Content Warning: This story addresses the topic of suicide.
The artificial sun glints, flashes off the tin wings of toy Hawks up by the membrane.
She squints and draws breath. Children by barbecued corn stands clutch remote controls, transfixed by the dogfight in the fake blue sky as if it were a matter of snuffed lives.
A huge hole of disgust opens up in her. Her eyes flex the zoom function until she can read the side of a tin Hawk. It reads Her Majesty’s Service over the royal crest.
Britannia’s Hawks, flown by children. A yelp and a red-faced child, ruddy with the power of rage, rams his plane aggressively into another and she can’t stop herself - rushing through civilians she grabs him by the scruff of the neck - “You little fucker!” scooping the remote out of his hands. She forgets her own force, the kid is thrown to the plastic turf.
The little dickhead’s cry pierces all the crowds as he sobs his little lungs out on the grass.
“Here, what’s goin’ on?” A portly gentleman with a large bushy moustache bellows over insistent bloody folk music, the sort that should only play at Christmas events where they’ve bothered to have snow.
She thrusts the remote at the incensed man, who looks like he might have her arrested until he sees the stars on her greatcoat sleeve. Hesitantly, his eyes rake the scars on her left cheek and the burn marks on her hands. Yes, she thinks. Take a good look. Take a good look at a grounded twenty-minuter. Look at how dark and out of place she looks at your little Christmas fair.
“Excuse me,” she says, brushing past him. “Please teach your child that aggression is not heroism, and destroying something is not winning.”
The mulled wine stand, which, she avoids noticing, is situated over by the virtual shooting stand, advertises wine made from ‘100% real grapes’, but somehow she doubts this at the price they are selling it: £3 a cup.
“A cup of this for you, love?” the woman beams at her.
She steps back like a frightened horse. Teenagers giggle by the shooting stand, and she feels a wave of revulsion again. Civilians are disgusting.
She stands with hands in her pockets, finally lost about the reason she even left the hospital.
“Got a light, Major Harper?” A conspiratorial voice nudges her. Instant trench familiarity floods her throat. She can feel the playing cards in her pocket fan out under thumb. She remembers why she left the grounds of the Old Grey.
She thinks about giving him the lighter. Instead she holds the flame out for him to light his cigarette. His chin brushes her hand as he withdraws, as she intended, and he breathes out slowly.
She looks at the measured distance between them, understands it.
“Captain Owen, is it?”
She has seen the register because she fucked the nurse two nights ago.
“I saw your brush with that war hero,” he says, leaving the cigarette in the corner of his lips and putting his hands in his coat, as she had. There is a pleasant lowness, calmness in his voice. It doesn’t matter if the calmness is medicated.
“Oh, which one?” she says, earnestly.
He smiles. His dark hair has a messy quality making him look bewildered, and his leftover beard means he has been grounded for more than a few days. He’s in good shape: infantry. Passchendaele, maybe, if he’s grounded. He has the shoulders, a regiment barcode tattoo creeping up his neck in blue ink and the bitten-down nails born of long waits. His eyes are shiny, as if looking at the world is stinging them.
“Uh, the little one,” he points back to the tin planes swooping and diving.
“Oh, ha ha,” she says. “I thought you meant…“
“I know,” he says.
The droning of the toy planes gets louder, and somewhere the children are laughing and squealing over the goldfish pond by the memorial screens that are constantly updated with deaths. WARREN SHOT BY HAUER, RIFLE; EVANS GRENADED BY BRAUN; KELLY SHOT BY SCHULTZ, RIFLE
“Have you got somewhere to go?” she says.
“This way,” he says, offering an arm.
They walk out past the ornamental rose bushes, towards the government workers’ cottages. Some of the gardens have little steam-powered mowers. Harper thinks about how they look like an idyllic military couple out for a stroll as she hangs on to his arm, one officer with a fluffy blonde crop who is too medicated to relax, and an infantryman who is too medicated to care. And yet, if you cared to look, you would see that the pace was too fast, and the fingers that are around the crook of his arm too claw-like.
Owen leads them to a small cottage and produces some keys.
“My sister’s,” he says. “She’s out doing the catering for a Christmas party. We’re Buddhist. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Lied to the sign-up, did you?” she says.
“I married a good Christian woman,” he says. “Daughter of a church elder. No one suspects a thing.”
“She’s at home on Venus?” she says.
“Praying my treatment works so I won’t be known as a humiliated mentally ill war veteran.” He stubs his cigarette out on the paving and he catches her look. “Buddha forgives me cigarettes and adultery,” he says, with a half smile, his long dark eyelashes directed at the ground.
“God forgives me anything as long as I hail Mary, salute the flag, and kill the enemy,” she says, removing her hands from her pockets, pushing him through the open door, and parting her mouth to meet his.
