It feels like I never get to see the sun, waking up in the dark and walking home when it’s even darker. A swan drifting past is my guiding light today, tranquil among the waking sounds of the city, the yawn of machinery. It is the cleanest thing I can see, its arched neck the only thing not covered in grime or grease, or a thick layer of smog that hovers just over the water on a misty morning.
I prefer the grease on my hands, though, to the pallid skin of the canary girls that work in the other warehouse. Everything they touch seems to turn yellow too. It is a reminder of what we are doing, I suppose, proof that we are helping in some way. Not that I need a reminder. I’m still sorting through shallow trays of bullets when I close my eyes some nights, watching them roll endlessly by on infinite rows of worktops or piecing together shell after shell in my dreams. I can’t imagine what they dream of on the front.
It is thunderous, the noise in the factory. Too loud to talk, but we huddle together during our break time, always the same conversation: obituaries. Today it is Jean’s uncle, Marge’s eldest. Ellen’s brother wounded. Sometimes it seems like all we do is box things and send them away and watch our men come back in boxes too. “He died like a true British soldier at his post, and no man can do more” Marge recites, her stiff upper lip firmly back in place. The girls nod, and I ignore the few quick looks sent in my direction. Better in boxes than broken, some think, at least if they’re broken in Jack’s way.
We get back to work. I focus on the job I’m doing instead of their unspoken words. I take pride in it; we all do. We are fighting this war too, from behind the scenes. It just takes longer for our bullets to find their target.
On days like this, though, I can’t help but wonder if these shells will find their way to someone’s brother on the other side; if someone in Germany will go home to an empty stare or an empty room and curse my name, curse our men and the weapons we put in their hands. I know I would. I know I did when Jack first got off the train.
My little brother. Not so little in his uniform, his heavy pack slung over his shoulder and a rifle at his side. He still looked gangly, though, his head dwarfed by the helmet; his nervous grin. He was off with his friends to fight in the war, to make his country proud. He came back alone. No nervous grin, nothing at first. He’d been looking forward to his leave in all the letters he sent but as soon as we got back he shut himself in his room.
He says he won’t go back.
Shellshock, they’re calling it, though most people just call him coward. Like our neighbour who found him crumpled, crying in the street after a car backfired, shouting about shells. He didn’t speak for a day, couldn’t stop the nervous tick of his face. I stayed with him that night, I don’t know if he even knew I was there. I don’t know what he saw as he stared into space, what he’s seen. I don’t know if I want to.
I wish he could be like that swan, untouched, untainted by everything around him. By this war. None of us are the same as we were. The yellow girls, our calloused hands, the tanks in the street and the new lines in seemingly everyone’s faces. I look out for it on the walk home, as though a glimpse of its feathers would prove that there is hope, but the river is empty and undisturbed. My walk is punctuated by outbursts of song from pub doors, thrust open jovially by workers letting off steam, stumbling arm in arm back to their homes: women and men, soldiers and shop-keepers and chaperones; the still-pulsing heart of this smog-shrouded city. This is what we’re fighting for.