Birdsong (French Trilogy #2)

All my life I had lived on the presumption that there was no existence beyond... flesh, the moment of being alive... then nothing. I had searched in superstition... But there was nothing. Then I heard the sound of my own life leaving me. It was so... tender. I regretted that I had paid it no attention. Then I believed in the wisdom of what other men had found before me... I saw that those simple things might be true... I never wanted to believe in them because it was better to fight my own battle. You can believe in something without compromising the burden of your own existence.

As he rounded the corner, he saw two dozen men, naked to the waist, digging a hole thirty yards square at the side of the path. For a moment he was baffled. It seemed to have no agricultural purpose; there was no more planting or ploughing to be done. Then he realized what it was. They were digging a mass grave. He thought of shouting an order to about turn or at least to avert their eyes, but they were almost on it, and some of them had already seen their burial place. The songs died on their lips and the air was reclaimed by the birds.

As she made coffee in the kitchen and tried to spoon the frozen ice-cream from its carton without snapping the shaft off the spoon, Elizabeth was struck, not for the first time, by the thought that her life was entirely frivolous.
It was a rush and slither of trivial crises; of uncertain cash-flow, small triumphs, occasional sex and too many cigarettes; of missed deadlines that turned out not to matter; of arguments, new clothes, bursts of altruism and sincere resolutions to address the important things. Of all these and the other experiences that made up her life, the most significant aspect was the one suggested by the words 'turned out not to matter'. Although she was happy enough with what she had become, it was this continued sense of the easy, the inessential nature of what she did, that most irritated her. She thought of Tom Brennan, who had known only life or death, then death in life. In her generation there was no intensity.

But I think if any song can touch the heart, then one should value it.

But you must live your own life eventually. You have one chance only.

Currents of desire and excitement that she had not known or thought about for years now flooded in her. She wanted him to bring alive what she had buried, and to demean, destroy, her fabricated self.

Gray stood up and came round the desk. "Think of the words on that memorial, Wraysford. Think of those stinking towns and foul bloody villages whose names will be turned into some bogus glory by fat-arsed historians who have sat in London. We were there. As our punishment for God knows what, we were there, and our men died in each of those disgusting places. I hate their names. I hate the sound of them and the thought of them, which is why I will not bring myself to remind you. But listen." He put his face close to Stephen's. "There are four words they will chisel beneath them at the bottom. Four words that people will look at one day. When they read the other words they will want to vomit. When they read these, they will bow their heads, just a little. 'Final advance and pursuit.' Don't tell me you don't want to put your name to those words.

He didn’t ask himself if she was beautiful, because the physical effect of her presence made the question insignificant.

He saw a picture in his mind of a terrible piling up of the dead. It came from his contemplation of the church, but it had its own clarity: the row on row, the deep rotting earth hollowed out to hold them, while the efforts of the living, with all their works and wars and great buildings, were no more than the beat of a wing against the weight of time.

He threw up the conkers into the air in his great happiness. In the tree above him they disturbed a roosting crow, which erupted from the branches with an explosive bang of its wings, then rose up above him towards the sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves towards the earth, to be heard by those still living.

He wrote one more paragraph for his own sake, to see what he had to say.

His own men, those who would attack in the morning, knelt on the earth, faces hidden behind one hand, in an agonizing tunnel of their own, a darkness where there was no time but where they tried to look on death.

I don’t know your life history, but I think children need to believe in powers outside themselves. That’s why they read books about witches and wizards and God knows what. There is a human need for that which childhood normally exhausts. But if a child’s world is broken up by too much reality, that need goes underground.

I know. I was there. I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine.

It's better to have a malign providence than an indifferent one.

It seemed to Jack that if an ordinary human being, his own son, no one particular, could have this purity of mind, then perhaps the isolated deeds of virtue at which people marveled in later life were not really isolated at all; perhaps they were the natural continuation of the innocent goodness that all people brought into the world at their birth. If this was true, then his fellow-human beings were not the rough, flawed creatures that most of them supposed. Their failings were not innate, but were the result of where they had gone wrong or been coarsened by their experiences; in their hearts they remained perfectible.

