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A Long Journey Home || by Joseph Marsh


JAMES SHUFFLED ALONG A dirt road through the wilderness. Road stretched for miles ahead of him, the only sign of civilisation except for smoke and ruin. 

Five days walking through the Chinese countryside. The worn shoes that he stole from a dead body, now hung useless round his neck tied together by their laces. His blistered bare feet ached from the constant walking. He moved south, keeping the north star behind him. When he’d been transported to the internment camp for foreign nationals following the fall of the Shanghai international centre, he recalled seeing the driver of the truck which had brought him there consulting a compass, its needle pointed north. That meant south would be his best bet to returning to Shanghai, the only place he could imagine his parents being.

The tattered remnants of his school uniform clung to his body like the ragged wedding dress of Miss Haversham. A memento from times before everything seemed to go wrong. The blazer had been repaired and resized with rags so many times over his years of imprisonment that he wondered if it was even possible to call it the same uniform. Whenever a jacket was freed up by the death of a fellow inmate it was always the strongest that got the best pic and James never was one of those. When did you finally have to admit that the past was gone and wasn’t coming back?

James breathed out a weary sigh, a cross between a laugh and an exhausted, sorrowful moan. How proud Master Haroldson would have been to see him apply his literary education so well. Not that it had been much use to him in the end. Japanese soldiers didn’t tend to care for Dickens when beating their prisoners to work.

James placed a bony, calloused hand on his chest, where his school badge was, the familiar crest of the English lion’s head overlaid with a Hong Kong orchid on a field of blue. James beyond juvenile sentimentality. He thought of the overwhelming halls of the boarding school which he went to in Shanghai. The strange mix of European and Chinese architecture which seemed to show the leech like encroaching of imperialism.

 He entered a ruined Chinese village. More a set of roads with piles of ash and crumbling brickwork where houses once were than a dwelling. Some of the embers still glowed so it had been ransacked recently. Evidence of the bands of furious Japanese soldiers which roamed striking randomly at anything they found out of frustration for their defeat.

The rotting festering bodies of the villagers lay burnt and naked in the street. Old people, pregnant women, children, all were strewn like autumn leaves in a park. Some had been given the meagre respect of a layer of dirt being kicked over their bodies. Their sallow faces stuck out from the ground frozen in terror. The blood mixed into the ground to form a sickly mud.

The smell was overwhelming. Like farts that just got worse and worse, James had spent three years in a tightly packed dorm and was familiar with the smell. There was something else though, a sickly sweetness, like the cheap perfume worn by the women he saw standing on the corner of the streets when he was driven through Shanghai.

The sound of buzzing flies feasting filled the air like radio static.

 Behind him, a rock clattered to the ground followed by scurrying footsteps. James scrambled to a ruined wall and hid behind it. He waited for the sound of a rifle bolt clicking into place and angry Japanese.

When they didn’t come, James peered over the wall with wide, bloodshot eyes. His chest rose and fell grotesquely as his breaths quickened and the footsteps continued. His fingers tightened around the wall, ready to push him away so he could make a mad dash for safety. Not that it would do him much good.

Instead of a soldier of the rising sun, out came the small, fat body of a Pallas cat sniffing at a dead body to see if it was worth eating. It shot back and hissed. Even for an animal the place was revolting.

James licked his lips. The emptiness in his stomach called like the incessant drone of an air raid siren. The creature was fat enough to feed him for days. Already he’d decided how he would prepare and preserve the meat. Like the Pallas cat itself, James’ mind focused on one thing, food.

His body weak and weary, James knew he stood no chance of catching the cat without a weapon. Fixing his eyes on his prey, he felt around the splintered floor for something with potential to kill. His fingertips fell upon a broken brick which had fallen from the wall. He picked it up and weighed it in his hands. He had to be silent so the cat wouldn’t flee.

James straightened his back and stepped into the road which the cat stood in the middle, back turned. Like a trained dancer, he placed his feet with precision. His heart beat a steady rhythm as he stalked towards the cat.

James struggled to resist the urge to lunge straight at the cat as he drew closer to it. The conflict between his stomach and his mind to control his body was as immense as the one he had survived. In his eagerness for satisfaction, he grew reckless. Moving faster, James took less care with his steps. He slipped in a puddle and fell with a heavy thud. The cat reeled back at the sound, hissing at James before darting out of sight.

James lobbed the rock as hard as he could at where the animal had been with a frustrated scream. The rock missed and instead hit the green helmet of a soldier. There was a sharp clang which resounded in James’ ears.

James shot to his feet. With eyes wide as dinner plates, his mouth opened in a shocked ‘O.’ The soldier spun on his heels, rifle raised, and aimed at James. Their eyes locked, and there was a brief pause as the soldier realised he was aiming at a child.

James didn’t wait for the soldier’s hesitation to end. He spat out a hurried apology in Japanese, bowing his head in deference before sprinting away. He refused to look back in case that moment’s pause was all it took for a bullet to dart through his chest.

James hid behind an upturned cart and scrunched his eyes closed, not wanting to look into the barrel of the rifle that would kill him. He pressed his balled fists against his ears to drown the noise around him. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t even want to be here. He wanted his mother. Tears stung as they fell down his cheek. He curled into a ball and tried to shield himself from the horror he was sure was about to befall him. After everything, this was how it ended?

