Nuit, the Goddess of the sky, opens her golden wings across the expanse of blue, beckoning the crowded troopship into her motherly fold. A blue sky tinged with yellow from the sweeping desert sands, commands William’s attention, allowing his mind to fill with frivolous thoughts of ancient Gods he had encountered in history books. He thinks it fitting, perhaps a good omen, that she was the protector of the living and the dead. Enjoying the moment, allowing time to stand still, his blue eyes widen as he welcomes the ancient land of Egypt into his life like a long lost friend.
William’s weathered hands grip the steel rail of the open deck, as the deep baritone of the SS Persic’s horn announces its arrival at Alexandria on 1st February 1915. Despite his natural need for order and structure, he is mesmerized by the scene on the dock below. It is like a junction where two great sea currents verge; where modern man meets his ancient counterparts. The foreignness of the people, bodies hidden beneath flowing robes and heads bound in cloth, intermingle with the teeming sea of military khaki green. Through this swirl of human motion, are horses and camels, and rolling wooden cart wheels, along with motor vehicles, all seemingly going nowhere on their way to somewhere.
He stands shoulder to shoulder with others who are as fascinated as he.
One young soldier says, “I have read that the pyramids are absolute wonders of mankind.”
Another pipes in, “Consider yourself lucky, mate, you’ll be able to see them for yourself.”
William interrupts their conversation whilst still gazing at the wharf below.
“Men, I’m sure you will get to see the Pyramids, but you are here to do a job first and foremost. Don’t forget that.”
“Sergeant, you’ve been to war before, haven’t you?” Enquires a fresh faced young man.
William glances sideways at the young man who addressed him and notices that he could only be three or four years older than his twelve year old son.
“I have,” he replies.
“Will things be that bad? I mean, they say it will be over in six months at the most.”
William places his hand on the young man’s shoulders and speaks in a fatherly tone, not wishing to alarm the lads. “Son, my advice is to just do as you are told. Follow orders as best you can. That is all you can do.”
His gaze is drawn back to the teeming scene below. He savours the visual feast; he inhales the exotic pungency of spices mixed with dung and salty sea air; he absorbs the ethereal callings from a distant mosque and tries to interpret intermittent words of a foreign tongue wafting up from the dock. Anything, to divert his thoughts from the task at hand. He knows that War is a cruel and fickle friend who randomly chooses who shall or shall not survive her daily torments. He knows that some of these young men will grow old prematurely and others will never return to their homes again. They all face a possible fatal shore on the whim of an irreversible decision. He included.
A whistle sounds. Sergeant William Lyons simultaneously straightens his posture and preens his woollen tunic. Then, with the precision of experience, he turns on the heels of his polished leather boots and marches towards the horse stalls on the forward deck. It is time to unload the horses. For him, the war has begun.