I've met men I would trust in the mouth of hell. Byrne or Douglas. I would trust them to breathe for me, to pump my blood with their hearts."

"Did you love them best? Would they be the ones you'd choose?"

"To die with? No. The one time I've felt what you describe was with a woman."

"A lover, you mean?" said Jack. "Not your own flesh and blood?"

"I think she was my own flesh and blood. I truly believe she was.

Names came patterning into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers shattered flesh that lay in stinking shellholes in the beet crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference.

Our own choices might not be as good as those that are made for us.

Some crime against nature is about to be committed. I feel it in my veins. These men and boys are grocers and clerks, gardeners and fathers - fathers of small children. A country cannot bear to lose them.

Something had been buried that was not yet dead.

Stephen watched the packets of lives with their memories and loves go spinning and vomiting into the ground. Death had no meaning, but still the numbers of them went on and on and in that new infinity there was still horror.

The function of music is to liberate in the soul those feelings which normally we keep locked up in the heart.

The men loved jokes, though they had heard each one before. Jack's manner was persuasive; few of them had seen the old stories so well delivered. Jack himeself laughed a little, but he was able to see the effect his performance had on his audience. The noise of their laughter roared like the sea in his ears. He wanted it louder and louder; he wanted them to drown out the war with their laughter. If the could should loud enough, they might bring the world back to its senses; they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead.

Then under the indifferent sky his spirit left the body with its ripped flesh, its infections, its weak and damaged nature. While the rain fell on his arms and legs, the part of him that still lived was unreachable. It was not his mind, but some other essence that was longing now for peace on a quiet, shadowed road where no guns sounded. The deep paths of darkness opened up for it, as they opened up for other men along the lines of dug earth, barely fifty yards apart. Then, as the fever in his abandoned body reached its height and he moved toward the welcome of oblivion, he heard a voice, not human, but clear and urgent. It was the sound of his life leaving him. Its tone was mocking. It offered him, instead of the peace he longed for, the possibility of return. At this late stage he could go back to his body and to the brutal perversion of life that was lived in the turned soil and torn flesh of the war; he could, if he made the effort of courage and will, come back to the awkward, compromised, and unconquerable existence that made up human life on earth. The voice was calling him; it appealed to his sense of shame and of curiosity unfulfilled: but if he did not heed it he would surely die.

There is an arch supported by four vast columns. Etched over hundreds and hundreds of yards of stone, furlongs of stone, there are names:
"Who are these, these? The men who died in this battle?"
"No. The lost, the ones they did not find. The others are in the cemeteries."
"These are just the ... the unfound." When she could speak again. From the whole war?"
The man shook his head. "Just these fields."
Elizabeth sat on the steps. "No one told me. My God no one told me,

There is nothing more sir, than to love and be loved.

They saw the Scots coming up out of their burrows like raving women in their skirts, dying in ripples across the yellowish-brown soil. They saw the steady tread of the Hampshire's as though they had willingly embarked on a slow-motion dance from which they were content not to return. They saw men from every corner walking, powerless, into an engulfing storm.

This is not a war, this is a test of how far man can be degraded

Weir heard something different in the sounds. Once, during a period of calm, he sat on the firestep waiting for Stephen to return from an inspection and listened to the music of the tins. The empty ones were sonorous, the fuller ones provided an ascending scale. Those filled to the brim produced only a fat percussive beat unless they overbalanced, when the cascade would give a loud variation. Within earshot there were scores of tins in different states of fullness and with varying resonance. Then he heard the wire moving in the wind. It set up a moaning background noise that would occasionally gust into prominence, then lapse again to mere accompaniment. He had to work hard to discern, or perhaps imagine, a melody in this tin music, but it was better in his ears than the awful sound of shellfire.