This is an idea I had got doing my History GCSE, and I that I wrote for my English GCSE Coursework. I know it looks a bit long...
Comments and constructive abuse welcome.
There was such a lack of colour in the prison. The walls were grey, the ceiling was grey, the floor was grey. Even the light falling through the barred windows ended up as a pale-grey puddle on the floor. The watery grey porridge that made up our diet - passed once a day through the grey steel door - was slapped on grey metal plates and eaten by my fellow prisoners, both of whom had grey streaked hair, rather like a badger’s pelt. I supposed that there was grey in my hair too - not that I had seen my reflection since I had first come to the prison. I forgot how long ago that was. A month? Three months? It did not matter. I would be leaving it soon anyway. I stretched out my legs and knocked into one of the other men; Bruno he had said his name was, and occasionally more bad-tempered than the rest of us. Now, he growled, ‘Watch it!’
‘Sorry,’ I replied. The cell was too small to house three men, even if they were crowded together on the floor for the whole day. It was too much bother to get up and pace, and if you did move, you disturbed the sour straw ticks that served as beds, and then they exhaled choking black dust that made Gunther - the oldest among us - cough badly. When Gunther coughed like that, Bruno got angry, and no one liked to be near Bruno when he got angry. That was why he was in prison in the first place, he told me once. People - the wise people - got out of his way quickly when he was angry, but one person had not. He did not say anymore, but I could guess what had happened. He had probably pleaded manslaughter and so got a lighter sentence.
What Gunther had done, I never knew; Gunther did not talk much. One thing I did learn was that he had been a soldier. ‘Done the trenches I have, Joseph,’ he told me in his soft, throaty voice that sounded like a woodwind instrument. ‘That was a while, a long, long while ago, but I still remember. Can’t forget ’em.’ He sighed reminiscently, and his head drooped as he gazed back into his past, his eyes gone distant. Then he snapped back to the present, and eyeing me, said, ‘But you were a soldier weren’t you once?’
‘I did lots of things once. Soldiering was one of them. I joined up in 1914, stuck the whole war out through to the end.’
‘A war we lost!’ Gunther scowled and spat, narrowly missing Bruno’s ear. Under cover of the resulting quarrel, as they snapped and snarled like two alley dogs at each other, I let my mind look back through those years that had gone by since that day in 1914, more than ten years ago now. I had not done much before I joined up. Loafed in and out of different jobs, got in and out of trouble - nothing worth remembering. Nothing that was good to remember. Remorse rose as I thought of those wasted years.
When the war had broken out, I had joined up to have a last knock at doing something adventurous with the chance of easy heroism thrown in. I snorted derisively at my thoughts at the beginning of the war: the war is sure to be over quickly…it can’t last long…being a soldier will be exciting, and there’ll be a hero’s welcome when I get back. All the usual drivel every new soldier starts off with. The trenches in which I spent most of the war soon shattered all the rosy illusions I and all the other recruits harboured. They didn’t tell you about the mud back home, or the rats, or the cold. Or seeing the man at your shoulder suddenly killed, and having no time to mourn, much less bury the dead. Too many bad things happened in the war.
I had been no model citizen before, but when the war ended, and I was suddenly free, homeless, and too often at a loose end, I found my values had shifted. Honour curled up and died in the gutter as I fought to scratch a living out of the streets. No family to go home to - they would not have had me back anyway. Germany was left racked by the war and crushed by her losses; even the gutter did not offer as much of a living as much as it had before. There were too many like me: soldiers who had come home with no prospects and a pocketful of hard luck stories.
For some, crime was the only way out, for some the easy way out. I did not take much to go in that direction. Stealing was too easy, so I did it again and again. Killing someone when it solved a problem came without too many scruples getting in the way. Having stared death in the face for the past four years or so, seen men blown apart beside me, it gave me a certain shield, I suppose, a hardening to death. One very small part of my hidden, nearly dead conscience cried out in horror at the things I did in those years. Over time though, that horror grew quieter and smaller, until it vanished completely. And this was where it had landed me. In prison with two other jailbirds sporting similar chequered backgrounds.
I sighed and stretched my arms above my head. Bruno and Gunther had subsided, and now slumped back on their ticks. Bruno began humming a tune which I recognised as an old nursery rhyme that I forgot the name of. He hit a wrong note, and I snapped, ‘Oh shut up, will you?’
He cocked an eyebrow. ‘That’s right, Joseph Baumer. Spend your last days snapping at your shoulder companions.’
‘You’re only at my shoulder because there’s no other place for you to go.’
