Here’s Matt Plass on how he came to write his short story ‘Invisible Them’.
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, the saying goes. ‘Invisible Them’, my short story in Because of What Happened, asks what happens when you prepare for the worst, but the worst is worse than you could have imagined.The story comes from a recurring thought I’ve had since I first saw troops boarding planes for the second Gulf war. Whenever the news shows footage of our departing soldiers, I wonder whether the families left behind – particularly the parents, and then particularly the mothers – are able to both hope and prepare, or whether they cling to the former and refuse to entertain the latter.
I can’t imagine how a parent could absorb that level of anxiety. It must be like living in a house built directly over a fault line: constant tremors that rattle the crockery, the occasional quake that pulls down a wall and exposes your world to the street. And if the worst does happen – your son or daughter doesn’t come home – would the months of waiting, hoping, rationalising, begging … would all that conscious (or unconscious) preparation soften or amplify the impact?
Another question. People being what they are – drawn to sadness and easily intoxicated by their own tragedies – would those parents waiting for news find themselves sometimes dwelling on the worst possible outcome? Would they picture themselves bereaved? Rehearse how they’d do grief? Indulge in an imagined descent into alcoholism and rage; some violent and implausible revenge?
Perhaps, but so what? That house on the fault line is stronger than it looks, with foundations cemented in duty and honour and service. If the worst happens, at least those parents can take small consolation from the pride of sacrifice.
A recent news item featured portrait photographs of three serving soldiers, their faces pixelated beneath their dress uniform, to disguise (but not to protect) their identity. All three stood charged with the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan; they had been discharged from their units, repatriated, and now faced trial back home. It made me think of the parents left behind, and the possibility that while they had prepared for the worst, there was something worse out there that they couldn’t have imagined. Something dishonourable. Something that could destroy the crutch of pride and sacrifice, and in doing so leech sympathy from friends and acquaintances, leaving them ashamed and alone. Could that, perhaps, be worse than the news that their loved one died in combat?
But hold on a minute…
They did something terrible, but at least those boys are alive. And aren’t they victims, too? There’s post-traumatic stress and psychological trauma to be considered. Facts live just below the surface of Google that place the blame firmly elsewhere. More servicemen took their own lives after the Falklands “conflict” than died in the fighting. Today, the emotional and psychological fallout from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan costs countless lives, marriages and friendships. Support from the MoD is pitiful; our service men and women are chewed up and spat out by the military machine. No wonder some of them explode like faulty grenades. Did I mention that those boys are alive? As a parent, you can visit them and you can hold them, even if it is across a prison table.
Who knows what the worst is that can happen? ‘Invisible Them’ ends with bad news about to be delivered to the parents of a serving soldier. I think the real story is what happens next.
‘Invisible Them’ appears in the latest Fiction Desk anthology, Because of What Happened, available in all good bookshops, on Kindle, and through iTunes.