The Brigadier

After we shot the gorse through
the guns stopped to drink flask coffee.
They were soldiers, wives, camp followers,
and I stood apart, a civilian
listening to their talk.

I won’t shoot hare now, they’re too beautiful.
Better the gypsies don’t get ‘em.
Ah – marmalade cake!
Have you seen the forecast?
There’s nothing left.

A tall man asked if he might swig from my cup.
Without rudeness, nor for affect:
he was parched and wanted some coffee,
and tone perfect for having someone do what he wanted.
He took little sips and passed it back, thumbing his cap.

The brigadier, I presumed, a spear-faced shepherd
of his generation’s release from capability.
We stood quiet by one another,
the soldier’s narrow eyes dark,
focused on ground it was still his to command.

The Land Rovers parked up under an awning of beeches,
the blunt end of a wood aimed at the Plain’s empty centre.
North from this grid reference to my garden gate was three miles,
south ranged open ground scuffed with ordnance and war preparation,
chalk England all the way to Salisbury.

The guns fanned either side of the wood.
Alone among these men I felt
this was as fine a thing as I had done in a long time,
knowing nothing but the slipping breeze
this empty country.

At rafter level,
pigeons trafficking.
Me and another gun shot at one and brought it down.
A pheasant climbed quickly out of the grass
and the brigadier shot and missed and cursed.

We came to a wild crop which rattled
its husked head five feet high.
“What is this stuff?” I shouted.
The brigadier turned, wading backwards to shout
but all I heard was “Afghanistan.”

The bag laid out by the Land Rovers.
Dogs whining, letting the morning go. Leaning against a tree
the brigadier looked half-asleep with his troubles,
watching, as I watched the brigadier, puzzling the man’s value,
knowing it was there if I used my eyes carefully.


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