Inside it is dark, and as she removes his clothing in the corridor she can smell incense and the faint fragrance of shortbread. The shortbread smell makes her ache for the Christmas of home, but the pungent incense has her feeling uncomfortable, as if they are undressing in a shrine. Someone else’s house. A stranger.
His naked body is all sinew and tattoos. Most men before the war were ashamed of their bodies when she looked at them like this. They were not used to being objectified. There was no reason for a woman to look at a man like they were a consumable. There was no reason for her to say, ‘I love this part of you’ or ‘I want to touch this’, or ‘this is my favourite part’, even to get possessive and say, ‘this part is mine and no one else’s’ and joke about putting a flag on it, about colonising his shoulder blades or commanding imperial troops all over his buttocks to claim them. Curiously, the white feather of cowardice was being presented to able-bodied men and women all over Caledonian Saturn as a different kind of objectification.
It is either the medication or the military that has him think of the body as a tool. It simply exists, the body, to be used. As she looks at him he looks straight back at her eyes, waiting patiently for her to finish looking at him. There are things worse than a woman’s disgust, he realises. There are things worse.
“I want you to forget my rank,” she says.
“You’re not wearing your stars now,” he says, gesturing to where the great coat lies on the floor.
“But they exist in your head.”
“Do you want me to be rough with you, Major?” It is not really a question.
She thinks of death. She thinks fondly of death.
“I want you to do what you want with me.”
Her pocket watch beeps to tell her reading time is over in the Hall, and that soon someone will come looking for them.
Lying in the dark on top of damp bedsheets, she looks over at his back. It is like a huge scarred cliff, but the round of his shoulder is like some graceful natural knoll, a place she tries to envelop with her palm, but it resists, too big to put a hand around.
He rolls over to look at her, weary. “I feel so angry all the time,” he says.
“They want to keep us angry,” she says. “Hours and hours of broadcast on the wireless to that effect. They say the other side eats babies and fucks nuns and burns priests now.”
“I’m exhausted,” he says. “Not from physical exertion. From the strain of being angry. Have they got a medication for that?”
“Isn’t this… The medication for that?”
She felt strained in the absence of an answer from him. It would be some time until she understood why.
Reel music starts up faintly outside; New Morningside begins to resonate with the sound of accordion and violins and Harper allows her mind to drift.
She smiles. “Aren’t Buddhists pacifists?”
“Didn’t Moses carve ‘thou shalt not kill’ into stone?”
She laughs. “The whole world is brought into hypocrisy by Captain Owen!”
“Harper,” he says, drifting. “Harper. When I sleep I see the disembodied limbs of my men and women in buckets, I see their eyeballs looking at me, I see my own survival and I feel guilty for being alive but I also feel…jealous. The horror of being jealous of a corpse in a bucket! So I can’t sleep. They keep giving me drugs to sleep. But when I sleep I see them.
“They can’t stop the dreams from happening,” he says to her, looking into the back of her cornea.
There is something left in her that can be upset for another person, she realises. Kissing him seems the best way to indicate to him that he is in the present. That perhaps this, whatever it is, this brief function is a thing that is worth celebrating. But she is angry at all the corpses for distracting him. She is angry at her own feelings for being there at all.
She is angry.
The doors to the Hall look like a gaping mouth, and as she steps back into the gloom, she forgets herself and walks without knocking into the dorm she shares with another shell shock patient, Beatrice Reynolds. Her roommate stands naked, ugly burn scars down one side, vacantly pulling pants on over her pallid flesh. The body looks sad, gross, awful for a moment, overexposed like a flashbulb has gone off in the room.
A huge wave of nausea comes over her, and she sees the images again, glitching: A head with no skin, the inside of the head invisible but for the jaw and eyeballs, staring, and the rest of the body flickers on and off, explosions happen in the background as the skeleton disintegrates and reintegrates, the teeth gnash, it happens
Two orderlies rush in to restrain her convulsions as Beatrice yells, and all she can feel is the contents of her stomach rushing to the floor and her eyes feel like they are melting into her head.
“They can’t stop the dreams from happening,” Owen says. “They can’t stop the dreams from happening.”
“It was the essay,” she says, putting her boots up on the desk. There’s a certificate on the wall. It reads Quality Assurance & Mental Health 1914.
“Major Harper, that was a very stupid thing to do.”
“How long are they keeping me at the Hall for?”
“As long as I say you should stay.”
“Did you read the essay, Doctor?”
“I read the essay, Harper.”
“And what did you think, Doctor?”
“I thought your turn of phrase showed craft.”
“But what about the content, Doctor?”
He purses his lips.