Gunther said, ‘Come on, Bruno. As Joseph does only have a few days left before he’s executed, you ought to - ’
‘Yeah, be nice to him.’ Bruno yawned. ‘Its his own fault though, isn’t it? Look at me, I’m only staying in here for a little while. Going to get out soon. Won’t catch me doing anything to warrant execution.’
I turned and stared at the wall. Bruno meant you won’t catch me getting caught doing anything to warrant execution. I looked at it a bit differently, So many years wasted doing things that even uncaught, deserved execution…everyone felt some compunction when they knew they were going to die in a few days, I supposed. Everyone resolved: if I get out of this, I’ll never do anything wrong again, just please let me get out.
I stopped, took that last thought out and considered it. Did I really want to get out? To go back into the world - into the gutter - to repeat old mistakes, make new ones, did I really?
No, I did not. I was resigned to my oncoming death, I knew that I deserved it…but looking back over my life, there was not one worthwhile act that I could remember doing. Despair closed over my head as surly as though I were drowning in a pond. Going to die, going to die, going to die. It was cruel. Each beat of my heart in its efforts to keep me alive, only brought me closer to the time when I must die.
The next few days were sober. Gunther, more sensitive and less hardened, left me alone as well as he could in a cell that measured two paces wide and four paces long. Bruno, impervious as always to the feelings of his fellow creatures, carried on as always. On my final day in the cell, Gunther said, ‘Well, Joseph, tomorrow will be the day.’
I knew Gunther was trying to be kind, and appreciated his fumbling efforts to be comforting. In actual fact, I felt better about it now. It was not fatalism, more like acknowledging, ‘Yes, I deserve to die. Maybe I can die better than I lived.’
‘So when’s the happy event?’ Bruno asked callously.
Gunther gave him a look that should have made him shrivel up and disappear. As it was, Bruno merely lifted his hands in a placating gesture, and murmered, ‘Hey, come on Gunther, I didn’t mean it.’
‘Could have fooled me.’
Bruno looked around the cell, and I noticed for the first time just how many lines were graven upon his face, especially at the corners of his hard blue eyes. ‘Why doesn’t someone tell a story or something to pass the time? Relive some dreadful catastrophe of the war like old veterans should. Tell about Operation - what was it called again?’
‘Michael.’ Gunther said in sepulchral tones. ‘Not that. Let Joseph tell something. I’ve told all my war stories.’
I shut my mouth firmly. I didn’t want to talk, I wanted to listen. ‘There isn’t anything to tell.’
‘Oh right! What happened in…in 1915?’
‘There must have been something - ’
‘Wait!’ I sat bolt upright, interrupting Bruno. For one heartbeat of time, everything stood stock still, like a fly caught in amber, or a drop of water freezing before it hit the ground. ‘I’ve just remembered!’
‘You’ve got the prison key under your mattress?’
‘What happened in 1916!’
‘Great. Shall I inform the guard outside?’ inquired Bruno nastily.
‘Will you be quiet Bruno!’ Gunther leaned forward and asked, ‘What happened in 1916, Joseph?’
I grinned and leaned back against the wall with a great sigh, feeling a rosy bubble of joy swelling up inside me, and explained, ‘I saved a man’s life in 1916.’
There was a moment’s silence. Then Bruno began clapping, slowly and sarcastically. Gunther, with a rather puzzled look on his face, began, ‘I don’t quite…’
I jumped in, filled up with delight at what had happened. ‘Don’t you see? I saved someone’s life in the war. That is the one good thing I can remember doing in my entire life! I havn’t wasted my existence; I have done something worthwhile with myself!’
I was surprised to hear Bruno say, ‘Oh.’ in a flat voice. Gunther smiled, and I smiled back. I remembered it now so clearly. Sometime in October 1916, I had been in northern France, on the front.
That particular battle had had nothing special about it. We were charging the other side, as we had done so many times before. The desperate rush across No-Man’s Land with the mud sucking at my boots, dodging shell craters, hearing the explosions that rang in my ears, and all the while running, running, running. All around me, men were falling, twisting and jerking as bullets smacked into their defenceless bodies. I trod on something soft - and it moved. Among the earth-shattering explosions, I heard an inarticulate yell, and I skidded to a halt, my feet catching in the mud so I half fell. The soft something was a German soldier lying where he had fallen. Stooping, I turned him onto his back. He was conscious, and his pain-filled eyes were wide and dark in his pale, mud-smeared face. I quickly ran my gaze over him, and immediately fixed on his leg, where even through the muck, I could see blood blossoming on his trousers like an unfurling crimson flower. The man groaned and tried to sit up. A bullet crashed past my head, and I suddenly awoke to how close we were to the enemy trenches. I threw a glance over my shoulder; I was close enough to see the soldiers lined up in the trenches, close enough to see their faces. One soldier saw me, and our eyes locked. He had flame-bright hair poking out from under his helmet. He raised his gun.
