Oil running amber along a thin white line. In another time, in a different kind of world it would have its own strange grace. But here the amber turns to a sickly yellow green that rubs out the world.
White faces streaked black with grime, the officer’s teeth a perfect gleaming military line, the private’s ragged and broken from a fist fight years ago. Both bared, broken and straight, both with their backs to the savage, hungry grin of the barbed wire, both living on the knife edge of flying shrapnel and mortars and the duller, greasier blade of muck and rat and lice. Both had the honour of being gassed on the same day for their country – and, as it happens, by their country. Well, those are the fortunes of war old boy. A miscalculation on a general’s desk and somewhere in the corner of a foreign field there will be hot buttered scones for tea.
And the band played Believe It If You Like. Somewhere in a foreign field rats big as cats will be gorging themselves on your son while they still churn out It’s A Long Way to Tipperary back home. It’s a bloody long way from anywhere out here but how would they know? With their white feathers and their patriotism, how would they know?
The four o’clock chill is on me and I’m dying for a smoke. I don’t have to look at a watch to know the time. Winter or summer, no matter how much you try to guard against it you never get away from the four o’clock chill. I shift my feet, grown numb from standing. Another hour or two and I can have that cigarette and something hot in a chipped mug that could be anything but mostly tastes of petrol. There’s something wrong with the filters so everything tastes like petrol the now. I wish they’d get it fixed…
This has to be the longest part of the night. When you start thinking about filters and petrol you know you’re either a right boring bastard or you’ve been standing here too long…
People back home they always seem to want words and I haven’t got any. There aren’t any words for the things that lurk in your grey chill hours between sleeping and waking. Words are for newspapermen, people like that. They never seem to run out of their supply of bland factual sounding half-truths and florid rabble rousing. Throw in a bit of flowery talk about ‘sacrifice’ and the home fires burning and everyone’s happy. Well, nearly everyone.
Not being a newspaperman, I don’t have those kind of words. I don’t belong to the world of fat profits for dealing in murder and meaningless phrases by which doddering fools crucify a whole generation for the sake of their pride. I met my old schoolmaster not that long ago and he called that blasphemy. But there’s no such thing. Religion is a fairy story and supposing it wasn’t, do you really think fire and brimstone would mean anything at all after this? The only hell is here in Flanders and Man didn’t need much help in making that for himself. The people who defend God do it because he’s a God for them not us. He sent His son to do his work and now they’re doing the same. It’s supposed to be glorious but it’s gone four in the morning and I don’t see the glory. But then a heretic wouldn’t.
I wasn’t always a heretic. Once upon a forever ago I was as bright and shiny as Frankie Dawson was that day. Wonder where he is now. Poor little bugger.
‘What’s it like Jim?’
I’d lost count of the different voices who’d asked me that. The faces and voices all become one after a while. People who know me well no longer ask that question and stepping around it became a habit before too long. I broke that habit on my last leave. Frankie Dawson made me break it. Skinny lad, didn’t look like he’d ever seen a razor, let alone anything else. I looked at him and the words were like balls of lead, stuck in my gullet.
How could I tell him about that gut-wrenching scream of a whistle that still pierced your brain long after the sound itself was gone?
How could I tell him of the frenzy to make suddenly stiff fingers pull a gasmask on and the second’s relief of having made it before realising not everyone else had?
In the dreams when they come it’ll be you Frankie, writhing on the ground, drowning in acid and lime from the inside out and you’ll wake up sweating like a carthorse. The day you don’t wake up is the day that your luck will have run out. Yours and how many others?
How could I tell him of the smell that never goes, that can come back to you even when you’re hundreds of miles from it? How could I tell him of the rotting, stinking, anonymous dead in their shell churned graves?
The words rose like vomit but stuck there choking me. How do you find words for something that words were not created to describe? My brain reeled but my vision cleared, and they came at last.
‘It’s like another world, Frankie.’
It was the truth and I had nothing more. I left soon after that and went home to the people who loved me too much to ask. I’d been sitting next to the fire and I had to get moving before anyone noticed I’d brought company. They’re not the kind of guests you exactly welcome with open arms.
I seem to remember that once upon a time we all went to war to Preserve The British Way Of Life. If that’s true then we lost the war a long time ago. There’s too great a divide between the old men in their young bodies and those who clasp at the tattered rag of King and Country. Nothing can be the same after this. If this ever ends how can we all walk away from this butchery and go back to a world we no longer fit into?
I am so sick of this war that no one knows how to win and no one knows how to end. But unnatural as it sounds, I am almost glad to be back in my miserable hole in the ground. The only place that I belong now is with other unnaturals, bound in common misery and understanding. We walk along a slimy duckboard that separates sanity from madness here. One slip and the world will tilt, your heart will leap in a half second’s agonised realisation, you’ll scrabble like a rat to save yourself and if there’s no one else by you then you’ll sink into the muck of insanity.
If you drowned in real slime, the kind you can see, you’d be one of the Brave War Dead. Of course, the Brave War Dead never drown in No Man’s Land so although it wouldn’t be pretty for you no one else will know much about it. If you drown in filth a general can’t see you’ll be shot for a coward. If someone else shoots you, even if that someone was meant to be on your side, you’ll be a hero. Whatever they call you you’re still dead as mutton.
There’s no sanity here. It’s all madness. It’s just a matter of quantity. I’m probably madder than any poor bastard who was ever court marshalled. I sometimes think that the only sane ones are the ones who can’t take it anymore. When it comes right down to it, it’s not about King and Country, or even home and family. It’s about not letting your pals down and your men. That and not really being the full shilling.
If this ever ends, are they really going to send thousands of madmen like me home? It might not be thousands right enough. The way things are going they might be lucky enough to scrape up a couple of dozen.
I wonder sometimes why they haven’t carted me off. Part of you can get used to anything if you give it long enough. But there’s a part of you that never will and that’s the part you’ve got to worry about. If you thought about this bloody war all the time you’d go over the edge. You have to find other things to think about. There’s home but you’ve got to ration it or that could be risky too. So, you look for other things, things that make you realise there might still be something worth hanging onto. Things like one day we were on the march and we passed through this village. Can’t remember now where it was, they all start to look the same after a while. There wasn’t much left of it, everyone must have pulled out long before. But there was this cottage, barely more than a heap of stones really, but it had the loveliest flowers growing in the garden. They’d all run wild of course but they were so blue and they looked so sweet and clean I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I used to think about them sometimes for a long time afterwards when things were looking bad. Still do.
They can keep their regimental colours and their patriotic slogans. For my money just one of those flowers is worth a dozen Latin mottoes and Union Jacks.