I’m expecting to dream about the bullet again tonight. It comes in phases, my bullet-dream, whenever life gets especially difficult, so tonight it’s got to be on the cards. This morning, you see, we buried my father.
It’s always the same, every time. March, 1918. The Second Battle of the Somme. I’m a tiny, impossible figure, sitting astride a bullet that has just left the barrel of a German MP18 submachine gun. I cling on grimly as we fly across the shell-pocked waste of no-man’s-land. Damp, early-morning air unzips behind us, and the world around me is silent, unreal.
We’re heading directly towards a solitary British soldier, our point of impact the dead centre of his skull. I can never make out his face at first, he’s too far away, but it doesn’t matter. I know who he is, and that we have blood and bone in common. The solitary British soldier is my grandfather.
We cover the ground at over a thousand feet per second, yet I find that somehow I have plenty of time to look around me, to weigh up my situation. I know what’s going to happen when this bullet strikes home, and the consequences that will follow from my grandfather’s sudden, messy death. I have to try to stop it.
Leaning forward, I wrap my arms around the bullet’s nose, then jerk my body hard, first to the left, then to the right, but it’s no good. Nothing I do brings about the slightest change in our trajectory, and my grandfather’s skull gets ever closer.
I don’t want to see this. I turn my head and look behind me, back along our flight path towards the twisted entanglements of barbed wire that mark the German outpost line. They’re rapidly receding into the distance, as is the kneeling figure of the German sniper, still squinting down the barrel of his MP18. He’s getting smaller and smaller as we get further and further apart, but however great the distance between us I can see his eye, clear, sharp, focused through and beyond me to his bullet’s ultimate destination.
I don’t know his name, this kneeling German soldier, but I feel that I ought to. It doesn’t seem right that he should remain anonymous, not when the shot that he fired has travelled so far - on and on through three generations of my family. And it’s still in flight, even now, even today.
There are so many questions I need to ask him. Did he, like my grandfather, have a wife and children? Did he survive his war? And if he did, were there sometimes nights when he too dreamed of this moment, of the soft explosion to come?
I shake my head and look forward again, back towards the British trenches. I can see Grandfather quite clearly now. He’s staring straight at me, his right hand raised to shield his eyes from the glare of the rising sun. It’s almost as though he’s saluting the bullet that is about to kill him. His mouth is half-open in a silent call; his final breath, a puff of vapour, seems to hang frozen from his lower lip.
I’ve seen this face in my mother’s photograph albums; family pictures going all the way back to the turn of the century. As a child I’d flick through them, laughing, pointing at the old-fashioned cars, the Edwardian ladies, the bowler-hatted men. We will never get the chance to meet in life, but I recognise my grandfather when I see him.
We share similar features, grandfather and me: same nose, same chin. I think how strange it is that I am now older than he will ever be. My hair is thinning, going grey at the temples: his is not, and never shall.
The bullet moves forward, the gap closes.
I remember one particular picture of him. He sits in a rose garden somewhere. My grandmother, heavily pregnant with my father, sits by his side. They look very young, these two, sitting together amongst the roses, smiling for the camera. At their feet crouches a dog, its haunches tensed, ready to leap up into my grandmother’s lap. I used to imagine the moment after the shutter clicked, the laughter, the barking of the dog. I still remember the thrill that shot through me when I turned over the photograph and saw names and a date: Me, Susan, & Nipper - July 1913. My grandfather’s handwriting, faint and faded, but still legible, still very much there. I traced over his copperplate letters with my finger, trying not to think about my school exercise books, ashamed of the untidy scrawl that filled them. I had a sense of connection, even then.
Mere yards away from his forehead, I stare into my grandfather’s face.
Four years of mud and fighting and death have changed him. How could they not? He has a sickly pallor now, and his eyes are those of the soldier who has seen too much. I see the lines creasing his forehead, the grime beneath the stubble on his cheeks and chin. I see the mutilated left ear, its lobe sliced off by a whickering piece of shrapnel during fighting over the Messines Ridge at Ypres. But still he’s the same man, the man who sat smiling in the rose garden that day. He’s still my father’s father.
Just before impact, I close my eyes and I wonder. I wonder what would have happened if the sniper’s aim hadn’t been quite so perfect that morning. If the bullet I ride in my dreams had only wounded my grandfather, even missed him altogether, how different might all of our lives have been?
My grandmother wouldn’t have collapsed when the telegram arrived. There would have been no telegram. She would never have told my father, with him still too young to understand, that her own life stopped on the day she learned of her husband’s death. She wouldn’t have spent the next forty years periodically disappearing into her own barren no-man’s-land of depression, virtually unaware of those around her, oblivious to the needs of her young son.
And if that were so, perhaps my father, a good but troubled man, a man who came through the Second World War physically unscathed, perhaps he might not have found himself fighting a more personal war. A sad, lonely war of liver against bottle - a war that finally did for him just last week.
And eighty years on, what of me? As the bullet shatters my grandfather’s skull I invariably jerk awake and lie in darkness, wondering how much of my own personality was set in that one awful moment so very long ago. How many of the paths I’ve travelled in life, how many of those I have yet to travel, would have been different if one German sniper had missed his mark?
My grandfather’s best friend was with him when he died. According to my father, he came to see my grandmother a few weeks after Armistice Day, bringing what comfort he could. He told her of her husband’s bravery. Over tea and biscuits, he said something that she was often to repeat in the years to come.
‘It was such a long shot,’ he said. ‘That sniper, I mean, he was bloody miles away. How he pulled it off, I’ll never know.’
A long shot. Yes, it was that all right. It was a very long shot.
(END: 1,251 Words)