by Jacky Taylor
It started with an itch. Just one of those mild irritations that catches you now and then. That feeling as if something is brushing ever so slightly along your skin, like a stray hair or a random thread from your shirtsleeve. Nothing much, nothing to make a fuss about. But Sidney’s wife has noticed how regular his scratching has become, always on the same patch of his right hand.
‘That’s starting to really bother you isn’t it dear? Here, let me put some cream on it for you; that’ll help.’ She fetches the tube of Germolene from the bathroom cabinet and smoothes a squeeze of pink on the offending area. He feels it glide on, cool and creamy, her fingers sliding over the map of his veins, working their magic into his skin.
It even helps for awhile, but sure enough his scratching begins again and he worries away at it until the place is raw.
‘Must have spilt some of that insecticide stuff on it doing the roses. Don’t worry Iris, it’ll wear off eventually.’
On the windowsill in the hallway sit a clutch of photographs. There’s Julie in her new school uniform and Brian with his bike aged twelve. A gaggle of grandchildren laugh out from a boundary of silver gilt and there’s Iris in the sixties with a beehive. On the wall above them, hovering like sentinels, are Sidney’s service pics. In one, slender faced and yearning, he leans towards the side of the frame as if his whole world is tilting. He looks handsome in his uniform, a John Mills look-alike; it’s one of the reasons Iris fell for him. The largest photograph, the grandaddy of them all, looms over the rest. If you glanced quickly you might think it was a holiday snap: there are coconut palms, sun-kissed sand and sea as blue as lapis. There are six men posing for the camera, tiered from one knee to standing in two small rows– shirtless, golden and gleaming, they look like a chorus from ‘South Pacific’. Sidney is at the back, statue still like a living Adonis. A caption written in one corner says – Christmas ’58.
He’s nineteen and set for adventure. A first posting overseas, a taster for fifty days; it’ll be sun, sea and sand all the way. He’s loving it, away from home with the lads, ‘join the army and see the world’ and this is just the start of it.
They’ve been told to gather on the beach, orders are to dress only in long-sleeved shirts and full trousers to avoid the blistering heat, but some – dressed like tourists – have only shorts and sunglasses. They have to sit with their backs to the ocean, ‘… knees pulled up, eyes closed and hands over your faces’– yes sir!
The seconds countdown and someone switches a fire-bar on in their heads.The wrath of the gods bears down in the sound of the earth being rent in two, the sky is being torn open and the universe is splitting.Those still standing are felled from their feet, Nissen huts sprayed with glass splintered rain, palms tremble and the birds in the trees stop singing.
Fourteen seconds is all it took. Everyone’s already getting back to business as usual, shaking the sand from their shoes. But Sidney can’t put it out of his mind. Those bright, pink x-ray hands of his, the tapering fingers flayed and fleshless; bones flashing in front of his closed eyes.
Jacky Taylor‘s work has appeared in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Foundling Review and How Publishing Really Works. She loves living by the sea.