Photo by macspite
Dried blood covered a gash over the man’s eye. His black hair cast a void against brilliant white as he stood, head bowed, in front of a lime washed wall. Fine sand swirled on warm gusts as the sun blinded the hushed crowd. Dinny used a hand to shade his eyes and spat dust from his dry mouth.
The sergeant had sent a party of them, young soldiers, to watch the executions. “It’ll blood the youngsters,” he said. “Let them see what it is like before they go into a real battle”.
Before, at home, the priests and politicians had called men like the one slumped against the wall “communist devils” and “enemies of God”. The man did not look like a devil. He looked tired and broken. As he stood, awaiting the bullets that would destroy his face and rip at his chest, tears dripped from his cheeks.
Dinny found sitting uncomfortable, but shifting was painful and took too much effort. His elbows, pointed and thin-skinned rested upon the arms of his wheelchair and he pictured himself shrunken into the seat.
Dinny had been wrapped, that morning, in a suit and heavy coat that now looked as if they were two sizes too big for his wasted body. He wore his black, heavy-rimmed spectacles, slipping low onto his nose.
His stiffened neck kept his head bowed and turned slightly to the left, as if he were straining to catch words being spoken. This was a fortunate coincidence as a full-chested, bounding commandant with a row of coloured ribbons above his heart spoke into a thin black microphone. The officer’s hand tapped lightly upon a wooden lectern as he turned to nod in the direction of Dinny, perched at the side of the stage.
The officer mentioned his name and light applause flitted across the cobbled parade ground. Dinny’s family made up a small audience— his sons and daughters that could come and grandchildren and two great-grandchildren asleep in strollers gathered under a graying sky in the cold shadow of the granite barracks.
Dinny had stopped hearing the words shortly after the commandant had introduced himself. He didn’t purposely stop listening, but he often found his mind wandering, sliding back to memories and ghostly images that, mostly, bore no relation to what was going on around him.
Life was now what happened just out of his reach. He was being wheeled through the remains of his life, given a glimpse of living, enough to remind him of his absence from it, before being pushed into a dark corner, out of the way.
Dinny dismissed the thought, reproached himself. He was being unkind, ungrateful. He was never left out, never ignored. He was included in celebrations: weddings, birthdays, Christmas. He was always accommodated. One of his children was constantly on hand to fetch food or drink, to take him away when tiredness overtook him.
His children visited his house regularly. Those that lived close by trailed grandchildren and great-grandchildren behind them. The ones that lived further away called on the telephone, relaying news, as Dinny sat in a space by the hearth which had been his own since moving into the house, newly married, seventy years before.
New additions to the family were presented to him in a kind of formal visit. He would hold the child briefly for photographs and everyone smiled. The infant’s soft pink flesh contrasting harshly with the dark, stretched skin on Dinny’s thin arms. He was always relieved to pass the baby back to its mother.
He loved them all. He remembered the arrival of each one, their individual personalities, the smiles or tears as they looked up at him. It was just that recently he hadn’t thought of them very much. He felt himself withdraw more and more into a world that contained only himself and his memories.
Two men, sons-in-law to Dinny’s eldest daughter, stood behind him on the stage. Standing in the way that only the military can, confidently filling their uniforms, hands clasped behind their backs. They shone with pride, smiling. Dinny wondered was that pride in their connection to him, or in themselves, their army and their place in it?
The two soldiers had always treated him with deference and respect. Seeking him out during visits, sitting erect on the edge of their seats beside him. They asked for and listened to his war stories, nodding, knowing, understanding.
Dinny answered their questions, smiled as they winked and clicked their tongues conspiratorially. He and they were of a kind, they would say. How they wished that they had been around back then, gone to a real war, saw the whites of the enemies eyes, felt flesh give way to steel, become heroes. The others, with their soft jobs and easy lives, would never understand. They would sleep safe in their heated houses while real men did dirty work.
Never one to offend or precipitate an argument, Dinny always said what he thought people wanted to hear. He would smile, nod with them and shake their hands.
A final round of applause and cheers signalled that the Commandant’s speech was over. He motioned the two soldiers forward and they marched to Dinny’s side. The officer approached with the medal in a small wooden case. He began to lean over, to reach down. Among the crowd, Dinny watched as his daughters looked at each other and dabbed at their eyes.
The soldiers on either side of him stiffened as he shuffled forward in the wheelchair. The Commandant stepped back. Dinny struggled to his feet, using the arms of the chair. The soldiers took hold of the handles to prevent the wheels from rolling backwards.
Dinny stood as straight and tall as the pain would allow. His head was still at a stiff, awkward angle. The commandant stepped towards him and pinned the small bronze disc to the breast of Dinny’s heavy black coat then retreated a step. Dinny gazed at the officer and forced his right hand into a grotesque imitation of a salute. The commandant returned the gesture, snapping smartly.
Dinny crumpled back into his seat, exhausted. He breathed warm air through his mouth. His eyes lost focus. Every thing around blurred. As applause rang out once more, Dinny closed his eyes, remembered dust in his mouth, a blinding sun, and blood staining a white limewashed wall.
Stephen McGuinness is a chef from Dublin, Ireland. He has published poetry in several journals and anthologies. He is now attempting to write fiction.