I grabbed the wounded man by his shoulders and pushed him to one side as the British soldier fired. Even the worst British soldier could not have missed at that range. The bullet hit my arm; I roared in pain and clapped my fingers over the hole; and blood, hot and red as poppy petals leaked out from under my hand. Then quite coolly, and feeling as though someone was tapping me on the shoulder and murmerring instructions, I turned back to the wounded man. He was on his hands and knees, breathing hard in great, gasping wheezes. I twisted my hand in his collar and hauled him upright; he doubled over again, unable to put any weight on his shot leg. I looked around desperately and saw the British soldier still there, still with me in his sights. I scrabbled in the mud for my own gun, dropped when I had stumbled. As soon as my fingers curled around the gun with its fixed bayonet, I spun around and shot the British soldier with the flame-bright hair. He convulsed as the bullet tore into his chest, then fell from my view. A voice behind me croaked: ‘Good one!’
It was the wounded soldier. ‘Can you walk?’ I asked him brusquely.
I reached down and pulled him up, then slung him over my shoulder, my shot arm shrieking in protest. Tucking my gun and his awkwardly under one arm, I set off back to our own trenches at a staggering run. The rest of our soldiers who had gone over the top were retreating, and one man stopped to give me a hand, dragging me down into our trench. Gasping with relief, I dropped the wounded man down in the mud. The lieutenant jerked a thumb towards the dugout; I hauled the soldier into it, then dropped down next to him and gloomily began to examine my arm. Blood had caked under my fingernails, outlining and staining them brownish-red. My arm throbbed with a jangling ache that made me grit my teeth and mutter impolite somethings under my breath.
Later, in the Casualty Station, when the orderly had stopped poking, fiddling, and had picked the bullet out, I asked, ‘What about the other man? The one who came in with me?’
‘With a shot leg?’ When I nodded assent, the orderly continued cheerfully, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine. He said how you brought him in.’ He smiled. ‘You saved his life, you know. That’s something to be proud of.’
‘I saw that soldier once more before I went back to the front.’ Back in my cell and the present day with Gunther and Bruno, I clung to the orderly’s words like a talisman: you saved his life…that’s something to be proud of.
‘What was the soldier’s name?’ Gunther asked.
‘I can’t remember,’ I admitted, a little crestfallen.
‘That’ll go down well for the record,’ Bruno said, but with diluted sarcasm. ‘An anonymous soldier who’s probably lying in an unmarked grave somewhere in the mud of France.’
‘He did tell me his name. It’ll come back.’
I went to sleep almost happy that night.
The next morning the cell was unusually silent. Bruno chewed on his fingernails, and Gunther tapped his long, thin fingers on the grey wall, beating a nervous, monotonous rythym. Yet I found myself strangely calm, concentrated. The moments were flying by; I simply sat still. When Bruno asked me testily what I was doing in my corner, I replied simply, ‘Appreciating being alive.’ Then I grinned and added, ‘And trying to keep my stomach calm. I’ve got butterflies in it.’
‘Butterflies in your stomach.’ Bruno repeated, and gave a hysterical laugh. ‘Rather different from stage-fright this, though, ain’t it?’
I heard footsteps echoing in the corridor. They stopped out side the door, and I heard the rattle of key in the lock. I rose and clapped Bruno on the back. ‘Stay out of trouble, Bruno.’ Then I gripped Gunther’s hands in my own. ‘Take care, Gunther.’
Gunther raised his grey head and managed to smile, but said nothing. The door opened, and I stepped out to the guards. There were two; one was obviously new at his job, and kept shooting me nervous, sideways glances as we made our way outside. I met one of his looks and smiled. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything. Relax.’
The other guard gave half a chuckle. ‘Seems odd for the prisoner to reassure the guard.’
‘Aren’t you afraid of dying, though?’ the new guard asked, then looked as though he wished he hadn’t.
Slowly, I shook my head. ‘No. I - I know I deserve to die, but’ - I shared my new hope - ‘I saved a man’s life during the war, so I figure I havn’t totally wasted my life. I’ve done something worthwhile, and that’s good enough for me.’
‘Oh, really?’ The older guard eyed me with some interest. ‘What was his name, then?’
We came into the yard outside. The firing squad stood ready.
‘That’s the thing, I can’t…hang on! I remember now!’
‘Yes. Hitler. Adolf Hitler.’
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