134. The Long Walk

© Chris Port, 2010

(Bit sentimental for me, I'm afraid). 

The Long Walk was initially a back of a fag packet idea for a film. I scribbled a treatment - more of a sketch - then lost interest in it. I quite liked it as a short story though and prosed it up a bit. Irrespective of plot, I’d be interested to know if other writers think the present tense works here? The dénouement is meant to be ambiguous. Is it though?

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A soldier is separated from his unit, lost in the desert. He comes across a woman who has just died in childbirth. A newborn girl is crying, buzzards circling like pitiless wise men . He can’t take a baby with him behind enemy lines. A hard head must prevail. He walks away. But the baby’s cries won’t let him. He walks back. Kinder to shoot it. But it is new life, utterly helpless... He can’t. Angrily, he takes the baby with him.

At night, he waits for a brazen moon to veil its face. Then he slinks into an enemy village. He milks three goats, fumbling like a teenager, and takes the precious condoms with him. It is dawn before the glaring infant can be coaxed to teat.

Then, as dew steams in the sunrise, he hears the voices of a dawn patrol. He can smell their cigarettes and feels strangely homesick. The baby starts to cough her first cry of the day. He places his hand over her face. For a moment, he thinks of smothering her. She has blue eyes, like his mother’s. He puts a filthy finger on her mouth. Her lips find it. She sucks gummily on the dry bait. The patrol laugh dirtily at some joke and pass by. He is unsure whether he feels furious or giggly. He decides to laugh. The baby glares at him, then cries with a vengeance.

He walks with the rising sun soaking into his back, carrying his squirming bundle. Then he hears a shout. His own language. He turns awkwardly, reluctant to put the baby between himself and the sound. His own side laugh even more dirtily than the enemy. This time, he understands the joke.

They drive him to a hospital. He gladly hands the burden over to a nurse. He ignores her inquiring eyebrow. She asks if the infant has a name. Feeling oddly obliged, he gives the girl his mother’s first name. A form is filled, and he is discharged of his responsibility. But as he walks away, his hands feel strangely empty. He goes to a bar and thinks of Ice Cold In Alex.

The war ends, as all wars do. Others take its place. He moves on. The years move on, until one day he wakes up in a country he hardly recognizes. He moves from country to country, job to job, bar to bar. Sometimes a woman fills his bed. But never his head or his heart. Sometimes he thinks he is happy. Sometimes he feels like the last swig in the bottle. Through thin walls he hears the rumours of other people’s lives. Distant murmurs erupt into laughter. Shouts bang and doors slam. Sobs shudder then fade. But nothing is as important as that helpless life he saved.

One day he wakes up and knows the bad news before the doctor does. The dull tiredness has become a black pain. His service card gets him into a hospice. He avoids conversation. Instead, he looks out of the window as if waiting for some visitor. But there is no-one left to see him. A doctor comes in. A woman. He is struck by her beauty. She asks if he wants morphine yet. He nods. The pain is very black now. She tends him, as cool as the bedsheets. She politely asks his name, although she already knows it from the chart. He tells her, then politely returns the question. She raises an eyebrow, then smiles and tells him. It is his mother’s name. He raises an eyebrow then laughs. As she leaves, she hesitates. Is there anything he’d like? He asks to sit in the garden.

Later that day, the doctor goes to find him. There is something she wanted to ask him. Too late, of course. He slipped away in the sunshine with the most peaceful smile you could wish for.

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The Long Walk is also available on 3 Way Split Writer Group Forum.

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