‘Crimson Carpet’, by Eleanor Mason, age 14, Fallibroome Academy

He smiles eagerly, yet shyly; round blue eyes from beneath a headful of golden curls. It is an innocent gesture, one which the world returns through bared teeth and a clenched jaw.

The boy sees them everywhere: soldiers much like the plastic figures strewn across his bedroom carpet at home. They carry guns that clunk against their sides as they drag their aching feet onwards, onwards, towards some bloody death, which will be glorious and honorable, of course. Skin splintering, lungs heaving, intestines spilling, all bunched up and mangled: the epitome of pain and horror.

He sees them, swallows thickly and frowns in all his helplessness at their dying.

Continuing down the street, his gaze drifts upwards. The sky is punctured and leaking, though in places, patches of murky blue gape like open wounds in the charred horizon. Bombers grumble overhead, their throaty engines choking on concrete grey fumes.

Sirens blare, penetrating his ear drums as he stumbles forward over cracked pavements and grime-caked streets. To his left: a house in flames, to his right: barren waste-land suffocating in barbed wire.

He sees them, tilts his head in confusion at their eyes which writhe in fear. Shouldn’t they be proud to so courageously serve their country? Shouldn’t they smile as every shred of human dignity is torn from their grasp?

You shouldn’t blame him, he is too young to know.

His mother cries out in terror at the sight of her child wandering so carelessly towards the slaughter fields. She holds her son to her chest tenderly, covers his eyes with her trembling hands.

But it is too late.

He sees them, like toy figures on a crimson carpet.

After his mother bundles him home, he plays contentedly with his plastic soldiers. They charge forwards, almighty and unstoppable. Here, there is no blood spilled, no smoke-corrupted lungs or shredded limbs. All war is glory, he thinks.

You shouldn’t blame him, one day he’ll learn.

Somewhere, though not so far away, his father cries bitterly, a rifle forced into his once-sinless hands. The person beside him slumps as a bullet impales flesh, already forgotten in the raging confusion. He’s hunched over, wracking his brains for reason, trying with futile desperation to remember what he is fighting for.