She smiles. “I know you are a smart man, Doctor. I know that you see everyone who comes in here and I know that you wish that they didn’t have to come here at all.”
“I am loyal to the crown and I support the war,” he says.
“You are lying!” She hits the desk; an electronic mail-reader jumps across the table. “No one can see these men and women every day and stay loyal to the crown — least of all you. I have seen you flinch at the cries before. Aren’t you human?”
“I am neutral. I am an observer.”
“You aren’t fucking neutral. You see McWilliams the other day? Someone dropped a pan in the kitchen and she screamed the house down. She thought she was going to die and you came and sat with her for that whole hour while she screamed. Is that only because you wish to fix her rather than empathise with her? You gutless piece of shit! You gutless shit. Cleaning up the government’s mess is not a neutral act. You condone the wholesale torture of human beings so that you have a fucking job!”
There is a flicker of anger in him, but it passes.
“Sit down, Harper.”
“I won’t,” she says. “Sir.”
“Harper. Tell me about your suicide attempts.”
There is silence, in which she feels like her skin has gone on fire, like she is going to become a bonfire.
“You’re just trying to change the subject.”
“We aren’t here to talk about me,” he says, lighting a cigarette.
“Let’s talk about the way you look at Owen,” she says.
The poker face is impeccable.
She leans closer to him. “Can you send me back?”
“You will only get sent back to active service if I say you are fit for it.”
“Can you send me back?”
“I’ve fucked Owen, you know.”
The briefest flicker in his face.
“I can make him love me. If you don’t send me back I’ll make him love me.”
“Major, you can’t make anyone love you. You’re changing the subject again. You tried to commit suicide both on and off duty. It’s the on duty ones we’re most worried about, which is why we’re not sending you back. You can’t endanger the other fighting men and women with your death wish.”
She removes a cigarette from his tin and strikes a match to light it. “It’s not the other men and women you’re worried about. You know I would do anything for them. You know I’d never endanger them. It’s the wasting government resources you’re worried about, isn’t it? You’re just worried about a fucking plane. One fucking plane that I might use to suicide bomb into the enemy.”
“Oh and let’s not forget,” she says nonchalantly, breathing smoke into his face, “that I am also a resource. And that you want to fix the bugs in me too.”
At night, the cries in the wards are unbearable. Down the hall she could hear sobbing, low moans of distress. She stays awake, working her fingers into her hair, feeling the dent where a bullet once nicked her skull.
You can’t make anyone love you. You can’t make anyone love you.
With the right conversation options you can make anyone love you, she thought.
Slipping over the cot sides, she leaves, drags on the great coat, and takes the steps up to the third floor, the male wards, lighting the cigarette she knew she wasn’t allowed, but no one had confiscated them from her because she was ranked.
She slips into 304, Owen’s room. His was a four-bed. He had to share with a man so shell-shocked he was mute, and a man whose legs no longer worked. The third man was under suicide watch over in the east wing.
Owen is awake, staring at the open window and the long cotton curtain swinging in the breeze, like a tendril drifting towards his bed.
She stops by his bed, suddenly feeling like the nightdress under the coat is too thin and see-through. The nightdress has nothing denoting rank. The nightdress is white and pure and indicative of weakness or virginity. She suddenly feels her bare feet flat against the cold varnished wood.
He looks over at her face.
She can’t read him. For the first time she is worried that she is demanding attention where she deserves none. Is he upset? Does he want me to touch him? What if I touch him and it is unwanted? Is his brain otherwise occupied? She tries to part her lips to ask, but she ends up reaching fingers towards him. The curtains suck and flap and protest.
She can see his chest rise and fall faster.
She puts a hand on his jaw, under his ear. He says nothing but his eyes follows hers as she leans down to kiss him. He kisses her back.
The curtain rises and falls. The mute patient watches, helpless. He cannot take part, but he cannot say anything either.
Using stolen keys, she unlocks the QA room and picks up the mail-reader. In it is lines and lines of code. STACK OVERFLOW and tags. CRASH DUMP stats.
She scrolls idly for a while, reading words she does not understand, until she comes to a value that reads SCOREBOARD. She does a find for all instances of SCOREBOARD, deletes every line of code associated. She searches for ‘Harper’ and sees the last entry: [GIRLFRIEND MECHANIC NOT FOUND]. She searches for ‘Harper’ again, and changes the status to ‘ACTIVE’. She searches for Owen and marvels at all the lines of dialogue he gets, a real poet. But there is no way to fix him without having power over the whole design. She considers deleting him, but she can’t bring herself to.
She hits save. The lines of code fly by, loading, and soon the horizon appears over her cockpit, and she turns towards the sea, dipping slowly into the blue, to the escape she always wanted.