A voice broke through his defences, speaking disjointed, heavily accented, but ultimately gentle Cantonese. Raising his head, James saw the soldier he had struck. The soldier knelt in front of him, his rifle slung idly over his shoulder, holding a chocolate bar in offering.

James hesitated. Three years of kindness being dangled in front of him before being snatched away and used as a reason to beat him had made him cautious of generosity. When no blows came, James took the bar and devoured it so quick he finished it before the taste registered in his brain.

The soldier laughed as he watched James lick the chocolate from his fingers. There was a cautious pity in his pale blue eyes. As if he were afraid that James were so fragile he would break. His comrades arrived what all the commotion was. The soldier joked to him, “this one’s got some hunger on him.”

The other soldiers laughed as James eyed them with suspicion. Hearing them speak English confused him. These were no Japanese soldiers. His eyes fell on the American flag on his tunic that was the colour of old schoolbook pages. “Thank you,” he said.

The soldier raised an eyebrow and grinned. “English?”

James nodded. His gaze moved to the soldier’s helmet, there was a stain of dust from where the rock had hit it.

The soldier removed his helmet and gave it three hard knocks. “Don’t worry, this thing’s sturdier than a mountain. Helmet’s pretty thick too,” he said, laughing at his own joke. After a moment’s consideration he placed the helmet on James’ head and held his hand out. “Name’s Allen.”

James wiped his hand before shaking Allen’s, Allen’s hand still came back blackened. “James.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you James. Where’d you come from?”

James pointed down the road. Allen’s eyebrows furrowed and he frowned.

“How old are you James?”

“Fourteen.”

“Where are your parents?”

James shrugged. “My dad’s dead…” He paused here, unable to speak of his mother the immensity of what had happened finally weighed down on him. He wanted his mother and he had no idea where she was. James’ shoulders started to tremble.

Allen frowned, joined his men and spoke in a hushed tone.

“Why don’t you come with us James?” Allen said when he was finished, “Get you somewhere safe and see if we can find your mom.”

“Alright,” James said as he wiped his eyes with his forearm. If anyone could find his mother it might as well be them. He followed Allen to the edge of the village where a half-track awaited.

The soldiers watched James as he bounced in the trundling half-track. Perhaps his emaciated body made them uncomfortable. The soldiers had heard of the horrors of the concentration camps in Europe and had seen similar sights in China and the Pacific. Dead bodies were one thing. Bodies can be turned away from, shut out. It’s not so easy when the atrocities stare back at you with sleep deprived dusty green eyes in sunken sockets. To make up for their horror they stuffed him with all the rations in their packs.

   

Four weeks later, James was called into the office of the head matron. He’d grown accustomed to the antiseptic walls of the red cross centre that had been set up to reunite the children of foreign nationals with their families so he didn’t need a guide. He stood outside the large wooden door, unsure of what to expect.

His clothes were smart and new. A pressed shirt with short sleeves, and a pair of brown shorts. His polished boots shone like bullet casings. These were the nicest clothes he’d worn in years, but still he carried the insignia of his school in his pocket. Everything else he’d discarded willingly but not this. Unlike the rags he had worn, that insignia was not a reminder of the war and the camp he had lived in but instead of the time before.

The nurses said he’d begun to fill out. His ribs were hidden with a layer of fat, and his cheeks were no longer the stained colour of dirt. There were still purple bags beneath his green eyes; he didn’t sleep much out of fear of the nightmares that would surely follow.

When he entered the Matron’s office, a stranger sat at the desk, a woman in a blue dress. On her breast she wore a green broach which James thought he recognised. Beneath a blue beret, gold hair fell to the woman’s shoulders. A string of pearls clung to the milk white skin of her neck which contrasted James’ leathery, sunburnt skin.

James was wrapped in a tight hug before he had the chance to introduce himself. The only thing he saw of the woman’s face before she dashed to him was a flash of emerald green eyes.

“Oh James,” she sobbed. Her body trembled as she sobbed into his shoulder leaving a wet stain on the shoulder of his shirt.

The woman pulled away, holding James at arm’s length and he finally got to take her in. The wrinkles at the corner of her ruby red lips denoted a smile worn a hundred times or more. The gentle green eyes like pond water that had looked down at him as the woman wished him good night every night almost three years ago. The woman dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. She whispered, her lips trembling, “You’ve had a long journey home haven’t you James?”

James’ face contorted as tears fell freely. There was a feeling like finally being able to breathe freely after spending a long time underwater. He whispered, “mum?” and hugged her tight enough so they would never be separate again.


Image Credit: Pavel Mitkov


MEET THE AUTHOR:


JOSEPH MARSH is an emerging gay writer who studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln and is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing. He has been published in Ghost Heart Literary Journal, Stone of Madness Press, Tealight Press and several other places. He is a Senior Fiction Editor for the literary journal The Lincoln Review and former Vice President of the University of Lincoln Spoken Word and Creative Arts society.

Social Media

Twitter: @josephmarsh5

Instagram: josephmarsh1999

Website: https://josephmarsh21.wixsite.com/mysite

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