Dancing On The Wire

Dancing On The Wire

Off down the hometown street to martial music

Beating drums and patriotic songs echoing from the walls

That hearten quaking spirits and steels the trembling heart.

Past Murdock’s Mercantile and Billing’s Bank

All strung with bunting, flags and ribbons.

And on the right, there’s Maggie’s Millenary

The latest Paris bonnets decked out on wooden heads.

And there, the baker’s shop where buns oozing strawberry jam

Once ran the length of your arm when you were young.

When were you young?

How many years ago was that, two, maybe three?

Brief seasons swept by in a twinkling.

And then you knew the meaning of time.

And look, the town square where you first kissed a girl

Under an oak tree as the Methodist Band played,

And the Catholic Men’s Ensemble harmonized,

And the Baptist Ladies Auxiliary served tea and biscuits,

And the Presbyterians all huddled together to one side.

And her lips touched yours as sparks flew,

As the heady scent of lavender snaked into your head,

And the touch of her skin ran currents through your fingers,

And then you knew the meaning of love.

It was hard to find her face among the crowd.

But her voice rang out above the clamour

And you squared your shoulders, holding your Ross just so

At the proper angle and keeping pace with the bass drum

And the Tommy just ahead.

Your head held high, your duty clear,

And then you knew the meaning of pride.

And the girls, oh, the girls all fresh-faced lassies and colleens,

Tossing kisses, fresh flowers and promises of eternal fidelity

To any and all who strode so boldly down the cobbled streets.

It was a heady draught

A neat shot of hard liquor straight to the head,

Coursing from belly, through spine

And making the world spin round.

Yesterday you had strawberry jam on your arm.

But now you are a man saying farewell.

And then you knew the meaning of regret.

And off to war. This trench now home

Where all life’s lessons laid bare in brutal honesty at your feet.

The vermin and body parts of mates mingled in a ghastly soup.

A comrade of the Pals Battalion, a home-town lad of promise,

He paused too long on the fire-step lighting his fag.

A sniper’s round pierced his eye exiting the back

In a fine, surreal spray of bone and tissue.

You found it on your face and boots like strawberry jam

When you were young brief seasons ago.

And then you knew the meaning of death.

Horror, horror and boredom, constant battling companions.

It was ghastly and it was ugly but you came to know them well

Like hairs on the back of your hand

Or your sweetheart’s face smiling like a shy coquette

From the photograph in the breast pocket of your tunic.

Long hours you knew them, the horror and the boredom,

The soldier’s bane and burden,

That ground themselves into your heart like broken glass.

And then you knew the meaning of despair.

The whistle sounds from post to post on down the line.

You mount that same grim fire-step,

Once spread with comrade’s blood and bone

Uncertain how you will respond.

The shot rings out to mark the push through no man’s land

To drive the Hun back through France to hated Berlin’s walls.

And then you knew the meaning of fear.

Over the top, spurred by images of shame and that dread white feather.

Do not let your mates down by cowering in your hole.

Over the top at a sedate walk, advancing to a sprint

Then all-out panicked dash as if a bullet might be outrun.

Then brought up short, snared in coils of the devil’s web

As your strings all pulled by a mad puppeteer.

Be it theirs or ours? Makes little difference.

The wire makes no judgment, plays no favourites,

So many left dancing on the wire.

As angry bees whizz past your head.

And splash into the mud so like the tissue

From comrade’s head smeared on your face and boots,

All boasts of glory snared in these coils from hell.

And then you knew the meaning of futility.

Then that special round of Spandau fire,

Your name and number etched deep on its casing

Sent just above the mud straight to its mark

Signalling your parting from this war,

Your parting from sweetheart’s warm embrace,

Your parting from those cobbled streets and marching bands,

Your parting from those shops and cheers and coloured bunting,

Your parting from your Pals Battalion mates,

Your parting from the bane and burden,

Your parting from this earth.

And then you knew the meaning of peace.

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